By Philip Ball
Personally, I am very glad that the French Revolutionary Wars are finally increasing in prominence, as they surely are with the From Reason to Revolution series. As a schoolboy and undergraduate I studied the Revolution itself but the wars it occasioned were always something that was going on elsewhere; to be manipulated by the various political factions in the National Assembly or a threat to the existence of the newly fledged Republic. The wars themselves rarely got a mention. I always thought this was odd as the Napoleonic Wars which came immediately afterwards are immensely popular with writers, wargamers, and those with an interest in history. The French Revolutionary Wars involved many of the same characters as those later wars, colourful costumes, a plethora of set piece battles, and can hardly be bettered for sheer drama. The great victories thrown away through folly, the brilliance and ineptitude shown in equal measure by both sides, and the chaotic unpredictability of the French Republic at war make for an exciting area of study.
Whilst working at the Museum of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment I came across reference to the Helder campaign. This, I read, was a campaign fought by the British army alongside Russian allies, to provoke a counter revolution in the Netherlands. Two battalions of the regiment had fought in this campaign but I had never heard of it and could find little written about it. So, I was drawn to this period through a lack of information, the exploration of something familiar and yet unknown. I later wrote my Masters dissertation on the failure of the Helder campaign and was moved to research the Duke of York’s previous campaign; that fought in Flanders 1793-95. This, as it turned out, was quite a large subject and is known to us today largely through the nursery rhyme ‘The Grand old Duke of York’, so I felt that this was a large gap in the history of the period which needed filling.
The Duke of York, as the nursery rhyme would imply, did little to enhance his military reputation in the course of this campaign which, like the later one, ended in an ignominious withdrawal on the part of British forces and the surrender of the Netherlands to French forces. There have been attempts in recent years to revive the reputation of the Duke of York; to paint him as an early Eisenhower, holding coalitions together with his diplomacy and a general able to defeat his enemy when allowed to exercise independent command. Unfortunately there is little evidence of any of this when we look closely at the conduct of this operation. As the famous Gillray cartoon, ‘Fatigues of the Campaign in Flanders’, suggests, York seems to have lived well on campaign (he was accompanied by a vast retinue of cooks and liveried footmen) while his troops struggled with supply issues. An English lady visiting the Duke said that he was constantly surrounded by a coterie of young staff officers and rarely dined with the commanders of his army which did not endear him to them or give him the opportunity to discuss issues with the army. When the outgoing Hanoverian commander, Marshal Freytag went to report to his Elector (George III of England) York wrote a very telling letter to his father, the King, saying that he wasn’t to believe anything the old veteran said about York being perpetually drunk.
York didn’t spend very much time with his army and when it wasn’t actually on the march he tended to find comfortable quarters away from camp. At the battle of Beaumont the army had to wait, drawn up to repel the French attackers, while York was fetched from his bed. It is not unsurprising therefore that the army, which is said by some to have been the worst to have ever left England, suffered some problems with indiscipline. In a war that was being pitched to the British taxpayer and the world in general as a crusade against the beastly excesses of republicanism, the British army committed a number of atrocities against the civilians it was supposed to be saving and upset almost as many allies as its commander did.
York’s biggest failing as a commander was perhaps the way in which acted towards his allies. In the later Helder campaign he was accused of being loudly critical of his Russian allies and it seems he was no different in Flanders. A young man, son of the King, fond of drink and rowdy company, he probably saw nothing wrong with his behaviour but his letters home are full of contempt for his allies, whom he blamed for every mishap he encountered.
This book has a number of themes but perhaps the central one is the difficulty of keeping coalitions together. The force that York was part of consisted of; troops of the Austrian Empire; Germans, Hungarians, Croats and Slavs, the Prussians and the Dutch, as well as various mercenary troops in the pay of Britain. All of the states involved had different motivations for being in the coalition and hoped for different things from the war. The various contingents were commanded by professional and experienced soldiers who doubtless resented York’s, widely broadcast criticism.
Whilst the personal feelings of the commanders did not have as much effect on the future of the coalition as the manoeuvring of their political masters, it almost certainly affected relations between the armies. Some commentators have even alleged that Austrian generals deliberately abandoned York to his fate at the Battle of Tourcoing due to their personal antipathy towards him. Remarkable as this is, by the end of the campaign the Dutch, the very nation that the British contingent had been sent to defend, were exhibiting more sympathy to the invading French than to their erstwhile allies and began negotiations while the British were still in the country.
So, this is a tale of personalities and alliances; it is also an account of a large number of battles. The campaign in Flanders seems to have been extraordinarily hard-fought: although the battles achieved little as the action see-sawed across Flanders, some towns changing hands several times, there were lots of them. For me one of the most interesting parts of this story is phenomenon of the republican war machine; the genesis of total war. This is a period that holds an almost mythological status in the annals of French military history; the ragged, starving, but ideological armies, led by men soon to be household names (Carnot, Jourdan, Vandamme, Macdonald, Bernadotte and Bonaparte to name a few) saved the republic from autocratic forces bent on its destruction. What we see is the entire resources of a nation flung with abandon against its enemies. This book examines the effectiveness of the forces they raised and casts a critical light on the legends.
After two years of bloody but fruitless campaigning the coalition failed. The vast hydra-like forces of the French Republic wore down the allies’ will to fight. Although generally successful on the field, the coalition lacked the clarity of vision to concentrate its efforts and was overwhelmed by French numbers and aggression. Numerous defeats did not seem to dent the republican war machine and as the coalition foundered it returned to the offensive. The Prussians went back to pick over the carcass of Poland, the Austrians fell back to their own territory, and the Dutch surrendered, becoming a satellite of France until 1814. York was removed from his post and sent home to command the army from Whitehall while his men endured one of those harrowing retreats which dot the landscape of British military history. They would return eventually, but spent most of the war nibbling at the rind of France in limited amphibious operations.