|The War between Norway and Sweden 1808
by Kai Isaksen
Note: This article deals with the military campaign and land battles in the war of 1808. It does not deal in detail with the political background to the war nor does it cover the naval engagements or the Danish front. The main aim is to give an overview of the main battles and skirmishes on the Norwegian front as well as offer some analysis on the strength and tactics of the two armies involved.
Some initial comments
The war and battles described in this article are on a very small scale compared to the major battles that raged in Europe around the same time. In general the battles included from a few hundred up to 2-3000 men, and generally lasted a few hours. The area of operations was also relatively limited, stretching from the southern border between Norway and Sweden and north to the border town of Kongsvinger, a distance of some 150 km, in the counties of Hedmark (northern part of the battlefield) and Østfold (southern part).
The total forces employed on both sides totalled around 30 000 men, i.e. not much more than a couple of divisions on the continent. Also, both the terrain and the composition of the forces meant that these were largely infantry battles, with cavalry and artillery playing limited roles. The Norwegians employed a few dozen dragoons that would normally dismount to fight, whereas the Swedes did employ some Hussars with some success. The artillery employed was mainly small calibre guns, usually three pounders and one pound infantry cannon (amusettes).
Although the war was a small scale affair, it was serious enough for those involved, and for Norway it proved that Norwegian forces could hold their own against better trained and equipped Swedes – something that would motivate the Norwegians to rise again in the liberation war of 1814 against the same Swedes, and win the right to be an equal union partner with a separate constitution rather than a Swedish province as had been the intention of the Swedish King.
In 1808, war had been raging in Europe for over 10 years. Despite this, Norway was a peaceful province in the northern corner of Europe. From 1796, in what we call the Napoleonic Wars, gigantic battles had been fought in many places in Europe, and countries had been conquered and alliances forged, with the French Emperor Napoleon on one side, and the various European Kings and nobility on the other. The alliances kept changing, and the Kingdom of Denmark/Norway had walked a tight rope trying to stay out of the wars in Europe.
Napoleon had fought battles since 1796 when he beat a combined Austrian and Sardinian force in the battle of Montenotte in Italy, via the battle of Austerlitz (1805), Jena (1806) and others. He had even led the French army to Egypt and fought the mamelukes in the Battle of the Pyramids, but was later beaten by the English in the Battle of Abukir Bay in 1798. In addition to being forced to leaving a large army in Africa, he lost almost his entire fleet.
Napoleon bounced back – raised new armies and conquered almost the entire Europe in a few years. After the peace at Tilsit in 1807, where Russia signed a peace agreement with France, only England and Sweden remained enemies of Napoleon. This put Denmark/Norway in a difficult position; if they chose to support England; French troops would march into Denmark. If they chose to support Napoleon, the English navy would blockade the ports of Denmark/Norway. England was a very important trade partner for Norway at the time, and the English put considerable pressure on the Danish king to become an ally of England. When the king hesitated, the English took matters into their own hands by the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 and the great fleet robbery, where most of the Danish/Norwegian fleet was captured and brought to England. This was not the first time the English had attacked Copenhagen; the first attack occurred in 1801, when the fleet was bombarded outside Copenhagen until it was largely just driftwood left of the Danish/Norwegian fleet.
War comes to Scandinavia
In early 1808, Russia attacked Finland, which at the time was a Swedish province. Russia was allied with France, and as a result of the Danish/Norwegian alliance with France, they had to declare war on Sweden. This happened March 14th, 1808.
Sweden was at the time an experienced war power, not the largest in Europe, but had been a leading European warrior nation for several hundred years, and had a reputation for having good soldiers. They had been beaten by Napoleon after the battle of Jena, but the main part of the Swedish army managed to return relatively undamaged to Sweden. When the state of war between Sweden and Denmark/Norway took effect, both parties started to prepare for war. In Denmark, a French army, led by the future Swedish king, Marshall Bernadotte, was ready to invade Sweden from the south. Outside the coast of Norway, English frigates and ships-of-the-line kept up a naval blockade to stop all supplies from reaching the country. This, together with failed crop harvests, led to starvation in the Norwegian population. It is interesting to note that the English allowed Norwegian merchant ships carrying wood to Britain to pass, but these were stopped on the return from England and any food was confiscated.
In Norway, the commanding general, prince Kristian August mobilized the Norwegian armed forces during the autumn of 1807, to prepare for the expected Swedish invasion. His formal role was commanding general of the southern military district (Søndenfjeldske), but had the authority to requisition forces also from the northern (Nordenfjeldske) and western (Vestenfjeldske) military districts, which he decided to do.
Sweden had been attacked by Russia in Finland, and consequently was prevented from concentrating all their forces against Norway. But even if Swedish focus was largely on Finland, there was a state of war between the two countries, and neither side could be quite certain as to what the other side would do.
Mobilising the forces
The original plan was that the Norwegian army would attack into Sweden to support the Russian forces in Finland, but the state of the Norwegian forces was nowhere near the level where offensive operations against a well-trained enemy could be considered. It seemed clear that any military action the Norwegians would undertake would have to be defensive in nature. It was thus up to the Swedes to take the initiative, and in general the Swedish military doctrine at the time was more offensive in nature than that of the Norwegians.
The Swedish King had ordered the Western Army to attack into Norway at several places to disperse the Norwegian forces and advance towards the Norwegian capital – Christiania (Oslo) – to besiege the city and demand force the Norwegians to surrender. The attack would be split into two main wings, one in the south from Bohuslän past the Norwegian fortresses at Fredriksten (modern day Halden), and one further north past the Norwegian fortress town of Kongsvinger.
The Swedish Western Army
The Swedish Western Army was not the best army the Swedes had (the best forces were already fighting in Finland) but was mobilized and brought up to a state of readiness for offensive operations against Norway. In total it consisted of roughly 17 500 men and consisted of:
The right wing (Gen. Armfeldt, Swedish commanding general) roughly 12 000 men in total with the main combat elements being;
• Col. Gahn’s “Flying Corps” of 650 men
• Col. Lejonstedt’s 1st Brigade of 1650 men
• Col. Schwerig’s 2nd Brigade of 2500 men
• Col. Cederström’s 3rd Brigade of 1750 men
• Col. Cronstedt’s 4th Brigade of 1700 men
The left wing (Gen.Maj. Vegelsack) roughly 5 500 men in total with the main combat elements being:
• 1 brigade of 1500 men in Strömstad
• 1 brigade of 1750 men in Töftedal
• 1 brigade of 1750 men of in Gothenburg
The Norwegian Army
The mobilized Norwegian army consisted of a total of 25 000 men, plus 10 000 men organized in coastal defence forces to defend against any attacks from English forces along the coast. However, due to the need to defend against possible Swedish attacks against Trondheim and further north, the forces available to Prince Kristian August to face the Swedish Western Army totalled around 15 000 men, of which 5 000 were garrisoning the forts along the border. The general state of the Norwegian forces was bad, and there was a lack of most equipment, including uniforms, bullets, gunpowder, food and horses.
In March 1808, the Norwegian forces in the area consisted of:
• Col. Holst’s Right Wing Brigade with 3400 men (located at Svinesund to defend against the left wing of the Swedish forces)
• Col. de Seue’s Centre Brigade of 1900 men (located south of Kongsvinger)
• Col. Staffeldt’s Left Wing Brigade of 2 000 men (located between Kongsvinger and Elverum)
• Col. Lowzow’s 1st Reserve Brigade of 1 000 men (located around Fetsund)
• Col. Ohme’s 2nd Reserve Brigade of 650 men (located by lake Øyer)
In addition, Christian August had placed further north to defend against Swedish attacks south of Trondheim:
• Col. Bang’s Brigade of 2100 men at Røros
• Col. Schmettau’s Brigade of 1200 men in Inherrad
Garrison units in March 1808 included:
• 1250 men at Fredriksten fortress (modern day Halden)
• 2350 men at Fredrikstad
• 1000 men at Kongsvinger fortress
• 800 men at Akershus fortress (Oslo)
Norwegian units included ski mobile troops;
Military operations in 1808
Towards the end of March 1808, the Swedes began conducting combat patrols across the border. Norwegian and Swedish forces often met on patrols in the forests, and small meeting engagements would take place. Despite the seriousness of the situation, the general attitude between the troops was still quite friendly though, and sometimes troops from either side would share meals and liqueur before continuing their patrols in opposite directions. Sometimes prisoners were taken in these small meeting engagements, but as neither side was quite sure what to do with them, they were usually disarmed and sent back home.
However, this general level of calm was about to end.
April 1808 would turn out to be the most important month for the fighting in the border area between Sweden and Norway. On April 1st, a small Swedish force of 235 men under Major Gyllenskrepp probed across the border close to Røros, in the northern end of the theatre of operations, At Brekkene they met a small Norwegian detachment of 40 soldiers, and shots were fired. The Swedes retreated and started plundering the border areas, burning farms along the way, generally trying to cause as much havoc as possible to scare the Norwegians into believing the force was much bigger than it really was. A Norwegian battalion of 600 men, commanded by Major Sommerschild, attacked and forced the Swedes across the border again. After this the Swedes pulled back into Sweden, but the Norwegians had become nervous that the Swedes would attack in force in this area, so Col. Bang’s brigade was left at Røros all spring without ever seeing the Swedes again.
On the April 8th, Norwegian forces – 558 soldiers – got their revenge when they attacked into Sweden and burnt and plundered the Royal farms at Ljusnedal.
The Main Front
The area around the village and river Flisa, north of Kongsvinger, constituted the left wing of the Norwegian forces. Commanded by Col. Staffeldt, the brigade consisted of
• one grenadier battalion from Trondheim,
• one sharpshooter division* (about company size) from Trondheim
• one ski battalion (Søndefjeldske skiløberbattalion)
• one light infantry company (Lærdalske)
• about 50 dragoons, the sole Norwegian cavalry force in the area
The orders of the brigade were to stop any Swedish attack into the area. Should the Swedes be able to break through here, they would have access to the Glomma valley and could then threaten the important Kongsvinger area (with its main fortress) from the north.
On the other side of the border, the Swedes had Col. Gahn with his “Flying Corps”, designed to be a swift attack force to push through the Norwegian lines.
At this time of year, the area was still covered in snow, and the Swedes lacked the ski mobile units of the Norwegians. Much like the Soviets in Finland in 1939, the Swedes were therefore road bound, and had to march into Norway along the main roads.
The battle of Skaltebukilen farm April 13th 1808
On April 13th, a Swedish force of 180 soldiers was probing along the road over Rønnesæter. The force consisted of 100 light infantry (Jaeger) and 80 regular infantrymen (line). The objective was to reach the small village of Nyen, and scout the Norwegian forces in the area.
At Rønnesæter the Swedes ran into a forward guard detachment, and after a short firefight, the Norwegians pulled back according to their instructions to guard and report on Swedish movements. The Swedes then left a detachment of 30 men to guard Rønnesæter and their retreat road to Sweden, and proceeded along the road towards Nyen.
When they passed Skaltebukilen farm, the Norwegian forces began to become so strong that the Swedes were starting to have problems to proceed further. The Norwegian tactics were based on pulling the Swedes further into the country and set a trap by gradually committing larger forces to the battle. The Swedish commander decided to pull back to Skaltebukilen farm and prepare defensive positions. The Norwegian forces in the area were two ski companies (Elverumske and Hoffske) as well as the sharpshooters. They now advanced with the ski troops in the forest beside the road.
The farm itself consisted of a small farm house and a smaller food storage house (stabbur) behind the main farm house. The Swedes prepared defensive positions in the houses, made holes in the walls to be able to shoot out and placed sharpshooters on the roofs. The soldiers that could not fit into the houses were placed in defensive positions on a small hill behind the houses. A fire fight started between the forces, with very little effect – the Swedes were too well protected by the thick lumber of the walls of the houses, and the distance was just too great to cause major harm (one should remember that the firearms at the time were effective at only 50-60 metres in open terrain). The situation had become locked, with the Swedes unable to escape, and the Norwegians unable to dislodge the Swedes from their position. The Norwegian commander, Col. Staffeldt, decided to bring in reinforcements, and a division of grenadiers under Capt. Knoff and a detachment of infantry under Capt. Dreyer were sent to the area. Staffeldt had ordered Capt. Knoff to charge with bayonets as soon as he reached Skaltebukilen, which Knoff in turn had promised to do. However, this turned out to be near impossible, as there was a large fence blocking the way, as well as large amounts of snow still in the fields. Knoff dutifully made an attempt, as promised, but was easily beaten back by concentrated Swedish musket fire.
While Knoff and his officers were discussing the next steps, having realised that the situation was pretty much a stalemate, a staff officer from Col. Staffeldt’s brigade came along and demanded an explanation for why the bayonet charge had not been conducted. Capt. Knoff explained the situation, without receiving much understanding from his senior officers.
At the same time, one of the ski companies (Elverumske) was attempting to get around the Swedes through the forest. When the Swedes discovered Norwegian ski troops on their flank, they abandoned the farm and retreated to some houses further east – afraid to be completely surrounded and forced to surrender. The Norwegians moved into the houses at Skaltebukilen farm, and for 40 minutes the two sides exchanged fire, before the Swedes finally pulled back and retreated to Sweden, having escaped the Norwegian attempt to surround them.
The battle (or rather skirmish) at Skaltebukilen farm was not a big one compared to European standards at the time, but it was the first major engagement in the war, and had given both sides a taste of what was to come. It is estimated that the Swedes lost 2 killed and 18 wounded, whereas the Norwegians had about equal losses of 2 killed and 14 wounded.
The most important effect of the battle was that the Norwegian forces had managed well, and had shown that they could fight well against the better trained Swedish forces – although it should be remembered that they outnumbered the Swedes by 4 to 1 in this battle. Also, the guard units had followed the rules of engagement and in general the entire battle had been a positive experience for the Norwegians.
The battle of Lier April 18th 1808
The next major fight took place south of Kongsvinger only a few days later. On April 15th, the Swedish 1st Brigade crossed the border south of Kongsvinger and marched towards the fortress town. The force totalled about 1000 men, and facing them were about 1000 men from Col. de Seue’s Centre brigade.
The Norwegian forces consisted mainly of light infantry from the Norwegian Light Infantry Battalion and a few grenadiers from Trondheim, but also had some artillery support in the form of four 3-pound guns, and four 1-pound infantry guns (amusett).
As in the previous battle, the Swedish forces were screened by Norwegian guard detachments, slowly pulling back before the advancing Swedes. The aim was to pull the Swedish forces into the prepared positions at Lier, about 5 km south of Kongsvinger, where most of de Seue’s brigade was waiting.
The Lier position was about 950 metres wide and had a forward redoubt about 50 metres in front of the main line, to break up any attacking formations. The left side of the position was anchored on a steep hill slope towards Lake Tarven, and the right flank faced open ground in front of Lake Fusker. This right side was the weak point of the position – if the enemy would manage to advance through the opening between the prepared positions and the lake, they could enter a hill behind the positions and gain the advantage of higher ground. In front of the position there were large open fields that had been prepared to give good fields of fire, and in general it gave the defenders a very good overview of any attacking forces.
The commander of the Lier position was Major Kreutz, and he had about 900 men in position on the morning of April 18th. About half of these were militia (landvern), i.e. untrained boys and men not yet enrolled in the Army, and consequently of little military value in battle. He spread out his forces the best he could, but as the reserves were placed at Kongsvinger, 5 km away, he had no immediate reserves in the Lier position. This was due to the fact that Col. de Seue was not sure if this was the main Swedish attack, or whether they would also attack directly across the border towards Kongsvinger.
When the Swedes had advanced as far as the Lier redoubt, they stopped to regroup and prepare. At 9a.m. on April 18th, they launched their attack, spearheaded by Capt. Matern, who attacked the right side of the Lier position with his infantry company. He was easily beaten back by the defenders in the prepared positions. However, as he had attacked too early, he was ordered to wait in a forest, out of sight of the Norwegian forces, in order to rejoin the attack in coordination with the other wings. The Norwegian defenders, on their hand, thought the Swedish company had been defeated and had pulled out of the battle altogether.
The rest of the Swedish forces waited for word from a force led by Major Cederström (not to be confused with Col. Cederström, commander of the 3rd Brigade), which had moved across the ice at Lake Vinger to be able to attack the position at Lier from the back. While they waited, the Swedish commanding General, Gustav Mauritz Armfeldt, arrived on the scene to take command of operations. When word arrived from Major Cederström that the ice on the lake was not safe to cross, Armfeldt decided to change plans and ordered Major Cederström to walk around the lake to attack the position from the south, while the remaining forces would launch a frontal attack on the prepared positions.
Early in the afternoon the Swedes started an artillery bombardment of the Norwegian positions, with relatively little effect, and then they launched several frontal attacks, but were beaten back by heavy Norwegian fire. Gen. Armfeldt ordered a general retreat, but luckily for the Swedes, the order was not put into effect.
Major Cederström had now moved around the positions and upon being observed by the Norwegians, Col. Kreutz ordered parts of the company of Capt. Sadolin to reinforce the defence on the left flank where Cederström had been seen. Unfortunately, the order was misunderstood by Capt. Sadolin, who took his entire company to the left flank, thereby emptying the entire right flank of the Norwegian position. This allowed the Swedish company led by Capt. Matern, to move onto the high ground behind the Norwegian positions and fire down on them. Capt. Sadolin, perhaps realising his mistake, decided to break out of the prepared positions and charged the Swedish forces, only to be met by strong Swedish fire and getting stuck on the bank of a small river – with the result that 30% of the company was lost.
The situation had now become critical for the Norwegians. The right wing was lost, there was a lack of ammunition, and a large part of the trained soldiers had been lost in the charge. The Swedes noticed that the Norwegians were hesitating, and launched a full frontal attack on the remaining positions, capturing the forward redoubt, and eventually the whole position disintegrated. Major Kreutz ordered a general retreat.
The Norwegians had been soundly defeated, and 54 Norwegians had been killed, as well as well over 100 wounded and another 100 taken prisoner in the forward redoubt. The Swedes had lost only 5 killed and 83 wounded most of these lightly. The Norwegians did manage to save most of the cannon, at the time regarded as very important in terms of honours of war.
The loss of the prepared positions at Lier was a major blow for the Norwegian forces, and Prince Kristian August was so shaken that he relieved Col. de Seue of command as a result of his failure to stop the Swedish advance.
The Swedes stayed in the position until the end of May, and then pulled back due to events further south, to the great surprise of the Norwegians who could not keep up with them.
The battles of Rakkestad farms and Toverud farm (19th-20th April)
The Norwegians were not allowed to rest for long, and the next day the next battle occurred. The two battles (or again, skirmishes) of Rakkestad farms and Toverud farm were, at the outset, quite similar, but the outcome of them was completely different.
On April 15th, the Swedish 3rd Brigade moved across the border close to Ørje, and moved west into Norway towards Høland. The Swedish 2nd Brigade moved into Norway on the 14th, and captured Haneborg on the 16th, and started to move south to link up with the 3rd Brigade.
Norwegian forces, in the form of two light infantry companies, screened the Swedish advance, and pulled back to report. In response, the Norwegian commanding General, Prince Kristian August, ordered Col. Holst’s Brigade, with almost 2200 men, to move north to stop the Swedish advance. His forces included three battalions of infantry, a battalion of light infantry, as well as the mounted artillery regiment.
Orders were given to place forces in prepared positions at the Rakkestad farms to block the retreat road for the Swedes. Capt. Heyerdahl took two companies of infantry and moved to secure the Rakkestad farms. He reached the farms in the afternoon of the 19th, and positioned his grenadiers facing south, and the light infantry facing east towards Haneborg where Swedish forces had been reported.
Just south of the farms, a force of about 250 Swedish light infantry and a few hussars were scouting and when they saw the Norwegian forces, they needed to get back to the main Swedish forces to report. Due to the heavy snow in the area, the only open road passed through the Norwegian positions, so the Swedes were forced to push through the Norwegian lines to get to their main forces. The Swedes gathered behind the Hussars, and charged the Norwegian positions. The relatively inexperienced Norwegian soldiers fired their muskets too early and missed the opportunity to concentrate their fire on the Swedish charge. When the Swedes were a mere 30 metres away (and when the Norwegian lines should have fired), the Norwegian soldiers panicked at the sight of the charging Hussars, and the Swedes broke through the Norwegian lines. They continued straight through the farms and got away and met up with the main Swedish forces further east. The skirmish had shown to the Norwegians the importance of keeping a firing line and keeping a cool head and not fire until the enemy was close. The Norwegians had missed a perfect opportunity to defeat a Swedish cavalry detachment.
Further north, a similar episode would occur only hours later, and this time the Norwegians proved capable of holding a line.
Major Weiby took 5 companies and 50 dragoons and moved in direction of Blaker to search for a suitable place to stop the Swedish advance. He found it at Toverud farm, and started to prepare defensive positions. He spread out his forces facing south and east, and kept a sizeable reserve of grenadiers and sharpshooters to plug any gaps that would open in his lines. All in all his forces were larger than those at Rakkestad, and also he had a few more hours to prepare for battle – which would prove important in the coming hours.
A Swedish force commanded by Lt.Col. Mörner had moved as far as Blaker before they realized they had been cut off from the main forces further east. They started to retreat, but now faced the same problem as the Swedes further south – they had to fight their way through the Norwegian forces at Toverud.
At midnight on April 20th, the Swedes decided to attempt to force their way through, and using the standard attack formation, they attack with the Hussars in front.
Major Weiby on the Norwegian side managed to keep his units organised and the soldiers were well-disciplined and calm. They held their fire until the Swedes were only 20-30 metres away, and the effect is devastating; the Swedes attempted several attacks and were beaten back every time by timely and disciplined Norwegian fire. Lt.Col. Mörner realised that he could not break through, and surrendered his entire detachment – a crushing victory for the Norwegians, and a timely one at that; the Norwegians had started to fear that the entire front would crumble and desperately needed a win to re-establish faith in the war effort.
The Swedes suffered heavy losses at Toverud, although the exact numbers are not known. Some reports say up to 50 killed and about the same number wounded. On the Norwegian side no soldiers were reported killed, and only a handful had suffered minor injuries.
The Norwegians had learnt that the effect of a well-disciplined firing line was devastating if they could maintain their cool and only fire when the Swedes were close. The lessons would be used well in the coming battles.
The battle of Lund April 20th 1808
The Swedes still had their main forces in the area and the Swedish 3rd Brigade had largely been unopposed so far. It had advanced well into Norwegian territory and spread out in several detachments to cover a large area. Needless to say, Prince Kristian August was worried about the situation (this was before the victory at Toverud) and was trying to decide what to do. Ideally he wanted to take his entire force, and move down along the lakes to meet the Swedes in an open battle. However, the situation around Kongsvinger was still undecided, so he could not move forces from that area. He therefore moved his reserves to Blaker, and sent Capt. Zarbell to Lund with a company of sharpshooters to guard his flank. He was backed by Capt. Heyerdahl and his company, which took up positions at Blaker church. All in all, there were two Norwegian companies facing en entire Swedish brigade. Upon realising this, Capt. Heyerdahl retreated, but Capt. Zarbell moved into his assigned position at Lund only to find it already occupied by a company of Swedish light infantry, commanded by Capt. Andersson.
Capt. Zarbell immediately attacked, and drove off the Swedes, and occupied the position at Lund, preparing for a counterattack from the Swedes.
The Swedes brought up another reserve company and attacked Lund in force, but were beaten back by well aimed fire from the sharpshooters. Towards the end of the day the Swedes gave up and retreated, taking with them 23 killed and about the same number of wounded – a large casualty rate for a force of about 100 men that had attacked. The Norwegians lost no killed but had a handful of wounded.
The victories at Toverud and Lund had largely stabilized the front for the Norwegians and for the Swedes the situation was becoming more desperate. They had been expected to fight their way through to Christiania in two weeks, and were still bogged down only a few kilometres from the border.
Attention would now switch back to the north of Kongsvinger, where the deciding battles of the war would take place.
The battle of Trangen April 25th 1808
After the fall of the Lier position, the situation for the fortress at Kongsvinger was becoming desperate. Swedish forces threatened from the south, but the defeat at Lund had stopped the Swedes for now.
The biggest threat now would be if the Swedes were to attack from the north and move around the Norwegian forces and attack the fortress in a pincer movement. It therefore became paramount to prevent the Swedes from moving past Flisa in the north.
Col. Staffeldt ordered all available forces to move north to the area of Åsnes, as it was assumed the Swedes would attack through that area.
The Norwegians started defensive preparations the best they could. The ice on River Flisa was broken up, and at the narrow Trangen pass, defensive positions were prepared by cutting down trees to create wooden blocking positions.
On the Swedish side of the border, the “Flying Corps” commanded by Col. Gahn had around 600 well trained soldiers ready to invade Norway. Gahn was ordered to break through the Norwegian positions, advance to River Flisa, move on to River Glomma, and finally advance on Kongsvinger to support the Swedish forces south of the fortress town.
In the evening of April 24th the Swedish forces started to cross the border, with the aim of moving as far as possible into Norway during the night, and thereby surprise the Norwegians in the morning. Col. Gahn chose to cross Lake Vemund and follow a small road on the southern side of River Flisa, a road not very well suited for military movements, and was really nothing more than a small path used by farmers to move their herds of sheep and cows.
Shortly after crossing the border, the Swedes were spotted by Norwegian field guard units, stationed at Uteneset. Norwegian forces continued to screen the Swedes while they retreated to Nyen on the northern side of the river, keeping a watchful eye on the Swedish advance on the southern side. In the same way as at Skaltebukilen farm a few days earlier, a short fire fight developed between the forces, and the Norwegians sent word back to Col. Staffeldt of the Swedish movements. The Norwegians were ordered to move back in good order.
Col. Staffeldt now knew a considerable Swedish force was in the area, and started to make the necessary preparations. He ordered two grenadier divisions, commanded by Capt Nægler, to man the wooden blocking positions at Trangen pass. The rest of the main force would move forward and occupy Nyen, from where they could see and engage the Swedish forces. The Swedes, meanwhile, continued to move along the narrow road, meeting little opposition from Norwegian forces. The Swedes moved further and further into the trap set by Col. Staffeldt, and must have started to wonder why the Norwegian units did not engage them – they knew that they had been discovered.
Col. Staffeldt, after ensuring that there were no Swedish forces north of the river, ordered Major Ræder, head of the grenadier battalion to attack the Swedes from behind, and Major Ræder sent one company of ski troops (Elverumske) east along the northern side of the river to clear the area and prepare for an attack.
The other ski company (Hoffske) and the grenadiers attacked across the river from Nyen and were met by a Swedish detachment of 40 men at Gammelsæther. The two grenadier divisions attacked along the road and routed the Swedish unit, which was forced to pull back after the main Swedish forces, now closing up for the Trangen pass.
Minutes before, the main Swedish force had engaged the Norwegian grenadiers manning the defensive positions at Trangen pass. The Swedes had a considerable numerical advantage, and slowly the Norwegian forces were pushed back. After exchanging fire for close to an hour, Col. Gahn tried to send a force through the forest on the left to get around the positions in the Trangen pass. This force, led by Capt. Knorring, was met by Norwegian forces in the forest, and became separated from the main Swedish force.
Just as the Norwegian lines were about to collapse, the shooting from the fighting at Gammelsæther could be heard, and Col. Gahn realized his detachment there was under attack and that the Swedish force risked being surrounded. After some hesitation, he decided to turn around and try to break out towards Sweden – what looked like a Swedish success only minutes before had now turned into a desperate struggle to avoid being surrounded.
The main Swedish forces quickly ran into the forward units of Capt. Ræders grenadiers, moving forward after their rout of the Swedish advance guard, and the Swedish main force now decided to occupy defensive positions on a small hill (today called “Swedish hill”) with one company, and continue to move forward with their light infantry units. Just 250 metres further north, they were stopped by solid firing lines of Norwegian grenadiers. The Swedes tried to attack to break through, and almost managed to push the Norwegian lines back, when one of the main Norwegian military heroes of all time made an appearance;.
Capt. Nikolai Peder Dreyer climbed on to a tree stump and kept up a steady aimed fire at the Swedes, his men standing below handing him loaded muskets.
His actions revitalised the Norwegians, and the Swedes were pushed back.
Capt.Dreyer was hit by seven bullets before finally collapsing, but by that time the Swedes had been beaten back.
The Norwegian grenadiers at Trangen pass, which had almost been driven out of their positions, could now hear the battle raging 2 km further north, and leaving only a small force behind, Capt. Nægler ordered his main force to move towards the sound of the guns. Suddenly the Swedes were under fire from two sides.
Col. Gahn, at this stage, was crippled by an old injury and commanded his forces lying down on a sledge. The remaining Swedish forces were now gathered at the small hill, and preparing a desperate last bayonet charge to try to break out of the encirclement. Just when they had mounted the bayonets, the signal horn of the ski troops could be heard, and out of the forest behind the Swedes the Hoffske ski company, commanded by Capt. Arntzen, attacked the now exhausted remnants of the Swedish force.
The Norwegian forces now surrounding the Swedish forces were now completely in control, and the Swedes were forced to surrender their entire force, except the small detachment led by Capt. Knorring that had been sent through the forest, and had managed to escape back to Sweden.
The Battle of Trangen was a complete disaster for the Swedes and an important win for the Norwegians. The losses were listed as 27 dead and 54 wounded on the Swedish side, and 16 dead and 52 wounded on the Norwegian side. Several of the wounded on each side died in the following days, including Capt. Dreyer, who died 4 days later from the severe wounds he had suffered.
In addition 450 Swedish soldiers, and Col. Gahn had been taken prisoner, and the Norwegians had also captured large amounts of equipment and food from the Swedes.
The front line north of Kongsvinger was now stabilised, with all the Swedish forces destroyed, and the Norwegian forces were pulled back to Kongsvinger to support offensive operations to the south of the fortress town.
Due to the fact that the Swedish forces in this area had been living of the country, there was very little food in the area and the Norwegian forces would have to transport any food they needed with them. A general lack of horses and ammunition meant that the Norwegians expected to be able to fight for only another 5 days.
The battle of Ørje May 4th 1808
The Swedish 3rd Brigade had crossed into Norway in mid-April, and had occupied the border village of Ørje. On the eastern side of Lake Rødenes they had prepared good defensive positions.
The Norwegians now had a strong wish to drive the Swedish forces out of Norway in preparations for peace negotiations, as it started to be clear that neither side would be able to defeat the other (or in reality, that the Swedes could not defeat the Norwegians, anything else had never been a question).
Major Krebs was ordered to advance on the Swedish positions at Ørje, and was given command of:
• 3 light infantry companies
• 4 grenadier divisions
• One sharpshooter battalion
• 1 division of dragoons
In the evening of May 3rd, Capt. Zarbell was ordered to advance on the Oppsal farm where 150 Swedish light infantry had built strong defensive positions. The Norwegians moved around the farm, hoping not to be spotted. In the early morning of May 4th the Norwegian forces came into contact with the Swedes, and it was evident the Swedes knew they were coming. Capt. Zarbell immediately attacked with bayonets, but was beaten back by the Swedes in their strong defensive positions.
Shortly after, Col. Krebs showed up with the main forces, and the entire Norwegian brigade attacked, and after several attempts, the Swedes were pushed back. The final Norwegian attack, lead by Lt. Haxthausen, was so powerful that even the Swedish reserves in positions further back were driven out of their prepared defensive positions.
The Swedes now regrouped in new positions south of the River Oppdal. The new positions were reinforced by Swedish forces from nearby units and the Norwegians considered an attack across the river to be too costly.
However, one of the jaegers in the light infantry company, lived in the area, and showed his company commander a wading place across the river a bit further north, and here the Norwegians managed to wade across the river. In front of them they now had a steep slope, where the Swedes were entrenched on top – not an ideal position for a military force to be in. Major Krebs came running too look for the company, and was taken under heavy fire from the Swedish positions. In the typical manner of an officer of the day, he then shouted to the Swedes: “Do you really need that many to fire at one man?”, upon which the Swedes stopped firing, probably a bit ashamed of the entire affair.
The Norwegian company saw that their Major was under fire, and immediately attacked up the slope, and managed to push the Swedes back again. The retreating Swedes now chose the Jåvel farm as their new defensive position, but again were driven out by determined Norwegian bayonet charges. Again and again the Swedes were driven out of all new defensive positions they tried to establish, and it was not until Major Krebs stopped the attacks after over 6 hours of fighting, that the Swedes were allowed to stop and rest for the night.
The Norwegian forces had advanced so fast and far that they were now in danger of being surrounded by other Swedish units, and Major Krebs was therefore ordered to pull back to more defensive positions, which he did without alerting the Swedes.
In the following days the Norwegians attacked a couple of more times, and managed to drive all Swedish forces to the east side of the river, but after May 7th the front settled down and the Swedes were still in Norwegian territory, if only by a couple of kilometres.
The battle of Mobekk May 18th 1808
After the Swedes captured the redoubt at Lier in April, they had done a lot of work reinforcing and building new defensive positions in the area. They turned the original position around, facing north/west, and they built several new wooden blocking positions to prepare for what they expected would be a Norwegian counterattack. By this stage the Swedes had realised they were not going to capture Christiania, let alone defeat the Norwegian forces, and now it was all about keeping whatever terrain they could to secure a good negotiating position.
The Norwegians faced an uphill struggle to clear the area of Swedish forces. The plan was to attack on May 18th along three different axes, as well as a smaller attack to draw away Swedish forces to the west. The hope was that the Swedes would abandon the strong positions at Lier when faced with several Norwegian attacks.
An additional problem facing the Norwegians was that the spring thaw had started and the roads were turning into mud, making it difficult to bring forward artillery and supplies.
The first attacks started two hours late due to the delayed deployment of forces, which meant the attack happened exactly at the changing of guards in the Swedish positions – and hence there were twice as many soldiers as normal in the defensive positions. The Norwegian grenadiers attacked and cleared a couple of small farms on the left flank.
At the same time, a force led by Lt.Col Ræder, consisting of a grenadier division, one ski company and 100 sharpshooters, was to attack the Mobekk redoubt. This was a bit further east than the two other attacks and the plan was to move through the forest to the banks of Lake Diger, and then cross the river to attack the redoubt from behind. The problem is that the forces had relied on a local scout that turned out to be not very reliable, and instead led the Norwegian forces head on to the redoubt.
Although the general military theory at the time said that one should not attack a redoubt head on without artillery support, Ræder chose to regroup his forces for an attack.
The Norwegians then attacked head on with bayonets, but were driven back by heavy Swedish fire, despite getting reinforcements from another light infantry company.
Lt.Col. Ræder then tried to place his sharpshooters on the roofs of a nearby farm, but with ranges of over 100 metres, the fire had little effect on the Swedish positions.
In the next attack, the Norwegians tried to get around the left flank of the redoubt, but were stopped by the river, which at this time was running high because of the spring thaw, and the attack failed again. They regrouped, and tried again, this time on the right flank, but with no more success. After a fire fight between the forces, lasting close to an hour, the houses at the nearby farm were in flames, and the situation became untenable for the Norwegian forces. Lt.Col Ræder decided to retreat. The Swedes tried to mount a counter charge, but were beaten back by determined fire.
The end result was about 10 dead and 30 wounded on both sides, and the Swedes were still firmly in control of the area.
However, due to events further south where the Norwegians had gained control and problems supplying their troops, the Swedes were forced to abandon the area, and both the strong positions at Lier and Mobekk were deserted by the Swedes at the end of May.
Now the only Swedish forces on Norwegian territory were the remnants of the forces around Ørje in the south, and the Norwegians decided to make one last determined attempt to push them out before they would be forced to stop fighting because of lack of supplies and ammunition.
The battle of Prestebakken June 10th 1808
Originally the Norwegian forces had planned to attack towards the village of Ørje itself, but when the Swedes surprisingly abandoned this, only the small Swedish forces in the Enning valley remained to be defeated.
The attack started on June 10th and the attackers were divided into three forces;
• 230 infantry commanded by Capt. Huitfeldt to attack Prestebakken from the west.
• 540 infantry and light infantry led by Lt. Thambs to attack Prestebakken from the south and east.
• 100 men of mixed quality and type, led by Lt. Magnussen, transported in boats to Berby where they would land and attack to divert Swedish forces from Prestebakken.
The attack on Berby was successful and no Swedish reinforcements reached Prestebakken on that day.
The Norwegian forces closed in on Prestebakken during the early hours of June 10th. The Swedish sentries had no idea that the Norwegian forces were in the area. Suddenly the Norwegian forces appeared from 6 different places in a coordinated attack, and the Swedes were completely taken by surprise and driven out of their prepared positions.
The Swedes were now forced to retreat into the cemetery at Prestebakken where they tried to use the stone walls for defensive positions. The Norwegians attacked, and managed to split the Swedish forces, 150 Swedes escaped the cemetery but were stopped by a smaller Norwegian detachment blocking the road to Berby. The Swedes in the cemetery surrendered, and the end result was another disaster for the Swedes, much like Trangen had been a few weeks before.
The Norwegians lost 2 dead and had 10 wounded, whereas the Swedes had 60 dead, 34 wounded and in addition 361 men were captured, the bulk of remaining Swedish forces in Norway had been destroyed.
The battle of Berby June 12th 1808
Despite most Swedish forces now being destroyed, a small Swedish detachment remained active around Berby, and fuelled by the recent success at Prestebakken, the Norwegians wanted to destroy also the last Swedish forces before peace negotiations would start.
However, the Norwegians were surprised when the Swedes launched a surprise attack, although historians now tend to believe it was actually a Swedish reconnaissance mission rather than a planned attack that developed into this last battle of the war.
200 Norwegian soldiers led my Major Krebs had been stationed at Berby to guard against any Swedish attempts to bring in new forces. In addition, two small one pound infantry guns had been brought forward and were now in position to guard the road towards Sweden. At this stage, all roads between Norway and Sweden were covered and blocked by Norwegian forces, and it seemed unlikely that the Swedes would attempt to attack.
However, two large columns of Swedish forces moved north towards Berby, believed to be almost the complete 4th Brigade of 1300 soldiers (one column of 400 and one column of 900 men). It was a formidable force at any point in the war, and especially now towards the end when supplies were low and the soldiers tired, it would be a major problem for the Norwegians in the area.
At 7.30 a.m. Col. Krebs was informed about the Swedish movements, and immediately dispatched another 60 soldiers to the different road blocks.
When the Swedes approached the Norwegian positions, there was heavy fog and rain in the air, and this made it difficult for the Norwegian scouts to estimate the actual size of the Swedish force. The Norwegians attempted a bayonet charge, but were easily driven back by the more numerous Swedish forces. The Norwegians fell back on Berby.
Major Krebs now brought forward his force, as well as the two small infantry guns and placed his soldiers behind a stone wall in preparations for the Swedish attack. Despite heavy fog, a fire fight developed where both muskets and artillery fire was exchanged, but it was difficult to judge the effect due to the fog. However, the far superior Swedish forces pushed the Norwegians back and when the Norwegians had to cross a bridge it started to look like the Swedes might extract revenge for their loss two days before.
However, the Norwegians managed to retreat across the bridge in (relatively) good order, and took up positions on the other side of the river. They had lost one of the one pound cannon, something that was considered a great shame at the time, and a victory for the Swedish.
The Swedes attempted twice to attack across the bridge, but were beaten back, and at 12 noon the Swedish Col. Posse came walking across the bridge alone, demanding to speak to Major Krebs. After a short discussion, they agreed on a ceasefire, and Col. Posse invited Major Krebs over to meet the Swedish officers – a recognition that he had fought bravely and was considered an equal by the Swedish officers. The Swedes retreated with the Norwegians moving back into the original positions. The losses of this last battle were heavy, 50 dead Swedes and 25 dead and wounded Norwegians.
During the autumn of 1808, the frontlines were quiet, and neither side had much stomach for restarting the fighting. The Swedes sued for peace with the Norwegians, despite having 23 000 men available against the only 6 000 active Norwegians left.
Although this may seem strange from a military point of view, the situation is Sweden was much the same as in Norway with famine and poverty, and the Swedish armed forces could not sustain offensive operations. The desperate situation in Norway led prince Kristian August to sign a peace deal with the Swedes against the will of the Danish King, and was consequently very unpopular in Copenhagen.
The war between Norway and Sweden had demanded over 400 Norwegian lives, a small number compared to the big European battlefields, but a heavy toll for a small nation like Norway. It is estimated that the Swedes lost around 800-1000 men killed, but the exact numbers are not clear.
The Danish King several times tried to order prince Kristian August to resume hostilities with Sweden, but the prince refused and spent his time in his headquarters in Christiania, reorganising the forces and trying to modernise the Norwegian Army. This, of course did not improve the relationship between the King and his son.
The effects of the war were much more dramatic in Sweden than in Norway. The fact that the Swedish army, highly regarded in Europe, had been fought to a standstill and in some ways beaten by an untrained Norwegian Army was hard to digest for the military establishment in Sweden. The Swedish commanding general, Adlersparre, led a march on Stockholm with rebellious forces, and demanded the abdication of King Gustav IV Adolphus. The coup succeeded, and the childless Charles XIII took over the throne.
In 1809, Gen. Adlersparre also orchestrated an offer to the Norwegian prince Kristian August to become Swedish crown prince, which he accepted. Unfortunately, he suffered a stroke before properly taking up his new position, paving the way for the French marshal Bernadotte, whose descendants still occupy the Swedish throne. There were rumours of an assassination; leading to the Swedish marshal Aksel von Färsen being lynched to death during the funeral of Kristian August in Stockholm (!).
Norway had fought to avoid being occupied by a neighbour and despite being badly equipped and trained; the Norwegian soldiers had shown that they could hold their own against the Swedes. These experiences would be important in 1814, when the Norwegians again faced their neighbours in a fight for survival, and in many ways the same experiences were called upon when Norway again struggled for complete independence in 1905.
Show Footnotes and
• Norwegian Army Defence Museum publication nr 7
• Kolbjørn Brekstad: “Captain Dreyer: The battle of Trangen (norw)”, 2007
• Col. Angell: “The 7 years war for 17th of May 1807-1814 (norw)”, 1914
o Illustrations by H. Bloch
• Jack Cassin-Scott: “Scandinavian Armies of the Napoleonic Wars”, Osprey Publishing 1976
Copyright © 2011 Kai Isaksen
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Published online: 03/13/2011.
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