And Rumours of War: War of the Baltic League

The War of the Baltic League was, in the end, too ambitious a project, but only barely. For a full two decades, the goal of restored Norwegian sovereignty over the ancestral homeland appeared to be just out of reach, just possible if only the collective resources of the Norse people could be strained a tiny bit further. The delusion afflicted not only Romantic-influenced radicals dreaming of the Noble Norwegian Farmer, but staid and somber statesmen of the merchant and landowner parties, who wanted Scandinavia for quite unsentimental reasons of access to Baltic markets, Norwegian ship-timbers, and Swedish iron ore. Twenty successive Tings found reasons to vote a few more ships or another two regiments, and for twenty years the Norse population supported them and sent their sons to freeze in the blockade lines off Bergen and Hamburg, in the belief that this year the German nations must surely collapse from the strain.

Nor was their belief entirely unfounded. The Norwegian navy, schooled in the hard lessons of the French wars and second only to the Georgian in size, had easily swept the seas clear of its counterparts and established control of the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Atlantic. After the Great Raid on Amsterdam, early in the war, which forced the Kaiserliche Flotte out of its fortified harbour and into the waiting guns of the Channel Fleet, at the cost of five thousand men, there was no serious challenge to Norwegian supremacy at sea, despite some brave but futile Prussian sorties into the Øresund. The German empires were thus split into three parts, isolated from each other and from the outside world: The European heartland, the Scandinavian marches, and the South American colonies.

The problem was that each of these, even thrown back on their own resources, presented a formidable defensive problem for the straitened resources of the Norwegian state. Invading mainland Germany was always out of the question; but even the Scandinavian garrison proved capable of a ferocious resistance. As the saying goes, it is no joke to fight in Norway in winter, and the mountains showed no favoritism to the Ynglings. More to the point, the Norwegian army, even after the reforms of the French war, was not really a match for Continental regulars except under truly inspired leadership. Worse, it had no depth of reserves; nations of six million cannot engage in attritional wars with nations of thirty million. As for South America, projecting power so far was a difficult challenge, and in any case the colonial militia was soon fully occupied fending off German attacks marching overland through ostensibly-neutral Italy.

What sea power could accomplish, it quickly did. The Danish islands, Gotland, the German possessions in England, and Corfu all fell to small expeditionary forces. The blockade of the Continent was held tight, and German trade strangled, to the point of famine and epidemics in some provinces. Even when a desperate raiding force out of Brazil slipped through the Atlantic and landed in Scotland, and it seemed for some months that the Highlands would rise against Norwegian rule and bring about a collapse of order in the Norse-law, the long arm of sea power brought forth vengeance in the form of regular troops hastily shipped from the colonial campaign, which quickly smashed the incipient rebellion and their German supporters. Norse retaliation was bloody, reflecting the deep scare the wealthy landowners of Yorkshire and Northumberland had had; the commanders of the invading army were beheaded, and their surviving troops decimated before being shipped to the colonies as indentured labour.

But all these blows were merely pinpricks against the vast German states; and the internal unrest which the Ting counted on to finish the war did not materialise, although there were several large revolts by desperate cities. Breton and Italian troops kept a lid on the risings, and Breton gold paid for enough grain, laboriously shipped overland on muddy roads, to keep the worst famines at bay. Without an army capable of maintaining itself in the field on the Continent, there was no way for Norway to land a finishing blow against a state the size of Germany, or even Prussia. Conversely, the land-bound empires could not build a navy to threaten Norway’s control of the seas. Thus both sides seemed able to continue the conflict indefinitely. Like Athens and Sparta, or Rome and Carthage, the whale and the elephants could glare and trumpet, but could not land killing blows. Both sides attempted to find allies; both sides were stymied by the reluctance of the Great Powers to enter a war that would certainly bring in their counterparts. Both Georgia and Brittany publicly stated that they would not be the first to intervene, but would do so if the other did.

In the end, therefore, Norway was forced to relinquish its grand ambitions and be satisfied with a compromise. The Peace of Bornholm joined London and Kent to the Norselaw, uniting England under one rule for the first time since the collapse of William’s dynasty in the early twelfth century, and also gave Norway Corfu as a naval base. By an objective measure these were great gains for a minor state confronting two powers each twice its size. The public opinion of Europe, which had been yearly predicting the collapse of Norway for two decades, was astonished. But the Norwegian public was enraged. The undoubted strategic and economic value of the gains could not make up for the sentimental value of Scandinavia, nor for the sacrifice of a generation’s wealth. Twenty years of blood and treasure had been poured into the war, and for what? A piddling compromise. A potent combination of pride at having withstood two major Powers for so long, and rage at the smallness of the result, pervaded Norwegian public debate. The century of isolation was well and truly ended, and the Ynglings once again turned their faces outward to the wider world, away from their preoccupation with settling their new continent. The results remained to be seen.

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Filed under There Will Be War

One response to “And Rumours of War: War of the Baltic League

  1. Pingback: The End Is Not Yet: Foreign Affairs | Ynglinga Saga

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