Denmark profited from staying neutral during the First World War. Danish merchant ships transported goods to both the belligerent parties, export was booming and profiteers made fortunes. Even though Denmark remained neutral during the war the people of Southern Jutland – then a part of Germany – were forced to fight for Germany as conscripts even if they had Danish sympathies and didn’t feel German at all.
The many declarations of war around 1st August 1914 made the Danish population and the Danish government worried that Denmark could risk occupation by one of the belligerent parties. All the political parties agreed, however, that Denmark should remain neutral and the government informed the relevant nations that this was so.
It soon became clear, however, that measures were needed to secure the country during the war. For this purpose the Danish government called in its military reserves; in other words the Danish military was mobilized so that they were able to defend Danish neutrality in case of attack. Around 50,000 men were mobilized but their main task was to defend the Danish capital of Copenhagen as 40,000 were given this assignment while only 10,000 were to defend the whole of both Jutland and Funen.
The Danish government also chose to mine the seas around Denmark. This was the result of German pressure and of the fact that the German navy had already begun to mine the sea around Denmark in order to protect Germany from a British naval attack via Danish territorial waters. By mining the sea the Danish government was undoubtedly trying to avoid giving Germany a pretext for an occupation of Denmark, with a claim of needing to secure itself from a British attack on Germany from Danishterritory.
Denmark ended up making huge profits from the war by remaining neutral. Some 60 % of Danish exports before the war consisted of agricultural produce sold to Great Britain while 29 % consisted of mainly livestock exports to Germany. It is important to bear in mind that Denmark was at the time of the First World War, a country mainly making its living from selling agricultural products. Industrialization came to Denmark at a rather late point in time. Both Britain and Germany were important trading partners for Denmark.
Denmark continued to do business with both Germany and Britain during the war. Germany bought horses for use as part of the war effort. Horses were still important during the First World War for use with horse-drawn artillery, ambulances, supply wagons etc. Up until 1914 the Danish exports of horses were usually some 20 – 30,000 animals per year but within just a few months after the outbreak of war in august 1914 some 80,000 animals had been sent out of the country many of which had been sold to Germany.
While farmers, landed proprietors and self-employed craftsmen etc. profited from the war employees of the public sector, workers and old age pensioners were worse off. In the end the government had to intervene through price-control in order to prevent violent price-increases due to shortages sometimes caused by increasing exports. In 1918 the government introduced rationing of sugar, butter and pork, in order to make sure that everyone could get enough food.
Some of the people in Denmark who made good money during the First World War were the profiteers, in Denmark known as `Goulash-barons´ because they were said to make their living from producing and exporting goulash to the belligerent parties. The profiteers made a lot of money from trade because of the special conditions created by the war.`Goulash-barons´ was a derogatory term used for everybody who profited significantly from the war; it was not reserved for those who actually made their profits from exporting food products to the belligerent nations. In fact most `Goulash Barons´ made their fortunes from buying and selling stock.
But some did actually make a lot of money from producing and selling food products to the belligerent countries. In 1914 there were 21 Danish factories that produced canned meat products. That figure rose to 148 during the war. The exports of meat products as canned goods became 50 times higher during the war. There were very large profits to be made within this business.
The `Goulash-barons´ got their nickname from the fact that the most important export goods to the belligerent countries as canned food was goulash. It consisted of pieces of meat in brown gravy so nobody could see what was in it just by looking at it. Often it was of very poor quality. The goulash could contain anything from sinews, over intestines and cartilage to actual bone grinded into flour and then added to the mix. In some cases producers didn’t even care if the meat was too old or if the odd rat was part of the goulash.
Merchant shipping was in great demand during the war. Danish merchant ships transported import goods to and Denmark and export goods to the belligerent nations and other trading partners. The Danish fishing fleet still had to go out fishing in order to make a living.
It was a very dangerous job to be on the ships of the Danish merchant navy during the war even though Denmark remained neutral throughout the conflict. In total some 324 Danish ships were sunk. 722 Danish fishermen and merchant navy seamen lost their lives at sea between 1914 and 1918. For this reason some of the market towns in Denmark outside of Southern Jutland, with monuments from the First World War, are those which had a tradition of supplying seamen to the merchant navy. They also lost many local inhabitants at sea during the war and for this reason felt a need to put up monuments to commemorate them. A good example of this is the market town of Marstal.
By Horserød on Zealand and Hald by the town of Viborg in Jutland camps known as hospital camps were built. Their purpose was to give medical treatment to sick and wounded former POWs interned on neutral Danish territory. Shortly after the end of the war a fairly large number of POWs from the belligerent nations were sent through Denmark in transit on their way back to their native countries. They were kept in internment camps while they waited for transport home.
Some of these POWs died while staying in Denmark and they are commemorated on monuments in the former camps or where they are buried, e.g. at Vestre Cemetery in Copenhagen, for example. A number of those POWs who died during internment in Denmark died from the Influenza Pandemic, in Denmark called `Den Spanske Syge´ (`the Spanish disease´), a particularly violent strain of Influenza virus. It became a pandemic during the winter of 1918-1919.
Some Danes went from Denmark and enlisted in the armies of the belligerent nations as volunteers while other Danes were already living in one of the belligerent countries and simply enlisted in that country’s army at the outbreak of war.
Some 85 Danes fought as part of the French army probably mainly as part of the Foreign Legion. The well-known Danish writer Karen Blixen, also known as Isaac Dinesen had a brother, Thomas Dinesen. He enlisted in the Canadian army as a volunteer and was sent to the Western Front in France where he later won a Victoria Cross – the most important military medal for valour and self-sacrifice. He won it for his actions on 18th August 1918 at Vimy when the enemy stopped a Canadian attack. He and another soldier took the lead and succeeded in forcing the Germans to retreat. Thomas Dinesen later wrote his memoirs from his time as a soldier in the Canadian army during the First World War in Danish under the title No Man’s Land in 1929 and in English under the title Merry Hell! A Dane with the Canadians published in London in 1930.
For the population of Southern Jutland the war experience was very different from that of the population of neutral Denmark north of the Kongeåen, the river that formed the border between Germany and Denmark until 1920.
During the First World War Southern Jutland, from 1864 a part of Germany, and regardless of national sentiment, they were conscripted into the German military. A total of some 30,000 young men from Southern Jutland served in the German military at some point during the war. For this reason Southern Jutland experienced the war from the perspective of a belligerent nation.
Young men from Southern Jutland fought as part of the German military all over the world including the Western Front, the Eastern Front, the Balkans, Africa, and as part of the German navy in the Baltic and the North Sea.
Although a number of young men from Southern Jutland who felt Danish deserted and crossed the border into neutral Denmark the vast majority fought and stayed loyal to Germany throughout the war. Like most soldiers in wars once the soldiers of Southern Jutland had arrived in the trenches of the Western Front, for example, they had to fight if they wanted to have a chance of surviving the war. Often the strong feeling of comradeship amongst them and other soldiers in their units would result in them doing their best to make sure that not only they but also their comrades would survive the war.
During the First World War some 3900 young men from Southern Jutland were killed and in 1934 they were commemorated on the national monument for all the Danish war dead erected that year in the Mindeparken (the Memorial Park) in the city of Århus in Eastern Jutland. The memorial commemorates all Danes who lost their lives in the war, including volunteers in the armies of foreign countries and Danish seamen who died at sea. A total of 4140 names are inscribed on the walls of the monument, which is a rotunda. It is shown in the part of this website, which consists of a database of the individual monuments of Danish market towns.
The building of monuments in Southern Jutland after the war corresponds to the fact that the area was part of a belligerent nation.
In many, if not all parishes of Southern Jutland, the local war dead are commemorated on a monument of some sort and in Southern Jutland market towns they are often remembered on one or more Freestanding monuments. In some cases those war dead who came from families with Danish national sentiment and those who came from families feeling German are remembered on the same monument as is the case in Aabenraa Cemetery, for example. In some cases, however, the two groups are remembered on separate monuments such as in the town of Tønder, for example.
The monuments of the First World War in all Danish market towns are shown in the database of individual monuments found on this website, where there is not only information but also pictures of them. There is also more information about the monuments of other countries in the relevant part of this web site.
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Blüdnikow, Bent: Krigsfanger – et billeddrama om krigsfanger i Danmark under 1. verdenskrig (Odense, 1988)
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Dinesen, Thomas: No Man’s Land (Copenhagen, 1929)
Dinesen, Thomas: Merry Hell! – a Dane with the Canadians (London, 1930)
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