The Swedish Campaign in Trøndelag 1718-1719
Frode Lindgjerdet | Norwegian Defence Museum
During the winter 1718-1719, 3,000 of Swedish King Charles XII's soldiers, beset by the harsh climate of the border mountains of Mid-Scandinavia, perished. This constitutes the largest single loss of military personnel in Scandinavia.
Great Northern War 1700-1722
The Kingdoms of Denmark-Norway and Sweden had been at war on and off since the Middle Ages.
These wars originated as dynastic feuds, for which the peasant population paid the price in blood, hard labour and pain. The Dano-Swedish rivalry also turned Scandinavia into one of the most militarized corners of the globe. The military apparatus absorbed as much as 80% of the state's income, and for some generations, about 50 per cent of the male population saw military service.
In the Scandinavian Early Modern Period (1537-1814), Sweden emerged as a Great Power. A professional bureaucracy and conscription replaced feudal levies and mercenaries, which enabled Sweden to punch far above its weight in terms of population and resources, establishing itself as a great power under Gustav II Adolf during the Thirty Years War (1613-1648). Around 1700, Sweden had made the Baltic Sea their Mare Nostrum, controlling Finland and the Baltic States, as well as territories like Bremen-Werden, Wismar and Stralsund in Germany.
In 1700, Poland, Saxony, Denmark-Norway and Russia declared war upon Sweden to stem her seemingly unstoppable expansion, exploiting the ascension of the adolescent Charles XII as well several years of famine and plague that had crippled Sweden. But they severely underestimated the Swedish war machine. Denmark-Norway was defeated in the first year. However, the Swedish defeat before the Russians at Poltava in 1709 tempted the Danish king to re-enter the war. When Charles XII returned to Sweden in 1715 after six years in exile, his empire was in dire straits. Almost the entire army was lost, as was Finland and the Baltic possessions. Rather than sue for peace, he set out to improve his negotiating position. In 1716 Charles attacked southeast Norway but was driven off by a Norwegian counteroffensive.
Two years later, and despite 18 years of war, disease and failed crops, Sweden managed to raise a new army of 60,000 men in an astonishing feat of military administration. Thus, Charles returned to Norway with much larger forces, this time also sending an army led by Lieutenant General Charles Gustav Armfeldt into Mid-Norway and the provincial capital of Trondheim to divert Norwegian forces from the south.
Preparations for the Swedish Campaign
Armfeldt's 10,000 strong Jämtland Army, heading for Trondheim, gathered at Duved fort in the summer of 1718.
The troops will henceforth be referred to as "Swedish", although the bulk of the units were the remnants of the Finnish Army, consisting of three regular cavalry regiments and one independent cavalry company, eight infantry regiments and two independent battalions plus one Free Corps.
Swedish soldiers' attire consisted of a tricorne hat or carpus (knitted hat with flaps), blue tunic, leather pants, and a rucksack. An infantryman's personal armament was a rapier and musket. Dragoons and cavalry carried a carbine, a flintlock pistol and a cavalry rapier. Usually, armies of the Early Modern era lived off the land, but this proved impossible in Norway. The Jämtland Army was to carry six weeks of supplies. By then, Armfeldt hoped to have reached Trondheim, where he could replenish his supplies.
Norway had also introduced conscription with the War Act of 1628. Territorial regiments were set up, and in 1718 there were two infantry regiments and a regiment of dragoons raised in the district. Nominally, these regiments were part-time militias, with a ten-year service term. A communal unit called the "legd" was responsible for appointing a young man who would enter service. Initially, several farms were responsible for one soldier, but from 1717, each farm had to appoint one soldier, although each farm unit usually consisted of several families and farmsteads. Often the soldier-to-be was picked from the poorest families. The cities were excepted from this conscription. When his term ended or he died, a new soldier was appointed. The dragoons were usually picked from the wealthiest farms but were not genuine cavalry and were expected to fight dismounted. A dragoon horse was not purposely trained and would often flee battle when dragoons were used as cavalry.
Swedish regular infantry was recruited from the same social strata, but the soldiers were picked by a "rotebonde", an especially entrusted peasant. Unlike their Norwegian peers, who were forbidden to marry, Swedish soldiers were allotted a small piece of land called a "torp" to sustain their families. However, if the
soldier died or became unfit for service, the family were evicted to make room for the filler. Soldiers recruited from the peasantry was usually marked by a childhood of hard work and a poor and unbalanced diet. Officers and their "peers" (priests, lawyers, and surgeons) came from affluent families and probably had a much healthier childhood. This would prove significant.
From 1717, there were also two independent ski companies in Mid-Norway. Although skis had been used by armies at least since the Middle Ages, these were the first units purposely trained and equipped for winter operations. In Trondheim, there was also a citizen's militia of two companies (about 300-400 men). There was also a rural militia, called the mandhusing, which in practice meant all men capable of bearing arms in any given district.
In August 1718, the Norwegian commander, Major General Vincent Budde, could muster 6,800 men, but these could not match the Swedish in terms of leadership and experience. Budde, therefore, avoided pitched battles, resorting to fighting withdrawals and guerrilla tactics while falling back to the heavily fortified Trondheim. This proved highly effective due to the long and exposed Swedish lines of communication. Norwegian peasants would also resist the Swedish invasion actively, often coordinated by regular officers and ski troops. Resistance often had grave consequences resulting in incarcerations and several burnt down villages.
The Swedish Invasion
The Jämtland Army had a 180-km long march to Trondheim in difficult terrain with just enough supplies; even the slightest delay could be fatal. Poor roads also forced Armfeldt to leave behind his heavy siege artillery, and this would prove decisive for the outcome of the campaign. Until Mid-November, Budde withdrew when Armfeldt advanced and followed him as he retreated, all the way harassing his opponent and wearing him down with pinprick attacks against exposed lines of communications. All the time avoiding pitched battles he would certainly lose against Armfeldt's seasoned veterans. For the Swedes, supplies were running low, and disease was rampant. As Armfeldt's men marched through the district and the local menfolk were nowhere to be seen because most had been conscripted into the Norwegian army or called up as mannhusing.
When Armfeldt reached Trondheim on 15th November, the Norwegians were prepared. Buildings outside the perimeter were razed to the ground in order to deny the enemy any quarters, and the streets and port were barricaded. Budde had also received reinforcements and could now muster a force of 6,200 infantry, two citizen companies of 200 men, 720 Dragoons, 1,014 cavalry and 40 artillerymen. In addition, the town's eastern approaches were guarded by the Kristiansten fortress, with its three-metre thick walls. The fjord outside was patrolled by a 46-gun Man-of-War and two frigates. Armfeldt started an extensive reconnaissance, while further pillaging of the countryside paid off little since the Norwegian army had already collected most of the available supplies.
Supplies arrived at Trondheim, but many of the provisions were lost due to poor management. In addition, the town's population had increased because of the refugees from the suburbs, many were left homeless due to the recent fires, and so the soldiers had to camp in the open. As one might expect in a war-stricken, pre-modern urban area without modern sanitation and piped water supplies, disease struck and cost the lives of 2,500 civilians and military (pop. 6,500 civilians). But militarily, Armfeldt's situation was worse. The warships in the harbour precluded any advancement by sea. Neither was there any chance of taking the Kristiansten fortress with his seven small field guns. The only opportunity was a cavalry charge from the west once the river froze over, but that never happened.
The Swedes Retreat
By the end of November, the Swedes were moving south, away from Trondheim to keep the army supplied. Armfeldt could now only muster 5,320 battle-ready troops from the approximately 10,000 men who crossed the border in August. The remainder had deserted, been killed or captured by the Norwegians, or they had died or suffered from injury and illness.
On 17th December, Armfeldt was notified of King Charles XII's death at Frederikshald in the south. The King was hit by a musket ball in his right temple and killed instantly on 30th November. Soon, Armfeldt received orders to withdraw from Norway. Armfeldt chose to retreat up the Gauldal Valley, cross over to Tydal and head for the settlement of Handöl on the Swedish side. On Christmas Eve, the Swedish vanguard reached Haltdalen before starting the ascent across the mountains to Tydal. The weather was now deteriorating fast, and the Swedes had no tents, their clothes were wearing thin, and their food supplies were virtually non-existent. Thus, the plight of the civilians in their path grew even more severe as the soldiers grabbed anything that could be eaten, worn or burnt. Anybody who resisted risked being shot. But the Norwegian ski troops were lurking in the shadows, warning civilians who hid away their supplies before Armfeldt arrived.
Crossing the mountains to Tydal, the Swedes encountered a snowstorm in which 200 men perished. Afterwards, civilians looted the bodies of the dead soldiers who, just a day earlier, had raided their homes. From Tydal, the distance over the mountain to the nearest Swedish settlement at Handöl was about 50 km - normally an 8-10-hour ski trek, but only a few had skis. And what certainly would be an unpleasant experience to modern, well-fed Scandinavians, proved fatal to men who had their resistance towards exhaustion and cold eroded by months of starvation and disease. They commandeered a 59-year-old man to act as a guide, in addition to three women who were marched along as hostages - one of whom had just given birth to twins. They set out on 11th January, New Year's Eve according to the old calendar still used by the Swedes. Around midday the next day, the weather deteriorated into a raging blizzard. The female hostages were freed, and on their return decent, they passed troops that were already dead or dying in the snow.
As they passed the tree line, there was no fuel for campfires. Desperately cold soldiers set fire to whatever they could lay their hands on, even the butts of their muskets. In the morning, many soldiers lay dead around their burnt-out campfires. Others had been standing back to back to shelter and warm each other but died where they stood. Many survivors threw away their weapons and equipment before staggering on, and several got lost as the storm concealed the tracks of those ahead. A patrol of 10-15 men on skis had been sent ahead to alert the base at Duved of their arrival. On the second morning, there were even fewer who arose from their sleep.
The next evening, Armfeldt and the vanguard reached the settlement of Handöl in Sweden, which at the time consisted of just three small farmsteads, and there was nowhere near enough shelter or food for everyone. Many continued to die. Some of shock and cardiac arrest as a result of exhaustion combined with abrupt warming, or because they were already weakened, smothered to death as too many tried to enter the few buildings. Many may also have suffered from refeeding syndrome. Exposed to sustained low nutritional levels, the body's digestion system gradually shuts down. If suddenly fed with sustenance rich in fat and sugar, the body might go into shock and die.
Hardly any were without frostbite, and gangrene and ensuing blood poisoning would also have claimed numerous lives. However, Lt.Gen. Armfeldt himself only suffered minor frostbites as he was tucked into his sledge under several layers of blankets and pelts.
A regimental surgeon set up a makeshift infirmary in a shed, and several barrels were filled with amputated limbs - without anaesthetics and under poor sanitation conditions. A stone slab later discovered near Handöl bears the inscription "Anno 1719, 20th January. Six hundred men were buried here." For several months, Swedish soldiers continued to drift down the mountain, but they had most likely stayed behind in Tydal or found other shelter on the way. Some also turned up in Norwegian settlements some 100 km west of the border, and were often met with an unpleasant death at the hands of vengeful local peasants.
About 3,000 of the 5,000 who started the ascent from Tydal died during the three-day march. An additional 900 perished after reaching Handöl, and 451 survivors were discharged because of disabilities with little chance to eke out a living. Statistics of the Swedish army at the time showed that from 10 soldiers who perished during a campaign, six would die from illnesses, three from accidents and only one from actual combat. The rate of non-combat casualties from Armfeldt's army was even higher due to the blizzard.
The Swedish campaign cost the lives of 4,273 privates and NCOs, many to disease, starvation, complications after injuries, and exposure. Mortality was lower with officers. Not only did they enjoy a much healthier childhood, they could also afford superior personal equipment and clothing, but the exact effect is difficult to determine because officers were under commission and do not figure in the surviving enrolment records. We do have details of the losses of the Jämtland Regiment of Dragoons, which lost 67.7 per cent of its original strength, with the total losses among officers at 1.3 per cent.
The aftermath of the campaign also proved disastrous for the Norwegian population. In some communities, mortality was up ten times that of a normal year. How much of the hardship of the civilian population was the direct result of the Swedish soldiers' actions is difficult to isolate; they had already experienced several failed harvests. Disease such as typhoid fever and dysentery also followed in the wake of marching armies. Soldiers discharged after the war carried these diseases back to communities untouched by the war itself. Thus, the death toll in the countryside actually peaked in spring 1719, months after the fighting stopped. In addition, 1718 was most likely a lemming year, and the explosions of the populations of these rodents meant that water sources in the mountain region were infected with tularaemia bacteria, which among other things, can cause respiratory problems, skin lesions and fever. A population weakened by hunger would be more susceptible to such an infection, and even an innocent disease by modern standards could be fatal.
The Great Northern War would continue for two more years. Prussia and Hanover had also entered the alliance against Sweden, and negotiations between Sweden and Russia collapsed. In the final phase, Danish and Russian naval forces conducted several raids along the coasts of Sweden. Finally, Britain found it in her interest to save Sweden. According to the balance of power politics, no single state could achieve dominance on the continent, and Sweden was an important player in this game that could not be too weakened. Also, a weakened Sweden could leave Denmark in sole control over the strategic Baltic trade, where the European powers acquired much of the timber and hemp for their ocean-going merchant marines and navies. During the peace negotiations, Denmark strengthened its grip on the Duchies of Schleswig-Holstein, while Finland was returned to Sweden by the Treaty of Nystad in 1721. But the possessions in the Baltic were forever lost for Sweden.
Frode Lindgjerdet is a Historian at the Norwegian Defence Museum in Trondheim, Norway.