With the outbreak of revolutions in 1848 the ruling houses of almost every Central European country were faced with two elementary demands: constitution and national unity. For the Danish monarchy these demands meant the beginning of three years of war. A liberal constitution was hard enough for King Frederik VII of Denmark, but to grant "national unity" was almost impossible.
More than one third of Denmark's population were Germans, living in the duchies of Slesvig/Schleswig, Holstein/Holsten and Lauenburg. These three southern regions of the Danish "Gesamtstaat" or "Helstaten" (common name for the union of the kingdom and the duchies) made up about one half of the monarchy's economic power.
After the end of the Napolenonic wars, nationalism had grown on both sides: the Danes dreamed of a national homogenous Kingdom with the duchy of Slesvig/Schleswig included, the Germans held fast to the idea of personal union between the Kingdom of Denmark and the duchies which were considered to form a special kind of indivisible federation (from this perspective derived the name "Schleswig-Holstein" written as one word).
The centre of national fighting was the duchy of Slesvig/Schleswig. This part of the Danish kingdom was inhabited by Germans, Danes, Frisians as well as people not at all certain about their "nationality".
A further, sometimes forgotten reason why war broke out, was the question of succession. Because King Christian VIII of Denmark died childless in January 1848, the duchies, according to the law of succession, could have fallen to the ruling house of Oldenburg. To prevent a division of the Danish kingdom, the Danish "Royal Law" (Lex Regia) was - illegaly - introduced in the duchies, prefering the female line of succession. To sum up the origins of the Three Years War: Old ideas and new ones collided with each other and both, Danes and Germans, referred differently to either "new" or "old" justifications for their call to arms.
The provisional government
and the 24th March 1848
After a spontaineous meeting of protesting citizens in Copenhagen took place on March 21st , demanding a liberal constitution, rumours broke out in the duchies: the years of hidden confrontation between the nationalities showed effect. In Kiel, the political centre of the German nationalist and legalist party, nobody knew exactly what was going on in Copenhagen.
The ruling class of local government officials and other important persons assembled in Kiel and proclaimed a "provisional government" on March, 24th - in the eyes of the Danish central government this was an act of rebellion but in the eyes of the Germans this was an act of loyality because they believed their king to be in the hands of the Copenhagen revolutionary party.
In fact the Danish king appointed new ministers, of which some could be called radical nationalists. Especially the appointment of captain[!] Tscherning as new minister of war made plain the victory of the "Ejder-Danes", Denmark's liberal-nationalist's party demanding the river Eider/Ejder as the border of a homogenous Danish state.
The proclamation of the Schleswig-Holstein provisional government was a first but ineffective step towards national integration for the Germans becaause their demands could not rely upon a military foundation. Rendsburg, located in the heart of the duchies, was the main garrison and fortress in Schleswig-Holstein. Three battalions of infantry (14th, 15th and 16th), the 2nd Regiment of Artillery, engineers and the main armoury were stationed there.
Under the command of Prince Frederik of (Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenburg-) Noer, a former high ranking Danish general major (- and a member of the Schleswig-Holstein line of succession mentioned above -), a troop consisting of the 5th "Lauenburger" Rifle Corps (Jägerkorps) and students of Kiel university took Rendsburg by surprise.
Using the first Schleswig-Holstein railway between Kiel and Rendsburg which had a direct connection to the fortress center, the Schleswig-Holstein troops simply made their way in, passing through the gates, left open for some unknown reason. Although almost all soldiers of the units stationed in Rendsburg were Germans of origin, most of the officers were Danish.
Not surprisingly these officers refused to follow the Prince's orders, but - fortunately - no blood was spilt that day. The infantry battalions and the artillery regiment went over to the provisional government after the Prince delivered a patriotic speech.
The Danish officers were permitted to leave for Denmark but had to pledge not to fight against Schleswig-Holstein in the coming war. Even some old officers of German origin went northwards - veterans of the Napoleonic wars who retained strong patriotic feeling towards their king. Meanwhile the younger officers and ratings of the other garrisons in Glückstadt (17th Infantry Battalion), Itzehoe and Ploen (2nd Regiment of Dragoons) gave way to their national feelings and joined the provisional government the same day, 24th March.
The incorporation of the 1st Regiment of Dragoons and the 4th Rifle Corps, both garrisoned in the town of Schleswig, was more complicated. The Danish officers - alarmed by rumors and the activity of armed bands of the pro-German civil guard - gathered their troops and decided to march towards Flensburg. This seaside town was infamous for its pro-Danish feelings although the population was mixed like most of the towns in the Northern region of the duchies.
Some of the young German lieutenants convinced about 2 thirds of the regiment to fight for the provisional government while the rest followed their commanders northwards. The 4th Rifle Corps obeyed unwillingly but in close order. In the evening the Jäger reached Flensburg and stayed for the night. On the next morning the corps was reduced to about half of its strength.
The Jäger were drunken and not willing to obey any orders. Soon the officers decided to go to Aabenraa/Apenrade while the troops were dismissed. This took place between March 25th and 26th - now every soldier in Schleswig-Holstein had decided for which side he would risk his life in the battles to come.
Although the separation between Germans and Danes in the military didn't always perform without problems, most of the officers kept strong feelings of friendship for their former comrades. Especially during the engagement of Bov/Bau (9th April 1848) contemporary accounts speak of "dark feelings in every true soldier's mind" when Schleswig-Holstein and Danish officers faced old friends now fighting for the "enemy".
The formation of the armed
forces, 25th March- 9th April
With the outbreak of open rebellion there was no doubt that the duchies would soon have to face a Danish expeditionary force. Schleswig-Holstein lacked almost every institution needed for an army on campaign. There was no ministry of war, no organized military supply and transport system and not even enough officers and NCOs to command the troops (from 159 officers only 65 - the German part of the officer's corps - remained in the ranks of the "insurgent" army).
Since January/February the strength of the Schleswig-Holstein garrisons had been kept extremely low for Denmark feared the outbreak of military rebellion (appr. 1,500 men). Consequently, the provisional government's first undertaking was a national call to arms including the enlistement of local and "foreign" (that means "German") volunteers. The latter formed the Freikorps, volunteer units of battalion size and often of doubtful military value.
The regular infantry (later called 1st - 4th battalion) was brought up to combat strength and two more battalions (5th and 6th) were raised a few days after March 24th. The Rendsburg arsenals contained enough pieces of artillery to form up to six field batteries of 6 and 12pdrs but there were not enough horses to make the artillery mobile. At best 3 batteries of 6pdr guns could been manned and drawn by with horses.
The cavalry with its two regiments of dragoons was considered the most ineffective branch of the army: the terrain of the duchies was broken with hedges, woods and hills and proved ill-suited to cavalry charges. Also, the ranks of the two regiments were filled with the gentry and nobility of the duchies. Like the representatives of their "first familiy", the Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenburg dynasty, this upper class feared the consequences of armed democrats, the Freikorps, even more than the coming attack of superior Danish forces.
Their point of view was that of strict legitimicy: the Danish king was not their enemy, - he stayed the "unfree" souvereign of the duchies - the enemy was the liberal and national Danish "revolutionary" party which threatened the traditional social order of the common monarchy of Danish and German speaking subjects ("Gesamtstaat").
To the provisional government's only avaiable "naval component" in March 1848 was the steamer "Christian VIII" - an obsolete vessel, used for governmental duties and mail transport in peacetime. An inspection soon proved the uselessnes of "Christian VIII" for any military use. Although Denmark's naval forces had been constantly built of since the defeats during the war against Britain (1801-1815), there was not a single warship stationed on Schleswig-Holstein's coastline.
The provisional government therefore had no navy in March/April
1848. Only the foundation of an "Imperial (German) Fleet"
(Reichsflotte) in 1848/49 - one of the chief military plans
of the short-lived national assembly in Frankfurt/Main - made
way for the creation of a small Schleswig-Holstein flotilla
which saw some action in 1849 and 1850.