Britain’s illegal war: the story of the battle of Copenhagen

The bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 attracted huge controversy and was branded by many as an attack on a neutral state. Roy and Lesley Adkins tell the story of the battle and the devastation it wreaked

The Second Battle of Copenhagen (or the Bombardment of Copenhagen) in 1807, the spire of the Church of Our Lady on fire, watercolour by Christofer Willem Eckersberg (1783-1853). Napoleonic Wars, Denmark, 19th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
“On the first of September the city was summoned [to meet Britain’s demands] in vain,” Captain Harry Ross-Lewin of the 32nd Infantry Regiment recalled. “The batteries were finished on the following day, and at night we began to throw shells. I once counted 13 in the air at the same moment. On the fourth, the town was on fire in several places, the cathedral was all in a blaze, the flames ran up the interior of the tall steeple, which looked like a huge pillar of fire, and presented a beautiful though awful sight… Amid the general din, the shouts, exhortations, and cries of the people in the streets, and the crash of falling roofs and walls, I could distinguish the rattling of engines, and the noise of firemen exerting themselves to check the conflagration, but their labour was endless and unavailing. No sooner was one fire extinguished than another broke out. At length the steeple came down with a tremendous crash, and scattered the blazing material [so] that everything in its vicinity was consumed.”
Captain Ross-Lewin served at the battle of Copenhagen and the scene he described was the culmination of a two-week long military campaign against Denmark in what many in Britain regarded as an unprovoked, illegal attack on a neutral nation. At that time Britain had few friends and was waging war on various fronts. Only six months earlier, a Royal Navy fleet had undertaken an unsuccessful assault on the Dardanelles after Turkey became an ally of France, while an unauthorised expedition to South America had recently ended in disaster. Relations with the United States also reached a low ebb when HMS Leopard attacked the USS Chesapeake in June 1807. The American frigate was badly damaged, and war against Britain was demanded but did not break out for another five years.
Shocking news also reached London that Britain had lost Russia as an ally, because of the defeat of a Russian army by Napoleon on 14 June at the Battle of Friedland in eastern Prussia. Three weeks later Napoleon met the Russian Tsar Alexander I at Tilsit, where a peace treaty was signed. With Russia under Napoleon’s influence, it looked as if Britain’s Baltic trade could be stopped. Worse still, the British Government received intelligence that Napoleon intended to combine several fleets – Danish, Russian, Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish and French – and resurrect his plans to invade Britain.
With such formidable consequences for Britain, it was decided to threaten Denmark with force. This was reminiscent of 1801, when Copenhagen was bombarded into submission by warships under Nelson, although that mission would have failed but for Nelson ignoring the orders of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker to abandon the onslaught. The main reason for the 1801 attack was Denmark’s treaty with Russia and Sweden that similarly threatened British trade with the Baltic ports.

A well-built bastion

Copenhagen, a walled city of 100,000 inhabitants on the east coast of the island of Zealand which extended to the island of Amager, was described by a soldier of the 43rd regiment as “the best-built capital in the north… The town is surrounded toward the land with regular ramparts and bastions, a broad ditch full of water, and several outworks. Its circumference is about five miles… The haven is commonly crowded with merchant ships, and the streets are intersected with broad canals, by which merchandise is brought close to the warehouses that line the quays”.
The lessons of 1801 were taken to heart, and not only was the expedition dispatched more quickly this time, but it did not rely on naval firepower alone – such an attack would have failed because the sea defences had since been strengthened. On 25 July 1807, within weeks of the first news about the French-Russian alliance, a fleet of battleships and frigates commanded by Admiral Lord Gambier sailed from Yarmouth, with orders to cut off the island of Zealand and prevent Danish reinforcements reaching Copenhagen. Other battleships, frigates and transports with 25,000 troops (many of them Hanoverian Germans) under Lieutenant-General Lord Cathcart soon joined the expedition.
With a strong military force on its way, British diplomats met the Danish Crown Prince to demand the temporary surrender of his fleet, giving assurances that it would be restored intact at the end of the war. As expected, the Prince refused, saying “that he would consider every power as his enemy that should attempt to violate his neutrality”, and on 16 August he declared war against Britain. That same day, the first troops were landed unopposed a few miles to the north of Copenhagen and quickly marched south to surround and lay siege to the city. Charles Chambers, a surgeon on board the fireship Prometheus, watched the disembarkation: “At two this morning, the troops began to land, which occupied all the forenoon. They made a very grand appearance on the beach, and an appropriate spot being selected, of course met with no opposition from batteries. This portion of the country is one of the finest I ever beheld… I felt for the disconsolate inhabitants”. Captain Ross-Lewin was sorry for the destruction during preparations for the siege, “so that the country within two miles of the walls of Copenhagen was speedily converted by us into a melancholy waste. Among the men there were certainly many addicted to plunder”.
Exchanges of fire between the military forces were a daily occurrence, and a week later Surgeon Chambers had a grandstand view: “Sunday morning at 10 o’clock a firing commenced and proved far more tremendous than any yet experienced. The enemy began, and in less than 10 minutes it became general with the navies and armies. More grandeur and magnificence could not possibly be displayed. The elements appeared at war with each other, and the incessant roaring of guns, mortars, etc resembled an unremitted peal of thunder, the repeated echo of which baffles all description.
“I wish it to be understood the Prometheus this day was only a spectator… I therefore from our quarter-deck beheld, in cool blood, the desperate proceedings of each party. From the windmill battery, lately erected by our soldiers, they fired red-hot shot, the distinct hissing of which through the air was awful indeed”.

Congreve rockets cause devastation

The soldier from the 43rd regiment gave more detail: “The Danes fired red hot balls, and soon after the commencement of the action several of our ships in advanced positions were compelled to haul off. They, however, shortly resumed their places, and poured an incessant fire on the rafts and armed craft. As it was deemed imperatively needful to put an end to all resistance on the harbour side of the city, batteries were erected on shore by the English forces, which opened a well-directed fire on every vessel in which Danish colours were visible. Congreve rockets flared through the lurid sky without intermission. One of the Danish vessels blew up with tremendous explosion”.
Chambers, however, was not impressed by these new-fangled rockets: “Some of Mr Congreve’s pyrotechnic rockets were let off at the town, though it was generally supposed the distance too great for them to do execution. I saw two stick in the beach which burnt a considerable time. Including the standard of wood to which they are attached the same as common rockets, the weight of each is 32lb. They make a most curious noise as they traverse the atmosphere, by far more audible than the hissing of shells or red-hot shot”.
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The Danes held out in the hope of the siege being broken by a relieving army, but their hopes were shattered, because on the 29th the only real battle between two large forces of troops took place. Danish troops were moving from the south to break the siege, and so the reserve troops commanded by Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley marched towards them and defeated them at the coastal town of Kioge.
This was the first experience of battle for the soldier from the 43rd regiment: “The attack began on our part with the usual spirit. Some little impression having been made on the enemy’s line, the 92nd were ordered to charge. The movement was executed with astonishing celerity. The shock was irresistible, and the Danes fled in all directions. Numbers remained lifeless on the battlefield, and many more were taken prisoner…
“The first thing that startled me, was the forceful rebound of a cannon ball that struck the ground within a few paces of the place where I stood. It scattered the earth with violence, but fortunately did no injury, and the impression of danger was soon erased by the heavy trampling of a cavalry charge made in our favour, and which laid many a brave fellow low. Of those who escaped the destructive sweep, several sought refuge in a churchyard, where a large body was captured”.
Captain Ross-Lewin was critical of the soldiers’ behaviour at this churchyard. “On the 29th he [Wellesley] defeated the Danes near Kioge, and took about 1,100 prisoners. This duty was performed effectually, but the men were guilty of many excesses. The Danes pay the greatest respect to the remains of their deceased relations, keeping the churchyards uncommonly neat, and adorning them with well-executed monuments, chiefly of white marble. Some of these were wantonly injured by the soldiers, and several of the tombs were broken open by them in the expectation of finding money, rings, and other trinkets. Not content with these insults to the dead, they stripped many living females of their necklaces and ear-rings, sometimes tearing the latter through the flesh, but immediate steps were taken to put a stop to such outrages.”

Besieged and bombarded

Wellesley’s defeat of the Danish force was the turning point, as Copenhagen was now at the mercy of the besiegers. By 1 September all the gun batteries around the city were in place, ready for an all-out bombardment, but Gambier and Cathcart gave the Danes one last chance to surrender, adding that, “if this offer is rejected now, it cannot be repeated. The captured property, public and private, must then belong to the captors”. Wellesley was not in favour of a bombardment, admitting that, “I should prefer an establishment upon Amag, as a more certain mode of forcing a capitulation than a bombardment”.
The Danes still refused to surrender, and on 2 September an intense attack on the city began. Samuel Jefferson was on board a merchant ship laden with sugar that was originally destined for Elsinore. “During the three nights’ bombardment we lay in Copenhagen Roads with the fleet,” he said, “and used to sit up the greater part of the night, watching the shells and rockets flying through the air like so many blazing comets; but for the poor inhabitants it was a time of great suffering”.
One officer from the King’s German Legion recorded that on the third night, “bombs, Congreve-rockets, and cannon-balls were poured indiscriminately into the devoted city – and nowhere could the affrighted citizens ensure their safety. Many of them strove to escape to Amack”.
On that third night Surgeon Chambers was called from his bed: “At five this morning I was informed the largest church [Vor Frue Kirke, Church of Our Lady, rebuilt after the great fire of 1728] in Copenhagen was on fire… I instantly jumped out of bed and ran on deck with only a great coat on. I then cast my eyes to the accustomed quarter and derived a melancholy gratification on beholding the sacred edifice so roughly handled by that all-devouring element. The Spire – a very lofty one – was an octagonal building, beautifully ornamented with gilded decorations, but alas! had fallen to the ground from near its base… the remaining steeple, which is also considerably high, exhibited a woeful spectacle, being encompassed to its now uncouth summit by the sacrilegious flames which were vomited out in torrents from the different windows”.
Around 2,000 people lost their lives, including many women and children, as well as about 250 of the defending troops
After this final cataclysm, everything went quiet, as Chambers remarked: “This evening to our astonishment there was no repetition of the bombardment, which made us suspect that a negotiation might possibly be carrying on, for scarcely a gun was fired on either side”. His suspicion was correct, and on 7 September the Danes finally agreed to give up their fleet and naval stores in return for a British withdrawal. It had been a costly episode for the Danes. The authorities had ignored British offers for civilians to be evacuated before the bombardment began, and around 2,000 people lost their lives, including many women and children, as well as about 250 of the defending troops. Many more lost their homes.
Officers visited the city, as Captain Ross-Lewin explained: “Our officers were permitted to go into the town by obtaining tickets; the Danes were civil to them. The shells and rockets had fallen in every quarter. Several heavy shells went through the roof of the royal palace, which stands in the centre”. Robert Blakeney, an 18-year-old ensign in the 28th regiment, was appalled: “The spectacle was lamentable and well calculated to rouse every feeling of sympathy. Houses were still smouldering, and in part crumbled to the ground. Mothers were bewailing the fate of their slaughtered children, and there was not one but deplored the loss of some fondly beloved relative or friend. Yet they received us with dignified, though cool, courtesy”.

Lawless freebooters

The Danish warships were taken out of the dockyard, and all the naval supplies removed or destroyed, as witnessed by one soldier: “We were put into possession of 16 sail of the line, 15 frigates, six brigs, and 25 gun-boats… A vast abundance of stores of all kinds necessary to equip or build a fleet were found in the arsenals. It was therefore necessary to load all the ships of the line and frigates which were delivered up with masts, spars, and timber; so that 92 transports were employed to bring the property to England… The Danes were roused to unquenchable indignation. They considered themselves the victims of lawless freebooters, superior to themselves only in brute force, and infinitely inferior in everything else”.
The success of the expedition did nothing to diminish the outcry against what many saw as an attack on a neutral state. Charles James Napier had two brothers at Copenhagen, one an army officer and the other in the navy. From their letters, he observed that his army brother had a more humane perspective: “He saw the injustice of the action; he saw brave men dead in defence of their homes; he saw a people ill-used by another nation in the first instance, and in the second ill-used by individuals”.
Charles poured out his indignation to his mother: “Was not our high honour worth the danger we might perhaps have risked in maintaining that honour inviolate? It is a bad policy as well as a bad action. For by this measure we countenance every action of Buonaparte”. Lord Sidmouth was a vigorous opponent: “We are pursuing a course not calculated to promote our real interests, and one which will make us detested by the world”.
Others approved of the attack but were highly critical of the aftermath, including William Wilberforce: “It has grieved me exceedingly to hear lately, that our government intends to confiscate for our own benefit all the ships and stores which have been brought away. Our so doing will tend to bring into doubt our motives in undertaking the expedition, and thereby injure our national character”.
It would be many years before peace would come after the battle of Waterloo
Nevertheless, the strategic objectives had been secured – Napoleon’s plans for invasion had been nipped in the bud, the threat to British naval supremacy was removed, and essential trade with the Baltic was secure. However, it would be many years before peace would come after the battle of Waterloo.
The siege provided the name for the horse that Wellesley (as Wellington) would ride at Waterloo. Major-General Grosvenor had taken his favourite mare with him to Copenhagen, but on arrival the horse was in foal and sent home. The chestnut foal, named Copenhagen, was bought by Wellesley and became his favourite horse, which carried him all day at Waterloo. The horse retired to the Duke’s house, Stratfield Saye, Hampshire, and was buried with full military honours in 1836. Its gravestone can still be seen.

Consequences for Denmark

After surrendering to the British, Denmark lost its fleet and all the naval supplies for good, which were either destroyed or taken back to Britain, so denying them to Napoleon. According to the terms of the capitulation, the British occupation of the island of Zealand was relinquished in October 1807.

After surrendering in 1801, the Danes had rebuilt their navy, but this time they were unable to do so – Copenhagen was ruined economically. Denmark could therefore not stop British merchant ships using the Great Belt and The Sound waterways to the Baltic. Danish and Norwegian gunboats were a constant threat, though, and a Royal Navy squadron operated in the area for the next six years in order to protect the huge convoys of merchant ships and to support the Swedes.

Denmark remained opposed to Britain until peace was concluded. It lost its sovereignty of Norway to Sweden with the Treaty of Kiel in January 1814. Britain still refused to return the Danish warships, but Denmark was much more concerned at the loss of Norway.

Roy and Lesley Adkins’ books include The Keys of Egypt, Trafalgar and Empires of the Plain. www.adkinsarchaeology.com

This article was first published in the September 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine