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Caroleans (Swedish: karoliner) were the soldiers of the Swedish kings Charles XI and Charles XII whose notable tactics differed from that of Western Europe through a greater reliance upon pikes, rapiers, bayonets and the spirit of the offensive which lead them to winning most of their battles even when greatly outnumbered.

The Carolean army

The uniform Charles XII was wearing when he was killed (by a supposed bullet to the head)

In order to compensate for their lack of manpower and resources Sweden strove for innovative ways to make an effective army. In fact, the successful path of innovative military ideas was the only way Sweden managed to achieve a great power status. Thanks to their achievements during the Great Northern War, the Carolean army is regarded to have been the most effective military force of their day, as shown by their efforts in battles such as Narva, Düna, Klissow, Pultusk, Jakobstadt, Gemauerthof, Warsaw, Fraustadt, Holowczyn, Helsingborg and Gadebusch.

However, due to the relatively small size of the Carolean army because of the sparse number of Swedish soldiers, heavy losses could be irreparable. As such the commanders of the Carolean army had to pick their battles wisely and strategize carefully in order to keep casualties low.

Despite its effectiveness the small size of the Carolean army made it difficult for Sweden to maintain its hold on power, as evidenced by the decline of the Swedish Empire after its defeat in the Great Northern War.

After a long and fateful march into the Russian interior where they were exposed to scorched earth tactics, small frequent raids and the cold Russian climate, the exhausted and hungry Carolean army was decisively defeated by the Russians at the Battle of Poltava. During the war an estimated 35,000 Swedish troops died – 70 percent of the army. 25,000 of these were killed in combat and a further 10,000 died from famine, disease and exhaustion.

Morale and religious beliefs

Communion was an important ritual for the Swedish soldiers, especially before battle – Gustaf Cederström.

Strict discipline was necessary in the Carolean army to allow its very offensive tactics, which among other things exposed soldiers to a medium-distance enemy fire before being allowed to respond. This tactic was intended to get the soldiers close enough to the enemy so that it was almost impossible to miss a shot. The steadfast courage shown from the Swedish troops would also affect enemy morale, and on several occasions this frightened the enemies into retreat.[citation needed]

To attain this steadfast discipline, the army had very strict rules. Even a soldier's private life was strained by these rules, as they were supervised at their barracks[citation needed] as well as in the field. Religion was used as a tool for keeping morale high amongst the troops.[citation needed] Regular priests also preached about the virtues of serving the crown and being a soldier to boost enlistment. Within the military, priests often participated in battles to raise morale amongst troops.

In order for soldiers from different regions and provinces of the kingdom to feel companionship and loyalty with fellow soldiers, men from the same region or province were made to stay with each other. The church also helped by creating a feeling of solidarity between soldiers from different parts of the kingdom by showing that the soldiers fought for common beliefs of the Swedish Lutheran church when facing an enemy army. This was also a reminder to the soldiers that God was protective and helped them in battle, as had been said since Sweden fought in the Thirty Years War as the continental leader of Protestantism. After the Battle of Narva many soldiers believed that God had sent them the blizzard that helped them to victory. It was commonly thought that the defeat at Poltava was God's punishment for the soldiers' hubris and sins.[citation needed]

The allotment system

Charles XI of Sweden was the creator of the younger allotment system
– David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl.

In 1680 Charles XI effected his political and military reforms in parliament whereby he made himself autocrat. His greatest reform was the building of the Allotment system whereby all the farmers in every land was to provide the crown with a full regiment of 1000 men complete with weapons and uniforms. Every land was divided into "Roots" (roots is a poor translation of the Swedish "rote"; more correctly it should be squadron or group). One to five farmers would form a Root and sign a contract with the crown that they would provide and support a soldier. In the contract it was stipulated that a soldier would be provided with a cottage and a garden plot.[1]

The cavalry was built much the same, the difference being that the Root also provided a horse; this being an extra burden, the Root was granted a tax reduction by the crown.[2] In this way Karl XI was ensured a professional army of 18,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry. There were an additional 7,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry in Finland. Along the coast and major city ports seamen were taken in under the system, thus providing the navy with 6,600 seamen in Sweden and 600 in Finland.[2]

It is said about Charles XII that "he could not retreat, only attack or fall". The same goes for his soldiers. In the Swedish army tactics of that time retreat was never covered. Troops were obligated to attack or fight where they stood.

The uniforms

The Carolean uniform was among many variants of the Swedish Standard Uniform introduced by Charles XI. The great coats were blue with yellow cuffs. The breeches were white, and the vest yellow. Many regiments had variations of the uniform, For example, the dragoons of Bohuslän had green coats and the regiment of Närke-Värmland had red cuffs. The artillery had grey coats with blue cuffs. They wore tricorne hats or a special cap called a Karpus. The elite Trabant Garde cavalry were the only armored troops, wearing steel breastplates.


Most of the infantry were equipped with modern flintlock muskets, although older versions still were in use. They were also equipped with rapiers and a bag for ammunition. About one third of each company were equipped with pikes. Twelve men of each company were grenadiers, typically the strongest and tallest men. The grenadiers were also the only soldiers to have bayonets on their muskets, as regular musketeers were meant to use their rapiers for hand-to-hand combat. As grenadiers were often placed on the flanks of a unit to protect against cavalry, a bayonet-equipped musket was more practical as it gave greater reach than a sword when facing a mounted opponent and could be braced against the impact of a charge. On occasion, two handed spiked clubs were used during sieges. Mounted troops carried broadswords and either two pistols each for the regiment of horse or a carbine for the dragoons. The artillery had a smaller sword for close combat, called hirschfängare.


Duels in the Carolean army was strictly forbidden, however, not unusual – Gustaf Cederström.
The death of Charles XII effectively ended the Carolean era
– Gustaf Cederström.

The Carolean army was organized into regiments according to region, and divided into the following sections:

  • Cavalry regiments, including the Jämtlands dragoon regiment, and the king's personal guards, the Livdrabanterna regiment
  • Infantry regiments, including the Värmlands and Västerbottens regiment; each company had twelve grenadiers
  • Artillery regiments

The army also included a special unit called the Livdrabanterna (Royal Life Guard Corps). This was a special unit made up of some 100 men. It was under the personal command of King Charles XII, for which he was named captain. To become a private in the corps one had to attain the rank of Captain in the regular army. The king's second in command was a Colonel with the title of Kaptenlöjtnant (Lieutenant Captain). This corps fought to the bitter end, and some of its veterans carried Charles XII's coffin on its arrival to the capital for the burial in 1719.

Out in field

The rules were strict for the Carolean soldier. For example, stealing food from another soldier would lead to harsh punishment[clarification needed]. Looting, as often earlier had been a part of the soldiers' every day was forbidden; however, it occasionally occurred if it was necessary, for example a couple of occasions at Narva and Lemberg.[citation needed]

To take God's name in vain was amongst the worst crime a Carolean soldier could commit,[citation needed] and the punishment for this was death, since it was very important to keep the morale high amongst the troops, and the Christian religion was a way to do this. To interrupt a moment of prayer would as well lead to the death penalty.

The Carolean soldier was told not to be afraid of battle or to be fearful on the field, since if God meant him to die this would happen regardless of whether he dodged bullets or not. This rationale was crucial to the offensive tactics of the Carolean army, which required firm discipline to succeed.

A soldier's daily ration was meant to consist of 625 grams of dry bread, 850 grams of butter or pork, 1/3 liters of peas and 2.5 liters of beer. The butter or pork was often replaced by fish if available.[3] Water was best avoided since it was often contaminated.

Tactics and formations

Two different types of formations and the execution of attack,
A) company wise B) battalion wise.

A Carolean infantry regiment consisted of roughly 1,200 men, divided into two battalions of 600 men each. The battalion was the smallest tactical unit of the Swedish army and consisted of four companies of 150 men each. Prior to battle the men were usually formed into four ranks (four man deep), however, a battalion could also be späckad with six ranks.[4] About one third of the men were pikemen, equipped with 5,55 meter long pikes and swords, these pikemen often made divisions in the middle of each battalion with musketeers to their flanks, however, if the battalion was späckad the pikemen were placed in the third and fourth ranks. Furthermore, grenadiers were often attached to the flanks of the musketeers—or by the utter far left and right of each battalion—to protect against enemy cavalry and toss grenades to break enemy formations (there was one grenadier for ten musketeers).[5] On occasion, the grenadiers formed their own battalions such as the Life Grenadier Regiment. The width of a battalion was roughly 180 meters (or 135 meters when the battalion closed gaps). At the outbreak of the Great Northern War, every Swedish musketeer was equipped with a sword and usually a 20 mm caliber flintlock musket without a bayonet. The bayonet was first introduced to every Swedish musketeer 1704. However, the grenadiers were equipped with grenades, swords and flintlock muskets with bayonets.[6]

The Swedish cavalry regiment consisted of roughly 1,000 men, divided into four squadrons of 250 men each. The squadron was the tactical unit of the Swedish army and consisted of two companies of 125 men each. The Swedish heavy cavalryman was equipped with a rapier (almost one meter long made primary for thrust and secondary for slash), carbine, two pistols and had a cuirass.[7] The dragoons had a rapier, musket with bayonet and two pistols.[8] Certain irregular units were also used, frequently the Vlachs cavalry. However, these were not suited for combat but only reconnaissance and to chase routing enemies.[9] The cavalry was used as the key instrument of victory and made for large proportions in the Swedish army. Contrary to the other regular armies in Europe, the cavalry made up half of the fighting force.[10] For instance, during Charles XII invasion of Russia the army counted 31,000, and more than half, 16,800 men, were cavalry.[8]

Infantry Gå–På

"Never have I seen such a combination of uncontrollable dash and
perfectly controlled discipline, such soldiers and such subjects
are not to be found the wide world over except in Sweden"

General Stenbock, Gadebusch 1712[11]

Caroleans launching the Gå–På–method on Saxons in Düna, 1701.

The Gå–På–method (literally "Go-On") specialized on shock tactics and was the standard combat technique used in the Swedish army at the time. This very aggressive tactic often resulted in short-lived battles, in order to counter superior numbers of enemies.

According to 1694 and 1701 regulations, the infantry attack operates as follows: In four ranks with gaps, the Swedish battalion would march "smoothly and slowly" towards the enemy lines, braving enemy fire which often started at a distance of approximately 100 meters. The Swedish soldiers were told not to fire until "you could see the whites in the enemies eyes" – a range of roughly 50 meters. When the marching drums stopped the two rear ranks would fill the gaps within the two foremost ranks and fire a salvo, then draw their swords. The two rear ranks would then move back to their previous position and the two foremost ranks would close the gaps in their line, after which the battalion would resume their attack. The two foremost ranks would discharge their muskets in a final volley when they were within range to charge - a range of roughly 20 meters. They would then draw their swords and charge the enemy, taking advantage of the demoralizing and lethal effect of their close range volley.

At this range, the powerful muskets usually felled many enemy troops, which was highly demoralizing to them. Directly after the volley the Swedes charged the enemy ranks with pikes, bayonets and rapiers.[12] Note that the pikes were used as an offensive weapon: in close combat they had the advantage over their foes' weapons thanks to their longer reach. Often complete ranks of enemies ran before physical contact, frightened by the long pikes and the fact that the morale of the Swedish battalion could calmly withstand their fire.[13]

Modifications through war

This method slightly changed during the course of the Great Northern War. The slow march was replaced with running in order to take fewer casualties and begin combat sooner, while hopefully still frightening the enemy with the courage of a swift, unflinching advance into enemy fire. The firing distance was reduced from 50 metres to 15 to 20 meters for the first volley of the rear ranks—who would no longer fall into their previous position behind the front ranks, but instead follow in the gaps within. As a result, the battalion attacked in two filled ranks, which made the final charge more effective as the Carolean troops would be closely packed together, delivering a heavy impact.

Another change was that the battalion would more often get support from artillery pieces, notably in the battle of Gadebusch where a new set of Swedish artillery inventions saw action.[14]

Analysis of method

Close coordination between artillery and infantry where the artillery would move forward to reinforce the infantry during the attack.
The cavalry was the foremost weapon of the army, with thrust rapiers they would ride knee behind knee, which resulted in extreme clustered formations, in addition they attacked in the fastest possible speed.[10]

As musketeers during this period usually fired by platoon, rank or all together, it was eventually necessary for an entire group to stop and reload. During this reload—which took 1–2 minutes to finish—an opponent could calmly march 80 meters and run 150 meters (in one minute). This meant that the first side to fire made for a vulnerable target to the incoming enemy line. The Gå–På–method took advantage of these simple mathematics.[15] The Caroleans would march calmly and steadily to close the gap during the enemy reload, before firing at a closer more effective range.

Cavalry Gå–På

The Swedish cavalry, just as the infantry, fought in this extreme aggressive manner (also called the "Carolingian manner").[5] Prior to battle, contrary to the rest of Europe—which during the time would form up knee to knee—the Swedish cavalry would form up in slight wedge formations in two or three ranks, knee behind knee to successfully achieve the most clustered cavalry formation possible to more fiercely impact the enemy. To achieve this, they had thrust rapiers which would further increase the effectiveness of the charge.[7] The squadron would usually not use any of their pistols during the charge, only blades. In 1704 a regulation was made, disbanding the pistol completely when charging (however, on occasion, the pistols were allowed, which happened in Fraustadt, or when chasing routed enemies). In 1705 another regulation was made, in which the cavalry would ride in trot during the initial phase of the attack and then full-gallop (which was the fastest possible speed) prior to the impact.[7][12] The trot conserved the energy of the horses for the final gallop, and only galloping the horses when within charging range preserved their stamina so that they wouldn't tire as quickly during a battle.

Coordination between units

Close coordination between infantry, cavalry and sometimes artillery was needed to successfully break down enemy defenses. Only infantry would normally risk a frontal assault on a well prepared line, preferably with artillery assistance. Regimental cannon would keep pace with reloading infantry and protect them against enemy attacks. Cavalry would strike the opponents cavalry, or charge disordered infantry preferably in the vulnerable areas of the flank or rear. Cavalry was also used to cover an army in retreat or to interfere and chase remaining enemies after a successful infantry attack. If a cavalry attack was repulsed it would fall back behind friendly infantry lines and regroup for another charge. If necessary, the infantry could fall back alternating firing and movement. In some situations, infantry squares were used for protection against flanking cavalry attacks.[15] This formation was effective as all sides of the square would be facing outwards, removing the risk of a vulnerable rear or flanks. Also, the square formation presented enemy horses with a tightly packed mass of troops and a veritable hedge of sharp weapons, discouraging them from a charge.

See also


  1. ^ The Allotment Soldier and Root Farmer. Elfred Kumm 1949
  2. ^ a b Karoliner. Alf Åberg & Göte Göransson 1984
  3. ^ Åberg, Alf; Göte Göransson (1976). Karoliner. Höganäs: Bra Böcker. pp. 26–27.
  4. ^ Konovaltjuk & Lyth, Pavel & Einar (2009). Vägen till Poltava. Slaget vid Lesnaja 1708. Svenskt Militärhistorisk Biblioteks Förlag. p 19.
  5. ^ a b Lars-Eric Höglund, Åke Sallnäs, The Great Northern War 1700–1721 Colours and Uniforms. p 22.
  6. ^ Artéus, G Karolinsk och Europeisk stridstaktik 1700–1712, P 29, 30. Exlibria, 1972
  7. ^ a b c Fraustadt 1706. Ett fält färgat rött, Sjöström, Oskar, 2008. p. 217, Historiska Media, Lund (Swedish)
  8. ^ a b Konovaltjuk & Lyth, Pavel & Einar (2009). Vägen till Poltava. Slaget vid Lesnaja 1708 (in Swedish). Svenskt Militärhistorisk Biblioteks Förlag. p 19.
  9. ^ Konovaltjuk & Lyth, Pavel & Einar (2009). Vägen till Poltava. Slaget vid Lesnaja 1708 (in Swedish). Svenskt Militärhistorisk Biblioteks Förlag. p 117.
  10. ^ a b Fraustadt 1706. Ett fält färgat rött, Sjöström, Oskar, 2008. p. 216, Historiska Media, Lund (Swedish)
  11. ^ Charles XII and the Collapse of the Swedish Empire, 1682- 1719 - R. Nisbet Bain. p. 243.
  12. ^ a b Olle Larsson, Stormaktens sista krig (2009) Lund, Historiska Media. p. 68. ISBN 978-91-85873-59-3
  13. ^ Fraustadt 1706. Ett fält färgat rött, Sjöström, Oskar, 2008. Historiska Media, Lund (Swedish)
  14. ^ Olle Larsson, Stormaktens sista krig (2009) Lund, Historiska Media. p. 250. ISBN 978-91-85873-59-3
  15. ^ a b Konovaltjuk & Lyth, Pavel & Einar (2009). Vägen till Poltava. Slaget vid Lesnaja 1708 (in Swedish). Svenskt Militärhistorisk Biblioteks Förlag. p 244.
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