Born on 11 December 1797 in Viborg, Niels died on 21 December 1876 in Copenhagen. A son of Niels la Cour (no. 02) and Georgia Nicoline la Cour, he was, according to the 1801 census, living at the address of St. Ibsgade 24 in Viborg. As a child, he lived wherever his father and his father’s company were stationed, even taking part in an armed battle against an English ship at Ebeltoft in 1809. The following year, Niels was accepted into the Landkadetakademiet, the army military academy, as a cadet, receiving 90 rix-dollars* in pay, along with room and board. He started in what was then the youngest school form on 10 January 1810, thereby fulfilling his greatest wish. His son, Colonel Victor Dornonville de la Cour, in an extensive manuscript “[a]bout my life and time, memories recorded from November 1908 to November 1914 and afterwards occasionally supplemented”, wrote the following about his father’s admission to the academy, based on the general’s own words which “have embedded themselves firmly in my memory”:
3rd Generation: Nos. 10–16
“My father, quite a big and strong lad just recently turned 12, arrived in Copenhagen alone after receiving a summons to report to the Academy. He asked around and with quite some difficulty found Akademigade [‘Academy Street’]. With a certain shivering awe, yet boldly enough, he stepped for the first time through the gate onto the premises of the Academy. The yard was empty, and, walking along the large building – he had never before seen so huge a building in Jutland – he went through a large entrance into a hall from which stairs led to the upper floors. While walking up the stairs, he heard someone bouncing quickly down the stairs and was happy to see it was a cadet, someone who would surely be able to help him and tell him where he should go. The cadet stopped and took measure of the civilian before him with wide eyes. ‘Excuse me,’ said my father, in his thick Jutland dialect, ‘Could you show me where the office is?’ ‘Who are you, and where are you from?’ was the cadet’s response, in a thick Holstein accent. ‘Well, I was asked to come here today to become an army cadet, and I’m from Jutland!’ replied my father. ‘Oh, you’re a Jutland train-oil lamp, then!’ said the cadet, and just as quickly my father retorted, ‘Well, then you are a German windbag!’ The cadet replied with a rapid slap across my father’s face. But the Jutland train-oil lamp was not timid, and he gave the cadet tit for tat. As during the skirmish it quickly became clear that the boy from Jutland was the stronger and sturdier of the two, the cadet limited himself to remaining on the defensive, taking a position facing the wall, hiding his head in his folded arms and trying to keep his opponent at bay by kicking backwards.
“But my father was on the warpath now. Oblivious to the kicks, but avoiding them as much as possible, he stood beside the cadet and thumped him with a clenched fist on the back of his neck. He was so preoccupied with this satisfyingly vengeful activity that he did not notice someone coming down the stairs and moving up behind him until he felt the searing pain of a rope lashing across his back, and at the same time he heard a indignant shout in broad Norwegian: ‘Oh no, what a disaster! A civilian boy beating up a cadet?! I’ll teach you! Who are you, and what are you doing here?’ Of course, my father immediately stopped his aggression when he felt the rope, and with an audible ‘Ouch,’ rubbing his back, he turned around and stood face to face with one of the Academy’s officers: Norwegian-born Lieutenant de Seue, as he would learn later.
“Answering the questions he was asked, the poor boy’s response came in a quite dispirited voice: ‘Well, I was asked to report here at the Academy to become a cadet, and…’ The lieutenant interrupted him: ‘That’s some way to introduce yourself, I must say, assailing
the first cadet you come upon, someone who could possibly even become an older comrade to you!’ Completely lost, my father stood there with tears running down his cheeks in indignation and shame, but all at once it poured out of him: ‘But he hit me first, and then he called me a Jutland train-oil lamp!’ The cadet joined in: ‘Yes, but he called me a German windbag!’ The lieutenant then grabbed hold of both boys. ‘Hm, hm, hm,’ he said, finally. ‘If you were beaten up on this occasion, Baller, I think you were probably asking for it. And you, my boy, don’t look so sad. I’ll take care of you and show you the way, and then we’ll forget this whole incident ever happened.’ Thus comforted, my father followed Lieutenant de Seue, and, before evening had fallen, he was installed as a boarding cadet at the Academy.”
Niels completed the academic programme there after about four years, left the Academy with the highest honours, and was appointed second lieutenant on 2 December 1813. He applied and was assigned to the Schleswig infantry regiment, which at that time was under siege by the French at Rendsburg. In early January 1814, he left to join the regiment, but when he reached the Danish headquarters at Hindsgavl manor on Funen, he learned that peace had been declared and that he would probably find his regiment at the garrison in Schleswig. This news was by no means pleasant for Niels and several of his comrades, who had sought employment with this regiment in the hope of finding battles and glory. He joined the regiment in mid-January, but was immediately given three months’ leave.
A few weeks later, however, he was ordered to report back because his regiment belonged to a 12,000-man-strong auxiliary corps which, under command of Lieutenant General von Kardorff (1756–1820), was leaving for France to fight against Napoleon. The regiment marched from Schleswig in March, but when they reached the Rhine, they received an order to turn back, and in July the regiment moved back into its old garrison. Niels applied for a transfer and in February 1815 was moved to the 2nd Jutland Infantry Regiment, whose garrison was in Viborg. But when war with France broke out again that same year, and Denmark was to supply, under treaty, an auxiliary corps to its allies Niels sought permission to join them, and on 12 July his regiment set off. After the entire auxiliary corps had assembled under the command of Prince Frederick of Hessen*, they marched south by way of Hamburg to the Bremen area. Here they received the order to halt, and a few weeks later they were ordered to march back to Holstein again.
This was another disappointment for Niels, but finally things got real. His battalion was incorporated in the quota of soldiers that Denmark was to provide to the occupation army in France, and on 20 November 1815 they left their quarters in Rendsburg. On 16 January 1816 they moved into the fortress of Bouchain in the north of France, a total of four companies replacing the English soldiers there. Along the way, in Utrecht, Niels came across another la Cour, who was married to a Dornonville de la Cour. In March he joined an elite group quartered in the village of Mastaing, just under two kilometres from Bouchaine. During their first two years of residence in France, his regiment was either garrisoned in the fort or quartered in the surrounding villages. In the third year, 1818, the battalion was transferred to Marchienne, a small, unfortified town approximately 20 kilometres from Bouchaine, where they remained until the return march, which began in November that same year. On 13 January 1819, the battalion was moved to Aalborg, but in May 1820 transferred again, this time to Copenhagen. Niels’ participation in the expedition to France was recounted many years later by Colonel Victor Dornonville de la Cour:
“Many, many years later – it was during the Second Schleswig War*, when 4th Division under General Hegermann-Lindencrone, to which also the 5th Dragoon Regiment belonged, retreated to the island of Mors after the battle near Vejle on 8 March – I was serving as an adjutant at the outpost command, and one day I rode out to inspect the coastguards. I became aware of an old peasant, who, as I rode past him, tore off his cap so that his white hair fluttered in the wind and held his cap in military fashion down against his side. I stopped my horse and could not help but exclaim, ‘Good job, my good man! I suppose we have here an old soldier who wants to show he has not forgotten his military service.’
“‘Yes sir, Lieutenant,’ he replied, ‘but my apologies, I heard that your name is la Cour. I once knew a lieutenant named la Cour, when I was a soldier down in France in the 2nd Jutland Infantry Regiment many, many years ago. And I was an adjutant for a Lieutenant la Cour. I have heard that he is now a general.’
“‘Yes, it’s true,’ I answered, ‘because that’s my father.’
“‘Oh, my heavens! Then you are a son of my own lieutenant?’
“‘Please tell me now what your name is so the next time I write to him I can pass on your greetings. It will please him.’
“‘My name is Poul Weberstoft, and if you would pass along my greetings to your father, then I will say many, many thanks!’
“‘Yes, trust me, I will not forget, but now I have no time to stay any longer, but if tomorrow, Sunday morning, you will come up and visit me at Store Ørndrup, I would like to talk with you and hear more about your time in France, and how you are doing now.””Yes, thank you, Lieutenant, I’ll be there.’
“And the next day old Poul Weberstoft showed up in his finest clothes, looking quite respectable in a long coat, breeches, jackboots, and a wide-brimmed cap and holding a long, old-fashioned metal-knobbed cane. He told me a great deal more about himself. He had been married, but his wife was dead. They had a daughter with whom he now lived as pensioner, after he had passed the farm on to his daughter and her husband on the condition that they would provide for him until he died. But, from his story, although he did not directly complain about anything, I understood that they were quite tight-fisted with money where he was concerned, and even though he had always loved to smoke, he had been forced to reduce his tobacco consumption significantly. About my father, he told me he had been ‘a wonderful man’, and he was able to tell me exactly how many francs and centimes he had received from the regimental quartermaster in salary while they were quartered in Bouchaine. When he began to get ready to leave, I put a coin in his hand with the words, ‘There, Mr Weberstoft, this is to buy tobacco, and I thank you for coming up here and for all the good things you told me about my father.’ Before I could prevent it, he seized my right hand and kissed it, and then he said, as a tear ran down his cheek, ‘Thank you, Lieutenant, I can tell you have your father’s spirit.’ And now it was my turn to be touched. I brought my father Mr Weberstoft’s greetings, which made him happy: he remembered him well.”
Niels was promoted to first lieutenant in 1824. In November 1828, he was appointed to lead the men’s gymnastic and weapons drills and as a result joined the cavalry training school for the Zealand lancer regiment in Næstved. After graduating, he received his certificate from the commander of the regiment, Lieutenant General C. Bassewitz (1755–1831), “for having presented excellent examples of his proficiency in the necessary drilling routines for a cavalryman” and subsequently departed for duty with his regiment in Copenhagen. Næstved was likely where he first met his future wife, Emilie Bruun. Her sister Lisa married the superintendent of the cavalry training school, Captain Andreas Steenstrup, but Emilie was then just 17 years old, and three years went by before she and Niels were engaged.
Because he was still interested in physical training and weapons drills, Niels was hired in 1929 by the physical education director, Professor Nachtegall, as an inspection officer at the Royal Military Institute of Physical Training, where he was entrusted with the teaching of bayonet fencing and cavalry weapons exercises. He was most likely very well suited for this position due to his extraordinarily powerful build, his great flexibility and his stamina. In 1830 he was ordered to prepare a proposal detailing the most important rules for the cavalry on the use of various sidearms, a proposal that was accepted with very few changes. On 1 May 1833 he was hired as a physical education teacher at the army military academy, and in 1833-34 he instructed Prince Frederik (VII) in the use of arms. He achieved the rank of captain in 1834 and was that same year made a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog*. In the summer of 1839, he received royal funding for a trip to Germany and France to familiarise himself with physical education in those countries. His son wrote the following in his memoirs:
“Late in the 1830s, my father drafted regulations for the use of sabres and lances in our cavalry, and, after testing by a commission established for that purpose, these rules were adopted for the cavalry. When on that occasion my father was summoned to an audience with King Frederik VI* – I do not know whether it was in 1838 or the spring of 1839 – the old king expressed his appreciation of my father’s work as a teacher at the physical training institute, and my father took the opportunity to express a desire to acquaint himself with developments in physical training methods in Germany and France. ‘But where do we get the money for such a journey?’ the king exclaimed. ‘Well, I certainly don’t have it, Your Majesty,’ replied my father. ‘Well, neither do I,’ said the king, laughing, ‘but I understand that you are thinking in terms of a quid pro quo! And there may be something to that! You have done this country a service by drawing up the new regulations, so it is reasonable enough that we do you a favour in return and give you the opportunity to study developments in physical training elsewhere so you may have the opportunity to serve your country again.’ The king laughed again and granted my father the necessary funds for travel.
“During his travels, he also went to Paris, and there he met a fellow countryman, a Mr von Holstein, who later became the king’s chamberlain. One day they both met a Polish lancer captain with whom my father ended up having a dispute about the best use of the lance. The dispute became heated, both sides not giving an inch, and in the end it was agreed that they should try to resolve the issue on horseback and using blunt lances. The encounter would take place in an indoor arena, and Mr von Holstein would be the arbiter. My father maintained that it was preferable to hold the lance with both hands rather than one. The Polish lancer had never heard of holding a lance with both hands and maintained that the lance was best and most safely held in one hand. The agreement was that each of them would hold his lance using his own method, and the result was that the Polish captain was thrown off his saddle two consecutive times. I received confirmation of this episode a few years ago from a Lieutenant Colonel von Holstein, who had heard the story from his uncle, the aforementioned king’s chamberlain.”
As noted below, Niels was married in 1835. His son wrote in his memoirs about their first home: “During his entire time as a lieutenant, my father had received no financial help from anyone, but had to get by on his salary only, which was quite limited back then. Nevertheless, he did not run up any debt, as he believed quite strongly that a man who was always running up debt was not much better than a swindler. Thus for many years, while he was a second lieutenant, he could not afford a hot meal, but lived entirely on sandwiches and claimed that it was amazing how cheaply you could live if you had to. Because his uniform always had to be fresh and neat, no expense could be spared there, and his uniform was very expensive: more than twice as expensive as nowadays. Later, when my father became a first lieutenant, and especially once he was received supplementary pay for his work as an inspection officer at the physical training institute and as a teacher at the Landkadetakademi*, his salary and other benefits were better, but his income never exceeded the level he enjoyed when he married, which was 800 rix-dollars* annually.
“It was therefore his great luck to marry a woman who was as thrifty as he, shared his view on debt, and from the beginning knew how to live within one’s means. But in those days people knew nothing of the level of luxury that is enjoyed by young people setting up house today. My parents’ first home was a third-storey three-room flat in the Dronningens Tværgade street, and with the few hundred rix-dollars my mother was given by her family to equip her home with, there was not much wriggle room. Their furniture was limited to the bare minimum necessary to furnish a living room, dining room and bedroom and to supply the kitchen with the most basic of kitchen utensils and crockery. And yet they often told me they were certain that at that time they were equally happy with their humble home as the young people of more recent days are, people whose furnishings cost thousands – and perhaps even happier, because, as time went by, their thrift allowed them to eventually complete their home furnishings, and each new acquisition was a source of shared joy for them.”
According to the 1840 census, Niels and his family lived in a flat in Kronprincessegade in Copenhagen, with two lodgers and two servant girls. In 1842 Niels was appointed captain first class and superintendent of the Royal Military Institute of Physical Training and was generally recognised for his work there (he worked there until the spring of 1848), a fact that was clear from the frequent visits to the Institute made by foreign royalty and military officers. During a visit by the king of Prussia in June 1845, Niels was appointed a knight of the Order of the Red Eagle. After the death of Professor Nachtegall, Niels was
appointed director of physical training in Denmark on 23 June 1847 and in this position brought great merit to the discipline of physical education in Denmark. A speech held at his funeral praised him for this: “Before his time, physical education was almost certainly disregarded, especially in village schools, despite boastful reports to the contrary in this regard. He exposed this odious practice and through perseverance introduced physical exercise everywhere, breaking through the resistance he encountered in many places, with the result that physical exercise is now generally employed throughout the country today. His methods may be outdated today and are unlikely to be sufficient in preparation for the contemporary art of war, but it must be said to his credit that he worked to promote physical training with a level of interest – indeed, I dare say a love – for it like no other and that, when he was at his peak, this was something that he extended even out into our neighbouring countries” (speech at Major General Niels George la Cour’s funeral on 27 December 1876 held by C.G. la Cour, a rural dean* and the pastor for Helsinge parish).
Except during the First Schleswig War*, Niels took a long inspection tour around the country every year. One year he surveyed the use of physical training and weapons in all garrisons in the country, and the next year he checked all the civilian schools in Copenhagen and the larger market towns, and even a number of rural schools. At the outbreak of war in 1848, he was appointed superintendent of the three schools established for the war training of reserve officers, non-commissioned officers, and recruits, namely the central, command and recruit schools for men who had not been conscripted, and he displayed great skill and humanity in carrying out this difficult task. He was promoted to major on 17 July 1848 and decorated with the Silver Cross of the Order of Dannebrog* on 29 December that same year. Niels was ordered to form a battalion from the recruits remaining in the training school in September 1848: the 2nd Reserve Battalion, of which he was appointed commander. When, in the meantime, there was an armistice, and since Niels as physical training director was supposed to make one of his inspection trips, he passed command of this battalion on to another officer. He spent the winter of 1848-49 training naval officers in the aspects of service on land that were useful to them.
Niels was appointed commander of the 6th Reserve Battalion in 1849, which was to be formed in the town of Vejle from soldiers discharged from various other battalions. On 29 August, he and his battalion set off from Vejle across the island of Funen to the island of Als in order to join the 4th Brigade under General Moltke. On 9 April he boarded a ship at Hørup-Hav to be taken to Fredericia, where he arrived the next day. He participated with fiery courage and great honour in battles at Kolding on 23 April 1849 and at Gudsø on 7 May 1849, where, with only four battalions and one and a half batteries, he had to fight against a far superior force under the command of the famous General Bonin. He also fought in the battle of Popholt on 24 July 1850, in which his horse was shot out from under him; in the battle of Isted on 25 July 1850; and in a reconnaissance against Stentenmølle on 8 August 1850 and Stabelholm on 8 September 1850. After the battle at Gudsø, Niels was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and he was made a Knight of the Russian Order of St. Anna on 6 October 1850. He resigned from active service in 1858 because of an eye condition and was awarded the title of major general. Later he and his wife travelled to Switzerland and northern Italy for health reasons. He was made a Commander of the Order of Dannebrog* in 1859.
During the Second Schleswig War, Niels offered his services again but was turned down because he would not accept the position of commander of the Trekroner fortress, but also because he had recently submitted a treatise in which he declared his disagreement with the government about the way the war was being conducted. The new Army Act resulted in him having to resign from his job as physical training inspector in 1868 and as director of physical training in 1870. He died on 21 December 1876 in Copenhagen, after just a few days of illness. His son described him thus:
“My father…was fairly tall, but very powerfully built, with a tendency towards corpulence. Eventually, he did also become quite heavy, but he was in excellent health, agile and quick in his movements, and walked with short, quick steps. He had an open and mild expression on his face, but had he reason to be, he could also become quite angry, and then the mildness would disappear from his countenance. He is said to have demanded a great deal from his subordinates, but neither did he spare himself. And so he probably also had the right to be strict. However, I have never heard anything other than he was respected by everyone who had anything to do with him, particularly because of his fairness: he not only punished misconduct, but also showed his appreciation of those who did their duty.
“And the way my father behaved towards others in his service was also the way he behaved at home, although the mildness in his character surely had the upper hand within those four walls. On this my loving mother definitely had a great deal of influence, and my father was always incredibly tender and loving towards her. He was 14 years older than she was but nonetheless always displayed an almost meticulous consideration towards her and always consulted with her in everything that concerned the home, children or other shared interests. In return, my mother never interfered in my father’s private or professional affairs. I daresay that my father held a greater affection for my mother than vice versa. In her relationship with her husband, my mother was somewhere more reserved: her feelings for him were definitely not as warm as his for her. She also took a long time to consider his proposal of marriage, and I believe it’s true what I’ve heard: that my father proposed to her three times before the fortress surrendered. But still I dare say that my parents’ marriage was happier than most. Even if my mother was not exactly enchanted with her husband, she held him in great esteem – which she also had reason to – and surely had deep feelings bordering on affection for him.”
His obituary in the newspaper Berlingske Tidende stated: “He was a deeply decent man, and all who knew him or came into contact with him had only love and respect for him because of his honest and outspoken character and reputation.”
Niels married Emilie Antoinette la Cour (née Bruun) on 14 May 1835 in Frederiksberg. She was born on 22 January 1812 in Copenhagen, and her parents were Commander Eusebius Bruun and Marie Christiane Sophie Gether. Her son wrote about her in his memoirs:
“Mother was rather quiet, but had a very profound nature. Yet she would also allow herself to be cheerful sometimes, especially when she was with young people. This is not to be understood as Mother having any hint of capriciousness. Nothing could be further from the truth. She would probably prefer, in her heart, to believe the best about her fellow man. But she had an innate shyness towards strangers, people she was meeting for the first time. She would first size them up, get to know them better and be certain of who they were before she would open up and show herself to be kind towards them. But if someone had eventually won her trust, they gained a reliable friend for life, for no one was as faithful to her friends as my mother was. And over time she also gained a group of friends who loved her and whom she loved in return. Mother must have been very beautiful when she was young, and I can still remember her from when I was five years old as a slender, rather tall 36-year-old woman with a beautiful oval face, a high forehead, regular features, a small mouth and soulful eyes that could rest upon you quite watchfully. In addition, she had a light gait, was harmonious in her movements and had slim, white and shapely hands. Later, over the years, my mother would become increasingly heavy, and she lost her youthful grace; she gained a double chin which did not particularly suit her well, but she retained her mild, calm facial expressions and soulful eyes.”
Emilie died on 9 March 1872 in Copenhagen. We have a description of her from a speech at her funeral held by her cousin and brother-in-law from Svendborg, Carl Bruun: “She did not have the lively and light mind that spreads joy wherever it goes and immediately captures everyone’s heart. Hers was more of a quiet, deep and contained character that you had to get to know to fully appreciate. She could feel wholly content in her happy home and among friends, but the sterner sides of life were closer to her than the joyful ones. But that also meant that there was always truth in her mind, as in her speech. We had full confidence in her, for we knew we could trust her word. And that is why also her love was so true and deep.” (Three children: nos. 40–42.)