Battle of Callantsoog

Landing at Callantsoog by Dirk Langendijk

A Waste of Blood and Treasure: The 1799 Anglo-Russian Invasion of the Netherlands

With the Netherlands overrun by French Republican forces, the British and Russian governments sent an allied army of 48,000 men under the Duke of York to liberate the country and restore the House of Orange.

The largest operation mounted by Pitt’s ministry during the French Revolutionary Wars, the amphibious expedition involved the first ever direct cooperation between British and Russian forces, embroiled the armies in five full-scale battles, and secured the capture of the Dutch fleet. As Britain’s first major continental involvement since 1795, it played a part in shaping the early careers of many famous military commanders of the Napoleonic Wars. In the end, however, the campaign failed spectacularly. Its inglorious end provoked parliamentary outrage and led to diplomatic rupture between Britain and Russia. The Duke of York never commanded an army in the field again.

This book examines British, French, Dutch and Russian sources to reveal a fascinating tale of intrigue, diplomatic skullduggery and daring action. Spies, politicians, sailors and soldiers all play a part in the exciting story of an expedition that made (and broke) reputations and tested alliances. It recounts in lavish detail the series of battles fought to liberate a people who showed little interest in being saved and explores the story behind the triumphs and failures of this forgotten campaign.

The Secret Expedition: The Anglo-Russian Invasion of Holland 1799 (From Reason to Revolution)

In 1799, as part of the Second Coalition against France, an Anglo-Russian army landed in Holland to overthrow the Batavian Republic and to reinstate the Stadtholder William V of Orange. Initially called ‘The Secret Expedition’, although not really a secret for both sides, the description of the invasion reads like a novel. Five major battles were fought between armies of four different nations, with unexpected deeds of heroism and unexpected defeats. There were secret negotiations and rumors of bribery. More than enough ingredients for biased opinions, historical errors, and incorrect information copied from historians up to this day.

The aim of this book is to give a balanced, detailed, and complete account of the events taking place during the invasion: the preparations on both sides, detailed descriptions of the battles as well as the events taking place at sea and in the eastern provinces of the Batavian Republic. Also giving new opinions on questions like: What were the causes of ‘The Secret Expedition’? Did Brune indeed delay reinforcing the Batavians? What caused the frequent panics in the participating armies? Were the French veteran troops and the Batavians soldiers unreliable? How was the treaty closed?

The book is based on source material from all participating countries, including numerous firsthand accounts of eyewitnesses and contemporaries, providing the reader with a mirror to the past.

27th August 1799 – Battle of Callantsoog

The landing of an Anglo-Russian force, commanded by the Duke of York, on the Dutch coast near Den Helder in 1799. The operation was part of an unsuccessful invasion of the French-controlled Batavian Republic in an attempt to restore the House of Orange.

In 1799 the British and Russian governments determined to drive the French from Holland. Captain Home Popham was sent to Russia to help with arrangements for the expedition, and succeeded in overcoming Russian reluctance to provide and fit warships as transports. At Kronstadt he supervised the fitting out of the ships and embarkation of the troops.

Transporting, deploying, and supporting armed forces by sea required sophisticated organization and logistics. After a failure at Rochefort in 1757, the British learned to specify the joint and separate responsibilities of commanders of the navy and army and their subordinate officers. Troops and their prepared weapons were landed under the command of naval officers, after which army officers took control. The development of special landing craft with distinguishing signs facilitated the coordination and deployment of the units involved, while warships fired toward land until the troops arrived and thereafter provided logistical support.

It is probable that the artist Dirk Langendijk was present, as the drawing[see above] is inscribed by him ‘ad vivum 1799’ (from the life 1799), making this a very rare eyewitness depiction of an amphibious operation in the age of sail and it is crammed with detail and great energy as 2500 men were landed in the first wave alone. The defenders were positioned behind the dunes on the right of the image and the attacking soldiers are shown making their attack.

The initial landing was a success and in the subsequent battle of Callantsoog the Anglo-Russian troops defended their position, though the invasion itself soon stalled and the Anglo-Russian forces ultimately had to negotiate an unmolested withdrawal from the coast.

The campaign began in earnest in late August. On the 27th thirty-two thousand British and Russian troops landed near Callantsoog in North Holland, which is the peninsula that protrudes north of Amsterdam, separating the North Sea and the Ijsselmeer. The invasion was not a surprise, and the landing was opposed, but nevertheless succeeded, with the coalition forces victorious at what is known as the Battle of Callantsoog (also known as the Battle of Groot Keeten – the two are adjacent villages).

The invasion went well. Three days later the Dutch fleet, stationed at Den Helder at the tip of the peninsula, was taken by Admiral Sir Charles Mitchell. On the 10th September the coalition forces under Sir Ralph Abercromby met and defeated a Dutch-French army, under the command of the French general Guillaume Brune, at Krabbendam (also called the Battle of Zijpedijk). The 20th Foot, consisting of two battalions under Lieutenant-Colonel Smyth and Major Ross, played a major part in the capture of the village, driving the French troops out, but as they did so both Smyth and Ross were injured, and Major Bainbrigge took command of the 1st Battalion.

Five days after Krabbendam the commander of the army finally arrived to take command; it would be interesting to know what the so-far-successful Abercromby thought about the army now being led by His Royal Highness Prince Frederick, Duke of York, second son of the King, George III.  Perhaps he thanked Heaven, as the army would now become plagued by mishaps. The weather turned, and rain fell consistently. As a result the already poor road system in North Holland deteriorated further, and supplies from Den Helder failed to reach the troops. To forestall enemy foraging the Dutch flooded farmland, removing food sources and further damaging the infrastructure. The coalition troops, marooned in low-lying swampy country, began to die from disease.

The bad luck, or poor planning and logistics, was to feature in the next major confrontation of the campaign, the Battle of Bergen on September 19th. Frederick’s army was in four columns, with Abercromby in charge of the left column, which included Bainbrigge’s 20th Foot. Abercromby’s forces, however, found themselves bogged down in the bad weather and the bad roads, and failed to make the expected progress, and therefore failed to engage the enemy when planned. In contrast the Russians in the centre took the village of Bergen at 8 a.m., far earlier than planned and thus lacking any British support. Apparently the commanders had failed to synchronise clocks. The Russians were therefore forced to withdraw, and the coalition assault deemed unsuccessful. The Republican forces were given the opportunity to realign and secure the routes to Amsterdam which the coalition had been hoping to control.

The 2nd of October saw the 2nd Battle of Bergen, also known as the Battle of Alkmaar. The coalition troops were successful in capturing the town of Alkmaar, and thus securing the northern half of the peninsula, but were now already being plagued by the problems mentioned above, all of which were to get progressively worse. Realising his difficulties Frederick resolved to press on and attack Brune’s forces at Castricum, south of Alkmaar. After a day of fighting the right and central columns were eventually driven back in disarray, so chaotic that two field hospitals with their wounded, and four hundred women and children, soldiers’ families,  were allegedly forgotten about in the retreat. Abercromby’s left column fought to a stalemate in a separate battle on the beach and dunes, and it was somewhere in this engagement that Philip Bainbrigge of Ashbourne, forty-three year-old father of seven, lost his life.

Despite their previous victories, despite the occupation of Alkmaar and most of North Holland, the defeat at Castricum prompted Frederick to make the decision to retreat to his original bridgehead, thus losing all the territory gained since September.  Within a few weeks a lot of men had lost their lives for what looks like nothing, and Frederick, short of supplies, with bad weather making replenishment by sea unreliable, was suing for peace. It looks clearly like a futile adventure. However, there were two positive outcomes. One was that the capture of the Dutch fleet meant that the Batavian Government had lost over a third of their ships, much reducing its effectiveness as a threat to Britain and its navy. The second was that the logistical problems that had befallen him led Frederick, as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, to instigate reforms within that institution that were aimed at improving its efficiency, including the creation of Sandhurst for officer training in 1801.  His exploits as commander also gave us a nursery rhyme – “The Grand Old Duke of York”.

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