The siege of Narva of 1704 was one of Peter the Great’s major successes during the Great Northern War, helping to expand the Russian foothold on the shores of the Baltic, and pushing the frontier away from Peter’s new foundation of St. Petersburg. It followed an earlier failed attack in 1700, which was broken up by Charles XII of Sweden in person. However in 1704 he was busy elsewhere, and no serious attempt was made to lift the siege.
The book has an interesting mix of styles. The framework is a day-by-day narrative of the siege, describing in great detail what happened in and around Narva. This also includes reports of events elsewhere in Europe – this was the year of the battle of Blenheim, and the Great Northern War took place alongside the War of the Spanish Succession. The diary format is interrupted by brief biographies of each major figure when they first occur, and by a series of longer sections explaining the various elements of an early eighteenth century siege, from the overall nature of fortifications of the period to individual weapons such as the hand mortars used by the Russians.
Narva itself has an interesting history, having probably been founded while the Danes controlled Estonia, before going to the Livonia Order. They lost it to the Russians, who held it for thirty years in the Sixteenth Century, before in turn losing it to the Swedes. By the time Peter the Great attacked for the first time in 1700, the city had been Swedish for nearly 120 years, but in 1702 Peter the Great conquered (or re-conquered depending on your point of view) an area just to the east, where he founded St. Petersburg. Narva became a frontier post, and the obvious target for a second Russian attack.
The 1704 siege of Narva is a good choice for this approach. It was the only occasion during the Great Northern War where the Swedish commander of a fortified city didn’t surrender before the storm, so we get all of the formal elements of the siege, and an actual attack as well. This allows the author to take us through all of the elements that made up a siege in this period, from the earliest phases before the city was properly blockade, through the construction of the siege works, the bombardment, Swedish attempts to interrupt the progress of the attack and on to the final assault itself. We also get interesting snippets from Vauban’s works on siege warfare, which are compared to what went on here, demonstrating that not all of his ideas were carried out in practice.
I like this approach to the subject. We get a good idea of the daily pattern of a siege, with the regular bombardments, sorties, a diplomatic dance between the besieged and besiegers and in this case the eventual storm, while the inserts looking at the nature of siege warfare in this period give more context to the events being described.
The Chronology of the 1700-1704 Period of the Great Northern War
1 – The Start of the 1704 Campaign
2 – The Formal Siege
3 – The Artillery Attack on the Fortress
4 – The Fall of the City
5 – Conclusion
6 – The Further Fate of the City and Some of the Participants
Author: Boris Megorsky