The battle of Narva (30 November 1700 NS) was a key battle early in the Great Northern War (1700-1721). The war had started with an unprovoked attack on Sweden by Poland-Lithuania, Russia and Denmark, with the aim of breaking Swedish control over the Baltic. Charles XII of Sweden had only come to the throne in 1697, aged fourteen, and Sweden had not fought a war since suffering a serious defeat in the Scanian War (1674-79). The allies expected an easy victory.
They were to be disappointed. Charles began by knocked Denmark out of the war with an invasion of Zealand (treaty of Travendal, 18 August 1700). He was then able to turn east to deal with the Russian threat. Peter the Great had led an army that was probably around 35,000 strong into Ingria, besieging Narva. The Russian bombardment began on 31 October.
Charles responded with an aggressive counterattack that was to become something of a trademark. With an army only 8,000 strong he advanced towards Narva, brushing aside small Russian detachments on the way. Faced with the advance of the Swedish army, Peter decided to leave Narva, leaving Charles Eugène de Croy to command the army.
Despite Peter’s disappearance the Russians were still in a strong position. At least 26,000 of them were able to fit into the contravallations around Narva, meaning that Charles would have to attack an entrenched enemy who outnumbered him three to one.
Charles responded with a typically aggressive move. Under the cover of a sudden blizzard he launched an attack on the Russian lines, breaking through in two places. The 5,000 strong force of old style Russian cavalry fled at the first charge, while de Croy was caught out by the small size of the Swedish army, thinking it could only be an advance guard.
With the Russian line split in three, and the snow blocking visibility, the Russian army collapsed. Charles was able to deal with the three parts of the Russian line in detail. Large numbers of soldiers fled, many drowning in the Dvina River. At least 20,000 infantry were captured by the Swedes, then released after they had surrendered their muskets. The Russians suffered 10,000 dead, the Swedes as few as 600.
Charles’s next move after Narva has remained controversial. Rather than pursue Peter into Russia, he decided to turn south into Poland-Lithuania, where he won a series of dramatic victories. However, this gave Peter time to improve the quality of the Russian army, and when Charles turned back east in 1708-9 he was decisively beaten at the battle of Poltava and forced to flee to the Ottoman Empire. Narva itself fell into Russian hands in 1704, while Charles was absent in Poland.
The nature of the Russian army at Narva was also controversial. The poor quality of his army in 1700 became part of Peter the Great’s own propaganda, deliberately exaggerated to make his own reforms of the army look more impressive. The Russian army was described as inexperienced, a barbarian horde or as fighting like cattle. Peter exaggerated its lack of experience, stating that only the Lefortovskii regiment were veterans, while the two Guards regiments had only seen action at Azov.
Other more impartial observers at Narva suggest that the Russian army in 1700 was rather better than that, containing a core of well drilled infantry and carrying out a well organised siege operation. The siege was after all only four weeks old when Charles arrived and drove away the Russia army. Russia had been engaged in constant warfare on her southern borders, which must have given some of the men present at Narva military experience. Charles’s aggressive tactics would win him victories against western armies of proven quality.