During April of 1700 the Kingdoms of Denmark, Poland and the Russian Empire joined in alliance against the Swedes, starting what later became known as the “Great Northern War”. At first, Charles XII mostly remained on the sidelines. He was a new monarch and it was only naturally that not everyone should trust him immediately. However, his father had chosen good generals to command the army and the King mostly left matters to them and they were able to mount such a defensive that the forces of the alliance against Sweden were stopped. From then on, however, King Charles XII took a more decisive part in fighting the war and showed his aggressive nature by ordering a counterattack against the Danes. It was a swift and stunning success and in no time at all the Swedes had overrun Denmark and forced the government to withdraw from the alliance with the Treaty of Travendal on August 28, 1700. Not allowing the enemy to regain the initiative, King Charles XII went on the attack again and rushed to Livonia (the coastal area of what is now mostly Latvia and Estonia), where Russian forces were besieging the Swedish-held city of Narva in October. He was faced by no less a figure than Tsar Peter the Great who was leading a Russian army of almost 70,000 men but King Charles XII, with only 10,000 men, advanced through a raging blizzard, attacked and totally defeated the blinded and bewildered Russian army.
King Charles XII won battles by skill, quick-thinking and stunning audacity. In 1708 he made his most audacious move ever and, quite probably, his biggest mistake. He decided to invade the Russian Empire. He had already put down all his other enemies and no doubt reasoned that Russia would have to be dealt with permanently at some point and so it would be better to strike fast before the odds grew even more slanted in Russia’s favor. All the same, one can only marvel at the audacity of a King of Sweden launching an invasion of Russia. This was Sweden, not Napoleonic France or Germany that was dominating most of the continent, with numerous countries to draw support from, and it took no small amount of nerve for the King of Sweden to look across the border to the massive Russian Empire and say, ‘I think I can take’ them’. Peace offers were cast aside and the King took his Swedish army into Russia. What played out was something that Napoleon would have likely found familiar. On February 5, King Charles XII captured Grodno, he sat out the spring thaw in Minsk and as summer began resumed his offensive. However, the Russians refused to meet him in a face-to-face battle. They retreated before the Swedish army, destroying anything of value while at the same time harassing Charles XII with small-scale attacks of attrition.
Encouraging a Ukrainian rebellion against Russia had not worked but Charles XII did not give up. He and his little party made their way south to the territory of the Ottoman Empire where he tried to persuade the Turks to make war on Russia. Unfortunately for him, he was not successful in this either and the Turkish Sultan finally became so tired of his nagging and his presence which was offensive to Russia that he set his own army against the Swedish King and his tiny, ragged band of soldiers. King Charles XII was forced to flee again and made an epic trek across Eastern Europe, through Ottoman territory, across the Hapsburg lands of the Holy Roman Empire before finally arriving in Swedish Pomerania (in what is now Germany and Poland). He had not been home for ten years but had continued to rule Sweden all that time, as best he could, from a distance. He had been through a terrible ordeal but it had done nothing to dampen his zeal and determination. He set to work immediately to rebuild his army and drive out those who had taken advantage of his absence to encroach on Swedish territory.