Denmark’s War With England (2/2): Krigen

By Claus Christiansen

Gunboat Battle Near Alvøen, Norway (artist unknown)

After the Battle of Copenhagen, Denmark-Norway tried to avoid the European showdown, which headed by the British tried to stop the French expansion. The foreign policy of Denmark-Norway was a walk on the edge in the aftermath of the battle trying not to further challenge any of the major powers in Europe.

How well do you think that worked out?

Krigen (1807 – 1814)
By Claus Christiansen

A period of Danish neutrality formally flooded enrichment to Denmark. Danish trade flourished taking advantage of the fighting powers of Europe. Goods were traded and shipped all over the world under the colours of Denmark.

On the European mainland the war raged on between the old enemies of England and France. As a result of this, and to prevent the spreading of hostilities into Danish territory, the Danish government decided in 1805 to draw most of the Danish army to Jutland, positioning it in the Holstein area.

In spite of these golden years of trade Danish foreign policy faced considerable political pressure. This came mainly from two sides, the dominating land power of France and the dominating seapower of England. Only as long as these two powers accepted Danish neutrality, was it sustainable.

The Danish-Norwegian government managed to balance on this diplomatic edge until the summer of 1807, but in August the time was running out fast. England and France initiated the race with the object of obtaining or at least securing the Danish fleet. The catastrophe had begun.

Following Napoleon’s victories at Jena, Auerstädt (1806), Eylau and Friedland (1807) and shortly after the peace of Tilsit on July 7th, 1807 the British fleet under admiral Gambier was formed and left England under maximum security. The fleet sailed from Yarmouth on July 26th headed for Copenhagen. Its task was to seize the Danish fleet as a pledge for the British avoiding its ending up in the hands of Napoleon.

The British fleet was considerable. It totalled 21 ships of the line, 9 frigates and 37 other men-of-war. To this came a transportation fleet mounting approx. 380 ships carrying a landing force of more than 30.000 men. Besides this 3.000 horses and a large contingent of heavy artillery made up of guns, howitzers, mortars and the new Congreve rockets went to sea.

Part of the enormous fleet passed the Castle of Cronenborg August 3rd. Due to lack of an official declaration of war and hoping to remain neutral, this, the most outstanding castle on the shores of the Sound, contended to salute! On August 16th the landing force went ashore near the town of Vedbaek and hastily took up positions around Copenhagen.

As most of the Danish army commanded by the Crown prince was stationed in Holstein defending the southern border against possible attack from Napoleon, the defence of Copenhagen was extremely limited. In order to relieve Copenhagen, orders were given to mobilize and form the regular militia, (the Zealand, Lolland-Falsterske and the Mønske) together with the naval militia. These forces were commanded by Lieutenant general J.M.H. Castenschoild.

Castenschiold managed to form most of this peasant force in order to attack the British seizing force from behind. This plan however never came into effect, as the professional British troops, commanded by general Wellesley, the later Duke of Wellington, attacked the Danish peasant force on August 29th near the town of Køge some 40 kilometres south of Copenhagen. The so-called “woodenshoes” battle ended with a total Danish defeat, thereby making it possible for the British to keep up the pressure on Copenhagen.

The Copenhagen Seizure, Defence and Bombardment

The entire defence of Copenhagen comprised 430 guns and mortars situated on the surrounding ramparts. The force mounted 4.300 regular soldiers, some 2.400 badly equipped and trained militiamen, 3 volunteer Corps of 1.200 men, a citizenmilita of 5.000 and 7 engineers! In all about 13.000 men.

The superior command of this confused mixture of poorly trained men, was given to the 72 year old engineer soldier (!), general Ernst Henrik Peymann. Peymann, who had never before held a command of regular troops, had held this not very prestigious command since the Crown prince hastily visited the city some days before prior to his travel back to the army in Holstein. As commander of the Naval defence the Crown prince chose captain Steen Bille.

Without encountering almost any resistance from the Danes, the British army managed within few days to encircle and completely cut off Copenhagen from the rest of Zealand. After this, capitulation was offered together with the surrender of the Danish fleet.

Following the denial of these unacceptable terms, the city of Copenhagen was bombarded from September 2nd to September 5th . On September 7th general Peymann surrendered both the city and the fleet to the overwhelming British occupation force.

The Capture of the Fleet and the Prison Ships

In the following weeks the Danish fleet was rigged and made ready for sea under British supervision. On October 21st 1807, it left Copenhagen for England. The fleet thereby lost by the Danes was of significant value for Denmark as a sea-trading nation. The captured fleet comprised 18 ships of the line, 15 frigates, 7 brigs, 23 gunboats, 7 barges and 1 schooner together with enormous amounts of naval related equipment.

The fleet alone represented more than 90.000 full-grown oaktrees. Besides this the British confiscated all Danish and Norwegian ships in British ports and arrested most of the merchant ships on their way to or from Danish overseas possessions and trading partners.

At one stroke, this immense loss deprived Denmark of its high position as a naval nation, leading to the coming loss of Norway as part of the kingdom, as well as the later national bankruptcy.

Through the coming years of the Danish-British war more than 7.000 Danish and Norwegian seamen from all over the world, were captured by the British. Most of these had to suffer years of hard prison under extremely lousy conditions onboard prisonships.

These were old worn-out and retired British men-of-war, anchored in or just outside British harbours and rivers.

Union with Napoleon and the Spanish Expeditionary Force

As a result of the war with England Denmark joined the alliance with emperor Napoleon in the autumn of 1807. In 1808 war against Sweden was declared. As a result of this, with the aim of invading this neighbouring country, Napoleon sent an expeditionary force to Denmark. This force, commanded by the French marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte totalled about 9.000 troops from France and Spain.

The French troops took up positions in the Holstein area, whereas the Spaniards went up Jutland and into the island of Funen. The plan was, together with Danish forces, to invade Skåne, as Sweden had refused to take the French side against England. The invasion plan never materialised, but the Spaniards caused Denmark considerable episodes and problems. Amongst other things the Koldinghus, the well known ancient castle burned down March 29th-30th, as the Spaniards fired too heavily in the fireplaces.

The Spaniards remained in the country for several months and cost the Danes a fortune, before most of the troops led by their general Romana, were shipped from the town of Nyborg and the island of Langeland after minor skirmishes. The Spaniards were eager to get home, as Napoleonic forces had invaded their motherland. In fact the shipping of these troops was performed by the British blockading ships. A considerable number of Spaniards never managed to get away, and traces of these can be found in Danish generations even today.

The Gunboat and Privateer War

It was impossible to compensate for the loss of the many-hundred-years-old oaktrees. Even though new building of Danish men of war was accelerated, the Danish shipyards only managed to build 4 major ships during the 7 years from 1807-1814. Realising this lack of seapower, the Crown prince decided to carry on the war against England by other means. The means was gunboats, giving this 7 year period its name.

In total 226 of these were built. The boats were oared by between 24 and 64 men. They were equipped with one or two guns. The boats worked together with the attempt to attack British merchantships as well as minor men of war. Especially in poor wind conditions these boats achieved great success against the big sailing ships.

Only gunboats managed to take up the battle against the superior enemy controlling the Danish waters. From September 1807 every willing civilian owner of ships, was able to get a royal privateer licence.Granting these governmental privateer licenses, the government in fact sanctioned piracy against all British and neutral ships carrying goods to or from England.

Almost 600 privateers were working in the period of 1807-1814. The ships, manned by thousands of Danish seamen, brought home ships and goods for as much as 100 million rigsdaler.

The Battle of Sjællands Odde

As the British sailed away with the Danish fleet, only a very small number of warships escaped captivity. One of these was the ship of line Prinds Christian Frederik, which by coincidence was in Norway at the time of the British invasion. This ship was manned with 576 men. In 1808 the ship was ordered to Storebælt to take up action against some lonely British men-of-war. In March 1808 the ship, commanded by captain Carl Wilhelm Jessen, was attacked by 3 British warships outside the most northwesternly part of Zealand (Sjællands Odde).

The battle started at 7:30 p.m. and continued into the dark night. Losses were heavy on both sides. The Danes lost approx. 60 men among others the very famous lieutenant Peter Willemoes. After more than 3 hours of intense battle, the Danish captain surrendered the ship, which at that moment had run aground. As the British were unable to bring the ship afloat, it was burned. All the dead Danish seamen were buried at the cemetery of Odden church, where a memorial was erected. The Inskription was written by the famous Danish priest N.F.S.Grundtvig.

The Loss of Norway and National Bankruptcy

The war ruined Denmark. Large sums went to the army, to the building of gunboats and construction of fortifications along the Danish coasts. Last but not least the Spaniards were very expensive. To cover the expenses banknotes were printed, but these devalued hastily. In the beginning of 1813 the country went bankrupt. Having chosen the wrong ally, the foreign policy went wrong as well. Napoleon’s decline started with the military defeat in Russia and at Leipzig, and at the final peace settlement in Kiel in 1814, Denmark had to cede Norway to Sweden after this country had been a part of the Danish-Norwegian kingdom for more than 450 years!

When peace finally came to Europe in 1815, Denmark had been transformed into a poor second-hand country. The loss of Norway, the loss of more than 1400 merchant- and military ships and the national bankruptcy in 1813 had a decisive impact on the nation itself, all its citizens, noble or otherwise, for many many years to come.

The End

Courtesy of Claus Christiansen and Danish Military History.

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