Book Review: The Danish Army of the Napoleonic Wars 1801-1814 by David Wilson.

(Vols 1 & 2)

Amongst aficionados and buffs of military history, not least the majority of academics, the shores of the Baltic are a backwater of the Napoleonic Wars. The scene of moderately interesting special operations (Evacuation of the Romana Divison), a place of backstory for Wellington and Nelson (Operations against Copenhagen) and the scene of highly abbreviated campaigns over territorial possessions that were surprisingly influential in the tangled web of Napoleonic politics, (Russo-Swedish and Dano-Swedish Wars and the founding of the house of Bernadotte).

As a result very little time is given to the military forces of the Norse kingdoms of Denmark-Norway and Sweden (and Finland), dismissed as Bernadotte’s toy soldiers in the latter case and a nonentity of militias in the former. But the makeup and administration of the Danish army of the Napoleonic Wars will carry the reader beyond the field of discarded Clogs that is conjured whenever the Battle of Køge (1807) is mentioned. 

Much as surveys of the minutiae and material culture of military history may be dismissed as mere rivet counting, David A. Wilson highlights the importance for military historians to be aware of the intricacies of the military machines at work in his excellent 3 volume series of books on the organisation, uniforms and equipment of the Danish land forces of the period.

In an age of reform, Revolution and innovation, there is much to observe in the armies of what we might term the lesser powers, and a look at the organisation of their armies, the challenges they faced and the ambitions of their leaders can greatly inform the popular narrative of this war. 

Far from a pathetic rabble of militias, Wilson points the reader directly to a few home truths about the Danish army in a succinct and direct historical overview before digging into a breathtakingly detailed summary of uniforms and trappings that all writers of fiction, war-gamers and serious military historians wanting some basis in English for the war in the Baltic. 

In 1802 the Danish army was looking to the future and trying to create a strong military deterrent to a host of enemies. Indeed few countries can have been as luckless as Denmark between 1802 and 1814. That being said they had taken steps to secure their position after the upheaval of the 1790’s. Entering the league of armed neutrality and introducing sweeping reforms had taken hold of their armed forces and created a national army of conscripts, well equipped and well trained according to military thinkers like Von Huth, and led by capable generals like Carl of Hessen. 

The importance of a slew of German military thinkers on the kingdoms of Europe cannot be understated in the development of warfare at the end of the 18th century. Wilhelm Heinrich Von Huth, Who was an artillery commander under Frederick the Great, made reforms that braced Denmark’s armed forces for the trials to come and indeed were the bedrock of their effectiveness up to 1850. His innovative use of all available European improvements created a singular Danish model for the kingdom, which though unlikely to sweep away the other systems was more than suitable for the aggressive tactical doctrines that came to typify the kingdom.

A large national army, well equipped and trained with intelligent, well educated, if not brilliant officers emerged where they could, as an unusually aggressive and capable army. Hordes of skirmishers advanced before the infantry battalions who moved in lines rather than columns, light artillery rushing forwards, impelled by the doctrine to get into action and aim well, as there was no shame in losing a gun that had been well served. Trotting behind came equally waspish squadrons of horse, who showed considerable dash and elan when called to drive off inumberble Cossack and irregular columns after Leipzig.

As a military force, in 1813, the Danish division impressed even the iron marshal Davout during the siege of Hamburg, the infantry and cavalry showing great potential, displaying a marked mastery of light infantry warfare and all arms cooperation with startlingly aggressive cavalry, as the Russians, Swedish and Prussians found out as the French allied forces retreated from Northern Germany in the winter of 1813. Some might have heard of the defeat at Copenhagen and Køge, but few will have heard of the Battles of Boden and Sehested where Prince Hessen’s men proved why Davout had bend moved to declare that ‘I march as happily with them as I would with any French veterans.’

These books bring home the fact that Europe was in the throes of another military revolution even before the Napoleonic Wars broke out, and it is fascinating to see how Denmark prepared for the tumult ahead, creating a progressive and modern army that made them, (or should have made them) an attractive ally for the enemies of Napoleon. I am sure these books will be the start of many people’s investigations into the Norse and Baltic theatres of the Napoleonic Wars.

Content wise books are startlingly through, covering organisation, equipment, tactics, rations, recruitment, colours, horse tack, service, weapons and a multitude of uniform details and variations for infantry, technical branches, artillery, staff and cavalry and their various evolutions between 1802-1814. Each is illustrated by the author, who works under the name Jackdaw, and offers incredibly detailed and indeed charming uniform plates that will be a great boon to modellers and reenactors.

Volume 1 gives a general introduction and then focuses on the staff and infantry. Volume 2 progresses to the Cavalry and Artillery and Volume 3 will cover the forces in Norway and the militia. These are large format softcovers, almost A5 in size and will probably be very handy for direct visual reference when painting the Perry Miniatures range.

The weaknesses of the series remain in the lack of foot or end notes, relying for reference on a through bibliography. There are a few tactical diagrams but the majority of the images are those created by the author and among the interesting appendixes can be found a list of images that can be looked up. A lack of index is perhaps also a little frustrating but as the books are well structured navigating them for reference isn’t a problem.

Works like this in English are to be applauded not just for the thoroughness, as for many the Baltic theatre of the war remains illusive due to the language barrier,  I eagerly look forward to the Norwegian and militia volume.

Thanks for reading!


2 Replies to “Book Review: The Danish Army of the Napoleonic Wars 1801-1814 by David Wilson.”

  1. Interesting how Tsar Nicholas II designed the uniforms for his army to match these ones of Napoleon’s. He was thinking of the past where the Danes (his home country) thought of the future. He didn’t want to turn Russia into Copenhagen

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