It seems paradoxical that most great sea battles have not been fought at sea—at least, if “at sea” is understood to signify far offshore. The paradox is easily explained. The ultimate objective of war at sea is to influence events on land, especially with regard to military undertakings dependent on naval support. Traditionally this has tended to focus naval operations in more or less coastal waters, where collisions occurred when one force sought to frustrate another’s designs, as at the battles of the Chesapeake, Lissa, and Leyte Gulf.
There have also been a number of even more unequivocally coastal engagements, the beginning if not the end of which found one of the opposing fleets at anchor. In most cases, the anchored fleet had not anticipated being attacked, as at Navarino, Taranto, and Pearl Harbor, but in others it knowingly accepted action because of the perceived advantage of the position it occupied or simply for lack of a more promising alternative, as at Salamis, Lake Champlain, and Manila Bay.
Naturally, all such encounters attracted the attention of people ashore, but it is doubtful if any enjoyed a greater gallery than the one fought off Copenhagen on 2 April 1801, when 100,000 Danes had the exceptional, albeit unwanted, opportunity to witness a naval battle along their city’s waterfront.
A French Lad Among Danes
Among the crowds that viewed the Battle of Copenhagen was a ten-year-old French boy, Paul de Bourgoing, who remembered the day for the rest of his life. His father, Jean-François de Bourgoing, had been appointed ambassador to Denmark in early 1800 and brought young Paul with him to his new post. Prior to assuming that position, however, he was obliged to pause for conversations with the Russian minister to the free city of Hamburg. Bourgoing père’s principal objective in bringing Paul along was to ensure that he gained a mastery of German, an invaluable asset in the diplomatic career he foresaw for his son, and at Hamburg he promptly entered the boy in a local boarding school. Even after the ambassador proceeded to Copenhagen, he left Paul in Hamburg, learning German and feeling sorry for himself.1
In the memoirs he wrote more than half a century later, Paul de Bourgoing still sounded relieved to record that “After some time . . . my father, having discovered an excellent German boarding school in a suburb of Copenhagen, had me come and install myself with a Protestant pastor, a systematic man, a little strange, like all innovators, but on the whole one of the most perfect schoolmasters I have ever known.” By then winter was tightening its grip on Copenhagen, and Paul did not find it easy to acclimatize. Accustomed to the gentle seasons of the Ile-de-France, he was always cold. The majority of his classmates were Danish, Norwegian, or Icelandic youths to whom arctic air was no novelty. Most were also older and bigger, and he felt “very out of place among these robust children of the north.”
Until then Denmark had succeeded in isolating itself from the convulsions of the Napoleonic wars, but geography and Russia’s mentally disturbed, if not quite deranged, Czar Paul conspired to confound Danish distancing. Aggrieved by the Royal Navy’s practice of boarding Russian (and other neutral) merchantmen to search for contraband of war, Paul resolved to revive the League of Armed Neutrality Russia had organized to shield its members’ shipping from British interference 20 years earlier. Appropriate pressure was applied, and in December 1800, Denmark, Sweden, and Prussia joined Russia in a convention creating what became known as the Armed Neutrality.
From a British viewpoint, the czar’s initiative was wholly unacceptable. For some countries’ merchantmen to avoid search would vitiate the continental blockade that constituted Britain’s most reliable weapon in the struggle against Napoleon. Perhaps even more alarming, the allied powers might bar British ships from entering the Baltic, from whose coasts came naval stores vital to the maintenance of Britain’s “Wooden Walls”—timber for masts and spars, flax for sails and rope.
Accordingly, in March 1801 a British fleet of 18 ships-of -the-line and numerous smaller vessels sailed for the Baltic to nip the Armed Neutrality in the bud—by a show of force if possible and the use of force if not. In command was the indecisive Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. His second-in-command was Britain’s greatest sailor, Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson.
To enter the Baltic through the Sound (the channel between Denmark and Sweden), Parker’s fleet would have to pass Copenhagen. The British hoped that the Danes would not oppose the ships’ transit, but they were disappointed. The Danish government insisted that national honor and its understanding with Russia obliged it to resist.
Denmark Drawn Into the Fray
“At the commencement of our sojourn in Denmark,” Paul de Bourgoing remembered, “we became witnesses to a very grave event. It was in 1801, when the beautiful and peaceful capital of a country that had until then remained a stranger to the wars which had bloodied the whole of Europe was shocked by the sudden appearance of an English fleet that threatened to bombard and burn this royal residence and rich commercial entrepot.
“The other capitals that alas! in our days have had successively the misfortune to be overrun by foreign forces were at least progressively prepared for that disaster, that affront, that deep-seated pain; the threatening march of enemy armies was signaled in advance and day by day. The inhabitants of Copenhagen, in contrast, received word of the English fleet’s arrival in the narrows of the Sound only eight days before the memorable battle of 2 April.
“On 31 March the city of Copenhagen was disturbed by the muffled and distant sound of Kronborg’s cannons.” Kronborg, one of Europe’s great Renaissance fortresses, is located approximately 25 miles north of Copenhagen. It overlooks the mouth of the Sound as its narrowest point, which is no more than four miles across. “That sturdy fortress was recognized to be insufficient to defend the passage into the Sound. To keep out of the Danish cannons’ range, the English had only to skirt the Swedish coast, which by an inconceivable negligence had neither forts nor batteries capable of defending the narrows. The English ships of the line, passing one by one, contented themselves with having some bomb ketches heave to [and return fire] for the honor of the flag, while their fleet scudded by under full sail. About two hundred bombs were directed at Kronborg and Elsinore [made famous by Shakespeare’s Hamlet], which are very close together. By a singular chance, one of those bombs fell on the house of the English consul.
“After having passed through this imperfectly defended strait without notable damage to one side or the other, the English fleet approached Copenhagen with an objective very easy to divine.
“The city of Copenhagen did not suffer from this first English attack. The . . . battle that took place then between the English fleet and the Danish batteries and ships . . . did not provide the British navy the occasion to send its incendiary projectiles raining down on the interior of the residential area. Only a few bombs were hurled in that direction.”
The second British descent on Copenhagen, to which Bourgoing was indirectly referring, took place in August–September 1807. It was prompted by the fear that, although Denmark was neutral, in one way or another the Danish fleet might wind up in French hands. The Danes were invited to send their ships to Britain for the duration of the war and assured that they would be returned thereafter. The Danes refused. Thereupon British troops landed and besieged Copenhagen, which surrendered after fires caused by the British bombardment destroyed a substantial portion of the city. The Danish fleet was captured intact.2
History from a Hillside Seat
“The boarding school where I was a student,” Bourgoing continued, “was filled with the sons of navy and army officers who at that moment were fighting aboard the ships and in the coastal batteries. A spirited and understandable emotion reigned among us. It was quite natural that at such moments our classes would be interrupted.
“A few days earlier the majority of our professors had enrolled in the Student Legion that the valiant and patriotic people of Denmark had hastily created for this circumstance. Our professor of Latin and Danish literature, the celebrated poet Rahbek, was even a battalion commander in this legion.” Knud Lyne Rahbek (1760–1830), a highly versatile literateur, was a novelist, dramatist, poet, and songwriter. He also served for many years as coeditor of the periodical Minerva, which sought to promote popular interest in Danish literature. “At this moment he had ‘cancelled his appearances because of the battle,’ and we asked to be taken for a walk to the high ground at the Frederiksberg country palace, from which we would enjoy a view of the roadstead, the high seas, and the English fleet, which had been forming its line of battle since morning. Our fatherly schoolmaster, Christiani, allowed us to be conducted to the place we had specified by a deputation of our most eloquent comrades. This place was beyond cannon range on the road that is a prolongation of the Vesterbroe suburb. In proceeding toward the hills of the royal garden we encountered young peasants arriving in carts from the middle of Zealand to offer their services to the menaced capital.
“These brave men, clad in their rustic national costume, ample garments having flowing, fabric skirts, solid red or with wide red and green stripes, were waving their big hats and chanting patriotic airs composed for the occasion. We sang along with them and my heart beat in unison with the sentiment that animated all my Danish and Norwegian comrades [Norway was then ruled by Denmark], because they were going to test their strength against the English, our mutual enemy, and my French patriotism could mingle with our allies’ patriotism.
“We reached the hills in the park before the first cannon shot resounded. The English vessels were still fully occupied with preparatory maneuvers, the Danish batteries with transferring munitions, loading the pieces, and provisionally laying them in the approximate direction of the enemy vessels that were advancing by degrees and would soon find themselves within range.
“Despite our inexperience, we could pretty nearly grasp the scene that was unfolding in the distance. Many of Copenhagen’s inhabitants had gathered on those same spacious heights to watch. Some telescopes had been brought along and we were permitted, each in his turn, to look at the ships, the mass of which, a little confused in appearance, was advancing into action.”
‘That Majestic and Terrible Spectacle’
The British vessels Bourgoing watched approaching—11 ships-of-the-line and 17 smaller craft—formed the squadron commanded by Lord Nelson, who had planned the attack Admiral Parker asked him to lead. The Danish ships, 36 of them altogether, ranging from modern men-of-war, floating batteries, and gunboats to armed cavalry transports, lay at anchor in a generally northerly line off the city’s waterfront, where they enjoyed the support of fortifications ashore. To reach the weaker, southern end of the Danish line, Nelson’s ships had to sail south along the eastern edge of a triangular shoal called the Middle Ground, execute something close to a U-turn at its southern extremity, and fight their way up the channel between the Danish vessels and the shoal. The remainder of the British force, under Parker’s personal command, was supposed to support Nelson, but moved so slowly into a headwind that it never actually entered action.3
“The master who had led us to the promenade and who knew something about navies helped us distinguish the English ships from those that were defending Copenhagen,” Bourgoing recalled. “All the flags were hoisted and floating in the wind, tolerably visible at a distance of half a league [approximately 1.5 miles]. We all knew the handsome Danish flag, red with a great white cross, that old chronicles claimed to have descended from the banner called the Dannebrog, which had fallen from the sky in ancient times when the Christian Danes were fighting against the pagans of Estonia. As for the English flag, our master enabled us to identify it easily. It is well known that the English fleet is composed of three squadrons, the white squadron, the blue squadron and the red squadron, whose three flags bear in their upper corner a square gyronny of three colors called the Union Jack. On it can be distinguished, placed one on the other in a white field, the red cross of St. George and the blue cross of St. Andrew, emblems of the union of England and Scotland.
“Some of my classmates knew about in what part of the port or the batteries their fathers, ship’s captains, or their brothers, naval cadets, were serving.
“The one who customarily gave me his arm when we went for a walk, Karl Thura, my best friend, who was devoting himself to the task of teaching me Danish, tried to make out the ship that his father was aboard. The poor child was crying. I tried to my best to encourage and console him; but his tears were a presentiment, for Captain Thura was one of the victims of that bloody combat.” The boy’s father, Captain Albert de Thura, was commanding officer of the Infødsretten, a 64-gun blockship cut down from an antiquated two-decker. He would be killed by one of the first British broadsides to strike her. His first lieutenant, who assumed command, was killed later in the action.4
“For the spectators as well as for the actors in a naval combat, the silent calm that precedes even the most violent action always leaves a very prolonged period of time for mute contemplation, for motionless inactivity by the crews. One advances, one observes, one has nothing to add to his preparations until the moment when all the thunderclaps ring out together.
“We soon viewed that majestic and terrible spectacle. A lively cannonade developed between the two lines and after a few minutes we no longer perceived anything other than swirling clouds of smoke. . . . [T]he two sides fought with equal courage. The ground troops and the inhabitants who voluntarily placed themselves in the batteries rivaled the sailors in courage. The brave Zealand peasants arrived in time to serve in the batteries.”
(Famously) Turning a Blind Eye
The battle that was beginning before Bourgoing’s eyes was among the most stubbornly contested in the Age of Sail. Three of Nelson’s ships-of-the-line stuck fast while attempting to round the Middle Ground, significantly reducing his force’s firepower, but the British retained a superiority of 420 guns to 380 in the Danish ships and batteries. This advantage was in part offset by the Danes’ ability to make good their ships’ casualties by a shuttle of small craft that carried volunteers from the batteries to replace the dead and wounded they brought ashore.
The first broadsides were exchanged at about 1130. At 1300 the cloud of powder smoke was so dense and the sound of cannon fire so heavy that Parker, in his flagship five miles from the head of the Danish line, concluded that things were not going well and signaled to Nelson to withdraw. To his flag captain he commented that if Nelson believed he was winning he would ignore the signal. That was a shrewd guess, and although Parker had placed an extraordinary responsibility on Nelson’s slender shoulders they were strong enough to bear it. Informed of Parker’s signal, Nelson remarked to his flag captain, “You know, Foley, I have only one eye—I have a right to be blind sometimes.” Then, in one of the most celebrated acts in naval history, he put his telescope to his blind eye and announced, “I really do not see the signal.”5
In the course of the following hour the Royal Navy’s matchless gunnery made the victory that Nelson anticipated a reality. By 1400 at least 25 Danish vessels had been captured or put out of action and most of the remainder were in a bad way. Shortly thereafter Nelson sent a message to Danish Crown Prince Frederick (who was on the waterfront directing the defense), urging him to enter into an armistice, and the fighting sputtered to a close. All 11 of Nelson’s ships-of-the-line remained in action, although some had been hard hit. Danish casualties totaled 476 killed or died of wounds and 559 wounded; the British figures were 256 killed and 688 wounded.6 That evening Nelson wrote, “I have been in a hundred and five engagements, but that of today is the most terrible of them all.”7
Ironically, Copenhagen was a battle that need never have been fought. Late on the evening of 24 March, a week before it took place, a group of Russian officers alarmed by Czar Paul’s policies broke into his bedroom in the Winter Palace and demanded that he sign an instrument of abdication. When he resisted, they killed him. The new czar, Alexander I, desired friendly relations with Great Britain, and the Armed Neutrality quietly collapsed.
And the boy who became Baron Paul de Bourgoing (Napoleon gave his father the title in 1809) led a long and eventful life. Graduating from the French military academy at St. Cyr in 1811, he was commissioned into the Young Guard and took part in the ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812. He survived the retreat from Moscow without undue difficulty—a feat he ascribed in part to having learned to endure cold at Copenhagen—and served through the campaigns of 1813 and 1814, ending in the unsuccessful defense of Paris. In 1815 he rallied to Napoleon following the emperor’s escape from Elba. This youthful indiscretion notwithstanding, a year later a family friend arranged for Bourgoing to be accepted into the French foreign service.
He was not quite finished soldiering, however. Chargé d’affaires in St. Petersburg when Russia went to war with Turkey in 1828, he asked to be attached to the Russian army. Czar Nicholas I approved the request, and Bourgoing spent the summer at the front, informally commanding Russian troops and conducting himself with such gallantry that he was recommended for a sword of honor. Baron Bourgoing’s diplomatic career culminated with appointments as ambassador to the kingdoms of Bavaria, Saxony, and Spain. His delightful, disorganized memoirs, Souvenirs d’histoire contemporaine: épisodes militaires et politiques, were published in Paris in 1864. He died that same year.8
1. Baron Paul de Bourgoing, Souvenirs d’histoire contemporaine: épisodes militaires et politiques (Paris: E. Dentu, 1864) 37–39. All subsequent quotations from Bourgoing’s recollections are drawn from pages 39–47.
2. For a detailed account of these operations, see Sir John Fortescue, A History of the British Army (London: Macmillan, 1899–1930) vol. 6, 58–73.
3. The Battle of Copenhagen is described in more or less detail in all the numerous biographies of Nelson and works dealing with the Royal Navy in the Age of Sail. The most comprehensive is Dudley Pope, The Great Gamble (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), which reflects substantial research in Danish sources, both published and archival. An excellent succinct account appears in Geoffrey Bennett, Nelson the Commander (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 181–208.
4. Pope, The Great Gamble, 402, 524–25.
5. Ibid., 411.
6. Ibid., 530.
7. Gervais Frere-Cook and Kenneth Macksey, The History of Sea Warfare (Middlesex, UK: Guinness Superlatives, 1975), 72.
8. Jean Tulard, Nouvelle bibliographie critique des mémoires sur l’époque napoléonienne écrits ou traduits en français (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1991), entry no. 209.