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The Greenlandic War, sometimes referred to as the Americo-Iceland War or the Fishing War, was a war between the Kingdom of Iceland and the United States of America between 1892 and 1893. America declared war in the summer of 1892, invading the Icelandic territory of Greenland. Despite early losses, the greatly outnumbered Icelandic army managed to save the capital of Nuuk. The war ended with the Treaty of Thule, which was negotiated by the French Empire.
Leadup to the War
The United States of America had been expanding northward into its Canadian territories since it won the War of 1812. After the end of the Civil War in 1864, the Federal government garrisoned many more troops in Quebec and the Northern Territories in order to keep a better eye on the rebellious population. An unintended byproduct of this was unprecedented growth in the economy and population. This helped create a boom in fish demand, which resulted in American cod and shrimp trawlers increasingly fishing in the rich Baffin Bay. This was illegal, since Baffin Bay was the territory of the Kingdom of Iceland, which included Greenland.
The Icelandic administration in Greenland was not very pleased with the increased American presence in the Bay. The big-business American trawlers simply outmatched their small-scale Greenlandic counterparts. The fishing industry on which Greenland was so reliant quickly dried out. Adding insult to injury, the American Navy frequently engaged in exercises in Iceland's territorial waters, sometimes in within range of the coast.
Despite many diplomatic protests by the Icelandic crown, the Americans continued fishing and exercising regardless. Feeling America's animosity, Iceland expanded its trade with Brazil, the long standing rival of the USA. Brazil supplied the Icelandic military with the very latest in military technology, partly in return for the remains of Iceland's shrimp catch, and partly to alienate America.
Incensed by the newfound friendship between Iceland and Brazil, and hoping to resolve the fishing issue once and for all, US President Benjamin Harrison's administration began laying plans for an invasion of Greenland. Convinced that the Icelanders would give up Greenland without a fight, Harrison and his military advisors devised a plan to seize the small fishing villages on the Western coast, convinced that the Icelanders would soon surrender.
Course of the War
American marines landed in the small greenlandic town of Uummannaq in 5th of July, 1892. The ungarrisoned town offered no resistance and surrendered to the marines later that day. The marines garrisoned the town and set about securing the rest of Uummannaq Island.
News of the invasion reached the Icelandic authorities in Nuuk a week later. It was a long wait, one which the Icelandic military authorities could ill-afford. Inspector of West Greenland -Edgar Christian Fencker- mobilized the Greenlandic Militia, and King Christian IX officially declared war on the USA. The Icelandic North Sea fleet was ordered to Greenland, under the command of the national hero, Admiral Harold Stiegsson. Troops were mobilized, and the various colonies offered contingents to help the motherland. During this interval, the Americans were reinforcing and resupplying their beachhead on Uummannaq.
On the ground in Greenland, however, things were going badly for Iceland. the Americans had secured Disco Bay, north of Kamlakaq, and were ready to assault the village. Kamlakaq, usually tiny with only 80 people, had expanded to about 160 with the arrival of a division of the greenlandic Militia. A "battle" on the 16th of July proved inconclusive, but the Greenlandic force performed a tactical retreat to Ilulissat, a large town of about three thousand residents, and a 500-strong militia division. Captain Sven Smjorkensen's militia in Ilulissat dug defensive trenches, built earthworks and constructed batteries in preparation for the enemy. Smjorkensen's plan was to keep the Americans at bay until the arrival of the navy, bringing much needed supplies and reinforcements. Under a sustained American attack, he estimated the town would last two weeks at the most.
The anticipated attack came on the 20th of July with a bombardment lasting twenty-four hours. The valiant defenders returned the fire shot for shot, but sustained damage to the port facilities. The local fisherman were undeterred by the firing, sailing out early as they always did. At dawn, the American lookouts spied the fishing trawlers on the horizon, and, thinking they were the Icelandic navy, were thrown into a state of confusion, causing an end to the barrage. To this day, the fishermen are regarded as the saviour of the town's church, and a stain glass window has been built in their honour. However, the confusion caused by the fishermen proved to be only a brief respite for the town. An intermittant barrage started again, and the Americans began massing for an assault. Captain Smjorkensen, realising that the navy would be too late, allowed the townspeople to defect to the Americans. In a show of solidarity, none of Ilulissat's inhabitants went over to the enemy. On the 4th of August, the Americans assaulted the town. After street to street fighting and heavy losses, the remaining Greenlandic forces retreated to Claushavn.
In a sad twist of fate, a Naval squadron filled with Icelandic reinforcements steamed into Illullisaat just twenty-four hours after it was abandoned by its defenders. The squadron shelled the town, and steamed southwards to Claushavn. There, the Commodore, Adalbjorn Bergsson, met with Cpt. Smjorkensen to discuss tactics. After a long council of War, it was decided to withdraw to Aasiaat, a large town in the strategically important Aasiaat Archipelago.
The remnants of Cpt. Smjorkensen's militia, as well as the reinforcements, led by Colonel Galderssen disembarked at Aasiaat on the 6th of August. Combined with the town's own militia complement, Colonel Galderssen was now in command of about 1000 troops, not including Commodore Bergssen's naval squadron.
Meanwhile, Greenland's capital, Nuuk, was being flooded with troops from Iceland and the Virgin Isles. Units as far away as Calcutta were being shipped to help defend "Mother Iceland". The Emperor of Brazil, Pedro II, authorized a fleet to be dispatched to assist his Icelandic allies.
The Americans had been doing some reinforcing of their own. Admiral McCalla was put in command of the North Atlantic Fleet, and was steaming to meet the Icelanders in Davis Strait. Reaching the Aasiaat archipelago, on the 10th of August, McAlla bombarded the town. The defenders responded with artillery fire from a newly-constructed battery. After a week-long bombardment, American marines launched an assault on the town. The "Battle for Aasiaat" has been described as "...the greatest display of valour from the Greenlanders of the entire war.". Despite the technological superiority of the Americans, the Greenlanders were able to successfully repulse the attack. Commodore Bergssen's squadron was able to harangue the Americans with night raids, helping boost the defenders' morale. Help for Aasiaat's defenders came four weeks later with the arrival of the Brazillian fleet. The Brazillians caught the Americans completely off guard, and despite some great seamanship by McAlla, he was forced to retire to Ilulissat with the remnants of his fleet.
Due to his loss to the Brazilians, Admiral McAlla shelved any plans for a seabourne invasion of Nuuk. Instead, his soldiers were to march the five hundred and sixty-four icy km to the island's capital. The march began on the 14th of September, with 1,500 American troops marching out of Ilulisaat. Their journey was hampered by deep snow, and lack of food. Their plight was worsened by the Greenlandic parched earth policy, as well as frequent raids by the Greenlanders and Brazilians from their base in Aasiaat. 200 died on the march.
After four gruelling weeks, the Americans reached Nuuk. Expecting to simply march into an undefended capital, they were met instead with a fortified, reinforced and well-supplied stronghold. The American commander, Col. Johnson, decided his only chance of victory lay in a quick storming of the town. After allowing his men three days to recouperate from the march, Johnson attacked Nuuk.
The defenders of the town had a slight numerical advantage over their opponents, were well-supplied, had fresh troops, and had not spent four weeks marching through the Greenlandic wilderness.
The first American attack came at dawn on the 15th of October. Although initially successful in breaching the town's fortifications, it was soon beaten back once the whole garrison was alerted. The Greenlanders backed up their success with a barrage of the American camp.
By this point, Col. Johnson was getting anxious. Winter was only a few weeks away, and his troops were running low on supplies and morale. The assault on Nuuk had cost him 50 men, and there was no way he could march his remaining men back to Claushavn before winter.
Luckily for Johnson, a small naval squadron had been ordered to Nuuk in order to resupply what was by now meant to be an American base. The squadron commander, after observing the Islandsbrog still flying above Nuuk, sent scouting parties to find Col. Johnson's missing troops. Johnson and his troops embarked on the 20th, and the squadron set sail for Ilulisaat the next day.
The American suqdron off the coast of Nuuk had not gone unnoticed by the defenders of the town, who wired Commodore Bergssen and the Brazillian admiral, Rodriguez Lopez, informing them of the situation. Cdre. Bergssen, with his squadron, steramed south to intercept the Americans en route to Claushavn. Rear-Admiral Lopez stayed in Aasiaat, keeping an eye on McAlla in Ilulisaat.
The two squadrons met off Simiutaq Island on the 23rd of October. After three hours, the evenly-matched battle looked like it would become a draw, until 2:41pm, when: "We heard an almighty explosion from the port side. After our ears had stopped ringing, we looked over the water, and to our mounting horror, we saw the RIS Kong Christian engulfed in flames." A lucky shot from the Americans had hit the boiler of the Icelandic flagship, causing irreparable damage and the deaths of two thirds of the crew.
With the Bergssen's flagship in flames, the American squadron was able to steam Northwards unhindered. Having sailed North of Disko Island to evade the notice of Rear-Admiral Lopez, the Americans arrived at USA HQ Ilulisaat on the 28th.
Winter of 1892
As the harsh northern winter closed in, Admiral MacAlla, his hopes lifted by the extra manpower and supplies brought by the newly-arrived squadron, made up his mind to hunker down and see the winter through in Ilulisaat. The Icelandic and Brazillian commanders came to similar decisions, and focussed on keeping their men warm and fed. The Winter of 1892 would go almost unmentioned by historians if it were not for the daring and much-publicised role which the Royal Inuit Unit was to play.
The RIU had been established e decade previously as an armed reconnaisance formation. The unit, as its name suggests, was manned, and officered, by the native Inuits, a rarity in a country olitically dominated by whites. The unit was made up of four squadrons, each appointed to one of the inspectorates of Greenland. Each squadron was made up of fifteen dogsled teams, which earned the unit its designation as light infantry. It was considered an elite unit, virtually impervious to adverse weather conditions, and able to move at amazing speeds.
It is of no surprise, therefore, that Inspector Fenkner turned to the RIU during November of 1892. He ordered the unit to engage in night raids on the Americans, to destroy their communications, and to harry their supply lines. This they did with brilliant effectiveness. The group destroyed Ilulisaat's telegraph communications with the other American bases, burnt the american boats in Claushavn, and took almost fifty americans captive throughout the two months of their winter activities.
These small victories were widely publicised in popular newspapers and magazines in Greenland and Iceland. The hitherto unknown RUI became a hosehold name, with some of its most successful officers becoming national heroes. The unit's commander, Major Allakirallak (commonly known by iceanders as Allak) was made a Ridder of the Order of the Dannenbrog. The unit's success were met with infinitely less enthusiasm in strongly racist America. There, the success of the "vile eskimo barbarians" over the predominantly white american troops caused public outrage and many people called for Admiral MacAlla's resignation as Commander, Greenlandic Theatre.
- ↑ Stefanssen, H, The War in Greenland, p 176, Icelandic Publishing Co. Reykyavik
- ↑ McAlla,Life of a Patriot, an Autobiography p 296, Banta, George & Co, Baltimore.
- ↑ Peterson, J, "The March on Nuuk", pg 398, United Scottish Publishing, Edinburgh
- ↑ Atli Arnbjarnarson, Et liv for faedrelandet", pg 245,Royal Icelandic Publishings, Reykjavik,