Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book Review - Defying Napoleon

A period and campaign that always features in the accounts of the Peninsula War as a footnote to the 'real' fighting done by the British in Portugal and Spain, the Danish campaign of 1807 is usually best known as the first European campaign the Duke of Wellington, or plain Sir Arthur Wellesley, took part in after his return from India and the first large scale use of the Congreve rocket.

This book puts the campaign squarely in the context of the Napoleonic Wars to date and exposes how crucially related to the Russian defeat by France and the subsequent Tilsit agreement it was.

Denmark was a mouse that the two greatest cats of the time, Britain and France, were toying with, especially after Denmark's great protector and ally, Russia, had been knocked out of the game by the disastrous defeat at Friedland. Denmark is strategically placed as the entrance to the Baltic sea and its navy was quite capable of sealing the Sound between itself and Sweden to any shipping it wished to exclude. It may not have been able to resist the full force of the Royal Navy for long, but that would force Britain to divert a great deal of naval shipping that was occupied elsewhere protecting the far-flung empire and bottling up the French navy in its ports. Not to mention the Royal Navy's dependence on Russian timber, hemp and cotton which would be denied it if the the Sound was closed off.

Just like the US, Denmark was a beneficiary of the wars as a maritime merchant nation perfectly placed to conduct the commercial carrying denied to the merchant fleets of the belligerent nations. Just like the US, too, Denmark was affected by the notorious Orders in Council which restricted the trading activities of neutral shipping fleets with the continent. Denmark had taken part in the Russia-led Baltic armed neutrality of 1780 and 1800 which were both squarely aimed at protecting the rights of neutral nations in wartime, and as the greatest naval power was Britain, these leagues were by default anti-British. Denmark was on her own after Russia's defeat, but she still protested against the Orders in Council. This protest was ignored by the British government, but the fact that Denmark had protested was not.

Word leaked back to Britain via diplomatic rumours and questionable espionage that a secret clause to the Tilsit agreement contained the French intention to close off all remaining holes in the European blockade of Britain with Russia's help. This in effect meant persuading Denmark, Sweden and Portugal to close their ports to British trade under the threat of invasion. The British government new that it was only a matter of time before Napoleon sent his troops across the border to enforce the Continental system on Denmark; the only question was, what would Denmark do?

Denmark was an absolute monarchy, so had much in common with its bigger protector, Russia, and the regent, Crown Prince Frederik, was George III's nephew. Frederik was definitely no supporter of the French Revolution and so would not be a natural ally of Napoleon, but this was not proof enough for the British government whose main concern was that the Danish fleet would not be put at the service of the French. It wasn't such a far-fetched fear either, as Marshal Bernadotte was stationed in Hamburg with almost 30,000 Spanish and Dutch troops available, plus the promise of a further 20,000 French troops if the need arose. He was itching for an excuse to use those troops, so to avoid any pretext and in acknowledgment of their vulnerability, Frederik withdrew the Danish regulars in Schleswig and Holstein which he'd moved there earlier to protect the border, further inland.

Even though the British government had settled on the tactic off neutralising the Danish fleet one way or another, the aggressive protesting at the Orders in Council and now the withdrawal of troops from the border confirmed suspicions, especially those of George Canning, British Foreign Minister, that Denmark was anti-British and therefore pro-French. The clock was ticking and Denmark didn't know it. Spurious intelligence was received that the French intended on utilizing Danish, Swedish and Russian naval forces for a descent on Ireland from the north and that the Danish navy was fitting out for sea, which it hadn't since the last British attack on Denmark in 1801 led by the famous admiral Lord Nelson. Both rumours proved false but were still used as evidence of Denmark's dark intentions.

An ultimatum was given to Denmark to hand over the fleet either for good, or for the duration of the war, in exchange for financial and colonial territorial gain or suffer the consequences. Of course, no sovereign nation could agree to such terms and the stage was set for the sorry events that followed.

The tragedy is, of course, that Denmark was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea and whether she resisted British or French pressure, she would have to fight one of the great powers. It was only because Britain acted first that she was forced into the French camp. The consequences were far reaching, however. Russia took Finland from Sweden as the consequence for not bowing to the Continental System, which left Sweden looking to redress the loss. Once Russia went to war with France in 1812, Sweden was led by none other than Marshal Bernadotte in the guise of the Swedish Crown Prince Charles John, who cunningly decided to join with the allies against France in return for taking Norway from Denmark. This he duly did which ended Denmark's pretense of being a middle European power, which the loss of her navy had ultimately condemned her.

While Britain needed to neutralise the threat posed by the Danish fleet, the use of naked aggression and utter ruthlessness to achieve it was a propaganda gift to Napoleon and the anti-British Russian elite. The bombardment of Copenhagen was a foretaste of the aerial bombing campaigns of the Second World War where civilian populations were deemed legitimate targets and the first use of Congreve rockets on a large scale added to horror of the act (even though the most damage was inflicted by conventional shells fired by mortars and howitzers). As a conventional siege was deemed impossible because of time constraints (the Royal Navy couldn't protect and supply the army after October when the ice set in), the unpalatable decision was taken to use a terror bombardment to force the Danes to capitulate. Expedience overruled ethics.

In some ways it was a similar situation to the attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in 1940 where the British Royal Navy bombarded the French fleet lest it fall into German hands after the fall of France. The difference was that France had been defeated and there was a real and present danger that the fleet could end up in German hands. Denmark was neither attacked by the French or in immediate danger of attack. They were a neutral country, more likely to make an alliance with Britain than France, if given the choice, and had no intention of preparing the fleet for action.

It also bears passing resemblance to the build-up to the invasion of Iraq with dodgy intelligence being trotted out as a fig-leaf of justification for an action that was more or less going to happen come what may.

The book itself reads like a tragedy with the end result known, but the reader willing a different outcome all the same. The diplomatic and political twists and turns leading up to the invasion are a lesson in power politics that would shame the political spin doctors of the present day. The author presents the facts and leaves the readers to make up their minds about the morals of the story, but there is only one way to view it; a dirty little episode that may have been militarily excusable, but sure as hell wasn't ethical.

A mighty change from the usual stories of military glory and derring-do from the period! Another Rosbif recommendation.

1 comment:

  1. Hi
    Thanks for the review. This is a somewhat obscure conflist for me. In Spain, Denamark is always associated with the La Romana's evasion.
    Davout was in tahat area in 1813, and the Danish infantry was red-coated, so maybe I can find a excuse to use my red-coated British!
    Best regards


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