2 September 1807, a British squadron of 25 battleships-of-the-line under Admiral Lord Gambier began the three days bombardment of Copenhagen to force the neutral Danes to surrender their still considerable navy before Napoleon possibly invaded.
"…a bare act of self-preservation" (“The Times”)
|A painting by an unknown (probably contemporary Danish) artist showing Copenhagen aflame from what is now Frederiksberg*|
After Trafalgar, the Royal Navy more or less ruled the waves beyond dispute. The situation on the continent was not quite as rosy for the British. The Treaties of Tilsit made Napoleon master of Europe from Spain to the Russian border, the continental system loomed and the former ally Russia was about to declare war and threatened Sweden, still a British confederate, and trade with the Baltics. Especially Scandinavian timber was a vital component for maintaining Great Britain’s Wooden Walls. Denmark, whose dominion still included Norway and Iceland, was neutral and maintained a considerable navy despite the defeat in 1801 when Nelson won his famous victory, and, more important, controlled the access to the Baltic Sea and proved to be immune to the lures of British diplomacy.
|Between the Devil and the deep blue Sea: a contemporary Danish painting showing Gambier's fleet lying in the roads and opening fire|
The Danes were really between the devil and the deep blue sea, when Napoleon faced them with the choice of either joining his continental system or a full-scale invasion and the British ordered Gambier’s squadron together with an army of 25.000 men under “Old Nosey” Sir Arthur Wellesley to the Baltic. King Christian VII and Crown Prince Frederick moved the Danish army to the Holstein border to impress Napoleon and the British struck out. Wellesley’s army landed and defeated the Danish militia at Køge without much effort while Gambier’s squadron shelled Copenhagen with naval artillery and Congreve rockets. At the end of the first day of the barrage, Copenhagen was aflame and after three days, with a third of the city’s buildings destroyed, 1.600 civilians dead and twice that number wounded, the town major Ernst Peymann surrendered unconditionally.
|Copenhagen after the bombardment, contemporary Danish drawing|
18 Danish battleships-of-the-line, 16 frigates and an armada of smaller vessels along with the supplies of the Holmen naval yard were confiscated by the British. Most of them fought until the end of the war flying the Union Jack and the term “to copenhagenize” became common for denominating the seizure of enemy fleets, the last time at Oran in 1940. Ironically enough, one pillar of English literature, the modern translations of the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf” the Danish scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin had worked on for 20 years, were almost destroyed in the fire of Copenhagen, delaying their publication until 1815. Denmark naturally joined the continental system and fought against the British with what means they had left until 1814 in the so-called “Gunboat War” along the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic.
* found on Peter Sheppard Skaerved website along with excellent contemporary tunes digesting the event: http://www.peter-sheppard-skaerved.com/2012/05/the-annual-collection-of-country-dances-for-1808-ane-1809/