Friday, September 12, 2014

The Flanders Campaign

by David Cook

"The hardest thing of all for a soldier is to retreat." - Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington.

The Flanders Campaign of 1793-1795 was conducted during the first years of the French Revolutionary War by the allied states of the First Coalition and the French First Republic. Europe was a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities and provinces and France wanted to spread its ideals of liberty and equality. The allied aim was to invade France by mobilising its armies along the French frontiers to bully the new republic into submission.

Prince Frederick, Duke of York
In the north, the allies’ immediate aim was to expel the French from the Dutch Republic and the Austrian Netherlands, then march directly to Paris. Britain invested a million pounds to finance the Austrians and Prussians. Twenty thousand British troops under George III’s younger son, Prince Frederick, the Duke of York, were eventually tied up in the campaign.

Henry Dundas
Austrian Prince Josias of Saxe-Coburg was in overall command, but answered directly to Emperor Francis II, while the Duke of York was given objectives set by William Pitt the Younger’s War Secretary, Henry Dundas. Thus, from the outset, mixed political machinations and ignorance hindered the operation.

The French armies, on the other-hand, also suffered. Many from the old royalist officer class had emigrated following the revolution, which left the cavalry severely undermanned and those officers that remained were fearful of being watched by the representatives. The price of failure or disloyalty was the guillotine. After the Battle of Hondschoote, September 1793, the British and Hanoverians under the Duke of York were defeated by General Houchard and General Jourdan. Houchard was arrested for treason for failing to organise a pursuit and guillotined.

By the spring of 1793, the French had virtually marched into the Dutch Republic and Austrian Netherlands unopposed. In May, the British won a victory at Famars and then followed up the success for the siege of Valenciennes. However, instead of concentrating their forces, the allies dispersed in an attempt to mop up the scattered French outposts. The French re-organised and combined their troops into larger corps. Dundas requested the Duke of York to lay siege to Dunkirk who had to abandon it after a severe mauling at Hondschoote.

By the end of the year the allied forces were now thinly stretched. The Duke of York was unable to support the Austrians and Prussians because of supply problems, and because Dundas was withdrawing regiments to re-assign them to the West Indies.

Map of the campaign, early 1794.
The allies (red) display their battle lines stretched over a wide area.

The French counter-offensive in the spring of the following year smashed apart the fragile allied lines. The Austrian command broke down as Francis II called for an immediate withdrawal. After the Battle of Fleurus, the defeated Austrians abandoned their century long hold of the Netherlands to retreat north towards Brussels. The loss of the Austrian support and the Prussians (who had also fallen back) led to the campaign’s collapse.

The Battle of Boxtel in September was a minor incident during the Allied retreat and is chiefly remembered for being the first time Arthur Wesley, (before changing his surname to Wellesley), saw action.

In the aftermath of Fleurus, the Austrians had begun to pull back east towards the line of the Rhine, abandoning any hope of recovering the Netherlands. This forced the British, German and Dutch troops to also retreat, where they destroyed bridges, redoubts and places where the French might use for their advantage.

Colonel Arthur Wesley, 33rd Foot
General Jean-Charles Pichegru, with the French Army of the North, advanced towards the British outpost at Boxtel, a town near the River Dommel, which had the only unspoiled bridge in the area. On the 14th the French captured the town after three hours of musket fire with Hessian troops with the aid of Dutch sympathisers. The Duke of York decided to send General Ralph Abercromby to retrieve the situation and protect the British rear-guard. Abercromby was given ten infantry battalions and ten cavalry squadrons, with the infantry made up of the Guards Brigade and the 3rd Brigade. This second brigade contained four infantry battalions; amongst them was Wesley’s own 33rd Foot. As the senior colonel present, he was given command of the brigade, while Lieutenant-Colonel John Sherbrooke, had command of the regiment.

Sir John Sherbrooke
At seven o’clock on the morning of the 15th, as veils of silver mist hung over the damp fields and dykes, the British force hurried to retake the town. It soon became abundantly clear that they were in danger of running into Pichegru’s main force and would be overwhelmed and outflanked by superior numbers. Abercromby ordered a withdrawal. When French infantry and cavalry charged the British, the retreat threatened to turn into a rout. The situation was saved by the iron resolve of the 33rd Foot’s commander – Sir John Sherbrooke. The battalion formed up into line and fired a series of disciplined volleys that shattered the French – so devastating was the fire that they were forced to retreat. Wesley was not directly responsible for their good behaviour, it was Sherbrooke, but he was overlooked and Wesley was given much of the credit that continues (in error) even to this day.

Drawing of the battle
Rijks Museum, Amsterdam

Plaque commemorating Boxtel at the site
The origins of the term ‘Tommy Atkins’ as a nickname for the British soldier is said to have originated during this fight. It is a name, perhaps today, that conjures in the mind images of the British soldier during the First World War, certainly not from an obscure clash in 1794. It is said that Wesley spotted amongst the wounded a soldier of the 33rd with a long service history. He was dying of three wounds; a sabre slash to his head, a bayonet thrust in his chest, and a bullet in a lung. The wounded private looked up at the colonel and said "It’s alright sir. It’s all in a day’s work". He then died. His name was Thomas Atkins, and his valour is said to have left an impression on the future Duke of Wellington. This may explain why the War Office chose the name ‘Tommy Atkins’ as a representative name in 1815. The Soldier’s Hand Book issued that year for both the cavalry and infantry uses the name as a generic soldier, and Wellington certainly gave his concurrence.

The term was used quite widely, and indeed rather contemptuously, in the mid-19th century. Rudyard Kipling sums this up in his poem ‘Tommy’, one of his Barrack-Room Ballards (1892) in which he contrasts the unkind way in which the common soldier was treated in peace time with the way he was praised as soon as he was needed to defend or fight for his country. ‘Tommy’, written from the soldier’s point of view, raised the public’s awareness of the need for a change of attitude towards the common soldier.
A much earlier origin can be traced back to as early as 1745 when a letter was sent from Jamaica concerning a mutiny, and when it was put down, it was mentioned that "Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly".

By the autumn, The Duke of York had been replaced by Sir William Harcourt, but with rumoured peace talks, the British position looked increasingly vulnerable. The only allied success of that year was that of the ‘Glorious First of June’, when Britain’s Lord Howe defeated a French naval squadron in the Atlantic, sinking one and capturing six French ships.

The winter of 1794 was one of the worst any one had ever imagined. Rivers froze, men died in their sleep, disease was rampant, and the soldier’s uniforms fell apart. It was an extremely harsh winter, mainly because the army was starving due to the collapsed commissariat. Troops started to steal from the local inhabitants. The officers were too lazy or indifferent to control them, and discipline amongst some units broke down completely.

By the spring of 1795, the British reached the allied Hanoverian port of Bremen and arrived home, weak, ill and emaciated. Some never fully recovered.

The Flanders Campaign demonstrated a series of weaknesses within the British Army. The Duke of York was given the role as Commander-in-Chief and brought forth a programme of reform, and it created the professional army that was to fight with much success throughout the Peninsular War.

The allies abandoned the Low Countries. Britain did attempt to undertake a second invasion of the newly proclaimed Batavian Republic until 1799 under The Duke of York, but it faltered and proved disastrous.

Notoriously, a children’s rhyme about the Holland campaign mocked the leadership of the Duke of York:

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down

However, there is another satirical verse attributed to Richard Tarlton, and so was adapted where possible, the latest ‘victim’ being The Duke of York. The oldest version of the song dates from 1642:

The King of France with forty thousand men,
came up the hill and so came downe againe.

Many officers who would continue to serve their countries received their baptism of fire on the fields of Flanders. The Austrian Archduke Charles fought in Flanders, as did several of Napoleon’s marshals: Jourdan, Ney, Murat, Mortier and Bernadotte. The Prussian General Sharnhorst, another great reformer of the Napoleonic Wars, saw battle under the Duke of York.

The one good thing to come out of that debacle was that it created Britain’s professional army that was to fight with much success throughout the Peninsular War, into France and which ultimately ‘Tommy Atkins’ played a part in defeating Napoleon at Waterloo.


David Cook’s new novella Blood on the Snow, about the British retreat during the Flanders Campaign, will be available on Amazon, Smashwords and CreateSpace from the 27th September. For more information, please visit his Facebook page ‘Liberty or Death’.

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