Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Anglo-Russian Helder campaign, 1799

by Jacqui Reiter

British landing at Callantsoog, 27 August 1799 (Wikimedia Commons)


In the middle of October 1799, forty thousand British and Russian troops camped in the shelter of the Zijpe Canal across the very northernmost tip of Holland's Helder Peninsula. Rain pock-marked the surface of the Groote Sloot that ran through the centre of the small village of Schagerbrug, and pounded off the narrow, muddy street outside the burgemeester's house.

Here the Duke of York, commander-in-chief of the allied British and Russian forces, had summoned an important meeting of his Council of War. Around the table were some of the most senior generals of the Allied army: Lieutenant-Generals Sir Ralph Abercromby, David Dundas, and James Pulteney; Major-General Lord Chatham; and the acting Russian commander, General Ivan Essen. As the rain continued to fall, the Council pondered the question of whether or not to abandon the campaign.

The expedition to the Helder had been planned as part of the Second Coalition during the war with revolutionary France. Britain had come out of three years of continental isolation to ally with Austria and Russia, who were currently pressing the French hard in the Rhineland and northern Italy. The Helder expedition was a joint venture between Britain and Russia with the aim of opening a second front in Holland (currently in French hands), overturn the “Batavian Republic”, and restore the House of Orange. Such sketchy intelligence as William Pitt's government had managed to acquire suggested the Dutch people would rise in favour of a royal restoration.

27 August 1799: the battle of Callantsoog

Admiral Michell's 200-strong fleet sailed from the Downs with the first round of British troops on 13 August, but due to strong winds did not manage to land troops until the 27th. The disembarkation began at daybreak with some difficulty, and immediately upon landing at Keeten, near Callantsoog, the British were attacked by Dutch General Daendels with 6000 men.

Beach at Callantsoog, where the British landed in 1799 (photo by J. Reiter)

The beach was so narrow only one British battalion could make front to the enemy at a time, and the men were hampered by their wet uniforms and the soft sand beneath their feet, but after a stiff fight the Dutch, and their French allies under General Brune, fell back on Alkmaar. The British marched inland and dug in behind the Zijpe Canal, where they waited for further British reinforcements and the Russians to join them.

At this point, however, the Allies' luck ran out. Rain set in and did not let up. The Dutch people showed little interest in helping the Allies, and none at all in rising behind an Orange restoration. The Allies had hoped to rely on local help to provision the troops as they marched through the country, but they found themselves increasingly relying on the British fleet for supplies. The further into the country they marched, the further away from their supply base they got.

19 September 1799: the battle of Bergen

From the first there was tension between the British and Russian allies. The British considered the Russians to be little more than savages, “repulsive and ferocious”.[1] It did not bode well for the success of the first Allied attempt to flush the French and Dutch from their position on 19 September. For some reason the Russians did not wait for their British allies, but began marching earlier than planned and over-extended their line.

The Russian commander, General Hermann, and his deputy were captured in the ensuing fight in the town of Bergen. The British had planned to flush the French and Dutch out of Alkmaar, but instead were forced to turn back and rescue the Russians from disaster. The largest British division (9000 men under Sir Ralph Abercromby) did manage to get almost the whole way to Alkmaar, but was forced to turn back without engaging the enemy.

The Russians had lost nearly 3000 men, including their Commander and his second-in-command, and the British had lost 1200 men. Before 19 September the British and Russians had distrusted each other; now there was seriously bad blood between them, and the acting Russian commander, General Essen, did not even attempt to hide his opinion that poor communication from the Duke of York had caused the disaster.

While the Allies quarrelled, the French and Dutch flooded the dykes in the south and awaited six thousand reinforcements from France. And all along the rain continued to fall.

2 October 1799: the battle of Egmont-op-Zee

View of the Battle of Egmont-op-Zee (Wikimedia Commons)

Two weeks passed before the weather gave an opening for another assault. The morning of 2 October dawned dry, and unexpectedly warm. The Allies marched out from behind the Zijpe to try another assault on the enemy, determined to capture the towns of Egmont op Zee (now Egmont aan Zee), Bergen and Alkmaar.

The battle lasted all day and was very bloody, largely due to the nature of the terrain. Egmont and Bergen were surrounded by a vast network of sand-dunes stretching two or three miles inland.

Dunes near Egmont (photo by J. Reiter)

At the northernmost point, around the town of Schoorl, the dunes were more like hills, between a hundred and two hundred feet high, knitted together with dense scrub and sprawling copses of twisted birch.

Sandhills at Schoorl (photo by J. Reiter)

The bitterest fighting took place around Egmont, where the rise and fall of the dunes made it impossible to form up large units of men, or indeed to see or hear the enemy until they were literally just around the corner. The ground was sandy and sank above the tops of mens' boots. A private soldier from the 92nd Highlanders later recalled:
In one instance, one of our parties having climbed to the top of a sand ridge, found that a party of the enemy was just beneath, and instantly rushed down the ridge upon them; but the side of the ridge was so steep and soft, that the effort to keep themselves from falling prevented them from making regular use of their arms. They were involuntarily precipitated amongst the enemy, and the bottom of the ridge was so narrow, and the footing on all sides so soft, that neither party were [sic] able, for want of room, to make use of the bayonet; but they struck at each other with the butts of their firelocks, and some individuals were fighting with their fists.[2]

The fighting kept going till past nightfall. The French and Dutch fell back again, abandoning Bergen and Alkmaar to the Allies and entrenching themselves between Beverwijk and Wijk-op-Zee.

The Duke of York's headquarters in Alkmaar (photo by J. Reiter)

The British lines at last moved out of their first headquarters at Schagerbrug, and the Duke of York established his new headquarters in Daendels' hastily-evacuated quarters in the Burgemeester's house on Alkmaar's cobbled high street.

6 October 1799: the battle of Castricum

On 6 October preparations were begun for an attempt to capture the enemy's headquarters at Beverwijk. It was raining yet again, and poor communication once more dogged the Allies. Small divisions were dispatched to establish advance guards at Acker-Sloot, Limmen, and Bakkum, with strict instructions to wait for further orders, but once again the Russians under Essen became over-extended.

The Russians pushed onto the town of Castricum, close to Beverwijk, and somehow attracted the full might of the French and Dutch force. General Brune himself charged the Allies at the head of his cavalry. British reinforcements were hastily sent for, and what had been intended as an opening feint became a full-on general action.

Dunelands between Castricum and Beverwijk (photo by J. Reiter)

In the afternoon the heavens opened: “the rain poured down in torrents,” in the words of one eyewitness.[3] but the battle barely slowed. The troops could barely see each other, let alone the enemy, and the Duke of York in Alkmaar had to send one of his aides up the spire of St Laurence's Church with a telescope to see what was going on.

Tower of St Laurence's Church, Alkmaar (photo by J. Reiter)

By the time the fighting stopped at ten o'clock at night both sides were exhausted. The Allies had lost over three thousand men, including “two Battalions of the 4th [Foot] … [that] had forced their way within the Enemy's Lines, without knowing at all where they were”.[4] Worse still, the rain had flooded the roads leading back to the fleet, cutting off the Allies' lines of supply. They had no choice but to fall back behind the Zijpe again.

A harrowing midnight march followed. Some units confused the dykes that criss-crossed the country with the wet roads and fell in, and the stragglers were harassed all the way by Dutch cavalry. The following day the French and Dutch regained their lost territory. It was status quo, except now the British and Russians had lost over twelve thousand troops and more men were falling sick of marsh fever.

End of the campaign

It was the middle of October and the weather could not be expected to improve. By now, also, news was tricking in from French prisoners of a great victory by French General Masséna at Zurich over Russian General Suvorov. The Allies had meant to distract the French from the Rhineland; now they were in danger of becoming the French's main focus.

It was no surprise, then, when the Duke of York's Council of War agreed with his recommendation to suspend action and make terms. These were signed on 18 October and permitted the allied forces to evacuate unmolested, provided 8000 French prisoners of war were released from Britain.

As Lord Chatham wrote to his brother, William Pitt, the prime minister:
The considerable reinforcements received by the Enemy, the less and less dependence to be placed on the Russian Troops, the uncertainty when shipping for so large an army might arrive, the exhausted and alarming state of our resources, and … the unfavourable report of the Engineers as to the defences of the Helder … and consequently the great risk, even if we had embarked, of our not getting away at all ... presented to our view the possible loss of the whole army … I hope the measure taken however it may be lamented, can not be disapproved.[5]

The failure of the Helder campaign heralded the collapse of the Second Coalition. Russia soon dropped out, although Russian troops remained in the Channel Islands until the spring thaw allowed them to return home. It would be six years before the British received another opportunity to engage in continental operations against the French.


For a useful map of the locations referred to in this post, see here


[1] Walsh, A narrative of the expedition to Holland, p 47

[2] Narrative of a private soldier in His Majesty’s 92nd regiment of foot, p 75

[3] Bunbury, A narrative of the campaign in North Holland, p. 26

[4] The Sun, 16 Oct 1799

[5] Lord Chatham to William Pitt, 19 October 1799, National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/122 f 145


Further reading

There are virtually no modern British sources on the Helder campaign, although there are a few Dutch texts. The main sources used in the writing of this article are listed below:

Sir Henry Bunbury, A narrative of the campaign in North Holland, 1799 (London, 1849)

Alfred Burne, The Noble Duke of York (London, 1949)

The campaign in Holland, 1799, by a Subaltern (London, 1861)

John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt: the consuming struggle (London, 1996)

Geert von Uythoven, Voorwarts, Bataven! De Engels-Russische invasie van 1799 (Zaltbommel, 1999)

J.W. Fortescue, A history of the British Army, vol IV part II (London, 1906)

HMSO, British minor expeditions, 1746-1814 (London, 1884)

Francis Maule, Memoirs of the principal events in the campaigns of North Holland and Egypt... (London, 1816)

Sir J.F. Maurice (ed), The diary of Sir John Moore, vol 1 (London, 1904)

Narrative of a Private Soldier in His Majesty's 92nd Regiment of Foot … (London, 1820)

A.B. Piechowiak, “The Anglo-Russian Expedition to Holland in 1799”, The Slavonic and East European Review 41 (96) (December 1962) 182-195

Edward Walsh, A narrative of the expedition to Holland in the autumn of the year 1799 … (London, 1800)


About the Author

Jacqui Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She believes she is the world expert on the life of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, and is writing a novel about his relationship with his brother Pitt the Younger. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.