Livgardet and the Kalabalik at Bender
In 1765, when Axel Erik Roos lay on his deathbed at the age of 81, he could reflect on a successful lifetime of service for the Swedish crown. He had been wounded in battle 16 times, and doctors had extracted nine bone fragments, four rifle-bullets and two pieces of shrapnel from his body. His long military career had begun in 1700, when he joined Swedish King Karl XII’s court as a page at the age of 16.
When Karl went out into the field to make war, Roos followed him, battling for the future of the Swedish Empire at Narva, Kliszow, Fraustadt, Thorn and Holowczyn. Each time he was noted for his skill and bravery. By 1707, he was a lieutenant and welcomed into the Royal Drabant Corps, the King’s bodyguard, later to be known as Livgardet (the Royal Guard). The Drabants enjoyed the absolute trust and confidence of their king.
In exile on Ottoman soil
At Poltava, Roos led a battalion of Swedish infantry into battle, hoping to reverse what was a hopeless outcome. Nearly the entire Drabant Corps fell in the gunsmoke that day. Roos, himself, was captured, but managed to escape and rejoin his defeated King when Karl withdrew into exile on Ottoman soil.
By the winter of 1713, Karl and his Swedes had been guests of the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III for nearly three and a half years. Karl had wanted to leave for quite a while, but feared for his safety once across the border, since spies and agents of his mortal enemies, Russia and Poland, lay in wait. And so, they remained.
For Roos and the Royal Drabants, their compound became a second home, and over the years, tents became a permanent military compound. While their King lived in a large furnished brick house, the men spent their days in the coffee houses and shops of Bender with the locals. And with the Janissaries – the Royal Guard of the Ottoman Sultan – stationed there, the Drabants enjoyed an almost brotherly relationship. The Turkish soldiers admired and even revered the Swedish monarch, claiming that with a General like him, they could conquer the world.
“Iron-Head”, as Karl was known to them, was a brave, generous and noble man, who understood the hardships of the common soldiers. Yet, while the men enjoyed the extensive Muslim hospitality, both the local rulers and the high officials of the Sublime Porte grew weary of Karl’s endless presence.
A volatile situation
Roos knew little of the politics and the intrigues that surrounded them in their exile, but it became clear from the increasingly hostile atmosphere outside the camp that something wasn’t right. By 1713, the men were not allowed to visit Bender anymore, and those that did were arrested. Then on January 18, by the order of the Seraskier – the Ottoman Minister of War – all food supplies were stopped and communications were cut. The Janissary Honor Guard was recalled, and all Moldavan merchants and handymen were forced to leave. In their stead, a well-armed force of 4,000 Tatar warriors surrounded the camp.
The situation grew ever more volatile, and Roos and the Drabants built a makeshift palisade of wagons and barrels filled with dirt.
At midday on February 1, to the sound of trumpets, the thousands of Turks and Tatars marched towards the Swedish camp. Twelve canons and two small mortars were brought into position, but they were fired with a minimum charge of powder, and their rounds bounced harmlessly off the walls. It seemed like a sham attack, so when the Turks and Tatars moved towards the Swedish lines, the defenders only fired in the air, but this time it was the real deal, and the attackers did not stop. Surprised and overwhelmed by the sudden rush, the Swedes of the regular army surrendered without a fight.
Enraged at the sight, Karl drew his sword and cried out: “Who still has courage and loyalty in his breast, shall follow me! We will fight pro aris et focis!” He was left with only 40 men against a horde of thousands, yet among his men were four men of the Royal Guard – Roos, Carpelan, von Tschammer and Wohlberg. All drew their weapons and surrounded their King, willing to defend him to the last.
It now became terrifyingly serious. Once the Turks and Tatars were inside the compound, they began plundering it. They soon broke into Karl’s house through the windows. Insulted by this intrusion of his personal quarters, Karl charged forward, his royal guard at his heels. They clashed head on with a group of Turks who began tearing at the King’s clothes. See, the Seraskier had promised the men who brought Karl back to him alive a large sum of gold. Proof would be his coat. The Royal Guard threw themselves against the enemy. A pistol discharged right by the King’s face, burning and blackening part of his face. Roos threw himself over the King, trying to shield him with his body, while the others cut down the enemy. Together, they dragged their King back to the house.
Inside, the enemy was looting everything that looked somewhat valuable. The Swedes attacked, firing pistols at close range. Almost instantly the room was filled with smoke. Coughing and choking, the two sides flew into a deadly brawl. Through the smoke, three Turks charged the King. Roos, armed with a pistol in each hand, made ready to meet them.
“Standing betwixt three Turks, both arms raised in the air, sword in the right hand. I shot down the Turk with his back to the door. His Majesty lowered his sword arm and stabbed the second Turk through the body and I was not slow in shooting the third Turk dead.”
They pulled the King from the window just as another assailant took aim. Shielding Karl with his own body, Roos’ fur cap was hit by the blast.
“Roos”, cried the King through the smoke, “is it you who have saved me?”
Urging his men to throw the barbarians out of the house, the King ran to his bedroom. He threw the door open and was almost stabbed to death by a startled Janissary. Only the quick reflexes of von Tschammer, who was able to parry the sabre with his carbine, saved the King’s life. Karl cut down two of his assailants, then the remaining Turks in the room scrambled out of the window.
By around 17:00, the Swedes were once more in possession of the house. They barricaded the doors and windows, took the weapons that were left by the attackers and kept firing. Karl himself distributed the remaining bullets to his men, and sniped from the window with a carbine.
Roos remembered: “By now the King was bleeding from the nose and cheek. A lobe of an ear was missing, a bullet had nicked him. Left hand was badly sliced between thumb and forefinger, had warded off a Turkish sword by grasping the enemy blade barehanded.”
A change of tactics
The Turks changed tactics to get the Swedes out of the house. They rolled burning bales of straw against it and shot fire arrows into the thatch roof. Karl, with Roos and Wohlberg, ran up the stairs into the attic. With rapiers and muskets, they tried to break the burning shingles from the roof, but the situation was out of control. Back on the ground floor again, the King asked for a drink, but water was long gone. His men had resorted to drinking wine and brandy to quench their thirst. Karl, who had not touched a drop of alcohol in 13 years, drank a glass of wine.
Now, the house was beginning to fill with smoke so thick that they could barely see their feet. Many lost heart, urging the King that it was better to give up than to burn alive. Roos, on the other hand, knowing the King’s reluctance, said: “Wouldn’t it be glorious to die with honour, with a rapier in hand and in the middle of one’s enemies, than to stay and burn alive?” Karl is said to have immediately praised his Royal Guard for their bravery and promoted Roos on the spot. As the roof began to collapse, they pushed the main door open. Each man fired his pistols towards the attackers, before drawing his sabre.
In his tent, the Seraskier received Karl with all the politeness and apologies he could muster. It was of course all a misunderstanding that led to the fight and the tragic, unnecessary death of men. All the surviving Swedish army and Karl’s Royal Guard had been taken prisoner and dragged into Bender barefoot and in chains. They were stripped of their valuables, their money, even the silver buttons from their coats. The Tatars that surrounded them were now dressed in ill-fitting hats, pelts and wigs, and embroidered uniforms. But although the King’s treasure had been looted, Karl was in a pretty good mood. Despite having his eyebrows burned off and a deep cut in his nose, his guard had prevented any further harm from coming to him, so Karl sat on the Seraskier’s couch as if he had just won the great victory and the roles were reversed.
And in a way, they had indeed won a great victory. The story of the Kalabalik at Bender, as it was soon known, crossed Europe’s courts like wildfire. It was a sensation. A story of heroism and sheer insanity – exactly the kind of feat that was typical for Karl XII of Sweden. All eyes were now on Karl, and any further attempt to silence or betray the Swedish King was now out of the question. Satisfied with the outcome, Karl fell asleep, still wearing his torn and bloody clothes.
The story of how the Swedish King and his small band of warriors defied an army, fascinated contemporaries and was soon elevated into legend. The pressure of international diplomacy soon got the Swedish soldiers released, and Karl eventually made his journey back to Swedish soil. Roos and the Drabants remained by the King’s side, and their ranks were slowly filled as war beckoned once again.
Roos himself was appointed Adjutant General in the Skånsk cavalry, taking part in top secret and very hazardous missions on his King’s orders. He was also there at Fredriksten fortress in 1718, where Karl XII met his fate, but a Royal Guard remained loyal to the Swedish crown until his own death, and for the rest of that century, men like Axel Erik Roos embodied the traditional Carolean hero. He became a romanticised idol of the Swedish Youth, who dreamed of performing soldierly feats like his and experiencing great adventures. Many tales and poems were written about his life and the Royal Guard, who, like at Bender, remained true to their vow to protect King and country, no matter the cost.
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of the above story, watch our Sabaton History episode, The Royal Guard – Livgardet and the Kalabalik at Bender: