Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

Charles XII, the Firebrand of Sweden

On the 27th of June, 1682, was born one of the most extraordinary of men, the Alexander of modern times, one of those meteors of conquest which have appeared at rare intervals in the history of the world. Grandson alike of Charles X. of Sweden and Frederick III. of Denmark, Charles XII. of Sweden united in himself all the soldierly qualities of his ancestors, his chief fault being that he possessed them in too intense a degree, being possessed by a sort of military madness, an overweaning passion for great exploits and wide-spread conquests. In his career Sweden reached its greatest height of power, and with his death it fell back into its original peninsular status.

His daring activity began almost with his birth. At seven years of age he could manage a horse, and the violent exercises in which he delighted to indulge gave him the vigorous constitution necessary for the great fatigues of his later life, while he developed an obstinacy which made him a terror to his advisers in later years.

Charles was extraordinary in the fact that he performed the most remarkable of his exploits before he reached the age of manhood, and in a just sense may be given the name of the boy conqueror. His mother died when he was eleven years of age and his father when he was fifteen, his grandmother being appointed regent of the kingdom, with a council of five nobles for her advisers.

Sweden, when he came to the throne, had risen to a high rank among the powers of Europe. In addition to its original dominion, it possessed the whole of Finland, the finest part of Pomerania, on the southern shores of the Baltic, and also Livonia, Carelia, Ingria, Wismar, Viborg, the Duchies of Bremen and Verden, and other realms, all of long possession and secured by conquest and treaty. But it had dangerous enemies with whom to deal, especially Peter the Great of Russia, then bent on bringing his barbarian dominions into line with the great powers of the continent.

Such was the inheritance of the fifteen-year-old king, who quickly showed the material of which he was composed. One day in the first year of his reign, after reviewing a number of regiments, he was seen by his special favorite, Charles Piper, in a spell of abstraction.

"May I ask your Majesty," said Piper, "of what you are thinking so deeply?"

"I am thinking," replied the boy monarch, "that I am capable of commanding those brave fellows; and I don't choose that either they or I shall receive orders from a woman."

He referred in this irreverent and boastful speech to his grandmother, the regent.

He was crowned on the 24th of December following his father's death, the ceremony being performed by the archbishop of Upsala. But when the prelate, having anointed the prince in the customary manner, held the crown in his hand ready to put it upon the new king's head, Charles took it from his hand and crowned himself, his eyes fixed sternly upon the dismayed churchman. This act of self-willed insubordination was applauded by the people, who also received him with loud acclamations when he rode into Stockholm on a horse shod with silver and with a sceptre in his hand and a crown on his head. The oath of fidelity to his people, usual on such occasions, was not taken, and in fact Charles had no thought of being faithful to anything but his own ambitious designs and his obstinate self-will.

He soon showed his unfitness for the duties of quiet government. The money collected by his father was quickly squandered by him, and with the eagerness of an untutored boy he plunged into every kind of daring amusement that presented itself, risking his life in break-neck rides, mock fights, bear hunts, and other dangerous sports and exercises. He also gave much attention to military manoeuvres, his time being spent in all sorts of violent activities, with little thought to the duties of government, these being confided to his chief friend and confidant, Charles Piper.

The tidings of the manner in which the new king of Sweden occupied himself spread to the neighboring monarchs, who, fancying that they had nothing to fear from a frivolous and pleasure-loving boy, deemed this a good opportunity to recover some of the lands conquered from them by the preceding Swedish kings. A secret understanding to this effect was entered into by Frederick IV. of Denmark, King Augustus of Poland, and Peter the Great, czar of Russia, and the ball was opened early in 1700 by an invasion of Livonia on the part of the Polish king, while the Danes attacked Holstein-Gottorp, ruled by Charles's brother-in-law, taking Gottorp and laying siege to Tonnigen. Peter of Russia was the most dangerous of the three confederates, he being then full of the idea of introducing western civilization among his rude subjects and making Russia a sea power. To accomplish this he was eager to gain a foothold on the Baltic by the conquest of Finland.

The kingly conspirators, who had begun war against Sweden without a declaration, little dreamed of the hornet's nest they were arousing. Filled with consternation, some of the Swedish councillors of state proposed to avert the danger by negotiation. Charles, then a youth of eighteen and of whose real metal no one dreamed, listened to these words with a grave face, and then rose and spoke:

"Gentlemen, I am resolved never to begin an unjust war, nor ever to end a just one but by the destruction of my enemies. My resolution is fixed. I will attack the first that shall declare war against me, and having conquered him, I hope I shall be able to strike terror into the rest."

The old councillors were surprised by the resolute demeanor of the young king, who seemed suddenly transformed into a man before them. They little knew the boy. Familiar with the careers of Alexander and Cćsar, he was inspired with the ambition to attempt the rôle of a great conqueror and prove himself one of the world's ablest soldiers.

Forsaking his favorite sports, he set himself with intense energy to prepare for the war which had been precipitated upon him, and sent word to the Duke of Holstein that he would speedily come to his assistance, eight thousand men being at once despatched to Pomerania for this purpose. Instantly the natives were stirred up, Central Germany sending troops to reinforce the Danes, while England and Holland sent fleets to aid Sweden and seek to preserve the balance of power in the north.

Such were the preliminary steps to Charles's first great campaign, one of the most remarkable in the whole history of war. On the 8th of May, 1700, he left Stockholm, in which city he was never to set foot again. With a large fleet of Swedish, Dutch, and English vessels he proposed to attack Copenhagen, thus striking at the very citadel of Danish power. The assault began with a bombardment of the city, but, seeing that this was having little effect, Charles determined to attack it by land and sea, taking command of the land forces himself.

A landing was made at the village of Humlebek, Charles, in his impatience to land, leaping into the water, which came nearly to his waist, and wading ashore. Others followed his example, the march through the waves being made amid a shower of bullets from the enemy. Springing to land, the young king waved his sword joyously above his head and asked Major Stuart, who reached the shore beside him, what was the whistling sound he heard.

"It is the noise of the musket balls which they are firing at your Majesty," said the major.

"That is the very best music I ever heard," he replied, "and I shall never care for any other as long as I live."

As he spoke, a bullet struck the major in the shoulder and on his other side a lieutenant fell dead, but Charles escaped unscathed.

The Danes were soon put to flight and Charles made the arrangements for the encamping of his troops with the skill and celerity of one trained in the art of warfare, instead of a boy on his first campaign and to whom the whistle of a musket ball was a sound unknown. He showed his ability and judgment also by the strict discipline he maintained, winning the good will of the peasantry by paying for all supplies, instead of taking them by force in the ordinary fashion of the times.

While the camp was being made and redoubts thrown up towards the town, the fleet was sent back to Sweden and soon returned with a reinforcement of nine thousand men, who had marched in haste to the shore and were drawn up ready to embark. The Danish fleet looked on at this movement, but was not strong enough to interfere.

The rapidity with which this invasion had been made struck the people of Copenhagen with terror and they sent an embassy to Charles, begging him not to bombard the city. He received them at the head of his guards, while they fell upon their knees before him. His ultimatum to the petitioners was that he would spare the city on the payment of four hundred thousand rix-dollars. They were also commanded to supply his camp with provisions, for which he promised they would be honestly paid. They did not dare refuse, and were very agreeably surprised when Charles kept his word and paid good prices for all he got.

Charles now sent word to King Frederick that he had made war only to require him to make peace, and he must agree to act justly towards the Duke of Holstein or the city of Copenhagen would be destroyed and his dominions laid waste with fire and sword.

Frederick, utterly taken aback by the warlike vigor of King Charles, was very glad to accept this proposal and thus to escape from the dangerous position in which he had placed himself, and the negotiations were driven through by Charles with the same abrupt energy he had shown in his military movements. In less than six weeks from the beginning of the war it was ended and the treaty made, a surprising achievement for the first campaign of an eighteen-year-old warrior. The treaty was favorable to Frederick, Charles exacting nothing for himself, but demanding that the Duke of Holstein should be repaid the expenses of the war.

The boy king had reason for haste, for the town of Riga, in his dominions, was being invested by a combined army of Russians, Poles, and Saxons. The treaty was no sooner signed than he sailed in all haste to its relief. It had made a gallant and nearly desperate defence under General Dahlberg, but the besiegers did not wait for the impact of Charles's army, hastily retreating and leaving the field open to him for a great feat of arms, the most famous one in his career.

The town of Narva, in Ingermanland, was then invested by a great Russian army, sixty thousand—some say eighty thousand—strong, the Czar Peter being in supreme command, the Duc de Croy commanding under him. But the unskilled Russians had not proved very successful in the art of besieging, having failed for six weeks to take a city that was very poorly fortified and whose governor, Baron Herre, had but a thousand regular troops in his garrison.

It was in mid-November, 1700, that the czar heard that the Swedish king had landed an army of about thirty-two thousand men, and was coming to the relief of Narva. Not content with his great force, Peter hurried forward a second army of thirty thousand men, proposing to enclose King Charles between these two hordes and hoping thus to annihilate him. He reckoned without his host. Charles landed at Pernow and made a forced march to Reval, followed by his cavalry, fourteen thousand strong, but with only four thousand foot soldiers.

Marching, in his usual ardent manner, in the van of his army, he did not wait for the rear, making his way onward by nearly impassable roads and coming before the outposts of the supplementary Russian army with only eight thousand men. With apparently utter indifference to the vast disproportion in numbers, the Swedish firebrand rushed forward, the Russians, not dreaming of such mad temerity, being sure that he had his whole army behind him.

The advance guard of the Russians, five thousand strong, was posted in a rocky pass where a body of a hundred resolute men might have checked the progress of an army, yet it fled in dismay before the onset of the Swedes. The twenty thousand men behind them shared their panic and joined in their flight, terror and confusion pervading the whole army. In two days' time Charles carried all their posts, winning what might have been claimed as three distinct victories, yet not delaying an hour in his advance. Having thus disposed of the army sent to intercept him, Charles marched with all speed to Narva, leaving his main army still far in the rear. With his eight thousand men, exhausted with their long march and their hard fight, he suddenly appeared before the czar's great force of sixty or eighty thousand men and one hundred and fifty cannon.

Giving his weary men scarcely any time for rest, Charles advanced against the Russians with the impetuosity which had so far marked his career. A general warned him that the danger was very great.

"What!" he replied. "Do you not think that with my eight thousand brave Swedes I may easily beat eighty thousand Russians?"

Whether the general believed so or not, he did not venture any further remonstrances, and, at the signal of two musket shots and the war-cry of "With the aid of God!" the king and his handful of men marched forwards. It was now about mid-day on the 20th of November, 1700.

A breach being made with their cannon in the Russian works, Charles led his men on with fixed bayonets, a furious snow-fall behind them driving full in the face of the enemy and making their position a very difficult one. After an engagement of three hours the entrenchments were stormed on all sides, the right wing of the Russians fleeing to the Narva and crowding the bridge with its retreating hosts. So dense was the mass that the bridge gave way beneath them, precipitating them into the stream, in which eighteen thousand of the panic-stricken wretches were drowned. The left wing then broke and fled in utter confusion, so many prisoners being taken that the best the captor could do was to disarm them and let them disperse where they would.

Thus ended this extraordinary battle, almost without a parallel in history and spreading the fame of the victor widely over Europe. For a boy little over eighteen years of age to achieve such a feat, defeating with eight thousand men an army of nearly a hundred thousand, raised him in men's minds to the level of the most famous conquerors. Unfortunately for himself, it redoubled his self-will and vanity, the adulation given him leading him into a course of wild and aimless invasion that brought upon him eventually misfortune and defeat and nearly ruined his kingdom.

Having disposed of two of the enemies who had plotted his destruction, in the following year Charles advanced against the third, King Augustus of Poland, led his victorious army into that kingdom, took Warsaw, its capital city, by storm, and in the battles of Klissov and Pultusk so thoroughly overthrew the forces of Augustus that he was forced to give up the throne of Poland and retire into his native dominion of Saxony, a Polish noble being proclaimed king in his place. The Swedish conqueror even pursued Augustus into Saxony, defeated his armies wherever met, and forced him at last to beg humbly for peace.

Such was the first era of the brilliant career of the young Swedish firebrand of war, who in four years had utterly overthrown his enemies and won a reputation for splendid military genius which placed him on a level, in the opinion of the military critics of the age, with Alexander the Great, whom he had taken as the model of his career.

But Charles had two great enemies with whom to contend, and as a result his later history was one of decline and fall, in which he lost all that he had won and remained for years practically a prisoner in a foreign land.

One of these enemies was himself. His faults of character—inordinate ambition, inflexible obstinacy, reckless daring—were such as in the end to negative his military genius and lead to the destruction of the great power he had so rapidly built up. The other was Czar Peter of Russia. It was unfortunate for the youthful warrior that fate had pitted him against a greater man than himself, Peter the Great, who, while lacking his military ability, had the other elements of a great character which were wanting in him, prudence, cool judgment, persistence in a fixed course of action. While the career of Charles was one of glitter and coruscation, dazzling to men's imaginations, that of Peter was one of cool political judgment, backed by the resources of a great country and the staying qualities of a great mind. What would have been the outcome of Charles's career if pitted against almost any other monarch of Russia that one could name it is difficult to imagine. But pitted against Peter the Great he was like a foaming billow hurling itself against an impregnable rock.

While it is not our purpose to tell the whole story of the exploits of Charles XII., yet his life is so interesting from the point of view of military history that a brief epitome of its remainder may be given.

After his great victories Charles remained in Saxony, entertaining the throng of princes that sought his friendship and alliance and the crowd of flatterers who came to shine in his reflected glory. For six years in all he remained in Poland and Saxony, fighting and entertaining, while Peter the Great was actively engaged in carrying out the important purpose he had in mind, that of extending the dominion of Russia to the shores of the Baltic and gaining an outlet on the northern seas. As an essential part of his purpose he began to build a new city on the banks of the Neva, to serve as a great port and centre of commerce.

It was long before Charles awakened to the fact that Peter was coming threateningly near to the Swedish territories, and when he finally realized the purpose of his great enemy and set out to circumvent it, he did so without any definite plan. He decided, as Napoleon did a century later, to plunge into the heart of the country and attack its capital city, Moscow, trusting by doing so to bring his enemy to terms. In this he failed as signally as Napoleon did in his later invasion.

In June, 1708, with an army of forty-three thousand men, Charles crossed the Beresina and soon after met and defeated the Russian army near Smolensko. He considered this his most brilliant victory, and, as we are told by Voltaire, Peter now made overtures for peace, to which Charles, with the arrogance of a victor, replied, "I will treat with the Czar at Moscow."

He never reached Moscow, but was constrained to turn southward to the Ukraine, where he hoped to gain the aid of the Cossacks, under their chief, Mazeppa, a bitter enemy of the czar. In this march his men suffered terribly, more than half of them dying from hunger and cold. He had met that same enemy which Napoleon afterwards met in Russia, a winter of bitter severity. In the spring he had only about eighteen thousand Swedes and about as many Cossacks under his command, but he persisted in his designs. During the wintry cold he had shared in the privations of his men, eating the same coarse food, while his only means of warming his tent was to have heated cannon balls rolled along the floor.

The crisis came in the summer of 1709. Peter, who was keenly on the alert, had succeeded in winning to his side the Cossack chiefs, leaving Mazeppa without any followers. Then he intercepted the Swedish general Levenhaupt, who was marching with a new army to the aid of his king, and overwhelmed him with an immense force of Russians. Losing all his baggage and stores and more than half his men, Levenhaupt succeeded in reaching the king's camp with only six thousand battered and worn soldiers.

Charles had now only eighteen thousand men, and was in such sore need of food and clothing that he laid siege to the city of Pultowa, hoping to obtain supplies by its capture. Here he was met by Peter with an army three times his strength, and in the decisive battle that followed Charles was wounded and his army utterly defeated, only three thousand escaping death or capture. Charles himself narrowly escaped the latter, and only by a hazardous and adventurous flight over the steppes reached the town of Bender, in the Turkish realm.

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Scandinavian by Charles Morris


Here the sultan, the bitter enemy of Russia, gave him refuge and treated him with much kindness, though he found the young Swede a very troublesome guest. In fact, at Charles's suggestion, the sultan went to war with Russia and got the czar into such a tight place that he only escaped by bribing the Turkish vizier.

Infuriated at his enemy's escape, Charles became so violent and unruly that the sultan tried to get rid of him, giving him large sums of money to pay his debts and make preparations to leave. When Charles spent all this and asked for more the sultan grew so angry that he ordered the arrest of his troublesome guest. It needed an army of men to take him, for he locked himself in his house and fought furiously with the few hundred of men under his command. Many Turkish soldiers were killed and he was only captured by setting fire to his house and seizing him as he fled from the flames.

The "Iron Head," as the Turks called him from his obstinacy, was guarded in a Turkish village for ten months by a force of Janizaries. Most of this time was spent in bed on pretence that he was dangerously ill. At the end of that time, finding that he could get no more help from the Turks, he resolved to escape. Accompanied by two persons only, he rode in the incredibly short period of fourteen days from Adrianople through Austria, Hungary, and Germany, reaching the Swedish post of Stralsund on November 7, 1713. Doubtless the sultan was glad to hear of his escape, since he had borne with his restless and unwelcome guest for more than four years.

When he came to the gates of Stralsund he presented himself to the guard under the name of Captain Peter Frisch. The guard was long in recognizing him, for he was haggard and worn in face and ragged and dirty in person, having never changed his clothes and rarely left the saddle, except to change horses, during his long and weary ride.

His long and needless absence in Turkey had left Sweden exposed to its enemies and it had severely suffered, the greater part of its territory south of the Baltic being seized, while Sweden itself had been attacked by the Danes and Saxons and only saved by an army of peasants, so poorly equipped and clothed that they were nicknamed the "Wooden Shoes."

As for Charles, his era of brilliant invasion was over and he was obliged to fight in self-defence. When he reached Stralsund it was under siege by an army of Russians, Saxons, and Danes. Taking command here, he defended it obstinately until the walls were blown up and the outworks reduced to ashes, when he went on board a small yacht and crossed the Baltic safely to Sweden, though a Russian admiral was scouring that sea to prevent his passage.

A few words must suffice to complete the story of this remarkable man. He found Sweden largely depleted of men and money and in the new army which he sought to raise he was obliged to take boys of fifteen into the ranks. With these he proposed, in the cold winter of 1716, to invade Denmark by leading an army over the Sound to the Danish islands, but a thaw set in and put an end to this adventurous project.

Then he invaded Norway, as a part of the Danish realm, and after some unsuccessful efforts, laid siege to the fortress of Frederikshald. Here the end of his strange career was reached. On the morning of December 11, 1718, while leaning over the side of a breastwork and giving directions to the men in the trenches, he was seen to stagger, his head sinking on his breast. The officers who ran to his aid found him breathing his last breath. A bullet had struck him, passing through his head and ending his remarkable career at the early age of thirty-six.

With the death of this famous soldier ended the military glory and greatness of Sweden. As a result of his mad ambition and his obstinate persistence in Turkey, Sweden lost all the possessions won in previous reigns, losing them never to be regained. And with him also vanished the absolute rule of the Swedish kings. For with his death the nobles regained their lost influence and drew up a compact in which the crown was deprived of all its overruling control and the diet of the nobles became the dominant power in the state.