Enthusiasms No 63
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
Nelson and Parker in the Baltic
Following on from consideration of those broadside ballads centred on admirals and others during the Napoleonic wars this piece looks briefly at the British operations at Copenhagen where Nelson defied his superior, Hyde Parker, by offering his blind eye to signals. Nelson's gesture and subsequent action did actually favour the British and they were, in any case, anticipated in Parker's instructions; but the blind eye scene has become most famous - notorious - for adding to the Nelson legends rather than as an indication of strategic genius.
The complexity of preceding events need not concern us except in passing.2 England had been at war with France for ten years and her supremacy on the seas was absolutely necessary for continued opposition. Denmark, in this instance, represented a threat as guardian of a vital sea-route to the Baltic and the current circumstances, during a period of changing allegiances on the mainland of peninsular Europe, placed Denmark in the camp of Tsar Paul of Russia at a time when the Tsar's country looked to stake an imperial claim on land and when his relationships with the French were ebbing and flowing. France, meanwhile, was toppling nation after nation, ruler after ruler as Napoleon's own ambitions escalated.
English intervention (not the last3 but, certainly, significant) took place during 1801 when a fleet under the command of Admiral Hyde Parker was ordered to the Baltic. Nelson's part came after a period of life ashore following his stunning victory at Aboukir Bay in 1798; and he and Parker knew well enough what might ensue - Parker in nominal command but Nelson taking the initiative. So, eventually, it proved. It was Nelson's plan that did for the Danes and secured their fleet from its possible alliance with other Baltic fleets.
Nelson's tactics were to sail south alongside the Danish fleet established in Copenhagen Roads and to drop anchor and engage ships one by one, the first British ship passed on the outside by all the others and the second then dropping anchor and so on. Parker, in reserve, stayed north of the action. The shallowness of the water caused problems and some British ships ran aground before engagement. Nonetheless, the plan was more or less followed. British victory, though, was ensured less by the tactical move than by superior gunnery and weight of arms that silenced both Denmarks' sea-borne guns and those on her floating batteries and on shore. In addition, Nelson promised bombardment of the city and, in the aftermath, promised it again if the Danes did not surrender.
In fact, Copenhagen represented one of the bitterest contests during the then current wars.
One would not guess it from available balladry.
Copy concerned with Copenhagen is minimal - a piece from Angus in Newcastle entitled Copenhagen together with Nelson's Thunder Or The Danifh Submiffion (without imprint); Nelson Victorious, already discussed in passing in an article on this site4; plus a curiosity written and issued in 1855 that looked back on the battle of the Baltic.
Copenhagen5 is a typical piece of patriotic flummery although it does follow the course of the action closely enough:
You undaunted fons of Britannia lend an earParker, Nelson and Rear Admiral Graves are all mentioned and the first stage of the venture, the navigation of the Skaggerak and the guns at Elsinore castle, is noted. One must remember that Britain was uncertain as to any Swedish reaction and the commanders were, therefore, anxious that the fleet would not be fired on by either the Danes or the Swedes. In the event the Swedes held their fire. Still, Parker's caution - innate, it seems, has to be accounted as being sensible.
To a ftory concerning a fight you fhall hear,
'Twas on the 12th of Mach our fleet they did fet fail,
Out of Yarmouth roads with a fweet and pleafant gale
On the 13th March:
Then ftraight for Copenhagen our fleet they did fteerThe Danes, meanwhile, had (at the last minute) made ready guns on both floating batteries in Copenhagen Roads and on shore batteries in addition to offering a fleet operation. Nothing is said in the ballad about Parker's decisions or indecisions nor is there anything about Nelson's demeanour and actions. Instead there is a modified list of ships engaged in the action - rather like the list in ballads about Pellew and Algiers6 - until, of Amazon, Orion, Desiree and Blanch frigates, the ballad says:
And anchored abreaft of their town without fear
'Twas thofe four frigates I have mentioned here,However, as regards the Danes, the ballad tells us that:
And two little floops that run in without fear,
They all ran and anchored along fide of their fleet,
When their batteries begun thinking us to defeat
so great was their miftake about four o'clock,So 'Well done brave feamen and Lord Nelfon'!
They found they could no longer bear our fhot,
Their batteries we clear'd it was our whole defire,
And their town in three places our bombs set on fire,
One of their two deckers unto us did ftrike,
And fix floating batteries to us did the like
The piece concludes with the assertion, 'my brave boys', that it should never be said that Nelson and Graves were ever afraid; offers 'Succefs to our officers throughout the whole fleet'; of the Danes - 'we have beat the dogs'; and calls for "Succefs' to wives and sweethearts who will 'give us a glafs when to England we come'.
There is, clearly, little here that would be called 'balanced'. Rather, we find the usual boasting of success; a nod to the supporting cast in England; and contempt for the then enemy.
Nelson's Thunder OR The Danifh Submiffion 7 comes at the event in a different way but the intended effect looks to be the same as it was in the first piece considered here. The piece begins as follows:
THE Ruffians, Swedes, and Danes combineApart from the unexpected comic effect (to our eyes) brought about by the use of the long 's' in the first line, the sentiment, nevertheless, almost certainly represented England's view of Russia. There is something of a conflation of events. The League of Armed Neutrality had been established in 1800 by Russia, Sweden and Denmark with Prussia, its eastern border next door to Russian territory (in present-day Lithuania), having little option but to join Russian instigation of the alliance.8 This was a way of furthering Russian ambitions in the face of French expansion but, in the immediate context, in order to counter England's insistence on the right to stop and search ships (for fear that they carried material that could be used by England's enemies, principally, of course, France). Denmark, at this time, seized English goods in the port of Hamburg - a precursor of Napoleon's full-scale Continental blockade of 1807; but it was hardly this that prompted the English to send a fleet to the Baltic capable of defeating each of the fleets of those countries who subscribed to the League. England - it has already been noted - needed clear passage into the Baltic to protect her own trade in timber, tar, pitch and hemp so as to be able to sustain her navy; this as part of her defiance of Napoleon worldwide. At the same time England and Denmark did try to find accord, with discreet asides to ships' captains in respect of boarding or not boarding convoys in which neutrally-based ships might slip necessary military goods through to France; and there was plenty of diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing. It was only at the very last that England and Denmark actually went to war.
In Colleagues, France to join;
Treach'rous fpoil was their defign,
And Hamburgh foon was taken.
But when they found their fchemes all blown,
Thefe Heroes were fent out -
Nelfon and Parker, who no doubt,
With fchemes well true to fecure our Trade,
And prove their views miftaken.
At any rate, with an echo of the Copenhagen piece in the first line here:
There foon frang up a pleafant galeBritish progress is indicated. The fleet took the route through the Sound, on the eastern side of Copenhagen, between Elsingfors (Hamlet's Elsinore) and the Swedish coast which, whilst not as close to the British fleet as was the Danish side, nonetheless represented a big enough threat since Sweden was an active member of the Armed Alliance and was not exactly enamoured of its Danish neighbour and, in British eyes, perhaps more inclined to be aggressive.
From the Danifh coaft foon wafted o'er,
As fine a Fleet as e'er before
BRITANNIA out had fitted
The ballad puts it all on an immediate, local footing, describing:
daring the English tars . Ah, 'But NELSON them outwitted'.
a Castle too well planted round
With guns wot not, bomb balls red hot
A 'pleafant breeze' had sprung up, conveniently, and the fleet raised smoke 'Which did the Danes completely blind'.
Then there is a kind of regression in the ballad during which 'the treach'rous Dane', after taking Hamburg, not a factor in the battle of Copenhagen at all, said:
The bone is good, we'll pick it clean,In terms of the battle at Copenhagen this is somewhat irrelevant. It may have been intended to raise the pitch a little. Nothing here gives us any clue to the course of events in March 1801 and we must be content with an attempt at wit at the expense of the 'Dane'. Finally:
And England foon will humble;
But when he found his Fleet deftroy'd,
(His only hope and Country's pride)
He rub'd, he turn'd, His[?] head afide -
His Fleet not more, his grief was fore,
He ftroak'd his whifkers o'er and o'er,
And down the bone did tumble.
A fleet like our's (sic) there ne'er arofe'for 'our Tars' would give them a bloody nose! Tribute is then paid to King George, to Nelson and - surprisingly, perhaps, to Parker before there is an appeal 'For a PEACE and FIRM ALLIANCE' - with whom is not at all clear.
Who dare the Englifh flag oppofe
This is a curious piece although scatological enough in familiar fashion and hardly accurate or comprehensive.
Nelson Victorious is a tribute that recounts Nelson's exploits at the Nile and, without mentioning his actions at Trafalgar, nonetheless records his death -
The piece ends with the satisfied boast that:
No earthy task for him remain'd,
So heav'n has called him in the sky
"Britannia still shall rule the waves,It is a piece that looks very much to be exploiting the Immortal Memory. We learn nothing about the battle of Copenhagen save that it took place. The printers, Howard and Evans in London, nevertheless, are known to have operated between 1800 and 1811 and one might suppose this piece to have been pretty contemporary with the battle of Copenhagen - this is to take into account the date of Nelson's death.9
"And Britons never shall be slaves."
Our final piece has a message from the printer 'Remember this beautiful song ' enjoins The Poet's Box, on printing The Battle of the Nile in 185510. The piece begins as follows:
Of Nelson and the NorthThis does not remind us of the usual narrative style in broadside description although the apparent underlying implication is clear enough and we do note our familiar epithet 'bold' (in Nelson-ic balladry) making its appearance. The piece completely ignores specifics and progresses in a fashion that can only be described as distant - until the Danes were defeated and:
Sing the glorious day's renown,
When to battle fierce came forth
All the might of Denmark's crown,
And her arms along the deep proudly shone;
By each gun the lighted brand,
In a bold determined hand,
Led them on.
they strike the shatter'd sail,Indeed, one line claims that 'it was ten of April morn' when the action took place, a palpable mistake.
Or in conflagration pale,
Light the gloom.
There is one gesture to actuality, reflecting Nelson's offer of a ceasefire for humanitarian purposes - it suggests that the writer had become acquainted with despatches that reveal Nelson's magnitude towards his beaten enemy:
Ye are brothers, ye are men,- one way of clothing a continued threat to bombard Copenhagen, if sincerely meant at the particular moment and, at the same time, indicating conditions of surrender that would enable the British fleet to go after the Russians as the ice melted around the Baltic.
And we conquer but to save,
So peace instead of death let us bring
The ending is suitably romantic over the loss of life:
Soft sigh the winds of leaves o'er their grave,One wonders about the occasion of issue in 1855, what might have prompted it, Britain, at the time, being taken up by the Crimean war. The piece could be more easily understood in an immediate aftermath of the battle of Copenhagen itself. As it is, it could pass almost un-noticed and gives us even less idea of the unfolding of events than other balladry inspired by Nelson's exploits. Nor does it add to the Nelson legends.
While the billow mournful rolls,
And the mermaid's song condoles
Singing glory to the souls
Of the brave.
Of course it provides an easy target; but it does, more seriously, provide us with continuing evidence that we should not normally look to balladry, especially that which is retrospective, for any kind of accurate historical picture. Rather, this essentially armchair contribution may afford a glimpse of how the armchair occupants might exploit events and personalities. Even then, there is something of a difference between pieces that express a red-hot patriotic gesture (like the illuminations that so often followed news of victory) put out, one supposes, to keep up spirits and to support the wars - more accurately, perhaps, government policies and 'our boys' - and to praise individual commanders between these and the indulgence of a minor scribbler.
Further, one could not imagine such a piece being taken up into sung repertoire (for instance - and one of the preoccupations of anyone interested in the whys and wherefores of balladry). The metres are inappropriate (just as they are in Death of Nelson11) to those more versed in straightforward strophic form; and the emotional impact quite sentimental.
And that, as far as Copenhagen is concerned, seems to have been that.
Roly Brown - 9.1.09
Oradour sur Vayres, France
2. There is an excellent and very fair account of the proceedings in The Battle of Copenhagen 1801, written by Ole Feldbaek, Professor of History at the University of Copenhagen (Barnsley, Leo Cooper, first GB edn., 2002).
3. There was another British incursion in 1807 in respect of Napoleon's intentions on Denmark's southern borders and in the Baltic the continued threat to Britain's sea-power and peace of mind. This time there was a pre-emptive strike as Britain tried to gain control of the Danish fleet; and Copenhagen was bombarded - which led to a great deal of bitterness, as one might imagine. British suspicions proved to be right insofar as, quite soon after, Napoleon created his continental blockade against Britain (Treaty of Tilsit 1807).
4. See MT 173 - The Death of Nelson.
5. See Bodleian Allegro archive as Harding B 16(593) and Harding B 17(616).
6. See Enthusiasms 51, Lord Exmouth and the Battle of Algiers.
7. See Bodleian Allegro archive as Harding B 12 (139) a piece from Burbage and Stretton in Nottingham - not prominent names in extant broadside printing.
8. One should not forget Prussian standing at the time. Napoleon had to crush Prussian forces as part of his domination of Europe and did so, in 1806. Prussia, West and East, later became part of Poland; was 'abolished' in 1947 and subsequently absorbed into the Soviet republics; existing then and after the fall of Communism as an exclave; confined by Poland, Lithuania and Russia and presently trying to survive though neglect by Moscow and overtures from the EU.
9. See Madden Reel 74, Number 180 and also my MT article 173, The Death of Nelson.
10. See Bodleian Allegro archive as Firth c.12(37).
11. See, again, MT article 173.
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