Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The Road to War


Swedish Offensive

Second Swedish Retreat


The Russo-Swedish War of 1808-09

By G. Frilund

As a real Bonapartist I really like reading about any detail concerning the Napoleonic era. I wanted to contribute my own work to the Napoleon series web-site and although I had a hard time to figure out what to write about, I finally decided to tell you all about my own country and the war we had against Russia during the Napoleonic period. I live in the Swedish-speaking part of Finland, very close to some of the battlefields of the war of 1808-09, therefore these matters have always interested me a lot.'Nuff said, here I go.

The Road to War

Firstly, let us all keep in mind that Sweden and Finland were united into one country at the time of this war. Sweden was a major power in Europe, with possessions even in northern Germany (Stralsund, Pomerania, occupied by french forces during Napoleons war in Germany).

In 1807 Tsar Alexander and Napoleon signed the treaty of Tilsit, dividing Europe between themselves. The Russians were promised free hands with Sweden, who was at war with France at the time. The tsar immediately started building up invasion forces at the Russo-Swedish border.

The Swedish ambassador in St. Petersburg was alerted by the situation and constantly sent letters back to Stockholm with warnings of a war approaching. Russian military presence in the area was rapidly built up but the Swedish government, under king Gustav IV, took no notice. The Swedish military in Finland relied upon fort Sveaborg (outside Helsinki), considered to be one of the strongest fortifications in Europe at the time.

Shortly after new year 1808 the Russians were ready for the offensive. On the 21st of February 1808 the greencoats crossed the border to Finland, forgetting to declare war.

In march Denmark also declared war on Sweden. French and Spanish troops arrived to Denmark for a planned invasion in southern Sweden, Skane. This invasion force was led by Marshal Bernadotte (note the irony). The invasion from Denmark never got off the ground though, the Spanish part of the army deserted after hearing about the outbreak of the Peninsular war and were evacuated on British ships.

Phase One: Retreat

As the Russians marched into the southern parts of Finland the Fenno-Swedish army was being mobilized but the commander of the army, Klingspor, favoured the plan of retreating north, leaving the fort at Sveaborg to keep up the resistance in the southern parts of the country. The first stage in the war therefore started with the Swedish troops marching away to the north. Because of this, Klingspor is a most unpopular person in Finnish historywriting.

The Russians followed the Swedes up into Osterbotten, the western part of Finland, along the west-coast. The Swedes delivered battle under the new commander, Adlercreutz, at Siikajoki in mid-April and they were victorious. The Russian offensive was halted.

Meanwhile the Swedish stronghold of Sveaborg surrendered to the Russians in the south and all resistance in those parts of the country ceased. The commander of the fort, Cronstedt, has been held responsible. Although he had enough food and ammunition to hold the fort for months, he decided to surrender. This was a major setback for the Swedish army.

Phase Two: The Swedish Offensive

Adlercreutz, the new commander of the Swedish army, did not hesitate to use the advantage gained at Siikajoki. The Russians were forced further and further south and the Swedish fought with such bravery that the Tsar had to send reinforcements from St. Petersburg. The Russian commander, Rayevski, was replaced by Kamenski after a Swedish victory at Lappo in July.

Due to insufficient reinforcements from Sweden Adlercreutz soon found the Russian pressure overwhelming and had to retreat to the north, where he could make preparations for a coming decisive battle. The Swedish army halted at a small village on the coast of Osterbotten. Here the decisive battle of the war was to be fought, the battle of Oravais.

Although the battle of Oravais was the largest battle of the war, it is still considered being a small skirmish by European standards. Just a couple of thousand men on each side participated in the fighting. Adlercreutz had found himself a good defensive position at Oravais and the Russians attacked on the 14th of September. Fighting was hard right from the start and due to lack of ammunition the soldiers on both sides had to fight using bayonets and sabres, even their fists came into good use.

The Russian troops finally prevailed and by the end of the day Adlercreutz was forced to retreat once again. The way north had been secured by general von Dobelns victory in a legendary battle at Juthas.

Phase Three: Second Swedish Retreat

After the defeat at Oravais, the Swedes were forced north and when no greater reinforcements arrived from Sweden, Adlercreutz signed the ceasefire at Lochtea, which the Russians broke when they attacked a Swedish position at Virta bro on the 27th of October 1808.

According to stories, the battle of Virta bro was turned into victory as one, lonely soldier defended a bridge against the entire russian force, until Swedish troops arrived and turned the battle into victory. These, often unreliable, stories from this war are written down in the book "Fanrik Stahls Sagner" by the famous Finnish writer Runeberg. The battle of Virta bro was the last Swedish victory on finnish soil.

On the 19th of November the convention of Olkijoki was signed and the Swedish army agreed to leave Finland.

A final peace agreement was signed in Fredrikshamn (Hamina in Finnish) in September 1809 and Finland became a part of Russia, the six hundred year old union between Sweden and Finland had been dissolved.


After the defeat in Finland, Swedish king Gustav IV was overthrown and had to leave Sweden. He died in Switzerland in 1837 under the name "colonel Gustavsson." Many of the generals from the war actively supported this palace-revolution and Adlercreutz himself played a vital role. Karl XIII was installed as new king but he had no children and therefore french Marshal Bernadotte was chosen as crown prince. He was later crowned king under the name of Karl XIV Johan. An interesting story is that Bernadotte had a tattoo on his arm saying, "death to all kings," made during the French revolution.

Bernadotte did not want to recapture Finland and instead turned his eyes upon Norway, which belonged to Denmark. When Napoleon started his Russian campaign in 1812, Sweden remained neutral, only to go to war against France itself in 1813. Swedish troops fought in northern Germany and at Leipzig. This treason by Bernadotte has been badly criticized. His family still holds the throne in Sweden today.

In the treaty of Kiel in 1814, Sweden annexed Norway from Denmark. Finland remained a part of the Russian empire until 1917, when we declared our independence.

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