Saint Pierre and Miquelon are two tiny islands off the northeastern coast of Canada. But they’re not Canadian: they belong to France, and they are the last tiny bits of French North America.
The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Year’s War (sometimes called the “French and Indian War” in the US). The terms dictated that France give up all her claims to land in North America. But, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, the British gave Saint Pierre and Miquelon back to France a few weeks after the treaty was signed.
Due to the way the French constitution works, the land that makes up the islands isn’t “a piece of land owned by France”, it’s a “piece of France itself”. The people who live there aren’t “colonials” – they’re French citizens. They belong to the EU and use Euros. If you get a passport stamp there it says “France”. Although it’s 2,373 miles (3,819 km) from Saint Pierre and Miquelon to Brest (the nearest point in Metropolitan France) it’s only 478 miles (770 km) as the crow flies from Hamlin, Maine to Saint Pierre and Miquelon. So if someone asks you how far France or the EU is from the US, you can win a bar bet with that little bit of trivia!
So… what’s so “fun” about it?
Well, aside from having a tiny bit of France just 1,307 miles (2,103 km) up the coast from me, it’s kind neat that street names generally aren’t used on the island. It’s a couple of tiny islands of a few thousand people whose families have lived there for generations. It truly is the kind of place where people say things like “yeah, turn left at Andre’s gas station, then make a right at Florian’s farm, then make a hard right after Gaston’s old treehouse. If you see the old red pickup truck by the side of the road, you’ve gone too far.” Only it’s in French.
Also, some islanders got filthy rich during Prohibition. Canadians sold plenty of Canadian whiskey to Americans. But it was, in fact, illegal under Canadian law to sell alcohol to Americans in quantity. But you know what wasn’t illegal? For Canadians to sell whiskey to French people. In 1931, the islands imported a total of 1.8 million US gallons of whiskey from Canada … for population of around 4.300 people. Almost all that liquor was bought by American smugglers who’d sailed up from New York or Massachusetts or even Virginia. Prohibition was a golden time for the island.
But there’s dark stuff, too. Saint Pierre and Miquelon was the scene of the only known execution by guillotine in North America. A man named Joseph Néel was found guilty of murdering a Mr Coupard on Île aux Chiens on December 30, 1888 and executed 8 months later. He probably would have been executed earlier, but the guillotine had to be shipped from France’s Caribbean outpost of Martinique. And it was damaged in transit, so authorities had to find someone to fix it. A few more weeks then passed as no local wanted to do the actual execution part of it. A recent arrival was coaxed into it on August 24, 1889. The whole sordid story is the subject of the 2000 film The Widow of Saint-Pierre starring Juliette Binoche. The guillotine still exists and is now in a museum on Saint-Pierre.
Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945. Between those two dates, the last battle of the European theatre happened. And it was one of the strangest battles in history.
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There’s a small village of around 400 people in western Austria called Itter. Itter would be a completely unremarkable place, except for a castle on the edge of town. Given the imaginative name Schloss Itter (which literally means “Castle Itter” in German), the building dates to at least 1241, although sources indicate that the castle may have been built by 1204, and there were likely other buildings on the same spot as far back as the 900s.
In the 1930s, the castle was owned by a man named Franz Grüner. After the Anschluss of March 12, 1938 – where the Nazis annexed Austria – Grüner rented the castle to the German government, which held meetings and retreats there. For a few months in 1942, it was home to the “German Association for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco”, who no doubt held the lamest parties ever.
However, on February 7, 1943, SS Lieutenant General Oswald Pohl seized the castle outright on orders of his boss, Heinrich Himmler. Himmler wanted to turn Schloss Itter into a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp.
But not just any old POW camp. This was a POW camp for VIPs, and some of the earliest inmates included former French president Albert Lebrun, former Italian prime minister (and anti-Fascist) Francesco Nitti and André François-Poncet, who had been the French ambassador to both Germany and Italy in the run-up to the war. These people were quickly transferred elsewhere, however.
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During the invasion of France, the Germans captured a number of high-profile French citizens. They would later uncover several ministers of Vichy France who were secretly plotting with the Allies.
Thus, prisoners at Castle Itter included former premiers (prime ministers) Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, Michel Clemenceau, son of former premier Georges Clemenceau, former army commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin, right-wing leader François de La Rocque, trade union leader (and future Nobel Peace Prize winner) Léon Jouhaux, Charles De Gaulle’s eldest sister, Marie-Agnès Cailliau, and Jean-Robert Borotra, one of the most famous tennis players in France, who had served as Minister for Sport for Vichy France before trying to escape and join the Allies. In addition to these VIPs, many of their wives were imprisoned too, and the Germans had transferred a handful of Eastern Europeans from Dachau to Itter to handle household tasks like cooking, cleaning and gardening.
Castle Itter was no paradise, but by all accounts, if you were going to be trapped in a German POW camp in World War II, Itter was the place to be. VIP prisoners were given the nicest rooms and had free reign to walk anywhere on castle grounds, including the extensive library. The food was reportedly the best of any POW camp. And the 25 SS soldiers charged with guarding the place – mostly older men with little or no combat experience – were later described by prisoners and “nice” or “friendly”. Perhaps the guards were well aware of what a cushy posting they had, and didn’t want to screw it up.
Despite this, the French prisoners were openly hostile to each other. Reynaud and Daladier were sworn enemies, so it was like having Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at your office’s mandatory team-building retreat. What’s more, both Reynaud and Daladier couldn’t stand Weygand, who had surrendered the bulk of France’s army to the Nazis on June 17, 1940. And it should go without saying that the right-wing La Rocque and the Communist union leader Jouhaux didn’t get along, either. The VIPs split into three groups and avoided each other as much as possible. At meal times, the prisoners sat at different tables: the Weygands, the Borotras, and La Rocque at one table, Reynaud, Christiane Mabire (Jouhaux’s secretary and future wife), Gamelin, and Clemenceau at a second table and everyone else – “the neutrals” – at a third. Continue reading “The Last Battle”
Hi! I’m Jim! I have a website where I sometimes share quirky tales from history. Every Monday for the next four weeks, I’m going to share one of those stories to (re)acquaint you with my site in a feature I call HISTORY REPEATS.
Everyone loves a good heist film, right? Our final tale is about one of the most audacious robberies in history: when a man, seeking revenge and tipped off by a monk, robbed the King of England:
Dick Puddlecote was angry. And not your average “oh, I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning” angry, either. He was angry to the very core of his being. Trillions of cells made up Dick’s body, and every last one of them was furious with the King of England.
Hi! I’m Jim! I have a website where I sometimes share quirky tales from history. Every Monday for the next four weeks, I’m going to share one of those stories to (re)acquaint you with my site in a feature I call HISTORY REPEATS.
Our third tale comes from the time I took a field trip to an almost-forgotten Charlotte landmark that may have provided the inspiration for the city’s nickname:
Bags of oats and corn were loaded into British wagons, while livestock pens were emptied of pigs and goats. But then, the strangest thing happened: one of the British soldiers knocked over a giant beehive, and angry bees started swarming all over the troops. Confusion and chaos reigned. Thompson and his men had been waiting patiently for a good time to shoot, and this was it. They opened fire, killing one British officer instantly. The militiamen silently moved to new locations, reloaded, and opened fire again. This caused Captain Doyle to think they were under attack by a larger force, so he ordered a retreat.
Even if you’re not from Charlotte, you just might love this quirky tale, too! Check it out:
Hi! I’m Jim! I have a newly redesigned website where I sometimes share quirky tales from history. Every Monday for the next four weeks, I’m going to share one of those stories to (re)acquaint you with those tales in a feature I call HISTORY REPEATS.
Our second tale is about the Berners Street Hoax… quite possibly the greatest prank of all time:
Berners Street wasn’t very wide to begin with, and as word of the deliveries spread, onlookers appeared. The street was completely clogged with angry merchants, curious bystanders and police, who wanted to know why traffic had come to a complete stop on Oxford Street. As it happened, traffic had ground to a halt throughout much of London. But Hook had it all planned out. Like a symphony, this prank was approaching a crescendo.
It’s a hilarious story guaranteed to make your sides split! Check it out:
Hi! I’m Jim! I have a newly redesigned website where I sometimes share quirky tales from history. Every Monday for the next four weeks, I’m going to share a story from my site to (re)acquaint you with some of those tales in a feature I call HISTORY REPEATS.
I’ll kick this off with the amazing true story of Timothy Dexter, a Colonial American who, by all accounts, should be remembered as “the worst businessman in history”… except for his unbelievable string of good luck:
A group of high society types then told Dexter he could make money by shipping gloves to the South Sea Islands… and you can guess what happened next: Dexter’s ship of gloves arrived just as some Portuguese ships were about to leave on a trading mission to China. The Portuguese bought all the gloves, and once again Timothy Dexter, like some sort of 18th century Kozmo Kramer, fell backwards into money.
In this post from 2012, I talked about the strange, interconnected history of several companies that had financial difficulties… that ended up being bought by the companies providing the packaging for that product.
For example, Richard S. Reynolds, Sr. – nephew of Richard Joshua Reynolds, of RJ Reynolds tobacco fame – played a big role in the development of Camel, America’s first successful pre-rolled cigarette. After the brand became a hit, Richard S. Reynolds left RJR and started an aluminum foil company, because cigarette and candy companies were big users of foil packaging. One of Richard S. Reynolds’ biggest customers was Eskimo Pie, a foil-wrapped ice cream sandwich. When Eskimo Pie ran in to legal trouble Reynolds bought the company rather than lose such a big customer.
Well, I’ve found another example: Tootsie Rolls!
Tootsie Rolls were created by an Austrian immigrant named Leo Hirshfield in 1907. Hirshfield worked for an outfit called Sweets Company of America, and was trying to come up with a chocolate-flavored candy that was cheaper than actual chocolate and wouldn’t melt in the summer, since air conditioning wasn’t yet common. He named the treat after his daughter Clara, whose nickname was “Tootsie”.
By 1935, the company was on the verge of collapse. This greatly worried Bernard D. Rubin, owner of Joseph Rubin & Sons, the company that made boxes for Tootsie Roll. Sweets Company of America was one of his biggest customers. Rubin obtained a list of shareholders and met with them one by one until he’d bought a majority stake in the company. He subsequently ran the company from 1936 until his death in 1948. His brother William B. Rubin then took over the company, running it until 1962. In that year, the company changed its name to Tootsie Roll Industries. Also in that year his daughter, Ellen Rubin Gordon, took charge of the company. She still runs it today.
Check out the original article for a fun ride through some strange American business history!
If you follow British politics at all, you’re probably familiar with the State Opening of Parliament. In this, Queen Elizabeth II rides in a gilded carriage from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster, as the Houses of Parliament are formally known. There she changes into formal attire – including the crown – and sits in the House of Lords, where she reads a speech that has been prepared for her by the current government.
The speech outlines the things the current government wants to do in the upcoming legislative session. It’s like a more subdued State of the Union address… without the clapping every 30 seconds.
Incidentally, my favorite part of the ceremony involves someone known as the “Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod”. Usually called “Black Rod” for short, once the Queen and the Lords have assembled for the speech, Black Rod is sent to summon the House of Commons. However, as he approaches the Commons chamber the door is slammed in his face, and he bangs on the door with his… black rod to get their attention:
This is a response to an event that took place on January 4, 1642, when Charles I, accompanied by armed soldiers, stormed into the House of Commons to arrest five MPs he believed had encouraged the Scots to invade England. Although the House of Commons and Charles I had been at odds for decades by that point, this event proved to be the spark that ignited the English Civil War, and is why, to this day, the monarch is not allowed to enter the House of Commons. By slamming the door in Black Rod’s face, the Commons reminds the monarch that they won’t be bullied by the anyone, especially the Crown.
And hey, speaking of “being bullied by the monarch”, have you ever wondered what happens after the Queen’s speech?
Well, the Commons takes up a bill known as “A Bill for the more effectual preventing clandestine Outlawries”, which is mercifully shortened to the “Outlawries Bill”. And here’s something you might not know: in Anglo-Saxon times, to be declared an outlaw was the second worst thing the government could do to you, outside of torturing you to death. That’s because an “outlaw” was literally a person “outside the law”. An outlaw convicted of a crime couldn’t just hire a better lawyer and file an appeal, since he was now excluded from the legal system. Anyone offering an outlaw food, shelter or assistance could be executed for aiding and abetting. And if an angry mob happened to come across an outlaw… well, you couldn’t be arrested for killing a person the law no longer recognized, so… It may surprise some that the “WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE” trope made famous in old Western films actually has its origin in Anglo-Saxon England!
Of course, England doesn’t have “outlaws” any more, at least not in that Anglo-Saxon sense. But a bill about them is introduced into the House of Commons after every Queen’s Speech. This is to symbolically show that the House will control its own agenda, and not be bullied or persuaded by the monarch. An interesting side note is that, since the bill is purely symbolic these days, no one bothers printing up paper copies of the bill. And since they haven’t done so for years, no one really knows what the exact text of the bill actually was. This version of the bill, used during the reign of Queen Victoria, is the most complete known example of the bill:
A Bill for the more effectual preventing clandestine Outlawries.
For the more effectual preventing Clandestine Outlawries in Personal Actions, Be it Enacted by the Queen’s most excellent Majesty by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons in this present Parliament assembled and by the authority of the same. That if after the [date] any attorney Solicitor or other person who shall prosecute any person or persons to Outlawry in any action personal wherein no Writ or Exegerit shall be awarded shall make default to send or deliver the Writ of Proclamation to the Sheriff of the proper County where the Defendant shall be dwelling at the time of awarding the Exegerit (the place of such dwelling being known), every such Attorney Solicitor or other person aforesaid making such default being lawfully convicted shall for every such offence forfeit [amount]; and if the Sheriff (the Writ of Proclamation being duly delivered to him) shall refuse or neglect before the Return of the Writ to make [number of] Proclamations according to the directions of the Act made in the thirty-first year of the reign of [Queen Elizabeth] for the avoiding of privy and secret Outlawries in actions personal, every such Sheriff being lawfully convicted shall for every such refusal or neglect forfeit [amount].
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While all this is going on, the House of Lords discusses vestries. In the United States, Ireland and Scotland, vestries are committees of lay people who advise the clergy of Episcopal churches.
The vestry serves two purposes. For one, it takes some of the workload off the clergy. If a church needed roof repairs, for example, the vestry might be in charge of getting estimates and determining the best course of action. Or if the church had a sensitive situation – like a deacon getting caught with a prostitute – the rector may seek the vestry’s help in figuring out what to do next.
The vestry’s second task is to keep an eye on the books, not just to keep the rector’s hand out of the cookie jar, but also to make sure the parish is financially stable generally. This is the origin of the vestry in England: a secular group made up of prominent citizens that had control over the parish’s public charity funds, such as aid to the poor. Over time, vestries assumed more and more power, such as appointing church officials like clerks and sextons, and maintaining public utilities like water pumps, market scales, clocks and fire engines. At their most powerful, in the early 1830s, vestries spent almost 20% of England’s national budget!
By the late 19th century, it became obvious that professionals were needed in many cases. Many vestries were responsible for cesspits in early days, but the rise of modern sanitation systems required more knowledge than the average vestry member had. And by this point, the 20,000+ vestries hopelessly overlapped each other and offered inconsistent services throughout the country. So their civil powers were removed by legislation in 1894, while their ecclesiastical powers were removed by a reorganization act in 1921.
So why does the House of Lords introduce a bill for a thing that was abolished 96 years ago? Again, it’s symbolic, just to show the monarch that he or she can’t bully the House of Lords, either. Specifically, the Lords debates “A bill for the better regulating of Select Vestries”, which is predictably just called the “Select Vestries Bill”.
But what’s a select vestry? Well, in the Middle Ages, any taxpaying resident of a parish could be a member of the vestry. But massive population growth in the 1600s, especially in cities like London and Manchester, meant that it was no longer feasible for every taxpayer to have a seat on the vestry. So “select vestries” were created which had a property ownership requirement, and one had to be “selected” by existing members… much like a country club, an analogy that adequately describes how the process actually worked. Not surprisingly, many vestries became corrupt over time. Since the House of Lords includes all 26 bishops of the Church of England, many of those bishops pushed for reform. In fact, the “Select Vestries Bill” was once a real bill the bishops wanted to pass. When it failed to pass in that session, the bishops ensured that it was the first thing discussed in the next session of the Lords. And the next. And the next. And the next. They kept pushing for the bill for years, until its introduction became a tradition unto itself.
While you may think all this is just some nutty practice British people do because someone made it a “thing” 400 years ago, know that our neighbors to the north do something similar. Canada is a constitutional monarchy, so their parliament sessions also begin with a royal speech… although it’s almost never delivered by the actual Queen of Canada. It’s called the “Throne Speech”, and it’s actually two speeches – a short one delivered by the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec called “the Allocution”. The premier of Quebec then reads a much longer speech, “Discours d’ouverture”. After this, each house debates a bill: C-1 (in the Commons) and S-1 (in the Senate). But while the British bills reference past legislative needs – outlawery reform and vestry corruption – the Canadian bills are refreshingly direct. They simply state that the bill they’re discussing is about how they’re free to discuss whatever they want. The bills are identical, save for the stuff in brackets, which is specific to each body:
Whereas the introduction of a pro forma bill in the [House of Commons / Senate] before the consideration of the Speech from the Throne demonstrates the right of the [elected representatives of the people / Senate] to act without the leave of the Crown;
Whereas that custom, which can be traced to [1558 / before 1867] in the Parliament at Westminster, is practised in a number of jurisdictions having a parliamentary form of government;
And whereas it is desirable to explain and record the constitutional relationship represented by that custom;
Now, therefore, Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows:
1 This bill asserts the right of the [House of Commons / Senate] to give precedence to matters not addressed in the Speech from the Throne.
There’s a saying: “everything old is new again”. Which, when it comes to fashion is totally true. Take cologne: when I was in high school in the 80s, Old Spice was the tackiest thing imaginable. No guy – no matter if he was a jock, redneck, goth, skater or nerd – woulda been caught dead wearing the stuff. Yet somehow it’s “retro” and “hip” again. Go figure.
This is great, because bay rum – the classic American cologne and aftershave – is one of my favorite scents. But I bet you didn’t know where it comes from… which is actually pretty cool.
It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that sailors in the 1500s didn’t smell great. Contrary to what you might have heard, Europeans did bathe more frequently than you probably think they did. Except sailors. Even then they knew that bathing in salt water wasn’t fun, and there usually wasn’t enough fresh water on a ship to allow people to bathe. So while there were occasional sponge baths on a ship, sailors didn’t truly “bathe” until they ended up on land somewhere.
But at some point, early in the 1500s, sailors in the Caribbean discovered the West Indian bay leaf – pimenta racemosa (this is a different plant than the “bay leaf” you put in soups and stews; that’s the bay laurel leaf, laurus nobilis). Sailors noticed that the West Indian leaf contained a pleasant smelling oil that, when rubbed on the body, had a patchouli-like effect. Say what you will about patchouli, but I’d rather smell a sailor who hasn’t bathed in 6 months drenched in patchouli than one not drenched in patchouli.
Sugar plantations soon took over the Caribbean, and by the early 1600s some plantation owners discovered that their slaves had been secretly making a weak liquor out of molasses, one of the byproducts of sugar production. Intrigued, the owners took the drink and distilled it, thus making it far stronger and removing impurities present in the original drink. Although legend says that this liquor was first made on the island of Barbados, proof exists that it was being made a bit earlier in Brazil. Either way, the drink then called rumbullion took off, first in Colonial America, then Britain, then around the world via the Royal Navy.
We don’t know who it was – some evidence suggests a sailor, other suggests it was a merchant somewhere in the Caribbean – but either way someone, somewhere got the idea of steeping West Indian bay leaves in rum. That way it could be splashed on like a cologne, and the sailor wouldn’t have to rub leaves on his skin like a weirdo.
From there, the stuff can be traced to St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. A merchant – most likely a Dane named A. H. Riise – got the idea of adding citrus peel, cinnamon and cloves to the bay leaf-rum mix, then straining it and selling it as a ready-to-use cologne. Other Caribbean merchants invented their own particular blends. From there it spread to New York City, then to the rest of the United States, before heading over to Europe.
And the rest, as they say, is history. For decades, American barber shops reeked of the stuff, along with the heavenly smell of Clubman talc. Bay Rum kinda fell out of favor in the 1960s, but is an awesome, manly scent that surely deserves a Renaissance!
There are tons of English phrases that have dubious folk origins. “Pig in a poke”, for example, allegedly comes from the medieval practice of selling suckling pigs in burlap bags at markets. Sometimes unethical sellers would (allegedly) put a stray cat in the bag instead, and the hapless customer wouldn’t discover this until he got home and “let the cat out of the bag”.
There is a phrase that has a folk origin that’s probably true… and it involves one of England’s greatest naval heroes.
Horatio Nelson wasn’t like other commanders in the Royal Navy. Where other captains seemed to relish flogging sailors for any offense, Nelson kept floggings to a minimum. Where other commanders treated his sailors like chess pieces, Nelson got to know each one and often asked about their families and interests. As a result, Nelson’s crew was very dedicated – more than one sailor said he’d “follow Nelson through the Gates of Hell”. Which was a good thing, since Nelson was far more aggressive than other commanders in the Royal Navy. Ships were expensive, both in terms of money and manpower. It was common to sail away from a losing battle so as to “fight another day”. But not Nelson. It was precisely when things looked their worst that Nelson fought the hardest, which led to the string of improbable naval victories he is remembered for today.
Once such victory happened at the Battle of Copenhagen. British ships under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker sailed into sight of the Danish capital on April 2, 1801. HMS Agamemnon ran aground almost immediately, and took no part in the battle. HMS Russell and HMS Bellona also ran aground, but were able to provide some fire on the Danish defenses. And speaking of, the Danish land defenses fired at the British fleet with considerable skill, providing far more resistance than the Royal Navy had anticipated. The battle seemed to tilt between a stalemate (at best) or a British loss (at worst).
Admiral Parker was known for being cautious, so it wasn’t a big surprise when he ran up the signal flags ordering a retreat. But Nelson wasn’t one to retreat, especially in a difficult situation like this. When Thomas Foley, one of his flag captains, pointed out the signal, Nelson turned towards it, put his telescope up to his right eye – which had been blinded in the Siege of Calvi in 1794 – and said “[y]ou know, Foley, I only have one eye — I have the right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal!” Thus, Nelson “turned a blind eye” to the retreat signal.
It was precisely at this moment that the battle turned in favor of the British. The Danes had put up a stout defense, but the relentlessly-trained gunners of the Royal Navy fired shot after shot at their defenses. One by one, the defender’s guns fell silent. But the pivotal moment happened when Nelson noticed that some of the Danish crews, not nearly as experienced as the British, were still firing from ships flying the flag of surrender. Nelson quickly penned the following note:
To the Brothers of Englishmen, the Danes
Lord Nelson has directions to spare Denmark when she is no longer resisting, but if firing is continued on the part of Denmark, Lord Nelson will be obliged to set on fire the floating batteries he has taken, without having the power of saving the brave Danes who have defended them.
Nelson gave the message to Captain Sir Frederick Thesiger, a Danish-speaking officer, and sent him to Crown Prince Frederik under a flag of truce. In truth, both the Danes and the British forces were exhausted, and neither side could have fought for much longer.
If your guns are not better pointed than your pens, then you will make little impression on Copenhagen.
Lord Nelson’s object in sending the Flag of Truce was humanity; he therefore consents that hostilities shall cease, and that the wounded Danes may be taken on shore. And Lord Nelson will take his prisoners out of the Vessels, and burn and carry off his prizes as he shall see fit.
Lord Nelson, with humble duty to His Royal Highness the Prince of Denmark, will consider this the greatest victory he has ever gained, if it may be the cause of a happy reconciliation and union between his own most gracious Sovereign, and His Majesty the King of Denmark.
A couple hours later, a cease-fire was agreed upon, and the battle ended. Sadly, not 30 minutes later, the Danish flagship Dannebrog exploded, killing 250 men… almost 20% of all Danish casualties in the battle.