Ten armies may be destroyed, he will bring up ten others to replace them, no matter what the price.
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
Count Guiscard, who as envoy from the King of France accompanied him on his first campaign, describes him thus: “The King of Sweden is of tall stature; taller than myself by almost a head; he is very handsome, he has fine eyes and a good complexion, his face is long, his speech a little thick. He wears a small wig tied behind in a bag, a plain stock, without cravat, a very tight jerkin of plain cloth, with sleeves as narrow as our waistcoat sleeves, a narrow belt above his jerkin, with a sword of extraordinary length and thickness, and almost perfectly flat-soled shoes — a very strange style of dress for a prince of his age.”
In order to reach Narva with his eight thousand men, Charles, after having crossed a tract of desert country, was obliged, at a place called Pyhaioggi, to cross a narrow valley divided by a stream, which, if it had been fortified, must have stopped him short. The idea occurred to Gordon, but Peter would not listen to him, and it was not till the very last moment that he sent Sheremetief, who found the Swedes just debouching into the valley, received several volleys of grape-shot and retired in disorder. The mad venture had succeeded. But Charles’ farther advance involved the playing of a risky game. His men were worn out, his horses had not been fed for two whole days. Still he went on; he reached Narva, formed his Swedes into several attacking columns, led one himself, and favored by a sudden hurricane which drove showers of blinding snow into his adversaries’ faces, threw himself into their camp and mastered the place in half an hour. The only resistance he met was offered by the two regiments of the guard. All the rest fled or surrendered. A few Russians were drowned in the Narva. “If the river had been frozen,” said Charles discontentedly, “I do not know that we should have contrived to kill a single man.”
It was a total breakdown; the army had disappeared, and the artillery. The very sovereign was gone, and with him the country’s honor. That had sunk out of sight amid the scornful laughter with which Europe hailed this undignified defeat. The Czar was in full flight. All Peter’s plans of conquest, his dreams of European expansion and of navigating the northern seas, his hopes of glory, his faith in his civilizing mission, had utterly faded. And he himself had collapsed upon their heaped-up ruins. Onward he fled, feeling the Swedish soldiers on his heels. He wept, he sued for peace, vowing he would treat at once and submit to any sacrifice; he sent imploring appeals to the States-General of Holland, to England and to the Emperor, praying for mediation.
But swiftly he recovered possession of his faculties. Then, raising his head — through the golden haze with which his insufficient education, the infatuation inherent to his semi-oriental origin, and his inexperience, had filled his eyes, through the rent of that mighty catastrophe and that cruel lesson — he saw and touched the truth at last! He realized what he must set himself to do if he was to become that which he fain would be. There must be no more playing at soldiers and sailors; no more of that farce of power and glory, in which, till now, he had been the chief actor; no more aimless adventure, undertaken in utter scorn of time and place. He must toil now in downright earnest; he must go forward, step by step; measure each day’s effort, calculate each morrow’s task, let each fruit ripen ere he essayed to pluck it; learn patience and dogged perseverance. He did it all. He found means within him and about him to carry out his task. The strong, long-enduring, long-suffering race of which he came endowed him with the necessary qualities, and gave him its own inexhaustible and never-changing devotion and self-sacrifice.
Ten armies may be destroyed, he will bring up ten others to replace them, no matter what the price. His people will follow him and die beside him to the last man, to the last morsel of bread snatched from its starving jaws. A month hence, the fugitive from Narva will belong to a vanished, forgotten, almost improbable past; the future victor of Poltava will have taken his place.
Of the Russian army, as it had originally taken the field, about twenty-three thousand men remained — a certain number of troops — the cavalry under Sheremetief’s command, and Repnin’s division. The Czar ordered fresh levies. He melted the church-bells into cannon. In vain the clergy raised the cry of sacrilege; he never faltered for a moment. He went hither and thither giving orders and active help; rating some, encouraging others, inspiring everyone with some of his own energy — that energy which his misfortune had spurred and strengthened. Yet, Byzantine as he was by nature, he could not resist the temptation to endeavor to mislead public opinion. Matvieief was given orders to draw up his own special description of the battle of Narva and its consequences, for the benefit of the readers of the Gazette de Hollande and of the memoranda which he himself addressed to the States-General.
The Swedes, according to this account, had been surrounded by a superior force within the Russian camp, and had there been forced to capitulate; after which event, certain Russian officers, who had desired to pay their respects to the King of Sweden, had been treacherously seized by his orders. Europe only laughed, but in later years this pretended capitulation, and the supposed Swedish violation of it, were to serve Peter as a pretext for violating others, to which he himself had willingly consented. At Vienna, too, Count Kaunitz listened with a smile while Prince Galitzin explained that the Czar “needed no victories to prove his military glory.” Yet, when the vice-chancellor inquired what conditions the Czar hoped to obtain from his victorious adversary, the Russian diplomat calmly claimed the greater part of Livonia, with Narva, Ivangrod, Kolyvan, Koporie, and Derpt — and future events were to prove that he had not asked too much.
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