Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How Close Ranged were Mid-Eighteenth-Century Firefights?

The British Prepare to Give Fire

Dear Reader,

After the post last week on ammunition expenditure, I noted a number of surprised conversation on social media. If many eighteenth-century battles in Europe, and some in North America, resulted in troops expending their ammunition load (of 30, 40, 60, or 90+ rounds) how could any soldiers be left alive? Or in other words, in battles with such high rates of ammunition expenditure, how could casualties be so low?

The answer to this riddle is not the supposed inaccuracy of muskets, or the failure of soldiers to aim properly, but the ranges at which battles were often fought. When picturing eighteenth-century combat, historians and the public often imagine battle reenactments. In these reenactments, troops often open fire at a very short range, at say 50 or 25 yards. For those unused to picturing such ranges, imagine one half or one-quarter of an American football field. Troops in the eighteenth-century occasionally fired at such close range (such as the Swedish Karoliner of the Great Northern War) but MUCH more frequently, fire-fights developed at a longer range.

Reenactors represent Regiment von Bose at Guilford Courthouse

In the eighteenth-century, the term "musket-shot" usually referred to a distance of around 300 yards. Commanders, concerned about the accuracy of their musketry, often performed tests in peacetime to discover an optimal range.  During the era, such tests were conducted at between 500 yards and 80 yards, 200 yards and 100 yards, and further estimations of 250 yards and 80 yards and 200 yards and 80 yards.[1] I find it strangely compelling that none of these tests felt the need to practice at ranges underneath 80 yards, perhaps implying that combat infrequently reached those close distances.  Leaving aside this theoretical point, let us turn to what the soldiers of the era say in their writings: how close range were eighteenth-century firefights?

Although there is no way to truly measure the surviving descriptions of range scientifically, we can perhaps arrive at a few conclusions regarding the range of eighteenth-century firefights. In the first category, there are skirmishes and premature fires by inexperienced troops. These preliminary skirmishes often occurred at 300 yards, or even a greater distance. As a result, they were not very deadly. During skirmishes in 1759 and 1760, French troops and their native allies opened fire on the British at a range of 300 yards, which seemed quite normal to the participants.[2] During a skirmish on Staten Island in June of 1777, preliminary skirmishing began at about 300 yards.[3] At the Battle of Mollwitz in 1741, the Prussian infantry, inexperienced in real combat, opened fire at the considerable range of 600-800 yards.[4]

A small group of Prussians engaged in a firefight

In Europe during large-scale and determined combat, battle-lines could draw much closer. A good "average" range for combat during the Seven Years' War appears to be between 200 yards and 100 yards. At the Battle of Leuthen in 1757, Ernst von Barsewisch recalled, "As soon as we had cleared the forest, we approached the enemy's second line of battle at a distance of 200 paces [150 yards], which was preparing to march against us. Now... our officers ordered, "Fire! Fire!"[5] Later in the war, Barsewisch recalled being fired on by Croats at a similar distance.[6] The battle lines at Prague in 1757 appear to have been around 150 yards apart.[7] At Hochkirch in 1758,  Johann von Archenholz recalled that the Austrians opened fire at, "a few hundred paces."[8] During a skirmish near Prenzlow in October of 1760, hostile forces approached to within 200 paces [150 yards] of one another.[9]  At the Battle of Vellinghausen in 1761, official reports indicate that battle lines were 150 paces [100 yards] apart, and indicate that this was uncomfortably close.[10] By contrast, when the battle lines closed to 80 yards at the Battle of Minden, the contest was no longer in doubt, and the French began to retreat.[11]

In North America, infantry firefights followed a similar mold. Although the French and Indian War saw few large-scale field battles, a few sources describe infantry firefights. At the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the French opened fire a very regular European distance, 130 yards.[12] During fighting in the Carribean in 1759, Francis Downman noted that the enemy moved away from the British, "keeping always 200 yards in our front."[13] During the American War of Independence, firefights continued to follow a European pattern, at least with regards to range. During the flank attack at the Battle of Brandywine, both the British and Americans gave fire at 150 yards, and then the British immediately charged at the run with their bayonets.[14] The French attack on St. Lucia in December of 1778 was conducted, "at a distance not less than 280 yards."[15] At the Battle of Camden, John Robert Shaw describes an infantry firefight at 100 yards.[16] At Guilford Courthouse, Roger Lamb reports that the American line opened fire at 140 yards.[17] Berthold Koch, a sergeant with the Von Bose Regiment, recalled receiving fire at 100 yards from the American line.[18]

British Reenactors representing the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry

Troops were often ordered to hold their fire until very close to the enemy line, but appear to have found it difficult to follow this directive. At the Battle of Germantown in 1777, Joseph Plump Martin describes this in his humorous way:
"Our brigade moved off to the right into the fields. We saw a body of the enemy drawn up behind a rail fence on our right; we immediately formed in line and advanced upon them. Our orders were not to fire till we could see the buttons upon their clothes, but they were so coy that they would not give us an opportunity to be so curious, for they hid their clothes in fire and smoke before we had either time or leisure to examine their buttons."[19]
Here, we find a unit ordered to hold fire until close to the enemy, but because the enemy began returning fire a long range, a longer ranged firefight developed. When troops did approach (or fire) at ranges closer than 100 yards, it was often because a bayonet attack was underway. The Swedish Army in the Great Northern War, and the British Army in the American War of Independence, both made quick moving assaults supported by one close-range volley a standard of their tactical repertoire. Nicholas Creswell describes this type of attack on Staten Island in 1777:
When [the two sides] were about 100 yards from each other, both parties fired, but I did not see any fall. They still advanced to the distance of 40 yards or less and fired again. I then saw a great number fall on both sides. Our people rushed upon them with their Bayonets and the others took to their heels. I heard one of them call out murder lustily, this [would  have been] laughable if the consequence was not serious. A Fresh party immediately fired upon our people but was dispersed and pursued into the woods by a company of the 15th Regmt."[20]
British Troops. The man in front appears to be calling out, murder, lustily.

Here, Nicholas Creswell describes the archetypal bayonet attack as practiced by the British Army in the American War of Independence. If troops moved into 50 yards or closer, it was not to have an extended firefight, but because one or other intended to make an attack with bayonets, or was in the process of doing so.  Prescriptive source: drill manuals, books offering advice to officers, etc, often instructed soldiers to reserve their fire until at thirty or fifty yards of the enemy.[21] While a good idea in theory, advancing into such close range under a heavy fire proved difficult to do. Notably, the British seem to have achieved this at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, but examples of this kind are rare. On average, troops seem to have fired at ranges of 100 yards or longer. 

How might reenactors represent this to the public? Battles should occur at greater ranges. If you are engaged in a standup firefight with other reenactors, and you are much closer than 75 yards away, something is wrong. If the British advance to within 40 yards and fire a volley, they should immediately follow that volley with a bayonet attack and either way, Continental forces should quickly prevail or retreat. Engaging in standup firefights with 20+ rounds expended is acceptable, even laudable. Just make sure that you have a football field or two between you and the opposing forces while doing so.

If you enjoyed this post, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook, or supporting us via the donate button in the upper right hand corner of the page. As always:

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 207.; The Army of Frederick the Great, 128.;  Lossow, Denkwürdigkeiten, 260-61, 275.
[2] John Knox, An Historical Journal,  Vol 2, 274.; Vol 1, 305.
[3] Nicholas Creswell, A Man Apart, 170.
[4] Valorie, Quoted in Duffy, Military Experience, 212.
[5] Barsewisch, Meine Kriegs-Erlebnisse, 36.
[6] Ibid, 170.
[7] Johann von Archenholz, Geschischte des Siebenjährige Kriegs , (1911, Leipzig), 52.
[8] Ibid, 187.
[9] Sammlung ungedruckter Nachrichten, Vol 5, 358.
[10] Westfalen, Geschichte der Feldzüge des Herzogs Ferdinand, Vol 5, 623.
[11] Ibid, Vol 3, 486.
[12] Knox, Journal, 70. (The British, it must be said, held their fire until 40 yards on this occasion).
[13] Francis Downman, The Services of Lt. Colonel Francis Downman, 8.
[14] Martin Hunter, Extracts from the Journal of General Sir Martin Hunter, 27.
[15] Downman, The Services, 98.
[16] John Robert Shaw, John Robert Shaw, 31.
[17] Roger Lamb, An Original and Authentic Journal, 350.
[18] Bertold Koch, The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, 7.
[19] Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle, 72-73.
[20] Creswell, A Man Apart, 170-171
[21] David Blackmore, Destructive and Formidable, 136-137

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

How Often Did Mid-Eighteenth-Century Soldiers Run Out of Ammunition?

British Reenactors engaged in a mock fire-fight

Dear Reader,

Today, we are going to examine a complex issue, which often lacks clear supporting data. The question before us is: how often did soldiers run out of ammunition on the battlefields of the Kabinettskriege era? Our first reaction might be: not very frequently. When I visited Fort Ticonderoga in the summer of 2010 (before the current administration, in other words), a member of the interpretive staff there intimated to me (and the entire  tour group with me) that the average experience of eighteenth-century combat was similar to going to the battlefield, "with one clip in your AR-15, and only firing 15 rounds out of a 30-round magazine." Being rather pretentious and annoying, even in those early days, I approached this interpreter to talk about the experience of the Prussian army in Europe. A friendly conversation developed, and I spent the rest of afternoon collecting materials to build gabions offsite with this interpreter. It was one of the strangest and most surreal experiences of my life to date.

How might we go about answering this question of ammunition usage on eighteenth-century battlefields? Once again, numerous historians have addressed firepower in an eighteenth-century context. I am most familiar with the works of Christopher Duffy, David Blackmore, David Chandler, Stephan Brumwell, Matthew H. Spring, Jeremy Black, and John Lynn. These historians have addresses the mechanics of eighteenth-century combat in more detail than I will be able to in this post. I would also to thank Dr. Tomasz Karpinski for comments on this post. With that said: what do these historians and period sources tell us about ammunition expenditure?

Reenactors portray the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry at Germantown

What can non-data-driven sources, tell us about the frequency of running out of ammunition? We must also carefully interrogate these sources: as running out of ammunition was often used by eighteenth-century soldiers as an excuse for failure, or in order to clear their reputations of any poor conduct in battle. With that said: eighteenth-century soldiers ran out of ammunition quite frequently. Ammunition shortages plagued many major armies on the battlefield.

In the era of Frederick II of Prussia, the Prussian army developed new strategies for the rapid consumption of ammunition. At the Battle of Mollwitz in 1741, the Prussian troops quickly fired away their 30 issued rounds, and attempted to gather ammunition from wounded men nearby. After the battle, the standard ammunition load in the Prussian army was increased from 30 to 60 rounds, but even this proved insufficient.[1]

Two independent sources affirm that the Prussian infantry used all (or almost all) of their ammunition while attack the Lobosch Hill at the Battle of Lobositz in 1756. An individual soldier  reports that in the "heat and excitement, I fired away nearly all my sixty rounds."[2] The personal secretary of the Duke of Bevern, Herr Kistenmacher, who observed his master at the battle, recorded the following:
The greatest difficulties had to be overcome in order to dislodge the enemy. We were under a small arms fire which lasted for five hours at an unimaginable intensity. Our lads shot away all their cartridges, and those of their dead and wounded comrades. Now we had reached a crisis point, since the enemy continued to fire heavily on our men, who did not flinch and could now not lift a finger to fire themselves. In this sorry state of affairs the Duke of Bevern came galloping up, passing though heavy fire like an intrepid hero, and saw how the lads of his regiment, because of the impractical terrain, were not in close order. Rather, they had to fight in small groups on the hillside, and did not reply to the enemies heavy volleys. "Children," yelled the Duke, "Shoot for God's sake, shoot and advance!" "Oh, dear father," the lads replied, "What shall we do?" We have no more powder, and are being shot dead without reply!" "What?" cried the Duke, "Don't you have bayonets? Go and kill the dogs!"[3]
The resulting Prussian charge decided the battle. Despite the obvious melodrama in Kirstenmacher's telling: he clearly indicates the feeling of helplessness which running out of ammunition could impart to soldiers. It is quite possible that these soldiers fired away 90 cartridges, rather than 60, as sources describe taking 30 rounds from unengaged units.[4] At the Battle of Leuthen in 1757, both sides replenished their rounds from ammunition carts, and it appears that some Prussian infantry may have fired over 180 rounds.[5] During the Battle of Zorndorf in 1759, many Prussians were wounded by the buckshot ammunition that the Russian infantry employed at that battle. At the Battle of Hochkirch in 1758, both the Prussian and Austrian infantry appear to have run short of ammunition.[6] In the Prussian case, some soldiers fired over 120 rounds.[7]

The fighting in Hochkirch, as imagined by 19th-century artist Karl Roechling

At the Battle of Torgau in 1760, multiple sources in the Austrian Army reported that the primary reason for failure was a lack of infantry and artillery ammunition. Franz Moritz von Lacy reported"Finally, everyone was agreed that there was no more ammunition for either the artillery or the infantry [by the end of the battle.]"[8] Austrian veteran Jacob Cogniazzo reported that in this case, a previously useful innovation, filling drums with ammunition and employing drummers as ammunition runners, had failed the Austrians:
"...the lack of ammunition, a defect which should never be found in a purposeful institution, and is always a sign of irresponsibility. But we had experienced it before, particularly at the Battle of Breslau. Sufficient ammunition was not brought forward, by way of the drummers and their drums, because they had to haul the ammunition from a very great distance, losing a great deal of time. This put the loading troops at a great disadvantage."[9]
Hessian troops loading in winter
When fighting in Continental Europe, the British often relied on firepower. A Dutch officer observed that at the Battle of Fontenoy, the British fired all their cartridges, or perhaps between 20-36 per man.[10] During the Seven Years' War, British infantry began to carry 30 and 60 rounds per man, rather the regulation 24. Yet more ammunition was ready-made in specialized wagons following the army.[11] In the Seven Years' War in North America, British ammunition allocation seems to have fluctuated between 36 and 70 cartridges per man. Despite the fluctuation, three extra flints appears to have been the standard issue.[12] In July of 1759, Townshend's Brigade received the following order:
"The light infantry of the army are to have their bayonets, as the want of ammunition may sometimes be supplied with that weapon: and, beacause no man should leave his post, under pretence that all his cartridges are fired, in most attacks by night, it must be remember, that bayonets are preferable to fire."[13]
The emphasis is present in the original. It is intriguing that the order commands to troops to stay at their posts when out of ammunition. This idea- that soldiers with empty cartridge pouches could return to the rear, also confronted the American Army at the Battle of Germantown in 1777.

British Regulars and Local Allies on a Raid in Upstate New York

In the American War of Independence, there are also numerous examples of soldiers running short on ammunition.  Despite the British Army's clear preference for aggressive moment, British soldier's found themselves drawn into heavy firefights. One of the clearest examples of replenishing ammunition from fellow soldiers comes from Sjt. Thomas Sullivan of the 49th Regiment of Foot. During the Forage War in early 1777, Sullivan reports that during a skirmish, "Major Dilkes with [100 grenadiers] engaged them with two field pieces, and kept a continual fire up, until they expended all their ammunition at a rate of 60 rounds per man. Then they retreated to the second party of Grenadiers from whom they got more ammunition."[14]

At the Battle of Freeman's Farm, it is possible that the British Infantry regiments were able to access 100 rounds. This was the ammunition allotment set as a standard for the army by Guy Carleton in April of 1777. "...every soldier in the army should always be provided with 100 cartridges, of which the man should have 30 in his cartridge pouch and the other 70 should be well taken care of  and conveyed by the company[.]"[15] Sargeant Roger Lamb of the 23rd Regiment of Foot recalled replenishing his cartridge pouch from the body of a slain member of the Brigade of Guards at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.[16]

Reenactors representing the 3rd New Jersey, "Grays" prepare to fire

Continental Army soldiers, too, reported a heavy expenditure of ammunition. During the winter of 1775-1776, the American army outside of Boston, could scarcely, "furnish four rounds a man."[17] At the Battle of Germantown, Lt. Colonel Adam Hubley reported that almost every unit but his own 10th Pennsylvania had, "expended forty rounds," after a firefight that lasted, "4 hours, without the least intermission."[18] At the same battle,  General John Sullivan recalled that "my division with a Regiment of North Carolinians,... finding themselves unsupported by any other troops[,] Their Cartridges all Expended[,]... retired with as much precipitation as they had before advanced[.]"[19]
Private soldier Joseph Plumb Martin, also present at Germantown, also mentions this idea:

"Affiars went on well for some time. The enemy were retreating before us, until the first division that was engaged had expended their ammunition. Some of the men unadvisedly calling out that their ammunition was spent, the enemy were so near that they overheard them, when they first made a stand and then returned upon our people, who, for their want of ammunition and reiforcements, were obliged in tehir turn to retreat, which ultimately resulted in the rout of the whole army."[20]

Timothy Pickering, a young officer present with George Washington at the battle, recalled that, "General Sullivan's divisions were warmly engaged with the enemy... this fire was brisk and heavy... Washington said to me, 'I am afraid that General Sullivan is throwing away his ammunition; ride forward and tell him to preserve it.'"[21] The soldiers began to withdraw from the battle, "holding up their empty cartridge boxes to show why they ran."[22]

From these sources, it is clear that soldiers often used their entire ammunition issue, whether kept in their cartridge pouches or around their person in other ways. One of the few estimates for ammunition usage by an entire army is Mauvillion's calculation of the Prussian army at in 1742: "According to my sums, the Prussians fired 650,000 rounds of musketry during their advance at Chotusitz."[23] When we divide that sum by the roughly 17,000 Prussian infantry at the battle, it seems that the average man fired 38 rounds. With the amount of guesswork, rounding and estimation involved, I would be very cautious about using such a sum as evidence in anything but a casual conversation.

Eighteenth-century firefights, particularly when conducted at longer ranges, could last for a long time. In both North America and Europe troops frequently ran short of ammunition, and worked feverishly to bring more cartridges into the fight. As armies recognized this issue, soldiers began to carry more and more ammunition and enjoyed close support by ammunition wagons and carts. Firepower increasingly played a dominant role on Kabinettskriege-era battlefields.

Prussian and Russian Troops in a heavy firefight on the author's wargame table

As wargamers and reenactors, do we represent these challenges? First, let us turn to wargamers.Some rulesets allow troops to only fire for a certain number of turns, but this usually represents smoke buildup, rather than ammunition expenditure. Rulesets such as Final Argument of Kings often limit artillery ammunition but does not provide a clear maximum limit for infantry fire. Should rulesets include this level of detail?  If a turn represents twenty minutes, and a soldier in firing constantly for twenty minutes might expend 20-30 cartridges, should troops only be able to fire for two turns unless more ammunition is obtained? How do you deal with these problems on the tabletop?

Photo Credit: Tom George Davison Photography

Second: how does this problem affect reenactors? Sargeants sometimes function as ammunition carriers, providing extra ammunition to soldiers. It would be interesting to see musicians function in this role during extended firefights. At appropriate reenactments, it would be possible to simulate troops retiring when out of ammunition, first calling out that ammunition is dangerously low, and then retiring to the rear, preferring empty cartridge boxes to officers.  In addition, many battle reenactments occur at very close range. Many of the longer duration firefights in the eighteenth-century occurred at a range of 100-150 yards. [Imagine a football field between the firing lines.] At this range, firepower alone was often indecisive, leading to longer firefights. When at extremely close range (50 yards and below) firefights tended to have a very short duration.
How else might reenactors simulate this battlefield challenge?

If you enjoyed this post, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook, or supporting us via the donate button in the upper right hand corner of the page. As always:

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns


[1]Neue Militarische Zeitschrift, Vol 19,  (1813)  p. 21
[2] Ulrich Bräker, Arme Mann, 150.
[3] Quoted in, Curt Jany, "Briefe Preussische Soldaten," Urkundliche Beiträge, Vol 1, 9-10.
[4] Ibid, 3.
[5] See Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 274, for Prussian usage, and Duffy, Prussia's Glory, 158, for a description of Austrian ammunition carts.
[6] Christopher Duffy, By Force of Arms, 142, 144.
[7] Ernst von Barsewisch, Meine Kriegs-Erliebnisse, 77.
[8] Quoted in Duffy, By Force of Arms, 300.
[9] Jakob Cogniazzo, Geständnisse eines Oesterreichischen Veterans, Vol 3, 298.
[10] Quoted in David Blackmore, Destructive and Formidable, 136.
[11] William Todd, The Journal of Corporal Todd, 141-143.
[12] John Knox, An Historical Journal, Vol I, 160, Vol II, 188-190. 214, 238, 377.
[13] Ibid, Vol I, 314.
[14] Thomas Sullivan, From Redcoat to Rebel, 102.
[15] Journal of General Riedesel, Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Microform, H.Z.974
[16]Roger Lamb, An Original and Authentic Journal, 362.
[17] James Thatcher, A Military Journal during the American Revolutionary War, 35.
[18] Peter Force Papers, Library of Congress, Washington DC.
[19] John Sullivan, Letters and Papers of Major General John Sullivan, Vol 1, 546.
[20] Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle, 73.
[21] Timothy Pickering, North American Review, Vol 23 (1826), 425-430.
[22] Quoted in Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, 369.
[23]Translation by Christopher Duffy, quoted in Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 209: Mauvillon, Histoire de la derniere guerre de Boheme, Vol. 1, 100-101

Friday, January 19, 2018

Russia Admonished: The Battle of Narva in the Great Northern War

Swedish Reenactors portray Karoliner on the march in summer months
Photo by Anders Bertrandsson

Dear Reader,

Today, we have our second guest post- this time from Michael Glaeser.[1] As a historian who has published on the Great Northern War, Michael brings a great depth of experience to the subject in this post: the Battle of Narva.

If you would like to write for Kabinettskriege, or have an idea for a post, please contact us via the link on the upper right. Without further introduction- here is Michael's post:


In the year 1700, the Kingdom of Sweden was the dominant power in the Baltic. The sea was very much a Swedish one with the nation’s territory circling around the waters to include Finland, Ingria, Estonia, Livonia, and parts of northern Germany. For many socio-political reasons, Denmark-Norway, Saxony-Poland-Lithuania, and Russia formed an alliance to seize control and beat back Swedish hegemony. The three-pronged attack was meant to be quick and decisive. After all, the King of Sweden, Charles XII, was only an eighteen-year-old adolescent…

Immediately after declaring war on Sweden on August 20th, the Russians began their push into Ingria to besiege the fortified town of Narva. With Russia having no access to the Baltic, Ingria was a vital strip of land that Tsar Peter I desperately wanted to have back. As Narva was also the lynchpin fortress on the border of Ingria and Estonia, Peter wanted to take the town first and use it as a base of operations from which Russian troops could pour into neighboring regions. More importantly, it was only fourteen kilometers away from the Gulf of Finland and that vital seat on the Baltic Sea.

Looking for sources: a British Newspaper from 1700 describes the battle

Due to its strategic location, the town of Narva was well fortified. The Swedes added a ring of bastions in the 1680s to supplement the existing 15th-century castle. This was done under the watch of the aged field marshal and engineer Erik Dahlberg, the "Swedish Vauban". The western side of the town had the most open approach but this too had defensive features including a dry moat. The town itself held a garrison of 1,460 infantry, substantially lower than the planned 3,100, but it did include additional cavalry as well. These were under the command of Henning Rudolf Horn at the time of the siege.

While Russian troops immediately advanced into Ingria, it wasn't until the end of October that the artillery and siege guns arrived at the outskirts of Narva. With over 37,000 men facing the town, the general expectation was that Narva could only hold out until the end of the month. Peter had arrived to personally supervise the siege and take part in the forthcoming surrender. Horn and his men clung to the safety of the town walls and were no doubt encouraged by the letters sent from Charles indicating that "we will soon be with you and dislodge the enemy".[2]

Russian Army flags used at Narva (later captured by the Swedish Army)
Following the sweeping success against Denmark, Charles and the Swedish army mustered for shipment to the Baltic provinces in early October. They had arrived and disembarked by the 8th and a plan was formulated to send a relief force to Narva while the king and another body of troops headed south to break the siege of Riga launched by Augustus, the Elector of Saxony.[3] Swedish commander Otto Vellingk brought news of an improved situation- Augustus did not get the necessary support from his ally Peter and rather than face the wrath of the Swedes alone, decided to break his siege and send his army into winter quarters. Given the suspension of Saxon operations and the seasonably bad weather that mired the roads, Charles felt safe enough to divert all efforts towards Narva and come to grips with his cousin at a later point.

On November 13, the Swedish army began its march through soggy and scorched lands. Given the scarcity of food, the weather, and the state of the roads, the army was in need of a morale boost. This came on the 17th when the king led a small detachment against a much larger Russian force led by General Boris Sheremetev at a chokepoint called Pyhajoggi pass. Sheremetev was under orders to withdraw without forcing a battle but the retreat of 5,000 of the enemy had an uplifting effect for the tired Swedes. More importantly, this was the first independent action for Charles who held his own and managed his men well enough to earn praise.

Despite hearing news from Sheremetev that the Swedes were approaching, the Russian command was unconcerned. Western European warfare had become known for lengthy sieges rather than fast assaults and pitched battles. The belief in the Russian camp was that the Swedes would halt, gather strength, and then force the issue. Tsar Peter even left the siege a day and a half before the Swedes arrived on the 19th in order to direct more reinforcements. The tsar's leave of absence on the eve of battle has garnered much attention from contemporary observers and historians. Naturally, the Swedes painted Peter as a coward, someone who saw the writing on the wall and wanted no part in an eventual defeat. But given the prevalence and preference for siege warfare, Peter probably thought he had more time. In any case, it was a fortuitous move on his part.

Battle of Narva, Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great, 331.

In the tsar's place as acting commander was Field Marshal Charles Eugene Du Croy, a western trained general who fought against the Swedes at Lund and the Ottomans at Vienna. He had the vastly larger Russian force organized behind a nine-foot-high wall in front of which was a six foot wide dry trench. He was also backed up by over 140 cannon and mortars. Due to the size of Narva, the most glaring error was that his forces were stretched out over a six-kilometer line. The Swedish attack would focus on two columns smashing into the enemy and then rolling up both flanks. With poetic timing, or perhaps divine intervention, a snowstorm picked up in intensity and blew directly into the faces of the waiting Russians. The Swedes used the opportunity to launch their attack with Charles and his Drabants concentrated on the left column. It was this group that was the first to shatter their opposition. A Swedish volley within 30 paces caused many of the defenders to “fall like grass”. Hastily made fascines filled the dry trench, and ladders allowed the Swedes to scale the walls and enter the Russian camp. Success quickly followed on the right as well: “We charged directly sword in hand and so entered. We slew all who came at us and it was a terrible massacre”.[4] That the fighting was intense is evidenced by the commentary surrounding Charles. He had a horse shot out from under him and lost a shoe in the soggy mud. After the battle, a bullet was found lodged in his neckcloth, the first of five to hit him in his life.

With the Swedes storming into the camp, a panic set in. Many of the Russian commanders were foreign and some could not even communicate in the language of their subordinates. Distrust and an unwillingness to fight for their officers led many Russians to flee. Most famous was the rout across Kamperholm bridge which became so inundated with fleeing men that it collapsed under their weight. Many drowned as a result. Du Croy and the Russian guard regiments provided a valiant resistance but were forced to surrender. A small holdout of Russians continued to fight until nightfall at which point friendly fire was inflicting unnecessary casualties on the exhausted Swedes. By the morning, the battle was over.

More Russian Banners Captured at Narva 
The Swedes counted over 600 dead. The Russians had anywhere between 8,000 to 12,000. The number that surrendered was even higher forcing the Swedes to set the majority free and allow them to return to Russia with and without arms. Leading commanders were taken prisoner for ransom or future exchanges. All of Peter's artillery was claimed as war booty forcing the tsar to famously confiscate church bells in an effort to cast new cannon. A near spiritual success was the capture of a large number of Russian flags and standards.[5] Among the victors, General Magnus Stenbock was quick to praise his colleague and king: “It is God’s work alone, but if there is anything human in it, it is the firm, immovable resolution of His Majesty and the ripe dispositions of General Rehnskjold.”[6] For all his losses, Tsar Peter remained optimistic and redoubled his efforts to modernize his forces: “When we had that misfortune, or putting it better great fortune, compulsion then drove away sloth, and forced us to labor day and night."[7] It was a process that paid dividends on a summer day in the Ukraine some nine years later.

Thanks for Reading,

Mike Glaeser,

[1] Michael Glaeser is an early modern historian specializing in the Great Northern War and the reign of Charles XII of Sweden. He is published in The Great Northern War Compendium and taught history at the University of New Hampshire. He is also an avid reenactor and wargamer. He completed his graduate work at the University of Sheffield, England.
[2] Hatton, Charles XII of Sweden, 150.
[3] Augustus "the Strong" was both the Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, and Duke of Lithuania.
[4] Massie, Peter the Great, 333.
[5] A vast majority of these captured flags still reside in the Army Museum in Stockholm, and are on display.
[6] Massie, Peter the Great, 337.
[7] Rothstein, Peter the Great and Marlborough, 35.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Von Schmalen Prussian Soldier Images: Cavalry and Freitruppen

Are we the baddies? 

Dear Reader,

Today, we are going to examine the second portion of Von Schmalen's, Accurate Vorstellung der Samtlichen Koeniglich Preussischen Armee, a series of uniform prints of the Prussian Army from the era of the Seven Years' War. Schmalen published his book in 1759.  Last week, we looked at the Infantry and Artillery uniforms. Although available elsewhere online, the copy I photographed in Washington, D.C. has distinctive features, such as the clearly marked gaiter buttons for the Jäger zu Fuss. Though certainly an imperfect source, it does give a window into the uniforming of the Prussian army during the Seven Years' War.

You can find the first section, with the uniform guide key, here. Readers of American history may recall that Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben served in Frei-Infantrie von Mayr, image number 108 in this series. It is the first of the units marked, "Frey Battalion," in this series.