War and peace

Theme

Military installations of the past

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The strategic importance of Denmark and its islands has left its mark on the country in the form of military buildings and defensive installations from across historical periods. The country’s military history is influenced by its strategic location between the Baltic and North Seas. The earliest written records from the Viking and Middle Ages tell of the importance of the sea, and its benefits in the form of control and monitoring of maritime traffic, as well as its drawbacks in the form of vulnerability to attack.
The Navy and the country’s geopolitical importance were closely interlinked from the Viking Age up to the Cold War. Since the start of the 21st century, the nation’s military organisation has changed character entirely. The Navy has been strongly reduced after having been the most important branch of the military for nearly 1500 years.

The greatest wars
Throughout its history, Denmark has been a warring nation. The most important wars historically were the Wendic Wars of the Middle Ages, the Swedish Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the Schleswig Wars, World War II, and the Cold War. The last never escalated to all out war and the threat blew over without a shot ever being fired on European soil.
Everywhere you go in Denmark, you can find traces of military and civilian defensive installations. The majority live an anonymous life in overgrown and today peaceful areas, but their existence bears witness to Denmark’s continuous efforts to defend itself from the threat of war, Historical sites range from fortified squares, systems of palisades and ditches, sacrificial weapon offerings, castle mounds, maritime obstructions, castles, bunkers, batteries, air raid shelters, refugee camps, supply depots, air and naval bases, prisons, barracks, forts, border checkpoints, surveillance bases, firing ranges and proving grounds from prehistory on up to today.
Military installations and equipment, for all intents and purposes, can be dated as far back as the first permanent settlements in Denmark. While not surprising, it is worth noting that weapons make up the largest group of existing prehistoric objects. Weapons appear to be the very impetus for new invention and innovation – just as today’s computers, satellites and sonar were all originally military equipment.

Warrior elite
Our knowledge of the historical development of weapons comes from prehistoric graves of warriors buried together with their weapons. The earliest weapons were from stone axes and daggers dating as far back as the period 10,000-1800 BC. The weapons continue to be found on fields throughout the country. Thousands more weapons in the form of Bronze Age swords and shields dating from the period 1800 to 500 BC have been found in graves or buried as metal caches or ceremonial offerings.

Roman swords

Finds from the period around the birth of Christ offer a glimpse of people living in anything put peaceful harmony. Iron Age spoils of war taken from defeated enemies were buried in lakes and bogs throughout Denmark. Among the thousands of finds is one of the largest offerings of Roman swords in Europe – at a site thousands of kilometres from the Roman frontier. The Limes Romanus, as Rome’s system of border defences was known, was copied at Denmark’s Iron Age borders, where systems of palisades and ditches, such as Olgerdiget in South Jutland, could be made up of as many as 90,000 oak posts.
This militarisation reached its peak in the Viking Age (750-1050), the final period of Danish prehistory. The period was characterised by the presence of a warrior elite, finely crafted and very dangerous weapons, military camps such as the round forts, fast ships and the expansion of the Danevirke, northern Europe’s most extensive border defence, and a blood-thirsty army that conquered large portions of Sweden, Norway, Britain and the Baltic region. Even the religion of the day made the warrior the central figure, personified in Tyr, the god of war.

Floating fortress
The Middle Ages (1050-1535) saw the emergence of the largest military constructions as the use of brick became more common. In addition to further expansion of the Danevirke in the 12th century, it was also a period of castle building. On the water, the hundreds of Viking longships were replaced by a handful of ships known as cogs, which had large crews and could serve as floating fortresses. The legal texts of the day, including the Codex Holmiensis, give insight into who was required to provide which types of weapons.

The biggest changes in military history took place in the 14th century with the advent of gunpowder. The gradual coalescence of the Danish state and emergence of a Danish nation created the need for conscription. Sixteenth century military organisation reflected the new type of army, and saw the construction of the country’s largest government-built military installations, including Fredericia’s ramparts and Copenhagen’s star-shaped Kastellet fortress, as well as further expansion of royal castles. Each generation had its characteristic military installations, and the construction of Copenhagen’s defences culminated with Vestvolden in the late 19th century.
Three characteristics define modern military installations: first, they were expensive to build in terms of manpower as well as resources; second, they rarely saw wartime action – aside from German World War II bunkers along the west coast; third, military installations, ironically, are now some of the country’s most beautiful recreational areas.

Frantzen, O. & K. Jespersen (ed.) 2008: Danmarks krigshistorie Bind 1: 700-1814. Bind 2: 1814-2008. Gads Forlag.