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Edmund F. Sellar

Battle of Copenhagen

His time at home was short, for again there were signs of war, and the fleet was once more to be called upon to strike a blow for our national honour.

At this time Great Britain claimed the right of searching the vessels of other countries who were not at war with either England or France, and if any goods were found on board which were being carried to the French, they were seized. This had more than once led to quarrels with Denmark, and there had already been some fighting between British and Danish ships, though there was no actual declaration of war.

Paul I., Czar of Russia, was very angry at the British for not allowing him to take Malta and in revenge he seized three hundred of our merchant ships, which were lying in Russian ports, and made their crews prisoners. Not content with this, he revived an old treaty of 1780, and Russia, Sweden, Denmark, and Prussia formed themselves into an alliance known as the "Armed Neutrality," the object of which was to prevent the British searching, their ships, by force if it were necessary.

Napoleon naturally did his best to help and encourage the northern powers. His own fleet and that of Spain had been crushed, or were unable to do any harm owing to the strict watch the British kept on them, which prevented them coming out of harbour. The northern powers had, however, a fine fleet of some fifty battleships, and he hoped to be able to use these as a weapon against his unyielding foe, Great Britain, who was once again left without an ally in Europe.

Great Britain at first meant to try and reason with Denmark, and in order to show the Danes that she was in earnest, and at the same time prevent the Russian ships from joining their allies, a fleet under Sir Hyde Parker, with Nelson as second-in-command, set sail on the lath of March from Yarmouth.

"I hate your pen and ink men. A fleet of British ships of war are the best negotiators in Europe," Nelson had said, and the Government also seemed to think so.

Meanwhile the Danes were toiling manfully at the defence of their capital. Workmen, country peasants, city merchants, students, young and old alike of all classes, enrolled themselves as volunteers, and prepared to make their beloved Copenhagen secure against assault, or lay down their lives in its defence.

Rather less than three weeks from the time they had left England the fleet arrived, and passing the island of Elsinore, dropped anchor about five miles from Copenhagen.

Sir Hyde Parker, who all through acted with an extreme caution, which was very unlike Nelson's methods, was for a long time uncertain whether to take his ships by the narrower Sound or by the more open Great Belt.

At length he decided to risk going by the Sound, and sent word to tell Nelson of his intention.

"I don't care by which passage we go," said the latter, "so that we fight them."

He had been in a great state of anxiety lest his chief might think the fortifications, floating batteries, and ships of the Danes too strong to assault. Now that the attack was to take place, he again felt happy, and was able to give his whole mind to the best means of making victory certain.

In front of Copenhagen there is a large shoal between the two channels through which big ships can sail. Along the land side of the inner channel the Danes were posted in greatest strength.

Here they waited for the British attack, sure that the fleet would enter by the inner channel, and confident in their power to defeat it.

They did not know the great seaman. His plan was quite different to what they thought, and was to go in by the outer channel, and flinging himself on their rear, fight his way up the inner channel.

To make matters still more difficult for our ships; all the buoys had been taken away, so that it was impossible to guess where the channel lay, and easy to run aground on the many shoals and sandbanks.

This was a serious drawback, but Nelson overcame it, though at great risk to himself.

Under cover of darkness and fog, he spent two nights in an open boat, rowing with muffled oars, and silently taking soundings and finding out the depth.

On April 1 the fleet sailed up still closer to the doomed city, and was now only two miles away. After anchoring, Captain Hardy set off in a small rowing boat, and in the most fearless way slipped under the Danish batteries.

Hidden by the darkness, he rounded the Danish flagship. Not daring to heave the lead in the ordinary way, for fear the noise of the splash would betray him, he carefully sounded with a pole.

The slightest whisper would have ruined all, but with bated breath the British seamen continued to take the depth under the batteries and round the ships, and Fortune favoured them. The Danish sentinels never heard them, and they returned to their ship in safety, with a full knowledge of where their vessels could swing, and what parts of the channel they must avoid.

Nelson had only asked for ten ships of the line of light draught, with which to make the attack. Admiral Parker, however, gave him two more vessels than he had asked for, as he feared there was a great chance of some of the ships sticking fast and falling out of the line. Parker himself drew off, ready to help if he could do so, but more for the purpose of preventing the Russian and Swedish ships, should they come up, from joining their Danish allies.

In the morning the wind, which had hitherto been adverse, changed, and blew fair for the British attack. But now a hitch occurred in the plans, which might have proved fatal.

By eight o'clock not a pilot could be found willing to guide the British fleet.

"I experienced in the Sound the misery of having the honour of our country entrusted to pilots who have no other thought than to keep the ship clear of danger, and their silly heads clear of shot," Nelson used afterwards bitterly to relate.

In justice to the men he so severely blames, we must remember that they were the masters and mates of merchant ships engaged in the Baltic trade. These vessels were small and of shallow draught, and guiding a mighty battleship during the thick of a fight was a different affair to piloting their little craft through the channels they had learned to know in time of peace.

While in this difficulty, Captain Murray, in the Edgar, volunteered to lead the line, his master, Mr. Brierly, taking upon him the hard task of pilot.

At about ten in the morning all was ready and the signal to weigh in succession was given.

The Edgar, as arranged, advanced, showing the way, and right well did she play her part. Not so fortunate was Nelson's old flag-ship, the Agamemnon, which, failing to round the middle ground, went ashore, where she stuck, in spite of all the exertions of her crew to get her off.

Nor did the British misfortunes end here, for the next two ships, the Bellona  and Russel, following close in her wake, shared the same fate, and thus a quarter of the attacking force was already out of action.

Nelson, who came next, in the Elephant  was like to come to grief in the same manner. Had he followed his own orders to the fleet, "that each ship should pass her leader on the starboard side," he must have run aground.

In an instant he saw the danger, and ordering his helm to be put hard a-starboard, passed the Russel  on the larboard beam. The whole line followed him, and entering the true channel the battle was saved.

The rest of the ships all made the dangerous passage in safety, and on reaching their stations anchored by the stern and began to pour both broadsides on the Danes.

Captain Rioux, with the light division of frigates, was now ordered to take the place of the three stranded battleships, and attack the batteries. Gallantly did the light division play its part, firing with deadly effect on the Danish works, and heedless of their own loss.

"Again, again, again,

And the havoc did not slack."

"Here was no manœuvring: it was downright fighting."

"It is warm work, and this day may be the last to any of us at a moment," said Nelson, amid a shower of splinters; "but mark you," he added, his eye kindling with the light of battle, "I would not be elsewhere for thousands."

The pounding at short range was deadly and unceasing; scarcely two hundred yards separated the combatants.

The Danish flagship, fighting to the end with desperate courage, took fire; still, amid the flames, the gunners continued to fire a deadly storm of shot and shell. Only when the fire got the mastery, and with a mighty roar the gallant ship blew up, did she cease to trouble her foes.

Meanwhile, out in the Sound the thunders of the fight was borne to the anxious ears of Sir Hyde Parker. The admiral knew the sore straits from the loss of three ships Nelson was bound to be in, and the odds against which he was fighting. A stormy wind was blowing dead against him, and he could not hope to beat up against it in time to bring aid.

Nelson, he knew, would never give in while he lived: he was not the man to turn back from a fight. At length the admiral could stand the suspense no longer, and the famous signal, No. 39, the order to cease action, was hoisted.

What follows is known to every schoolboy wherever the English tongue is spoken.

Nelson was pacing his quarter-deck when the signal-lieutenant interrupted his walk and reported the signal. "Acknowledge it," replied the admiral shortly, adding fiercely, "Is mine, No. 16" (for close action), "still flying?" On being told that it was, "Then mind you keep it so," he said, turning on his heel and resuming his restless pacing of the deck.

"Leave off action!" he added; "I'm hanged if I do!"

Clapping his glass to his sightless eye, "You know, Foley," he added, turning to his captain, "I've a right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal. D—n the signal! keep mine for closer action flying."

As of Cape St. Vincent, so at Copenhagen, this act of seeming disobedience won the day.


Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen.

Unfortunately, the squadron of frigates and small craft under Rioux—"the gallant good Rioux" of Campbell's poem—took the order literally. "What will Nelson think of us?" said the brave captain, as he obediently withdrew. Just as he spoke a chain-shot ploughed into the deck, killing a party of marines and striking him down, with the ringing words, "Come, then, my boys, let us all die together," on his lips.

By two o'clock the Danish fire had slackened; half their line were wrecks, the floating batteries were either sunk or nearly silenced; their flagship was ablaze. Nelson's humane nature could not bear that so many brave men should be killed, now that their valour was useless and his own victory complete. Calling for pen and ink, he wrote the following:—

"To the brothers of Englishmen, the Dane.

"Lord Nelson has directions to spare Denmark when no longer resisting; but if the firing is continued on the part of Denmark Lord Nelson will be obliged to set on fire all the floating batteries he has taken, without having the power of saving the brave Danes who have defended them."

His secretary was about to close the letter in its envelope with the ordinary wafer then in common use, but Nelson objected to this, and bade him bring wax and a taper, with which the letter was carefully sealed.

"Had I made use of the wafer," he explained to those around him, "it would have been wet when presented to the Crown Prince. He would have inferred that the letter was sent off in a hurry, and that we had some very pressing reason for being in a hurry. The wax told no tales."

The Crown Prince wrote back proposing that they should stop fighting for the time and try to come to terms. Nelson, with great shrewdness, said he must first ask Sir Hyde Parker. He knew that it would take some time before he could get an answer from the latter, and in the meanwhile he would be able to get his battered ships out of reach of the Danish guns, and into the open channel.

By nightfall a truce was agreed upon, and the British were busy floating their own ships which had run aground, and securing their prizes, only one of which could, however, be used again, so fiercely had fought the two nations, both sprung from a race of sea-kings.

"The French and Spanish fight well; but they could not have stood for an hour such a fire as the Danes sustained for four hours," Nelson said.

The British admiral's aim was next to attack the Russian squadron lying in Revel, but in order to do this the fleet would have to pass the batteries which commanded the shoal ground above Copenhagen.

Parker naturally did not care to leave Denmark hostile in his rear, while the Crown Prince was afraid that if he came too quickly to terms he would offend his powerful ally and neighbour, the Czar.

Matters were in this state, when, on April 4, while Nelson was on shore trying to arrange for at least a four months' peace, news was brought that the Czar had been murdered.

With this monarch's death the chief reason for the alliance was taken away, and Napoleon's dreams of a great fleet with which he might attack Great Britain had come to nothing.

Five days after, Denmark agreed to take no further part in the Armed Neutrality, and also promised to take no further steps to prepare her ships for war.

Nelson had again shown himself "as great in the Cabinet as on the ocean." His victory had been a glorious one, but his skill and tact in arranging terms after the battle were equally remarkable. Friend and foe alike agreed that it was he that had brought about the peace.

"Your Lordship's whole conduct, from your first appointment to this hour," wrote Lord St. Vincent, "is the subject of our constant admiration. It does not become me to make comparisons; all agree there Is but one Nelson.