The Secret Expedition. The Anglo-Russian Invasion of Holland 1799

By Geert van Uythoven

North Holland, 10 September 1799:

At daybreak the English spotted our advance guard, setting fire to the windmill in front of St. Maarten and opening fire on us with their batteries. On this spot, where the dragoon detachment had to remain in place, we were greeted by the fire of a howitzer of the enemy, which killed four of our horses. A dragoon’s cartridge-box was ignited and this set his uniform on fire. Only his presence of mind saved him, jumping quickly into a ditch filled with water, and the fire was extinguished. In the meanwhile the 1st Lieutenant Hoevenaar ordered his dragoons to close up, at which moment the detachment was hit by a 12-pdr cannon ball, which wounded a horse badly: the horse lost his complete forehead between the eyes and the nose, and it was necessary to shoot the animal. After this had taken place, two guns from the horse artillery arrived, commanded by Captain d’Anguerand. He deployed in front of the dragoons, and the accompanying caisson was placed at the same spot the dragoons were. The dragoons had no other option as to deploy in a new position, left of the road, close to the caisson and a small house, because there was not enough room to deploy properly.

After a short while a shell from a howitzer fell amidst of the horse-team of the caisson and three of the horses were killed instantly. Because we were so close near this caisson, it was lucky that the exploding shell did not hit the caisson itself, because when this would have happened surely the whole dragoon detachment and everyone near it would have been killed. It is commonly known that the terrain, where we fight on in Holland, has narrow roads and is intersected by many ditches and canals, which makes fighting very difficult.

Thus, Lieutenant Hoevenaar of the Batavian Dragoon Regiment describes his participation in the attack on the English positions in the Zijpe on 10 September 1799. His account illustrates that, contrary to the British and Orangist beliefs, the Batavian army was willing to fight for their country and did not run or defect at the first sight of the British. At a certain moment, the British Lieutenant General Abercromby even doubted the outcome of the battle and prepared for re-embarkation. Yet the common British expectation of an easy and victorious campaign was not surprising: years of polarisation between the Patriots and Orangists had divided the Dutch to the bone, not unlike the Democrats and Republicans in today’s USA. These divisions were also the main reason that the French were able to overrun the Dutch Republic easily in 1795, creating the French puppet state called the Batavian Republic. Hearing about the allegedly growing resentment of the Dutch against their French oppressors, a rising en masse of the Dutch population was to be expected.

The campaign had started well enough for the British: although their beach landing was opposed and fiercely contested, the swift capture of Den Helder provided a safe port. The subsequent capture of the Batavian fleet at the Vlieter, without a shot being fired, strengthened their belief that the Batavian Republic was ripe for capture and the reinstatement of the House of Orange. With the British army reinforced by a substantial contingent of the formidable Russian army, the capture of Amsterdam would be a matter of time. As so often, the situation under the surface proved to be much more complex and challenging.

In writing The Secret Expedition I tried to provide the reader with a thorough insight in all this. Treating all nations and armies participating, sketching the political situation and the events leading up to this remarkable campaign, where British and Russians joined forces in an effort to turn the tide against the French rule of a large part of Europe, I studied the battles that were fought, which are described in detail, leading often to a fresh insight contrary to those of previous historians, who often copied supposed facts without challenging them. The text further includes many quotes and accounts to provide the reader with a ‘look and feel’ of how the participants experienced the events during these memorable months, in a campaign during which the reputation of many participants was built or came to an abrupt end.

The new paperback edition of Geert van Uythoven’s The Secret Expedition: The Anglo-Russian Invasion of Holland 1799 is available to order from the Helion website: https://www.helion.co.uk/military-history-books/the-secret-expedition-the-anglo-russian-invasion-of-holland-1799.php

Defeat of a British outpost near Schoorldam
Zijpe polder seen from the Westfriesche Zeedijk between Eenigenburg and St Maarten
Zijpe Sluices

Henry Wilson – the backstabber’s backstabber – or soldier-diplomat?

By John Spencer

No study of the British Army’s senior command in the Great War is complete without a reference to Sir Henry Hughes Wilson. Like the villain in a Victorian melodrama he usually makes an early appearance, then skulks in the background only to reappear in the final act to stab his friends in the back. There is no doubt that Wilson was, and remains, a Marmite-character, but was he quite so black as his enemies painted him?

Wilson died before he could tell his own war story, and his reputation was shredded by a well-intentioned biography initiated by his widow and written by a friend and colleague, C.E. Callwell. That book was based in large part on Wilson’s detailed and highly entertaining diaries, in which every evening this most political of soldiers recorded his thoughts on his friends, his enemies, and war policy in general. Unfortunately for his reputation, Wilson’s often intemperate late-night scribblings found their way into the biography, much to the irritation of his contemporaries.

For those who disliked or distrusted Wilson (or both), here was proof-positive of his Janus-like character. For his friends and admirers (and there were many), it was disappointing to find themselves criticised behind their backs. Here, surely, was the ‘real’ Henry Wilson. The late Keith Jeffery’s excellent political biography (Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier, 2006) was a much more balanced account of this fascinating man. Notwithstanding Jeffery’s work, Wilson is still too many a one-dimensional character; untrustworthy, flippant, ambitious, admirer of politicians. The antithetical British army officer.

I encountered him first while studying Britain and the Great War for my master’s degree at Birmingham University. When I was considering a doctorate, he seemed like the ideal candidate. But what was there to say that was new? Viewing Wilson’s diaries at the Imperial War Museum it became clear that there was, in fact, quite a lot.

Although Wilson’s first biographer had squeezed the diaries for many a juicy reference, there were plenty more for the picking. Writing in the 1920’s, when many of the main characters were still alive, Callwell had understandably often anonymised his references, and skated over others. Pouring over his less than copperplate jottings, it soon became clear to me that there was far more to Wilson than the glib characterisation which had served as a shorthand for his character for almost a century.

Wilson wrote up his journal each evening after dinner. He usually used a W.H. Smith page-a-day hardback diary and, if what he had to say took more than the supplied page, he continued on any spare page elsewhere in the diary, or in a separate notebook. [A note here for researchers: Wilson’s diaries were microfiched in the dim and distant past and it is impossible to tie the daily diary with the additional notes’ pages in this format; remember to ask to examine the originals!] What became clear early on was that Wilson’s grumblings and criticisms were his way of ‘venting’ his feelings after a busy day – very much like modern fancy for late-night social media rants which, in the cold light of day are often regretted, and rarely acted upon. Wilson was writing for himself, not for public consumption; if he couldn’t grumble in his journal, where could he do it?

The diaries, his official papers, and those of his contemporaries together revealed a much more complex character than I had originally expected. Certainly, Wilson liked politicians (or some of them), and some of them liked him. But he was no fool, and no dupe. Henry Wilson was, unlike many officers of his rank and class, happy to mix with the ‘frocks’ and in so doing hoped to further both his career and his view of how the war might be won.

As if a cheeky ease with politicians wasn’t enough to place him in bad odour with his fellow officers, Wilson was also seen as a ‘Francophile’. This label was appended to Wilson because he spoke the language, and in the pre-War period had make it his business to study the French army and make friendships with French officers. These skills meant that for much of the war his main contribution to the British effort was not strategic command, but inter-allied liaison. Wilson was a friend, and sometimes adversary, of Ferdinand Foch. In the final 18 months of the war both men finally achieved great power and influence over their respective countries’ war policy.

This role as ‘soldier diplomat’ dominates Wilson’s War and will, I hope, add a new dimension to our understanding of a complex, yet fascinating soldier who had a far greater impact on British military policy both during and after the Great War, than many might originally believe.

My research has now returned to that other enigmatic and fascinating Great War general, Sir William Robertson. I have contributed chapters on ‘Wully’ to Spencer Jones’s three collections of writings on the Great War, all published by Helion. I am now working on the fourth, Robertson in 1917, the year in which the bluff Chief of the Imperial General Staff clashed directly with Henry Wilson; two more dissimilar characters can hardly be imagined.

You can now buy ‘Wilson’s War. Sir Henry Wilson’s Influence on British Military Policy in the Great War and its Aftermath’ here.