Battle of Lesnaja, 9 October 1708 (NS)

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The battle of Lesnaja (28 September OS, 29 September Swedish Style, 9 October NS) saw the defeat of a Swedish supply column that had been attempting to catch up with Charles XII’s main army during his 1708 invasion of Russia (Great Northern War). That supply column had started as the Baltic army, 11,400 strong and commanded by General Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt. In May 1708 he received orders from Charles to gather enough supplies to last both his and the main army for three months. The supply column was expected to leave Riga at the start of June 1708. 

In the event it took Lewenhaupt much longer to gather the required supplies and the thousands of wagons needed to carry them. The convoy was not able to get underway until the end of June. Lewenhaupt had orders to march to Berezina-Pazowska, where he would receive new orders. When the convoy did depart from Riga, it was guarded by 12,500 men (5,000 cavalry and 7,500 infantry). Lewenhaupt joined the column on 29 July (OS).

Unsurprisingly the supply column moved rather slower than the main army. By the middle of August Charles was already having to modify his plans in order to protect Lewenhaupt’s army, maneuvering in the vicinity of the Dnieper for much longer than he would have liked. The exact location of the supply column seems not to have been known for long periods. Meanwhile the main army was running short of food. Peter the Great had implemented a scorched earth policy in the areas between Charles and Moscow. Finally, on 14 September (Swedish Style)/ 28 September (New Style), Charles decided to abandon the direct route towards Moscow and instead turned south.

Lewenhaupt did not reach the Dnieper until 21 September (SS)/ 1 October (NS). There was now an increasing gap between Lewenhaupt and the main Swedish army. This encouraged Tsar Peter to attempt an attack on the Swedish column. He detached a flying column from his main army, made up of 6,795 dragoons and 4,830 mounted infantry. More troops were in the area, but for most of the battle the Russians were actually slightly outnumbered by Lewenhaupt’s column.

The two armies clashed at Lesnaja (or Lesna) on 28 September OS/ 29 September Swedish Style/ 9 October NS. A hard fought battle followed. Swedish armies of this period were at their most effective when they could use their aggressive tactics, based on the use of the pike, bayonet and sword. At Lesnaja this was not possible, as Lewenhaupt had to defend the supply wagons.

At the end of the day the Swedes retained command of the battlefield, but the supply wagons had already been pillaged by Cossacks. Lewenhaupt felt that he had no choice but to abandon the wagons and his artillery and attempt to reach Charles with what was left of his army. By the time the survivors of Lesnaja reached Charles, Lewenhaupt had lost half of his men.

The loss of the supply convoy was a blow to Charles, but not as devastating as it would have been if he had still been in the devastated areas in front of Moscow. He would be short of ammunition by the summer of 1709, but Swedish tactics did not rely on large amounts of ammunition. The most worrying aspect of the battle for the Swedes was that the Russians had finally won a formal battle against a Swedish army, and without massively outnumbering the Swedes. Peter the Great considered the victory at Lesnaja to have been the “mother of Poltava”.  

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (9 August 2007), Battle of Lesnaja, 9 October 1708 (NS) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_lesnaja.html

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