It was Charles who took action at last, informing his generals, on June 26th (July 7th) that he would give battle on the following morning.
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
By the beginning of 1709 Charles’ effective strength had dwindled to nearly twenty thousand men. The Russians did not dare to attack him as yet, but they gathered round him in an ever-narrowing circle. They carried his advanced posts, they cut his lines of communication. The King of Sweden, to get himself mere elbow-room, was driven to begin his campaign in the month of January. He lost one thousand men and forty-eight officers in taking the paltry town of Wespjik (January 6th). By this time the game, in Mazeppa’s view, was already lost, and he made an attempt to turn his coat again; offering to betray Charles into Peter’s hands if Peter would restore him his office. The bargain was struck, but a letter from the old traitor, addressed to Leszcynski, chanced to fall into the Czar’s hands, and made him draw back, in the conviction that Mazeppa was utterly unreliable.
In March, the near approach of the Swedish army, then advancing on Poltava, induced the Zaporoje Cossacks to join it. But the movement was a very partial one, and Peter soon put it down, by means of a series of military executions, mercilessly carried out by Menshikoff, and of various manifestoes against the foreign heretics, “who deny the doctrines of the true religion, and spit on the picture of the Blessed Virgin.” The capture of Poltava thus became the last hope of Charles and his army. If they could not seize the town, they must all die of hunger.
The fortifications of the place were weak, but the besieging army was sorely changed from that which had fought under the walls of Narva. It had spent too long a time in fat quarters, in Saxony and Poland, to be fit to endure this terrible campaign. Like the Russian army at Narva, it was sapped by demoralization before it was called on to do any serious fighting. Even among the Swedish staff, and in the King’s intimate circle, all confidence in his genius and his lucky star had disappeared.
His best generals, Rehnskold and Gyllenkrook, his chancellor Piper, and Mazeppa himself were against any prolongation of the siege, which promised to be a long one. “If God were to send down one of his angels,” he said, “to induce me to follow your advice, I would not listen to him!” An ineradicable illusion, the fruit of the too easy victories of his early career, prompted him to undervalue the forces opposed to him. He knew, and would acknowledge, nothing of that new Russia, the mighty upstanding colossus, which Peter had at last succeeded in raising up in his path. According to some authorities, Mazeppa, in his desire to replace Batourin by Poltava, as his own personal appanage, encouraged him in this fatal resolution. But it may well have been that retreat had already become impossible.
It was long before Peter made up his mind to intervene; he was still distrustful of himself, desperately eager to increase his own resources, and with them his chances of victory. On his enemy’s side, everything contributed to this result. By the end of June all the Swedish ammunition was exhausted, the invaders could use none of their artillery and hardly any of their fire-arms, and were reduced to fighting with cold steel. On the very eve of the decisive struggle, they were left without a leader. During a reconnaissance on the banks of the Vorskla, which ran between the hostile armies, Charles, always rash and apt to expose himself unnecessarily, was struck by a bullet. “It is only in the foot,” he said, smiling, and continued his examination of the ground. But, when he returned to camp he fainted, and Peter, reckoning on the moral effect of the accident, at once resolved to cross the river. A report, as a matter of fact, ran through the Swedish camp that the King, convinced of the hopelessness of the situation, had deliberately sought death.
Yet ten more days passed by, in the expectation of an attack which the Russians did not dare to make. It was Charles who took action at last, informing his generals, on June 26th (July 7th) that he would give battle on the following morning. He himself was still in a very suffering condition, and made over the command to Rehnskold, a valiant soldier but a doubtful leader, for he did not possess the army’s confidence, and, according to Lundblad, “hid his lack of knowledge and strategical powers under gloomy looks and a fierce expression.” After the event, as was so commonly the case with vanquished generals, he was accused of treachery.
The truth would seem to be that Charles’ obstinate reserve, and habit of never confiding his plans and military arrangements to any third person, had ended by gradually depriving his lieutenants of all power of independent action. In his presence they were bereft of speech and almost of ideas. All Rehnskold did was to rage and swear at everyone. Peter, meanwhile, neglected nothing likely to insure success. He even went so far as to dress the Novgorod regiment — one of his best — in the coarse cloth (siermiaga) generally reserved for newly joined recruits, in the hope of thus deceiving the enemy. This stratagem, however, completely failed. In the very beginning of the battle, Rehnskold fell on the regiment, and cut it to pieces.
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