Scene for the greatest military defeat in Swedish history.
In the beginning of the 18th century Sweden was a European military superpower. King Karl XII lead Karolinerna, the best trained and equipped army of that time through northern Europe. After defeating a four times larger Russian army at the famous battle of Narva (Estonia) in 1700 and burning and pillaging the Polish countryside during the following years Karl XII decided to finish off the Russian Bear once and for all.
Later military leaders have made the same mistake. (read Napoleon, Hitler]
After replacing the Polish King August II with a Swedish puppet king Karl XII marched his 44.000 veteran soldiers straight towards Moscow, flags flying and drums rolling. It was the autumn of 1708. Victory was at hand!
But an army this size needs plenty of food and clothes. Russian Tsar Peter the Great who had no chance of victory on the battlefield engaged in guerilla warfare, ordering his own soldiers to burn all villages during their retreat and sending out small raiding parties to cut off the Swedish supply lines. After an unusually harsh winter the Swedish were short on supplies and the soldiers began dying.
After defeating 38.000 Russians at Holowczyn the Swedish army was forced south toward the fertile Ukrainan plains.
June 1709. 22.000 Karoliner face 45.000 Russians outside the city of Poltava. The Russians are trapped between the Swedish and the river Vorskla. King Karl XII develops a bold plan to attack the enemy just before dawn and take them by surprise. The Swedish army was in a bad state at this time. They had food for only a few days more and after nine years in the field the men were tired and weak. A final blow had to come now!
King Karl XII had been shot in the foot and suffered from fever the morning of the attack, so the command was given to Carl Gustav Rhensköld. For the first time the Swedish King did not lead his countrymen in battle.
Early in the morning of June 28 the moment of surprise was lost before the Swedish cavalry was in place. Under heavy artillery fire Rhensköld made the decision; attack without the cavalry.
After a couple of hours of battle the Swedish were forced to a retreat. Both armies regrouped and formed battle formations on the plains below Poltava in preparation for a last battle. Only 4.000 Karoliner and 4 cannons remained to face the 22.000 soldiers and 100 cannons of Tsar Peter. The Swedish lines of infantry started marching slowly towards the flaming Russian barrels and could have won the battle if not for the absence of the 200 remaining Swedish cavalry who were fighting Russian troops by the river.
Instead the Swedish lost the battle of Poltava and 20.000 soldiers in a few hours. Another 20.000 soldier's wives and children, civilians and captured soldiers were taken prisoner and spread as slaves across Russia. Only a few hundred managed to get back to Sweden after many hard years.
King Karl XII himself managed to flee to the Turkish city of Bender and later returned to Sweden.