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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 By the end of the month the Danes have withdrawn from the war.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 Charles XII has a series of unbroken successes against Poland and Saxony, extending his already great control over the Baltic. By 1707 he is ready to attack Russia, now his only major opponent in the region.

Like other generals rash enough to march an army into Russia, Charles's fortunes are reversed by the harsh realities of winter. Defeat by the Russians at Poltava in 1709 proves a turning point. Sweden is already greatly weakened when Charles XII dies, still campaigning, in 1718.


Peace negotiations continue for three years after the death of Charles XII, and the final terms are a disaster for Sweden compared to the high hopes raised early in the war. Most of the Swedish possessions on the southern coast of the Baltic are now ceded to Prussia and to Hanover. And the commercial advantage of free passage through the Sound for Swedish goods is surrendered.

But the greatest blow is Sweden's loss to Russia. By the treaty of Nystad, in 1721, Peter the Great obtains the east Baltic coast from Vyborg down to Riga (a stretch in which he has already built himself St Petersburg). With these advantages Russia replaces Sweden as the leading power in the Baltic.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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