Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Battle of Siikajoki 18.4.1808

Historical Background:

The Finnish army had been in a planned retreat for nearly two months since the start of the Finnish war. Several small engagements had been fought between the Finns and the Russians, including the battles of Leppävirta and Virre, in order to slow down the Russians and buy the army time. Now, the scattered Finnish army began to converge near the town of Oulu and the main army was no longer under the threat of being cut off by the Russian fifth division advancing through Savonia. The Russian supply lines were stretched out and spring was approaching. Soon, the ice covering the Gulf of Finland would melt and the Swedish navy would be able to break the siege at Viapori, the invincible bastion built on the islands near Helsinki. The situation was looking up for Sweden, but high commander Klingspor was still cautious and willing to pull the army back further north towards Tornio.

Adlercreutz at Siikajoki (Albert Edelfeldt, 1897-1900)

The army retreated again but hot on its heels, the tenacious cavalry commander Kulnev posed a serious threat to the Finnish baggage train. Von Döbeln and his Pori (Björneborg) infantry regiment took up position at the southern side of river Siikajoki to allow the baggage train to cross. The third brigade, led by Gripenberg and consisting of the Häme (Tavastehus) infantry who fought at Viirre, would cover Von Döbeln's retreat to the northern bank of the river. Then, Kulnev attacked the Finnish rearguard.

The Historical Battle:

Von Döbeln fought an exemplary rearguard action, stalling Kulnev's forces and feeding his men into the line sparingly. Kulnev sent a detachment of cavalry under the command of major Silin to flank the Finns via the frozen sea. Döbeln held his position near Siikajoki church until half past five in the afternoon. At this point his troops were wavering and he received orders to pull back on the northern side of the river. This was the moment Silin had been waiting for and he attacked with his cavalry. Adlercreutz sent reinforcements to counter the cavalry but nevertheless they struck a weak point in the Finnish positions, at one point threatening to overrun the Finnish command post with Klingspor himself there! The dragoons of Uusimaa drove away Silin's cossacks but Klingspor prudently relocated his command post from Pietola farm towards Liminka, ordering Adlercreutz to withdraw from the field.

The Russians took the southern bank of the river after Von Döbeln withdrew and artillery on both sides began to exchange fire. The Russians made a weak attempt to cross the river but were repulsed by the Finns who were preparing to pull back from the battle. At this point, Adlercreutz marked that the Russian army was spread out too thinly. Acting against his orders, Adlercreutz ordered elements from Gripenberg's third brigade to assault and retake the Siikajoki church. This was achieved by a bayonet charge as darkness fell over the snowy landscape. The Russians withdrew from the field but it was too late in the day for Adlercreutz to pursue.

The battle of Siikajoki was the first proper Swedish victory in the war, but Klingspor did not take advantage of it, ordering his army to withdraw from the field and resume marching north. Still, it was a vital morale boost for the army and a very auspicious beginning for the pushback that was to come.

The refight:

We fought the battle using Heroics and Ros 6mm and General De Brigade 2nd edition rules. The goal of the Russians is to push back the Swedish defenders from the southern bank of the river, cross over if possible and hold position if not possible. The Swedes should stall the Russian advance until reinforcements arrive and retreat in an orderly fashion without heavy losses. Note that we accidentally reversed Kulnev's and Turtschaninov's positions in our game. Commentary embedded in the images.

Wounded warrior on the snow (Helene Schjerfbeck, 1880)

The game took 21 turns and the entire day to play. It was a long scenario starting with the Russian attack after which the Finns got their chance to counterattack. This made for a varied scenario even if it took a long time to play. The game went pretty much according to history up until the counterattack of the Swedish army. That attack went terribly wrong and the Finns, who had been taking a lot more punishment than the Russians throughout the game, ended up losing almost triple the number of men than the Swedes. Losses-wise the battle was also much bloodier than the real thing (again, usual in wargames). The "figure losses" in GdB were 81 lost by the Finns against just 29 lost by the Russians. As one figure equals 20 men, that's bloody for this small war. I'll have to say this result didn't owe as much to my tactical brilliance as Kulnev as it did to my excellent dice rolling!

In the end we ruled that the end result would still be the same: The Russians would have to retreat as they couldn't possibly hold the field, but the Finns' morale and fighting capabilities would be hurt in the grand scheme of things.

Battlefield visit:

While going to my friends' wedding in Oulu this spring, I made a detour to Siikajoki with my wife onboard (bless her). The battlefield hasn't seen much development and all the fields, woods and roads are pretty much where they were two hundred years ago. The church is the same one too. As usual, it's very interesting to visit the battle site you wargame and to be able to see the distances in proper 1:1 scale. I think we did ok in our wargame. The only differences are that the terrain was pretty much totally flat aside from the banks of the river and the river itself was perhaps a bit too wide considering the groundscale of our wargame.

The first thing I noticed is that the Siikajoki church, depicted as being on a hill on the maps, isn't on a hill.

View to the east from the church. The field and the woods beyond are pretty much as they were back in 1808.

The woods south of the church. Here the Pori infantry skirmished against the Russians. You can imagine the benefits of maintaining a loose formation, especially in deep snow.

The church is still the same building as it was 200 years ago.
Behind the church lies the river. The banks of the river are steep and worthy of a good "defended obstacle" modifier. It's hard to see the river from the trees. I wonder if the backs were this wooded in 1808..
A better shot of the river a few kilometers upstream. It's wide and shallow, but perhaps not as wide as we made it out to be in our scenario.
"For the soldiers who fell in the battle of Siikajoki 1808"


  1. Another wonderfull battle report! I really like the way you put these together. What´s going to be the next one? Revonlahti? Pulkkila? Lemu? Lapua?

    1. Revonlahti this weekend. It will probably conclude the winter battles we'll do. After that we'll move on to summer.