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Battle of Poltava
Part of Great Northern War
The Battle of Poltava by Denis Martens the Younger, painted 1726
The Battle of Poltava by Denis Martens the Younger, painted 1726
Date June 27, 1709 (O.S.)
June 28, 1709 (Swedish calendar)
July 8, 1709 (N.S.)
Location Poltava, (Ukraine)
Result Decisive Russian victory
Sweden Swedish Empire[1] Russia Tsardom of Russia[1]
Carl Gustaf Rehnskiöld Tsar Peter I of Russia
Swedish combined army:
22,100 Swedes[2][3]
  ca 11,800 cavalry
  ca 9,300 infantry
ca 1,000 Polish(Vallack) hussars
3,000–7,000 Cossacks[4][5]
34 cannons

Total: up to 30,000[2][6][7]

Participated in battle:
ca 8,200 infantry
ca 7,800 cavalry
ca 1,000 hussars
4 cannons

Besieging Poltava:
1,100 infantry
200 cavalry

Russian combined army:[5]
ca 37,000 infantry
  (87 battalions)
23,700 cavalry
  (27 regiments
   and 5 squadrons)
102 cannons />3,000 Kalmyks arrived at the end of the battle

Total: ca 60,000

Participated in battle:
25,000 infantry
9,000 dragoons
  and Cossacks

Garrison of Poltava:
4,200 infantry, 2,000 Cossacks, 28 cannons

Casualties and losses
Swedish accounts: 6,900 killed and wounded, 2,800 captured.[8][9][10]

Russian accounts: 9,234 killed, 2,864-2,977 captured.[11][12][13]

1,345 killed
3,290 wounded.[9][12]

The Battle of Poltava (Russian: Полта́вская би́тва, Swedish: Slaget vid Poltava. Ukrainian: Битва під Полтавою) on 27 June 1709 (8 July, N.S.)[14] was the decisive victory of Peter I of Russia over the Swedish Empire in one of the most famous of the battles of the Great Northern War. It is said to have started the end of Sweden's role as a Great Power; the Russians took their place as the leading nation of northern Europe. This also meant the rise of Imperial Russia and a temporary end to the independence ambitions of Ukraine.



Early Swedish victories at Copenhagen and at the Battle of Narva in 1700 knocked both Denmark and Russia temporarily out of the war. However, Charles XII was unable to bring the war to a conclusion, and it would take six years before he had dealt with the remaining combatant Augustus II of Saxony-Poland. During this time Peter I rebuilt his army into modern form, basing it primarily on infantry trained to use linear tactics and modern firearms properly. He then achieved a stunning propaganda victory when he established the city of Saint Petersburg on Swedish territory, not Livonia. To end the war, Charles ordered a final attack on the Russian heartland with a possible assault on Moscow from his campaign base in Poland. The Swedish army of almost 44,000 men left Saxony on August 22, 1707 and marched slowly eastwards. When they reached the Vistula River they waited for it to freeze and didn't cross until December 30, then continued through a hostile Masuria and took Grodno on January 28, 1708 after the Russians had left without a fight. The Swedes continued to the area around Smorgon and Minsk where the army went into winter quarters. Left in western Poland were 8,000 dragoons under major-general von Krassow.[15]

The Swedish army, that had suffered badly from different epidemic diseases during the winter, left its quarters in early June 1708 and marched towards Smolensk. During the spring General Lewenhaupt in Courland had been ordered to gather supplies and march with his army of about 12,000 men to join Charles army, although he didn't leave Mitau until late June and couldn't join Charles forces until October 11.[16]

At one point they were only 130 kilometres apart, but Charles gave up because he needed supplies, and turned south into Ukraine in search of grain and better weather. Ukrainian forces, under the command of Cossack hetman Ivan Mazepa, had been in discussions with Charles for some time, and at this point he officially allied himself to the Swedes in order to gain independence from Russia.

Lewenhaupt followed south and was attacked while crossing a river near a small village that gave name to the Battle of Lesnaya. His forces met the Russian attack, but they were amazed to find that the new Russian army gave them a serious fight. Lewenhaupt, seeing that he was about to lose, decided to rejoin Charles with all speed, so he abandoned the cannon, the cattle and most of the food, driving the soldiers to mutiny. Stealing all of the alcohol, the soldiers became drunk, and Lewenhaupt was forced to leave about 1,000 men drunk in the woods. By the time they finally reached Charles and the main force in the winter, only 6,000 men without supplies remained.

In the spring Charles resumed his advance, but his army had been reduced by about one-third due to starvation, frostbite and other effects of the weather. The wet weather had also seriously depleted the army's supplies of gunpowder; the cannon were also essentially out of action, due to a lack of usable ammunition. Charles's first action was to lay siege to the fort of Poltava on the Vorskla River in the Ukraine. Peter had already organized a huge force to protect it, and he quickly arrived. On 27 June, Charles received information that large Kalmyk forces were going to join Peter and to cut off all supplies of the Swedish Army.


When the battle opened, Charles had about 14,000 men, while Peter commanded about 45,000. However, although Charles had faced great odds before, his expertise could not be brought forth during the actual battle, as he had been wounded during the siege on June 17, when he was hit in the foot while taking part in a small engagement during an inspection of the Swedish outposts on the banks of the Vorskla. He had to turn over command to Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld and General Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt. This was made all the more unfortunate by the divergent personalities of the two generals. The change in command was not communicated to the subordinate commanders when the battle was planned. Also the Russians managed to weaken the Cossacks who had decided to join the Swedes against them. The Russian army occupied and destroyed the Zaporozhian Host with the help of Galagan, a former Cossack officer. The rest of the Cossacks moved their Host down the Dnieper River river for the next 19 years.

The battle began before dawn at 3:45 a.m. on June 28, with the Swedes advancing boldly against the Russian fortified lines. At first, the battle started off in a traditional fashion, with the better trained Swedes pressing in on the Russians' redoubts, overrunning a few Russian defensive redoubts. The Swedish seemed to possess an advantage, but this was quickly nullified. By dawn, the weather was already very hot and humid with the rising sun obscured by smoke from cannon and musket fire. The Swedish infantry, commanded by General Lewenhaupt, attempted to attack the Russians. But the Swedish advance soon faltered, partly because the infantry had been ordered to withdraw and reorganise. To make matters worse, one Swedish detachment, commanded by General Roos, had not been told about the overall plan and became isolated in the Russian defensive redoubts when a column of about 4,000 Russian reinforcements reoccupied the fortified positions, trapping Roos and his 2,600-man force. With over 1,000 casualties and ammunition running low, Roos was forced to surrender his command.

The Swedes waited for Roos to return. As time went by, the Russians infantry moved out of its fortified camp. Around 9:00 am, the Swedish line started to move forward; 4,000 Swedish infantry against 20,000 Russian infantry. They advanced and the Russians opened fire on them with their guns creating a firestorm of shells. When the Swedes were 100 meters from the Russian line, the Russians aimed and fired their muskets. When they were 30 meters from the Russian line, the Swedes fired one volley and charged. They were on the verge of a breakthrough and needed the cavalry; unfortunately for the Swedes, it was disorganised. The Russian line was longer than the Swedish line, and the Russian right soon flanked the Swedish infantry. Several regiments were surrounded in a classic Cannae-style battle. The cavalry tried to buy the infantry time to get away; several units attacked the Russians head on despite them forming into squares. Seeing the defeat of his army from a stretcher in the rear, Charles ordered the army to retreat at 11:00 a.m. By noon, the battle was over as Russian cavalry had mopped up the stragglers on the battlefield and returned to their own lines. Charles then gathered the remainder of his troops and baggage train, and retreated to the south later that same day, abandoning the siege of Poltava. Rehnskiöld was captured. Lewenhaupt led the surviving Swedes and some of the Cossack forces to the Dnieper River, but was doggedly pursued by the Russian regular cavalry and 3,000 Kalmyks and forced to surrender three days later at Perevolochna, on July 1.


Charles XII and Mazepa at the Dnieper River after Poltava by Gustaf Cederström.
Orthodox Church on the battlefield

Several thousand prisoners were taken, many of whom were put to work building the new city of Saint Petersburg. Charles and Mazepa managed to escape with about 1,500 men to Bendery, Moldavia, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Charles spent five years in exile there before he was able to return to Sweden.

Popular culture

The battle was portrayed in the monumental 1925 Swedish film Karl XII with Gösta Ekman as king Charles XII and the Russian emigrant actor Nicolai de Seversky as Peter I.[17] Recently the battle was also portrayed in the 2007 Russian film The Sovereign's Servant (Russian: Слуга Государев, Sluga Gosudarev).[18] The story of the battle, told from the point of view of a dying soldier, is related in the Al Stewart song The Coldest Winter in Memory.

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b There were factions of the Dnieper Cossacks allied with each of the combatants.
  2. ^ a b Ericson, Lars (ed) (2003) (in Swedish). Svenska slagfält. Wahlström & Widstrand. p. 297. ISBN 91-46-21087-3. 
  3. ^ About 2,000 sick and injured soldiers were standing in the Pushkarivka camp
  4. ^ The exact number of Mazepa's cossacks and Zaporizhian Cossacks is unknown but are usually given to 3,000 up to 7,000. They were stationed in the Pushkarivka camp and did not participate in the battle.
  5. ^ a b (Russian) О составе русской и шведской армий в Полтавском сражении
  6. ^ (Russian) Istorīia Petra Velikago, by Nikolai Alekseevich Polevoi, 1843, p. 38
  7. ^ Russian sources quote the captive Field Marshal Rehnskiöld stating that his combined army before the battle consisted of up to 30,000 men.
  8. ^ Peter Englund: Poltava, p.215. Atlantis 1988. ISBN 91-7486-834-9.
  9. ^ a b (Swedish) Christer Kuvaja: Karolinska krigare 1660–1721, p.192. Schildts Förlags AB 2008. ISBN 978-951-50-1823-6.
  10. ^ Derek Wilson (March 9, 2009). "Poltava : the Battle that Changed the World". History Today (London) 59 (3): 23–29. 
  11. ^ (Russian) Битва под Полтавой
  12. ^ a b Encyclopedia of Ukraine
  13. ^ (Russian) Istorīia Petra Velikago, p. 355
  14. ^ 28 June according to the then-used Swedish calendar
    27 June in the old style
    8 July in the new style
  15. ^ Christer Kuvaja: Karolinska krigare 1660–1721, p.179. Schildts Förlags AB 2008. ISBN 978-951-50-1823-6.
  16. ^ Christer Kuvaja: Karolinska krigare 1660–1721, p.180–185. Schildts Förlags AB 2008. ISBN 978-951-50-1823-6.
  17. ^ The Internet Movie Database
  18. ^ The Internet Movie Database


  • G. Adlerfelt, The Military History of Charles XII, King of Sweden, Written by the Express Order of His Majesty. London, 3 vols, 1740.
  • Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, Illustrated history of Ukraine. Donetsk, 2003. ISBN 9665485717
  • Peter Englund, The Battle That Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire. London, 1992, 288 pages. ISBN 1860648479
  • Angus Konstam, Poltava 1709, Russia Comes of Age. Osprey Campaign #34. Osprey Publishing, 1994, 96 pages. ISBN 1855324164
  • Robert K. Massie, Peter The Great: His Life and Times Ballantine Books; 1981. 932 Pages, ISBN 0345298063 : ISBN 978-0345298065

See also

External links

Coordinates: 49°34.47′N 34°34.12′E / 49.5745°N 34.56867°E / 49.5745; 34.56867

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