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From: Poltava 1709: The Battle and the Myth, ed.

Serhii Plokhy
(Cambridge, MA: Distributed by Harvard University Press for the
Ukrainian Research Institute Harvard University, 2012), 81106.

peters dragoons

81

Peters Dragoons: How the Russians Won at Poltava


Donald Ostrowski

he conventional portrayal of the military reforms of Peter I (1682


1725) depicts his inheriting a woefully out-of-date army and bringing it up to
European standards of the time. In the process, according to this conventional
portrayal, Peter reorganized the military and rationalized the recruitment
process, which before had been haphazard and resulted in undermanned regiments. Accordingly, an important step was to disband in 1698 the rebellious
streltsy, who are seen as a throwback to the old Muscovite army. The battles
of Narva (1700) and Poltava (1709) are considered, by those who hold the
conventional view, as the progress markers of the reform process. The Battle of
Narva purportedly came before Peters updating reforms had a chance to take
hold; thus, resulting in a humiliating loss against a European army. By 1709,
however, the Europeanizing reforms of the military supposedly had time to
take eect, and the Russian army won a signicant victory that nally placed
Russia in the ranks of European great powers.
As deeply embedded in the historiography and durable as this conventional
portrayal has been, it is not corroborated by the evidence. The Europeanization
of the Russian army had been going on more or less continuously since the early
1650s. Peters supposed dissolution of the streltsy in 169899 involved the
execution of 799 members of two streltsy regiments for leaving their assigned
post in Velikie Luki and marching to Moscow to demand back pay and to see
their wives and families. Many of the 49 regiments of streltsy that existed
in 1698 already had European command structures, and over the next two
decades most were gradually transformed into infantry regiments, but a few
remained as garrison troops until the 1730s. Some researchers who are aware
of the extent to which the Russian army had been Europeanized by the time
Peter came to power have looked for other explanations for the victory of
the Russian forces at Poltava. Carol B. Stevens, for one, remarked that given
current research, it seems certain that Peters self-consciously Europeanizing
reforms neither completely transformed the Russian army, nor were those

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reforms alone responsible for that armys victories over Sweden up to and
including Poltava (1709). Instead, she credited those victories to the skillful
use of diplomacy to improve the battle conditions for his military forces and
the successful combination of new tactics and organization from northern
Europe with experience and knowledge from the southeastern part of the EuroOttoman zone. Nicholas A. Dorrell characterized as perhaps awed the
conventional view of the Russian army at this time[as] this old fashioned and
raw army [that] was transformed into an experienced, modern ghting force
that won at Poltava during the course of the war. He proposed, instead, that
among the Russians there was a growing realisation that Western methods
were not always appropriate or indeed successful [because] [a]ll armies that
fought the Swedes using Western methods had major problems coping with
them and usually lost! While acknowledging that the Russian army had a
deep knowledge of the Swedish methods of warfare and how to defeat them,
Dorrell proposed that during the period 1701 to 1706 the Russians gradually
turned away from the Western methods they were using at the start of the war
to a home produced system that was designed to t the nature of the Russian
army, the area it would ght in and to cope with the challenge of the Swedish
methods of ghting.
Much in Stevens and Dorrells assessments are valid. The Russian command was aware of Ottoman military strategy and tactics, and had acquired a
profound knowledge of Swedish methods of war in general and the methods
of Charles XII (16971718) in particular. The Russians also made use of steppe
methods of warfare in following a scorched earth policy to hinder the Swedish
advance in 17089. But the major dierence between the Russian army that
besieged the fortress at Narva in 1700 and the Russian army at Poltava in 1709
was the large number of dragoon regiments that Peter ordered to be recruited
and trained. These regiments proved a match for the Swedish dragoon and
cavalry regiments on which Charles XII relied. I hypothesize that they allowed
the Russians superiority in infantry numbers and artillery to prevail at Poltava as they could not at Narva. To be sure, in December 1708, Peter issued
an administrative military decree reorganizing the country into eight large
gubernias, as well as requiring the recruitment of one male for every twenty
households in the countryside, but neither of these had any direct impact on
the Russians victory at Poltava. Instead, the fast-moving dragoon regiments
and mounted infantry (Peters ying corps) were well suited to the open
eastern European terrain and could be used to harry the Swedish advance,
enter gaps in the enemy line in battle, and close gaps in the Russian line before
the Swedish army could take advantage of them.
In 1991, Russell F. Weigley, who has been described as the dean of American
military history, wrote an analytical narrative of European battles from 1631
to 1815. In his book, Weigley stated that battles were sought to secure deci-

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83

sions in warwith a quickness and dispatch that would keep the costs of war
reasonably proportionate to the purposes attained. According to Weigley,
battles were not decisive in determining political or military outcomes. Even
when a battle was tactically decisive, it was never strategically or politically so.
John Childs criticized Weigley for not providing a denition of what he meant
by decisive. But Weigley did provide such a denition: If in a successful
battle the enemy army could be substantially destroyedthen the whole course
of a war might be resolved in a single day, and wars thereby might be won at
relatively low costs, by avoiding the prolonged expenditure of resources and
lives.
Nonetheless, in Weigleys estimation, this era was an age of prolonged,
indecisive wars, wars suciently interminable that again and again the toll
in lives, not to mention the costs in material resources, rose grotesquely out
of proportion to anything their authors could hope to gain from them. As
such, he challenged the premise of von Clausewitz that war is merely the
continuation of policy by other means. Weigley wrote that the chronic
indecisiveness of war from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries, wars chronic inability to attain the ends desiredmade warfare not a
worthy instrument of policy but an expression of the bankruptcy of policy.
He described the serious limitations on armies at the time. These limitations,
in the words of Allan R. Millett, were the lack of a professional ocer corps,
logistical scarcity and poor planning, the pitiful condition of European roads
and maps, ordnance of dubious eectiveness, the immobility of infantry and
the erratic use of cavalry (especially in the exploitation phase of battle), and
muddled political direction and coalition cooperation.
In his book Weigley also proposed four further themes: (1) military [o]cership came increasingly to be based on standards of education and social
responsibility (xiii); (2) the diculties of command, control, and communication in early modern war did much to reduce still further the potential for
battle to achieve its strategic purposes, the destruction of the enemy and the
rapid winning of wars (xiv); (3) battles fought mainly with infantry during
the age of battles were usually tactically indecisive, and a mobile combat
arm (namely, an eective cavalry) was needed if any tactical decisiveness
were to be achieved (xivxv, 263); and (4) limitations upon the violence of
war through the restraints of international law and custom such that the
principle of noncombatant immunity within the war convention had by the
early twentieth century largely come to protect the lives and even the private
property of noncombatants from the violence of war, by conning legitimate
violence to combatants who could possess some capacity to protect themselves
and to retaliate (xv). Among the battles Weigley described is Poltava. But his
description of that battle focused on the infantry and on Charless inability to
exercise his accustomed personal command. Weigley passed over the tactical

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decisiveness of the Russian mobile combat arm, recognition of which would


have corroborated his third theme.
2
During the course of the seventeenth century, the Muscovites converted to the
infantry and cavalry formations, rearms, and tactics of what Stevens dened
as the Euro-Ottoman common zone. The organization of armies within that
zone was similar, with an emphasis on infantry. Cavalry tended to take a reserve
role in battles. It defended baggage trains and supply lines of slow-moving
armies. Although rearms became a signicant part of those armies, they
were used to a dierent degree depending on tactical decisions. By switching
to gunpowder weapons, armies favored infantry out of necessity because of
the diculty in shooting and reloading rearms from horseback.
Tsar Aleksei (r. 164576) had reinstituted the conversion to European strategy, tactics, formations, and weaponry, which had begun under his father Tsar
Mikhail (r. 161345) and accelerated the reform of the Muscovite army along
Euro-Ottoman lines. According to Richard Hellie, by 1663 the percentage of
the army in new formation regiments rose to 79 percent. The Academy of
Sciences history of the USSR placed it at 76 percent in 1680. The army of V. V.
Golitsyn that campaigned against the Crimean Khanate in 1687 and 1689 consisted mostly of new formation infantry and cavalry (reitary) regiments.
Stevens pointed out that percentages of cavalry were higher in Eastern
European armies than in Western European armies. Her statement would
seem to be supported by the ndings of David Chandler, whose book includes
a table listing the [p]ercentages of cavalry in armies by nationalities. He found
that for the period of 16481715 between 27 and 30 percent of the armies of
Austria, England, France, the German states, the Italian states, and Spain consisted of cavalry. The armies of Denmark and Prussia consisted of 40 percent
cavalry; Sweden and Turkey, 45 percent; and Poland, 60 percent. Some of
these percentages might be questioned, but perhaps most questionable is his
gure of 25 percent for Russia during this period. Percentages diered with
respect to campaigns, but on the whole the mobile combat arm of the Russian
army comprised between 31.25 and 46.3 percent of the army. Between the
1630s and the 1690s, dragoons, however, never comprised more than 10 percent
of the Russian cavalry. The Russian army at the time of the Battle at Poltava
had an estimated thirty-four dragoon regiments in comparison to the three
that were in the Russian army inherited by Peter.
Initially, dragoons were mounted infantry using horses to carry them into
combat. Later, dragoons were also trained to ght on horseback. Training of
dragoons was more intensive than that of infantry or cavalry alone for the
obvious reason that a dragoon had to be trained to ght both on foot and on

peters dragoons

85

horse. The dual role also presents a problem of classication as to whether in


any particular case dragoons are to be counted as foot cavalry or mounted
infantry. According to Chandler,
most contemporaries were unwilling to consider them cavalry, but
classied them as mere mounted infantry well into the eighteenth
century. Commonly armed with a carbine, a bayonet and hatchet as
well as broad-sword and pistols (although these last were withdrawn
from English dragoons as early as 1697), the dragoon never wore
armour, but sported the long cloth coat, tricorner hat, heavy boots and
the distinguishing broad cross-belts supporting his sword, bayonet
and ammunition pouch. Besides their dual role in battle, they were
expected to carry out reconnaissance and escort duties, and were, on
occasion, relied upon to bridge streams or ll ditches with fascines of
brushwood or trusses of hay to expedite the advance of the main army
and sometimes were called upon to build or raze eld fortications.

In 1699, Peter ordered two regular dragoon regiments recruited. In 1700 and
1701, according to M. D. Rabinovich, 8,600 gentry were levied for 14 dragoon
regiments. In 1702, four more dragoon regiments were raised (one of which
was disbanded the following year); in 1703, eight dragoon regiments were raised
(one of which was disbanded the same year and two more within two years); in
1704, two dragoon regiments and two dragoon squadrons were raised; the next
year, sixteen dragoon regiments (two of which were disbanded the same year
and two more in the following year); in 1706, fteen more were raised (eight
of which were disbanded the same year and one of which was disbanded in
1709); in 1707, eight were raised; in 1708, eight (two of which were disbanded
in the same year and two in the following year); and in 1709, two (from other
existing dragoon companies). Six other regiments and squadrons were raised
during this period, for which we do not have the year of their formation.
Thus, between 1700 and 1709, dragoon regiments and squadrons were being
raised at the rate of ten a year, but many were disbanded within a year or two,
and the regiment members were absorbed by other regiments.
By 1702, a Brief Regulations (Kratkoe polozhenie) was published for the
training of dragoon regiments. Russian dragoon regiments were initially
named after their commanding ocer, but that became confusing inasmuch
as commanders changed from one dragoon regiment to another. Dragoons
then tended to be renamed according to the region of recruitment. Exceptions
included the Maloletnii Regiment (1703), Domovyi Squadron (1704?), A. D.
Menshikovs General or Life Regiment (1705), and the Life Squadron (1707)
(see table 1).

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Table : Russian Dragoon Regiments, .

Note: The format of this table is inspired by table A found in Konstam, Peter
the Greats Army, 10. The information, however, is from Rabinovich in his Polki
petrovskoi armii, 85100 (the numbers in parentheses on the left correspond
to the numbers given by Rabinovich). Cf. N. P. Volynskii, Postepennoe razvitie russkoi reguliarnoi konnitsy v epokhu Velikogo Petra s samym podrobnym
opisaniem ee uchastiia v Velikoi Severnoi voine (St. Petersburg, 1912). The
initials under the Battles column refer only to Narva in 1700 (= N), Lesnaia
in 1708 (= L), and Poltava in 1709 (= P) as the battles in which a particular
regiment (polk) or squadron (skvadron or eskadron) took part.
Formed in 1698

Renamed (year)

(541) Gen. A. M. Golovin

Kievskii (1708)

Battles
L, P

Moskovskii (1706)

N, P

(543) Col. S. I. Kropotov

Troitskii (1706)

(544) Prince N. F. Meshcherskii

Novgorodskii (1706)

Disbanded

Formed in 1700
(540) Col. David Mein
(542) Preobrazhenskii
Formed in 1701

(545) A. G. Ragozin

1706

(546) Col. A. A. Malina (Mulina)

Sibirskii (1706)

L, P

(547) Col. N. I. Poluektov

Sankt-Peterburgskii
(1706)

(548) Col. F. A. Novikov

Pskovskii (1706)

(549) Col. D. R. Shenshin

Kazanskii (1706)

(550) Prince I. I. Lvov

Astrakhanskii (1706)

(551) Col. M. S. Zhdanov

Vladimirskii (1706)

L, P

Nizhegorodskii
(1706)

L, P

(554) D. I. Devgerin

Viatskii (1706)

L, P

(555) Col. Anton Dumont

Chernigovskii (1706)

(552) Maloletnii
(553) Col. Morelli de la Carer

1711

1703

1716

(556) Maj. I. A. Oznobishin

1703(?)

Formed in 1702
(557) Col. P. M. Delov

Tverskoi (1706)

(558) Col. M. Iu. Frank

Smolenskii (1706)

L, P

1714

peters dragoons
Formed in 1702, contd.

Renamed (year)

87
Battles

Disbanded

(559) Col. Detlov

1704(?)

(560) Col. V. Ogarev

1703

Formed in 1703
(561) Prince A. F. Shakhovskoi

Belozerskii (1707)

1712

(562) Cpt. M. Eseneev

1703

(563) Col. I. S. Gorbov

Permskii (1706)

(564) FM B. P. Sheremetev

Arkhangelogorodskii
(1708)

(565) FM A.D. Menshikov

Ingermanlandskii
(1705)

(569) Col. Samuel Stankevich

1705

(570) Col. Grigorii Sukhotin

1705

(571) Prince Lvov

1705

Formed in 1704
(566) Prince N. F. Meshcherskii

Belgorodskii (1706)

1714

(567) I. Musin-Pushkin

1712(?)

(568) Ranenburg Squadron

(572) Roslavlskii Squadron

1714
1721

Formed in 1705
(573) Col. I. D. Portessis

Nevskii (1706)

(574) Niklaus Gring

Riazanskii (1705)

(575) Mikhail Zybin

Gagarin (1706)

(576) Col. Fedor Khrushchev

Vologodskii (1706)

(577) Col. Ivan Pestov

Narvskii (1707)

(578) Col. Timofei Putiatin

Lutskii (1708)

L, P
1713(?)
1706
P

(579) Col. Ivan Novikov

1705

(580) Col. Semen Melnitskii

1705

(581) Cols. A. Grigorov & P.


Grigorov

1715(?)

(582) Boiar P. M. Apraksin

1706

(583) Fedor Elchaninov

1706

(584) Col. V. B. Sheremetev

1716

(585) Boiar T. N. Streshnev

Rostovskii (1707)

(587) General or Life of A. D.


Menshikov
(588) Col. Gustav Freidlin

L, P
P

Sheremetev (1705)

1721
1710(?)

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Formed in 17056

Renamed (year)

Battles

(586) Dumnyi diak A. I. Ivanov

Azovskii (1707)

Iamburgskii (1706)

L, P

Disbanded

Formed in 1706
(589) Col. Osip Shezdinov
(590) Col. Ferdinand Fastman

1706

(591) Col. Semen Nelidov

1713
1706(?)

(592) Prince G. I. Volkonskii

Iaroslavskii (1707)

(593) Baron Felix von Deveznik

Koporskii (1707)

L, P
1709

(594) Col. Matvei Dubrasov

1716

(595) Maj. M. Malygin

1706

(596) F. Oshcherin

1706

(597) Franz Beide

1706

(598) Capt. Vasilii Shemiakin

1706

(599) Maj. Vasilii Gendlin

1706

(600) Hering

1706

(601) Col. I. B. Levashev

1718

(602) Maj. D. B. Levashev


(603) Maj. Mikhail Chirikov
Formed in 1707
(604) Olonetskii

(605) Life Squadron

St. Petersburg (1719)

L, P

(606) Ivan Boltin

Kargopolskii (1708)

(607) Ustiuzhskii

Iamburgskii (1712)

(608) Col. S. I. Kropotov

Novotroitskii (1712)

(609) Arakcheev

Tobolskii (1707)

(610) Eniseiskii
(621) Khanenev

1710

Formed in 1708
(611) Col. Ivan Golovin
(612) E. I. Gulits

1714

(613) P. I. Iakovlev

1709

(614) Col. Iu. V. von Delden

1716

(615) Col. I. M. Denisov

1709

(616) Maj. Boris Lovzin

1708

(617) Semen Protasov

1708

(618) Col. A. S. Kropotov

Revelskii (1726)

peters dragoons
Formed in 1709

89
Battles

(619) Col. Kh. Kh. von der Ropp

(620) Col. G. S. Kropotov

Disbanded

Formation Date Unknown; First Mention Occurs in Documents before 1709


(622) Kozlovskii Squadron (1706)

(623) Voronezhskii Squadron


(1708)

(629) Domovyi Squadron (1704)

(632) Gen.-Maj. F. V. Shidlovskii


(1707(?))

1718

(636) Ivan Rzhevskii (1702)


(637) Mikhail Izmailov (1702)

We thus have a record of at least 88 dragoon regiments and squadrons that


were formed between 1698 and 1709. Although evidence exists for the disbanding of only 24 of them, with 64 remaining, another 30 or so may have
been disbanded, concerning which we have no evidence. By 1711, Rabinovichs
sources tell us that another 5 regiments were disbanded, but according to L. G.
Beskrovnyi, the Shtat of 1711 indicates that 33 dragoon regiments then existed.
The process seems to have been a chaotic one, with regiments and squadrons
being created, disbanded, and merged into other regiments, and commanders
replaced frequently. Only one dragoon regiment took part in the Battle of
Narva in 1700. At Lesnaia, 13 dragoon regiments took part; and at Poltava, 26
dragoon regiments and 4 dragoon squadrons took part. After 1709 and before
1725, according to the evidence Rabinovich gathered, another 7 regiments were
formed but 18 were disbanded. The records are far from complete, but they
do indicate an almost feverish eort to raise dragoon regiments and squadrons
between 1700 and 1709, less so after 1709.
Initially, recruits had to supply their own horses, but these turned out to be
of such inferior quality that the army designated 100,000 rubles for replacements. One reason for keeping standard cavalry in reserve and using it mainly
for the coup de grace in battle was concern about losing horses. A horse trained
for battle was a valuable asset. Steppe horses, while smaller than their Western
counterparts and considered unprepossessing by observers, were available in
abundance. One might then consider it likely that concern for the safety of the
horses would be less for Russian dragoons supplied with steppe horses than
it would be for Russian cavalry regiments supplied with European horses.
Whereas the gentry were initially the ones requisitioned for service in the

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dragoons because they were able to supply their own horses, soon those from
the lower social orders (i.e., those without a horse) were recruited to meet
the militarys needs, although the pretence that they were from the gentry
continued to be maintained.
Peters decision to recruit large numbers of dragoons seems to have been
made in imitation of the Swedish army, in contrast to the prevailing practice
of all other European armies of the time. The organization of regiments was
based on the infantry model: 10 companies of 120 men each. Each regiment
had three 3-pound cannon. According to Denison, Peter further ordered that
20 percent of the dragoons were to carry axes; 10 percent, to carry shovels; and
10 percent, to carry sharpened spades. In the Military Statute of 1716 Peter
described this light force as a self-standing mobile formation,
detached to lie at the disposal of the general, whether to cut the enemy o,
deprive them of a pass, act in their rear, or fall on their territory and make
a diversion. Such a formation is called a ying corps [korvolan], and it
consists of between six and seven thousand men. A force so constituted
can act without encumbrance in every direction, and send back reliable
information of the enemys doings. For these purposes we employ not
only the cavalry but also the infantry, armed with light guns, according
to the circumstances of time and place.

In the Swedish army, the mobile combat arm comprised nearly 50 percent of
the forces, with a predominance of dragoons. The Swedes under Charles XI (r.
166097) and his son Charles XII, as Robert I. Frost pointed out, preferred cold
steel in hand-to-hand combat with swords and bayonets. Both monarchs
looked askance at the eectiveness of rearms in general. Charles XI provided
his dragoons/cavalry with swords that were straight and narrow so that they
could thrust rather than slash at the enemy. According to Nosworthy:
A slashing motion with a straight sword, as opposed to a slightly curved
sabre, has little eect. A new formation was devised to facilitate the
aggressive Swedish cavalry charge. Instead of advancing in straight lines,
as was the universal practice in other Western European armies, the
Swedish squadrons adopted an arrow-shaped [chevron] formation. The
cornet, the center-most man in the squadron, was slightly in front of the
others. The men on each of his two anks rode knee behind knee, so that
they would both be about six inches behind him. Each man along the line
was arranged in the same manner, so that the entire squadron was placed
in echelon to the left and the right of the cornet. The Swedish cavalry
enjoyed a number of notable victories using these tactics, and were even
successful in capturing several entrenchments and batteries.

peters dragoons

91

The Kings Regulation of 1685 tells us that the Swedish horsemen were to
advance at a trot until within 100 to 150 meters of the enemy line, then break
into a gallop. At a distance of 25 meters, or when they could see the whites of
their enemys eyes, they were to re their pistols. Charles XII banned the use
of rearms during the cavalry charge and was the rst monarch to do so.
As Frost mentioned, the tactics of Charles XII were aggressive, perhaps
overly so at times, but they were not those of a madman and they did achieve
signicant victories against armies that were numerically superior. In a very
real sense, the aggressive battle tactics of Charles XII were merely a continuation of the military thinking of his father and previous Swedish monarchs
going back to Gustavus Adolphus. Charles XI had as his goal the integrated
cooperation of all branches of the army, but he also realized that this could be
accomplished only through years of drill and training. Each regiment went out
at least once a year on maneuvers and encamped for two weeks or more. He
realized the value of high morale among the soldiers and solicited from them
any complaints they might have about their ocers. The Swedish army was
completely resupplied in the 1690s and reorganized under Charles XI. By the
time of his death in 1697 his reorganization and master plan for mobilization
of the army were nearly completed. Thus, the army that Charles XII brought
into the Northern War was well trained, well supplied, and relatively untested.
Both Charles XII and Peter I inherited armies that were already reorganized
and reequippedin other words, modernized.
In order to evaluate the impact of the dragoons at Poltava, we can analyze,
for reasons that will become clear below, three battlesNarva (1700), Lesnaia
(1708), and Poltava (1709).
Narva (20 November 1700)
By 4 October 1700, Russian troops numbering 35,000 were in fortied positions
and besieging the Swedish fortress at Narva. On 17 November, the Russians
were running low on shot for the cannons, and the guns fell silent. On 18
November, Peter departed from the siege to energize the providing of reinforcements and supply as well as to discuss with King Augustus of Poland the
future conduct of the war, especially after his raising the siege of Riga. The
Swedish relief troops under Charles XII, which had assembled 110 kilometers
southwest of Narva in Wesenberg, set out on 13 November for Narva, arriving
at Lagena (11 kilometers from Poltava) on 19 November. The next day, Charles
lined his troops up opposite the Russian siege line. At 2:00 p.m., he ordered an
advance of the Swedish infantry in a snowstorm with the wind at the back of
his soldiers. The 5,000-strong Russian cavalry commanded by B. P. Sheremetev
abandoned the eld, and the Russian infantry line, facing an enemy coming out
of the driving snow, broke. Although the Russians had a numerical advantage
of three to one, they were totally routed. Russian cannon, of which there

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were at least 140, could not be used against the advancing Swedes because
of whiteout conditions.
Kliuchevskii was of the opinion that the Swedes would have lost at Narva
if Sheremetevs cavalry and a regiment of Cossacks, instead of eeing, had
wheeled around the Swedish infantrys right ank and attacked from the rear.
Such a maneuver might have worked on a clear day, but advancing either on
foot or on horseback into an oncoming blizzard would have been unduly risky
and unlikely to succeed. Nonetheless, the abandonment of the eld on the part
of the Russian cavalry was precipitous and may have had something to do with
the fact that Peter had recently replaced Sheremetev as the commander of the
siege at Narva with Charles Eugne de Croy.
Fabian Wredes son Caspar, who was with the Swedish troops, wrote to his
father that after the battle the soldiers drank so much of the brandy they found
in the Russian camp that they could not guard the Russian prisoners and had
to free them: If they had attacked us, they would indisputably have got the
better of us. Others have speculated that the reason the Swedes freed the
Russian prisoners is because they did not want the Russians to realize how few
Swedes there were, so that they might have taken over.
Peters own assessment of the loss at Narva makes no mention of the armys
not being European enough. Instead, he attributed the loss to the inexperience
of his troops:
You have to ask yourself what kind of an army they [the Swedes] overcame.
There was just one veteran regiment, the Lefortovskii. The two regiments
of the Guard had been in two attacks on Azov, but they had never fought
a battle in the open eld, let alone one against a regular army. In the rest
of the regiments, a few colonels excepted, ocers and soldiers alike were
the merest recruits. It is therefore not surprising that such an army [as
the Swedish], veteran, trained and experienced, should have attained a
victory over such untried pupils.

Frost questioned this assessment, pointing out that the Swedish troops at Narva
were no less inexperienced than the Russian troops. In the Military Statute
of 1716, Peter dened the dierence between the pre-Narva and post-Narva
Russian armies as one of good order. Again, there was no notion that the
Russian forces had to be modernized. On the contrary, at the time of the
buildup around Narva, Peter wrote that the Russian forces were particularly
well drilled. There is no evidence that the Russian regiments at Narva were
undermanned.
Lesnaia (28 September 1708)
In September 1708, the Swedish invasion of Russia was well underway. Charles

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93

XII was waiting with the main Swedish army for reinforcements of 12,500
troops and cartloads of food and supplies being brought from Riga under the
command of General Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt. Shortly before Lewenhaupt
reached the main army, when the two armies were still 120 kilometers apart,
Charles decided to move out southward and planned for Lewenhaupt to catch
up, like a relay runner passing a baton. In retrospect, it may have been better
had Charles moved toward meeting the supplies and reinforcements instead
of away from them. As Frost points out, it is unlikely Peter would have risked
an attack on Lewenhaupts forces if the main Swedish army was still in the
vicinity.As it was, the increasing gap between Lewenhaupts contingent and
Charless army left the supply train exposed.
Peter placed Sheremetev in charge of the main Russian army, which shadowed Charles on a parallel path southward. Taking the Preobrazhenskii and
Semenovskii Guards along with eight other infantry regiments and mounting
them on horseback, Peter went to intercept Lewenhaupt along with ten regiments of dragoons. In addition, he ordered another 3,000 dragoons under General Adolf Rudolf (Rodion) Frederik Bauer to rendezvous with his force.
Lewenhaupt was aware that a large number of Russian troops had arrived.
Apparently disheartened by Charless decision to move the main Swedish army
further south, Lewenhaupt may have thought the Russian army was moving to surround his contingent. On 27 September, he deployed his troops to
give battle, but to no avail. This deployment delayed Lewenhaupts arrival at
Propoisk on the Sozh River, a days journey from Lesnaia, for an attack that
did not come. The next day he reached Lesnaia.
When the Russians arrived at Lesnaia, they dismounted and deployed along
the edge of the forest. Peter was in command of the right wing, which included
the Preobrazhenskii and Semenovskii Guards and three dragoon regiments.
General A. D. Menshikov was in command of the left wing, which included
eight dragoon regiments. The additional 3,000 dragoons under Bauers command arrived after 4:00 p.m., just in time to counter the arrival of 3,000 Swedish dragoons that had returned after securing the ford at the Sozh. Peter stated
in his account of the battle: All day it was impossible to see where victory
would lie. During the night Lewenhaupt ordered all the supplies and artillery
destroyed, and abandoned the camp.
According to Massies estimates:
The battle and the chaos of the night had cut Lewenhaupts force in half.
Of 2,000 cavalry, 1,393 remained; of 2,500 dragoons, 1,749 still were
present; but of 8,000 infantry, only 3,451 remained. The total loss was
6,307 men; of these over 3,000 were taken prisoner. Others wandered
o into the forest alone or in small bands. Many died or were eventually
captured. A thousand actually found their way across Lithuania to Riga.

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All the supplies, clothes, food, ammunition, medicines which Charles
so desperately needed were lost. On the Russian side, 1,111 were killed
and 2,856 wounded. Each side had approximately 12,000 engaged; the
Russians lost about one third, but the Swedes lost half.

Although acknowledging that the battle of Lesnaia was a disaster for the
Swedes, Dorrell opined that the Russians had little direct responsibility for
it. I am, instead, in agreement with Frosts assessment: Lesnaia underlined
the usefulness of dragoons in the eastern theatre of war.
Charles put the best face on it and called it a lucky action (om dhen
lyckeliga Actionen) that 6,000 or so troops did get through to join the main
Swedish army. Nonetheless, not only did Charles not get the supplies he
needed, but the additional troops aggravated the existing shortage of supplies.
The Swedish army did not fare well after that. The troops were undernourished and many succumbed to disease and frostbite. Peter Englund estimated
a 20-percent loss in the Swedish army owing to the severe winter. Another
thousand or so ocers and men were lost at the assault on Veprik in January
1709. Shortages of materil were chronic. At the Battle of Poltava many of
the Swedish soldiers were using half the recommended gunpowder charges,
so the reports from their rearms, according to Christopher Du y, sounded
mued like gloves clapping together. Eugene Schuyler wrote that during the
siege of Poltava before the battle the Swedes were so short on ammunition,
they searched the eld for Russian bullets.
Poltava (28 June 1709)
Estimates vary for the number of troops the Russians and Swedes had at Poltava. A possible explanation for the dierence in estimates is the dierence in
the number of soldiers who were in the vicinity of Poltava and the number of
those who actually took part in the battle. Beskrovnyi estimated that on the
Russian side 42,500 men were divided into 58 battalions of infantry and 17
regiments of cavalry. Chandler estimated that the Russian army at Poltava
had 80,000 troops, of which 17,000 (19 percent) were cavalry. A. A. Vasilev
claimed that the Russian army at Poltava had approximately 60,000 troops, of
which 23,706 (39.5 percent) were cavalry. Dorrell placed the Russian numbers
at the battle at 61 battalions, about 38,000 to 42,000 men. Of that number, he
estimated Menshikovs cavalry at about 12,000 (appr. 30 percent) to 15,000
men (37.5 percent), divided into 87.5 squadrons with 13 artillery pieces. Peter
Englund estimated 44,500 troops on the Russian side of which 10,000 (22.5
percent) were cavalry. The 26 dragoon regiments the Russians supposedly had
at Poltava would suggest higher numbers of dragoon troops. At full complement (guring 1,200 troops per regiment [10 companies of 120 men each) this
would have meant 31,200 men. Probably not all regiments were full, but the

peters dragoons

95

four dragoon squadrons would have counterbalanced that somewhat. Thus, we


can provisionally estimate the percentage of dragoons at 42.5 percent (about
30,000 out of a total of approximately 70,000 troops, not counting the 5,000
or so Kalmyks).
For the Swedish side, Englund estimated 20,300 troops, of which 11,000 (54.1
percent) were cavalry. According to Beskrovnyi, Charles XII had a total of
38,000 troops, of which only 24,00025,000 took part in the battle. Of those,
24 battalions were infantry and 22 regiments were cavalry. Vasilev counted
overall 12 infantry regiments, arriving at a total of 9,270 men, of which 8,170 set
out through the redoubts on the morning of 28 June. He counted 22 regiments
of cavalry, consisting equally of 11 retiary and 11 dragoon regiments, plus a corps
of Life-drabants; altogether, 58 percent of the Swedish army. Konstam pegged
the Swedish cavalry at 7,800 men. Dorrell agreed with Konstams number of
Swedish cavalry who were directly involved in the battle, but counted 13,000
Swedish cavalry overall. Konstam placed the number of Swedish infantry at
8,200, while Dorrells tally was higher: 9,300. If we take Konstams gures as
the more accurate, then that would place the total Swedish forces at the start
of the battle at 16,000 men with 48.75 percent cavalry (including dragoons).
In any case, the Russians numerical superiority, perhaps 4:1, was somewhat
more than the 3:1 advantage at Narva.
As at Narva, not all of the Swedish infantrymen carried rearms. A third of
them were armed with pikes, as was the Russian infantry, for close ghting.
In this respect, as with the emphasis on dragoons, both the Swedish army
of Charles XII and the Russian army of Peter I were going against the trend
of European armies of the time, which had already equipped or were in the
process of equipping every infantryman with a intlock and bayonet.
Peter took command of the Russian army east of Poltava on 9 June, when
he arrived on the scene. On 16 June he called a council of war, which made the
decision to cross the river and, with the help of God, seek our luck in combat
with the enemy. Peter set up a fortied camp on the right bank of the Vorskla
River, as well as ten redoubts, six across the expected line of the Swedish armys
march and four perpendicular to it, running into the Swedish line of march,
like a breakwater. Each redoubt was 50 meters in length on each side (four
triangular and six square redoubts) and 150 meters from its neighbor.
The battle itself on 28 June took place in two stages. The rst stage, the
battle of the redoubts, occurred between 4:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. It involved
a march of the Swedish army from a position just west of Poltava to a position
just west of the fortications that the Russians had built about ve kilometers
north of the town. The line of march brought the Swedes right through the
placement of the redoubts, which led to a separation of the Swedish columns
and resulted in a signicant loss of men and time. The second stage, the assault,
occurred between 9:30 a.m. and noon. It involved the advance of the Swedish

96

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infantry against the Russian infantry deployed in front of their own fortications. After threatening to break the Russian line, the Swedes were defeated
and the few that were able ed the eld.
The Swedish advance that began at 4:00 a.m. was orderly on the anks even
though it was within range of the Russian artillery, but confusion developed
fairly quickly in the center. One nds dierences within the body of evidence
and among historians that have written about the Swedish formation. Thus,
what follows is my best guess of how one-third of the Swedish infantry wound
up under the command of a major general who was not informed of the plan of
deployment. Overall command of the Swedish army was placed in the hands
of Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Rehnskild. Charles XII was conned to a litter
as the result of a gunshot wound to the foot that had occurred on 17 June.
Lewenhaupt was placed in charge of the infantry, which was arranged in four
columns. On the left wing, Major General Axel Sparre commanded column
1, consisting of ve battalions. In the center-left, Major General Stackelberg
commanded column 2, consisting of ve battalions. Major General Carl Gustav
Roos led column 3, consisting of four battalions, in the center-right column. On
the right wing, Major General Berndt Otto Lagercrona commanded column
4, consisting of four battalions. Rehnskild accompanied column 1; Charles
XII and Lewenhaupt accompanied column 4. The Swedish dragoons, fourteen
regiments strong in six columns, were under the command of Major General
Carl Gustav Creutz. The Russians had placed seventeen dragoon regiments
under the command of Bauer, Menshikov, and Lt. General Karl Ewald von
Rnne, as well as thirteen horse artillery pieces behind the six redoubts that
ran across the Swedish line of march.
As the Swedish army advanced, the Swedish column under Rooss command
became caught up in the ght against the redoubts that cut perpendicularly
into the Swedish line of march. Two battalions from the center-left column
merged with Rooss command. At that point, the Russian dragoons emerged
from behind the redoubts facing the Swedish army, and the Swedish cavalry
made its way through the Swedish infantry, which probably prevented it from
undertaking the usual knee-behind-knee galloping charge. The battle raged
for over an hour, with the Russians capturing fourteen Swedish standards.
The dust kicked up by the horses and the smoke from the guns cut visibility
signicantly. At the Russian camp, Peter, not knowing how Menshikovs command was faring, sent an order for him to return. Apparently, Menshikov
replied by asking for reinforcements and continued ghting the Swedes. After
a second order to withdraw came through, he disengaged, pulling back to the
fortications south side. Bauer took a larger part of the dragoons to the north
side of the fortication.
The four battalions of Swedish infantry on the right wing (column 4) proceeded to the east of redoubt no. 6, and then in a northwesterly direction,

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97

under the guns of the Russian camp, to rendezvous with the two columns of
Swedish infantry on the left wing. This maneuver, however, cut o column 4
from column 3 under Rooss command, which began to wander o to the right
into the Iakovets Forest south of the Russian camp, crossing the route where
column 4 had marched shortly before. Seeing the resulting gap in the Swedish right, Peter ordered Menshikov to take ve battalions of infantry and ve
regiments of dragoons (about 6,000 troops) to attack what was left of Rooss
command. The speed of the Russian dragoon attack surprised the Swedish
contingent, who initially thought the horsemen were Swedish cavalrymen.
Most of Rooss command were killed or captured. Roos escaped with about
400 men to an abandoned trench near a cloister just northeast of Poltava.
According to Rooss after-action report, he and his men managed to elude
Menshikovs dragoons and surrendered to them later, only at 11:00 a.m., after
being told the battle was over. It seems more likely that Roos surrendered
before the nal Swedish assault, because Menshikovs dragoons were nowhere
in the vicinity of the cloister at 11:00 a.m. Roos may have fallen for a ruse on
the part of the Russian ocer, who announced that the battle was already over
and the main Swedish army was defeated. The total number of those under
Rooss command who were lost to the main army before the nal assault on
the Russian position was 2,600, or over 30 percent of the Swedish infantry.
With that loss, as the biographer Bengtsson put it, the issue of the battlethe
issue of the warwas decided.
In the meantime, the two infantry columns on the Swedish left wing had
made it past the redoubts. By 6:00 a.m. they had lined up west of the Russian
camp, where they were soon joined by column 4. There they waited for Rooss
column 3, unaware of the fate that was befalling it. This delay was crucial
because it gave Peter time to deploy his infantry in front of the Russian camp
by 9:00 a.m. Before the nal assault of the Swedish infantry on the Russian
position, while vainly awaiting the arrival of Rooss regiments, Rehnskild
had to reposition some of the Swedish troops because of Russian artillery, but
no signicant losses were suered in the process. Once the Swedish advance
began, the Russian artillery switched to canister re and started to inict signicant damage on the Swedish left. Charles and Rehnskild had elected
to leave behind what few eld artillery pieces they had (except for four eld
guns), because they believed that artillery would hinder the Swedish advance.
berg speculated that the long lines of supply and communication that Charles
XIIs campaigns created meant that he rarely had sucient ammunition for
the heavy guns. When the nal assault began, the Swedish right pressed on
the front rank of the Russian left, pushing it back against the second rank and
capturing some Russian guns. But Peter was able to intersperse the Novgorodskii Regiment, which threatened to cut o the Swedish right from the rest of
the Swedish forces. The Russian dragoons neutralized the Swedish dragoons,

98

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with only about fty of the latter joining the ght. It was suggested that if the
Swedish forces had had Mazepas Cossacks available and in the right spot, they
might have broken through. But the Cossacks had been relegated to guarding
the baggage train and retreat route.
The collapse of the Swedish infantry, however, was swift. Charles and
the remainder of his army ed the scene of battle, and managed to cross the
Dnieper River at Perevolochna. The Russians did not immediately pursue the
eeing Swedes, deciding instead to celebrate on the eld of battle for several
hours before undertaking that pursuit. Had they undertaken the pursuit immediately, they would have had a good chance of capturing Charles. The captured
Swedish king might have agreed to end the war sooner and provide the decisive
victory, as Weigley wrote. But this may be one more example of the limitations
on the armies of the time; namely, the inability to use the mobile combat arm
eectively in the exploitation phase of the battle.
The tableau of the Swedish infantry advance on the Russian infantry at
Poltava was similar to the one at Narva. In both battles the Russian forces
substantially outnumbered the Swedish forces, and the Russian forces had their
backs to a fortied position, whereas the Swedes were attacking after a rapid
redeployment. Although at Narva the Swedish forces (in the fortress) were
on the other side of the Russian troops, they played no signicant part in the
battle. One major dierence was the weather. At Narva the Swedish infantry
advance was executed under cover of a snowstorm. At Poltava, the morning of
the battle was hot, but the air was clear. Visibility was generally good, except
for the dust and gun smoke during engagements and the dips and rises and
general unevenness of the terrain.
At Lesnaia, the Swedes lost 6,300 men and the supplies that the main Swedish army under Charles XII needed. On the morning of the Battle of Poltava,
by 9:00 a.m. (Massie) or 9:30 a.m. (Konstam) the Swedes lost another 2,600
men (Petri; Konstam)when the six battalions led by Roos were eliminated
from the eld. Thus, Peters dragoons and mounted infantry (his ying corps)
can be directly credited with reducing the attacking Swedish force by 8,900
men (Konstam) before the nal advance of the Swedish infantry at 10:00 a.m.
(Massie) or 9:45 a.m. (Konstam) west of the Russian fortied camp. Given
that this Swedish advance was undertaken probably with fewer than 5,000
infantrymen, who were debilitated by hunger and fatigue, against between
18,000 and 24,000 Russian troops, who were relatively well fed and rested,
supported by 73 cannon and 26 dragoon regiments with an additional 4
dragoon squadrons, and given the initial success of the Swedish right wing in
rolling back the Russian left wing, one has to wonder whether the outcome
of the battle would have been the same if any sizable portion of those missing
troops would have been available to the Swedish side.
During the battles of Lesnaia and Poltava the Russian dragoons were eec-

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99

tive both as cavalry and as infantry. At Lesnaia they served as infantry under
Peter in conjunction with horse-conveyed infantry and as cavalry under Bauer
against the Swedish cavalry. At Poltava they served as cavalry under Menshikov
against the Swedish cavalry between 4:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. They served as
infantry under Menshikov in annihilating what remained of Rooss command
by 9:00 a.m. (thereby contributing to the delay in the main Swedish infantry
advance). They served as cavalry under Bauer and Menshikov against the Swedish cavalry during the nal Swedish assault at 10:00 a.m.
Although the battle at Poltava was tactically decisive, the war between
Sweden and Russia continued for another twelve years until 1721, and may
have ended more as a result of the death of Charles XII (1718) than the Battle
at Poltava. This circumstance also tends to support Weigleys main hypothesis
that battles during the age of battles, even when tactically decisive, were not
decisive for determining political or strategic outcomes.
Finally, the evidence seems to corroborate the hypothesis that the decisive
factor in the Russians victory at Poltava was not the Europeanization of the
Russian army by Peter I, inasmuch as that upgrade had mostly already occurred
by the time Peter came to power. Nor was it his administrative and recruitment reorganization because none of that reorganization had a demonstrable
impact on the battle itself. Nor was it the artillery, because even though the
Russians had a decisive advantage in that regard, the Russian artillery was not
much more than an initial inconvenience to the Swedes, who had to reposition
before the nal advance. Nevertheless, it did contribute to holding the Swedish
left at bay during that advance. Instead, the dragoons that had been recruited
after the Battle of Narva in 1700 played crucial roles both as cavalry and as
infantry, which could be deployed quickly to key positions as events on the
battleeld unfolded.
As with the large proportion (33 percent) of pikemen in both the Swedish
and Russian armies, the reliance on dragoons by both monarchs ran counter
to the trend of armies in the Euro-Ottoman zone, and thus against the grain
of modernization. After 1712, the number of dragoon regiments in the Russian army was reduced. Apparently, the dragoons were raised under Peter to
counter those of a specic armythat of Sweden under Charles XIIwhich
also utilized large numbers of dragoon regiments. Russia did not become a
major player in European international relations until the second half of the
eighteenth century. It would take more than a victory over a severely weakened
and bedraggled, though still dangerous, Swedish army in the steppe some 350
kilometers southeast of Kyiv to accord Russia the status of a European great
power. Thus, the conventional portrayal of the modernizing military reforms
of Peter I as the reason for the Russian success at Poltava stands refuted.

100

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Notes

This portrayal can be found in the following works: V. O. Kliuchevskii, Kurs Russkoi
istorii, pt. , in his Sochineniia, vols. (Moscow, ), :; Christopher
Du y, Russias Military Way to the West: Origins and Nature of Russian Military
Power, (London, ), ; Evgenii V. Anisimov, The Reforms of Peter
the Great: Progress through Coercion in Russia, trans. John T. Alexander (Armonk,
N.Y., ), ; Lindsey Hughes, Peter the Great: A Biography (New Haven,
), ; James Cracraft, The Revolution of Peter the Great (Cambridge, Mass.,
), ; idem, The Petrine Revolution in Russian Culture (Cambridge, Mass.,
), : the land forces in place or on call in about , a motley combination of old and new, and their alternately cumbrous or weak administrative and
armaments infrastuctures; : Further evidence of this dual processthat of
modernizing the Russian army in practice and that of codifying the stages thereof
in writingis found in the various additional or supplementary directives issued
by Peter and his leading commanders over the years leading up the publication of
the Military Statute, years that witnessed decisive Russian victories over Swedish
and allied forces at Lesnaia (September ) and Poltava (June ); Derek
Wilson, Peter the Great (London, ), .
. These streltsy regiments had apparently been redeployed from duty in Azov and
Taganrog in to Velikie Luki without being allowed to go by way of Moscow.
See Graeme Herd, Rebellion and Reformation in the Muscovite Military, in Modernizing Muscovy: Reform and Social Change in Seventeenth-Century Russia, ed.
Jarmo Kotilaine and Marshall Poe (London, ), .
. M. D. Rabinovich, Streltsy v pervoi chetverti XVIII v., Istoricheskie zapiski
(): .
. Carol B. Stevens, Modernizing the Military: Peter the Great and Military Reform,
in Kotilaine and Poe, Modernizing Muscovy, .
. Nicholas A. Dorrell, The Dawn of the Tsarist Empire: Poltava and the Russian
Campaigns of (Nottingham, ), .
. Ibid.
. L. G. Beskrovnyi, Russkaia armiia i ot v XVIII veke (Ocherki) (Moscow, ),
. For a discussion of the eect of the military reforms, see Carol B. Stevens,
Evaluating Peters Army: The Impact of Internal Organization, in The Military
and Society in Russia , ed. Eric Lohr and Marshall Poe (Leiden, ),
.
. Douglas Porch, review of The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from
Breitenfeld to Waterloo, by Russell F. Weigley, Journal of Modern History, ():
.
. Russell F. Weigley, The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo (Bloomington, ).
. Weigley, Age of Battles, xii.

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. John Childs, review of The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from
Breitenfeld to Waterloo, by Russell F. Weigley, English Historical Review ():
.
. Weigley, Age of Battles, xii.
. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Anatol Rapoport (London, ), .
. Weigley, Age of Battles, .
. Allan R. Millett, review of The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from
Breitenfeld to Waterloo, by Russell F. Weigley, Journal of American History
(): .
. Weigley, Age of Battles, .
. Stevens, Modernizing the Military, .
. On the role of cavalry, see the chapter entitled The Mounted Arm in Battle and on
Campaign in David Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, nd
ed. (Tunbridge Wells, Kent, ), ; see also the chapter entitled Cavalry
Tactics: in Brent Nosworthy, The Anatomy of Victory: Battle Tactics
(New York, ), .
. For a discussion of the problems connected with loading, ring, and reloading
muzzle-loading intlock muskets even from the ground, see Anthony Kemp,
Weapons and Equipment of the Marlborough Wars (Poole, Dorset, ), .
. Richard Hellie, Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy (Chicago, ),
.
. Ocherki istorii SSSR: Period feodalizma, ed. A. A. Novoselskii and N. V. Ustiugov
(Moscow, ), .
. Hellie, Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy, .
. Carol B. Stevens, Russias Wars of Emergence (London, ),
.
. Chandler, Art of Warfare, .
. Hellie, Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy, .
. L. G. Beskrovnyi, Strategiia i taktika russkoi armii, in Poltava: K -letiiu Poltavskogo srazheniia, ed. L. G. Beskrovnyi, B. B. Kafengauz, V. A. Diadichenko, and
N. I. Pavlenko (Moscow, ), ; Angus Konstam, Poltava : Russia Comes
of Age (New York, ), ; and idem, Peter the Greats Army, vol. , Cavalry
(London, ), , .
. This term is derived from the French word dragon, which may have been the name
of a type of rearm that the French army used (possibly because it had the design
of a dragon on it).
. Chandler, Art of Warfare, .
. M. D. Rabinovich, Polki petrovskoi armii, : Kratkii spravochnik (Moscow,
), ; M. D. Rabinovich, Sudby sluzhilykh liudei starykh sluzhb i odnodvortsev v period formirovaniia reguliarnoi armii v nachale XVIII st.: avtoreferat
dissertatsii (Moscow, ), , as cited in John Keep, Soldiers of the Tsar: Army
and Society in Russia, (Oxford, ), ; and M. D. Rabinovich,

102

.
.

.
.
.
.

.
.

.
.

.
.
.
.
.

ostrowski
Formirovanie reguliarnoi russkoi armii nakanune Severnoi voiny, in Voprosy
voennoi istorii Rossii: XVIII i pervaia polovina XIX v., ed. V. I. Shunkov et al.
(Moscow, ), .
Rabinovich, Polki petrovskoi armii, ; cf. George T. Denison, A History of
Cavalry: From the Earliest Times, nd ed. (London, ), .
Kratkoe polozhenie s nuzhneishimi obiavlenii pri uchenii (konnogo) dragunskogo
stroiu kako pri tom postupati i vo osmotrenii imeti gospodam vyshnim otserom
prochim nachalnym i uriadnikom i uchiti na koniakh stoistvom kak posleduet,
in Voennye ustavy Petra Velikogo, ed. N. L. Rubinshtein (Moscow, ), .
Beskrovnyi, Russkaia armiia i ot v XVIII veke, .
Rabinovich, Polki Petrovskoi armii, ; Volynskii, Postepennoe razvitie russkoi
reguliarnoi konnitsy; Konstam, Peter the Greats Army, .
Beskrovnyi, Russkaia armiia i ot v XVIII veke, .
In the spring of Johann Reinhard Patkul arrived in Moscow and spent three
weeks consulting with Peter and Field Marshal Fedor Golovin. In a memorandum
to Peter, he recommended the advantages of dragoons over straight cavalry, stating that they were much handier in the eld, and cheaper. See N. G. Ustrialov,
Istoriia tsarstvovaniia Petra Velikogo, vols. (St. Petersburg, ), vol. ,
pt. : Prilozhenie, p. . Patkul was probably merely agreeing with a decision
that had already been made. Fuller points out that Peters cavalry contained no
heavy unitsno cuirassiers or carbineers. See William C. Fuller, Jr., Strategy and
Power in Russia (New York, ), . Ellis attributed the creation of
dragoon regiments rather than heavier shock troops to the shortage of adequate
mounts. See John Ellis, Cavalry: The History of Mounted Warfare (Edinburgh,
), . The only evidence he cites, however, is Ivan Pososhkovs statement in a
memorandum stating that cavalrymen would show up on poor nags.
Denison, History of Cavalry, .
Kniga Ustav voinskii: o dolzhnosti generalov, felt marshalov, i vsego Generaliteta,
i protchikh chinov, kotorye pri voiske nadlezhat byt, i o inykh voinskikh delakh, i
povedeniiakh, chto kazhdomu chinit dolzhno (St. Petersburg, ), .
Robert I. Frost, The Northern Wars: War, State, and Society in Northeastern Europe,
(Harlow, England, ), .
Nosworthy, Anatomy of Victory, . Cf. Chandler, Art of War, ; Frost, Northern
Wars, ; and Gunnar Artus, Karolinsk och europeisk stridstaktik
(Gothenburg, ), .
Alf berg, The Swedish Army from Ltzen to Narva, in Swedens Age of Greatness,
, ed. Michael Roberts (New York, ), .
For a general discussion of the claim that Charles XII was too impetuous, see Frost,
Northern Wars, .
See Artus, Karolinsk, .
berg, Swedish Army, .
berg, Swedish Army, , .

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. All dates are according to the Old Style. The Russian calendar was then eleven days
behind the Gregorian. Sweden was using a transitional calendar that was ten days
behind the Gregorian calendar.
. According to berg, the Swedish army was trained to march up to thirty-two
kilometers a day. It could cover such a distance in part because nightly bivouacs
were already prepared for the soldiers at the end of each days march by dragoon
detachments. berg, Swedish Army, .
. Kuvaja placed the Swedish forces at ,. See Christer Kuvaja, Karolinska krigare
(Helsingfors, ), . Englund estimated the Russian forces in the
entrenchments at ,, with another , support militia. See Peter Englund,
The Battle of Poltava: The Birth of the Russian Empire (London, ), . Tarle
estimated the total Russian forces at ,, of which , were in fortied
siege positions. See E. V. Tarle, Severnaia voina i shvedskoe nashestvie na Rossiiu
(Moscow, ), .
. R. Nisbet Bain, Charles XII and the Collapse of the Swedish Empire (New York,
), ; R. M. Hatton, Charles XII of Sweden (London, ), . Bengtsson
placed the number at . See Frans G. Bengtsson, The Life of Charles XII: King of
Sweden , trans. Naomi Walford (London, ), .
. Kliuchevskii, Kurs, :.
. Quoted in Bain, Charles XII, .
. Zhurnal, ili Podennaia zapiska, blazhennyia i vechnodostoinyia pamiati Gosudaria
Imperatora Petra Velikogo s goda, dazhe do zakliucheniia Neishtatskogo mira,
vols. (St. Petersburg, ), :, translation my own.
. Frost, Northern Wars, .
. Kniga Ustav voinskii, : ot dobrago poriadku.
. Ustrialov, Istoriia tsarstvovaniia Petra Velikogo, vol. , pt. , p. , no. .
. Konstam, Poltava , . Some historians put the number of carts at ,;
others at ,. Dorrell put it at , carts and , horses. Dorrell, Dawn of
the Tsarist Empire, .
. Frost, Northern Wars, .
. Massie estimated the number of Russian troops at Lesnaia at ,, but later
wrote that only , on each side engaged. See Robert K. Massie, Peter the
Great: His Life and World (New York, ), . Beskrovnyi placed the number of Swedes at Lesnaia at , and the number of Russian troops at ,.
See Beskrovnyi, Russkaia armiia, . Russian historians tend to provide high
estimates of the number of Swedes and low estimates of the number of Russians
in any particular battle. Swedish historians tend to do the reverse.
. Massie, Peter the Great, . Cf. Konstam, Poltava , ; and Dorrell, Dawn
of the Tsarist Empire, .
. Peter I, Pisma i bumagi Imperatora Petra Velikogo, vols. (St. Petersburg and
Moscow, ), vol. , pt. , no. .
. Massie, Peter the Great, .

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. Dorrell, Dawn of the Tsarist Empire, .


. Frost, Northern Wars, .
. Konung Karl XII:s egenhndiga bref, ed. Ernst Carlson (Stockholm, ), ,
no. . According to Dorrell, , cavalry and , infantry (a total of ,
troops) made it through. See Dorrell, Dawn of the Tsarist Empire, .
. See, e.g., Lt. Lyths description of Swedish men and horses dying of hunger during
October . Joachim Lyth, Joachim Mathiae Lyths Dagbok (Stockholm, ),
; and the English diplomat James Jeeryes, who was a volunteer in the Swedish army: tis thought we have lost more in this ramble than if we had given the
ennemy a battle. Quoted from Captain James Jeeryess Letters to the Secretary
of State, Whitehall, from the Swedish Army, , ed. Ragnhild Hatton,
Historiska Handlingar , no. (): .
. Englund, Battle of Poltava, .
. Hatton placed the number at men killed and wounded. Hatton, Charles
XII, . berg claimed that , ocers and men were killed or wounded.
berg, Swedish Army, .
. Du y, Russias Military Way to the West, .
. Eugene Schuyler, Peter the Great: Emperor of Russia, vols. (New York, ), :
.
. Beskrovnyi, Strategiia i taktika russkoi armii, .
. Chandler, Art of Warfare, .
. A. A. Vasilev, O sostave russkoi i shvedskoi armii v Poltavskom srazhenii, Voennoistoricheskii zhurnal, no. (): . Vasilev provided the number , but
adds regiments and squadrons ( shkvadron equals men).
. Dorrell, Dawn of the Tsarist Empire, .
. In the decree of February , each dragoon regiment was set at , men.
. Englund, Battle of Poltava, .
. Beskrovnyi, Strategiia i taktika russkoi armii, .
. Vasilev, O sostave russkoi i shvedskoi armii, .
. Konstam, Poltava , .
. Dorrell, Dawn of the Tsarist Empire, .
. Konstam, Poltava , ; Dorrell, Dawn of the Tsarist Empire, . Subsequently
(ibid., ), Dorrell gave the number of Swedish infantry as , (i.e., Konstams
gure).
. berg, Swedish Army, ; cf. Konstam, Poltava , .
. Artus, Karolinsk och europeisk stridstaktik, .
. Peter I, Pisma i bumagi, vol. , pt. , .
. I will follow Dorrells numbering of the redoubts, such that the six redoubts running across the Swedish line of march are numbered to , with no. being farthest
from the Russian camp. The four redoubts running perpendicular are numbered
to , with no. being closest to the Swedish line.
. According to Hatton and Massie, e.g., after the Swedish command saw the redoubts

peters dragoons

.
.
.
.
.
.
.

.
.

.
.

105

that had been constructed that night (although the ones closest to the Swedish
line were still unnished), they decided to regroup the infantry into ve columns
to facilitate passage past the redoubts. See Hatton, Charles XII, ; Massie,
Peter the Great, . In contrast, Bengtsson, Konstam, and Dorrell wrote that
the Swedes remained in four infantry columns, but that after the advance began,
two battalions from the center-right column (Rooss command) joined the far
right column (Lewenhaupts command) while two battalions from the center-left
column (Rehnskilds command) joined the center-right column. See Bengtsson,
Life of Charles XII, ; Konstam, Poltava , ; and Dorrell, Dawn of the
Tsarist Empire, .
[Carl Gustav Roos], Gen. Major Roses Relation, Historiska Handlingar, , no.
(): .
Massie, Peter the Great, . Dorrell claimed there were regiments of regular
cavalry. Dorrell, Dawn of the Tsarist Empire, .
Massie, Peter the Great, . Cf. Konstam, Poltava , ; and Dorrell,
Dawn of the Tsarist Empire, .
[Roos], Gen. Major Roses Relation, .
Massie, Peter the Great, .
See Dorrell, Dawn of the Tsarist Empire, .
Gustaf Petri, Slaget vid Poltava, Karolinska Frbundets rsbok, , ; Bengtsson, Life of Charles XII, ; Konstam, Poltava , ; Massie, Peter the Great,
. If the total number of infantry that began the march on the redoubts was
, (Konstams number) split into battalions (an average of men each),
then the , gure seems likely, given that Roos began with four battalions but
then was joined by two battalions from Stakenburgs column at the redoubts.
Bengtsson, Life of Charles XII, .
According to the Swedish lieutenant, Friedrich Christoph von Weihe, Swedish
troops on the left ran forward with death in their eyes and were in large part
mown down by the thunderous Russian cannon before they could employ their
muskets. See Ljtnanten Fr. Chr. von Weihes Dagbok , ed. Ernst Carlson,
Historiska Handlingar , no. (): .
berg, Swedish Army, . A belated attempt by Rehnskild to call up the Swedish artillery just before the nal assault failed.
Massie put the number of Swedish infantry at ,, but Lewenhaupt, in his report
of the battle, estimated the Swedes had only around ,. See Hatton, Charles
XII, .
Massie estimated ,. Massie, Peter the Great, . Lewenhaupt estimated
,. See Hatton, Charles XII, . Hatton (ibid.) estimated ,. Konstams
estimate tallies with that of Lewenhaupt. Konstam, Poltava , .
Konstams number. Lewenhaupt estimated cannon. See Hatton, Charles XII,
. Dorrell placed the number of cannon at . Dorrell, Dawn of the Tsarist
Empire, . Massie estimated cannon. Massie, Peter the Great, . This is

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about half the number of cannon the Russians had at Narva, but in contrast to
Narva, at Poltava the Russians had ample shot and a more or less clear view of the
eld of action.