Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Battle Miss-Remembered
Poltava 1709

Battle of Poltava

In a previous post I mentioned and reviewed a rather unpleasant example of the bias of the Military Historian J. F. C. Fuller,1. Here I will discuss one of Fuller's less than stellar feats in the description of a decisive battle.

In this case it is Fuller's description of the battle of Poltava in 1709.2 In that battle Peter the Great of Russia decisively defeated Charles XII of Sweden and a few days later captured the remnants of the Swedish army and thus firmly established Russia as a great power and ended Sweden's short career as one.3

Now Charles XII is usually thought of as a great military genius and his crushing defeat at Poltava came at the end of a truly spectacular series of campaigns which saw Charles repeatedly defeat much larger armies.4 Russia was at the time not taken all that seriously has a power and people were basically quite blown away by Charles' quite spectacular military successes.5

Russia was meanwhile dismissed because of Charles' quite spectacular victory at Narva in 1700 during which a Swedish army outnumbered more than 4 to 1 crushed a much larger Russian Army.6

Afterwards Charles turned his attention to Poland where he sought to dethrone the current Polish king Augustus II and replace him with his own candidate Stanislaus. This was probably a mistake in that Augustus was perfectly willing after a few defeats to make peace but Charles would settle for nothing less than Augustus being deposed.7 The result was that Charles was involved for years in a interminable war in Poland.

In the meanwhile Peter recovered  quickly from his disastrous defeat at Narva. And while Charles was campaigning in Poland Peter conquered much of the Swedish possessions in the southern Baltic. Including capturing Narva in 1704 and founding St. Petersburg in 1703 at the mouth of the Neva river.8

When in late 1706 Charles finally forced Augustus to agree to being deposed. Peter was not surprisingly, given Charles' truly remarkable military successes not willing to face him one on one and proposed negotiations. The only thing Peter was not prepared to give up was St. Petersburg and Russian access to the Baltic. Charles was however not willing to negotiate at all and sought to crush Peter.9

Also Charles incredible military successes enabled him to raise the largest army of his career, (more than 40,000 men), in order to invade Russia.10

Further Charles decided to forgo a campaign to regain the lost Baltic regions from Russia and instead decided to invade Russia and dictate peace.11

Although Charles is considered a great military genius one of the most remarkable features of the subsequent prolonged campaign (1707 to 1709), is how Charles was basically outmatched and out manoeuvred and out thought etc., by Peter. I can't go into the details here but the end result was that Charles was isolated in the southern Ukraine with an army that had diminished by c. 1/2 over the winter, early spring of 1708 / 1709. Some of Charles' actions most notably a disastrous winter march played a powerful role in helping to deplete the Swedish army.12

The result was that at Poltava Charles endeavoured to get out of the dangerous strategic situation he was in by defeating the Russians. Instead Charles XII was defeated and few days later the remnants of his army was forced to capitulate. Charles escaping only with a small guard and some members of his entourage.

Now Sweden's position of being a Great Power was to put it bluntly extremely fragile. The Swedish economy and population simply were woefully insufficient to support such a status. The result was that Sweden was heavily dependent on foreign help and in the years that Sweden was a Great Power only good luck and sheer chance prevented the collapse of Swedish power. Charles XI, Charles XII's father had early in his reign come very close to presiding over a disastrous loss of Swedish power. Charles XI spent much of the rest of his reign massively strengthening both the monarchy and the military power of Sweden, which he did with great success, and in diplomatic efforts to prevent the formation of a coalition against Sweden.13

Swedish military power was bluntly extremely fragile. Unlike other great powers, one great defeat was enough to cause the collapse of the whole edifice. Which is what in fact happened.

In Fuller's description of the battle of Poltava it is important to remember that Fuller operated under certain assumptions that were to put it bluntly extremely dubious concerning Russia.

First Fuller accepted throughout the three volumes of his series.14 That Europe was frequently under attack by Asiatics. Thus the battle of Salamis was a victory of Europe over Asia. In this conception Asia is cast has the non-European "other". A force of despotism and oppression. Asia is cast has the eternal enemy of Europe and an eternal threat to Europe.15 This vision is essentially dualistic and Manichean, with the Europeans cast has the sons of light against the Asiatics has the sons of darkness. Further Fuller basically dumps all Asiatics into the same stew as a undifferentiated Asiatic "horde". In this mythos small European armies are constantly besting huge Asiatic "hordes". It is a standard Eurocentric trope and myth.

Russia fits into this because Fuller thought of Russia has a Asiatic power that was a threat to Europe. Russia was in Fuller's mind a dangerous Asiatic power not really European but a vast existential threat to Europe. And Europeans had to be constantly on their guard against this vast dangerous, "other" that threatened to spread "Asiatic" domination over Europe. Thus Fuller's three books are full of passages that reflect a belief that Russia / Asia was / is an existential threat to Europe, a looming menace to the sons of light by the sons of darkness. Russia / Asia was / is the eternal "other" to Europe.16

This of course affects Fuller's description of the battle of Poltava. We have to remember that Fuller views it as a contest between a small European army and a huge Russian Asiatic horde.

 Let us start with the question of numbers Fuller gives for the Russians the figure of 80,000 men which is a huge exaggeration.17 The actual figure seems to be between 32,000 - 42,000.18

Then Fuller gives the figures for the Swedish army as 12,500 men.19 In actuality it appears that the Swedes had 17,000 - 20,000 men.20

Even with the Russian figures reduced and Swedish figures increased to more accurate levels it still is the case that the Russians out numbered the Swedes more than two to one. But not satisfied with the actual odds Fuller tries to turn it into 12,500 against 80,000. The huge Asiatic Russian horde against the tiny European army. Instead of odds of c. 2.2 to 1 Fuller replaces it with odds of c. 6.6 to 1. Thus the forces of European civilization go down to defeat before the huge hordes of Asiatic despotism in a heroic desperate stand for Europe.

Having doubled the size of Peter's army and reduced the size of Charles army by 1/3 Fuller also engages in a bit of subterfuge with maps. The map Fuller uses to illustrate the battle of Poltava is to put it bluntly bad and overly schematic.

Here it is.22

A much more accurate map is from Massie.23

The first map is obviously inferior to the bottom map in detail and accuracy but the first map with the huge size of the Russian camp serves to illustrate quite clearly the idea of the huge Asiatic Russian horde against the tiny European army.

As for the battle itself Fuller's description is not the best. To give an example Fuller describes the following:
It would appear that immediately after this [The Swedish command forming up in front of the Russian camp.] there occurred the much disputed incident of the whole battle. While Roos was surrounded and Charles formed up in the plain, Lewenhaupt with the centre, broke through the lines of redoubts, entered the plain, and was about to advance against the western side of Peter's entrenched camp and storm it, when an order - so he says - from "a loyal servant of the King" to halt. though amazed and indignant, for he believed that he had victory within his grasp, he had no option but to obey it.24
Well for one thing Peter ordered his troops to surround and crush Roos after Lewenhaupt's withdrawal not during it or before.25 For another the idea that Lewenhaupt with under 3,000 men could storm the Russian camp and rout the c. 25,000 infantry in there is absurd. Probably instead Lewenhaupt's infantry would have been cut to pieces.26

Fuller again in pursuit of his idea of the huge Asiatic Russian horde claims that Peter led 40,000 men out of his camp to confront the Swedish attack of c. 4,000 infantry.27 With the casualties that the Swedes had suffered, (Including the complete destruction of the battalions commanded by Roos, c. 2,600 men.), it is possible the Swedish infantry numbered as little has 4,000 at this time. 28.

However Fuller once again doubles the actual figure for the Russian. The actual figure was 22,-24,000 men with 70-100 cannon, not including cannon in the Russian camp.29

Not content with the actual frightful odds against the Swedes Fuller turns 4-5 to 1 odds to 10 to 1 odds.

Not surprisingly, the rather hopeless, gallant and foolhardy Swedish attack was quickly and thoroughly crushed by the Russians.30

Fuller gives the following figures for casualties. The Swedes suffered c. 3,000 dead and wounded and c. 2,800 prisoners. According to Fuller the Russians suffered 1,300 casualties.31 Well the figure for prisoners is accurate but the other figures are simply wrong. Firstly the Swedish army suffered at least 6,000 dead with another 1,500 wounded. How many were wounded among the Swedish prisoners is not known. As for the Russians they suffered 1,345 killed and 3,290 wounded, for a total of 4,635. Considering the size of the Russian army this was a crushing victory at a fairly moderate price. Thus excluding prisoners the Swedes suffered a minimum of 7,000 casualties. In fact the losses for the Swedes out of the original force that started the battle, 17-19,000 were at a minimum 9,800 over half of the force committed.32 The Russians had crushed the Swedish army and they shortly would capture the great majority of the rest of it.33

If Fuller gets the number of Swedish prisoners right he gets the casualties of dead and wounded wrong. In fact his figure for the number of Swedish dead and wounded is well under 1/2 the actual casualties. How did Fuller do this? I don't have a clue, but then diminishing Swedish casualties could serve to deflect attention from how crushing the defeat actually was. Certainly Fuller seems to have read the figure of 1,345 dead for the Russians has total Russian casualties, not just Russian dead.

Thus in the end Swedish casualties were more than double Russian casualties and Swedish dead more than 4 times Russian dead. And if we take into account the different sizes of the Russian and Swedish army the difference in proportions is extreme with the Swedes suffering more than 4 times the proportion of the Russian losses. Victory is rarely has one sided as that. But it appears Fuller worked to make the victory less over whelming and one sided.

So it appears that Fuller distorted his account of the battle of Poltava at least in part due to a misleading mythos about Europe v. Asia and in part because of a misreading of the source material. The odds against the Swedes were formidable in reality but Fuller decided that wasn't good enough and produced this misleading account of the battle in the service of his ideological needs.

1. See Here.

2. Fuller, J. F. C., A Military History of the Western World, v. 2, Da Capo, New York, 1955, pp. 161-186.

3. Frost, Robert I., The Northern Wars, Longman, Harlow, Essex England, 2000, pp. 294-296, Englund, Peter, The Battle that Shook Europe, I. B. Taurus, London, 2003, pp. 251-252, Anisimov, Evgenii V. The Reforms of Peter the Great, M. E. Sharpe, New York, 1993, pp. 123-139, Massie, Peter the Great, Random House, New York, 1980, pp.737-743.

4. Fuller, pp. 163-168, Frost, pp. 226-277, Englund, pp. 35-41, Massie, pp. 312-354, 399-426.

5. Massie, pp. 412-426.

6. Massie, pp. 328-338, Frost, pp. 229-230.

7. Massie, pp. 397-401, Frost, 263-271.

8. Massie, pp. 355-366, Anisimov, pp. 95-103.

9. Massie, pp. 421-422.

10. Englund, p. 45, gives a figure of 38,000 for June 1708. If we include the 6,000 that joined Charles from the Baltic region you get 44,000 men. See Massie, p. 452-453 and Fuller, p. 171.

11. Footnote 9.

12. Fuller, p.173, Massie, pp. 467-478. 

13. Englund, pp. 112-14, Frost, pp. 208-223.

14. Fuller, J. F. C., A Military History of the Western World, v. 1, 1954, v. 2, 1955, v. 3, 1956, all published by Da Capo, New York.

15. See IBID, v. 1, pp. 20-25, 26-52, 282-301, 335-350, v. 2, pp. 156-160, 221-242. For example.

16. See IBID, v. 2, pp. 156-160, 184-186. In fact Fuller refers to the battle of Poltava has "...a trial of strength between two civilizations, that of Europe and of Asia.", (p. 184). See also v. 2, p. 541, v. 3, pp. 331-338, 339-340, 362-363, 539-542, 589, 631-634. In fact Fuller says, (In volume 3.), that:
The Asiatic [The Russians] hordes are back in Germany, and this time they penetrated within the walls of Vienna. The wheel of history has turned full circle, and the threat that faces Europe to-day is not far removed from the threat that faced her in the days of Xerxes and Darius." (p. 634.)
and also Fuller says in v. 3:
What these men recognized was that Russia has never belonged to Europe; her civilization owes nothing to Latin culture; she never took part in the crusades, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Thirty Years War, and was unaffected by the discovery of the New World and the French Revolution. Since the battle of Poltava the Muscovites have been to Europeans "the Turks of the North" - the spearhead of the Asiatic threat to Europe. (p. 632) 
All of the above is bluntly highly questionable to put it mildly but does give the flavour of Fuller's attitude  towards Russia.

17. Fuller, p. 174.

18.  Anisimov, p. 119 gives a figure of 32,000 Russians, Massie, p. 489 gives a figure of 42, 000. Englund's figures, p. 86, gives a total of 40,500 men for the Russian army. The figures in Konstam, Angus, Poltava 1709, Osprey, London, 1994, p. 64 and 72 are the same has Englund's figures.

19. Fuller, p. 176.

20. Anisimov, p. 119, gives a figure of 20,000, Massie, p. 490 gives a figure of 19,000 men, Englund figures, p. 86, gives a total of 17,000 men. The Figures in Konstam, p. 65 are the same has Englund's figures.

21. Figures calculated by Author using Englund's figures.

22. Fuller, p. 177.

23. Massie, p. 488.

24. Fuller, p. 180-181.

25. Massie, pp. 498-499, Englund, pp. 108-124.

26. Massie, pp. 497-498. See also Englund, pp. 108-110. Frost pp. 290-292 thinks that Lewenhaupt was right. Sadly Frost takes Swedish descriptions of panic in the Russian camp seriously neglecting that Russian sources do not support this.

27. Fuller, p. 181.

28. Massie, pp. 501-502, Englund, p. 143. Massie, p. 502 gives a figure for the Swedes of c. 5,000 infantry.

29. Massie, p. 502, gives a figure of 24,000 and 70 cannon, Englund, p. 143, gives a figure of 22,000 and 100 cannon.

30. See Englund, pp. 148-167, Massie, pp. 502-506.

31, Fuller, p. 182.

32, Englund, pp. 204-205, gives figures of  gives figures of 6,900 dead 2,800 prisoners and 1,500 wounded, for a total of 11,200, Massie, p. 507, gives figures of 6,901 dead and wounded, (I suspect Massie counted the total Swedish dead has the total of dead and wounded.), along with 2,760 prisoners for a total of 9,661 which Massie rounds off to 10,000. Anisimov, pp. 122, says 9,000 swedes were buried on the battlefield. For Russian casualties. Englund, pp. 205-206 lists Russian casualties has 1,345 dead and 3,290 wounded, figures which are repeated by Massie, p. 507 and Anisimov p. 122.

33. Englund, pp. 240-247.

Pierre Cloutier

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