Attack and Line of Battle at Copenhagen
Born in 1765, Vice-Admiral Thomas Francis Fremantle joined the Royal Navy at the age of 11. Family influence and excellent seamanship ensured Fremantle’s commission as lieutenant in 1782. War with France and wartime promotion opportunity meant he was made Post-Captain in 1795. Quickly gaining a reputation for his intrepidity, Nelson noticed him while he was serving as captain in HMS Tartar at the siege of Bastia, the same action in which Nelson lost his eye. He requested Fremantle on deployment to the Mediterranean, during which time, an assault on the town of Santa Cruz de Tenerife saw both men receiving shot wounds in their right arm; Nelson’s arm was amputated, while Fremantle’s was saved. Sent home to recover, Fremantle’s new wife Betsey attended to them during the passage. Nelson wrote a note to her (also thought to be his first attempt to write left-handed) which simply read; ‘God Bless You and Fremantle’. It was no coincidence that Fremantle was also present at Copenhagen.
By 1801, war with France meant naval superiority was essential for Britain. A strict embargo on trade with her was sanctioned by the government and enforced by the Royal Navy. As a result, the Russian Tsar Paul revitalised an alliance called the League of Neutrality with Denmark-Norway-Sweden in an attempt to resist British interference with neutral merchant shipping. A fleet was assembled at Yarmouth under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, with Vice-Admiral Nelson as his second-in-command, both friends of Fremantle. William Drummond, Charge d’Affaires at Copenhagen attempted negotiations, however in a letter to his brother William dated 23rd March, 1801, Fremantle wrote, ‘The Danish Government would not even look at Mr. Drummond’s credentials…All is determined War and we are waiting for a change of Wind’
Nelson wrote to the Admiralty; ‘I am confirmed in opinion, that not a moment should be lost in attacking; they will every day and hour be stronger; we never shall be so good a match for them as at this moment,’ As a result, Parker’s fleet departed for Denmark before any attempt was made by Russia to reinforce her, and Nelson was given responsibility for planning an attack on Copenhagen.
The main attacking fleet was to bombard the city from the shallows of a sandbank known as Middle Ground. On the morning of 2nd April, Nelson had his plan of attack distributed to his commanders, and the fleet set about navigating the shallow waters to take up their positions opposite the Danish line. This document is believed to be Nelson’s plan as delivered on the morning of the battle, reproduced by Fremantle, with the addition of the three vessels which ran aground while taking up their positions (41-43). It explains the method of attack, and illustrates the positions of the Danish ships and batteries (1 to 24), the British line (26 to 37) and bomb ships (45). It confirms Nelson’s regard for Fremantle, insofar as Nelson’s ship HMS Elephant and Fremantle’s ship HMS Ganges (numbers 30 and 31 respectively) were placed beside one another at the centre of the line.
Unable to reinforce the attacking fleet or get within range to support the line, Parker sent Nelson the signal to withdraw since the situation looked desperate. Reported to have said, ‘If he is in a condition to continue the action successfully, he will disregard it; if he is not, it will be an excuse for his retreat and no blame can be imputed to him,’ Parker knew his man well. Nelson saw the signal, but then turned to his flag captain, and said ‘You know, Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes’. He then put his telescope to his blind eye, and said ‘I really do not see the Signal!’ He continued with the attack as Parker knew he would, and eventually negotiated a ceasefire and amnesty under which Denmark temporarily withdrew from the League.