Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Battle of Copenhagen 1801 - Ole Feldbaek

This review has been submitted to Strategy and Tactics magazine.

Title: The Battle of Copenhagen 1801
Author: Ole Feldbaek
ISBN: 978-1-47388-661-2
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Year: 2016
Pages: 270
Photos/ Maps: 23/5

There is an African proverb which says: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets hurt”; such was the situation that tiny Denmark found itself as it hurtled towards a war that it knew it could not win against the British Empire. Faced with participating in an alliance between Russia and France on the one side demanding that Denmark live up to its obligations as part of the Alliance of Armed Neutrals against Britain, and the weight of the Royal Navy on the other demanding that it sever all ties with the Alliance and form a bond with the UK – Denmark, in the full knowledge that it was doomed, had to choose. Obliteration as a state should it defy France and Russia, or defeat and reduction to a third or fourth rate power should it stand up to Admiral Nelson and the Royal Navy; consciously, but with a deep sense of resignation and pride, it chose the latter.

Feldbaek has produced a book drawing upon primary source material from Danish as well as the UK archives; however, the book is drafted with a significant emphasis from the Danish perspective. He has provided the reader with a comprehensive understanding of the political and economic drivers and influencers of the period as well as the real politique decision making that typified these years. One appreciates the very fine line that Denmark tried to walk diplomatically between the international heavy weights of Russia, France and Britain.

The author presents an excellent analysis of a Danish government that tried to follow a diplomatic line that it had no chance of backing up by force. A failure in undertaking long term investment in the defences of Copenhagen and its environs left it particularly vulnerable to sea borne attack. Nevertheless, Feldbaek shows clearly that, once war was inevitable, the Danish leadership did all that it could to prepare and that the people of Denmark, from professional sailor to craftsman, responded to the call to arms, undertaking gunnery drills right up to the morning of the day of battle (with the British fleet a few hundred yards distant).

This was an interesting and unique naval fight as it did not require any movement between the adversaries; both sides were, for the most part, stationary. This was a brutal, slogging match where gunnery speed and accuracy were the defining factors. The British acknowledged after the fact that the Danes requited themselves very well despite their lack of expertise. The author also provided a fascinating study regarding the concurrent activities as the battle raged such as the hundreds of small boats plying the waters between the battle lines carrying boarding parties, prisoners and rescue parties (all subject the rifle and cannon fire blasting across this naval no man’s land) and the land resupply of the Danish fleet.

The book is very well researched and written. It is not a dry historical rendition of the past but a vibrant and engaging account of a defining moment of the Napoleonic wars. It puts a human face on the cross section of protagonists from the lowest of the seamen to the most senior of leadership. For naval enthusiasts as well as those followers of the Napoleonic period this book provides an excellent account of a naval battle often times lost in the emphasis placed upon the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar.

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