There followed a grim affair that showed Britain at her most ruthless. Copenhagen was largely built of wood and the combination of red-hot shot and the use of the newly invented Congreve rocket soon turned the city into an inferno. Firing began on the evening of 2 September, and five days later the exhausted Danes surrendered. At least 2,000 civilians were dead, but the British had secured their immediate objective: for the loss of a mere 250 men, the entire Danish fleet had been neutralized - fifteen battleships and a number of smaller vessels were got away to England, while several other ships were torched in their docks. Also taken was a considerable quantity of naval stores.
On the one hand, Napoleon stood supreme on land. By common consent, the army he led at this point was the very best and most effective that France ever fielded in the whole period from 1792 till 1815. The European powers had one by one been humbled and forced either to beg for mercy or to curry friendship. By means of the Continental Blockade, the emperor could hope at the very least to inflict substantial damage on Britain and even to force her to make peace. And yet on the other, London remained absolutely unbowed. Not only had the ineffectual ‘Ministry of all the Talents’ been replaced by the Portland administration, but by June 1807 the latter was showing signs of putting up a real fight. In an important but unsung step, the Cabinet raised the rates payable to the owners of vessels hired as military transports, and in this fashion raised the tonnage available to the government in this area from 115,000 tons to 168,000 in a mere four months. The regular army was swelled by the recruitment of 25,000 volunteers from the militia, whose ranks were then made up by the authorization of fresh ballots. The first division of what was intended to be an army of 34,000 men was dispatched to the Swedish enclave of Stralsund; and Prussia and Sweden were all promised substantial financial support. On 27 June the new Foreign Secretary, George Canning, and the Prussian ambassador to London signed an agreement which promised the latter’s government £1 million in payments spread over a period of one year if it would in exchange put every man that it could into the field against the French; equally, Sweden got a promise of £ 50,000 per annum. Already in receipt of a British subsidy that had been agreed in 1805, Russia got considerable quantities of arms as an extra as well as an ambassador who was a popular figure in the Russian capital and had much experience there. And finally, a new envoy was also dispatched to Vienna with a clear promise that a declaration of war would lead to substantial British support.
If any further proof of the Portland administration’s commitment to the struggle is needed, it may be found in the Danish affair of July- September 1807. It was learned in London that a large French army was massing on the borders of Holstein with a view to marching on Copenhagen and forcing the Danes either to join Napoleon or to surrender their fleet. Whichever turned out to be the case, the end result was the same in that French seapower would be swelled by the addition of twenty or more warships. Also likely to suffer were Britain’s communications with the Baltic and with them her chief source of naval supplies. This being something that London could hardly view with equanimity, it was therefore immediately resolved that a British fleet should sail to Denmark. With them went 18,000 men while orders were sent to the 12,000 men that had already gone to Stralsund to join them immediately. On 30 July the first British ships anchored off Copenhagen, and a British envoy went ashore with promises of an alliance if the Danes would only surrender their ships to Britain’s protection. An alliance, however, was meaningless, and the Danes knew it: even 30,000 British troops were hardly likely to be able to save Denmark from invasion and conquest, while just a day after the British had arrived a message had been received from Napoleon that left the Danish government in no doubt that they must join him or face war. With the frontier only a few days’ march away, the future Frederick VI - he was at this point only Prince Regent - decided to try to make a fight of it until such time as the French sent help, and therefore defied the British.
Given this answer, there was nothing for it but to open hostilities. Invading Zealand, the British blockaded Copenhagen and on 29 August routed a relief column at Kioge, an action notable chiefly for being Sir Arthur Wellesley’s first taste of action since his return from India. But time was pressing, and the defenders of the Danish capital showed no signs of cracking. Determined to secure the Danish fleet, the British therefore resolved to bombard them into surrender. There followed a grim affair that showed Britain at her most ruthless. Copenhagen was largely built of wood and the combination of red-hot shot and the use of the newly invented Congreve rocket soon turned the city into an inferno. Firing began on the evening of 2 September, and five days later the exhausted Danes surrendered. At least 2,000 civilians were dead, but the British had secured their immediate objective: for the loss of a mere 250 men, the entire Danish fleet had been neutralized - fifteen battleships and a number of smaller vessels were got away to England, while several other ships were torched in their docks. Also taken was a considerable quantity of naval stores. This, of course, meant the end of Danish naval power: in theory, the ships concerned were supposed to be returned to Copenhagen with the coming of peace, but few survived the war and the money and resources that might have formed the basis for the construction of a new fleet were lacking. As for the Baltic, it was now brought firmly under British control in naval terms: after this second Danish tour de force on the part of the Royal Navy, there was no appetite to take it on in the messrooms of its Russian counterpart, and no way that Napoleon could mount a direct challenge to its ships himself.
But Copenhagen also came at a terrible price. In the first place, the ruthless treatment of the Danes did not sit very comfortably alongside some of the loftier flights of British rhetoric and, in fairness, prompted much disquiet at home, while at the same time handing Napoleon a wonderful propaganda weapon. ‘We shall,’ as General Paget wrote, ‘henceforth be dubbed the nation of Saracens instead of the nation of shopkeepers.’ Given that in the end Britain could only hope to defeat Napoleon through the formation of a powerful continental coalition, this was most unfortunate, and all the more so as unfavourable contrasts could always be drawn between the alacrity with which Britain had suddenly found plenty of men and ships to intervene in Denmark and the way in which she had dragged her feet on other occasions. And, finally, even in the short term the expedition had not achieved all its goals. The Danish fleet was safe, certainly, but Copenhagen had also been Canning’s response to the Franco-Russian accord that had been agreed at Tilsit. We should remember that at this point it was not known for certain in London whether this was a simple peace settlement or an alliance. In the first place, then, we see a veiled threat: what could be done at Copenhagen could also be done - the Russians might infer - at St Petersburg. But it was accepted that Alexander might simply have been coerced into surrender by Napoleon. By establishing a base in Zealand - as the British troops did not sail away with the Danish navy Canning therefore hoped to persuade the tsar to rejoin the fight and even send troops to Denmark himself. But in all this, Canning had badly misjudged the situation.
Alexander had always seen himself as the champion of the smaller states of central Europe, and in any case had no desire to risk another Friedland. Meanwhile, he had also just acquired a new foreign minister in the person of Count Nicolai Rumiantsev, who was the son of one of the greatest heroes of Catherine the Great’s wars against the Turks and as such convinced that Russia should not be fighting Napoleon but rather marching on Constantinople. Bitterly anti-British, indeed, he had been a fierce opponent of the Third Coalition. In short, all Canning had achieved had been to drive Russia even deeper into Napoleon’s arms.