On a July day in 1807 Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was sitting on a raft in the middle of the River Nevan, near Tilsit in Russia, making a treaty with Tsar Alexander 1. It was a meeting that in a roundabout way would have a profound effect on the life of one Cumbrian called William Grisdale.
Napoleon was at the height of his power. The French army had recently defeated the Austrians at Austerlitz and the Russians at Friedland, while Prussia had been occupied. Napoleon was now master of much of continental Europe. Just one irritant remained: the British, who three years before at the Battle of Trafalgar had smashed the French fleet, and that of France’s ally (at the time) Spain. The Royal Navy still ruled the seas, though the French seemed pretty unstoppable on land.
The agreement Napoleon made with the Tsar, plus the one he made two days later with the Prussians, became known as the Treaties of Tilsit. The treaties were ‘the most significant deal in Napoleonic history and reinforced French domination in Europe.’ Prussia was stripped of half her territory, while among other things the Russians agreed to join Napoleon’s ‘continental blockade’ (known in French as the Blocus continental), aimed at Britain. The point of the blockade was to deprive Britain of her trading links and thus to weaken her before France’s planned invasion. Napoleon wanted to force every European country to join France in bringing the pesky British to their knees.
The problem was both that the French Navy was no match for the Royal Navy after Trafalgar and that certain countries, such as Denmark, remained neutral and continued to insist on their right to trade wherever and with whomsoever they wished. Denmark had the second largest merchant marine in Europe and a very respectable Navy as well.
So while Napoleon was chatting with Tsar Alexander on his raft, the two hatched a plot against Britain. But a disgruntled Russian general, Prince Vassili Troubetzkoi, leaked the plot between the two nations to the British. It was said that ‘the Franco-Russian alliance signed at Tilsit had included a secret agreement to force Denmark and Sweden into Napoleon’s continental blockade of British trade.’
The essence of the plot was also revealed in a letter French informant Count D’Antraigues wrote on 21 July 1807 to British Foreign Secretary Lord Canning:
Napoleon … has proposed a maritime league of this country [i.e. Russia] against England and the unification of the Russian squadrons with those of Sweden and Denmark, being certain, he says, of the forces of Spain and Portugal in order to attack England at close quarters (corps à corps).
The British were already fearful that the Danish fleet might fall into French hands but this information confirmed their suspicions of Napoleon’s intentions. If the French moved into Denmark, or forced the country to join them as allies against the British, not only would the French continental blockade be tightened, but, worse, the powerful Danish fleet could fill the gap left in France’s naval forces after Trafalgar. British control of the seas could be threatened, opening the way for a French invasion.
Something had to be done. The British government requested Denmark to hand over its fleet to the British, which the British said they would return after Napoleon had been defeated. The Danes refused. (Actually Portugal faced with the same request did hand over its Navy and got it back later!) So despite a lot of internal opposition (the Danes were after all ‘brothers’ of the English), an army of 27,000 men under Lard Cathcart and Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) was assembled and sent to the island of Zealand ‘ready to besiege Copenhagen’, while a ‘fleet of warships under Admiral James Gambier, amply equipped with bomb vessels, sailed menacingly up The Sound between Copenhagen and Sweden.’
The Danes were asked again to hand over their fleet. Again they refused. The British army moved to the Danish peninsula and quickly defeated the Danish militia south of Copenhagen at the Battle of Køge on 29 August. The main Danish Army was in the south, in Schleswig-Holstein, ready to repulse any French invasion.
After a few more ‘skirmishes’ and more discussions, the British decided they’d have to take the Danish Navy by force. On 2 September a massive land and sea-based bombardment of Copenhagen began which lasted three nights. For the first time the British employed the newly developed ‘Congreve Rockets’, described by one British soldier as ‘fiery serpents in the sky’. The rockets and other shells poured down on the city, starting fire storms and killing over 2,000 Danish civilians and destroying 30% of the buildings.
Rather than send British troops into a dangerous and time-consuming siege, the British command decided to shell the city into submission. Wellesley’s batteries of land-based artillery and Gambier’s floating batteries opened fire on 2 September, 1807. 5,000 rounds were fired into the city on the first night of the shelling, crashing indiscriminately into militia barracks, city defences and civilian homes.
The British unleashed their new weapon, the Congreve Rocket. This had been copied from the Mysorean Rocket artillery used against them by the armies of Tipoo Sultan in the Mysore Wars, and consisted of a strong iron tube with a conical nose, packed with gunpowder. These new weapons of mass destruction hammered Copenhagen, starting fires that the defending militias were hard-pressed to keep under control.
2,000 rounds hammered Copenhagen on the night of 3 September, with 7,000 more dropping into the city on 4 September. The noise, smoke and destruction caused by the shelling, combined with the raging fires, tore the heart out of the Danish defence, and the shocked and awed Peymann (the Danish commander) was forced to sue for peace. On 7 September, disobeying orders to burn the ships in Copenhagen harbour, Peymann handed the city and the fleet to the British. 5,000 Danish soldiers, civilians and militiamen lay dead — the butcher’s bill for King George only ran to 42.
The Danes surrendered their fleet; a large number of which were towed or sailed back to England, although only four were ever used by the Royal Navy.
From the British point of view the danger of the Danish fleet falling into French hands had been averted. The Danes saw it differently, and after the bombardment of their capital they joined the French side. In most histories of the Napoleonic Wars the Battle or Bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 is usually just a footnote. None of the heroics of Trafalgar or Waterloo here – it was a regrettable though necessary action.
Over the whole campaign there were several hundred British casualties, dead and wounded; a tally General Arthur Wellesley described as ‘trifling’. Trifling it might have been in the greater scheme of things, but it was not trifling for the British soldiers and sailors killed and injured, or for the thousands of dead Danish civilians, soldiers and their families.
One of the British injured was William Grisdale, a ‘soldier’ in the 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards, later to be called the Scots Guards. William was born in Crosthwaite in Cumberland in 1780 or early 1781. He started to work as a tailor but in 1798, aged 17, he joined the army: the 3rd Foot Guards as mentioned. There is no birth or baptismal record for William in Crosthwaite. He could very well have been illegitimate and perhaps related to the weaver Joseph Grisdale (whose wife was Ann Tickell), who lived in Portinscale in the Parish of Crosthwaite.
William was in the regiment’s first battalion and served and fought with them for over nine years in the Netherlands, Spain and Egypt. He survived many battles and avoided the plague in Egypt, but in 1807 his regiment was part of the force sent to Copenhagen. There he was badly injured. How and where isn’t known. Possibly it was at the Battle of Køge or maybe in one of the other ‘trifling’ skirmishes with the Danes. But what we do know is that William became a paralytic. In modern English slang paralytic means being in a state of extreme inebriation; being in fact legless. But, then and now, in medical terms paralytic simply means paralysed.
When the British force returned to England, paralytic William was with them, and was probably sent to an army hospital. Early in 1808 his regiment, like many others, was preparing for what has become known in Britain as the Peninsular War (it’s called the War of Independence in Spain). This was a long and brutal, though ultimately successful, attempt to remove Napoleon’s brother Joseph from the Spanish throne and the French themselves from the Iberian Peninsula. William Grisdale was obviously in no fit state to accompany them.
On 23 April 1808, William was discharged from the army, aged 27, after 9 years and 203 days service in the 3rd Foot Guards. He was at the time a part of the ‘Hon. Lt. Colonel Fermor’s Company’ – Fermor being Thomas William Fermor, later 4th Earl of Pomfret. He had ‘served honestly and faithfully’ and he was recommended as ‘a proper Object of His Majesty’s Royal Bounty of Chelsea Hospital’. The regiment’s medical officer wrote that William was ‘paralytic and totally unfit for further service’.
What became of William, the paralysed Scots Guardsman? Perhaps he did get a small Chelsea pension. But it seems unlikely that he would have enjoyed a long retirement recounting his exploits, as did his relative Levi Grisdale, who was at the very moment of William’s discharge, preparing to go to Spain to accomplish his famous exploits there. All we know is that William returned to Crosthwaite and died there in 1828, aged about 47.
Such are the ‘trifling’ casualties of war.