Did French hussars really overwhelm an icebound Dutch fleet at Texel Roads.
On the bitterly cold morning of January 23, 1795, a battalion of mounted French hussars charged into one of the most peculiar military encounters in history. As part of the French invasion force that was rapidly sweeping through the Dutch provinces, the hussars were after one of the invasion’s few remaining military objectives. The capture of the Dutch naval ships anchored at Texel Roads, the narrow strait of water between Nieuwe Diep (today, the Den Helder Harbor) and Texel, the largest of the Frisian Islands, would add badly needed vessels to the French navy.
The hussars raced out across a flat and barren expanse of ice toward their improbable enemy. On the ships, which lay trapped by an unprecedented buildup of ice in the waterway, sentries raised the alarm. Dutch sailors and marines manned their guns. Yet the fourteen warships of the line and several merchant ships were frozen at awkward angles and were unable to fire at small, fast-moving targets. In short order, the cavalry surrounded the ships and forced their capitulation.
Mounted cavalry had defeated a naval fleet. The inherent drama of the engagement meant the battle later attained legendary status in France, where it was the subject of detailed paintings by French artists Charles Louis Mozin (1806-1862) and Charles-Edouard Delort (1841-1895). The Battle of Texel Roads was the last military engagement between the French Revolutionary Army and the forces of the Dutch stathouder, William V, Prince of Orange.
Or so the story has been told.
Military history, like fishing stories, is often the victim of embellishment, error, and just plain fancy. The Texel Roads incident is a classic example of such a story, its mystery maintained by the lack of evidence we take for granted when researching other military engagements. In contrast to the Napoleonic Wars, in which personal accounts were common and ranged from those of lowly rifleman Benjamin Harris to the lofty Duke of Wellington, the engagement at Texel Roads has no such literature. What little has been recorded of this incident for historians comes from a handful of participants who wrote many years after the event.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The opening of Charles Dickens’ literary masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities aptly describes the political roller coaster of late eighteenth-century France. The peasants, who had probably never been told they should eat cake, initiated a violent revolt that would blend idealism and depravity, justice and damnation, democracy and totalitarianism. Modeling their idealism on the American Revolution, which severed the political bonds to Great Britain, French patriots took the Declaration of Independence at full face value as they exercised their right to remove their own tyranny.
Yet the French Revolution was not merely a civil war aimed at overthrowing the French monarchy and aristocracy. Revolutionary idealists planned nothing less than deposing all the hereditary monarchies of Europe and spreading the ideals of freedom and democracy. The Declaration of the Rights of Man embodied this policy. Once France became a republic, it set out to “liberate” its neighbors, but the actions of the army quickly shifted from defense of France’s borders at the Battle of Valmy (September 20, 1792) to wars of conquest and political opportunism.
Though the French king still believed he ruled by divine right, the people had the precedent of England’s deposed and beheaded Charles I as an example of how to deal with royalty. By 1794, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had both been shortened by about eleven inches, the new government was more a Reign of Terror than the monarchy it replaced, and French troops were engaged in wrenching European neighbors from their kings and princes. The revolutionaries very quickly augmented their motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité” with bloodshed, looting, and chaos. In return for political reform, French forces expected to be greeted with open arms as liberators. They also expected to be well compensated for their efforts. In short order the lines of battle formed and wagons heading for Paris were overflowing with tribute.
Before 1795, the nation we now know as the Netherlands was a confederation of seven separate provinces united under the House of Orange. Each province had a local hereditary prince of the House of Orange, known as a stathouder, who was the political head of his region. Over the previous centuries, Dutch states had been attacked by and/or conquered by Spain, Austria, England, and France, but by the late 1700s they had gained considerable independence. Though the Dutch and English were engaged in long-running hostilities until the mid-1780s, the two nations allied against the increasing threat from revolutionary France.
As the French Revolution mutated into the Reign of Terror, the Dutch states formed alliances with their historical nemesis, Great Britain, but they also endured a great deal of civil unrest among their own Royalists (Orangists), Patriots (antimonarchists), and Regents (commercial leaders and self-interest groups). France faced a severely divided Netherlands in which many people sympathized with eliminating the monarchy, a situation that made military conquest relatively easy.
In November 1794, the French burst into Dutch territory like the sea breaching the dikes, and the Dutch nobility and aristocrats began their hasty departures to safety aboard Royal Navy vessels. In January 1795, knowing Dutch capitulation was imminent, the British Admiralty was contemplating a last-minute attack against the large Dutch fleet anchored at Texel Roads, near the English Channel. By destroying those ships, Britain could prevent them from becoming valuable additions to the French navy.
Indeed, the British would have been pleased to capture the Dutch ships—and the Royal Navy did go after the Danish fleet in 1806 to keep it out of French control. But if possession was impossible, annihilation was the next best option. His Majesty’s fleet never did attack the Dutch at Texel. An unusually cold and frosty winter worked against the British, leaving the fate of the Dutch fleet in question.
Much of what happened during the last engagements of the “liberation” of Holland remains cloudy, but certain details are well established. French forces under General Charles Pichegru easily swept through Holland, defeated Dutch land forces at Utrecht on January 17, 1795, took Amsterdam on the 20th, and Haarlem on the 21st. Defeat seemed inevitable for the regional stathouder, Prince William V, who fled on a Royal Navy ship to exile in England on the 18th.
With the evacuation of the hereditary ruler, the former Dutch government ended, and political authority was ceded to the Dutch Council of State. This advisory body quickly issued orders to all military commanders to cooperate with French forces, and to offer neither combat nor resistance.
Several sources establish that Captain H. Reyntjes, the senior officer and commander of the fleet at Texel Roads, duly received the council’s orders. The Dutch fleet was completely frozen in the ice, victim of one of the most severe winters in contemporary memory. Finally, historians also agree that after some sort of engagement—the subject of controversy—Captain Reyntjes had his men stand down, and with that action ended the war with France.
That final battle for the Netherlands has become one of military history’s most confounding engagements. Despite the remarkable nature of the encounter that pitted mounted cavalry against a naval fleet, there is no known first-person account of the events written at the time or in the years immediately following cessation of hostilities. Further clouding matters, none of the authors who would eventually write books that included accounts of the battle were participants. Five books are particularly significant.
Antoine-Henri Jomini (1779-1869; later Lt. Gen. Baron Jomini) published the first written account in 1819, twenty-four years after the event. In his account, Jomini presented the story as previously described—that French hussars charged across a frozen river and captured the stricken Dutch vessels. However, he had not participated in the revolutionary campaign in the Netherlands, which occurred several years before he became a French army officer.
Was Jomini a credible historian? He certainly became a well-known military writer, creating a body of work on military strategy that complements the better-known Carl von Clausewitz. Jomini was a respected leader in interpreting and teaching military strategies, a process that seeks flaws in existing strategies. He believed that a superior army is one that has professionally trained staff officers, pays attention to details of supply and logistics, and can win on superior tactical planning and rapid deployment. His books served as templates for warfare through much of the nineteenth century, and both sides consulted them extensively during the American Civil War.
Jomini, a Swiss citizen, served briefly as a Swiss army officer. He then became a French army staff officer in 1804, serving for nearly nine years. Jomini’s contemporaries generally considered him arrogant and rude, and while serving with the French, he was typically given staff positions that entailed very little contact with other soldiers. His attitude led to a clash in 1813 with Marshal Louis Alexandre Berthier over the French debacle at Moscow, after which he defected to the Russians—the enemy—where he spent the rest of his career.
In time he became an adviser to the Russian military staff college and personal tutor to the czar’s family. During his service in Russia, he penned his several important military treatises. Whatever they thought of him personally, his superior officers respected his analyses and suggestions regarding strategy. From Jomini came the concept of training a professional cadre of staff officers, eventually embraced by all the major military powers.
But however much the military listened to the veteran soldier’s opinions regarding the operation of an army, military students have often called Jomini’s historical accounts into question. Among his alleged flaws were his heavy and uncritical reliance on previously published data. He conducted few interviews with participants, and rarely did responsible research to distinguish truth from legend.
This is particularly important when considering the Texel Roads incident, as most later accounts appear to follow Jomini’s story. Jomini gave a brief, matter-of-fact account of the incident, which militarily was of minor significance, and perhaps this very lack of attention and flourish gave his version more credibility than it warranted.
While it is tempting to assume that his long association with French forces would bias his interpretation of military events, the fact that he later abandoned France for Russia supports a view that he may have been considerably more objective than one might expect. If anything, one could assume that he would present his former comrades in a less favorable light, thereby providing further justification for his switching allegiance.
Marshal Michel Ney, Napoleon’s most flamboyant cavalry officer, actually financed the publication of his early work. Jomini had served on Ney’s staff, and the general may well have preferred an account that stressed the glory of a French cavalry attack. Jomini’s account of the Texel Roads incident was published after Ney’s execution for treason in the aftermath of Waterloo, an execution Jomini tried his best to avert, risking his new career in Russia. Jomini certainly respected the French officer, and he may well have written his positive account of French cavalry at Texel as something of a nod to his old commander and his branch.
François Mignet and Jean-Charles Lacretelle had considerably less credibility than Jomini as original sources, but they perpetuated the story and did so in more accessible books than Jomini’s dry tome. Both authors were French, neither had been involved in the war, both published their patriotic volumes shortly after the death of Napoleon in 1821, and their accounts of the Texel Roads action closely followed that of Jomini.
Mignet (1796-1884) and Lacretelle (1766-1855) published extensive accounts of the revolutionary wars in 1824 and 1825, respectively. Mignet, born more than a year after the controversial incident, wrote at length about the Revolution and the Napoleonic years with a positive slant on the French and their conquests. Mignet, who grew up in the French Empire without having performed military service, relied on prior written accounts. Both his objectivity and scope were therefore limited in a time when reliable witnesses could still have been interviewed. Mignet provided no additions or modifications to Jomini’s story in his Histoire de la Revolution Française, and thus served merely to perpetuate what was now becoming a well-known account.
Lacretelle, however, was precisely the type of writer one would expect to be, if not objective, biased against the revolutionaries. He began his career as a Royalist newspaper reporter and allowed his pro-monarchy feelings to be printed about the trial and execution of Louis XVI. His views questioned the legality and civility of the action, leaving him exposed to the dangers of the Reign of Terror.
To escape capture, he went into hiding by joining the French army under a false name, but his identity was discovered in 1797, and he served two years in prison. Though slated for execution, he had powerful allies who managed to keep him low on the list of priorities until Napoleon assumed power. When released in 1799, Lacretelle embarked on his final career, becoming a historian.
Lacretelle’s books of French history commenced with a five-volume set on the French Revolution, published in 1801, and he churned them out until 1846. As professor of history at the Imperial University (later subsumed into the modern French Ministry of Education), he had a reputation among other scholars for exhaustive if sometimes unreliable (and bland) research.
Here, then, is an author who had been 28 years old at the time of the Texel Roads action, whose sympathies were with the Royalists, and who thus had no apparent motive for glorifying the revolutionary armies. Yet his published account of the Texel incident closely followed Jomini’s earlier publication, and he added nothing new in the way of evidence or details to the story. However, over the following decades other historians began to criticize his work, mainly for Lacretelle’s lack of data from participants and for his rambling style.
The fourth historian of note to touch on the Texel Roads incident was Sir Archibald Alison (1792-1867), a Scot who was only three years old at the time of the Texel engagement. Alison was a lawyer and historian who achieved considerable acclaim for his exhaustive but excessively long and one-sided Modern History of Europe From the French Revolution to the Fall of Napoleon, a ten-volume set published as the books were written, between 1833 and 1842. His account of the Texel Road action again presented the French cavalry as attackers who overcame the ice-trapped fleet.
Among his detractors was British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who called Alison “Mr. Wordy.” (Perhaps Alison’s duties as a lawyer and diplomat kept him too occupied to allow him time to do much more than recapitulate written French accounts.)
All of these accounts, written long after the actual events transpired, spread knowledge of the Battle of Texel Roads, and were supported by repeated telling in French historical literature. By the middle of the nineteenth century, French artists Charles Louis Mozin (1806-1862) and Charles-Edouard Delort (1841-1895) enhanced the legend in detailed paintings.
Was there ever such a battle between a fleet and cavalry? Is there any evidence to support or refute this astounding story? Or is this merely an example of what modern politicians call “the big lie,” where a fabricated story is repeated often and consistently enough that the masses eventually believe it to be true?
In the historical sources published between 1823 and 1842, the authors are increasingly removed from the actual event, and they seem content to parrot the same version of an interesting story. It has often been said that “the first casualty of war is truth,” and the truth-inhibiting effects of jingoism are almost certainly at work clouding the Texel incident.
Among records of the disbursement of some of the conflict’s booty are several examples of contemporary writing that are rife with jingoism. There are many records of remnants of the huge natural history collection made by Dutch apothecary Albertus Seba in the early 1700s, much of which became part of the stathouder’s collection after Seba’s death. Though most specimens eventually found their way to museum collections in several countries, many samples seem to have been lost.
Searching for examples that the Dutch recorded as having been taken to Paris led to French records. The Paris museum records (museum registers and catalogues) were incomplete or silent on the matter. But the financial records of the scientists who had been charged with finding materials for the new Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris uncovered receipts and expense accounts sent to the Committee for Public Instruction during the 1790s. When reporting in 1798 about how the French acquired the stathouder’s important natural history collections for the museum, zoologist Bernard Lacépède described the French scientists sent “in the midst of our conquering legions to increase the domain of natural science.” What an interesting way to explain conquering a neighboring country and stealing its valuables!
The culture of fear that resulted from the Reign of Terror (January 1793-July 1794) did not just encourage jingoism. It demanded it. Though the Terror was relatively short-lived, its effects on the battered French population lingered for many years, and no doubt influenced the way French writers recorded their history.
(This was also the time of Nicholas Chauvin, a soldier so devoted to Napoleon and so fervently patriotic that the term derived from his name—chauvinism—still denotes single-minded adherence to a cause.)
During the decades following the Texel Roads incident, while under the control of the French, the Dutch themselves were silent about the war of 1794-1795. The newly “liberated” states reorganized as the Republic of Batavia. In 1806 Napoleon proclaimed the Netherlands a kingdom, designating one of his younger brothers, Louis Napoleon, king of Holland (1806-1810).
It was not until 1845 that Johannes Cornelius de Jonge (1793-1853) presented the first Dutch account of the war with France, which was at odds with all earlier stories. His account in Geschiedenis van het Nederlandse Zeewezen (History of Dutch Maritime Matters) agreed on certain details of the Texel Roads engagement as presented by the earlier French writers. The stathouder fled to Britain January 18, 1795, after Dutch land forces were defeated by General Charles Pichegru’s advance; the governing Dutch Council of State ordered remaining military forces to neither fight nor resist the French; the senior naval officer of the icebound fleet at Texel Roads, Captain H. Reyntjes, received those orders on January 21; and two days later Pichegru’s forces arrived to confront Reyntjes.
At this point, though, de Jonge’s account diverges from the Jomini-inspired versions. According to the Dutch historian, the French never actually attacked the ships but simply surrounded them. The French general sent an envoy of mounted hussars to meet with Dutch officers on their flagship, Admiraal Piet Heyn. The Dutch stood down in compliance with their government’s written orders. They made no attempt to fight the French.
De Jonge had contacted three Dutch officers present in the fleet during or soon after the surrender. He presents their testimony as evidence that no hostilities were needed or took place. According to one of the participants named Ahlé, a surgeon on Snelheid: “On Saturday morning, my servant informed me that a French hussar stood near our ship. I looked out my porthole, and indeed, there stood a hussar.”
Though no record of the discussions between the French and Dutch officers is known to exist, the meeting went amicably, and the Dutch swore on oath to stand down. Perhaps their acquiescence was simply a practical matter; an icebound fleet could fight no one.
When the Dutch historian published his account, it was the first to contain credible memoirs from Dutch sailors who had been present at the incident. Here de Jonge struck a major chord, for his interpretation of the Texel Roads incident did more than present an alternative account of the half-century-old action.
That publication brought another participant into the discussion, one whose role lent considerable credibility to de Jonge’s account. Even better, in the eyes of historians, this participant was a French army officer.
Lieutenant General Baron Louis-Joseph Lahure, born in Holland, was a respected career soldier and diplomat. In 1788 he became a subaltern in the Belgian army, and by 1795 had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the French Revolutionary Army. In this billet, Lahure was serving under Génèral de brigade Johan Willem de Winter, a Dutchman serving with the French during the conquest of Holland. It was de Winter and his 9th Hussars that General Pichegru dispatched to Texel Roads when he learned of the fleet that lay at anchor there.
Upon approaching the region where the Dutch ships had been stationed, de Winter sent an advance party from his 15th Regiment d’Infanterie Legere to determine whether the ships were indeed trapped by ice. It was a twenty-eight-year-old, Louis-Joseph Lahure, who was chef-de-bataillion (officer commanding) of the 15th Regiment d’Infanterie Legere.
In a letter published in 1846, Lahure commented on de Jonge’s history, presenting the only known first-person account by a participating French soldier. Remarkably, the officer who led the cavalry “attack” confirms not the French legend but the Dutch historian’s account of a peacefully negotiated cessation of hostilities after an initial surprise encounter. Furthermore, he recounts his participation, providing interesting details no one else knew: “After taking the necessary precautions of wrapping the horses’ feet to muffle their sounds, I led the assault,” he recorded. “The ice did not break, and the ships of Holland were taken as the horses climbed over their sides.”
Lahure wrote that the Dutch sailors, upon seeing his forces coming across the frozen river, prepared for battle, but the angles at which the ships were immobilized made it impossible for them to use their deck guns. According to the baron: “I departed immediately with a company of tirailleurs in wagons and a squadron of light cavalry; before dawn I had taken position in the dunes. When the ships saw us, they prepared their defenses. I sent some tirailleurs ahead, and followed with the rest of my forces. The fleet was taken. The sailors received us ‘de bonne grace’ on board….This is the true story of the capture of the Dutch fleet, devised and executed by a 23 year old chef-de-bataillion.”
“The fleet was taken.” The fact that the French considered themselves received “with good grace” may be a clue that there were no hostilities and that the Texel Roads incident was little more than a cordial meeting. In fact, General Lahure presents an account that is essentially almost identical with that of de Jonge.
What can be made of a letter to a newspaper written by a French officer fifty-one years after the event? When Lahure wrote his letter, he was seventy-nine years old, and he made one verifiable error. He claimed to have been “a 23 year old chef-de-bataillion,” even though the baron, born 1767, had been twenty-eight at the time of the incident (although the similarity of the figures “3” and “8” may have led to a typo on the part of the printer). Historians have also cited fourteen or fifteen warships and eleven to eighteen merchantmen in that fleet, but Lahure did not mention a specific number.
Baron Lahure had impeccable military credentials that cannot be easily dismissed. By September 1795, he had become a French colonel fighting the Prussians, marched against the Italian States, and became a general in 1799. He was awarded every grade of the French Légion d’Honneur, and was enobled as a Baron de l’Empire by Napoleon in 1813. (So much for liberating Europe from monarchy and aristocracy!) His name was inscribed on a south wall of l’Arc de Triomphe in recognition of his capture of the Dutch fleet. Even Belgium recognized his military acumen, awarding Lahure the Grand Officier de l’Ordre de Léopold in 1842.
How about his commanding officer, General Pichegru, who had conquered Holland for the French? Surely his viewpoint should be recorded somewhere. If it is, we have yet to find it. Partly that may be due to the general’s later career and ignominious fate. General Pichegru went from his victory as a revolutionary over the Netherlands in April 1795 to appointment as commanding general of the French Army of the Rhine and Moselle in July. He made a dramatic political turn by August, however, opening secret negotiations to restore the Bourbon monarchy to power. By November, his conversion complete, he defected to the Austrians.
In 1803 his luck ran out. The French arrested him, and before he could be brought to trial for treason, he was strangled in his prison cell. (Some argue that he committed suicide.) Thus was the French commanding general silenced, and with him any memoir he might have penned about the Texel Roads encounter.
There the story remained for 98 years, relegated to a controversial and somewhat overlooked footnote to a much broader history of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. When Texel Roads was revisited in 1934 in Archibald MacDonell’s Napoleon and His Marshals, the old French refrain was perpetuated: “the ragged men…thundered on their horses across the ice to capture with naked swords the battle fleet of Holland.”
Would those “ragged men” really have thundered across a frozen river? It would be unnecessarily noisy, footing would be slippery, and it would increase the possibility that someone would break through the ice. Furthermore, Lahure wrote that he had had the shoes of his horses covered to make them quiet. It therefore seems extremely unlikely that Lahure’s hussars would be “ragged men…thundering” anywhere that day with “naked swords,” especially as no one was firing at them! Nevertheless, the image of the “naked swords” helped solidify the legendary if not mythic status of the ensuing engagement.
So what actually happened? It seems extraordinary that a military engagement that allegedly pitted mounted cavalry against ships cannot be better corroborated. If a troop of horsemen actually engaged in combat against warships, it would be unique and worthy of the fame accorded similarly unique military successes: the Trojan Horse, Hannibal and his elephants, and the successful defense of Malta by its greatly outnumbered knights during the Crusades.
Ultimately, we may never be certain about the details of what actually happened some 212 years ago. We do know that the Dutch capitulation was part of the French revolutionary victories that helped lead to the rapid rise of a Corsican named Bonaparte.
By the end of 1795, Napoleon had become a major political figure in France, and histories of French glory increasingly focused on his battles and victories. As Napoleon was nowhere near Texel Roads and had nothing to do with the area in 1795, it is likely that tales of the emperor eclipsed interest in accounts by lesser officers. Certainly the taint on General Pichegru’s reputation may have made it unlikely that contemporary French historians would have glorified him while Napoleon was in power.
Despite the Revolution, Napoleon was eventually replaced by a restored Bourbon monarchy, though it would never have nearly the power or prestige that kings of France had enjoyed before 1789. Napoleon’s last years in power were not as popular as later histories paint, and his wars led to the loss of so many Frenchmen that he became known as “the widow maker.” Napoleon’s legacy was not the crowning of the Revolution but the fall from world prominence that France would never truly regain.
As Restoration France watched the former rivals Britain and the United States become close allies, lost its influence in the Americas, and saw Britain amass history’s largest, richest, and most powerful empire, its people understandably sought pride from whatever past glory could be retrieved. Napoleon went from being considered a pariah to a saint. Victories such as that at Texel Roads, untainted by Napoleon, provided a true source of national pride.
By midcentury, the Texel Roads incident had become a magnificently irresistible topic for patriotic French historians and painters. Accounts treating the incident as a battle apparently suited the self-image in France at the time.
However, one small bit of intelligence survives that may settle the controversy. Though no Dutch naval participant left a written contemporary account, a broader view of the history points to some interesting information about the Dutch naval commander of the Texel Roads fleet.
After surrendering his ships, Captain Reyntjes remained in the navy as an officer in the new Batavian Republic’s fleet. The republic was closely allied with France. Two years after the Texel Roads incident, Reyntjes was named a vice admiral (one of three promotions he earned in a short span), and he fought against the British at the Camperdown naval engagement of October 11, 1797, part of a convoy that had intended to join a French fleet in a landing in Ireland.
Consider that in 1795 Reyntjes had received his orders two days before French forces arrived, more than enough time to destroy and abandon his ships. However, Reyntjes did not scuttle a single ship; instead, he would become a vice admiral in a fleet that was essentially a puppet ally of France and would be entrusted with a command in a battle against his former British allies. Had the captain been a monarchist, he would very likely have scuttled—or attempted to scuttle—his fleet rather than passively let the French take possession. This suggests that Reyntjes was not an Orangist in 1795, and was already sympathetic to French “liberation.”
In fact, he would serve as vice admiral of the Batavian Republic under Admiral Jan Willem de Winter, the Dutch officer who had been Lahure’s commander during the Texel Roads incident. Summed up, Reyntjes’ actions and subsequent history include these key elements:
- Despite adequate advance warning of impending capitulation to the French, Reyntjes did nothing to keep his ships from being taken by the enemy.
- Reyntjes became a senior officer in the Batavian Republic’s navy, and jumped three senior grades (from captain through commodore, rear admiral, and vice admiral) within two years of surrendering the Dutch fleet at Texel.
- As a vice admiral, Reyntjes led a battle squadron against British naval forces in the battle of Camperdown. (He also died soon after, but records do not show if it was from age or injuries.)
After a careful review of the Texel Roads encounter, based on published sources in English, Dutch, and French, this seems to be a possible, plausible scenario:
Captain H. Reyntjes stood peering into the distance from the quarterdeck of the Dutch fleet’s flagship, Admiraal Piet Heyn. The night of January 22, 1795, was unbelievably cold, perhaps the coldest in the previous two decades. As Reyntjes looked over the side of his ship, he saw that large chunks of ice had begun to coalesce, rapidly turning the strait between Texel and the mainland into a flat and barren ice field. His sailor’s inclination was to weigh anchor and set sail before the whole fleet became trapped in the ice. But his latest orders restrained his professional impulse.
Dispatches had already informed him that the Revolutionary French Army had defeated the Dutch forces a few days earlier, and that his own monarch had fled to Britain four days earlier. Now the French had turned toward Reyntjes and the fleet. Final capitulation was surely only days away.
As he listened to the sounds of ice crunching against his flagship’s wooden hull, the captain reviewed his options. Britain, his country’s recent ally, had the most powerful navy afloat, and would want this fleet both to bolster its own forces and to keep such a valuable prize from joining the French. However, Reyntjes had little liking for the British, who for most of the century— and certainly during most of his own naval career—had been a bitter competitor and enemy of the Netherlands.
Other Dutch officers doubless felt much the same as Reyntjes. The officer who led French General Pichegru’s main force was General de Winter, a Dutchman who had long ago joined the French. Besides, the captain knew that by changing allegiances, he would be able to continue his career and perhaps still make flag rank. He had never been political anyway, merely a practical sailor.
Reyntjes shrugged to himself and retreated from the cold into his warm cabin. There, he reviewed the last orders he had received while pouring himself a snifter of brandy. The Dutch Council of State, the de facto government in the prince’s absence, had issued orders instructing military commanders to neither fight nor resist the French. He had gotten identical orders from his commanding officer, Luitenant-Admiraal Jan Hendrick van Kinsbergen. Captain Reyntjes knew what he must do, and the orders miraculously gave him the authority to do so without fear of retribution. With a mixture of resignation and relief, the captain determined to get some rest before morning. Tomorrow would be a challenging day.
Reyntjes was awakened from a light sleep shortly after dawn on the 23rd, and he quickly made for the deck above. Officers and sailors alike were pointing across the flat, frozen river. Using a spyglass, the captain could see a squadron of mounted French soldiers making an orderly approach to his trapped ships. The young cavalry officer commanding was seen asking something of naval officers on another ship; the officers pointed toward Admiraal Piet Heyn. In short order, the small contingent of cavalry drew up on the ice just below the captain.
“Are you Captain Reyntjes?” the Frenchman called out. The Dutch officer nodded. “Good,” came the reply. “I am Lieutenant Colonel Lahure of the Revolutionary Army of France, and I am instructed to discuss liberation of your forces from monarchy and tyranny.”
Reyntjes waved him aboard, and the Frenchman and several companions made their way onto the unfamiliar deck of the ship. They were cordially ushered to the captain’s stateroom where, over coffee and breakfast, they discussed the military and political situation in Dutch. (Then as now, it was more likely that a Dutch officer could speak French than a French officer could speak Dutch; however, Lahure had been born in Holland and was likely fluent in Dutch.) The captain likely showed the chef de bataillion his orders of capitulation, and both officers probably sighed with relief that they could avoid unnecessary bloodshed. They signed papers, discussed details, and the men shook hands and got up to return to the cold deck above.
Lahure waved at his troops, a signal that all had gone well, and turned one last time to face the naval captain.
“It would have been quite remarkable, would it not?” the Frenchman asked, a boyish smile on his face. “A battle between mounted hussars and a Dutch fleet!”
Captain Reyntjes took in the words and allowed the merest trace of a smile to cross his face.
Lieutenant Colonel Lahure saluted as he started to descend the ladder to the ice and his horse below. “It would have been something for the history books, no?”
The older officer allowed himself a small shrug. “Perhaps, Monsieur, perhaps. But who would ever believe it?”
TERI SPRACKLAND’S work on the acquisition of war booty, based on research conducted at the French National Archives, has been published in The Linnean, the historical publication of the Linnean Society of London. Her husband, Robert Sprackland, is the director of the Virtual Museum of Natural History at www.curator.org.
Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.