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War with England 1801-14   
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by Claus Christiansen
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1801-1807

Convoying and the League of Armed Neutrality
As Danish merchant ships were increasingly harassed by privateers, the Danish Government decided in 1797, to secure shipping by having the convoys protected and led by one or more men-of-war. Introducing this, the so called armed neutrality, the Government changed it's policy regard to the traditional and for many years strongly favoured neutrality. This decision challenged both England and France.

The first serious skirmish involving Danish ships as a result of this new strategy occurred in July 1800. In this a Danish convoy, led by the frigate "Freja", refused to allow British warships to board and search the convoy. Fighting broke out, and uneven as it was, it led to a Danish surrender.

Some months later a large British fleet entered the Sound and anchored in the Copenhagen Roads. The British thereby forced Denmark to give up on the armed convoy policy, which had to be accepted by the Danish government.

The battle between the Danish frigate Freja and British men-of-war
The battle between the Danish frigate Freja and British men-of-war

Forced by England, and probed by the Emperor Paul of Russia, Denmark decided to join the League of Armed Neutrality.This league consisted of the Netherlands, Sweden, Prussia and Russia. Shortly after, Emperor Paul decided to seize all British property and ships in Russian harbours. This was quickly counteracted by England, who seized all Russian, Danish and Norwegian ships in British harbours.

In January 1801, the British government gave orders to attack the Danish colonies in the Virgin Islands forcing them to surrender on the March 29th - 31st 1801. At the same time another strong force was sent to the waters outside Copenhagen, with the aim of forcing Denmark to leave the League of Armed Neutrality.

The battle
Faced by a large British fleet approaching Copenhagen, actions had to be taken. As only few Danish warships were equipped and fitted for sea, most of them had to be pulled out of Copenhagen harbour to be positioned and anchored to form an unbroken arc in front of the entrance to the harbour. A planned naval support from Karlskrona in Sweden, never showed up because of lack of good wind. Additional Russian support was not possible, as the Russian Fleet was working in the Gulf of Finland.

After 3 days of much needed reconnaissance of the shallow waters of the Sound, especially outside Copenhagen, the British Commander Sir Hyde Parker ordered the attack to begin on April 2nd 1801.

Soon after the battle was in full swing. The battle swept from side to side causing heavy losses on both sides. Surprisingly many British ships encountered severe damage, and Parker signalled Nelson to cease fighting.

One of the Danish floating batteries during the Battle in Copenhagen Roads
One of the Danish floating batteries during the Battle in Copenhagen Roads

Nelson did not approve of this order and chose to continue the battle. In the afternoon Nelson sent a boat, carrying a flag of truce, to the Crown prince Frederik who was watching the battle from the ramparts of the Citadel. These couriers delivered a note, in which Nelson threatened to set fire to all captured ships and batteries thereby causing the possible death of many Danes.

The negotiations and the burial of the dead
Facing the unacceptably high numbers of possible casualties the Crown prince decided to give in. A cease-fire was agreed, and formal negotiations for peace initiated. These talks lasted for more than a week focusing on the English demand, that Denmark had to leave the League of Armed Neutrality.

The 6 hour plus long battle resulted in a total of more than 2000 dead and wounded, and the citizens of Copenhagen had suddenly witnessed and experienced the horrors of war at close quarter. In spite of all the fear, anger and grief of this battle, a deep emotion of unity filled all the Danes This came to expression on April 5th, when most of the Copenhagen citizens followed the burial of the Danish casualties. These were buried in a mass grave at the naval cemetery of the Holmen church.

The peace agreement and the time after
During the hard negotiations, which at times called for a resuming of hostilities, the Crown prince was suddenly and secretly informed that the Russian Emperor Paul had died. As the basis, and one of the driving factors behind the League of Armed Neutrality thereby fell, to make membership unimportant, the Crown prince continued the negotiations making a show of resistance. Finally he gave in to the British demands, knowing that these in fact had lost their meaning. A 14-week armistice was signed on April 9th 1801, as a beginning of peace between the parties. The final peace agreement was then signed on October 23rd 1801.

After the battle on April 2nd, 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.

Krigen 1807-1814

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 it's 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 seize, 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.

Bombardementet af København
Bombardment of Copenhagen

The capture of the fleet and the prisonships
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.

Englænderne afsejler med den danske flåde den 21. oktober 1807
The English leave with the Danish fleet.

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 the 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.

A British brig being attacked by Danish gunboats
A British brig being attacked by Danish gunboats

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.

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