The Carolean Death March (Karolinernas Dödsmarsch) was one of the most tragic losses of life ever to befall the Swedish Army and is an important milestone in the downfall of the Swedish Empire. It is referred to in the song Ruina Imperii, at the end of Sabaton’s 2012 album Carolus Rex.
By the end of 1718, Sweden and its king Charles XII (Carolus Rex) were on a significant losing streak in the Great Northern War – a campaign fought by Russia and its allies against Sweden, who until that point had been one of Europe’s major powers with a vast and successful empire. Having lost territory in the east to the Russians, Carolus Rex made the ill-fated decision to turn his attention to Norway instead, hoping that an attack on the country and the peace negotiations that would follow would win concessions from that country’s king.
Swedish officer Carl Gustav Armfeldt, defeated by the Russians at the battle of Napue (in what is now Finland), was ordered to take 10,000 of his exhausted and poorly-equipped soldiers to Norway and lay siege to the town of Trondheim. The town was found to be well defended and by the time news of Carolus’ death arrived four months later, Armfeldt had lost 40 per cent of his men.
The king was famously shot in the head by an unknown assailant at the siege of Fredriksten in Norway on 11 December 1718. With the king dead and the empire teetering on the brink of collapse, orders were sent to all Swedish troops serving in Norway to retreat home to Sweden. The news reached Armfeldt on 7 January 1719 and he resolved to leave the very next day via the shortest route – straight over the Tydal mountain range to reach the fort of Hjerpe.
The first stage in the journey was to the village of Ås in the Tydal region, a distance of 30 kilometres or roughly one day’s march in good conditions. The men, mostly from the empire’s Finnish lands, were ill-equipped for a trek across freezing Norwegian mountains though, and by the time the army gathered at Ås on 11 January, 200 men had already died of exposure.
The 5,800 remaining Caroleans set off on the next stage of their homeward march on 12 January, accompanied by Norwegian local Lars Bersvendsen Østby, who they forced to act as their guide by taking some of his relatives hostage. There was only just over 50 kilometres between them and their destination, the village of Handöl in Jämtland County, northern Sweden. In good conditions this would be a two-day march for a properly-equipped army.
However, after only a few hours on the road a storm struck, with temperatures plummeting and snow reducing visibility, forcing Armfeldt to set up camp where the army stood – the northern mountainside of Øyfjellet. The soldiers burned every piece of wood they could find in a desperate bid to keep warm, including their own rifle butts and sleds. It is thought that around 200 men – including the army’s local guide – froze to death on that first night.
The following day the soldiers broke formation and went off in groups in their desperation to get off the mountains. The biggest group, led by Armfeldt, managed to reach the Swedish border and reportedly cut a hole in the ice covering the river Ena to see which way the water flowed and ensure they were going in the right direction. By the time the first troops finally arrived in Handöl on the 14 January, the storm was still raging, and exhausted and frostbitten survivors would continue to arrive for the next two days. Three thousand Caroleans – more than half the original force – never made it to Handöl and remained frozen on the mountain.
Even then, the ordeal was not over for the Caroleans – another 700 men died as they made their way to their lodgings in the village of Duved. Only 2,100 men survived the march, and about 600 of those would be crippled for life.
When the storm had abated on 18 January, Norwegian major Emhausen began his pursuit of the Swedish army, and as his men climbed the mountain they were met with the sight of hundreds of dead Caroleans. Many of this ghost army were huddled or collapsed in the snow, but others had frozen where they stood, including drivers still sitting on loaded sleds pulled by dead horses, holding the reins in their frozen fingers.
The dead Caroleans would become prey twice after their deaths: first came the looting of their supplies and clothing by Norwegian troops and locals, then finally the bodies became food for the wolves, wolverines and foxes of the mountains.