The siege of Ostend and the Spinola offensives 1601-8

Ostend’s military machines by Pompeo Giustiniani 1 & 3, the construction of wicker filled with stones and earth were buried in the trenches by the besiegers; they were used in the western part of the town to allow the fording of the Old Haven. 2 & 4, to the east, the deeper flowing channel Geule of the Old Haven, a dam was constructed by Count Bucquoy’s troops on which rode artillery pieces to prevent the entry of ships into the harbour during low tide; 6 Cannons mounted on parapets on top of boats that ventured close to bomb the city; this design would be a failure as it sank on its maiden voyage without even firing a shot. 8 Mobile drawbridge or Targone bridge: this too was a failure after it took a direct hit.

Maurice of Nassau’s foray along the Flemish coast brought home to the Spanish the need of doing something about the Dutch coastal enclave at Ostend, which the enemy had been diligently fortifying for some years:

Quite apart from the fact that the Archduke Albert was denied the use of such a good port, the presence of the garrison compelled him to maintain a war in his own territory, added to ‘The Eighty Years War in the Netherlands 1566-1648 85 which the land had to bear the ruinous cost of paying an extra army – Flanders in particular was the prey of the soldiers, whereas in peacetime it was reckoned to make up a fourth part of the whole Seventeen Provinces in wealth (Haestens, 1615, 98).

Albert therefore decided to reduce Ostend. His ambition resulted in a contest which lasted for three years, and bears comparison with the sieges of Vienna in 1683 and of Stalingrad in 1943 for the interest which the rest of the world attached to its outcome.

The Duke of Parma himself had never dared to tackle Ostend, which possessed free communication by sea to Zeeland and Holland, and was surrounded by water on almost every side. The sea ruled out all serious attacks against the Old Town, or northern portion of the fortress, while the landward fronts were protected by two tidal creeks: the Old Harbour on the western side, and the New Harbour or Geule (the present port of Ostend) on the eastern side.

The landward approaches represented ‘a plashy moor (Vere, 1672, 126) on all sides except the coastal dunes. These sand hills offered the only tracts of dry ground over which siege guns could be brought close to the fortress, but if they chose this path of advance the Spanish would be presented with the problem of crossing the Old Harbour and the Geule at their deepest and widest points.

The man-made defences of Ostend consisted of two perimeters. The inner enceinte owned eight earthen bastions, in front of which was a broad and deep ditch of sea water. The bottom was ‘a glutinous impermeable mud, which supported no vegetation . .. and always retained its water’ (Montpleinchamp, 1693, 152). Beyond the ditch ran a very thick counterscarp, or rather outer enceinte, which conformed approximately to the trace of the inner enceinte, and consisted of long branches which ran forward into bastion-like salients. The works as a whole were high, well-flanked and strongly palisaded, though built of a ‘sandy and mouldered earth’ (Vere, 1672, 121).

On 5 July 1601 the Spanish appeared before Ostend in the strength of about 12,000 men. Over the following months they proceeded to drive the defenders back from their positions in the marshes to the two enceintes. They simultaneously planted some heavy siege batteries in the western dunes, from where the guns kept up a heavy fire against the Sandhill Bastion, which stood at the north-west corner of the outer enceinte and overlooked the point where the Old Harbour entered the sea. The cannonade was so violent that the work

might rather have been called iron-hill than sandhill: for it was stuck so full of bullets, that many of them tumbled down into the fausse-braye, and others, striking on their own bullets, breaking into pieces flew up into the air as high as a steeple (Hexham’s account, Vere, 1672, 166).

The besiegers paid heavily for their gains. The newly-arrived troops from Spain and Italy perished miserably in the bitter weather, and they were cut down in scores by the fire from Ostend. ‘The ground was strewn everywhere with arms, legs and hands . . . surgeons came out of the town, and brought back bags full of human fat which they had stripped from the bodies’ (Haestens, 1615, 147). (This disgusting material was prized as a salve for wounds.)

Possibly as many as 2,000 men were lost on the single night of 7-8 January 1602, when the Spanish launched an assault along the beach at low water against the Sandhill Bastion. Archduke Albert had committed precisely the same mistake as Parma at Maastricht in 1579, throwing his men into the assault over open ground against prepared defences. All along the ramparts of Ostend lay the people who had paid for his error:

whole heaps of dead carcasses, forty or fifty upon a heap, stark naked, goodly young men, Spaniards and Italians: among whom, some (besides other marks to know them by) had their beards clean shaven off. There lay also upon the sand some dead horse, with baskets of hand-grenades; they left also behind them their scaling-ladders, great store of spades, and shovels, bills, hatchets, and axes and other materials (Hexham’s account, Vere, 1672, 174)

For the rest of 1602 and the best part of 1603 the siege settled into a noisy but indecisive routine. The Spanish never again essayed an assault, but contented themselves with cannonading the town from a high platform built on the western dunes.

Compared with the Spanish host, the garrison was not particularly big (in March 1602, for example, it stood at 7,000), but in compensation the defenders were continually reinforced and replenished from the sea. So sure, indeed, was the traffic that many civilian spectators, including women, made the trip to Ostend to view the siege.

This period was enlivened for the Spanish by the arrival in their camp of a present from the Pope, in the person of the engineer Pompeio Targone (1575- c. 1630). Targone had

a very ready wit, which made him apt for inventions in his calling: but having never till then passed from the theory to the practical part in military affairs, it was soon seen, that many of his imaginations did not upon trial prove such, as in appearance they promised to be (Bentivoglio, 1678, part III, book 7).

Targone bent his imagination to the task of pushing forward the approaches from the eastern dunes, but he failed dismally in everyone of the devices he contrived: first a monstrous rolling gabion, then a floating battery, and finally a dyke which broke apart in the north-western storms.

Such was the state of affairs when the Spanish officers heard that yet another Italian dilettante was coming out to Ostend, not merely to invent siege engines but to take charge of the whole army. This gentleman was one Ambrogio Spinola, a scion of a wealthy Genoese family. The signs could hardly have been worse. Spinola was known to be devoid of all military experience, and to have been brought up in comfortable, not to say sumptuous surroundings. Moreover, the family had virtually bought the command for its pampered son, by offering to put the Spinola riches and credit at the disposal of the army in the Netherlands.

In one respect the Spanish expectations were fulfilled, for as soon as Spinola reached Ostend in the late summer of 1603 he charged a large proportion of the costs of the siege to his own account. As early as 10 December Archduke Albert could write to King Philip III that since Spinola had taken charge

the siege has been progressing very quickly. With the help of the money which the said Marquis is providing … we have overcome many difficulties which hitherto impeded the course of the works. All of this gives us good cause to be optimistic (Villa, 1904, 73-4).

What was much more surprising was that Spinola proved to be that rarest of creatures, a man who had equipped himself to be a complete commander from the study of books. Not only did he show himself to be an expert engineer, but he won over the ordinary soldiers by leadership of the most direct and forceful kind. In the quiet of his library he had absorbed all the lessons which Parma and Archduke Albert had had to buy with the blood of their men.

Spinola’s main objective was to force the crossing of the Old Harbour from the west. If he could gain the counterscarp on that side, he explained to the king, ‘Your Majesty would have a guarantee that the town would be yours’ (ibid., 76).

Reviving the ferocious emulation which had existed among the Habsburg contingents in the days of Charles v, Spinola arranged his Germans, Spanish, Italians, Burgundians and Walloons in order of battle along the bank of the Old Harbour from its mouth to the marshes behind the town. The troops then threw causeways of. earth and fascines across the creek. This was a difficult and bloody business which was helped by screens of gabions, but not at all by the employment of the last of Targone’s inventions, a mobile drawbridge mounted on four ten-foot wheels. A single cannon shot shattered one of the wheels and immobilised the machine for good.

Spinola was everywhere, ‘exposing himself as much as any of the rest to all the labour and dangers, encouraging some, rewarding others’ (Bentivoglio, 1678, part III, book 7). The Walloons and Burgundians were the first across, for the water was shallowest at the head of the creek, but the other contingents were not far behind, and on 4 April 1604 the besiegers surprised and took a number of redoubts on the counterscarp opposite the Sandhill Bastion. Maurice received the news in Holland with astonishment, and began to harbour his first fears as to the fate of Ostend.

Parma now undertook a second, formal siege of the inner enceinte. In the summer the Dutch were forced to abandon the inner rampart altogether, and they retired to a large bastioned retrenchment which· they had heaped up in the north-eastern corner of the town.

In order to complete these fortifications the defenders had to dig up a number of dead bodies, and heap up the heads and bones of their late comrades like fascines. Since these works were made of dead bodies and freshly-dug earth, they could not offer adequate resistance to cannon-fire (Baudart, 1616, II, 340).

Unseasonable storms completed the Spaniards’ work for them. The Dutch supply ships found it increasingly difficult to make their way into Ostend, and on 22 August a combination of tempest and high tide swamped the grisly retrenchment and carried large sections of it away.

The States General finally authorised the last governor, Daniel d’Hertaing, to seek a capitulation on good terms. He shipped off all the gunners, engineers, Spanish deserters, heretical preachers and other folk who were calculated to awake the Spanish ire, and then opened negotiations with Spinola. On 20 September 1604 he was granted a free evacuation for the remaining 3,000 men of his garrison.

 Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella came from Ghent to view the conquest, but they could see

nothing but a misshapen chaos of earth, which hardly retained any show of the first Ostend. Ditches filled up, curtains beaten down, bulwarks torn in pieces, half-moons, flanks and redoubts so confused with one another, as one could not be distinguished from another; nor could it be known on which side the attack, or on which side the defence was (Bentivoglio, 1678, part III, book 7).

The scale of the struggle for Ostend resembled that of a war rather than a siege. The contest lasted three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours, and the losses of the Spanish from all causes are variously estimated at between 17,000 and 80,000 dead. The impartial Carnero (1625, book XV, chapter 10) puts the figure at 40,000, which seems a good average. The casualties of the Dutch are quite impossible to estimate, for their vessels made something like 3,000 round trips, bringing reinforcements to Ostend, and carrying away the sick and wounded to die or recover in their homeland.

The siege, long and costly though it was, must be accounted a major victory for the Spanish, for they had evicted the Dutch from their one remaining foothold in ‘Belgium’, and so completed the work which Parma had begun in the 1580s. The technical lessons were obvious enough: in the first place, that it was extremely difficult to take a fortress which could receive reinforcements and replenishment throughout the siege; then again, it was clear that an unprepared assault would almost certainly meet with a bloody repulse, and that it was essential to shelter the besieging troops with all the cover that earth and brushwood could provide.

Maurice and the Dutch field army had meanwhile been striving to draw the Spanish away from Ostend by reducing fortresses in other parts of the Netherlands, applying the technique of trying to break a stranglehold by stamping on the strangler’s foot. Maurice captured Rijnberk in 1601, Grave the next year, and in 1603 he essayed a determined but vain siege of s’Hertogenbosch – all without persuading the Spanish to move from Ostend. At last in the spring of 1604 the Dutch army undertook a direct offensive along the Flanders coast. Sluis and its fine harbour fell to Maurice on 19 August 1604, hardly a month before the Spanish conquered Ostend.

If the siege of Ostend had established Spinola as a master of fortress warfare, then his capacity in the open field was proved beyond doubt in the brief (but for the Dutch extremely alarming) period of fighting which preceded the Twelve Years Truce. In 1605 Spinola took a leaf out of Maurice’s book. He advanced threateningly on Sluis, then swung eastwards with 15,000 men, crossed the Rhine at Kaisersworth, and in August reduced the fortresses of Oldenzaal and Lingen. For the first time in two decades the main Spanish striking-force had been transferred to the vital pivotal area east of the Ijssel, and Maurice spoke wonderingly of the movements of this ‘flying devil’ who seemed to read his thoughts like a crystal ball.

The Eighty Years War in the Netherlands 1566-1648 89 Grol fell to Spinola on 14 August 1606, so deepening the area of his conquests in Overijssel and eastern Gelderland. Heavy rains ruled out any exploitation westwards across the Ijssel, or northeastwards towards Friesland. Spinola accordingly turned on his tracks, and strengthened his hold on the middle Rhine by taking the much-disputed fortress of Rijnberk.

Despite his recent conquests, Spinola was one of the leading advocates of a truce with the Dutch. He knew that the Spanish finances could not possibly support the strain of further campaigns. A preliminary armistice was concluded in April 1607, which led to an agreement to conclude a truce with a term of twelve years dating from 1608. The demarcation confirmed the status quo, leaving the Dutch with a narrow foothold in northern Brabant and Flanders to the south of their river line; further east, the Spanish reaped the benefit of Spinola’s recent successes, and retained Oldenzaal and Grol as tiny enclaves lodged on the borders of Germany and the Dutch provinces.

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