Imagine the surprise a Danish-American recently experienced when inquiring of the Danish Military History website about the details of her Danish grandfather’s service in the Danish navy, to learn that not only did her grandfather serve in the Danish navy, he served the King!
af Eric Nielsen
Kresten Bach Christensen’s Naval Photo
Esther Connell is the Danish-American granddaughter of Kresten Bach Christensen. It was probably a family photo of her grandfather in his Danish navy uniform which sparked Esther Connell’s incentive to finally attempt to locate information about the nature and extent of her grandfather’s Danish naval service. For many Danish-Americans who seek information about their Danish ancestors, it’s their ancestor’s Danish military service which provides these Danish-Americans with the most tangible and symbolic connection to their Danish ancestors and their Danish heritage and ancestral homeland.
The photo that sparked Esther Connell’s interest in her grandfather’s Danish naval service is printed here, courtesy of Esther Connell. The Danish sailor who is the second sailor from the left in the group of sailors in the photo is Kresten Bach Christensen, Esther’s grandfather.
The somewhat poor condition of the photo – having somehow succeeded in traveling all the way across the Atlantic from Denmark to the United States, when Kresten and his family emigrated from Denmark – may suggest that the photo is a casual snap-shot, perhaps taken in a local pub. However, the photo seems more likely to have been a staged “studio shot” taken by a professional photographer in his studio, together with appropriate studio props which are suggestive of a casual social situation.
The social situation in which the group of sailors in this photo appear to be is, in U.S. naval parlance, “on liberty,” or in other words on authorized absence from their duty station (e.g., aboard ship). “Liberty” is also sometimes but inaccurately referred to as “shore leave.”
The other sailors surrounding Kresten Bach Christensen in the photo are presumably fellow members of the “ship’s company” to which Kresten belonged, that is, crew members of the Danish royal yacht DANNEBROG, as explained below.
Kresten Bach Christensen, Ordinary Seaman, Royal Danish Navy
Kresten Bach Christensen was born on November 10, 1871, on Fasmalie, his family’s farm in Fjerritslev in Denmark. However, Kresten’s early vocational experience in the Danish fisheries probably led to his being entered into the muster role of the Danish navy rather than of the army. Kresten formally entered the Danish navy as an ordinary conscript in 1892, at the age of 21 years. His tour of duty as a Danish naval conscript was only of ten months duration, which appears to be a typical length of duty for a Danish naval conscript from this period.
Serving on the Danish Royal Yacht DANNEBROG
Esther Connell’s family lore holds that during his Danish naval service from August 8, 1892 to June 2, 1893, Kresten Bach Christensen served on the “unarmed” Danish naval ships SJÆLLAND and DANNEBROG. Family lore of this very specific nature is often as accurate as it is specific.
The DANNEBROG at the time of Kresten Bach Christensen’s 8/8/92-6/2/93 naval service could have only been one very particular vessel, the first Danish royal yacht to be named the DANNEBROG – quite a prestige “berth” for an ordinary seamen, as a sailor would say!
The Danish King who reigned on the Danish throne during Kresten Bach Christiansen’s Danish naval service was Christian IX, who reigned from 1863 to 1906.
The DANNEBROG was not, strictly speaking, a naval vessel. However, as was the case in regard to the royal yachts of most other nations, including those of England and Great Britain, Denmark’s royal yachts were traditionally manned by Danish naval personnel – this has been the case throughout Danish history, and remains the case today in regard of the current Danish royal yacht, which was built in 1932 and is also named the DANNEBROG.
The first Danish royal yacht DANNEBROG, the one on which Kresten Christensen served, was not built in the Danish navy’s shipyard but was “contract built” by the private commercial Danish shipbuilding firm of Burmeister & Wain, in Copenhagen, to design and construction plans produced by the Danish Navy’s chief naval constructor at the Danish Navy’s main shipyard (Orlogsværftet) in Copenhagen. This first Danish royal yacht named the DANNEBROG was launched in 1880, and her iron hull displaced 890 tons.
This first Danish royal yacht named the DANNEBROG was manned by a crew of only 56 men, a rather small complement, but one appropriate to a non-combat vessel. The DANNEBROG’s small crew size indicates the rarity of a Danish naval conscript’s likelihood of being appointed to a berth, or service station, on Denmark’s royal yacht.
Although Esther Connell believed that the DANNEBROG was “unarmed,” the DANNEBROG did in fact ship two small, 37 mm “revolving cannon,” which were little more than anti-personnel weapons, although these relatively light weapons may have been capable of sinking lightly-built, unarmed and unarmored ships. They were more symbolic than practical weapons.
DANNEBROG “I” and DANNEBROG “II.”
This first Danish royal yacht (“Kongeskibet”) named the DANNEBROG – i.e., the Danish royal yacht on which Kreseten Bach Christensen supposedly served – is sometimes referred to in this article as the DANNEBROG “I,” to distinguish her from Denmark’s current royal yacht, which is also named the DANNEBROG, and which is sometimes referred to in this article as the DANNEBROG “II.”
The DANNEBROG “I” continued to serve as a cruising royal yacht until 1931, the year before she was replaced by the newly-built DANNEBROG “II” which, unlike the DANNEBROG “I”, was built not by a commercial firm but in the main Danish naval dockyard, the Orlogsværftet, at Holmen in Copenhagen.
Although the DANNEBROG “I” may seem to have been somewhat diminutive at 890 tons, her replacement, the current DANNEBROG – i.e., the DANNEBROG “II” – is not prodigiously larger, displacing 1,225 tons.
Despite the DANNEBROG “I’s” somewhat old-fashioned side paddle-wheels as her means of propulsion, her hull had a somewhat rakish appearance, which was accentuated by her two funnels. However, DANNEBROG “I” was a very stately looking vessel and had a fin-de-siècle elegance, in her capacity as a royal yacht, that is very evocative of this bygone era.
DANNEBROG’s Cruises During Kresten Bach Christensen’s Tour of Duty
Kresten Bach Christensen’s inception date of service in the Danish navy on August 8, 1892, was close to the end of the normal summer cruising season for Danish naval vessels. However, the DANNEBROG does seem to have made one final cruise during the annual 1892 cruising season, from September 1 to October 12, 1892, and Kresten Bach Christensen is likely to have been assigned to the DANNEBROG soon enough to have participated in this cruise.
The termination of Kresten Bach Christensen’s Danish naval service on June 2, 1893, came close to the inception of the Danish navy’s, as well as the DANNEBROG’s new annual cruising season in the spring of 1893. However, the DANNEBROG does seem to have made its first 1893 cruise – which may have been the annual work-up cruise – from May 5 to 18 May,1893, and Kresten Bach Christensen presumably participated in that cruise before he was discharged from Danish naval service on June 2, 1893. Captain G. A. Caroe was the commander of the DANNEBROG during both of the DANNEBROG’s cruises that Kresten Christensen is likely to have participated in.
Between the conclusion of the 1892 annual cruising season and the inception of the 1893 annual cruising season, the DANNEBROG presumably followed the practice of other naval ships that “wintered” in port, by being laid up. What Kresten Bach Christensen’s duties were while the DANNEBROG was laid up are not known, but he probably undertook routine “care and maintenance” activities aboard the DANNEBROG during the winter months.
DANNEBROG “I” in History
Unlike earlier Danish royal yachts, which were relatively small vessels intended either for harbor or local cruising service or as, e.g., ceremonial barges which were primarily oared vessels, the DANNEBROG I was capable of ocean-going cruises of limited duration, to nearby nations such as the Scandinavian countries or England. In fact, the DANNEBROG “I” did undertake “international” cruises of this nature which, if they did not formally amount to “state visits” to other countries, did constitute important international social contacts of the Danish royal family with their royal counterparts in neighboring nations.
One particularly notable historic service that the then somewhat elderly DANNEBROG I performed occurred on November 24, 1905, when she departed from Copenhagen on passage to Norway, which was a newly independent nation upon the dissolution of her near century-long union with Sweden. On board the DANNEBROG was Prince Carl of Denmark, who had been chosen as the new King of Norway, i.e., the future Norwegian King Haakon VII.
Accompanying the DANNEBROG on passage from Copenhagen to Christiania (the future Oslo), Norway were the new Danish armored ship OLFERT FISCHER (main armament: 2-240 mm, 4-150 mm rifled cannon) and the cruiser GEJSER (main armament: 2-120 mm rifled cannon). A contemporary oil painting depicting Prince Carl of Denmark’s celebratory send-off from Copenhagen was executed by the artist Vilhelm Arnesen in 1905-1906.
The DANNEBROG also took the Danish royal family on some social visits to, inter alia, Great Britain prior to World War I, and also made other similar trips abroad.
The stately old royal yacht DANNEBROG was a favorite of Danish King Christian X who, in the years following the First World War, regularly spent much of the summer months each year steaming about Danish waters in the DANNEBROG. The most notable of King Christian X’s summer cruises in the DANNEBROG “I” took place in 1920, when King Christian X attended the reunion ceremonies commemorating the reunification of southern Jutland to the Danish Kingdom.
The Danish artist Vilhelm Arnesen, who executed the previously described oil painting of Prince Carl’s passage to Norway as the future Norwegian King, executed another oil painting eighteen years later, in 1923, to commemorate King Christian X’s summer pastime of cruising Danish waters in the DANNEBROG I, showing the DANNEBROG steaming in the Sound.
During King Christian X’s summer cruises aboard the DANNEBROG “I,” his son, the future King Frederick IX, probably first experienced the sea, which may have been what prompted the future King Frederick IX to become the only Danish king to chose the naval service as the branch of Danish military in which to conduct his military duty.
Danish Royal Yachts in Danish History
Royal yachts have been purpose built as such to serve Denmark’s royalty from as early as the 17th Century, when the “royal jagt” type became popularized by the Dutch, during Holland’s “golden age.” One of the earliest examples of a Danish royal yacht is the ELEPHANTEN built in 1687 – a beautiful contemporary but unrigged model of this royal yacht is in the Orlogsmuseet’s model collection, and is one of the Orlogsmuseet’s most interesting and attractive of its historic models, complete with examples of the hull carvings which embellished her. ELEPHANTEN may have been snow-rigged.
Danish royal yachts varied in type and size, some being no more than ceremonial harbor barges, while others were specifically designated as “pleasure yachts.” However, none of Denmark’s royal yachts during the sailing ship era seems to have been large enough for long-range, open-ocean cruising, far from Copenhagen’s harbor. If a Danish king undertook longer cruises in peacetime, Danish kings might have been inclined to use a regular Danish warship of larger dimensions in preference to a royal yacht, as Danish kings did on occasion.
One of the larger Danish royal yachts during Denmark’s age of sail was actually built in England as a presentation gift to the Danish Crown Prince in 1785. This royal yacht, named KRONPRINDSENS LYSTFREGAT by the Danes, subsequently became involved in a minor but revealing incident of protest which the Danes made after the British sack of Copenhagen and of the Danish navy’s main dockyard in 1807, when Britain confiscated the entire Danish fleet.
The British seem to have left the British presentation yacht behind after otherwise thoroughly looting the Danish navy’s principal dockyard in Copenhagen. In protest of this outrage, the Danes equipped the British presentation yacht for sailing, put some captured British sailors aboard to crew it, and sent the yacht off to Britain with a note to the effect that the British seemed to have forgotten this particular vessel when Britain thoroughly looted the main Danish dockyard.
Although not strictly-speaking Danish naval vessels, during the age of sail Danish royal yachts were sometimes included on Danish navy lists. These royal yachts, during the age of sail, were typically designed and built by the Danish navy’s chief naval architect, and most of them were constructed in the Danish navy’s principal dockyard in Copenhagen.
Two Danish royal yachts, MACRELEN and WILDANDEN, were seized by Britain during the British sack of Copenhagen in 1807, and another, the SØE-ORMEN, was captured by Britain at Nyborg in 1809, during the 1807-1814 “Gunboat War” with Britain. None of these Danish royal yachts were deemed to be suitable for employment in any capacity by the British navy, and were therefore not taken into British naval service.
It was not until the DANNEBROG “I” was constructed that a vessel was built for the role of the Danish royal yacht that could also perform formal or informal functions of state in an international arena, having a strong enough iron hull and the cruising range to conduct voyages on the high seas – and thus to visit nearby countries – as well as suitable accommodation and service areas to host visitors aboard the vessel when visiting foreign ports.
The Name DANNEBROG Explained
The “Dannebrog” is the name of the legendary national flag of Denmark, one of the oldest if not the oldest national flags of any nation in the world. “Dannebrog” means the “cloth of the Danes.”
According to legend, during the Battle of Lyndanisse in Estonia, on June 15, 1219, against heathen Estonians, the battle seemed to be going badly against the Danes and defeat seemed in the offing. However, just when the tide of the battle seemed to be going decisively against the Danes, the Danish army under the Danish King Valdemar Sejr took heart and rallied when the Danish soldiers all noticed the Dannebrog conspicuously descending from the heavens. Taking this symbol as a favorable omen, the morale of the Danish army was transformed, and the Danish troops carried the day.
Ever since that day on June 15, 1219, when the Dannebrog first appeared as a good omen to the Danes in their hour of trial in Estonia against the heathens, June 15th has been Denmark’s national flag day, to commemorate the great day of June 15, 1219.
The Name DANNEBROG as a Ship Name in Danish Naval History
As a historical symbol of great antiquity of the Danish people, “Dannebrog” was an obvious choice of a name with which to name Denmark’s more significant naval ships during the early days of the Danish navy’s history during the age of sail. This meant that, early in Danish naval history, “Dannebrog” was reserved to name significant Danish ships-of-the-line, the battleships of their day.
The name DANNEBROG was fittingly and symbolically chosen to name the very first Danish ship-of-the-line built, in 1692, at the newly established Danish naval shipyard at Holmen, in Copenhagen. The DANNEBROG was doubly symbolic, as she also represented the “nationalization” of Danish warship design and construction in Denmark, which had previously been dominated by foreign-born naval architects. This DANNEBROG fate was to be lost in a heroic and self-sacrificial action in the second Battle of Køge Bay, in 1710, in one of the most outstanding examples of Danish sailors’ exemplary behavior in combat in Danish naval history.
The foregoing DANNEBROG, built in 1692 and destroyed in 1710, was followed by another DANNEBROG in 1739, a 70-gun ship-of-the-line that was placed out of service in 1759. A 60-gun DANNEBROG was built at the Holmen shipyard in 1772, and was seized, along with the rest of the Danish fleet, by Britain during the British sack of Copenhagen in 1807. The last Danish warship named DANNEBROG was a traditional, wooden-hulled, 72-gun ship-of-the-line built at the main Danish shipyard at Nyholm in Copenhagen in 1850, and was subsequently converted in 1863 at a dock at the Danish navy’s main shipyard at Nyholm to an imposing, steam-powered and screw-driven “broadside ironclad,” one of the world’s earliest examples of an ironclad warship.
As the name “Dannebrog” was not in itself a warlike name, but was only the formal name of the Danish flag and therefore symbolized the Danish people and, hence, the Danish state and its monarchy, once the “broadside ironclad” DANNEBROG was reduced by the Danish navy to a “barracks ship” in 1878, the name DANNEBROG has since been reserved by the Danish government for the naming of Denmark’s two most modern royal yachts, a purpose which this name has now officially served for over a century. Presumably, the DANNEBROG will also be the name of all future Danish royal yachts.
The “Barracks Ship” SJÆLLAND
Esther Connell’s belief that the SJÆLLAND was an “unarmed ship” when her grandfather was stationed on this Danish naval vessel is correct. However, prior to the time Esther Connell’s grandfather was stationed on the SJÆLLAND this Danish naval vessel had not only been a heavily armed, first line combat warship of the Danish navy, but was also a near sister-ship of the famous “screw-frigate” JYLLAND that fought in the celebrated Battle of Helgoland against an Austrian-Prussian naval squadron on May 9, 1864. The frigate JYLLAND is now preserved as a naval memorial and museum ship in the town of Ebeltoft in Denmark, and thus provides an excellent idea of what her near-sister SJÆLLAND also looked like.
The SJÆLLAND was originally built in 1858 as a wooden-hull, steam-powered “screw frigate.” Aside from her steam propulsion, the SJÆLLAND was also a full-rigged ship, equipped with a full outfit of sails. The SJÆLLAND’s original armament was 30-30 pdr., 50 cwt., and 12-30 pdr., 40 cwt., cannon. SJÆLLAND was subsequently rearmed with a different artillery outfit on two different occasions later in her career.
In 1885, or seven years before the time Kresten Bach Christensen entered Danish naval service, the SJÆLLAND was reduced to a barracks ship in Copenhagen harbor – in this guise as a “barracks ship,” the SJÆLLAND was a disarmed hulk that had been stripped of her machinery and other valuable gear, and was used as an accommodation and receiving ship for new Danish naval conscripts.
Regarding Denmark’s employment of the SJÆLLAND as a “barracks ship,” Denmark, like other European countries in the 19th Century and earlier, did not build barracks for Denmark’s naval seamen but, as an economy measure, utilized the hulks of old Danish naval ships, that were no longer serviceable as cruising vessels, to fulfill this purpose as providing inexpensive accommodation for, e.g., conscripted sailors. The SJÆLLAND seems to have been used to accommodate newly conscripted Danish navy seamen before they were assigned to active naval ships, and possibly even other Danish naval sailors while in between duty assignments.
Kresten Bach Christensen was probably accommodated aboard the SJÆLLAND when he first entered Danish naval service, but he is unlikely to have spent many days stationed on the SJÆLLAND before being assigned to his duty station aboard the royal yacht DANNEBROG.
Epilogue: Kresten Bach Christensen Emigrates to the United States
Kresten Christensen was married just over a year after he completed his Danish naval service, to Lena Pedersen, on July 27, 1894. Then, in the spring of 1912, not ten years after his Danish naval service, Kresten Bach Christensen emigrated to the United States, and his family followed in November, 1912.
No wonder Kresten Bach Christensen urgently needed to find more space in the vast and sparsely populated territorial reaches of the United States, and emigrated there – Kresten Bach Christensen and his wife Lena became the parents of 14 children, 11 of which survived!
Kresten Bach Christensen and his family finally settled near Elk Horn, Iowa, in the United States. Ironically, over a century after Kresten Bach Christensen’s family settled there, Elk Horn ultimately became the location of the Danish Immigrant Museum in the United States, which relatively recently built a new museum building in Elk Horn!
- H. Degenkolv, Den Danske Flaades Skibe i Sidste Aarhundrede, 1906.
- Kay Larsen, Vore Orlogsskibe: Fra Halvfemserne Til Nu, 1932.
- Palle Lauring, A History of Denmark in Pictures, 1963.
- Palle Lauring, A History of Denmark, 1960.
- Peter Seeberg, et al., Om Dannebrog jeg ved . . ., 1996.
Aside from the foregoing published bibliographical sources, the author of this article is indebted to Esther Connell, the Danish-American granddaughter of Kresten Bach Christensen, who not only initiated the inquiry on which this article is based, but also provided the valuable group photo of 1890-era Danish sailors, including Kresten Bach Christensen, which is published in this article, and also provided other valuable family information about her Danish ancestors on which this story about Kresten Bach Christensen is based.
Please Contact Esther Connell, Danish-American, and Granddaughter of Kresten Bach Christensen, Regarding Feedback on This Article.
Esther Connell, the granddaughter of Kresten Bach Christensen, seeks information about her grandfather’s service in the Danish navy, and her grandfather’s possible service aboard the Danish royal yacht DANNEBROG, as described in this article. Anyone having such information should communicate with Esther Connell at firstname.lastname@example.org