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The Great Northern War
Sunday, 18 October 2015
Johan Brask and Otto Magnus Wolffelt
Topic: Factoids

In Swedish history books it's often stated that the news about the Saxon attack on Riga reached Charles XII through a courier sent by Governor General Dahlbergh. This was long ago proven to be wrong (see my blog entry for 6 December 2012). Because of some incoming letters in the archive of the Estonian Governor General it is possible to follow the "winner", Captain Otto Magnus Wolffelt a bit further. 

On 7 March 1700 Charles XII sent out his first orders for the mobilization of the army. The daring Wolffelt was given the task of bringing the orders to Finland. On 19 March Johan Ribbing, commander of the Nyland and Tavastehus cavalry regiment, wrote to Governor General de la Gardie that he had just received the King's orders through Captain Wolffelt. Captain Brask seems to have been far behind - on 24 April 1700 Otto Vellingk informed Charles XII that Brask had arrived in Reval on the 19th with the King's letter dated 29 March. 



EAA (Tartu), EAA  1.2.284

Riksarkivet (Stockholm), Livonica II, vol. 192


Posted by bengt_nilsson at 7:49 PM MEST
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Sunday, 28 December 2014
Carl Gustaf Skytte again
Topic: Factoids

Some days ago my attention was drawn to the article (or rather part of an article) in Svenskt Biografiskt Lexikon (Swedish Biographical Dictionary) which covers Carl Gustaf Skytte and the Skytte family. About Skytte's career during the first half of GNW the following is stated:

"1697 utnämndes S till kommendant i Dorpat och överste för ett värvat livländskt infanteriregemente. S blev ansvarig för förstärkningen av fästningen i Dorpat, som han framgångsrikt försvarade mot ryska angrepp. 1703 lyckades S besegra en överlägsen rysk styrka vid Wimarski, men följande år blev Dorpat belägrat av ryska trupper. S tvingades efter ett hjältemodigt försvar att kapitulera, och trots löfte om fritt uttåg fördes han till Reval och kvar-hölls en längre tid i rysk fångenskap. Han frigavs och blev 1706 utnämnd till generalmajor i infanteriet och fortsatte att delta i försvaret av Baltikum. Han var 1708 förlagd till Kurland och sändes följande år med sitt regemente till Litauen." 

The most interesting part here concerns the Russian attack on Dorpat 1704, which roughly translates as "Skytte was forced to surrender after a heroic defense. Despite promises of free passage he was brought to Reval and kept as a Russian prisoner for a long time. He was released and was in 1706 appointed Major General and continued to take part in the defense of the Baltic provinces."

Now, Svenskt Biografiskt Lexikon is generally considered to be the most important Swedish reference work of its kind. It has been published since the late 1910's and the articles have over the years been written by some of the foremost experts we have (and have had). The part about Skytte is, particularly in light of this, absolutely awful. For starters - how could Skytte possibly have been a Russian prisoner of war in Reval in 1704?? The town wasn't captured by them until 1710... What makes things even worse is that Svenskt Biografiskt Lexikon works out of the Riksarkivet building in Stockholm - with literally hundreds of Skytte letters right under their feet (to Schlippenbach, to Charles XII, to Governor Generals Dahlbergh and Frölich and so on). In fact, not even this would have been necessary - Skytte's so called "journal" of the siege was printed in 1916 and it contains sufficient information for avoiding such a mistake.

As for Skytte's "heroic defense" there were obviously other opinions (as I have mentioned before), but such opinions are symptomatic of what happens when too much weight is given to works which are based only on the writings of one side  - in this case Skytte himself.

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 9:32 PM CET
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Wednesday, 11 September 2013
Common misunderstandings
Topic: Factoids

It is always interesting to take a look at how the Great Northern War (GNW) is described in new history books. Recently I happened to come across a recently published work, which is intended for history students at university level. The GNW had only been given a few pages, but the authors still manage to make quite a few remarkable mistakes:

1.  Denmark, Saxony-Poland and Russia strengthened their relations, supported by the nobility of Livonia, jointly attacked Sweden in 1700. Saxony and Russia certainly attacked, with some unofficial military support from Lithuania and Poland, but there was no formal state of war between Sweden and Poland. Denmark only attacked the Duke of Holstein.

2. Sweden, supported by the Dutch and the English, rapidly defeated Denmark and forced the Danes to sign a separate peace treaty. Yes, but the treaty was with the Duke of Holstein as Sweden, the Netherlands and England only acted in accordance with their position as guarantors of the Treaty of Altona in 1689.

3. After Narva Charles XII decided to attack Poland.  He rather decided to march into Poland in order to put added pressure on the Poles to support the idea of dethroning Augustus II. There was at that time no state of war between the two countries.

4. After the dethronement of Augustus Poland became a vassal state to Sweden. It was certainly the intention, but Charles never got that far.

5. While Charles was busy in Poland the Czar managed to reach the Baltic, where he built ports and towns. Hardly "towns" in plural...

6. In the autumn of 1707, after the peace with Poland... Which undoubtedly refers to the Treaty of Altranstadt, which of course wasn't a peace treaty with Poland.

7. The Russians defended by burning their own land. It may possibly be true of certain areas west of Smolensk, but in 1707-08 the Russian army mostly defended itself on the territory of Poland-Lithuania.

8. An uprising in Poland tied down some units of the Swedish army.  Those opposing Charles had of course not recognized Stanislaw, so the armed struggle was ongoing. It also seems possible that the main reason for leaving Krassow's corps in Poland was distrust of Augustus, i.e. it should act as a deterrent against any attempt by him to make a comeback.

9. After his return to Sweden in December 1715 Charles XII refused to get involved in the diplomatic game, which the Council had advocated during nearly 10 years. The Council played no independent role in foreign policy until 1709 and the King certainly did not turn away from diplomacy - he only followed (through Goertz) a different agenda.

Of these mistakes no 1 and 2 are extremely common in Swedish literature. Almost nobody seem to understand why the Dutch and the English got involved and in what capacity they (and Sweden) acted. 


Posted by bengt_nilsson at 6:50 PM MEST
Updated: Wednesday, 11 September 2013 9:08 PM MEST
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Saturday, 8 June 2013
An unwillingness to delegate?
Topic: Factoids

Recently I was given the opportunity to write a review of a recently published book on the Great Northern War. At one point the author of this books claims that Charles XII lacked an understanding of what efficient military leaderhip requires and that he was unwilling to delegate responsibility. This is a charge that has been repeated in various forms many times, but does it really stand up to scrutiny?

In 1950 Hugo Uddgren published the second part of his study of Adam Ludvig Lewenhaupt as military commander during the period 1703-1709. He mentions one example from 1706, when the main army was encamped near Grodno. On 21 January 1706 Charles XII wrote to Lewenhaupt, telling him that he should consider the possibility of attacking the Russians in Courland. However, the King added, he left the matter for Lewenhaupt to decide. The letter reached Riga a month later and Lewenhaupt replied that it had been his intention to support the King's Grodno operation, but unfortunately it would not be possible due to the weakness of the Swedish cavalry and the bad weather.  At about the same time Charles XII sent a new order to Lewenhaupt, this time in more definite terms:he should march into Courland and Samogitia and would be supported by 10 000 Poles that were marching on Kaunas. On 8 March Lewenhaupt replied, telling Charles that he unfortunately would have to refuse. Interestingly enough this had no negative consequences for Lewenhaupt. Uddgren concludes (roughly translated): "This episode Charles XII - Lewenhaupt tells us a lot about the character and temperament of the two men. The orders from the former to his subordinate seem to have been characterized by confidence and understanding. He avoided giving direct orders and limited himself to general directions, respecting the judgment of the individual commanders"

A few months ago I studied the relationship between Charles XII and the commander in Ingria 1700-1703, Major General Cronhjort. The letters between the two corraborates Uddgren's conclusions. The King gave Cronhjort very firm orders as long as the Royal Army remained in Livonia, but once it had crossed the Daugava he almost totally stopped interfering with Cronhjort's dispositions. Indeed, one of the final letters dealing with such matters is dated as early as 14 June 1701. It is a reply to Cronhjort's question about how to conduct operations in light of the fact that the Russians had crossed the border at multiple points. The King wrote (roughly translated): We have already given you full powers of command, so instead of telling you what to do We leave the matter for you to decide as you see fit and consider to be in Our best interest." 


Riksarkivet, Riksregistraturet
Uddgren, H., Karolinen Adam Ludvig Lewenhaupt. II. - Stockholm, 1950



Posted by bengt_nilsson at 1:45 PM MEST
Updated: Saturday, 8 June 2013 9:57 PM MEST
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Thursday, 6 December 2012
Who told the King?
Topic: Factoids

In almost every book about the Great Northern War it's stated that the report about the attack on Riga reached Charles XII through a courier sent by Governor General Dahlbergh in Riga. The courier, captain Johan Brask, left Riga on 12 February 1700 and presumably arrived in Kungsör on 6 March 1700 after travelling on land around the Bay of Bothnia. It would seem most remarkable to make such a long journey in just about three weeks.

Oddly enough almost nobody seems to have noticed an article by the Finnish historian Arvo Viljanti, who in 1939 pointed out that this version is contradicted by a Royal letter sent to Governor General Axel Julius de la Gardie on 9 March. In this it's stated that the news reached the King through a letter sent by de la Gardie on 19 February and that Brask has not yet arrived. De la Gardie's courier captain Otto Magnus Wolffeldt apparently went around the Gulf of Finland just like Brask, but instead of following his path chose a more dangerous but much faster route via the Åland Islands.


Viljanti, A., Suomen rykmenttien liikekannallepano ja marssi Liivinmaalle v. 1700 // Historiallinen arkisto. - 45(1939). - S. 303-356

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 5:33 PM CET
Updated: Thursday, 6 December 2012 5:34 PM CET
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