Have you heard of ‘The Dannevirke’?
“1864” by Tom Buk-Swienty is the true tale of a little-known chapter in European history, the brief and bitter war between Prussia and Denmark in the winter and spring of 1864. This brutal war had its roots in the disputed duchies of Schleswig/Holstein, which lay between Denmark and Germany. Lord Palmerston, the British PM at the time of the war, later said; “Only three people…have ever really understood the Schleswig–Holstein business: the Prince Consort of Augustenborg, who is dead, a German professor, who has gone mad, and I, who have forgotten all about it.” However, the details of this complex affair are lucidly explained by Buk–Swienty.
The war was partially driven by the ferocious ambition of Otto Von Bismarck, who very often rejected political and diplomatic solutions. Bismarck summed up his bellicose attitudes most famously in 1886; “…these matters…can only be carried through with blood and iron.” As is so often the case, the war was made truly terrible for the troops by mulish, incompetent and downright treacherous politicians who interfered with senior commanders without any regard for the lives of soldiers.
The Prussian–Danish war of 1864 featured trench warfare, terrible bombardments, and suicidal mass frontal assaults against entrenched forces. In this regard, it was a precursor to the 1914–1918 conflagration.
Looming large in 1864 is the ancient Danish bulwark against the Germans, Thyra’s Fortress, more generally known as ‘The Dannevirke’. The Dannevirke features strongly in this story; in 1864, it was the Danes’ principal static defence against the vastly superior invading Prussian/Austrian armies.
We meet Christian de Meza, the elderly and eccentric Danish commander who dreaded cold air (a strange idiosyncrasy for a soldier campaigning in the depths of winter). His (shared) decision to abandon The Dannevirke was greeted with outrage by Danes and ended his career, but ultimately saved the Danish army from complete annihilation.
Meet Ditlev Gothard Monrad, Prime Minister of Denmark. He was one of those who strongly insisted on the withdrawal from The Dannevirke. When he got back to Copenhagen a few days later, however, he found the city in a state of near riot. The citizens were outraged at the “cowards and traitors” who had sold out their brave soldiers, ordering them to abandon the great symbol of Danish sovereignty.
Monrad immediately denied having anything to do with the withdrawal. The author theorises that Monrad was bipolar, and his extraordinary incompetence at the subsequent peace talks in London would seem to confirm this. Monrad was so mortified by his failures that he emigrated to New Zealand with his family. He returned to Denmark after five years and attempted to re-enter politics, but failed.
Meet, also, a large cast of officers and ordinary soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Buk–Swienty has meticulously researched his subject, and brings the events of 1864 to extraordinary life, using actual letters the soldiers wrote to their wives, families and sweethearts. Many of these make moving, and occasionally horrifying reading. The war came to a head at the bloody Battle of Dybbøl – the greatly outnumbered Danes put up a brave fight, but lost the battle and ultimately, the war.
Not only does Buk–Swienty clearly explain the complex political causes of this little-known conflict, he explains coherently how the Prussian–Danish War of 1864 contributed to the shaping of the geo-political causes of WWI.
An excellent, enthralling and informative book, highly recommended.
Reviewed by Keith Smith