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Fredericia: When Denmark went to war with itself

We call it the Three Years' War. The war that flared up in 1848 and ended with a Danish victory three years later.

But the core of the dispute persisted and therefore the war came back in 1864. Here Denmark lost and was reduced to a miniput state. The border with Germany now went just south of Kolding.

It was here in the middle of the 19th century that the European borders were broadly defined. And it did not go through negotiation and talk, but with 'blood and iron', as the German iron fist, Otto von Bismarck, said in 1862. The European map is drawn with life as stake. 100-thousands of lives.

The Germans are coming

The Prussians had their own agenda. Led by Prussia, powerful forces sought to create a German state out of the four sanctuaries and 35 countries – kingdoms, counties and principalities and duchies – which formed a fairly loose confederation. A war could help. Both to tighten up the German Confederation and gain new ground. This is also why they supported Schleswig-Holstein, which in 1849 could field an army of 66,000 men, of which 19,000 were Schleswig-Holsteiners. The Danish army included 41,000 men. So the Danes were behind on points from the start. And was quickly forced to retreat. A brigade retreated to Als under the command of General De Meza. Here they tied up a large part of the German army. General Rye staged a masterful retreat into Jutland. It was a study in ongoing combat, where the Danish soldiers held the enemy to fire and dragged them up past Aarhus and out onto Mols. Here General Rye entrenched himself with his troops. He thus employed the rebels' soldiers and kept them away from the siege of Fredericia.

Fredericia Fortress is built with mathematical precision. Put the pointed end of a compass in Kongens Point (which today is at the intersection of Kongensgade and Oldenborggade) and draw a circle with a radius of 1070 m. Then you hit the outer point of each bastion (marked as B, C and D in the drawing) . Each bastion is offset by 15° on the circle stroke. The distance between the tips of the bastions corresponds to the range a rifle had in 1650, and the soldiers could thus defend the fortress when the enemy came right up to the ramparts.


Seen through German lenses, they had the upper hand. They had enclosed a large part of the Danish army at Als. Just as many had crowded out on Helgenæs. Fredericia was besieged with a superior force. 14,000 men. In addition, they had had plenty of time to build solid ramparts and corridors, so that they could withstand a possible outcome. Common military logic said that if the Danes were to overrun the besieging troops, they would need over 40,000 men. And there were maybe 10,000 in the fortress city. If the Danish army were to break the siege, they would face murderous resistance.

But the Danes had one advantage: They controlled the sea routes. And that - together with the courage to break the conventional way of thinking - was decisive for the outcome on 6 July 1849.

  1. July 1849 – with life as an effort

General Bülow had made a bold plan and was allowed to carry it out. He ordered General de Meza to sail 5,000 men from Als to Fåborg on Funen. At the same time, Olaf Rye had to transport 4,000 men by ship from Helgenæs to the North Funen town of Bogense. The troops gathered at Strib, and on the 3rd-5th. July they were sailed in a shuttle service across the Little Belt. Directly into the fortress city.

The activity on the water was noticed by the Schleswig-Holstein army command. But the Prussian general and commander-in-chief grossly underestimated the number of troops transferred to the fortress. And was caught with his pants down because of the imagination and daring of the Danish generals.

In the night damp and cold
behind Fredericia rampart

At the war council on 4 July in Vejlby Præstegård in Funen, the outcome was planned in detail. The soldiers were to attack at night. It was unheard of. War was something that happened during the day. In the dark it would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of the progress of the battle. The lines of communication were difficult. Entire battalions could lose their bearings.

A lot went wrong then, too. Just getting 19,000 men out of a fortress was a problem. It was on the battlefield like in a football match. The chains did not find each other. The flanks were not protected as agreed. Some came too far west. This made the various units vulnerable.

The instructions from the generals to the privates pointed to a
bloody battle: "Attack quickly and lively." And use the baronet instead
of wasting time on gunfights. Then it should probably go well.”

The fiercest fighting was at Treldeskansen, where the 6th Battalion hit directly into the rampart's corridors and were repulsed. Next wave with approx. 1,000 men suffered the same fate. After hard fighting and heavy losses, the redoubt was taken. Both de Meza and Rye forced the advance. In the enemy's last counterattack, General Rye was hit and bled to death. He paid with his life. But when the light came, the Danes had won.

The victory did not come without sacrifices. In General Bülow's proclamation to the army, the general praises the bravery and heroism of the soldiers. But also remember the fallen. Especially General Rye: Among the heroes who yesterday sealed their love for the fatherland with their blood, you will note with pain and longing the high-hearted, brave General Olaf Rye. You will remember his wise conduct, his solicitude for your well-being, his tireless industry, and his participation in your dangers and your struggles. However, his lot is beautiful: he died a hero's death on the field of honor.

On July 6, 1849, 33,000 men fought with their lives as a stake. On the Danish side, General Rye and 511 other soldiers lost their lives. The rebels lost 203 men on the day. A total of 2,478 were injured - 1,344 Danes and 1,134 Schleswig-Holsteiners. Many of these men did not survive.

But Denmark won. The bold plan of attack reverberated beyond Europe. If you read German newspapers' accounts of the battle, they simply did not believe it had happened. 'No one could transfer so many soldiers without being discovered' – was the argument. The English did not believe in history either, but were nevertheless convinced that the Danes could win the war, which again became important in the later peace negotiations.


Visit Fredericia Vold. Take a tour or hear the story in the form of a podwalk: Witnesses of Violence - find it on the Useeum app - and choose whether you want to hear it in Danish or English.