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Anglo-Russian invasion of North Holland (1799)

(Based on an article by Peter Brusse in the Amsterdam "Volkskrant"; see also Clowes IV, pp 407-412.)

Exactly two hundred years ago one of the bloodiest wars on Dutch soil took place in northern North Holland (the peninsula between the North Sea and the then Zuider Zee, now IJsselmeer). Although 80,000 soldiers took part in this campaign, involving an Anglo-Russian invading force and Dutch-French defenders, it has never received a prominent place in Dutch history books, perhaps because later authorities preferred to forget that the support of the local population for Stadhouder William V, who had fled from the French, and his English supporters was less enthusiastic that had initially been hoped.

The French had forbidden the puppet Dutch ("Batavian") republic to trade with Britain, and the Dutch economy had suffered greatly. The British thought to exploit this situation to restore the pro-British William to the Dutch throne. On 27 August 1799 a British fleet appeared off Den Helder, and within three hours 7,000 men were on the beach near the town; only 20 men being lost by drowning. The Batavian general Daendels was taken by surprise and lost 1400 men and narrowly escaped with his life when his horse was shot from under him. The Batavian garrison of Den Helder spiked its guns and evacuated the town, which although well protected on the seaward side, had minimal defensive works on the landward side. The Batavian fleet, under vice-admiral Storij, which had been in the Texel, withdrew to a poorly defensible position in the Vlieter, a channel in the Zuider Zee, and, also not having been effectively purged of Orangist elements, surrendered without firing a shot.

Encouraged by events, the Stadhouders son, the later King William I, joined the British forces to further stimulate local support. This proved to be sadly lacking and provisioning of the troops became difficult. On 13 September the Russian troops arrived. Although the invading forces now stood at 35,000, the Russians were exhausted and underfed after the long sea journey.

On 19 September the Russians took the offensive, earlier that agreed with the British, and travelled south along the coast, eventually reaching the town of Bergen in an exhausted state. After plundering the place, they were unable to resist a French counterattack and lost 1500 dead.

Two weeks later the English attacked. The French abandoned Alkmaar and on 6 October the crown prince celebrated, somewhat prematurely, the restoration of Orange rule in the church there. A service of thanksgiving by the British commander, the Duke of York, later that day was cancelled at the last moment when the Duke had to depart for Castricum where a battle was developing. That town passed from British-Russian to Batavian-French hands several times until the former finally fled, losing 2536 men and 11 guns; the Batavian-French losses stood at 1382.

The battle of Castricum persuaded the Duke that his position was untenable. After a chaotic retreat, in which two field hospitals were "forgotten", he reached an agreement with the French commander, Brune. The British and Russians were allowed to withdraw, without paying reparations, and retaining captured bounty. As thanks, Brune received a number of magnificent horses from the Duke. By 19 November all the British and Russian troops had been embarked and the whole unhappy episode was over.


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