Sweden is a well known country today, but they are not particularly well known for their military prowess. Most people today known Sweden for Ikea, pop music, and for being a very successful and rich, but relatively small country. However, many people outside of Sweden and the nearby countries do not realize that just a few hundred years ago, Sweden was one of the most feared military and economic powers in the world.
They held control over the trade routes through the Baltic Sea, and at one point had a stranglehold on almost all of their neighbors, arguably coming closer to defeating the Russians than any other world power ever has. While many people may not be aware of their prowess, the country of Sweden and their mighty army known in later years as the Caroleans were once the most feared force in Northern Europe.
10. The Battle Of Poltava Marked The Beginning Of The End Of The Swedish Empire
A common piece of military wisdom is that a ground war in Russia is generally not a very good idea. They will grind you down with numbers and use the cold and hostile environment to their advantage. People recall Hitler losing a huge chunk of his manpower trying to attack Russia in the winter, and some people remember in history when Napoleon tried something similar and was similarly rebuffed. The Russians even went so far as to burn villages and crops as they retreated when fighting against Napoleon’s forces, in order to ensure that the French army would not be able to live off Russia’s natural supply chain, making it harder for them to sustain their forces.
However, before Napoleon or Hitler ever failed at breaking through to the main holdings of the Russian people, Sweden made their best attempt as well. It was during the Great Northern War, a time when the map of the world was very different and Sweden was such a fearsome power that they had enemies to subdue on all sides. The Russians managed to drag the Swedes towards their own territory, where they were fighting partly over who would control Ukraine. At the battle of Poltava in Ukraine, the Swedish force tried to mount an attack against a heavily fortified Russian fortress, and lost nearly 7,000 troops. For such a small country, this was a blow they were never able to recover from – the war lasted years longer, but it was the beginning of the end for Sweden’s dominance.
9. The Swedish Empire Was Once Feared As a Great Power Throughout All Of Europe And Beyond
Today most people associate Sweden with the “assemble it yourself” furniture stores they have exported all over the world, as well as their influence on popular music, and their rather fascinating cuisine. Most people respect them and think of them as a very clean and industrious country, but very few would consider them one of the top economic powers, and fewer would mention Sweden if you were asking for a list of countries with a very powerful military. However, back in the 1600-1700s, Sweden was in such a position of prestige that they were considered a “great power.”
Back in the day, the geography and borders of Europe were very different, and Russia was not the power they are today, or even close to it. Countries like Denmark and Poland were much more powerful militarily, and the trade routes through the Baltic Sea to the rest of Europe were hotly contested. Sweden, through a lot of careful militarization, had become very skilled at making due with a fairly small but skilled force, and had consolidated their military holdings over the years, following a series of increasingly ambitious warrior kings.
When the Great Northern War started, it as largely due to the fact that Sweden had managed to take control of all routes through the Baltic, and was being very stingy about letting any of their northern neighbors use it. In no time, resentment had built up, and Denmark, Poland-Saxony, and Russia had all declared war on Sweden.
8. King Gustavus Adolphus Of Sweden Was A Great Innovator Of Military Tactics
Gustavus Adolphus was the King of Sweden during the early 1600s and presided over their military strategy during the Thirty Years War. Many credit him as the ruler who first brought Sweden onto the scene as a great power, and changed the destiny of his small country forever. He is also credited with multiple military innovations, and was known for regularly trying to improve battlefield equipment, tactics, and strategy. Necessity is the mother of invention, and King Gustavus realized early on that with how small his country was, he needed to focus on quality over quantity – this meant he realized he also needed to make the most of every single soldier and piece of equipment.
It’s hard to go over all of his innovations, as he greatly reshaped the way wars were fought at the time. During that period in history, armies would often line up in fairly simple lines, charge forward, and not really do that much in the way of strategic thinking. Armies at the time were also not known for being particularly well drilled. Most countries would actually conscript soldiers or hire mercenaries shortly before a war required them, but King Gustavus knew that with such a small country, he had to do something different.
He started his own standing army that was regularly drilled and well paid – something unheard of at the time. He brought in lighter artillery, lighter muskets, and was able to make his men more mobile and effective than other armies of the day. He also trained his men in rolling volley fire, a technique where a row of men would fire, crouch, then another row and on while others reloaded, ensuring constant cover as they advanced. He also taught them to do so while marching toward the enemy, quickly closing distance, making it hard to miss, and sometimes scaring the enemy out of sheer intimidation.
7. The “Leather Cannon”
King Gustavus was ever the innovator, and one of the stranger pieces of equipment he heavily experimented with in battle was called the “leather cannon.” While some may assume it got its name because it was made of leather, such a weapon would likely not even fire. It received it’s name because it consisted mostly of a copper tube wrapped in leather, likely to protect the holder from the heat the copper tube would quickly build up. The weapon was not the most effective weapon ever when taken into battle, but tanks were not particularly effective the first few times they were used, either.
The technology was new so it overheated easily, and it still required two people to operate, but it was very advanced for its time. While they didn’t make a decisive difference at first, they showed King Gustavus that having more mobile pieces of artillery in between muskets and traditional cannons could provide more strength in firepower while allowing for much greater mobility. King Gustavus would continue to test mobile artillery pieces after he saw the potential of the leather cannon, which led to many more improvements to similar war technologies – changing the face of battlefields forever.
6. The Allotment System Was A Big Change To How Many Armies Were Raised At The Time
Like we mentioned earlier, during the time of Sweden’s day as a great power, many armies were raised on an ad hoc basis, and were hardly trained at all. King Gustavus actually started to do away with this and focused on having a standing army; however, his recruitment methods were still fairly basic and didn’t account for spreading the responsibility of a standing army throughout the entire country. King Charles XI decided that with his ambitions to expand Sweden’s power and all the enemies they were making, it would be a good idea to make the process for the army even more well organized.
It was at this point that the allotment system was introduced, which was a very new idea for the time. Each city or region of the country had to provide a certain amount of troops, based on their size and economy, and help feed those soldiers. These soldiers would drill regularly and practice with the army, and go to war when needed, but if there was no war going on, they would spend their downtime working on the farms of those who were feeding them.
This ensured that everyone in the country was a part of the war effort, that the burden was fairly shared, and that the army was incredibly strictly trained and fully prepared at any time for whatever the king desired them for. This new army was to be known as the Caroleans, and would be the elite fighting force for Sweden during the Great Northern War.
5. Excavations Of A Battle Involving The Early Swedish Military Show Very Experienced Soldiers
During the early days of Sweden’s military, Gustavus Adolphus was leading his people against the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years War, which was the most brutal clash between Protestant and Catholic forces in history. One of the most decisive battles near the end of the war was at the German city of Lutzen, where the Swedish forces won, but lost their genius king during the fighting. A few years ago, the site of the battle was discovered and archeologists got the chance to go over many of the buried skeletons and look for anything interesting they could find.
What they found is proof that the Thirty Years War was an incredibly bloody time period, beyond even what some imagined. Many of the soldiers’ skeletons had clear evidence of having already survived horrific wounds long before they ever started their final battle. Sixteen of the skeletons discovered had already had major head injuries in the past, with one unique case having as many as four injuries to his head before he found his end at Lutzen. More than twenty other skeletons were found to have some sort of major broken bone injury that they had healed from in the past. This gives us an interesting look into the brutality of the time period – horrible injuries were not enough to get you time off; if you were able to get up and fight, you fought.
4. The Battle Of Narva Cemented The Reputation Of The Fearsome Carolean Army
The Battle of Narva was an early conflict during the Great Northern War, and it quickly shaped the reputation of the Carolean Army as one of the toughest and boldest in the known world. It was the first test of the young king Charles XII, who had inherited the war from his father Charles XI, and it was a test he was determined not to fail. The city of Narva was under siege by the Russian forces under Tsar Peter the Great, and King Charles XII had a relief force of only about 10,000 men up against a Russian force of about 40,000 besieging the city.
The Swedish king decided that they needed to act decisively and throw the Russians off guard. The Russians were surrounding the city in a semicircle, with an icy cold river on the other side. The king ordered a charge from his relief force against the enemy’s earthworks, with the plan being to start firing at thirty paces, and then switch to bayonets as soon as they were within range. Once they had driven their forces straight down the middle, they would shift off to the sides and push the Russians away from the city, and toward the cold river and other inhospitable terrain.
Luck was partly with them, as a blizzard came up behind the Caroleans as they began their charge, but their boldness and skill was without doubt. Even with a force only about one quarter the size, they managed to defeat the Russian force decisively and earned a fearsome reputation from then on. Some historians argue that Russia was so badly beaten in this battle, that if Charles XI had decided to press on to Russia shortly after instead of waiting years, history as we know it may have ended up very different.
3. A Swedish Power Metal Band Called Sabaton Made A Song Called “The Caroleans Prayer”
Even among those who are familiar with the Great Northern War, the Caroleans are a name that is not very well known around the world today. Many history books mention the Swedish military and their tactics, but the name itself is not often talked about much in the United States or Western European countries. However, the Swedish still know well their heritage, and are rightfully proud of what the Carolean Army once accomplished. A Swedish power metal band called Sabaton wanted to honor the past achievements of the Carolean Army, so they wrote a song about them called “The Caroleans Prayer,” which you can listen to in the video above.
Religion was very important to the Carolean Army, and they were trained to pray regularly and be extremely pious, which makes the title of the song quite fitting. The song also speaks of their incredible boldness and bravery in battle, proving themselves willing to overcome the fear of death through the strength of their faith – marching into battle to protect God, king and country.
While Sweden isn’t a particularly religious country today, this was not long after the Swedish Empire had greatly sacrificed to fight on the side of the Protestants during the Thirty Years War, and were still quite religious at that time. As a historic tidbit, Sabaton claims on their website that the Carolean Army was trained to not fire until they could see the whites of their enemies’ eyes. While this may be slightly hyperbole, it is true that the Caroleans were known for advancing very boldly, and waiting to fire until they were so close it was almost impossible for them to miss.
2. The Carolean Death March Signaled The Final End To The Great Northern War
During the last years of the Great Northern War, Sweden was losing territory and slipping badly – with their enemies constantly besieging their many holdings they were finding themselves falling back farther and farther. They had lost a lot of territory to Russia and with their army dwindling and the size of their country small to begin with; Charles XII was becoming desperate to find a way to regain some territory and ensure that Sweden remained a great power. He decided that a large force should concentrate on Norway, in the hopes that they could get some kind of concessions out of them to bolster the power of Sweden and regain some control of the situation. Charles began a path of conquest into Norway itself, and sent a Lieutenant General named Karl Gustav Armfeldt to lead another attack in a different part of Norway to draw off their forces.
Unfortunately, while the Carolean military was very well trained, they were also spread incredibly thin at this point. Both campaigns failed miserably, and things quickly went from bad to worse. The king’s campaign ended with the king himself dying while trying to take the fortress city of Fredriksten and before long all Swedish forces were being recalled back to the homeland, with the war nearly utterly lost at this point, and Sweden’s forces in shambles.
General Armfeldt, with rumors that the king was dead and the war was effectively over, and his own campaign a failure, decided that it was time to make his way back to Sweden as quickly as he possible could — with the roughly 6,000 soldiers he had left from the original force of 10,000 he had started with. Unfortunately, this would turn out to be a horrific tragedy. The Carolean Army tried to cross through the mountains, and the horrible weather conditions led to a very sad loss of life. Nearly 4,000 brave men out of the 6,000 he started off with perished in the mountains due to exposure, malnutrition, and other similar issues. There is a classical piece about the Carolean Death March, which you can listen to in the video linked above.
1. Charles X Gustav Of Sweden Literally Took From The Rich Nobles And Redistributed The Wealth
In between Gustavus Adolphus, King Charles XI, and King Charles XII, there was the lesser known king: Charles X Gustav, who instituted his own reforms – although he had a very short rule. In fact, Charles X Gustav only reigned for six years, but he accomplished a surprising amount in such a short time. Like other warrior kings of Sweden, he was greatly interested in expanding the holdings of the Swedish Empire, and invaded what is now Poland, bringing himself up against several other nearby countries at the same time, such as Russia. While he was interested in increasing the power and prestige of Sweden, he also found the country in a rather bad position economically when he came to power.
The country was very nearly bankrupt, and far too much money was in the hands of the nobles. Going against the advice of many, including past precedent set by King Gustavus Adolphus, he decided to seize much of the nobles’ land and basically redistribute it to the lower classes. The nobles owned the vast majority of farmland and to make matters worse, because of past legal agreements, it was non-taxable land. While the nobles were not happy with him, it worked out the best for everyone in the end.
Before the end of the century, the rich were down to a much smaller minority of non-taxable holdings, and many more of the lower class owned their own farms that they felt personally invested in – it didn’t hurt, either, that these lands were fully taxable. These reforms actually paved the way for the allotment system that proved so effective in creating the mighty Carolean Army that was once feared and respected all over Europe. With the wealth slightly better distributed and many well-kept farms and communities run by their own, the Swedish rulers had a steady and healthy supply of proud and prospering villages from which to raise and keep a powerful and well drilled standing army.