French Cavalry Captures an Iced-In Dutch Fleet
"Capture of the Dutch Fleet at Helder, January 23, 1795"
Painting by Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio, date unknown
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)
Today in Military History: January 23, 1795
Today's military history vignette deals with an incident during the wars between Revolutionary France and the rest of Europe. [I can remember many years ago that this little affair appeared in the syndicated newspaper column "Believe It Or Not" by Robert Ripley.] Various French histories of the Revolutionary period said that the French cavalry rode up to the ships and bravely attacked and captured them at sword-point. Ummmm…the reality is a bit different.
The French Revolution, which basically started with the storming of the Bastille by the people of Paris in July of 1789, replaced the monarchy with a Legislative Assembly which did not function well to meet the needs of the French People. A Committee of Public Safety (great name!) became the de facto governing body of France. But in 1793 the Committee instituted the Reign of Terror, which began to seek out opponents. Many of these opponents lost their heads – literally – to the guillotine, the instrument of execution which became known as the "national razor" because it seemed to be falling on everybody's neck.
Before the dissolution of the French monarchy and the executions of Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette, several of the major nations of Europe – notably Austria, Prussia, and Great Britain – launched a war against first the Kingdom of France, to rescue the imprisoned French royalty. This conflict became known as the War of the First Coalition. After the execution of Louis and Marie, a number of the other nations of Europe felt an obligations to put down these pesky anti-monarchists, fearing their "disease" would spread to their nations.
The first few years of the War of the First Coalition were generally very successful for the French. They occupied Belgium and the Rhineland, securing buffers for their northern and eastern borders. [The French capture of the Rhineland – which was ruled by Prussia – allowed the Prussians to return thousands of troops to their homeland, and allowed them to complete the third partition of Poland, essentially causing the demise of that nation until its official revival in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles.] A French invasion of Spain was also successful, though an initial invasion of northern Italy was not.
Prelude to the Battle
At the end of 1794, the French Army of the North, launched a surprise winter offensive, just as they were preparing to go into winter quarters, targeting the nearby Dutch Republic (also known as the United Provinces). It was a very severe winter, so much so that portions of the Zuider Zee (the inland waterway that was encompassed by Dutch land) froze solidly. Weather records of the time show that in January of 1795, temperatures were often below zero centigrade, as much as -10° to -18° C (or 14° to near 1° F).
General Jean-Charles Pichagru (1761-1804)
Artist and date of creation unknown
The French were under the command of General Jean-Charles Pichagru. The French Army entered Amsterdam on the January 19, 1795 to stay there over the winter. Well informed, the general found out that a Dutch fleet was anchored at the port of Den Helder, approximately 50 miles north of Amsterdam. At about the same time, the Dutch populace, in support of French revolutionary thought, started a revolution of their own. Because of the unrest, the stadtholder (ruler) of the Dutch Republic, Prince William V of Orange-Nassau, fled the country on January 18, and shortly afterwards the Batavian Republic was establish. It became a "sister republic" to the French Republic, and allied its armies and naval forces with the French.
Pichagru ordered Brigadier General Jan-Williem de Winter to lead a squadron of the 8th Hussars on the mission. De Winter, a native Dutchman, had been serving with the French since 1787. Some French sources indicate that each hussar carried a French infantryman from the 15th Line Infantry Regiment on his horse's rump, about 2000 men. [Some French sources claim that horse artillery accompanied the hussars, but this assertion is highly doubtful.] The initial objective of the Hussars was to capture the port of Den Helder, to deny it to the British.
Dutch Naval Force
A total of 14 Dutch naval vessels (11 were manned and seaworthy – other than being trapped in the ice) and 20 merchant ships were just outside the port of Den Helder. The flotilla consisted of: five ships-of-the-line; 3 frigates; 6 corvettes; and 4 cutters. The vessels mounted a total of 850 cannon, and was manned by some 5000 sailors and marines. There were also two former ships-of-the-line that were termed "hulks," retired ships waiting to broken up for scrap.
Capture of the Dutch Fleet
On the night of January 23, the French strike force arrived at the port of Den Helder. After scouting the situation, Captain Louis Lahure (who was in immediate command) decided to approached the stranded naval vessels at dusk. Just before sunset, the French hussars began crossing the ice. Some sources say the cavalrymen wrapped pieces of fabric around their horses' hooves to muffle the sound of their advance. It is more likely this was done to help the steeds avoid slipping on the ice.
Modern map of provinces of the Netherlands
Note town of Den Helder in North Holland, island of Texel is just north of the port
Map by Alphaton, image courtesy of Wikipedia
Now, it is at this point that "what the French said happened" and "the real story" seem to diverge…
It seems that on January 21, two days before the arrival of the first French forces, Captain Hermanus Reyntjes – the senior officer in the Dutch flotilla – had received an order from the Dutch naval Commander-in-Chief. The Council of State of Holland and Westfriesland ordered all Dutch 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.
Apparently, when Capt. Lahure and his men arrived in Den Helder, they became aware of the "do not resist" order of the Council of State. To that end, Capt. Lahure ordered his hussars to approach the iced-in ships at dusk. When the Dutch sailors realized the French had surrounded their vessels, there was little they could do. They couldn't fight, they couldn't flee. One French general wrote years later that the Dutch accepted their fate "de bonne grace" (with good grace). However, Capt. Reyntjes ordered his men to their battle stations, in case the French decided to attack anyway.
Fortunately, Lahure and Reynties worked out details of the surrender of the Dutch fleet. With the capitulation of the Dutch fleet, the French invasion of the Dutch Republic was complete.
The French extracted promises from the Dutch naval officers, including:
Obey the French,
Not to sail their ships without French permission, and
To maintain discipline.
Footnote #1: With the formation of the Batavian Republic, the French withdrew from that "sister republic" and continued the War of the First Coalition against Austria and Great Britain. The Batavians (Dutch) were well-treated during the temporary occupation. Dutch sources remark that despite their poor reputation, the French restrained themselves and the city of Amsterdam, one of the richest towns in Europe, was not looted.
Flag of the Batavian Republic (1795-1806)
Footnote #2: Most French sources named this action the "Battle of Texel." However, Dutch sources indicate that no fighting whatsoever occurred.