The Union's Last War: The Russian-Swedish War of 1808-09
By 1807 the French emperor had trampled all over Europe. His military genius had brought about the victories at Austerlitz, Jena-Auerstädt and Friedland. His eagles had flown over Berlin and Vienna, the capitals of two of Europe's most powerful nations, Prussia and Austria. But while emperor Napoleon's armies were winning victories on land, the Royal British Navy was holding up resistance against the French at sea. The legendary battle of Trafalgar in 1805 ended in a splendid victory for the, likewise, legendary British admiral Nelson, who secured British superiority at sea. The Franco-Spanish fleet was soundly beaten, and with that, all French plans for invasion in Britain were postponed. This was where Napoleon's continental blockade came into the picture. After having beaten Prussia in 1806 and secured his hold on Germany, Napoleon proclaimed the blockade in Berlin on November 21, 1806. Napoleon planned to beat the British through economic warfare by closing all European ports to British trade. Maintaining the blockade became his main political goal. After the decisive battle of Friedland on June 14, 1807, where Napoleon rolled up the Russian lines and threw them back into the river Alle, the turn came for Russia to join the blockade.
The Emperor of the West, Napoleon I of France, and the Emperor of the East, Czar Alexander I of Russia, met for peace negotiations on a raft on the river Niemen on July 7, 1807. The two emperors were very much fascinated by each other. They inspected major military reviews together, they dined together and were involved in hour-long conversations. Soon enormous plans for the future of the entire world started to take form. Europe was divided between Russia and France. In a secret agreement between the two emperors it was decided that Russia should take upon itself the task of forcing Sweden into the continental system. As a prize for his efforts, the Czar would receive Finland, which was at the time, the eastern half of the Swedish empire.
Gustav IV Adolf became the king of Sweden in 1796 (he ruled until 1809) as his eccentric father, "the king of theatre", Gustav III had been murdered in 1792. Gustav IV Adolf was a fierce hater of the French revolution. Furthermore, he had read the book of "Revelations" and saw Napoleon as the beast in that book. Kent Zetterberg writes in his essay in Krig kring Kvarken
"Gustav IV Adolfs hate against Napoleon was deep, true, almost monumental. The king saw Napoleon as the antichrist wandering on the face of the Earth and he was therefore not prepared to make any compromises in his war against the "French hydra". He meant to put the weak resources of the Swedish kingdom into the gigantic power struggle that was occurring in Europe as a whole. The king had been reading the book of Revelations in the Bible and saw Napoleon as the incarnation of evil, all according to the prophecy of the Apocalypse. Rather than to surrender for Napoleon, the king was prepared to leave the country and continue the struggle from England."
At the end of 1807 and the beginning of 1808, the Swedish government ignored all reports of the massive maneuvres along the border with Russia. The Swedish ambassador in St. Petersburg sent reports home to Stockholm and expressed his concern about the Russian armies. Nothing was done on the Swedish side. Without declaring war on Sweden, Russian troops crossed the border to Finland on February 21, 1808. That day, a Sunday, Swedish Major Gustav Arnkihl, of the Nyland Dragoons - who was posted at the border - signed a report to the brigade command. "...that the Russians have crossed the border at 5 o'clock today, with a considerable force... it is also reported that they have crossed at Abborfors and also that they have gone over at Korois with Cossacks and pointed their march in our direction." The union's last war had begun.
The Condition of the Opposing Armies
The Swedish Army
Unlike the Russian soldier, the Swedish soldier was a free man. The Swedish system meant that putting up troops, as well as supplying and maintaining them in peacetime, were the responsibilities of the landowners. In this manner all the land was divided into "rotar", and with each of these came one soldier for the army. The landowners supplied the soldiers with farms and a livelihood. The soldiers had families and were often unprepared to go to war. The military education of these troops was often lacking and the ties to the family and home came before risking their lives in war. The Swedish Army consisted of two parts: the troops that served "part time" and the ones that served "full time", usually men hired for the army, mostly garrison troops.
At the outbreak of war the Swedish Army in Finland consisted of 17,323 men, of which about 750 were cavalry. The army was under the command of general Mauritz Klingspor (1744-1814), who was a very cautious commander, bordering on being cowardly. Klingspor was more a bureaucrat and a desk-warrior than a man suitable for leading an army in the field. He never wanted to spend too much time on the battlefield and he often left the command to other officers while he place himself in safety. Most often Karl Johan Adlercreutz (1757-1815) exercised command on the field of battle when the main army was involved. While Swedish generals like Adlercreutz, Georg Karl von Döbeln, and Johan August Sandels were more than a fair match to their Russian commanders, the high command of the Swedish Army was often stiff, conservative and buried in its own bureaucracy.
Never has the state of the Swedish uniform been so confusing as during the war of 1808-09. The traditional uniform of the Swedish Army was in blue and yellow, but during the era of Gustav IV Adolf, the army had also been experimenting with grey uniforms. For the most part, the troops in Finland wore the grey uniform - with cuffs and stripes in varying colours for each regiment - except the Österbottens regiment that wore the yellow and blue uniform. The jaegers of Karelen had green jackets and white trousers, which made them look strikingly like the Russian infantry. The Swedish infantry wore cylindrical hats. The men wore their uniforms until they were totally worn-out, meaning that the army must have been a very confusing sight as many different types of uniforms were represented.
The Russian Army in 1808
Shortly before the war of 1808, the Russian Army was reformed and composed in the same manner as the French army. The system with divisions was therefore in full function at the outbreak of war and the Russian Army consisted of 24 divisions. A Russian division was composed of six regiments infantry , of which one or two were jaeger regiments. Among these, artillery and cavalry were placed. Russian infantry regiments consisted of three battalions, with four companies each. In theory, a regiment at full strength had about 2000 troops. The Russian Army was by no means unprepared for what was coming. The reforms in the army, as well as the rebuilding of units that had taken losses in the 1806-07 campaigns resulted in a war-experienced and powerful invasion force. Approximately, 80,000 troops were earmarked for the coming campaign, of which 50,000 would have been thrown into the fighting by the end of the war.
The Russian regular grenadier troops wore tight green uniform jackets and white trousers, the jaeger troops wore entirely green uniforms. The colours on collars and shoulder pads differed from regiment to regiment. The old triangular hats had been exchanged by shakos in 1803. The Russian cavalry was well known in all of Europe, and especially the irregular Cossack cavalry was so famous that horrible stories flew around the continent about these "barbarians". Most important of these Cossack-units was the Don Cossacks, that could show 40,000 troops by the beginning of the 19th Century. In all the Russian Army consisted of 400,000 men, and if we put the number of the irregular cavalry to that, it was easily twice that strength.
The Russian force that invaded Finland in February, 1808, was commanded by General Fredrik Wilhelm von Buxhoevden, had a strength of 24,000 troops and was organized in the following manner:
Left flank: 17th Division, under Lieutenant General Gortschakoff (8000 men) collected near Fredrikshamn.
Although defeated by Napoleon, the Russian Army was in a good condition. It was experienced and well organized. The commanders were of good quality, especially its commander. Buxhoevden was an experienced general who had been fighting for over 40 years. Buxhoevden was born in 1750 in a Livonian family and in by 1764, he joined the Russian Army. There he gained his first field experience during the Turkish wars. In 1788-90 he fought against Sweden as major general, commanding a brigade. Later, during the battle of Austerlitz in 1805 he led the Allied left flank and participated in the 1806-07 campaigns in Poland and Prussia with varying success. After having commanded the armies during the invasion in Finland, he was made general but was never brought back to command. He died in 1811.
The main weakness of the Russian Army was the poor morale of its soldiers. It was said that the Russian Army was made of slaves. While the Swedish Army consisted of free soldiers, the Russian men were most often serfs. The honour of being a soldier was not felt in the Russian Army, as it was in the Swedish. The Swedish often saw the uniform as something honourable, an evidence of manhood. The two armies that were to meet on the field of battle were really each others opposites.
The Military Operations of the War of 1808-09
The Swedish plan of war was simple enough and had been designed so that the fortifications at Sveaborg ("The Gibraltar of the North") could come to full use. The Swedish high command planned to move the land armies north, into Finland, in retreat and wait for reinforcements from Sweden itself. It was believed that the Russian armies would have their hands full trying to conquer the forts at Sveaborg and Svartholm. Sveaborg was considered strong enough to keep up a significant threat to the rear of any advancing Russian Army. Part of the plan called for the Swedish coastal fleet to harass the Russians with landings of troops at vital points of occupied territory. Sveaborg was the largest base for the coastal fleet and thus the key to Finland.
The First Retreat
When the war begun, General Carl Nathanael af Klercker concentrated the Swedish Army in Finland at Hämeenlinna (Tavastehus). However, when the high commander of the army, Field Marshal Mauritz Klingspor, arrived from Sweden on March 1, 1808, he gave the order to retreat north. The Army of Finland thus retreated, all according to plan, leaving southern Finland to Russian occupation. Strong garrisons were posted at Sveaborg and Svartholm. During the retreat north, the Swedish Army did not try to delay the Russian offensive, instead the retreat looked like it was a defeated army escaping a victorious one. The Russians captured Helsinki on March 2. Svartholm surrendered to the attacking armies on March 18 and Åbo, the age-old capital of Finland, was taken on March 22. Except for Sveaborg, southern Finland was occupied.
By late March, the retreating Swedes were in Österbotten. The Russian troops following the Swedish Army had become more aggressive. On April 16, a skirmish was fought in Pyhäjoki, where the Swedish troops repelled two attacks made by the Russians under Kulnev. The Swedish commander, Carl von Döbeln, gave the order to continue to retreat in accordance with Marshal Klingspors' plan.
On April 17, both armies rested. On this day General Carl Johan Adlercreutz was appointed second-in-command to Marshal Mauritz Klingspor. The retreat had been bad for Swedish morale and the troops, were longing for to fight. And it came sooner than expected.
On April 18, Klingspors' army again marched off north towards Siikajoki, closely followed by Russian cossacks. Kulnev, who was as always, very aggressive, again took his chance and attacked the Swedes at Siikajoki. In a bloody engagement, the Swedish were able to beat off the Russians. On April 27, Adlercreutz beat off the Russians again at Revolax. During the last stages of the fighting at Revolax, the Russians had taken up a position inside a building, which was attacked by the Swedish. Although these fights were small, the impact they had on Swedish morale was important. The Russians were also having a hard time holding together their campaign. Their supply lines were stretched to their limit. Large parts of the Russian Army were held up at Sveaborg and the Finnish civilian population were showing an increased disappointment in the Russian occupation. Peasants rebellions and guerilla groups started operating in the rear of the Russian Army, threatening their vulnerable supply lines. It soon became clear that the original 24,000 men were were not enough to achieve success. Furthermore, the Swedish retreat had come to an end though.
Warfare in the northern hemisphere did not look like anything on the continent and this disappointed the Russian high command that had planned a quick and decisive lightning-war in Napoleonic style. The terrain in Finland consisting of with large, dark woods where movements of large armies were impossible, and long distances between villages towns and dwellings, forced the war to be fought along the main roads. The Russo - Finnish War had three theatres of operation. These three theatres, or fronts, were:
The war in Österbotten, along the Finnish west coast, where the main armies stood against each other.
Sveaborg - the Key to Finland
Sveaborg was the key to Finland. Whoever owned the fortress, would have a serious advantage over any foe operating in the country. It was the largest and strongest of all fortresses in Sweden and the entire complex actually involved fortifications on six islands outside Helsinki, of which the largest was called Gustavssvärd. At the time of the war, the commander of the fortifications was Karl Olof Cronstedt, an ambitious and
experienced officer, whose reputation in Finnish history today is totally darkened by his actions at Sveaborg in 1808. During the battle of Svensksund (In English it is called Rochensalm) 1790, he had been a staff officer under Gustav III and were one of the men behind the victory. In March of 1808, Cronstedt had 6,750 troops within the walls of the fort, with 734 guns on the walls. The fort was well supplied. Add to this considerable force, the Swedish Sveaborg Squadron of the coastal fleet was also present with a hundred coastal vessels. The stage was set for one of the greatest tragicomical plays in Swedish history.
The fortress of Svartholm - the other significant fortification in southern Finland besides Sveaborg - and its garrison of 700 men surrendered to Russian troops on March 18, although the Swedish officers had taken an oath never to surrender the fort - he who was to suggest a surrender should be arrested and put to trial as a traitor. When the Russians made their first reconnaissance against the fort, the situation changed though and the officers at Svartholm forgot all about their previous oath. The Russians had already started their offensive on Helsinki on March 2 though and soon they appeared outside Sveaborg as well. The garrison in the town of Helsinki retreated to the fortifications and the Russians deployed an observation unit in the town. By the middle of march this unit was strengthened to about 3,000 men.
On March 19, the Russians opened fire on the fort with a few field batteries. The fire was totally harmless, but was answered with sporadic, unplanned and almost panic-like responsive fire from the Swedish fort. After this incident Cronstedt immediately took up negotiations with the Russians. Hornborg, who in his book När riket sprängdes describes the Russian representatives at the negotiations in hard words:
"They were led on the Russian side by psychological insight and diplomatic skill by the engineer General Paul van Suchtelen, Dutch by birth. He was assisted by the old adventurer and traitor of his country Göran Magnus Sprengtporten [he was Swedish by birth], who had at one time in his life been dreaming about becoming "The Washington of Finland", and his friends; the notorious traitor Karl Henrik Klick [also Swedish by birth] who came personally to Helsinki to assist with advice and action. This gang was supported by a bunch of officers wives..."
Between March 28 and April 2, as negotiations continued, the besieging force reached its peak - 6,500 troops and 59 guns.
As the negotiations continued, Cronstedt decided to surrender. On may 6, Sveaborg was turned over to the Russians and one of the greatest acts of treason in Finnish and Swedish history had occurred! One hundred and ten ships of the coastal fleet immediately fell into Russian hands, numerous guns were taken and 6,750 men were taken out of the war on the Swedish side. More importantly, the key to Finland had been turned over and the lock was about to be opened by Russian hands as the strongest fortification of the entire kingdom had been taken by the enemy. The total losses on the Swedish side were six men dead.
Runebergs judgement over Cronstedt's actions at Sveaborg came in the 1840's, and this picture has stayed in Finnish and Swedish minds: Cronstedt was the greatest traitor of all time. History has judged him very hard indeed. I translate freely from Runeberg's Fänrik Ståls Sägner:
and all the suffering in this life
and create yourself a name thereof
and give it to that man;
and it shall nonetheless awaken less sorrow,
than the one he had at Sveaborg"
The Summer Campaign 1808
The engagements in the north had ended the Swedish retreat and forced the Russian armies to retreat south to Kokkola (Gamlakarleby). But the Swedish forces stood still in Brahestad. The supply lines back had to be secured and the offensive could not begin until the middle of June. The first unit to start offensive warfare, was Sandels' 5th Brigade that went south east, into Savolax in the direction of Kuopio. These areas were almost empty of Russian troops and after winning a skirmish against a Russian unit under Obuhov at Pulkkila on May 2, Sandels retook Kuopio. He then continued with his 1,400 men all the way to the Russian border. This worried the Russian commanders who immediately asked for reinforcements and a force of 8,000 men under Barclay de Tolly were sent to fight Sandels in the eastern areas of Finland. Although the Russians were overwhelming in numbers Sandels entrenched himself at Toivola and held the Russians at bay until late September, even though they were attacked on an almost daily basis. Sandels' offensive was one of the most remarkable operations of the entire war. He captured Russian depots, constantly harassed their rear areas, and committed actions that won him respect among both friends and foes.
In the secondary theatres of war, the Russians had been operating against both the Åland islands as well as Gotland.
While all this was happening in the east, the main Swedish Army started to moveon June 16, although the promised reinforcements from Sweden had been insufficient. On June 24, the Russian Army was almost surrounded inside the town of Nykarleby and at the same time Swedish reinforcements finally arrived at Vasa. Heavy streetfighting inside the town of Vasa followed between the opposing armies, but as the Swedish expedition did not receive any help from the troops in Nykarleby, they soon found themselves retreating. One of the results of the Vasa-expedition was that the peasants rose against the Russian occupation in southern Österbotten, but they were brutally suppressed.
The Swedish offensive continued without let up and on July 14, the main armies met at Lappo in central Österbotten. The following battle could have been decisive if Adlercreutz had used his position correctly. The Russian commander, Rayevskij, had about 4,100 troops at his disposal and the Swedes had 4,700. Rayevskij's bad defensive positions suggested that the Swedes should try to cut off the retreat for the Russian troops, thereby surrounding their main army. Adlercreutz did not deal with the situation correctly though and tried to attack both flanks of the Russian Army at once. The Björneborg Regiment, under the legendary General Georg Carl von Döbeln had already gone out in the fields when they were held back by Adlercreutz. Irritated by the fire from the Russian lines, Döbeln went on the attack shortly before Adlercreutz had given the order though and at this moment one of the more famous episodes of the war took place. The Björneborg Regiment was let loose at Lappo as it beran its ferocious attack, with flying banners, against the Russians there. Russian skirmishers lay in the field outside the village, and inside, Russian formations stood waiting for the coming onslaught. Döbeln and his regiment cleared the village of all opposition. The battle came to a close as Rayevskij retreated and the Swedes could only regret that he had escaped their trap.
After the victory at Lappo, Adlercreutz now pushed his lines forward. Near Kauhajoki, the only important cavalry skirmish during the summer campaign was fought. A patrol of Russian hussars were attacked and thrown back by dragoons of the Nyland Dragoon Regiment.
At this point in the war the situation was desperate for the Russians even though they continued to receive regular reinforcements. The commander of the main Russian Army, Rayevskij, had to step down after the defeat at Lappo, and was exchanged by the young and brilliant Nikolai Michailovitsch Kamenskij, who had become a major general at the age of 23 and had arrived to Finland to participate in the campaign. He took command on July 24. Initiaully, the Swedish Army continued itswar of reconquest with success. On August 10, Döbeln sealed a victory at Kauhajoki against Schepeljeff after a decisive and corageous attack. On August 17, Adlercreutz, with 3,800 troops, beat 2,400 Russians under Colonel Erikson at Alavo. While on August 28, Swedish General von Otter defeated a Russian force at Nummijärvi.
General Kamenskij started his counteroffensive with about 21,200 troops, while the Swedish Army at this time counted 11,600 troops. The time had come for the decisive moment.
The Russians began their attack on August 21 and the Swedes under von Fieandt were defeated at Karstula. The following actions also took place further west, along the coast. The battle of Lappfjärd on August 29 ended in a Russian victory. On the main front, further inland, Adlercreutz stood against Kamenskij in bitter fighting at Ruona and Salmi (where the most violent artillery duel of the entire war was fought) on September 1-2. Here Adlercreutz was finally beaten. Retreat was the only way out for the Swedish and they went north, to Vasa, to collect their troops and plan for the coming warfare. The turning point had arrived.
The Decisive Battle of Oravais and Its Aftermath
The Swedish Army retreated further north with its tail between its legs. At Nykarleby the army's retreat was threatened and in danger of being cut off by Russian detachements operating in that direction. General Georg Carl von Döbeln was sent to the important crossroads at Juthas to protect the road north for the Swedish main army. On September 13, he beat Russian troops under Kossatchoffskij and this battle of Juthas has reached legendary status in Finnish and Swedish history. It is told of in shining words in Fänrik Ståls Sägner (freely translated):
'forward, forward, on to victory or death!'
Like a thunder was the voice of Standar
and old Nord beat the drum as it was heard,
and the young one with his belly blown up
went on over the field, with his blood running,
and in the front rode Döbeln himself with sword in hand,
and before the evening's shadows fell
was the Russian force thrown over
and saved was Adlercreutz' free journey."
The day dawned clear and beautiful. Birds were singing in the deep woods as the sun shed its first light on the lush landscape. Down from the sea came a light wind in which the trees waved silently in early greeting as the 14th of September dawned. General Adlercreutz had chosen his position. From a nearby hill he stood watching as his troops formed on the fields below. He saw the colourful uniforms; swords and bayonets shining in the early morning light; he heard the sound of their voices and the rattle of the weapons. He had chosen good a position for the coming defensive battle -- for that was his plan: to keep the Russians at bay for some time. He did not want a decisive engagement. As Adlercreutz stood watching the Swedish Army form up, the Russian commander, Kamenskij, was already on his way to meet him with a considerable force. The dawning day, September 14, 1808, would bring surprises for both Finland and Sweden. The destiny of the 600-years old Swedish-Finnish union was to be decided.
While the battle of Oravais was not a large battle by continental standards, it made its mark in Finnish and Swedish history. The main armies were to fight a decisive battle that would decide the future of Finland. Adlercreutz had about 5,500 troops present and while the number of artillery has not been established, it was about 18 guns. The Russians came in with about 6,000 soldiers, including cavalry. The battle was fought on the fields and in the woods just south of the village of Oravais and the Swedish line of defence stretched along the slight heightening in the landscape that ran alongside the rather insignificant river of Fjällån. The Swedish avantgarde was placed at the bridge at Lillträsket and it was here that the first shots in the battle were traded.
The battle at the Swedish outpost began about five in the morning as the Russian avantgarde under Kulnev arrived. The initial fight at the outpost continued for several hours, draining resources on both sides. Adlercreutz has been badly criticized for committing so much of his army at this stage of the battle. At about 11 a.m. Demidoff arrived with Russian reinforcements and the Swedish outpost was forced to retreat. Kulnev, who was still charging in the direction of the road at this time was effectively held up by the young underlieutenant Wilhelm von Schwerin, who protected the Swedish retreat with his guns. Although von Schwerin and his men were cut off by the Russians, and he himself was mortally wounded, they were able to fight their way through.
At 10 a.m. Adlercreutz mobilized his forces at the main position as the Russians began to deploy and the final battle was to be fought. At about noon the Russians came forward to the edge of the woods on the other side of the field and were now facing the main Swedish position directly. "Thousands of rifles opened up fire from both sides of the river... light clouds of gunsmoke lay as a cover over the green fields where skirmishers were crawling like ants... the Russian artillery answered with such a great success that the cannonade may have been the hardest I have yet heard", fänrik Ljunggren later told. After an hour-long artillery duel the Russian troops engaged the centre and right of the Swedish Army. The attack was beaten back and the Swedish troops counter-attacked. All of the 4th Swedish Brigade attacked and the losses were very high. The Swedish were beaten back in their turn. The Russians began to redeploy their troops. Forces were moved over to the Russian right, where they believed the decisive action was to be fought. This did not escape Adlercreutz who now planned to break the weakened Russian centre. Two Swedish battalions were given the order to attack. The Västmanlands Battalion and the Upplands Battalion attacked supported by a number of 6-pound guns. Seeing that the attack on the Russian centre was now underway, the men from Savolax as well as the men from Österbotten under von Otter and Västerbottens Battalion joined in the attack from the Swedish left wing. Adlercreutz personally followed his troops in the attack and initially it was a great success - the Russian lines were pressed back all the way to their initial positions at the outposts. At about 3 p.m., the attack stalled as Kamenskij, with parts of the Russian main army under Uschakoff arrived at the scene and took up the counteroffensive. Adlercreutz had played his last card.
When Uschakoff finally arrived with 1,200 fresh Russian troops, the situation stood clear. The Swedish Army had been defeated. As the sun went down, the battle was not yet over though. The fighting still raged along the Swedish line and as there was a shortage of ammunition, the troops fought with what they could find. The bayonet, sword and even fists came into good use in this last desperate fight. Adlercreutz retreated as darkness ended the battle. The defeated Swedish Army retreated north, towards Nykarleby. The Swedish Army lost about 740 men, while the Russians lost about 900.
Eric Gustaf Ehrström, one of the eyewitnesses describes the retreat from Oravais in his diary, which was released in 1986 as the book Kanonerna vid Oravais.
"All this time I stood on a nearby hill and watched the horrible play. Towards the evening Jernefelt and I went down to one of the farms, where we intended to spend the night. Then the news that the Swedish Army was in full retreat arrived. It became a horrible retreat! The road was tread to pieces. We joined the baggage. It was raining and the darkness was so compact that you could hardly see anything in front of you [...] The Swedish troops, of which soldiers every now and then came through the woods to the baggage, were in total disorder. They had no officers left. The Finnish troops made the rearguard, and were retreating in good order. They did not even have any guns to cover them."
With the main army defeated, Klinspor and Adlercreutz began the second retreat north. No larger engagements were fought, but the Russians again tried to cut off the retreat at Kokkola (Gamlakarleby) on September 15 but the Swedes defeated them. On September 29 the Cease-fire of Lochteå was signed on the Russian initiative. Soon after, Klingspor turned over the command of the army to General Klercker. The retreat was a tragic sight. The Swedish troops suffered from diseases and a lack of supplies. These circumstances finally broke the army down.
On the eastern theatre of war, the Russians broke the Treaty of Lochteå on October 27 when they attacked Sandels and his 5th Brigade at Koljonvirta (the Battle of Virta Bro). The battle that followed is of legendary status in Finnish history, mainly due to the treatment it gets in Fänrik Ståls Sägner.
More than 5,800 Russian troops fought against Sandels and his 1,800 men. The Swedish force was in a good position for a defensive action. The Russians had to cross the bridge at Koljonvirta - also called Virta Bo - to get to the Swedes. The Russians attacked with shouts and music. Their attack was massive. But keeping his cool, Sandels waited for the right moment. Then the order was given. With shining bayonets, the Vasa Regiment and Savolax Jaegers counter-attacked. They were followed by a battalion from Uleåborg as well as Karelian Dragoons. The success was total. The Russian troops were routed and driven back towards the bridge. The Swedes inflicted heavy losses as they used the bayonets against the confused formations of Russian soldiers. The Russian commander, Tutjkov himself was wounded in the battle.
The battle of Virta bro was the last Swedish military victory on Finnish soil.
Shortly thereafter the Convention of Olkijoki was signed, on November 19. All Swedish Armies were to leave Finland. The war was then shifted to northern Sweden, while Finland was left to Russian occupation. But the war was not yet over, the operations would continue in northern Sweden for some time, and Finnish soldiers fought alongside their Swedish comrades for the last time in the history of the Swedish-Finnish union.
Operations in Northern Sweden
Illustration of the story from Fänrik Ståls sägner that told of the lonely Finnish soldier who defended the bridge against the attacking Russians until Swedish reinforcements could arrive.
The war continued on into northern Sweden and in March of 1809 the Russians made raids against the Umeå area, marching over the ice on the Sea of Bothnia from Finland. Against them stood the Swedish Northern Army. During the Spring and Summer of 1809 the military actions in northern Sweden were delayed by the fact that both sides expected a peace agreement very soon, especially as the government in Stockholm under Gustav IV had been overthrown. Peace did not come in time to prevent a couple interesting.
In August of 1809, Sweden's last effort against Russia was mounted. It was a daring plan with them mobilizing the last unit capable of carrying the fight to the enemy. The plan was to surround the Russian Army under Kamenskij inside the town of Umeå by landing this unit behind the enemy lines. At the same time General Wrede would attack from south of the town. The armies for the expedition were to be commanded by General Gustaf Wachtmeister, while the navy transporting the troops were under the command of Admiral Johan Puke. On their way to the battlefield, the smaller ships transporting the troops were towed by the two ships of the line, as well as a frigate that joined the expedition.
On August 17 1809, the forces arrived at Ratan, outside Umeå, where a thick fog effectively covered their approach. The landing of the troops went according to plan and the next day, the troops began the march upon Sävar. On the night between the 17th and 18th, Swedish Captain Nordenskiöld led an attack against Umeå with his nine gunsloops. He shelled the bridge over the Umeå river but was not able to destroy it as he was met by heavy Russian artillery fire. Wachtmeister did not do a thing to assist him, although the explosions were heard at Sävar, and so Nordenskiöld returned out to sea after his failed mission. On the morning of the 19th, the troops were attacked by 6,000 Russians in Sävar.
The battle of Sävar was the second largest battle of the entire war. At about 7:30 in the morning of August 19, the fighting started as the Swedish avante gardes came under fire by the attacking Russian troops. The fighting was concentrated near the "Krutbrånet", a mountain, over which the battle was waged time after time. The Swedish troops stood fast, although untried soldiers were thrown in. The Russians on their side, although suffering from hunger and fatigue, fought very well. As the Russian 23d Jaeger Regiment deployed in the woods northeast of the battlefield, General Kamenskij found that they were moving too slowly. He had his own guns shoot away two shots in the back of them.
General Anselme de Gibory (who was of French descent and had also been present at the capitulation of Sveaborg) had crossed the small river that divided the battlefield, with nine companies of Russian troops and threaten the Swedish right flank. Against these troops, Wachtmeister committed the jaeger battalion of the 2nd Brigade, Drottningens Livregemente, as well as Svea Livgarde. Although the Swedish units were committed piecemeal, they finally beat the Russians off.
At Sävar, the Russian troops were winning and the Swedish were retreating across the river. The Russians now found a splendid chance to attack the Swedish in the rear. Six Russian companies, under the command of Schreider, crossed the river and attacked the Swedish troops that were fighting Anselm de Gibory. General Wachtmeister became nervous and gave the order to retreat. Although the Swedish Army still had five battalions in reserve, the retreat began under protest by the troops. The Russians were too tired to follow, but Wachtmeister had thrown away victory. The battle ended about 3 p.m. in the afternoon.
Wachtmeister retreated to Sävar, where he was protected by the large artillery of the navy, as well as from guns that had been placed on the beaches and nearby islands. Kamenskij followed and on the next day, the 20th of August, he attacked without fear. The Russian troops were cut to pieces in the hellish artillery fire that followed. "The treetops were cut all the way to Djäkneboda", Allan Sandström tells us in his book Sveriges sista krig. Wachtmeister shipped out on the 22nd of August, after Kamenskij had made some groundless threats and totally misled the Swedish generals.
In the meantime, Sandels had fought the Russians with success at Hörnefors, a bit south of Umeå, where he again showed his brilliance in defensive actions. In the north, General Wrede did not do much to support Wachtmeister, since they both expected the other to take the initiative. This was the main reason the plan failed.
"If so my position was very critical, I shall do everything in my power to bring my troops therefrom. Although I must agree upon the fact that it was very sad to retreat from a victory like this, which we had won in the last two days, in which I not only did beat the enemy and chased him out to his boats, but also personally placed him upon these boats, so to speak", Kamenskij reported to the Czar about the actions of Sävar and Ratan.
With these words ended Sweden's last war.
The War at Sea
Operations in the Åbo-Åland Archipelago
The Swedish coastal fleet was a phenomenon on its own. The fleet had been formed, separate from the naval command, in 1753 due to experiences in the Northern War (1700-21), as well as the War of 1741-43 (the war of the "hats", the hats were a political party in Sweden that wanted revenge on Russia). These wars, fought among the shallow coastal waters of southern Finland, had clearly show the need for a light, fast moving navy that could fight effectively in these waters. The coastal fleet, also called the navy of the army, was directly under army command and its main mission was to work together with the army to land troops in the back of the enemy as well as to threaten enemy shipping in the waters of southern Finland. The coastal fleet was equipped with state-of-the-art coastal frigates designed by shipbuilding genius Fredric Henrik af Chapman. All sorts of smaller crafts were used throughout the war. The most common ships were the gunsloop, rowing boats equipped with heavy artillery. The coastal fleet was divided into two squadrons - the Sveaborg Squadron for warfare in southern Finland and the Stockholm Squadron for warfare in the Åbo-Åland-Stockholm Archipelago.
After the capitulation of Sveaborg to Russian troops in May 1808, the Swedish-Finnish coastal fleet lost 110 ships and boats, which the Russians in their turn took over. It therefore became one of the Swedish Army's priorities to build a new coastal fleet. With the Stockholm Squadron intact, they began designing a new fleet with that squadron as backbone. New boats were built quickly and were ready in June 1808, allowing the Swedes to take the offensive. The main goal was then to threaten all Russian shipping in the Åland-Åbo archipelago.
The first initiative the Swedes took was to try to recapture the city of Åbo, the old capital of Finland. Ernst von Vegesack took the command of 2,000 troops and "a few and 70 sails". The Swedish landed at Lemo, outside Åbo, on June 19, 1808, protected by the heavy artillery of the coastal fleet. The landing was successful, however the troops soon met resistance from the Russian troops coming from Åbo. The Swedish troops had to be evacuated and the fleet returned to Åland to be reorganized.
The Swedish now fought to retake the control over the Åland Archipelago, which became a splendid battleground for the coming operations. The many islands and passages provided cover and defensive positions. On June 30, Counter Admiral Hjelmstierna attacked a Russian squadron at Rittmo Kramp, but did not defeat the Russians. A few days later, the Russians were pressed back at Bockholmsund, where they had found good positions. Although this engagement did not end in Swedish victory, the Russians soon found that they had been pressed back to the very gates of Åbo after these bitter fights. More Russian reinforcements were arriving from the east though and it quickly became a Swedish priority to see to it that these new ships did not join up with the Russian squadron fighting at Åbo.
On August 2-3 1808, The Russian reinforcing fleets and the Swedish met at Sandöström. A fierce and bloody battle followed, in which the Russian commander of the invasion army in Finland, Buxhoewden, was nearly captured by Swedish troops that had been put ashore near his command post. The Russian fleet had about 40 smaller ships at its disposal and the battle ended in a Russian victory after two days of bitter fighting. The Swedish retreated back to Åland, where they concentrated their efforts on protecting that island, as well as building up for coming amphibious operations in southern Finland.
The Russians united their fleets and since they saw that the Swedish had retreated back west to Åland, they became more aggressive in making expeditions north towards the Gulf of Bothnia. This became very serious for the Swedish generals who did not want the Russian fleet to support their armies in any way. Lieutenant Colonel Brant was sent with 35 Swedish gunsloops from Åland to put an end to these Russian expeditions in the north. He met up with the Russian fleet on the 30th of August at Grönvikssund. There was a six-hour long artillery duel, one of the most massive artillery-fights in the entire war. The Swedish pushed on, despite heavy losses, and eventually secured victory. The Swedish lost two gunsloops of which one was blown sky-high in the air, 122 dead, and 103 wounded. The Russian losses where also great. The victory for the Swedish fleet secured the north and prevented further Russian advances there.
On September 18 (a few days after the decisive battle at Oravais where the Swedish Army was finally defeated and had to retreat out of Finland), the battle of Palva Sund was fought. After five hours of fighting the Swedish had to retreat. Time was now running out. Lieutenant Otto Julius Hagelstam succeeded in holding a widely overwhelming Russian fleet at bay for a week, beating off daily attacks at Kahiluoto. On September 25, the Swedes tried a last desperate attempt to put 3,500 troops ashore at Helsinge, but these troops were too weak to face a much stronger enemy. They thus had to retreat back to their ships. As a whole, the operations in the Åbo-Åland archipelago had been badly planned and executed by the Swedes.
The British Royal Navy Gets Involved as the Franco-Danish Alliance Wages War on Sweden
In 1807, the British Royal Navy sailed into Öresund with 24 ships-of-the line and 22 smaller vessels, as well as troop-transports carrying 30,000 troops. Under Admiral James Gambier the British turned loose on Copenhagen, a flourishing neutral port and their objective was to destroy the Danish Navy which was the second largest in Europe. His goal was to keep the Danish Navy from falling into the hands of Napoleon. On the evening of September 2 1807, the British navy started to bombard the Danish capitol. Houses and churches were torn down in flames, women children and elderly were killed. The British continued their bombardment for twelve hours. On September 5, Denmark surrendered and the British sailed off with the remnants of the Danish navy.
The effects of the bombardment were immediately made clear. Denmark allied itself with Napoleonic France. For the rest of the Napoleonic wars, Denmark was Napoleon's most faithful ally. Scandinavia was once again divided between the greater continental powers as Sweden allied with Great Britain.
When the war now broke out between the Russian-Danish-French alliance and Sweden in 1808, Admiral James de Saumarez, of the British Navy, was sent to the Baltic Sea with his fleet (his flagship was Victory). The Baltic command was established and effectively protected the coasts of southern Sweden from Franco-Danish invasion, as Marshal Bernadotte of the French army had arrived with an army in Denmark for an invasion in Sweden. Instead the Spanish soldiers in this army (under Romana), were evacuated in August 1808 on British ships and returned to Spain after hearing about the French invasion of Spain. In the meantime, on May 17 1808, General Moore arrived outside Gothenburg with a British expeditionary corps of 10,000 troops bound for Sweden. The troops were never landed in Sweden because King Gustav IV Adolf protested strongly. Moore was sent to Portugal instead.
The Russian Navy in the Baltic Sea was now in danger and the allied Swedish-British Navy chased it into the Bay of Finalnd where a few minor engagements were fought in August of 1808. The Russians took shelter in Baltischport in Estonia were blockaded for the rest of the duration of the operations in Finland. This gave the Swedish coastal navy had an advantage while operating in the Åbo-Åland archipelago, since the Russian high-seas navy was thus kept out of the war.
Admiral Saumarez left Sweden in October, but returned later. While he was gone the leadership of the Baltic command was turned over to Admiral Keats, whose main mission was to escort ships through Öresund between Denmark and Sweden. During one of these convoy-escorts, the British ship of the Line, Africa, was attacked by Danish privateers and so badly damaged that she had to return to Karlskrona for repairs. The Baltic Command remained on duty until 1812.
Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who had a portrait of Admiral James de Saumarez, used to point to the painting with the words: "Regardez cette homme! Il á sauvé la Suede!" (Regard that man! He saved Sweden!).
Peace Agreement and the Results of the War
The final peace agreement between Russia and Sweden was signed in Fredrikshamn on September 17, 1809. Russia annexed Finland and the Åland islands. The Finnish union with Sweden had come to an end. Sweden and Finland separated and a 600-years old union went into the grave. Sweden faced west, while Finland faced east. The divorce was a fact and especially after Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was chosen crown prince of Sweden, when all Swedish plans of reconquest faded. In Napoleonic perspective, the War of 1808-09 was only a small part of the world war of its time, and as always, Sweden and Finland had only been pieces in the political chess game between the greater continental powers.
While the War of 1808-09 is not to be considered being of world historical proportions, it certainly was an important event in both Swedish and Finnish history; especially the result of the war for the Finnish nation. It was during the Russian period from 1809 to 1917, that the Finnish national character was formed, and out of it grew Finland as an independent nation. Finland was treated well by the Russian authorities and achieved a state of autonomy within the Russian Empire. The frames for this autonomy were decided upon at the lantdag of Borgå in 1809 where Czar Alexander took part personally. The Czar wanted to secure Finnish goodwill as he saw the power struggle with Napoleon drawing closer. Autonomy was thereupon fully maintained until the end of the 19th Century, when an age of aggressive russification followed.
Sweden had excellent chances of fighting a good defensive war. The terrain of Finland spoke in favour of defence, and the larger fortifications in southern Finland were backbones in a strong system of defence. Why did the Swedes fail? Let us take a look at some of the different reasons. The War of 1808-09 was badly run by the Swedish military high command right from the start. The king had been a poor leader of the nation during this war and his differences with the generals did not make the situation any better for the men fighting in the field. The instability of the king came to the surface time after time -- one day he appeared in the boots of the warrior king Karl XII. The commanders leading the army, although names like Georg Carl von Döbeln, Sandels and Adlercreutz can be found here, had been held back by the weak and incompetent Field Marshal Klingspor, who during the war always favoured retreat instead of attack. Misfortune (Sveaborgs surrender) as well as inadequate equipment and bad preparations made the Swedish war effort look pathetic. The war could only be prolonged due to the high morale of the men and the commanders in the field time. They were called upon time after time to perform did great deeds of almost superhuman bravery and exertion. Against all this stood the Russian Army; with its overwhelming number of experienced troops and excellent commanders.
Military Coup in Stockholm
Time was running out for the comice king Gustav IV Adolf. The defeat in the war was largely blamed on him and his ineffective command during the war. In the midst of the war, in March 1809 things started to happen.
The generals were very displeased with how the sick king Gustav IV Adolf had run the war and the Western Army, under Adlersparre, began its march to Stockholm from the vicinities of the Norwegian border. Adlersparre openly proclaimed that he was going to overthrow the king. Civil war threatened in Sweden. Adlersparre came from a lower nobility family of officers and during his life he had been deeply fascinated by the French philosophers as well as the revolutionary ideals. In 1809-10 he made a short appearance in Swedish politics. His talent and ability to take action were overshadowed by his lack of perseverance and he did not have the energy to realize his plans. On March 7, 1809 his army marched into Karlstad and proclaimed that the city was under occupation. A few days later Adlersparre and his army of less than 2,000 soldiers continued its march upon Stockholm. At this time a military "Junta", led by General Adlercreutz took its chance. Eirik Hornborg writes in När riket sprängdes:
"Then Adlercreutz seized the opportunity, as the political tension had kept him in Stockholm. For the second time in his life he heightened himself to decisive and great action. This time it was just as needed as tragic. He had earlier refused to stand in the front of the conspiracy [against the king], but now the further existence of the kingdom was at stake"
The Coup d'Etat was just as tragic as it was humourous. On March 13, 1809 - in the midst of war against Russia - the officers of the junta approached the king in his palace and told him that he was under arrest. In a never before seen display of bravery, the weak king reached for a sword and escaped out through a secret passage in the castle, screaming "treason!". The king knew the castle like the back of his hand and escaped unseen out in the yard, where he tried to stick his sword in one of the conspirators when he was finally detected. The king received help from a woodcutter who aggressively swung a piece of wood against one of the coupists. Finally, after all this fighting, the king was arrested and the junta seized the control of Sweden.
Jean Baptiste Bernadotte
Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was born on January 26, 1763 in Pau in southern France. His father was a lawyer and it was initially meant that the young Jean Baptiste should follow in his fathers steps and become a lawyer. At the age of seventeen he joined the army, at the Royal Marine, and ten years later he had advanced to the highest rank for under officers in the French army. The revolution gave him new prospects and at the age of 31 he was made brigadier general. He was later made one of the first marshals of the Empire in 1804. The rivalry between Napoleon and Bernadotte never ended though as the Emperor had once been engaged to Bernadotte's wife, Desirée and since then the rivalry continued on. Bernadotte worked as French ambassador to Vienna for some time (1798) and was later given the little kingdom of Pontecorvo in Italy by the Emperor. Bernadotte took part in the campaigns of Austerlitz and Jena-Auerstädt, and in 1806 he beat the Prussians at Halle and Landsberg, and thereupon received Blüchers and Braunschweigs surrender at Lübeck. He defeated the Russians in the battle of Mohrungen in 1807. In 1808 he was made governor of the Hanseatic cities, commanding the armies in Denmark in 1807-08 and planned an invasion of Sweden. In August of 1810, he was chosen crown prince of Sweden by the Swedish parliament, Riksdagen. He gratefully accepted this mission, although he never learned to speak Swedish correctly.
When Karl XIII fell off a horse and died during a military review at Kvidinge Hed in Scania on May 28 1810, he really died of a stroke. But rumours soon flew around the kingdom, it was said that he had been murdered. During the burial of Karl XIII, the scapegoat, the noble Axel von Fersen was murdered by raging masses. Axel von Fersen had been a true adventurer and had even tried to save the royal family of France during the revolution (the escape to Varennes was his work). Bernadotte arrived in Sweden on October 20, but was crowned king of Sweden many years later, in 1818.
With the choice of Bernadotte as crown prince of Sweden a new era in Swedish history began. The plans of reconquering Finland faded and instead Bernadotte pointed his interest at Denmark. Swedish armies fought alongside the allies in Germany during the 1813-14 campaign. Bernadotte thus betrayed the country in which he had been born, as he pointed his guns at the French army, personally leading the Northern Army of the united allied forces. (These actions have been harshly criticised in European history.) He defeated Marshal Oudinot at Grossbeeren, Marshal Ney at Dennewitz, and took part in the Battle of the Nations (Volkerschlacht) at Leipzig, where the French Emperor was finally defeated in Germany. Instead of continuing his march against Napoleon, Bernadotte turned his armies upon Denmark. At the peace agreement of Kiel in 1814, Sweden annexed Norway from the age-old enemy of Denmark, which had been Napoleon's ally. In this final peace agreement Sweden traded Pomerania to the Danes And so, Bernadotte reshaped the map of Scandinavia. Norway was incorporated into union with Sweden, but as this new union had no historical foundation, Norway experienced the same national rebirth as Finland did under Russian rule. The Norwegian-Swedish union was finally dissolved under peaceful forms in 1905, Finland's break-up with the Russian Empire was to be a somewhat bloodier affair in 1917-18.
Jean Baptiste Bernadotte's relatives still sit on the Swedish throne today and they represent the last Napoleonic throne in Europe. Bernadotte died in Stockholm on March 8, 1844. And say what you want about this controversial character, but Bernadotte guided his little northern kingdom onto a new, peaceful path. The peace that Sweden established in 1814 has survived into our time.
Notes on the pictures used in this article. The black and white illustrations in this article were made by A. Malmström in the 1880's to accompany Fänrik Ståls Sägner. Maps and charts were made by G. Frilund 1999. My thanks goes to Oravais historiska förening r. f. for permission to publish the picture of their reenactment group, as well as the Björneborg Regiment uniforms picture.
Following are some of the more important sources I used. All books here are in Swedish.
Ehrström, Christman. Kanonerna vid Oravais, Eric Gustaf Ehrströms dagbok från 1808 och 1811 Legenda, Stockholm; 1986.
________________ Finlands historia (part 3), Schildts förlags AB, 1993
Frilund, Göran. "The Swedish navy during the Revolutionary- and Napoleonic wars", 1999, article published at and written for the Bravé website, maintained by James D. Parmenter
Hansson, Hans. Engelska flottan har siktats vid Vinga Rundqvists Bokförlag, Göteborg 1984
Hornborg, Eirik. När riket sprängdes - fälttågen i Finland och Västerbotten 1808-1809 Holger Schildts förlag, Helsingfors; 1955. (Probably the best book there is that deals with the war as a whole)
________________ Krig kring Kvarken, Oravais historiska förening r.f., 1999 (contains essays by various Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian and Russian authors and deals with many different and interesting aspects of the war) Persson, Anders. 1808 - gerillakriget i Finland Ordfronts Förlag, Stockholm; 1986 .
Petander, C-B. J. Kungliga Österbottens regemente under slutet av svenska tiden Svensk-Österbottniska samfundet; 1978. (The regimental history of the Royal Ostrobothnian Regiment)
Runeberg, J.L. Fänrik Ståls sägner Fabel 1991. (Book of poems dealing with the war, first edition came out in 1848 of which part two came in 1860)
Sandström, Allan. Sveriges sista krig - de dramatiska åren 1808-1809 Bokförlaget Libris, Örebro; 1994.
________________ Svenskt biografiskt handlexikon, Albert Bonniers Förlag, Stockholm 1906
Widding, Lars. Svenska äventyr 1788-1900-t Bokförlaget Semic AB, Sundbyberg; 1997.
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