Sunday, 2 April 2017

Copenhagen, the Fulcrum of Napoleon's Downfall

216 years ago today (2nd of April), the First Battle of Copenhagen was fought as part of the great struggle against Revolutionary France, a war that filled the period 1792-1815. The follow-up battle was fought six and a half years later. Both battles involved large British forces pitted against Danish defenders on sea and land. The first involved Lord Nelson, the second the future Duke of Wellington. 

The fact that two big battles between the same contestants occurred at the same point within a historically short span of time is not insignificant. It underlines the fact that Copenhagen was of vital importance to Britain's wider strategy.

Why should this be? The answer is immediately apparent if you look at a map. Copenhagen's position controls the entrance to the Baltic in a way reminiscent of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean. But why should the Baltic have been of such concern to the British? There are two direct reasons and one major strategic consideration that explain this.

The reasons were:
  1. The Royal Navy relied on the Baltic for wood and other naval supplies.
  2. Britain imported a lot of grain through the Baltic.
The major strategic consideration was:

  • The Baltic allowed Britain access to Russia and Prussia, two nations that had the ability to put large armies in the field against Napoleon. 

By maintaining the ability to either attack or support these two countries, Britain could exert leverage on them -- a kind of stick and carrot approach. As the two nations grew increasingly dissatisfied with the arrangements they had been forced to accept by the French, the prospect of British support through the Baltic became increasingly significant in their calculations. In particular it helped to embolden the Russians in their opposition to Napoleon, provoking his ill-fated invasion of 1812.

But British dominance of the Baltic also exerted an influence over the French. Their fear of the Royal Navy landing troops in their rear, meant that when they decided to attack Russia, they took the worst possible route, pushing towards Moscow, rather than St. Petersburg, which was the capital. This was a longer route, through more hostile territory, with more exposed communications, all factors that contributed to the Grand Army's doom.


The first of the two battles is the most famous, as it involved Lord Nelson, the greatest admiral of his day. The cause of the conflict was the British naval blockade against France and its allies, which also hit the trade of neutral nations. In response, the Baltic countries, including Russia, formed a League of Armed Neutrality to protect their trade.

click to enlarge
This was a major challenge to British sea power, and would weaken Britain's most effective weapon against the French, so it could not be allowed to pass. The British responded by sending a fleet to the Baltic. This was under the command of Sir Hyde Parker (aged 62), with Lord Nelson (aged 43) as his second in command.

When they reached Copenhagen, Nelson was sent with a number of ships, including nine ships of the line, to engage the Danish fleet drawn up outside the city (see above). Meanwhile the rest of the fleet under Parker covered him against the possible arrival of the Russian or Swedish navies. In a rather static battle mainly distinguished by British gunnery, Nelson pounded the Danish navy into submission.

Following this victory, the Danes made peace with the British, and the League of Armed Neutrality collapsed. The British navy was now able to dominate the Baltic Sea.

Around this time the Russian Tsar Paul was assassinated in a palace coup, and his son Alexander I succeeded to the throne. The new Tsar gradually became more opposed to Napoleon, especially after Napoleon had the emigre aristocrat the Duke of Enghien kidnapped and executed in 1804. This led to the formation of the Third Coalition against France, which included Britain, Russia, and Austria, as well as some smaller states.

In a series of brilliant campaigns, Napoleon crushed the Austrians and the Russians, and then the Prussians who had also got involved. After further defeats the Russians made peace, signing the Treaty of Tilsit (1807). By its terms the Russians effectively switched sides, becoming Napoleon's ally and entering into conflict with Britain and its remaining ally in the Baltic, Sweden.

At this time, Denmark was neutral and had rebuilt its fleet. But the British got intelligence that Napoleon intended to pressure Denmark into acting against their interests in the Baltic, so they decided to launch a preemptive strike against the Danes, with the goal of capturing or destroying their fleet.

The Second Battle of Copenhagen (26th of August to 5th of September) was different than the first. This time the British were able to land a large infantry and artillery force under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, who later became the Duke of Wellington, and seize territory near the city. From here they could bombard it with mortar fire, in addition to the naval gunnery. Ironically, they were able to do this because the bulk of the Danish army was in the South of the country to defend it against a possible French invasion.

After some days and nights of bombardment, the Danes called for terms. Once again the British were mainly interested in the Danish fleet, which was surrendered to them. This ensured British access to the Baltic once again, although the anger and humiliation the Danes felt at the bombardment of their capital pushed them into joining Napoleon's alliance. Without their fleet, however, they had little else to offer the Emperor.

Copenhagen following the bombardment of 1807.


It is intriguing to consider how the Napoleonic Wars might have gone if the Danes had been able to block the entrance to the Baltic Sea. Would Napoleon have still struck deep into the heart of Russia, a move that proved fatal to his hopes, or would he have instead advanced up the Baltic coast with naval support to the capital at St. Petersburg? The latter seems more likely and would have been either successful or at least a lot less disastrous than the march on Moscow.

The main factor that influenced Napoleon to strike deep into the heart of Russia was the potent presence of the Royal Naval in the Baltic. Without this threat, marching on St. Petersburg would have been the natural move, as it would have greatly reduced the French army's defensive perimeter while also shortening their lines of communication.

With this in mind, the two battles fought at Copenhagen have a much greater significance than many realize, essentially creating the conditions that led to the doom of the Grand Army and thus the Napoleonic Empire.

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