Thursday, September 11, 2008

Beautiful men were dead

The Great Northern War, fought between Sweden and Russia for control of the Baltic Sea, reached a turning point 300 years ago today, when the King of Sweden, Charles XII, stopped marching his troops towards Moscow. A Swedish history blogger - whose name I can only divine as TB - has published an interesting article about the war, one which includes several excruciating extracts from diaries written by those involved.

The Great Northern War was fought largely between Russia and Sweden for supremacy in the Baltic Sea, although various other powers were involved at different times. Denmark-Norway and Saxony-Poland, for example, were both involved with Russia in launching the initial attacks on Sweden in 1700. The conflict ended two decades later, in 1721, with Sweden ceding territories (including Estonia) to Russia.

Wikipedia’s list of events for 11 September includes this: 1708 - ‘Charles XII of Sweden stops his march to conquer Moscow outside Smolensk, marking the turning point in the Great Northern War. The army is defeated nine months later in the Battle of Poltava, and the Swedish empire is no longer a major power.’ Charles XII was a skilled military leader, winning several battles early on in the conflict, but his political abilities were lacking, especially when it came to making peace. Upon the outbreak of the Great Northern War, Voltaire is said to have quoted Charles XII as saying: ‘I have resolved never to start an unjust war but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies.’

A Swedish blogger - who goes by the initials TB - seems fascinated by the Karolinska Army, so named because it was made up of men, Karoliners, who served under Karl XI and Karl XII (Charles XI and Charles XII). An excellent article of his on the army’s involvement in the Great Northern War includes many verbatim extracts from letters and diaries. But, he warns, he’s copied the letters and diaries ‘down to the exact word and wording . . . so, if it sounds strange, it’s because they talked and wrote differently than we do now.’

In 1706, according to TB, the Swedish army finally got want they wanted, a decisive battle against Saxony-Poland at Fraustadt. He quotes from the diary of dragoon corporal, Joachim Lyth, to explain what happened after the battle was won: ‘His excellence General Rehnskiöld gave order to form a square with dragoons, cavalry, and infantry, in which all the Russians that had been taken prisoner had to stand in. Roughly 500 souls, who soon with no mercy were shot or stabbed to death, they fell over each other like sheeps in slaughter.’ Having defeated Saxony-Poland, TB says, only Russia was left, and so in the autumn of 1707, the Swedish Karoliner main army, 44,500 strong, started marching toward Moscow to end the war.

However, the army never made it to Moscow, TB explains, because of lack of food. When still 400 km away, it turned round, and started to march south towards Ukraine looking for supplies. That winter was exceptionally cold. On 23 December, the army reached the village of Petrovka, and while some found shelter, others were obliged to sleep outside. TB’s article then gives an extract from Erik Larsson’s diary: ‘It was so cold that the oxen at our supply-wagon fell dead to the ground. The birds who tried to fly fell dead from the skies. Yes many will remember this day if he survives.’

And then there’s this about the next day (24 December) from the diary of Cavalry Major, Nils GyllenStierna: ‘The road was filled in the morning with men who had frozen to death, with them lay horses, oxen, and other animals. Supply and sick-wagons stood still because their drivers had died by the cold they were still sitting like they were waiting for orders. Now many beautiful men were dead.’

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