The arrival of Charles caused a panic, and from that panic Peter, the most impressionable of men, was the first to suffer.
Continuing The Battle of Poltava,
our selection from Peter the Great by Kazimierz Waliszewski published in 1898. The selection is presented in eight easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Battle of Poltava.
Place: Poltava. Central Ukraine
In the beginning of 1700 Augustus and Frederick of Denmark attacked Sweden; but Peter, though bound by treaty to follow their example, neither moved nor stirred. Frederick was beaten, his very capital was threatened. So much the worse for him! Augustus seized on Dunamunde, but utterly failed before Riga. All the better for the Russians; Riga was left for them! Another envoy came hurrying to Moscow. The Czar listened coolly to his reproaches, and replied that he would act as soon as news from Constantinople permitted it. Negotiations there were proceeding satisfactorily, and he hoped shortly to fulfill his promise, and to attack the Swedes in the neighborhood of Pskof. This was a point on which the allies had laid great stress, and Peter had studiously avoided contradicting them. It was quite understood between them that the Czar was not to lay a finger on Livonia. At last on August 8, 1700, a courier arrived with the longed-for dispatch. Peace with Turkey was signed at last, and that very day the Russian troops received their marching orders. But they were not sent toward Pskof. They marched on Narva, in the very heart of the Livonian country.
The army destined to lay siege to Narva consisted of three divisions of novel formation, under the orders of three generals — Golovin, Weyde, and Repnin — with 10,500 Cossacks, and some irregular troops — 63,520 men in all. Repnin’s division, numbering 10,834 men, and the Little Russian Cossacks, stopped on the way, so that the actual force at disposal was reduced to about 40,000 men. But Charles XII, the new King of Sweden, could not bring more than 5300 infantry and 3130 cavalry to the relief of the town. And, being obliged, when he neared Wesemburg, to throw himself in flying column across a country which was already completely devastated, and, consequently, to carry all his supplies with him, his troops arrived in presence of an enemy five times as numerous as themselves, worn out, and completely exhausted by a succession of forced marches.
Peter never dreamed that he would find the King of Sweden in Livonia. He believed his hands were more than full enough elsewhere with the King of Denmark; he was quite unaware that the Peace of Travendal, which had been signed on the very day of the departure of the Russian troops, had been already forced upon his ally. He started off gayly at the head of his bombardier company, full of expectation of an easy victory. When he arrived before the town, on September 23d, he was astounded to find any preparations for serious defense. A regular siege had to be undertaken, and when, after a month of preparations, the Russian batteries at last opened fire, they made no impression whatever. The artillery was bad, and yet more badly served. A second month passed, during which Peter waited and hoped for some piece of luck, either for an offer to capitulate or for the arrival of Repnin’s force. What did happen was that on the night of November 17th news came that within twenty-four hours the King of Sweden would be at Narva. That very night Peter fled from his camp, leaving the command to the Prince de Croy.
None of the arguments brought forward by the sovereign and his apologists in justification of this step appears to me to hold water. The necessity pleaded for an interview with the Duke of Poland, the Czar’s desire to hasten on Repnin’s march, are mere pitiful excuses. Langen and Hallart, the generals sent by Augustus to observe the military operations in Livonia, gravely reported that the Czar had been obliged to go to Moscow to receive a Turkish envoy — who was not expected for four months! The Emperor’s envoy, Pleyer, is nearer the mark when he says the sovereign obeyed the entreaties of his advisers, who considered the danger too great for him to be permitted to remain. And Hallart himself, speaking of these same counselors, whether ministers or generals, does not hesitate to declare, in his rough soldierly language, that “they have about as much courage as a frog has hair on his belly.” The Russian army, disconcerted by the unexpected resistance of the Swedes, ill-prepared for resistance, ill-commanded, ill-lodged, and ill-fed, was already demoralized to the last extent. The arrival of Charles caused a panic, and from that panic Peter, the most impressionable of men, was the first to suffer.
The startling rapidity with which Charles had rid himself of the weakest of his three adversaries, under the very walls of Copenhagen, would have been less astonishing to Peter if the young sovereign had better realized the conditions under which he and his allies had begun a struggle in which, at first sight, their superiority appeared so disproportionate. King Frederick had reckoned without the powers which had guaranteed the recent Treaty of Altona, by which the safety of Holstein was insured; without the Hanoverian troops, and those of Luneburg, which at once brought succor to Toeningen; without the Anglo-Dutch fleet, which forced his to seek shelter under the walls of Copenhagen, and thus permitted the King of Sweden to cross the Sound unmolested, and land quietly in Zealand; and finally, he reckoned — and for this he may well be excused — without that which was soon to fill all Europe with terror and amazement: the lucky star and the military genius of Charles XII.
This monarch, born in 1682, who had slain bears when he was sixteen, and at eighteen was a finished soldier, greedy for glory and battle and blood, was the last representative of that race of men who, between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, held all Central Europe in their iron grip; fierce warriors who steeped Germany and Italy in fire and blood, fought their way from town to town, and hamlet to hamlet; giving no truce and showing no mercy; who lived for war and by war; grew old and died in harness in a very atmosphere of carnage, with bodies riddled with wounds, with hands stained with abominable crimes, but with spirits calm and unflinching to the last. Standing on the threshold of the new period he was the superb and colossal incarnation of that former one, which, happily for mankind, was to disappear in his person.
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