This article is a short summary of the free companies of footdragoons used in mainly Finland and Norway by the swedish army during the great Nordic war. It will use captain Långströms company as an example.
In short they where free companies attached to the army command and used for diversion, scouting, prisonersnatching and deep patrols and raids. They where to worry and harass the enemy to bind up forces and make the life generally uncertain for them. In the Norwegian campaign they where also used for important messages.
To harass the rear areas of the enemy will have the effect that they need to direct forces from the front to rear security. As small units are hard to pin down in the massive forests and blocky terrain a relatively small force can drain quite a lot of forces for security.
The Eastern parts of Finland was even before the war a mix of Lutherans and Russian orthodox faiths. When the war started the tension got worse. The orthodox was seen as sympathizers with the Russian aggressors, and the Church and authorities fuelled these notions. When Russian raids across the borders started the peasants soon retaliated with crossborder raids of themselves. The target was peasants on the other side of the border. The Finns called these raiders/plunderers Kivekkäät, after the farmer Kivekäs that was a central figure. They where also called “sissar”. Abraham Cronhiort, commander of the army in Ingermanland, was concerned about the unlawfulness and chaos and wrote about his concerns to the king. The king replied that ha saw no problem with his loyal servants wanting to harm the enemy. Thus the all out war was started with irregular forces and militias wreaking havoc on each other.
The need of Footdragoons.
The carolean army was meant, as most armies of this age, to work on open and flat fields. They where extremly aggressiv in tactics, in general firing thier weapons only twice, the first line at 50 paces and the second at 25. After that they drew steel and charged.
The terrain in Finland was not open fields and flat ground though. The need for irregular fightingtactics was soon discovered.
The disorganised rabble soon came in need of better organisation and especially Control.
By early 1710 the army in Finland command organised them in a battalion, promoting Daniel Luukkoinen to major and putting him in charge. Under him the different companies where organised and numbered around 200-300 all in all (the exact number was Always fleeting and based upon how good the companies could muster people). Captains of free companies under Luukkoinen included Captain Peter Långström, Captain Solomon Enberg, Lasse Kärki, Stefan Löfving, Johan Henrik Fieandt, to name some of the more known officers They also got renamed officially as Footdragoons
Since the companies continued to operate on their own, the new organisation might have had Little real impact. In spring 1715 the Army chief gave Långström, and men he could muster from the farmers, orders to “hang on to the enemy as usual, seek knowledge and prisoners and report to me over the lake or northabout”. On the 25 of may he reported to the king that he had not heard from Långström since then.
They where assingned directly under the army in Finlands command. Their irregular status is shown by the fact that they are referred to as ‘partisans’ (partigängare) by the Army commanding officer.
Looking at how a company was organised we can take a look at Långströms Company.
Långström got a comission to set up a free company in December 1710. Långström also recived 100 soldiers as a start, derived from different regiments. The company was supposed to solve its logistics by what they could salvage from the enemy. In truth they often ‘taxed’ the local farmers.
in August 1714 the company mustered:
All in all 93 men.
In April 1718 he had 60 men and 9 ‘that looked all to young’. Their age ranged between 14 and 40
That is a sweet deal!
The army found good use of its footdragoons but they had trouble enlisting people to the companies. In oktober 1712 Army chief Georg Lybecker complains that even if the Finnish farmers have the best circumstances in the world to become ‘snaphaunces’ (old Swedish term for partisans). But even though massive campaigns had been launched not one had taken the bait.
He had spoken to them “about the manliness of the footdragoons, how they attack the enemy and claim good loot. ”
They also got deals that was unheard of in the regular army.
- Freedom to serve for as long as they them self wanted
- Promises to belong to a company directly under the army chief
- Their wifes and kids would have the free use of deserted homes for as long as the war lasted
- They would never be ordered out somewhere unless they them self agreed to it (!)
The Footdragoons sure had a very special arrangement.
Uniform or not?
There is abit of confusion about if the unit used uniforms or not. On one hand some where regular Soldiers from the start. The officers most certainly HAD a uniform.
Långström complains Before the Norwegian Campaign that his mens uniforms ‘where not fit to represent the king in’. That may refer to uniforms in a wider meaning though, as in ‘working clothes’. The army quartermaster Frisenhielm arranges uniforms for them (and that would most probably mean uniforms as in armyuniforms).
The only eyewitnesreport of footdragoons in action though states that they where ‘clad in simple grey broadcloth coats. Ragged and worn”.
Some finnish regiments had grey uniforms, as well as the artillery. But this was well known so they should have been referred to as in uniform then.
Not all units had to have uniforms. Stockholm citizen guards regiment was not obliged to have uniforms, even if it was encouraged. Perhaps it was the same with the footdragoons.
Most scholars, for example Anna Guttorp, seems to think that the Footdragoons wore civilian clothes when out on missions, to melt in with the locals and easier escape detection. We also know that clothes was a common loot when they robbed peasants. Also Russian military clothes was captured. It seems possible these where taken to be used.
Perhaps it was a mix of uniforms, parts of uniforms and purely civilian clothes that was used.
“Långströms men killed 51 men, took 19 prisoners and 64 horses with tack. of other loot there was clothes and other” (February 1714)
When the farmers complained about Cpt. Långströms ‘taxations’ they report that he
“takes everything they have in the house and also hidden in the woods. He takes the clothes from our bodies and show no respect for our needs”
possibly they used uniforms when in encampment and other “official” duties and civilian when out. The very generous contracts they had suggests that they could pretty much be dressed as they liked and expect Little trouble….
Some missions, as examples.
1711 two parties was sent out to blockade the waters into Viborg castle. Peter Långström had 100 men and Lt. Stigman had about 80 dragoons. A Major Fraser had trouble with his part and said he could not possibly hold the blockade without artillery and he retreated after a skirmish that killed 20 of his men. Långström, instead of just holding his small islands captured two boats (Lodja) and took 21 prisoners
1714, February, “Captain Långström have with 120 men followed a russian force of 80. They killed 51, took 19 prisoners. Långström was ‘hurt’ and one officer (Kariander) and 8 men died.
1714, in the summer, two units of russian dragoons (around 120 men each) hunting for Lt. Sahlos unit, had the bad luck of running into Långströms company. 20 russians where killed and a couple of prisoners taken.
later that summer he was back in the archipelago and taking several lodjor loaded with supplies.
1714 Långström manages to capture the later famous Vitus Bering (that have given name to Berings straights) . He later manages to escape due to a traitor in Longströms own ranks…
these small actions where happening all the time and they seem to have had little or no rest. In november 1717 Långströms company follows the swedish army over to Sweden (the regular army left Finland 1714). Lasse Kärki with 60-80 footdragoons and Lorens Häikäläinen with 40 was left behind.
1718 in august, Långström is sent out to capture the Danish/Norwegian priest Nils Muus that was a vital part of the spynetwork in the area. Nills Muus was a high profile target so there is a lot of rumours about this raid. We can be sure that Långström got his man though as the Commander Armfeldt writes “now in this moment comes Cpt. Långström that has been sent out to collect a Norwegian priest Nils Muus in his home in Snasen”
1718, November, Långström leaves Melby with a letter to the king and 21 men in escort. He is recognised and rides into an ambush where he is shot dead.
With a silver bullet.
Footdragoons and the locals.
The relation to the local farmers was often very strained. The farmers feared the footdragoons as much as the Russians. If it wasn’t ‘taxation’ where the footdragoons took whatever they needed or wanted, those found, or even suspected, aiding a footdragoon was hanged and tortured. Most farmers ran or tried to hide when the footdragoons came a calling. Major Luukkoinen was concerned about the bad reputation they had and wrote to the Army chief that “they see us as little better then common robbers”. The army chief responded that they had cause. The majors troops where being to rough with the locals.
the peasantry in Kajanaland wrote a desperate letter to the magistrate saying that two things was being their undoing. The enemy and captain Långström. The Russians plundering was a big problem but Långströms was far worse.
“Captain Långström treats us so very harsh that he dont just takes from us taxmoney, tithes and ‘gärden’ (another kind of tax) but also with a unchristian plundering and whipping lets his men take everything that they find in the house, everything we have hidden in the woods, and clothes from our bodies without concerns for our needs, all the hay, all the sledges and tack for the horses, our only cows and sheep and cereals, which he eats or sell. He ties and violently abduct our only men….”
The letter did end up in an enquiry, but Långströms manages to die before it gets solved.
Anders Märäläin of Långströms company was so brutal and evil that after he drowned (when trying to cross a river on some logs) the parish priest was not sure he could be buried in consecrated earth. He had for example frightened some children to a farmer he extorted so badly they had run of into the woods and frozen to death. there was also some acoints of sexual conduct that was not of the good kind and he also had tied and extorted money from a peasant as a fine for that the same peasant had stopped him from raping his sister inlaw. On top of all he also had not taken the communion in three years.
But it also seems that hey collaborated with local farmers, or Sissar and Kivekääs. It is mentioned here and there that ‘The company with some Farmers’ has done this and that. so some was cooperative, or was forced to help either they wanted to or not.
If you like to read more, the book ‘Gerillakaptenen Peter Långström’ By Anna Guttorp et al is a perfect buy.