Editor’s Note: The images used in this article are used with the permission of Trond Bækkevold of the Elverumske Skieløber Compagnie, a re-enactment unit dedicated to the study of the Danish-Norwegian light infantry in one of the most dramatic periods of Norwegian history - the wars of 1807-1814.
A Brief Look at the Political Background of the War
In 1814, the Napoleonic Wars were all but over -- Napoleon had abdicated (although he would come back to power briefly and fight at Waterloo in 1815) and the victorious British and their allies divvied up the booty. Sweden had fought on the side of Britain under the promise of receiving Norway, which at that time was a part of Denmark. The Kiel Peace Treaty stipulated that Denmark had to sign the territory of Norway over to Sweden.
Norwegians had since the 1700's grown tired of the Danish-Norwegian union, and had a wish for independance and self rule. So when the chance appeared, they grabbed it. In May 1814, the Norwegian constitution was written in a matter of days. On May 17th, the constitution of Norway was signed and the Danish Prince, Christian Fredrik was, chosen as the King. Representatives of Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria went to Norway to attempt to persuade them to join with Sweden. They failed, and left Norway on July 17th.
Prince Regent Karl Johan of Sweden returned home from France in May, and at this time decided to use military force to get the Norwegians to accept a union. The drastic decision can be explained by the fact that Sweden might not have that much time to force the Norwegians to accept a union, as a change in the political climate might change the Peace of Kiel, and Sweden could lose it’s claim to Norway.
A Look at the Armed Forces of Norway and Sweden
A Swedish army of 45,523 men was raised, and the fleet was fitted. The Swedish navy consisted of: 4 ships of the line, 5 frigates, 24 smaller vessels, and 60 gun sloops. King Karl the XIII was very interested in ships, and had supreme command of the fleet. Under him, Admiral Johan Puke had the operational command.
To face this force the Norwegians had an army of approximately 30,000 men and a fleet consisting of 160 vessels of various size. The Norwegian army was in a pitiful state, poorly equipped, with poor morale, and incompetently led. From the Swedish side it was said that “There is no Norwegian General who knows how to wage war.” There is most likely something in this saying, King Christian Fredrik himself, 27 years old, had no experience in leading an army in the field.
The Combat Operations of the War
On July 12th, Prince Regent Karl Johan left Stockholm to take command of the forces assembling on the Swedish-Norwegian Border. After yet another attempt at a diplomatic solution with the Norwegians, he ordered hostilities to commence.
Lier, August 2, 1814
On the eve of August 1st, the Swedish crossed the border in 3 columns at Magnor.
This force was led by Colonel Gahn and consisted of:
5 batalions infantry
Västerbotninger and Värmlandske Jegere (skirmishers\light infantry)
8 three pounder guns.
On the Norwegian side, in the Kongsvinger District, there was a corps under the command of Lt. Colonel Krebs. It consisted of :
3 batalions of infantry
Akershusiske Skarpskyttere (Marksmen)
Sønnenfjeldske Skiløpere (ski troops)
4 three pounder guns
70 mounted jagers (Eidsvold-Nessiske).
The two forces were relatively equal in strength, although the Swedes were better supplied with cannons and had more officers and NCO’s. Both sides over estimated each other in the beginning, and therefore acted carefully.
Throughout August 2nd, there were several minor skirmishes between Norwegian outposts and the Swedish forces. The Norwegians retreated towards Lier, it appears that Lt. Colonel Krebs at first thought to meet the Swedish east of Lier, but changed his mind and pulled his forces into the Lier position.
Around 1500 hours on August 2nd, the Norwegian skirmish line (Jegerkjeden) came in contact with Sedish scouting patrols. The Swedes deployed their skirmish line and forced the Norwegian skirmishers (Jegerne) to retreat to Lier.
Between 1600 and 1800 hours, the 3 Swedish attack columns marched on the Norwegian positions, and the main attack started. The central columns, led by Colonel Gahn himself, went head on against the center of the defences at Lier, where 8 companies were positioned, but after repeated attacks none of the Swedes reached further than the glacis.
At the same time, the left Swedish column attacked the Norwegian western wing, hoping to threaten it and force them to redeploy troops from the center. This attack failed mostly due to difficult terrain and the two cannons under the command of Lieutenant Kjerulf.
The right Swedish column attacked on the eastern side of Vinger Lake, and attempted to go around the lake and threaten the Norwegian flank. This was right were the Skiløperne (ski troops) were positioned and some of the hardest fighting during the battle was here. The Norwegians were hit hard and were forced to withdraw.
It was here the Norwegians discovered the poor quality of Norwegian gunpowder. The Swedes could shoot at ranges over 400 alen (250 meters), while the Norwegian marksmen could only use their rifles out to 200 alen (125 meters). But it was said that the Norwegians were better shots than the Swedes, and therefore could compensate for the lesser range of their weapons. Skiløper Ola Brænd from Stor-Elvdal, who fought at Lier said:
”The Swedes hadn’t gotten any further with their shooting in 1814 than they were in 1808, they fired volleys, every man at once; the Norwegians preferred to do it the skirmisher way and shot more on their own.”
After a while, the Swedish column came so close to Lier that it came under fire from two amusetter(?) there. This caused the column to retreat, and skiløperne and the marksmen recaptured their lost terrain.
The Swedish disappeared into the woods towards Malmer, and Lt. Colonel Krebs released his small cavalry force who pursued them for a while, untill a Swedish artillery volley caused them to retreat.
Aftermath of the Battle of Lier (August 2,1814)
On the battlefield less than 30 Norwegians and 130 Swedish soldiers lay dead. The Swedish retreated to Malmer and continued the next day towards Matrand\Midtskog. Colonel Gahn’s plan was to return to Sweden on August 5th. How his plan to return to Sweden ended will follow.
The Days after the Battle at Lier
After losing at Lier, Gahn retreated to Malmer (August 3rd) and continued the next day (August 4th ) on to Matrand\Midtskog, (the two places are near each other and there has been some disagreement as to which one it is) where the infantry camped for the night, while the baggage train went to Skotterud.
Lt. Colonel Krebs pursued the enemy, and managed to catch up with them. On the night of 4 - 5 August, he attacked Colonel Gahn’s force at Matrand\Midtskog with half his force, while the other half marched on Skotterud to capture the Swedish baggage train, set up a defence, and attack the Swedes from the rear.
A smaller force broke off to the west to attack the Swedish left flank, while Krebs himself led the main attack force onto the Swedish head on. At 0300 hours, Krebs launched his attack on the Swedes, and when the flank attack came an hour later, Colonel Gahn retreated towards Skotterud. Unfortunately for Gahn, the Norwegian forces already held Skotterud. The result was the hardest fighting in the entire 1814 campaign.
After repeated attacks, the Swedish forces managed to breakout of the Norwegian encirclement, but it came at a high cost of men, horses and materiel for both sides when combat ended at 1100 hours. Lt. Colonel Krebs said afterwards: “A more horrible and furious affaire on both sides than this can not be considered possible between two as small units as this.” (Gahn entered Norway with 1400 men, while Krebs marched from Lier with 2500 men).
The Swedish force lost approximately 350 men, of which around 250 were prisoners of war.
They had also lost their baggage train, and was forced to abandon 1 gun, 7 ammunition wagons, 20 supply wagons, and 60 horses.
The Norwegians lost more than a hundred men killed and wounded. There was also casualties among the officers. A Lieutenant Norgren had been in a hurry to get gunpowder for his men, and had tried to open a ammunition wagon by knocking off the lock with an axe. This resulted in the entire ammunition wagon exploding, increasing the casualty numbers.
The End of the War and Its Aftermath
This was not the main battle of the war, or would not have been, had the main forces of both sides actually fought. By August 14th there was a cease-fire in effect, and Sweden’s last war was over.
The reason the Norwegians agreed to a cease-fire was that, although successful in minor battles, the Norwegian army was in to poor a shape to wage a large battle against the larger Swedish forces. But the fighting of August 1814, and the lives lost, was not in vain. Norway agreed to join in a union with Sweden, but retained a certain amount of self-autonomy, including being allowed to keep the constitution the brave founding fathers wrote up in a few days, and signed on May 17th 1814. This day is the National Day of Norway.
The union with Sweden lasted till 1905, and this year (2005) is Norway’s 100 year anniversary!
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2005