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History Repeats for Napoleon Bonaparte: The Second Battle of Copenhagen

Military History

History Repeats for Napoleon Bonaparte: The Second Battle of Copenhagen

History repeated itself at the Second Battle of Copenhagen: Napoleon Bonaparte lost most of his fleet in another defeat at the hands of his archenemy.

History repeated itself at the Second Battle of Copenhagen: Napoleon Bonaparte lost most of his fleet in another defeat at the hands of his archenemy.

by Keith Milton

In 1806, Denmark remained stubbornly neutral, Russia was firmly allied with Britain, and Sweden had declared war on France and thereby enjoyed Royal Navy protection for her merchant fleet. Then in July 1807, Russia decided to switch sides and signed a treaty with France that would, in effect, divide up the Continent between the two, with Scandinavia going to Russia. They also agreed that if Denmark did not come peaceably into their camp, she would be taken by force.

The Danes had had six years in which to rebuild their navy, and the fleet was looked upon by both sides as a tempting prize. Because Britain controlled the entrance to the Baltic, she was able to offer the Danes protection from a French or Russian invasion—in return for the use of the newly built Danish fleet. She promised to return the ships to Denmark as soon as hostilities were concluded. The Danes refused this offer, plus a similar one from the other side, and started preparing their defenses.

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It now became a race between the Continental Coalition and the British, with the Danish ships as the prize. London decided not to use half-measures and assembled a fleet of 65 warships that included 25 of the line and 40 frigates together with their auxiliaries, and embarked 20,000 troops with their transports and baggage to invest the Danish capital.

This huge fleet arrived in the Sound on August 1, 1807, and promptly gave the Danes eight days to cede their fleet or have it taken. Because the Prince Royal was at Kiel with his army manning the line of defense against a French invasion, no decision could be given. An additional five days were allowed during which time British troops were landed north of Copenhagen and the fleet took up battle stations at the harbor mouth.

On August 13, the siege began and continued for three days, after which a demand for surrender was made. This and two others were declined, so that it took three weeks and 15,000 rounds of shot and shell to subdue the stubborn defenders. The Danes finally gave in after suffering nearly 2,000 casualties and having over 1,500 buildings destroyed in the city.

The British occupation continued until late October, at which time both the fleet and the troops left for England, taking with them the Danish fleet and all its naval stores. Later that month, Denmark signed an alliance with Bonaparte and became part of his Continental System, but without their fleet the action was mostly symbolic. The battles of 1801 and 1807 are still recalled with some rancor by the Danes but, in fact, the British had little choice, as necessity knows no law. Whether the fleet was taken for her own use, or simply to keep Bonaparte from taking it, is unimportant to the Danes. They lost their fleet, and reasons of state are seldom any salve to the injured party.

Second in command of the British Army contingent was a relatively unknown young general named Sir Arthur Wellesly. He later became the Duke of Wellington, whom Bonaparte would come to know rather well—at Waterloo.

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