Battle of Holowczyn, 4 July 1708 (NS)

The battle of Holowczyn was a Swedish victory during Charles XII’s attempted invasion of Russia in 1708 (Great Northern War). Charles had decided to take a direct route to Moscow, crossing the Drut’ and Dnieper Rivers. Peter the Great had been forced to spread his armies out along his western borders, with detachments in Ingria guarding St. Petersburg and at Dorpat in case of an attack through Livonia. The main Russian army, under Boris Sheremetev, with Alexander Menskikov representing the Tsar, was further south, guarding the approaches to Moscow and to Pskov.

By the end of June Charles’s route was becoming more obvious. He had out manoeuvred the Russians at the Berezina River, and then attempted to catch a Russian cavalry army under Heinrich von der Goltz as it withdrew to the River Drut’. Sheremetev began to concentrate his troops east of the Drut’, before moving a few miles further east, taking up a position on the east bank of the Vabich’, a tributary of the Drut’, near the village of Holowczyn.

On 30 June Charles led a detachment of his army on a march to the Vabich’, in the hope of surprising at least part of the Russian army. One Russian detachment was indeed found on the west bank of the river, but crossed to safety when the Swedish army formed up in line.

Sheremetev had 38,000 men at Holowczyn, with more close by. The main army was split into two camps. Sheremetev commanded the northern camp, while Nikita Repnin commanded in the southern camp. The two camps were separated by a tributary of the Vabich’, running through woodland surrounded by a marsh. Goltz and his cavalry were south of Repnin, while another Russian force under Nikolaus, Freiherr von Hallart was further north, separated from Sheremetev by a much larger swamp.

Over the next few days Charles waited while more of his troops arrived at Holowczyn. Finally, on 4 July he was ready to attack. His plan was to cross the river between the two Russian camps under cover of darkness. He would then turn south to attack Repnin, using the marsh to help hold off any reinforcements sent south by Sheremetev. By 2 a.m. on the morning of 4 July the Swedish army was in place, ready to attack. At daybreak they began to cross the river, some using pontoon bridges, while an advance guard led by Charles in person waded across the shallow river.

The battle was fully underway by about 5 a.m. Charles led the Swedish infantry against Repnin, while Karl Gustaf Rehnskiöld led the Swedish cavalry against Goltz. The marshy terrain did not allow the Swedes to use their normal aggressive tactics (gå på, or have at them), in which the pike and bayonet were more important than the musket. Instead the battle developed into an exchange of musket fire in which the Swedes came under severe pressure. Eventually Russian morale began to falter, and at around 7 a.m. Repnin’s army scattered east. This would normally indicated the start of a pursuit and the moment at which heavy casualties could be inflicted on the retreating enemy, but at Holowczyn the Russians were able to escape across marshy terrain and through open forests.

Further north Sheremetyev initially believed that the Swedish attack was a feint. When he eventually decided to attack the virtually un-guarded Swedish camp at Holowczyn, Swedish reinforcements arrived. Faced with these fresh troops and with Repnin’s army beginning to leave the field, Sheremetyev withdrew. A planned Swedish attack on Sheremetyev was abandoned after Charles received an incorrect report that his cavalry was in trouble.

Charles is known to have considered Holowczyn to have been his best victory, won despite the strength of the Russian position. Peter the Great was less impressed by his army’s performance. Repnin was court-martialled and stripped of his command.

Swedish casualties at Holowczyn were relatively heavy, with 267 dead and over 1000 wounded. Amongst the dead was Otto Wrangel, commander of the elite drabants. Russian losses were 977 dead and 675 wounded. In the aftermath of the defeat, the Russians abandoned the line of the Dnieper. Charles advanced to the river, camping close to Mohilev. His plan was to regroup and then cross the river and march east to Moscow. However, he became bogged down at Mohilev. Wet weather slowed the movement of a supply convoy, delaying Charles for a month. When he did eventually move, it would not be towards Moscow.  Instead, the Swedish army would eventually march into the Ukraine, where Charles would lose the decisive battle of the campaign, at Poltava (28 June 1709).

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (9 August 2007), Battle of Holowczyn, 4 July 1708 (NS) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_holowczyn.html

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