The Undeserved Legacy of Charles XII: Historiographical Failings in Military History

File:Gustaf Cederström - Bringing Home the Body of King Karl XII of Sweden - Google Art Project.jpg
‘Bringing Home the Body of King Karl XII of Sweden’, Gustaf Cederström, 1884, oil on canvas (2,650 mm x 3,710 mm)

‘Battle of Poltava’, Pierre-Denis Martin, 1726, oil on canvas (size unknown)

Charles XII of Sweden, who pulled the country into the disastrous Great Northern War at the age of only eighteen, is the epitome of this problem. Charles won a long string of battles that in theory are exceptionally impressive when all factors other than simple troop numbers are ignored. An image has been formed of the great Carolus Rex who defeated army after army of larger Polish or Russian forces, triumphing through his tactical brilliance, his men’s belief in him and (depending on whether you’re a far-right activist) the inherent superiority of Swedes over the Slavic Poles and Russians. Charles has always been at the core of the Swedish far-right, from pro-Nazi movements during the war comparing his defeats of Russia to Hitler’s, to modern Facebook meme pages (namely “Swedish Imperial Memes) whose content combines their glorification of Charles and his campaigns with extreme anti-refugee and anti-Semitic content. Much of this is tied to three historical myths around Charles: 1. That he personally was responsible for the quality of the Swedish army, 2. That Russia and (especially) Poland maintained powerful armies that it was impressive to defeat, and finally 3. That he personally was a master of strategy and tactics.

In terms of the first, the quality of the Swedish military must be seen in the context of the Scanian war, where Sweden was ultimately defeated under Charles XI by Denmark and its allies. Following this defeat, Charles XI established a firmer professional standing army, sent officers to study abroad to improve the officer corps and increasingly adopted modern tactics. This then established the disciplined, well-led and modern army that Charles XII was then fortunate enough to command. Whilst Charles XII, the boy king who led his soldiers from the front, was certainly an inspirational figurehead for the army, it was not his achievement but his father’s.

In terms of the second, another powerful myth which has similarly been championed by the far-right feeds into this – the idea of Polish military dominance in the last seventeenth century, created by the role of Polish “winged hussars” in breaking the Ottoman Siege of Vienna in 1683. However, by the Great Northern War the majority of the Polish army was ill-equipped, technologically behind in an era where well-drilled musket troops and artillery dominated the battlefield, and most importantly poorly-motivated due to dynastic problems creating division and unclear legitimacy for the various Polish monarchs in this period. Similarly, the Russian army at the beginning of the war was ill-equipped, poorly-drilled and consisted of illiterate serfs called up to fight very far away from their homes and families that quickly crumbled to pressure. It is no surprise that the professional army constructed by Charles XI excelled particularly well against such forces. Further, it should be added that one of the most important changes between Russia’s early humiliations and later successes such as Poltava was the rebuilding and restructuring of the Russian army along Western European lines, and thus when the Swedish army was confronted with a more equivalent force it collapsed, no matter Charles’ grand strategy.

‘Karl XII and Ivan Mazepa after The Poltava Battle 1709’, Gustaf Cederström, 1880s, Oil on Canvas (size unknown)

Finally, Charles’ reputation as a tactical and strategic genius personally responsible for bringing Sweden victory time and time again is similarly undeserved. Across his battles, his tactics rarely vary from overconfident, direct and decisive frontal attacks which, when commanding his professional and disciplined army against inferior foes unsurprisingly worked, yet was insufficient against the more equivalent later Russian army. Secondly, his grand strategy for winning the war can very easily be placed into question – although that being said retrospective criticism of a general’s broader strategy is always easy to find. The strategic criticisms of Charles can be summarised simply by describing him as far too overconfident, whether it was in leaving Russia alone for many years while he was on his Polish adventure, giving them time to restructure their army, attacking Russia whilst lack supplies and lying to his commanders about their destination or massively overestimating Cossack support. His decisive and easy early victories seem to have never allowed him to develop a proper mind for strategy or tactics.

To round off, as much as Charles XII is an interesting historical figure, with fun quotes like “I have resolved never to start an unjust war but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies,” he certainly is no titan of military achievement. The military history of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century is fascinating as it represents polities moving towards the professional, artillery-reliant armies that would come to define the next two centuries of warfare. The Great Northern War is particularly interesting as part of this trend, as it represents a newly-reformed Swedish army proving the worth of these innovations on the battlefield, and Russia ultimately participating in a huge restructuring of their military forces to catch up. To simplify this to “Charles XII was a great general” not only unfairly represents this period, but it also gives the far-right a figure to rally around. 

Written By: David Rowley