Saturday, January 4, 2014

Cold in the Kabinettskriege period

Continental Army in the Snow
Dear Reader,

As we brace for cold temperatures across much of the Midwest, I would like to remember another winter, which occurred during the Kabinettskriege era. While most of American readers probably jump to the winter at Valley Forge, which was very cold, I am actually talking about the, "Great Frost," of 1709.

A frozen lagoon in Venice during the 1708-1709 winter
During this winter, the canals of Venice froze, the cold caused a famine in France which killed 600,000 people, and many recorded that it was the coldest winter in living memory.

Swedish Karoliner attack during the winter
For soldiers, this cold winter put a freeze on operations. Karl XII of Sweden was campaigning against Russia, and his army was faced with the brunt of the cold. Lieutenant Lyths, one of the the Swedish soldiers, gave the following description in his diary:

“It was a great sorrow to behold the poor men, who were frozen by means of the slow march. Indeed, many a cavalrymen and dragoon sat frozen to death still on their horses. The day after, which was the 24th of December, the companies were surveyed, and each had 25 or 26 men found frozen, and regrettably, this forced the amputation of hands, legs and feet. There was more sorrow and sadness than one could believe. Frozen birds fell to the earth, smaller livestock, such as chickens and geese, likewise lay dead in their outbuildings from the cold. We also could not protect our horses from the cold, and many fell.
Blessed be the Lord my God, who has brought me warmly through so many dangers. Blessed be my God, in both good and bad times, in all times. Indeed, Eternal glory , thanks, and praise to my God, full of grace, goodness and mercy. To me, the proof is now evident that the day of my death is swift approaching. So, I ask you, my God, with a humble heart, full of grace, send your peace and blessing to me, remain with me, and allow me to abide with you forever. Oh my Lord God, hear and grant me this, for the sake of Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen, Amen." 
This shows the extreme cold that the Karoliner experienced, as well as the deep religious devotion which drove them to carry on. The Swedish army was weakened by the cold, and this contributed to their decisive defeat at the Battle of Poltava during the following summer.  Cold was difficult for many armies in the Kabinettskriege era, but usually the Russians and the Swedish were able to carry out difficult winter operations. However, the Great Frost of 1709 proved to difficult for the Swedish army.

Stay warm- and thanks for reading,

Alex Burns


  1. On BBC radio, ten minutes ago, there was an item on the Frost Fairs that were held on the River Thames in Central London during the 17th & 18th centuries, including a report of elephant rides in 1814, during the peace of Napoleon's exile to Elba. The temperatures were lower than today and the River Thames was wider and slower, but even so, an elephant on the ice....

  2. Thanks for the comment Pierre! Elephants on ice... it sounds like a musical adaptation. That is crazy!