On the 2nd of April 1801, Nelson fought the second of his major fleet actions against the Danish fleet in the shallow waters of The Sound off Copenhagen. It was one of his hardest battles, and saw him come close to defeat.
Tensions had been building with the Baltic powers over the British policy of intercepting and inspecting neutral shipping, to ensure that it was not bound for France or Spain. Trade with the Baltic was particularly important because many materials essential for ship building came from there, including tar, canvas for sails, and hemp for rope production. In 1800 France began a diplomatic offensive to encourage Russia, Sweden, Prussia and Denmark to form a League of Armed Neutrality to enforce free trade with France. Tsar Paul of Russia was their main ally, and he succeeded in persuading the other countries to join in. In response, Britain sent a large fleet into the Baltic under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, with Lord Nelson as his deputy. It arrived in the Baltic in spring 1801, with orders to break up the League, by force, if necessary. Their first opponent was to be the Danes.
Denmark at the start of the 19th century was a substantial power, ruling over Iceland and Norway, as well as a homeland that extended further south than today to include a small part of northern Germany. They were aware of the British fleet gathering on the far side of the North Sea, and had prepared for its arrival. A moored line of twenty warships, backed by batteries and fortifications on the coast, had been established as a sort of floating wall, protecting Copenhagen from attack from the sea. The ships had been placed with care, anchored on the very edge of shallow water, so that the British could not double up on them, as they had done to the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile a few years earlier. Just opposite the Danish position was a huge, treacherous mud bank called the Middle Ground. It was several square miles in size, and the British would have to sail around it to attack up a narrow deepwater channel. As part of their preparations, the Danes had removed all the navigational marker buoys.
Nelson succeeded in persuading the much more cautious Parker that the Danish fleet should be attacked, and that he was the man to do it. He was allocated a force of a dozen of the fleet’s smaller ships of the line, together with various minor vessels, because the water around the Danish position was too shallow for anything larger. On the morning of the 2nd of April 1801 the wind was favourable, and Nelson ordered his ships into action.
Almost straightaway, things went wrong. The Agamemnon (64), which was leading the line, was stranded on the Middle Ground and played no further part in the battle. The remaining ships pressed on with their attack, but the Danish shallows were to claim two more victims. The Edgar (74) had anchored opposite the fifth ship in the Danish line, as ordered, but when the next two ships in the fleet tried to sail around her, they too ran aground.
With no room to manoeuvre in the narrow channel between the Danish fleet and the Middle Ground, the battle descended into a slogging match of naval gunnery. The British had the advantage of better trained gun crews, and ships that were generally larger than their opponents. On the other side, the Danes had a greater number of vessels and could reinforce them with fresh men brought from the shore in boats. For many hours the two sides furiously battered each other, while the battle hung in the balance.
One person who was sure which way the fighting was going was Admiral Parker. Despite being too far away to judge the situation, he decided that defeat was inevitable, and signalled to Nelson to discontinue the action. Nelson was furious at this interference and famously placed his telescope to his blind eye, telling Captain Folley of the Elephant (74) that “I really do not see the signal.” Parker later claimed that his order was only meant to give Nelson the option to withdraw, if he needed it. This is an explanation that sounds as unconvincing today as it did at the time.
By 2.00pm the British were at last gaining the upper hand, with many of the Danish ships having surrendered or fallen silent. This permitted Nelson’s fleet to concentrate their fire on a dwindling number of remaining enemies. Once victory seemed certain, Nelson sent a boat proposing a truce to the shore, and this was accepted by the Danes. A few days later peace was signed, helped by the news that Tsar Paul had been murdered, and that his successor on the throne, Tsar Alexander, would be removing Russia from the League of Armed Neutrality.
Copenhagen was a brutal, unsubtle battle, with heavy loss of life on both sides. The collapse of the League of Armed Neutrality was important in keeping the Royal Navy dominant at sea over their French and Spanish opponents. This ultimately guaranteed that however successful Napoleon was on land, he would never be able to defeat Britain. It also added to the growing reputation of Nelson as a fighting admiral and effectively ended the career of Admiral Parker. He was recalled to London shortly afterwards, and never commanded a fleet again.