A Vicious Combat in the Norwegian Woods: 1808
By Stefan Spett
Editor’s Note: The images used in this article, except where noted, are used with the permission of Esten Grafsrønniningen 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.
When Russia invaded Finland in 1808, King Gustaph Adolf IV decided to invade Norway for reasons that are still not very clear. Commanding the forces deployed against Norway was General Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt. The previous year he had commanded a brigade in Pommerania and had been thoroughly defeated by Marshal Mortier.
A Swedish column advancing against the fortress of Kongsvinger had some success. They reached the Glomma River after a victory at Lier on April 18th, but could not invest the fortress.
In the deep forests of northern Värmland a lonely battalion made a disastrous invasion-attempt a week later. The II. Dal-battalion under command of Colonel Gahn was ordered to guard the forest-path leading into Sweden along the Flisa river and also to annoy Norwegian forces along the Glomma valley. The main road between south and central Norway followed the Glomma River and the Norwegians guarded it with forces much superior to the Dahl.Battalion Furthermore the Norwegians had several ski-companies while the Dal.Battalion could muster only 18 pair of skis. As a stopgap measure, every company was ordered to acquire 6 pairs of snowshoes. From Stockholm four 3-pounders were dispatched to Colonel Gahn. These were not regular 3-pounders drawn by three horses in a troika, they were light "parti-canoner" drawn by a single horse. Following the guns were two ammunition carts drawn by two horses each and no more than five gunners. They reached Falun on 18 April.
Opposing this modest force were a brigade under command of Colonel Staffeldt. It consisted of:
There were four dragoon regiments in Norway but they never mustered in greater number than this because of a catastrophic lack of fodder. Colonel Blücher of the Akershus Dragoons served as commander in Kongsvinger Fortress. Colonel Gahn concentrated his battalion in Medskogen right at the border and started patrols into Norway on 8 April. The first patrols observed Norwegian forces but these avoided contact.
On the April, a larger force advanced into Norway. It consisted of 160 men, half of them jägers. Commanding was Lieutenatn Cederström, detached from the Lifgardet on foot to command the jäger-company of the II.Dahl Battalion This time they were engaged by 30 grenadiers on skis, commanded by Lieutenant Timme. The Norwegians were dressed in white, red and grey, and almost camoflaged. The Norwegians was driven back without losses to either side and the Swedish reached the houses of Nyen. There they were attacked by three Norwegian companys under command of Staffeldt. Cederström correctly deduced enemy strength from trumpet and bugle-signals and retreated. Cederström reported that several Norwegians was wounded judging from the screams for help but Staffeldt only report one wounded. The Norwegians did not inflict a single casualty. The Norwegians were unable to produce good gun-powder and this wasn´t the only combat with conspicously inefficient Norwegian fire.
On 13 April, Cederström returned to Nyen with 180 men. Yet again Norwegian pickets retreated and after reaching Nyen Cederström was attacked by Staffeldt. Two ski companys attacked on the flanks and the sharpshooter company advanced on the road. This time the Swedes accepted combat and retreated after Cederström was hit in the foot and a grenadier-company started charging them. Swedish losses were 2 dead and 12 wounded. Cederström had his leg amputated and later returned to service with a wooden leg. The Norwegians lost 2 dead and 14 wounded. The Swedish force fired no more than 2782 shots and had also lost two backpacks, a few field-bottles and a bayonet. After this combat Gahn was disgusted by the circumstances and wrote so in his report:
In translation :
The tortured grammar is faithful to the Swedish original. Gahn also complained to Armfelt about a severe lack of food. Armfelt answered in his condescending fashion that if Gahn who was a resourceful man could not procure rations by himself then Armfelt couldn´t understand what he was to do. The operation was actually a success because Staffeldt refused to send reinforcements south and asked for more troops for an attack on Gahn. On 16 April, 20 Norwegian ski troops attacked a Swedish 14 men outpost at Vermundstorp just inside Norway. The outpost obviously fled because they lost one wounded and five prisoners. But the planned attack on Gahn was cancelled when Armfelt advanced on Kongsvinger and won the battle of Lier. Staffeldt dispatched forces south, but they were sent back because Armfelt could be stopped without them.
Now Armfelt made the worst command-decision of his military career. He ordered Gahn to advance to Glomma and advance through the Norwegian lines down to Armfelt's force. He told Gahn that he faced an inferior force. Even if Gahn had faced and brushed aside an inferior force he would have faced superior forces when nearing Armfelt. The distance was 80 kilometers and the snow and the ice was melting.
Gahn had received some reinforcements, 64 recruits arrived, likely replacements for soldiers held prisoner by theFrench since the debacle of Dänholmen in August 1807. Lt.Cederström was replaced as jäger-commander by the ex-ltieutenat and öfverjägmästaren von Kothen. For some reason the officers of the II. Dahl Battalion wasn´t considered competent for that duty. The battalion commader, Captain Godee, had been a jäger company commander in 1790. Two guns had also arrived at Medskogen. Two had stopped at Falun.
But the guns was left behind when Gahn moved forward on 25 April. Because of the melting ice on the Flisa, Gahn was forced to take the summer path that was narrow and so full of stones that it was almost inpassable to carts. Eight single-horse sleds accompanied the battalion. They were loaded with food for just two days and the Colonel himself, who was unwell and not much else because the troops had but 40 shots for every gun. According to regulations Swedish officers, subofficers, and muscians had no guns whatsoever. But the chaplain borrowed Gahn's sword and served as his aide-de-camp during the ensuing combat.
The fighting force under Gahn consisted of 12 officers, 13 subofficers, 506 rank and file and 3 others. Left behind in Medskogen were about 67 sick, wounded, gunners, guards, the 3-pounders, the battalion colours and rations that would have lasted the battalion another day and a half. This force was under the command Major Söderhjelm.
This time the Norwegians did not defend Nyen but held back. Gahn advanced along the summer-road on the south side of Flisa. When they passed a spot on the Flisa where the ice was still passable, a force of 40 men under command of Fältväbel Klingius was left as a guard. Some way further at a place named Trangen, Gahn meet two grenadier companies. They had made an abatis through very thick forest between the Flisa and a high mountain. The Dahl jägercompany was deployed but made no headway and von Kothen was soon mortally wounded. A further four platoons were deployed as jägers and the grenadiers started to give way. However, when Captain von Knorring was ordered into combat he send orders for Fältväbel Klingius who belonged to his company, to join him. This was barely done when Staffeldt's main force that was north of Flisa arrived on the spot Klingius had been guarding. With little difficulty Staffeldt's force consisting of the Elverum Ski Company, the Sigholt Sharpshooter Company , two grenadier companies, and 30 dragoons marched over the thin ice. The Dahl. Battalion was attacked by superior forces in the rear and a fierce firefight in the thick forest began. Captain von Knorring, with his force had been flanking the grenadiers and lost contact with the rest of the battalion. The grenadiers defending the abatis received reinforcements. The Hofska Ski Company had been further back and had been ordered by Staffeldt to follow him. But on hearing the battle the company had skied cross country and attacked the Swedish in the flank. The Norwegians sent 1050 men into combat and had a 2-1 superiority.
The Swedish force was herded towards a cliff-face. The battalion-commander, Captain Godeé, was badly wounded, when the ammunition began running out Gahn ordered his musicians to sound the appelle. The Norwegians did not feel like negotiating with an helpless enemy and stormed, taking everyone prisoner. There were no massacre and all the horses actually survived to become booty.
When von Knorring understood that things had gone very badly he started marching cross country back towards Sweden. He took two ski-soldiers prisoner, that he had undoubtedly surprised. Walking on foot, cross country through wet snow is very hard and unpleasant and the march very slow. After marching through the night Medskogen was reached and they found that the Norwegians already had been there.
After his victory, Staffeldt returned to his headquarters taking the cavalry with him. He ordered a force to immediately raid Medskogen but not to occupy it. Major Söderhjelm had not arranged any defense, despite having a fighting force of 21 men, and the Norwegians reached Medskogen unobserved. The Norwegian Lieutenant Vestby, the Swedish Lieutenant Halldin, and a drummer walked right up to the house there Söderhjelm was quartered before being challenged. Then the drummer beat the chamade. The reason for Halldins participation in the parley was that he was sent to bring luggage belonging to Swedish officers taken prisoner and most of them wounded. Söderhjelm meekly agreed to surrender. The Norwegians quickly ransacked the place and left with 51 prisoners, the guns, and the food. In Medskogen they left behind 12 men wounded on 13 April and the battalion colours that they missed. These von Knorring brought along when he continued the retreat to Letafors foundry.
The Swedish losses at Trangen was 385 prisoners and 25 killed. Besides wounded officers, 57 men was hospitalised at Åsnes. The Norwegians lost 15 dead, 53 wounded, and 2 prisoners. As can be deduced the Norwegian musketry was less efficient than the Swedish musketry. The Norwegians outnumbered the Swedes 2-1 and could deliver concentric fire. The Norwegians reported the following booty: 416 guns. 16 sables, 6 drums. 1 trumpet, 406 bandoleers, 316 copper-bottles. etc.
Von Knorring could muster 97 men in Letafors. Others Dahl-men besides his command returned to the colours. Seven kept hidden under a rock for three days before walking back to Sweden. They had only a single loaf of bread for sustenance during that period.
Six years later, Gahn commanded another force invading Norway and was yet again surrounded. Thats another story.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2005
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