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Charles XII
Road To Glory
Winter Of Discontent
Grasping At Straws
The Battlefield
The Battle




Winter of Discontent.

The Battle of Lesnaya

Charles, now isolated, pinned all his hope on Mazeppa. The Cossack leader had finally declared for the Swedish king but a swift reprisal by the Tsar, in which he had sent General Menshikov to ravage the Zaporozhians homeland had made this alliance a hollow gesture. Mazeppa himself joined Charles at Horki with only a few thousand men, ‘ The insurrection then fizzled out, and the Swedish army was left like a lake in a desert, cut-off from all its feeding rivers.’[i]

Although the Ukraine was plentiful in grain, cattle, fruit and honey, the collecting and distribution of this manna from heaven proved difficult to collect as the coldest winter in living memory began to set in. The severity of the weather was such that the whole of Europe was caught in its icy grip. The Baltic Sea froze, the Rhône River in France froze over; in Venice the canals were coated in ice, while in the Ukraine itself spirit froze solid in the barrels and the birds fell dead from the sky.[ii]

The Swedes had settled into winter quarters encompassing the towns of Romny, Lokhvitsa, Pryluky and Gadyach, their regiments distributed throughout the area living in huts, barns and houses. Peter however did not intend them to remain long in their cantonments. His new tactics of harrying his enemy and keeping them off balance meant that the Swedes were always being called to arms by Russian feints and diversions. So angry did Charles become with these hit and run tactics that upon learning that the Russian army was approaching the town of Gadyach, and despite the bitter cold he immediately marched to confront them. As Charles moved on Gadyach, so the Russians set fire to the place and moved on Romny. The frost-covered Swedes, hoping for warm billets at Gadyach found that over one-third of the houses had been destroyed leaving scant shelter to accommodate their numbers:

‘If they failed to find some cranny in the ground the men had to stand outside in the extreme cold, under bare skies. People died in droves on the streets. The bodies of hundreds of frozen soldiers, servants, wives and children were collected up each morning, and all day sleds loaded with rigid corpses were driven off to be hidden in some hillside cavity. The field-surgeons worked round the clock. Barrels filled with amputated limbs taken from victims of frost-bite.’[iii]

A rough example of the conditions during the winter of 1708-9

Undeterred by the suffering around him Charles hit back at the Russians in early January 1709 striking at the town of Veprik, and then at the end of February, with only a few hundred men, he trounced several thousand Russians at Krosnokutsk, and again at Oposzanaya.[iv]

A sudden rise in temperature now put a stop to all operations, heavy rain turning the ground into a quagmire. The Swedes went into camp between the Psel and Vorskla rivers. Of the 40,000 troops at his disposal after the arrival of Lewenhaupt’s tattered band in October 1708, Charles’s command was now reduced to a mere 24,000, among whom were some 2,250 sick and wounded.[v]


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[i] Ibid, page 172

[ii] Ibid, page 172

[iii] Peter Englund, The Battle That Shook Europe, page 51

[iv] General J.F.C. Fuller, The Decisive Battles of the Western World, Vol. II, page 173

[v] Peter Englund, The Battle That Shook Europe, page 56


Copyright © 2004  Graham Morris. 
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