Provoked by Sweden’s dominant position, and launched in 1700 by an act of concerted aggression against Sweden by the kings of Poland and Denmark and the tsar of Russia, the war seems at first to give conclusive proof that Sweden fully deserves her pre-eminence in the region. The early Swedish successes are in large part due to the energy and military genius of the young king, Charles XII, eighteen years old in 1700 and three years into his reign.
The concerted attack on Swedish territory during 1700 takes place in three regions. In February the Polish king, Augustus II, moves north to besiege the port of Riga. A month later the Danish king, Frederick IV, marches south into Swedish possessions in Schleswig-Holstein. In August the Russian tsar, Peter the Great, brings an army west to attack the port of Narva.
Charles XII deals with each in turn, scoring rapid hits against his multiple enemies almost in the manner of a lone hero in a western. First, in August 1700, he ferries an army across the water to the island of Sjaelland, landing a few miles from Copenhagen. By the end of the month the Danes have withdrawn from the war.
In October Charles lands with 10,000 men at Pärnu, a point from which he can move south to relieve Riga or east to the defence of Narva. He selects as his first target the Russians besieging Narva. An attack in November on the tsar’s fortified encampment, containing 23,000 soldiers, is entirely successful. Peter the Great withdraws from the immediate fray (giving himself a lull which he will use to excellent effect, establishing a naval base in the Gulf of Finland).
Meanwhile Charles is able to give his full attention to the Polish king, Augustus II, who is also the elector of Saxony.
Over the next six years the victories of Charles XII over Augustus the Strong are devastating. The Saxons are driven back across the Daugava river in the summer of 1701, ending their threat to Riga. Charles XII reaches and enters Warsaw in May 1702. He defeats Augustus two months later in a battle further south in Poland, at Kliszow.
In 1704 Charles persuades the Poles to depose Augustus and to elect in his place a Polish noble as Stanislaw I. In 1706 the Swedish king completes the humiliation of Augustus by marching into Saxony to impose a treaty signed at Altranstädt.
By 1707, with Denmark, Saxony and Poland out of the war, Charles XII is free to tackle the major threat to Sweden’s dominance of the Baltic. The Russian tsar, Peter the Great, has merely retired wounded in 1700.
Peter has made much of the intervening years. He has founded St Petersburg as a new Russian base on the Baltic, and he has profited from Charles’s southern campaigns to move his own armies down the coast. In 1704 he captures Narva, which he failed to take in 1700. When Charles enters Saxony, in 1706, Peter moves a large Russian army down the Baltic coast and across the Polish border.
Sweden and Russia: AD 1707-1711
In the autumn of 1707 Charles XII moves northeast from Saxony with an army of almost 40,000 men. His intention is to move towards Moscow during the summer of 1708, forcing Peter to withdraw from the Baltic to defend his capital. The plan is frustrated by Peter’s strategy of avoiding a pitched battle while devastating the countryside between the advancing Swedish army and Moscow. By the autumn of 1708 Charles XII is forced to turn south into the Ukraine in search of food.
The winter of 1708-9 is unusually cold even for these inhospitable regions. It is a much reduced Swedish army, of some 18,000 men, which finally comes to grips with the Russians in July 1709 at Poltava.
The engagement is the first major disaster in Charles’s brilliant military career. With almost the whole Swedish army either captured or killed, Charles himself escapes south into Turkish territory. He immediately enters negotiations with the Turks, who share his hostility to the Russians and are eager to recover Azov.
Charles summons a new army from Sweden, to provide his share of an anti-Russian alliance with Turkey. It never arrives, but the Turks on their own defeat Peter the Great in 1711 at the Prut river. In the ensuing negotiations Peter agrees to return Azov – and considers himself to have escaped lightly in giving no concessions at all to Sweden, as Turkey’s supposed ally.
Final years of the war: AD 1714-1721
After three years of frustrating diplomacy, Charles XII makes his way back from Turkey to Swedish territory in 1714. With the permission of the Austrian emperor he rides incognito through Habsburg and imperial lands to the Baltic coast in Pomerania, completing the journey in fourteen days.
In his absence Sweden’s Baltic empire has been encroached upon on all sides. A peace settlement is clearly now inevitable, but while preparing for it Charles rebuilds Sweden’s army. By the autumn of 1718 he has assembled 60,000 men. He is putting them to their first test, in an invasion of Norway, when he is killed by a musket shot.
Peace negotiations continue for three years after the death of Charles XII, and the final terms are a disaster for Sweden compared to the high hopes raised early in the war. Most of the Swedish possessions on the southern coast of the Baltic are now ceded to Prussia and to Hanover. And the commercial advantage of free passage through the Sound for Swedish goods is surrendered.
But the greatest blow is Sweden’s loss to Russia. By the treaty of Nystad, in 1721, Peter the Great obtains the east Baltic coast from Vyborg down to Riga (a stretch in which he has already built himself St Petersburg). With these advantages Russia replaces Sweden as the leading power in the Baltic.