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The Polish kingdom
Link with Lithuania
16th - 17th century
18th - 19th century
     Baltic campaigns
     Augustus II and III
     Three partitions of Poland

1815 - 1939
20th century
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Baltic campaigns: 1700-1706

The Northern War, often called the Great Northern War, distributes the coastline of the Baltic among the neighbouring nations in a manner which lasts into the 20th century.

Provoked by Sweden's dominant position, and launched in 1700 by an act of concerted aggression against Sweden by the kings of Poland and Denmark and the tsar of Russia, the war seems at first to give conclusive proof that Sweden fully deserves her pre-eminence in the region. The early Swedish successes are in large part due to the energy and military genius of the young king, Charles XII, eighteen years old in 1700 and three years into his reign.


The concerted attack on Swedish territory during 1700 takes place in three regions. In February the Polish king, Augustus II, moves north to besiege the port of Riga. A month later the Danish king, Frederick IV, marches south into Swedish possessions in Schleswig-Holstein. In August the Russian tsar, Peter the Great, brings an army west to attack the port of Narva.

Charles XII deals with each in turn, scoring rapid hits against his multiple enemies almost in the manner of a lone hero in a western. First, in August 1700, he ferries an army across the water to the island of Sjaelland, landing a few miles from Copenhagen. By the end of the month the Danes have withdrawn from the war.


In October Charles lands with 10,000 men at Pärnu, a point from which he can move south to relieve Riga or east to the defence of Narva. He selects as his first target the Russians besieging Narva. An attack in November on the tsar's fortified encampment, containing 23,000 soldiers, is entirely successful. Peter the Great withdraws from the immediate fray (giving himself a lull which he will use to excellent effect, establishing a naval base in the Gulf of Finland).

Meanwhile Charles is able to give his full attention to the Polish king, Augustus II, who is also the elector of Saxony.


Over the next six years the victories of Charles XII over Augustus the Strong are devastating. The Saxons are driven back across the Daugava river in the summer of 1701, ending their threat to Riga. Charles XII reaches and enters Warsaw in May 1702. He defeats Augustus two months later in a battle further south in Poland, at Kliszow.

In 1704 Charles persuades the Poles to depose Augustus and to elect in his place a Polish noble as Stanislaw I. In 1706 the Swedish king completes the humiliation of Augustus by marching into Saxony to impose a treaty signed at Altranstädt.


Augustus II and III: 1696-1763

Augustus later recovers his Polish throne, in 1709, with the help of Peter the Great of Russia. Well aware of the danger of Russian dominance, Augustus attempts during the rest of his reign to reduce the implicit threat to Poland. But on his death, in 1733, it is again with Russian help that his son Augustus III wins the throne in the War of the Polish Succession (1733-8) against the claim of Stanislaw I (who ruled from 1704 to 1709).

In two long reigns, from 1696 to 1763, the Saxon kings of Poland preside over a time of chaos and economic weakness. In Europe's wars of 1740-48 and 1756-63 the kingdom is trapped (ominously for its future) between three major players - Prussia, Austria and Russia.


On the death of Augustus III, in 1763, the succession to the Polish throne is yet again decided by the Russian ruler - by now the empress Catherine II. Her troops are in Poland to ensure the election, in 1764, of Stanislaw II. One of her lovers, he has lived in St Petersburg for the past seven years.

During Stanislaw's reign Russian policy towards Poland becomes increasingly brutal, with Russian troops even terrorizing members of the sejm on important occasions. Stansilaw contrives, against the odds, to keep a sophisticated and civilized court in Warsaw. But Poland steadily shrinks during his reign, partitioned between his neighbours.


Three partitions of Poland: 1772-1796

Over a period of a quarter of a century Poland is dismembered and consumed by her neighbours. The process begins during the confusion of a war between Russia and Turkey. In 1769 Austria takes the opportunity of occupying part of Poland, to the south of Cracow.

Frederick the Great follows suit in 1770, sending troops to seal off the coastal region between the two main parts of his realm (Brandenburg and the kingdom of Prussia). This valuable area, known as Polish royal Prussia, has long been part of the Polish kingdom. Frederick claims that he is acting only in precaution against an outbreak of cattle plague. But acquiring royal Prussia would neatly unify his territory.


The first official annexation of Polish land is cynically agreed in 1772 between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Russia, at war with Turkey, has an interest in keeping Prussia and Austria in benign mood. She accepts the proposal that each of them should annexe part of Poland. Russia's influence in the kingdom means that she can force acceptance of the arrangement on the Poles.

By the treaties of 1772 Austria acquires the region round Lvov. Frederick secures royal Prussia (with the exception at this stage of the port of Gdansk). And Russia takes a slice of northeast Poland.


The next two partitions occur when Russia finds new excuses to intervene in Poland's internal affairs. Russian armies enter the kingdom during a disturbance in 1792, and are on hand again to tackle a national insurrection in 1794.

On both occasions Polish armies offer strong resistance to superior Russian forces. But force prevails. After a two-month siege, and a massacre of Poles in the suburbs, Warsaw falls in September 1794 to a combined Russian and Prussian army.


The second partition, agreed in 1793, benefits only Prussia and Russia. Prussia now receives Gdansk and a swathe of land stretching south almost to Cracow. Russia takes a vast slice of eastern Poland, amounting to some 97,000 square miles.

This is greater than the territory which Poland now retains, in a strip from the Baltic coast down to Cracow and Brody. A few years later, in treaties of 1795 and 1796, this final Polish remnant is divided between the three predators. Prussia is extended east to include Warsaw. The Austrian frontier moves north to the same area. Once again the lion's share, in the east, goes to Russia.


The effect of the three partitions on the citizens of Poland is that some 23% are now under Prussian rule, 32% are in the Austrian empire, and 45% are subject to the tsar. In geographical terms the new Prussian and Austrian territory approximates to the original kingdom of Poland. Lithuania has been absorbed into Russia.

The third partition, in 1796, occurs on the eve of the Napoleonic era. The great conqueror, changing the face of Europe, brings new hope to the Poles. And indeed, in the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, a grand duchy of Warsaw is created from the territories annexed by Prussia. But the final peace terms, agreed at Vienna in 1815, prove profoundly disappointing to the Poles.


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