THE TWO BATTLES OF COPENHAGEN 1801 AND 1807: BRITAIN & DENMARK IN THE NAPOLEONIC WARS

Reviewed by: Mike Barritt

The title of this book reflects its core premise, which is certainly worthy of study. Just as planning for their descent on Copenhagen took account of some lessons learned in a similar operation in 1700, so the difficulties experienced by the naval commanders in 1801 led to the remarkably swift launch of an overwhelming combined operation in 1807. Around this theme the author provides an account of Anglo-Danish relations in the eighteenth century and, in more detail, for the period 1798-1815. The volume should therefore provide an adequate account for readers who do not wish to tackle full standard works on the battles, and the political and diplomatic background, such as those by Pope, Feldbaek and Munch-Petersen.
The curious reader is confronted on the back of the dustcover, however, by a publisher’s bombardment to equal that delivered in either of the campaigns under discussion. ‘Graphic … previously unpublished first-hand accounts … detail … in-depth investigation … illustrations of events that have seldom if ever been seen in Britain before … pioneering work on the less-well-known aspects of the Napoleonic Wars.’ The remit of a reviewer is to test such assertions as best he can.
Gareth Glover served in the Royal Navy, so how does his handling of the maritime aspects of the campaigns live up to the publisher’s claims? He has a sound appreciation of the navigational challenges which confronted a British fleet configured for operations in deeper oceanic waters. Like Mahan he has a sympathetic word for the pilots who bore the weight of responsibility for advice on the safe conduct of the ships. The concerns came to a head in 1801 as Nelson made his plan to deal with the Danish defence line in the Kings’ Deep and permit access for the bomb-vessels within range of the naval base. Here this account draws on published secondary sources, including the misinformation which some of them have perpetuated. Glover chooses to castigate Nelson for a major error in not acting ‘exactly as he had done so inspirationally at the Battle of the Nile … passing his ships up both sides of the Danish line’. It is generally agreed that this outcome in Aboukir Bay arose from the initiative of Thomas Foley who, at Copenhagen, was in command of Nelson’s temporary flagship Elephant. This option may therefore have been discussed, but lack of hydrographic intelligence was as pertinent in 1801 as in 1798. Here some work on ‘first-hand accounts’ or primary sources would have been welcome, for Glover’s verdict hinges largely on the scope of Thomas Masterman Hardy’s purported ‘survey’ on the night before the battle. The fullest account of this, by Dudley Pope, contains much inference not supported by such sources as he quotes. Feldbaek, who consulted primary records in The National Archives, dismisses Hardy’s involvement as ‘probably apocryphal’. There is evidence that some of the masters despatched by Nelson got close to the southernmost ship of the Danish line to obtain some soundings, but not enough to establish that there was ‘deep water on both sides’, and it is simply wrong to state that ‘the Danish fleet was anchored virtually along the centre of the deep’.
Turning to the events of 1807, Glover makes little of the truly significant naval contribution, the deployment of Keats’ squadron into the Great Belt, where it deterred any deployment of the main Danish army from the mainland into Zealand and any intervention which Napoleon might have contemplated. Gareth Glover’s web-sites reveal that his interest as a historian is in land warfare and the soldier, and his copious output for the Pen and Sword stable reflects this. His author biography tells us that he has added a second string to his bow in the campaign tourism industry. This perhaps points to the true audience for this book. For one of the above claims is certainly substantiated – here is detail, overwhelming detail. The addict of battlefield tours may appreciate the 36 appendices, including guidance to surviving sites around Copenhagen; extensive text describing the Danish fortifications; footnotes which list every unit involved in every minor manoeuvre, frequently to company level for the armies. This reviewer, and possibly other NR readers, will profit from a reminder that it was the land operations and the placement of the shore batteries which were decisive in delivering the bombardment which compelled the Danish submission. But this account lacks an essential component to help us understand the campaign, namely adequate maps. A diagram of the naval battle of 1801 is the only satisfactory one in the book. When will publishers learn that a whole chart or map reproduced at the scale of the page of a book is utterly useless as a reference aid? Even the larger scale reproductions of original maps in this book do not show all the locations named in the account of the land manoeuvres.
This leads to another reservation. It is possible, by delving into the reference section, to identify one of the maps, published by William Faden – not ‘Fadden’. But neither the maps, nor the good selection of illustrations (colour plates and in text), some of which almost certainly have ‘not been seen in Britain before’ are adequately listed and described, and the reader cannot identify their provenance and seek additional information.
This is symptomatic of the major problem which this reviewer faced in assessing the book. Perhaps the average Pen & Sword reader does not welcome a welter of end-notes. But, if a serious student is to respect and use this text, it is vital to be able to trace sources. For example, Glover declares that in his ‘research of the build-up to the crisis of 1807’ he was struck by similar mistaken interpretation of intelligence reports to that by ‘the Blair government’ in ‘the Iraq war in more recent times’. He gives no pointers, however, to the reports of Captain Dunbar and others whom he quotes. Where Glover takes issue with other authorities, for example on the scope of Hyde Parker’s orders in 1801, his argument is undermined by a comparative lack of references. Feldbaek’s book, also published by a Pen & Sword imprint, at least has a Notes Section clearly indicating sources. Here such acknowledgments are like needles in a haystack amidst the mass of detail on orbat. Where they do occur, they are not always complete e.g. where is the letter from Francis Jackson to Lord Hawkesbury on 28 August 1807, with its criticism of Cathcart, to be found (p. 100)? Glover’s account of General Cathcart’s deliberations before the bombardment is excellent, but where are the Murray Papers which he has consulted – in the National Library of Scotland? A reader is expected to know that FO 353 is a Foreign Office document in the National Archives. It is not listed in the bibliography. This simply does not support the ‘puffs’ extolling ‘in-depth investigation’ and ‘reputation for pioneering work’.
Overall there is a real sense of a failure on the part of the publisher to provide a guiding light. One wonders whether proof and copy editors were actually employed. Too often the reader is condemned to stumble through convoluted sentences, deficient in both grammar and syntax. The schoolboy howler ‘artic’ appears on page one. Can one trust the transcriptions of original documents in the appendices, which the author has included with the laudable intent of bringing ‘the most important and interesting primary material into one place for the ease of further research in the future’, when ‘HMS Inslexible’ appears and ‘Captain Paget’ is substituted for Captain Peter Puget? Sources are not shown for all the appendices, and the version of Nelson’s ‘Arrangement for Attack and Line of Battle’ is not the more accurate one identified by Pope.
With regret, the final verdict on this book must be ‘caveat emptor’. This is a pity, especially given the thesis high-lighted at the beginning of this review, which Glover asserts robustly:
In fact, the failure of the British fleet to achieve anywhere near what it was sent to accomplish [in 1801], can be seen to be the root cause of why Britain felt compelled to send a much bigger fleet, this time with a large army in tow, back to Copenhagen, only six years later.
The NR reader will be do better to look elsewhere, perhaps to John Sugden’s biography of Nelson to test Glover’s assessment of the outcome in 1801, and to James Davey’s In Nelson’s Wake (Yale University Press, 2017 in paperback) for a synthesis of the 1807 operation.