The Age of George III

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The Battle of Copenhagen: 2 April 1801

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This naval battle was oneof a series that was fought during the wars against France between 1793 and 1805, culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar. Britain did not have a presence in the Baltic Sea under normal circumstances but in 1800, Czar Paul resurrected the League of Armed Neutrality. This comprised Russia, Sweden, Denmark and Prussia joining against Britain because of her "stop and search" tactics, intended to prevent trade with France. Czar Paul detained British merchant ships in Russian ports; the British decided that an attack on Denmark would break up the League. Denmark was closer to Britain and therefore the most vulnerable to attack. It was decided that a fleet should sail for the Baltic under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, with Lord Nelson as second-in-command.

The expedition sailed from Yarmouth on 12 March, having embarked the 49th Regiment, two companies of riflemen and a detachment of artillery under Colonel Stewart. The Hon Nicholas Vansittart went ahead of the fleet in an attempt to persuade the Danes to adopt a friendlier policy towards Britain. The fleet approached the Cattegat; dropping anchor to see what diplomacy could achieve. It is possible that the Danes would have seen reason if the envoy had appeared with the fleet behind him. Instead, the fleet was out of sight. If Copenhagen was to be attacked the approach could be made in more than one way. A Council of War was held which Nelson ended by saying 'I don't care a damn which passage we go, so that we fight them.' He was anxious to end the affair before the Russians could arrive. At a further Council of War on the 31 March he offered to annihilate the Danes with ten sail of the line. After some further hesitation Sir Hyde accepted Nelson's offer but gave him two 50-gun ships as well together with some frigates and other vessels, including bomb ketches and fireships, numbering twenty-four vessels in all. Sir Hyde Parker retained eight ships as a reserve, apparently to guard against the possible appearance of the Russians or Swedes.

The harbour, arsenal and docks of Copenhagen lay in the city of Copenhagen itself, the entrance being guarded by the formidable Trekroner Battery. There were other batteries lining the shore to the southward and the Danish fleet was drawn up in shoal water covering the city front. It comprised a number of two-decked men-of-war interspersed with rafts and other improvised batteries. While they remained intact the bomb-vessels were effectively kept out of range. As at the Nile, Nelson was faced with an enemy fleet at anchor but this time he was outnumbered. Also, the Danes would stand their ground; they could be reinforced from the shore, more men rowing off to replace the casualties. However, the enemy fleet was at anchor, which made it possible for the attacking fleet to concentrate on a part of the enemy's line, leaving some of his ships without an opponent. Nelson decided to sail past Copenhagen by the Holland Deep and then attack from the south, engaging the weaker end of the Danish line. His squadron was in position by 1 April and the battle took place on the following day. Ironically, Tsar Paul had been assassinated on 25 March; his successor Alexander I adopted a different foreign policy and the Northern Alliance began to disintegrate before the battle took place.

On 2 April the British squadron moved into the attack. There was immediate disaster, the Bellona and Russell running aground and the Agamemnon failing to gain her proper position in the line. Nelson took the remaining ships into battle and was soon engaged with the Danish ships and floating batteries. After three hours of cannonade on either side the battle was still undecided. Seeing this and finding that ships he sent to reinforce Nelson were making slow progress against the wind, Sir Hyde Parker signalled "discontinue the action" to the fleet as a whole. Each ship was obliged to obey the signal without waiting for the signal to be repeated from Nelson's flagship, the Elephant. For the ships to have obeyed the signal would have been virtual suicide: placed opposite their opponents, they could not withdraw until the enemy's fire had been silenced. Withdrawal would have meant ceasing fire and sending the men to make sail, presenting each ship's stern to the enemy's guns and to a raking fire which would have redoubled when the Danes saw the British retreat. It would have involved appalling casualties and damage and would have allowed the Danes to claim a victory. It would have destroyed British prestige in northern Europe. It is said that at this point of the battle, Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye, saying 'I really do not see the signal!' He kept his own signal flying for closer action and the ships of the line all obeyed him and ignored the Commander-in-Chief. It was 12.30 p.m. when Nelson decided to ignore the signal, and the cannonade continued for another hour or so. By then it was apparent that the British had won the battle as more and more of the Danish ships ceased fire or surrendered. By about 2 pm, the bombardment slackened and Nelson sent in a flag of truce, suggesting that hostilities should cease. In no other way could be save the lives of many Danes on board the floating batteries. Firing died away and at 3.15 pm, Nelson's flagship hoisted a flag of truce. The battle was over.

There is no known account of how Sir Hyde Parker received Lord Nelson after the battle. He could have demanded a court-martial on Nelson for having disobeyed an order. Parker may have been aware that his own contribution to the victory had been negative and potentially disastrous. His authority, such as it was, was weakened from the moment he began to lead from the rear. However, the example made of the Danes, who had suffered very heavy casualties, was not lost on other potential antagonists.

Negotiations proceeded at Copenhagen and the truce turned into an armistice. News of the Tsar's death was officially confirmed and it was rumoured that the new Tsar would be willing to release all British ships that had been detained. Soon afterwards orders arrived from the Board of Admiralty ordering Sir Hyde Parker to hand over his command to Lord Nelson and return to England. Once ashore, he was to stay there. Sir Hyde Parker was never employed again. Nelson was now Commander-in-Chief in the Baltic. Once contact had been made with Alexander I, Nelson was assured that the embargo on British merchantmen would be lifted and that friendly relations would be resumed between Russia and Britain.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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