Denmark’s War With England (1/2): The League of Armed Neutrality

Obviously, when speaking of the Napoleonic Wars, the rivalry of England vs. France tends to receive top billing. Yet it is important to remember that Napoleon’s goal was not simply to subjugate his own country or even his own country plus Britain; he wanted nothing less than total dominance of the European continent. This means that throughout the Napoleonic Wars, many countries other than Britain and France were pulled into the conflict, oftentimes against their will.

The story of Denmark’s war with England is often ignored. They were no match for either the British or the French, which they well knew. All they really wanted was to remain neutral throughout the conflict. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Napoleon needed to add them to his empire in order to fulfill his dream, and Britain needed to prevent that in order to keep Denmark’s resources out of his hands. Caught between two powers at war, Denmark suffered for its desire for neutrality.

The following article addresses the history of Denmark’s (entirely naval) war with England from the Danish perspective, a perspective that is all too often overlooked.

Convoying and the League of Armed Neutrality (1801 – 1807)
By Claus Christiansen

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.

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.

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.

To Be Continued.

Courtesy of Claus Christiansen and Danish Military History. Intro by your captain.
Image: The Battle of Copenhagen by Nicholas Pocock. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

*Captain’s note: Nelson famously continued the battle by holding his spyglass to his blind eye and insisting he did not see the signal. This is because he is a total badass.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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