Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

The Swedish Army in the Napoleonic Wars

By Magnus Olofsson

Introduction

 

Swedish Infantry in 1810 by Schiavonetti
Image from the Collection of Markus Stein of Napoleon-Online

At the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars Sweden, once a great power, was only a middling power in the game of European power politics. Sweden had a population of only 3.4 million, Finland and Swedish Pomerania included, and the economy was based on a weak agrarian sector. It would certainly have been in Sweden’s best interest to stay out of the huge conflagration engulfing the European continent in the years 1805 to 1815. That was not to be; Sweden was to fight no less than four wars during the era (excuding a short “phoney war” with England).  Even if the forces involved and the casualties suffered were small compared to the campaigns fought on the continent during those years.  For Sweden, those wars meant a considerable commitment in both money and manpower, and actually brought the country to the brink of destruction.

The first two wars, the farcical war against France in Swedish Pomeranian in 1805 - 1807 and the epic struggle against Russia and Denmark-Norway in 1808 - 1809, were fought solely due to the incompetence and pig-headed stupidity of King Gustavus Adolphus IV (1792 - 1809). Gustavus wisely kept Sweden out of the Revolutionary Wars and joined the armed neutrality with Denmark and Russia in 1800. But his mind changed after the arrest and execution of the duc d’Enghien in 1804.  The event led Gustavus to view Napoleon as nothing short of evil incarnate, as a man capable of any heinous act to topple the righteous rulers and nobles of the ancient regime.  After the d’Enghien Affair no such trifling matters as the political interests or actual resources of his country could stop Gustavus from fighting Napoleon.

Thus Sweden joined the 3rd Coalition and sent an army to Pomerania to serve the allied cause. This led to the first campaign the Swedish army was to fight during the Napoleonic Wars, fought in Pomerania from 1805 to 1807. During the war, Gustavus managed to botch just about every military and diplomatic move he made. Sweden’s participation in the 3rd Coalition had no impact whatsoever on the campaigns fought on the continent during the same years. After the Treaty of Tilsit, the Swedish position in Pomerania became untenable and the province was evacuated and left for the French to occupy.

Since Gustavus still refused to come to terms with France, Napoleon prompted Russia and Denmark to declare war on Sweden in 1808. This coalition proved to be too much for Sweden’s meagre resources. Despite heroic efforts the war was lost. When peace was signed in September 1809, Finland – with a third of the country’s area and a fourth of its population - had to be handed over to the Russians, though Sweden did survive as a political entity. By then Gustavus, whose military incompetence only aggravated matters, did not rule Sweden anymore; in the spring of 1809 he was ousted from power by a military coup. The years 1808 and 1809 were nothing short of a national disaster for Sweden.

Gustavus was replaced on the throne by his frail, old uncle, Charles XIII (1809 - 1818). Charles was childless and after a somewhat strange turn of events the disgraced French Marshal Jean Baptist Bernadotte was adopted by him and made crown prince of Sweden in 1810. Soon Bernadotte was made generalissimo and became de facto ruler of Sweden, since Charles XIII’s mind was faillng due to old age. The political and military elite of Sweden hoped that Bernadotte would join Napoleon in the war against Russia to win Finland back. Wisely he instead chose to fight against his old master. Thus Sweden came to fight its third war of the Napoleonic Wars, against France, alongside Austria, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia in 1813 - 1814. During the war, the Swedish army marched from Pomerania to the Netherlands, but won little military glory due to Bernadotte’s unwillningness to risk his army in open battle; the lesson of Gustavus Adolphus IV, who lost his crown in a military coup after a disastrous war, was not lost to him.

For his services to the allied cause, Bernadotte demanded Norway. The little country, however, bravely refused to be incorporated into Sweden at the whim of the great powers. This led to a final war, when Sweden invaded and conquered Norway in a lightning campaign in 1814, easily defeating the outnumbered, but brave, Norwegians. Thus Bernadotte redeemed Sweden’s fortunes and made up for the loss of Finland, though not in they way originally hoped by those who helped him to power.[1]

This subject here is the organization and strength of the Swedish army during the Napoleonic Wars. This is an obscure subject, little known outside Sweden, not surprisingly considering Sweden’s marginal participation in the wars and the problem of language. While the ambition here is to be both accurate in detail and complete in scope, it must be understood that limitations of space, time and a lack of references on many subjects have meant that simplifications have been made and that some subjects only have been given a superficial treatment. Where the figures on unit strengths in the references used have been in conflict, the most authoritative reference has been used. 

 

Notes:

[1]   Wikander, J. G., Öfversigt öfver Sveriges krig under 1800 - talet, Stockholm 1916, passim.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2008

 

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