The Battle of Copenhagen of 1801 (Danish: Slaget på Reden), also known as the First Battle of Copenhagen to distinguish it from the Second Battle of Copenhagen in 1807, was a naval battle in which a British fleet fought and defeated a smaller force of the Dano-Norwegian Navy anchored near Copenhagen on 2 April 1801.
The battle came about over British fears that the powerful Danish fleet would ally with France, and a breakdown in diplomatic communications on both sides. The Royal Navy won a resounding victory, besting fifteen Danish warships while losing none in return.
Leading up to the battle
The battle was the result of multiple failures of diplomacy in the latter half of the 18th century. At the beginning of 1801, during the French Revolutionary Wars, Britain's principal advantage over France was its naval superiority. The Royal Navy searched neutral ships trading with French ports, seizing their cargoes if they were deemed to be trading with France. It was in the British interest to guarantee its naval supremacy and all trade advantages that resulted from it. The Russian Tsar Paul, having been a British ally, arranged a League of Armed Neutrality comprising Denmark, Sweden, Prussia, and Russia, to enforce free trade with France. The British viewed the League to be very much in the French interest and a serious threat. The League was hostile to the British blockade and, according to the British, its existence threatened the supply of timber and naval stores from Scandinavia.
In early 1801, the British government assembled a fleet off Great Yarmouth at Yarmouth Roads, with the goal of breaking up the League. The British needed to act before the Baltic Sea thawed and released the Russian fleet from its bases at Kronstadt and Reval (now Tallinn). If the Russian fleet joined with the Swedish and Danish fleets, the combined fleets would form a formidable force of up to 123 ships-of-the-line. The British fleet was under the command of Admiral Hyde Parker, with Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson as second-in-command.
Frustrated by the delay, Nelson sent a letter to Captain Thomas Troubridge, a friend and a Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty. This prompted the Earl of St Vincent (First Lord of the Admiralty) to send a private note, which resulted in the fleet sailing from Yarmouth on 12 March. Orders were sent to Parker to go to Copenhagen and detach Denmark from the League by 'amicable arrangement or by actual hostilities', to be followed by 'an immediate and vigorous attack' on the Russians at Reval and then Kronstadt. The British fleet reached the Skaw (Danish: Skagen) on 19 March, where they met a British diplomat, Nicholas Vansittart, who told them that the Danes had rejected an ultimatum.[clarification needed]
Although the Admiralty had instructed Parker to frustrate the League, by force if necessary, he was a naturally cautious person and moved slowly. He wanted to blockade the Baltic despite the danger of the combination of fleets; Nelson wanted to ignore Denmark and Sweden, who were both reluctant partners in the alliance, and instead sail to the Baltic to fight the Russians. In the end Nelson was able to persuade Sir Hyde to attack the Danish fleet currently concentrated off Copenhagen. Promised naval support for the Danes from Karlskrona, in Sweden, did not arrive perhaps because of adverse winds. The Prussians had only minimal naval forces and also could not assist. On 30 March, the British force passed through the narrows between Denmark and Sweden, sailing close to the Swedish coast to put themselves as far from the Danish guns as possible; fortunately for the British, the Swedish batteries remained silent.
Attacking the Danish fleet would have been difficult as Parker's delay in sailing had allowed the Danes to prepare their positions well. Most of the Danish ships were not fitted for sea but were moored along the shore with old ships (hulks), no longer fit for service at sea, but still powerfully armed, as a line of floating batteries off the eastern coast of the island of Amager, in front of the city in the King's Channel. The northern end of the line terminated at the Tre Kroner (Three Crowns — Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, referring to the Kalmar Union) forts armed with 68 guns (equal to twice the broadside of a ship-of-the-line). North of the fort, in the entrance to Copenhagen harbour, were two ships-of-the-line, a large frigate, and two brigs, all rigged for sea, and two more hulks. Batteries covered the water between the Danish line and the shore, and further out to sea a large shoal, the Middle Ground, constricted the channel. The British had no reliable charts or pilots, so Captain Thomas Hardy spent most of the night of 31 March taking soundings in the channel up to the Danish line. Even so, the British ships were not able to locate the deepest part of the channel properly and so kept too far to seaward.
Preparation - Parker gave Nelson the twelve ships-of-the-line with the shallowest drafts, and all the smaller ships in the fleet. Parker himself stayed to the north-east of the battle with the heavier ships – whose deeper drafts did not allow them to safely enter the channel – screening Nelson from possible external interference and moving towards Copenhagen to engage the northern defences. Nelson transferred his command from the large 98-gun HMS St George to the shallower 74-gun HMS Elephant for this reason.
On 30 March Nelson, and his second-in-command, Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, accompanied by Captain Domett and the commanding officer of the troops Lieutenant colonel William Stewart, sailed in the hired lugger Lark to reconnoitre the Danish defences at Copenhagen. They found the defences to be strong and so spent the evening discussing the plan. Fixed batteries had a significant advantage over ship borne cannon owing to their greater stability and larger guns, and the Danes could reinforce their ships during the battle. On the other hand, their ships were a motley collection, many of them small, and out-gunned if engaged by the whole of Nelson's force.
Nelson's plan was for the British ships to approach the weaker, southern end of the Danish defences in a line parallel to the Danish one. As the foremost ship drew alongside a Danish ship, it would anchor and engage that ship. The remainder of the line would pass outside the engagement until the next British ship drew alongside the next Danish ship, and so on. The frigate HMS Desirée, together with small gun-brigs, would rake the Danish line from the south, and a force of frigates, commanded by Captain Edward Riou of HMS Amazon, would attack the northern end of the line. Troops would land and assault the Tre Kroner fortress once the fleet had subdued the Danish line of ships. Bomb vessels would sit outside the British line and bombard the Danes by firing over it. Should the British be unable to subdue the stronger, northern defences, the destruction of the southern ships would be enough to allow the bomb vessels to approach within range of the city and force negotiations to prevent the bombardment of the city.
Departure - With a southerly wind on 2 April, Nelson picked his way through the shoals. However, HMS Agamemnon ran aground before entering the channel, and took no part in the battle. Then HMS Russell and HMS Bellona ran aground on the Middle Ground, severely restricting their role in the battle. The loss of the three vessels required hurried changes in the line and weakened the force's northern end.
The Danish batteries started firing at 10:05 am, the first half of the British fleet were engaged in about half an hour, and the battle was general by 11:30 am. Once the British line was in place there was very little manoeuvring. The British ships anchored by the stern about a cable from the line of Danish ships and batteries, which was relatively long range, and the two exchanged broadsides until a ship ceased firing. The British encountered heavy resistance, partly because they had not spotted the low-lying floating batteries, and partly because of the courage with which the Danes fought. The northern Danish ships, which were rigged and manned, did not enter the battle but remained on station as reserve units, even though the wind direction forced Parker's squadron to approach only slowly.
At 1 pm, the battle was still in full swing. Prøvesteenen's heavier fire would have destroyed HMS Isis if it had not been raked by Desirée, assisted by HMS Polyphemus. HMS Monarch suffered badly from the combined fires of Holsteen and Sjælland
Signal to retreat - Admiral Parker could see little of the battle owing to gun smoke, but could see the signals on the three grounded British ships, with Bellona and Russell flying signals of distress and Agamemnon a signal of inability to proceed. Thinking that Nelson might have fought to a stand-still but might be unable to retreat without orders (the Articles of War demanded that all ranks 'do their utmost' against the enemy in battle), at 1:30pm Parker told his flag captain:
I will make the signal of recall for Nelson's sake. If he is in condition to continue the action, he will disregard it; if he is not, it will be an excuse for his retreat and no blame can be imputed to him.
Nelson ordered that the signal be acknowledged, but not repeated. He turned to his flag captain, Thomas Foley, and said "You know, Foley, I only have one eye — I have the right to be blind sometimes," and then, holding his telescope to his blind eye, said "I really do not see the signal!" Rear Admiral Graves repeated the signal, but in a place invisible to most other ships while keeping Nelson's 'close action' signal at his masthead. Of Nelson's captains, only Riou, who could not see Nelson's flagship Elephant, followed Parker's signal. Riou withdrew his force, which was then attacking the Tre Kroner fortress, exposing himself to heavy fire that killed him.
End of the battle - It was at this time that the battle swung decisively to the British, as their superior gunnery took effect. The guns of the dozen southernmost Danish ships had started to fall silent owing to the damage they had sustained, and the fighting moved northward. According to British eyewitness accounts, much of the Danish line had fallen silent by 2 pm. The cessation of firing left the way open for the British bomb vessels to approach Copenhagen. In addition, the reinforcements of the ships from the shore batteries were causing the latter to become ineffective.
Nyborg tried to leave the line with Aggershuus in tow, but both sank. The most northerly ship, the frigate Hjælperen, successfully withdrew. The Danish commander, Commodore Olfert Fischer, moved from Dannebrog at 11:30 am, when it caught fire, to Holsteen. When Indfødsretten, immediately north of Holsteen, struck its colours at about 2:30 pm, he moved on to the Tre Kroner fortress. There he engaged three of Parker's ships, which had lost their manoeuvrability after being badly damaged and had drifted within range. Indfødsretten resumed firing after Captain Schrodersee was ferried to it and took command of the ship.
Perhaps because of inexperienced crews, several Danish ships fired on British boats sent out to them after their officers had signalled their surrender. Nelson said that he "must either send on shore and stop this irregular proceeding, or send in our fire ships and burn them" and went to his cabin to write a note to the Danes. He sent it with a Danish-speaking officer, Captain Sir Frederick Thesiger, under a flag of truce to the Danish-Norwegian regent, Crown Prince Frederik, who had been watching the battle from the ramparts of the Citadel. The note read:
To the Brothers of Englishmen, the DanesLord Nelson has directions to spare Denmark when she is no longer resisting, but if firing is continued on the part of Denmark, Lord Nelson will be obliged to set on fire the floating batteries he has taken, without having the power of saving the brave Danes who have defended them. — Nelson.
All action ceased when Crown Prince Frederick sent his Adjutant General, Hans Lindholm (a Danish member of parliament), asking for the reason for Nelson's letter. He was asked to put it in writing, which he did, in English, while making the joke:
If your guns are not better pointed than your pens, then you will make little impression on Copenhagen.
In reply, Nelson wrote a note:
Lord Nelson's object in sending the Flag of Truce was humanity; he therefore consents that hostilities shall cease, and that the wounded Danes may be taken on shore. And Lord Nelson will take his prisoners out of the Vessels, and burn and carry off his prizes as he shall see fit.Lord Nelson, with humble duty to His Royal Highness the Prince of Denmark, will consider this the greatest victory he has ever gained, if it may be the cause of a happy reconciliation and union between his own most gracious Sovereign, and His Majesty the King of Denmark.
Nelson, which was sent back to the Crown Prince. He then referred Lindholm to Parker on HMS London. Following him there at 4 pm,[clarification needed] a twenty-four-hour ceasefire was agreed.
After fighting had ended, the Danish flagship Dannebrog exploded at 4:30 pm, killing 250 men. By the end of the afternoon, three more badly-damaged British ships ran aground, including Elephant. The Danish-Norwegian ships had been partly manned by volunteers, many having little or no naval experience, and as they were not all listed after the battle, it is uncertain what the exact Danish-Norwegian losses were. Estimates vary between 1,135 and 2,215 captured, killed or wounded. The official report by Olfert Fischer estimated the Danish-Norwegian casualties to be between 1,600 and 1,800 captured, killed or wounded. According to the official returns recorded by each British ship, and repeated in dispatches from Nelson and forwarded by Parker to the Admiralty, British casualties were 963 killed and wounded.
Of the Danish ships engaged in the battle, two had sunk, one had exploded, and twelve had been captured. The British could not spare men for manning prizes as they suspected that further battles were to come. They burned eleven of the captured ships, and only one, Holsteen, was sailed to England with the wounded under surgeon William Fergusson. Holsteen was then taken into service with the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Holstein (later HMS Nassau)."British Third Rate ship of the line 'Holstein' (1801)". Three Decks. Cy Harrison. n.d. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
The next day, Nelson landed in Copenhagen to open negotiations. Colonel Stewart reported that "the population showed an admixture of admiration, curiosity and displeasure". In a two-hour meeting with the Crown Prince (who spoke English), Nelson was able to secure an indefinite armistice. He then tried to convince first Fischer (whom he had known in the West Indies), and then the Prince, of British protection against the Russians. Negotiations continued by letter and on 8 April Nelson returned in person with a formal agreement.
The one sticking point out of the seven articles was a sixteen-week armistice to allow action against the Russians. At this point Stewart claims that one of the Danes turned to another and said in French that disagreement might lead to a renewal of hostilities. "Renew hostilities!" responded Nelson, and turning to his interpreter said "Tell him that we are ready in a moment; ready to bombard this very night!" Hurried apologies followed (the British fleet now occupied positions that would allow the bombardment of Copenhagen) and agreement was reached and signed the next day. The armistice was reduced to fourteen weeks, but during it Armed Neutrality would be suspended and the British were to have free access to Copenhagen. Danish prisoners were also paroled. In the final hour of negotiations, the Danes found out (but not the British) that Tsar Paul had been assassinated. This made the end of the League of Armed Neutrality very likely and freed the Danes from the fear of Russian reprisals against them, allowing them to easily come to agreement. The final peace agreement was then signed on 23 October 1801.
On 12 April, Parker sailed to Karlskrona and on the British approach, the Swedish fleet returned to the port where Parker attempted to persuade them to also leave the League. Parker refused to sail into the eastern Baltic and instead returned to Copenhagen, where he found that news of his lack of vigour had reached London. On 5 May, he was recalled and ordered to hand his command over to Nelson. Nelson sailed eastwards again and, leaving six ships-of-the-line at Karlskrona, he arrived at Reval on 14 May to find that the ice had melted and the Russian fleet had departed for Kronstadt. He also found out that negotiations for ending the Armed Neutrality had started and so withdrew on 17 May. As a result of the battle, Lord Nelson was created Viscount Nelson of the Nile.