Friday, January 27, 2017

Remember That Time When...?

Capture of the Dutch Fleet by the 8th Hussars (Source)
I remember this delightful story that I had read as a kid telling the tale of the time when cavalry of the French Revolutionary Army had dashed across the ice to capture the Dutch fleet trapped at anchor in the frozen Zuiderzee. Each dashing hussar carried an infantryman from the 15e Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne upon his horse's croup. Together they surprised the Dutch and seized their entire fleet.

Cool story. However, there's more to the story than meets the eye. It's, in some ways, a "he said, he said" tale where one of the French hussars, being full of braggadocio and, no doubt, a bit of unit pride told the story one way. A Dutch historian, some years after the fact, claimed that the French were lying and that the whole thing was arranged and that the cavalry merely rode out across the ice to make sure that the Dutch got the message that "we're all on the same side now, we cool, right?"


Things are never as simple as they seem.

 So what really happened?

 The French Revolution was rather popular in the Netherlands. The Dutch Republic was supposed to be a constitutional monarchy/republic and had been in place since the 16th Century. A recent war with the English (or British if you prefer) had proven very costly for the Dutch, they lost a lot of their colonial territories and a lot of trade. The way I understand it is that the British were rather annoyed with the Dutch because of Dutch support for the American Revolution. (Apparently the Dutch were the second country to recognize the infant United States. The French were first.)

Of course, you also have to consider that the English and the Dutch had been rivals for a very long time. The English were no doubt still pissed that the Dutch had, once upon a time, sailed up the Thames River and burned the English fleet at anchor, and they had captured and sailed away in the English flagship, the Royal Charles. It simply doesn't pay to mess with the Royal Navy and yes, the English have long memories. (As do most people, we Americans are accused of not having long memories. We do, we just tend not to hold a grudge, unless it's against other Americans. Think Hatfields and McCoys.)

At any rate, the Dutch were ticked off at their own rulers and rather liked the ideas of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. I mean who wouldn't, right?

Now at this point in time the Revolutionary French had lots of countries in Europe mad at them. Especially those countries with monarchs (which pretty much meant all of them). Those monarchs didn't care for the idea of the peasants rising up and chopping off the heads of their anointed sovereign. (Can't say I blame them, might give their own peasants bad ideas!) Louis XVI had been decapitated back in January of 1793 and the French had been fighting off enemies since then. (Well, before then as well, after all, the other kings in Europe didn't care for the idea of deposing the sovereign either.)

So you have the Dutch, antsy to be rid of their stadhouder (who was pretty much a king in reality, just not in name) and dive into that whole liberty, equality, and brotherhood thing. You have the French who would like to add their "brothers" in the Netherlands to the "we hate kings" club as it might distract the Prussians, English, Austrians, Spaniards, Russians, and others who really wanted to restore the Bourbon dynasty to the French throne.

That's the background.

Here's my take on what went down.

The winter of 1794/1795 was bitter cold, in fact it was during what has been called the Little Ice Age when winters were very brutal. (Brutal to someone from Alaska, not brutal to someone from Florida.) Most of the rivers which act as barriers to invasion in the Netherlands were frozen, providing scant impedance to the invading French. (Of course, the campaign was far more complicated than I'm letting on, you can read more about that here, if you desire. Yes, I know it's Wikipedia but as a source for things that happened a long time ago it's not bad. It's only the modern, politically tainted stuff that I don't trust over there.)

So it's really cold, the French are advancing and their buddies in the Netherlands, anxious to be shed of their rulers, who lost to the hated English, and said English also campaigning in the Netherlands against the Republican French, are willing to accommodate their Gallic brothers. The Dutch fleet is at anchor near the village of Den Helder (see map).

Google Maps
The ships aren't going anywhere as they are ice-bound. Rather than let the English capture those ships, a Dutch historian J. C. de Jonge wrote:
After a period of near civil war between Orangists (supporters of the hereditary Prince Stadhouders), Regents (the commercial oligarchy) and Patriots (French-inspired progressives), the Stadhouder, Prince William V, fled the country to Britain on 18 January 1795 when military resistance to the advancing French forces under General Pichegru crumbled. General de Brigade Johan Willem de Winter (a former Dutch naval officer, since 1787 in French service, and subsequently to command the Dutch fleet in the battle of Camperduin) was sent by Pichegru at the head of a regiment of French hussars
  •     To prevent the strongpoint of den Helder falling into British hands
  •     To prevent the ships in the nearby Nieuwediep (15 in number, of which 11 were manned and seaworthy) from escaping to Britain or to the Dutch province of Zeeland, still in Orangist hands.
His forces arrived in den Helder in the night of 23 January. The next morning (as, apparently uniquely, recorded in the log of the "Dolfijn", one of the Dutch ships), a number of French hussars rode across the ice to the ship of the line "Admiraal Piet Heyn", the captain of which, H. Reyntjes, was the oldest, and thus most senior, serving Dutch officer in the fleet. Ahlé, surgeon on the "Snelheid" wrote later to de Jonge:

    "on Saturday morning, my servant informed me that a French hussar stood near our ship. I looked out my porthole, and indeed, there stood an hussar."

These hussars are assumed by de Jonge to have formed the core of the later myth. There is no record (for example from Reyntjes) what was discussed with the hussars, but it is presumed to have been an oral agreement to maintain the status quo until clear orders arrived. Five days later the officers and men of the fleet swore an oath (similar to that already sworn by the men of other ships in the port of Hellevoetsluis) to comply with French orders, not to sail the ships (which remained under the Dutch flag) without French authority, and to maintain naval discipline. This oath was taken in the presence of de Winter, who seems to have arrived in den Helder a couple of days after his troops. On 21 January, two days before the arrival of the first French forces, Reyntjes had received, via Luitenant-Admiraal van Kinsbergen, the Dutch naval Commander-in-Chief, an order from the Council of State of Holland and Westfriesland to all military forces not to attack or resist the French forces. This was followed up a couple of days later by a resolution of the States-General, the parliament of the United Provinces, dated the 21st, to the same effect. (Source)
So it wasn't very dramatic according to de Jonge. However...
In February 1846, the French Lieutenant-General Baron Lahure published a letter in the newspaper "Echo de la Frontière" in response to the first edition of de Jonge's book. He claims that, being at the head of advancing French forces, he heard, in Alkmaar, that the Dutch fleet was icebound off Texel (the Friesian island opposite den Helder):
"I departed immediately with a company of tirailleurs in wagons and a squadron of light cavalry; before dawn I had taken position in the dunes. When the ships saw us, they prepared their defences. I sent some tirailleurs ahead, and followed with the rest of my forces. The fleet was taken. The sailors received us 'de bonne grace' on board... This is the true story of the capture of the Dutch fleet, devised and executed by a 23 year old Chef de Bataillion".
De Jonge considers that, allowing for some overestimation by Lahure of his own role (he also claims, in variance with the record, to have taken the town of Haarlem single-handed), this version is not really in conflict with his own. Lahure does not actually state that fighting took place, and the fact that his men were received 'de bonne grace' does not suggest hostile intent on the part of the Dutch. (Source)
I like the alleged claim by the old general that he had taken a town "single-handed."

So what really happened? My guess is that it happened much like de Jonge described it. Perhaps in the absent-mindedness that comes with age (not referring to myself of course), General Lahure might have remembered things differently. As Lex might have said, it's my story, he might remember it differently. I can almost picture it...
"So grand-père, weren't you in Holland during the '95 campaign?"

"Why yes I was little Pierre! In fact, after capturing Haarlem all by myself, my squadron and I went on to gallop across the ice and capture the entire Dutch fleet. The only time cavalry has ever fought a naval engagement!"

If big watches had been invented back then, I'm sure the French cavalry would all have one. (Fighter pilot reference with a hat tip to Captain Steve.)

Still it was a good story. Another myth of my childhood, debunked.


Charles Mozin's Capture of the Dutch Fleet (Source)


  1. Well, history books are written by the victors, and sometimes, often over a beer in the club, those stories get embellished. Not all battles have to be bloody I guess, and in this one, the blood would have just immediately frozen anyway. Although, isn't it usually the French giving up without a fight?

    1. By the way, I've been out of town since Monday so I'm just now getting around to reading and commenting on these.

    2. Ah, les pauvres français, "isn't it usually the French giving up without a fight?" This sort of thing didn't happen until 1940, in Napoléon's day it was usually the French kicking a$$ and taking names.

      But yeah, the winners get to write the history books, it's their version which "counts" right?

    3. Out of town? A good trip I hope.

      We'll wait for you to catch up Tuna.


    4. War stories getting embellished over a Beer at the club?.......No Way! Better recollection of the pertinent details of events stored in memory is one of the well known effects of alcohol consumption in general, and Beer in particular. Ask me how I know.....

    5. I know all about out of town and catching up.

    6. @Juvat - That's called a debrief right? Beer is used to grease the skids of memory. Or something...

    7. @Skip - I think you might be our Subject Matter Expert on those topics.

      I mean, you've got lots of recent experience!

  2. Now I have this image of French Hussars stuffing oversized pocket watches down the front of their breeches.

  3. Enjoyable post, thanks.

    Paul L. Quandt

  4. I seem to recall a quote about generals being the worst of liars. I don't remember who said it, which is a shame: as an NCO I loved to recall it when certain of my superiors uttered untruths. Thankfully, most of them weren't too bad in that respect.

    1. I'm sure that it was a sergeant who said it. Had to have been. I mean we know those things.

    2. Cone to think of it, could it have been a former corporal who said it? I'm thinking the first one, not the second.

    3. Hahaha! I think you're right, the gunner, not the guy with the funny mustache.


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