Today’s installment concludes The Battle of Poltava,
our selection from Peter the Great by Kazimierz Waliszewski published in 1898. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
If you have journeyed through all of the installments of this series, just one more to go and you will have completed a selection from the great works of eight thousand words. Congratulations!
Previously in The Battle of Poltava.
Place: Poltava. Central Ukraine
The Russian centre was confided to Sheremetief, the right wing to General Ronne, the left to Menshikoff. Bruce commanded the artillery, and the Czar, as usual, retired modestly to the head of a single regiment. But this was a mere disguise; in real fact, he was everywhere, going hither and thither, in the forefront of the battle, and lavishing effort in every direction. A bullet passed through his hat, another is said to have struck him full on the breast. It was miraculously stopped by a golden cross, set with precious stones, given by the monks on Mount Athos to the Czar Feodor, and which his successor habitually wore. This cross, which certainly bears the mark of some projectile, is still preserved in the Ouspienski monastery, at Moscow.
The heroism and sovereign contempt of death betrayed by Charles were worthy of himself. Unable to sit a horse, he caused himself to be carried on a litter, which, when it was shattered by bullets, was replaced by another made of crossed lances. But he was nothing but a living standard, useless, though sublime. The once mighty military leader had utterly disappeared. The battle was but a wild conflict, in which the glorious remnants of one of the most splendid armies that had ever been brought together; unable to use its arms, leaderless, hopeless of victory, and soon overwhelmed and crushed by superior numbers, struggled for a space, with the sole object of remaining faithful to its king. At the end of two hours Charles himself left the field of battle. He had been lifted onto the back of an old horse which his father had formerly ridden, and which was called Brandklepper (“Run to the Fire”), because he was always saddled when a fire broke out in the city.
This charger followed the vanquished hero into Turkey, was taken by the Turks at Bender, sent back to the King, taken again at Stralsund in 1715, returned to its owner once more, and died in 1718 — the same year as his master — at the age of forty-two. Poniatowski, the father of the future King of Poland, who was following the campaign as a volunteer — Charles had refused to take any Polish troops with him on account of their want of discipline — rallied one of Colonel Horn’s squadrons to escort the King, and received seventeen bullets through his leather kaftan while covering the royal retreat. Field Marshal Rehnskold, Piper the chancellor, with all his subordinates, over one hundred fifty officers, and two thousand soldiers fell into the victor’s hands.
The Russians’ joy was so extreme that they forgot to pursue the retreating enemy. Their first impulse was to sit down and banquet. Peter invited the more important prisoners to his own table, and toasted the health of his “masters in the art of war.” The Swedes, who still numbered thirteen thousand men, had time to pause for a moment in their own camp, where Charles summoned Loewenhaupt, and, for the first time in his life, was heard to ask for advice — “What was to be done?” The general counseled him to burn all wagons, mount his infantry soldiers on the draught-horses and beat a retreat toward the Dnieper. On June 30th the Russians came up with the Swedish army at Perevolotchna, on the banks of the river, and, the soldiers refusing to fight again, Loewenhaupt capitulated; but the King had time to cross to the other side. Two boats lashed together carried his carriage, a few officers, and the war-chests which he had filled in Saxony. Mazeppa contrived to find a boat for himself, and loaded it with two barrels of gold.
At Kiev, whither Peter proceeded from Poltava, a solemn thanksgiving was offered up in the church of St. Sophia, and a Little Russia monk, Feofan Prokopovitch, celebrated the recent victory in a fine flight of eloquence: “When our neighbors hear of what has happened, they will say it was not into a foreign country that the Swedish army and the Swedish power ventured, but rather into some mighty sea! They have fallen in and disappeared, even as lead is swallowed up in water!”
The Sweden of Gustavus Adolphus had indeed disappeared. Charles XII was ere long to be a mere knight-errant at Bender. The Cossack independence, too, was a thing of the past. Its last and all too untrustworthy representative was to die in Turkey before many months were out — of despair, according to Russian testimony — of poison voluntarily swallowed, according to Swedish historians. The poison story has a touch of likelihood about it, for Peter certainly proposed to exchange Mazeppa’s person for that of the chancellor Piper. The cause of the Leszcynski, too, was dead. It was to be put forward again by France, but for the benefit of France alone; and with the Leszcynski cause, Poland itself had passed away and lay a lifeless corpse on which the vultures were soon to settle.
Out of all these ruins rose the Russian power, its northern hegemony, and its new European position, which henceforth were daily to increase and reach immense, immoderate proportions. Europe played a special part in the festivities which graced the return of the victors to Moscow, a few months later. European ideas, traditions, and forms appeared in the triumphal procession, and served as trappings for the trophies of victory. Peter, playing the part of Hercules, and conquering a Swedish Juno, in a cortage in which Mars figured, attended by furies and by fauns, was a fit symbol of the alliance of Russia with the Graeco-Latin civilization of the West. Old Muscovy — Eastern and Asiatic — was numbered with the dead.
This ends our series of passages on Battle of Poltava by K. Waliszewski from his book Peter the Great published in 1898. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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