Performance and Actions of the "Sadly Unreliable"
Dutch-Belgian Troops in 1815.
2. Netherlands troops in Quatre Bras.
3. Netherlands infantry in Waterloo.
4. Netherlands cavalry in Waterloo.
5. Netherlands artillery in Waterloo.
6. Comparison of casualties.
7. Terms used by authors to report
on the war and Netherland troops.
Flags of Netherland infantry from
at Quatre-Bras. Engraving by Velyn, after painting by Van Bree.
Musee Royal de l'Armee in Brussels.
The Netherlands is often referred to by the name Holland. This is, however, inaccurate. For example in 1815 Netherlands consisted of the present day Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Many economic historians regard the Netherlands as the first thoroughly capitalist country in the world. It featured the wealthiest trading city (Amsterdam) and the first full-time stock exchange. It was a huge surprise to many that a nation, not based on the church or on a single royal leader, could be so successful.
In the past the Netherlands reigned supreme at sea, and dominated global commerce. They drove the British and Portuguese from Indonesia, Malaya, and Ceylon, and arrogated to itself the fabulous trade of the Spice Islands. The merchant spirit of the Dutch made the United Netherlands the most powerful trading country of the world in the 17th century.
During the 17th century the Dutch were involved in countless wars, many of them at sea. Dutch fleet destroyed the main part of the entire Spanish navy at Gibraltar in 1607. Dutch wealth and maritime expansion was the source of much envy across Europe, but especially in Britain. When they announced the act of navigation, which damaged Dutch traders in London, tensions became high. There were several wars between the two countries. In the second British-Dutch war 5 major battles took place, nearly all of them on English territory. It was during this period that the battle of Chatham (1667) took place, arguably the worst naval defeat in English history until this very day.
British economical and military rivalry with the Netherlands, and Britain's jealousy of Dutch's wealth gave rise to several phrases including Dutch that promote certain negative stereotypes, incl. "Double Dutch" (meaning: gibberish or nonsense) and "Dutch courage" (drinking to cover up fear before combat). However the British and French soldiers also enjoyed alcohol before combat. Edward Costello of British 95th Rifles writes: "After having received a double allowance of grog, we fell in about 8 o'clock in the evening, 6th April 1812. The stormers were composed of men from the different regiments of the Light Division."
Many of Netherlands' colonies were swiftly annexed by Britain when the metropole succumbed to French conquest in 1795-1814.
In 1814-1815 at the Vienna Congress, Belgium and Holland became pawns in power politics. The two countries were unified with the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The army commanded by Wellington included 2 infantry divisions and 3 cavalry brigades of the newly-unified Netherlands (or 'Dutch-Belgian') army. But the Brits believed that they were pro French and would not fight for the British. Had Wellington lost at Waterloo, no doubt he would have had to reluctantly and bluffly point out that the failure was all the fault of the Dutch and Belgians.
Some authors writing about the campaign of 1815 and Waterloo overly rellies on British memoirs and dispatches. It is due to either nonunderstending any other language but English, or intellectual lazyness. For a serious researcher any work on the Waterloo Campaign which does not refer in detail to Dutch, Belgian, German or French sources is essentially one-sided and unreliable.
In the years following Waterloo the British were annoyed with the Dutch/Belgians for several reasons:
It was too much for the British and when the Belgians refused to join the British in the Crimean War, Lord Liverpool gave his famous "cowardly Belgians" speech in 1851 in the Commons.
Netherlands Troops in 1815.
According to Erwin Muilwijk the Netherland troops in 1815 were "... typical new recruits with no campaign experience yet; just like every other army had large numbers of them in this period. Obviously Jager and Line battalions were professional soldiers, but even these had large numbers of new men. The militia was all sort of conscripted, but there was no specific difference I think. Not a bad army, not a distinguishable army perhaps at the start; but it prooved its task, to me. Perhaps a study on its own........"
The commander of Netherlands troops, Prince of Orange, has been much criticized by English
historians for his actions at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. Siborne was the first, followed by
many, incl. more recently the American historian Jac Weller, (ext.link) whose Wellington at
Waterloo (1967) was marred by an over-reliance on English sources.
General van Knoop replied to Siborne's characterization of the Dutch/Belgian troops by
publishing "Beschouwingen over Siborne's geschiedenis van den oolog in 1815." It was also
published in France, but not in Britain.
Siborne however received support from Sir Charles Oman. Oman writes: "Out of the 1,080
sabres which it [Merlen's brigade] contained, only 22 had been killed and 146 wounded, but there was a dreadful deficit of 203 'missing'
i.e. nearly a fifth of the men had abandoned to the rear."
In Waterloo the British Household Brigade lost 114 killed, 264 wounded and ... 245 missing.
Netherland Infantry at Quatre Bras.
The Dutch-Belgians had fought a battle at Quatre Bras and had done so on their own initiative, chosing not to carry out Wellington's orders to move all their troops on Nivelles.
The morning before battle was relatively quiet until about 2 pm when the Dutch-Belgian patrols met the French. Wellington not yet returned from his meeting with Blucher at Ligny and the troops were under the command of Prince of Orange. Prince of Orange had 8.000 men and 16 guns. They covered 3-4 km long front. In reserve were 3 battalions and by 3 pm arrived additional battalion.
Behind Dutch-Belgian positions were several roads but these were blocked by British and German troops being in a state of confusion. Chaos at the various points was due to the baggage of the British 3rd Division as seemed that nobody was in charge of traffic control. Some troops continued their march, while other halted and waited or rested.
The French (14,000 men and 34 guns) were commanded by Marshal Ney.
Prince of Orange had in his disposal the 2nd Netheralnd Division, and few small units of cavalry and artillery.
2nd Netheralnd Division - GL Baron de Perponcher-Sedlnitzky
The French skirmishers exchanged fire with Nassau troops defending Grand-Pierrepont. Jamin's brigade then moved north-east against part of 27th (Dutch) Jäger Battalion while Husson's and Campi's brtigades marched north-west against the other part of that unit. The heavily outnumbered Dutch fell back towards Gemioncourt farm and garden. French battery unlimbered and opened fire.
Two Netherland batteries were withdrawn and redeployed on a new position. French chasseurs
advanced against enemy's flank but were stopped by a marshy ground.
Part of 7th (Dutch) Militia Battalion and Nassau volunteers charged and pushed the French out of Bossu wood. Prince of Orange strengthened the hard fighting troops with II/Nassau-Orange and III/2nd Nassau.
By 3:30 pm arrived Merlen's Netherland brigade, light dragoons and hussars. After Merlen arrived Picton's Scots. Ney was strengthened with Jerome Bonaparte's infantry division which was almost immediately sent against Bossu Wood.
Outnumbered by a margin of 3 to 1 the Dutch and Nassauers slowly fell back, with only the
III/2nd Nassau being able to hold the northern part of the wood.
The French brought howitzers and fired on Gemioncourt farm and garden defended by 5th (Dutch)
Militia Btn. and 27th (Dutch) Jäger Battalion. The young Dutchmen were also attacked by
Jamin's infantry and Hubert's chasseurs. The well concentrated action of artillery,
infantry and cavalry was very successful, the two units lost heavily and were scattered.
The 95th Rifles (ext.link) was unable to retake the village defended by Bachelu's infantrymen. Prince of Orange sent several companies of 27th Jagers to assist the British, but language proved a barrier to useful co-operation. Sir Andrew tried to encourage the Dutch to march forward in line with his men, but the Dutch tried to explain that the French are in too great numbers to attack frontally. The French were in tall crop and unseen to Sir Andrew's men. Sir Andrew insisted and his riflemen went forward unaccompanied, only to be repulsed at once by a massive volley.
This was typical problem arising from the mutual inability within Allied polyglot army to understand one another. The British troops were unfamiliar with the terrain at Quatre Bras. The Dutch on the other hand, had been on this ground skirmishing intermittenly with the French for nearly 24 hours.
The Dutch jagers, unable to speak English, tried to indicate by gestures the situation they
faced. Some British soldiers undrestood while others not.
Kincaid for example wrote: "... they [the Dutch jagers] were a raw body of men, who had never
before been under fire; and they could not be prevailed upon to join our skirmishers."
The Netherlands officers and some troops, having seen French service in Germany, Spain and
Russia, had been holding their positions unaided all morning.
to impute cowardice on the Netherlands troops was a red herring to distract history's
attention from the inept performance of the British staff officers.
Netherland Infantry in Waterloo.
Two large units of Netherland infantry were in Waterloo in 1815:
3rd Infantry Division (6,500-7,000 men)
Both divisions were deployed on the flanks of Allied army. (See map.)
Left: General Baron D.H. Chasse, commander of 3rd Netherlands Infantry Diviosion.
Lithograph by E. Spanier, after I.H. Hoffmeister. Musee Royal de l"Armee, Brussles.
Chassé 3rd Division had two brigades (Detmers' and Aubreme's) and artillery. The division was ordered to deploy in close columns south of Braine-l'Alleud, a town with numerous brick buildings. It was to cover the right flank against a possible French flanking maneuvre, which didn't materialise. British authors stated that "Wellington had some misgivings as to the quality of Chasse's troops" and simply "they were not reliable." But leaving the town unoccupied would have given the enemy the chance to gain a position in Wellington's right flank.
Chasse's position at Braine-l'Alleud was not to be the final position before nightfall. Shortly afterwards Chasse moved his division behind that village and in the evening the final position was taken. Detmers' brigade (6 battalions) received order to defend the village "to the utmost" and was deployed as follow: 3 battalions were placed in front of Braine-l'Alleud (and they sent their skirmishers forward), 2 battalions were on marketplatz as a reserve, and 1 battalion was east of the village and served as a link between Chasse and the British army.
Aubreme's brigade stood behind Braine-l'Alleud where it was protected by a marshy ground covered with hedges and bushes. According to Erwin Muilwijk one battalion of this brigade (36th Jagers) "sent out its 2 flanker companies to both sides and covered all entries and bushes. This happened in full view of enemy patrols. Besides guarding the extreme right flank of Wellington's army, a small part of Chasse's division was also responsible for occupying the Hougoumont (from what time is not known). This is what sergeant Wiegmans says about it: 'The day before the fight I commanded the guard as sergeant, in the renowned farm Hougoumont, where the next day so many glorious deeds were done. Towards the evening of June 17 I was relieved ...' Wiegmans served in the 6th Company of the 6th Militia Battalion." (Erwin Muilwijk - "The 3rd Netherlands Division at the Battle of Waterloo" published in First Empire, UK 2005)
French cavalry patrols were sighted to Chasse's right flank and the general sent one battalion of Aubreme's brigade to occupy a nearby wood and watch the enemy. Chasse had no cavalry and he remained very vigilant for any French movement against his flank.
In the morning on June 18th the French patrols captured several chasseurs of the 36th Battalion but not much was going on. Lieutenant van Eysinga wrote: "I was busy with my NCOs to take care of the weapons ... my soldiers were cheerful and in a short time the muskets were in good order; many knapsacks were laden with superfluous goods, and I convinced my men that this could be very inconvenient..." Constant-Rebecque (chief-of-staff) arrived and inspected all troops of the 3rd Division. Detmers received orders from General Chasse to defend Braine-l'Alleud "to the last man." Detmers' men blocked all entrances with wagons, stones etc. In that time the French army was lining up at La Belle Alliance.
Detmer's brigade of 3rd Netherland Division.
Shortly before the battle Wellington realized that the French were deploying against his center and left wing, so he ordered Chasse's 3rd Division to move closer to the 2nd British Division.
Van Eysinga wrote: "We marched forward, the brave Ditmers at our head, who proved himself to be a man, whose undauntedness gave an example for us all ..." This movement was carried out while marching in squares. The troops deployed north of Hougoumont and in support of the large chateau. According to van Delen Ditmers' brigade was placed behind and along the road, while Aubreme's brigade was on their right "with two columns by sections."
The 3rd Division suffered first casualties from artillery fire, then formed squares and repulsed French cavalry. According to Erwin Muilwijk the Netherland troops also witnessed the defection of French cuirassier officer. Wiegmans wrote: "he reported himself to Ltn.-Col. van Thielen, requesting to be brought to the Duke of Wellington."
Before the attack of the French Middle Guard, Wellington called back the 3rd Division and deployed behind
the Britsh Guard. When Halket's redcoats fell back in a frightful confussion,
Chasse's infantry attacked the leading echelon of the Middle Guard.
Major van Delen wrote: "During the interval an English ADC ... came to Colonel Detmers, and
brought him the order to place himself in the first line with 3 battalions. Whereupon the
said colonel advanced by sections in column with the 35th Jagers, the 2nd Line, and the 4th
Militia. He marched by the side of the side of the heights occupied by the English army.
Chasse spoke to the soldiers: "... you will leave the second line and go over to the first, stay calm, trust in my leadership ... the battle is not decided, but how pleasing it will be to you to have cooperated in the decision." According to Wiegmans General Chasse formed Ditmers' brigade "in closed columns per 6 divisions (companies), and arrived with the sixth battalion ... Now he rode off to the left wing of Ditmers' brigade, but soon returned to our sixth battalion, and called forcefully: Storm pace ! ..."
With drawn sword "General Bayonet" marched forward into the gap, which appeared between the Brunswickers and the 5th British brigade. He called upon the Dutchmen: "Forward colonel Detmers and charge with the bayonet !"
Chasse wrote: "... there were no troops, not a single man of the allies between my division and the French Guard ..." Wildly enthusiastic, drumming and shouting, with their shakos on the top of their bayonets they dashed into the fray cheering 'Long live the House of Orange! Long live the king !' The Guard was shattered by the sight of fresh forces, broke and fell back down the slope. Their panic spread to d'Erlon's infantry.
Several British authors described this action with a portion of jealousy "the Dutch-Belgians were merely chasing an already defeated battalion" etc. while other authors didn't even mention it. This attitude however did change in recent years, see for example Mark Adkin's "Waterloo Companion." Adkin described the Dutch/Belgian contribution to the defeatd of Middle Guard and his maps are very helpful.
Chasse's troops pursued the Middle Guard. Some of the fleeing guardsmen threw away knapsacks and bearskins and they took cover in the orchard by La Haye Sainte. Van Eysinga of 19th Militia Battalion wrote: "There they took a position and defended themselves in a way one could only expect of the noble French Guard; it grieved me to help destroy these brave troops ... At the mmoment we had cleared the orchard, French cuirassiers approached us in anger ..."
Detmers' brigade was among the first Wellington's troops who started the pursuit, "perhaps
10 to 15 minutes before the general advance was ordered by Wellington."
(Source: "First Empire" # 86, publ. in UK in 2005)
Bijlandt's brigade of 2nd Netherland Division.
Perponcher's 2nd Division (incl. Bijlandt's brigade) was spread across Allies right wing. One of his units, the 27th Dutch Jagers, had been chosen to form the forward skirmishing line defending the entire left wing, from La Haye Sainte to Papelotte. (Barbero - "The Battle" p 127)
In the morning Bijlandt's brigade stood highly exposed, to 200 paces in advance of the
British and German infantry. General Kempt write: "The first line was composed of Dutch
and Belgian troops ... The second line was composed of the 8th and 9th Brigades under
Major-General Pack and myself." General Perponcher was alarmed to find Bijlandt's brigade
arrayed on the forward slope. Perponcher's chief-of-staff, Colonel van Zuylen van Nyeveldt
reported: "At 12 o'clock the whole of the first brigade (Bijlandt's) and the artillery of
the right wing moved farther back, in order no to hinder the evolutions of the English guns
placed in their rear, and also to be less exposed to the fire of the enemy.
Netherland Cavalry at Waterloo.
Picture: Netherlands carabiniers. From left to right: sergeant, private (mounted), trumpeter (in red jacket), and officer (wearing cloak) of the 2nd Carabiniers. Senior NCO of the 1st Carabiniers. Picture by de Beaufort, France.
Because the British Cabinet had refused to declare war against France as opposed to war against Napoleon, Wellington was constrained from sending his cavalry across the border. Merlen's Dutch/Belgian cavalry had captured several French patrols, but were ordered by Wellington to escort them back across the frontier. This situation continued until 13th June. Frustrated Prince of Orange wrote to Wellington: "I'm going to send back the French prisoners this morning with a letter to General Count d'Erlon according to your wishes."
The skirmishes along the border were not the only one activity the Dutch/Belgian cavalry participated in.
Collaert's Netheralnd Cavalry Division played an important role in putting an end
to the incursion of French cuirassiers at Waterloo. It consisted of three brigades:
In Waterloo Ghigny's brigade was heavily engaged in the afternoon in numerous counter-attacks against cuirassiers.
Despite losses suffered two days earlier at Quatre Bras, they performed far better
than Wellington had perhaps anticipated.
After the British elite Household Brigade suffered heavy casualties in the hands of French cavalry, Tripp's brigade was the largest formation of heavy cavalry left. Tripp's heavies distinguished themselves against the French 7th and 12th Cuirassier Regiment. When the cuirassiers were ascending the slope in pursuit of the Household Brigade, Tripp's carabiniers charged. The two sides colided and the combat became general until the French withdrew down the slope. During battle the carabiniers counterattacked several times and had 2 out of its 3 regimental commanders hors de combat (!)
In contrast to Uxbridge's smearing the carabiniers, Wellington praised Tripp's brigade.
Tripp's carabiniers also participated in the pursuit after battle, in contrast to majority of
Uxbridge's brigades. According to two British officers, Seymour and Uxbridge, Tripp's Netherland cavalry
brigade had no stomach to fight. That it refused to charge, and even had fled.
There is much ridicule of the Netherland cavalry by British authors.
If you believe them, the British cavalry - in contrast - was only too willing to charge.
OK, but when at Waterloo officer Verners ordered the charge upon cuirassiers he soon
discovered he was quite alone. The British hussars didn't follow him and he had to flee.
There were more cases of cowardice.
Netherland Artillery at Waterloo.
At Waterloo Krahmer's battery was placed at a windmill left of the road and remained there for considerable time. Due to prolonged fire some British and German batteries were running low on ammunition Krahmer's battery was moved forward, deployed to the right of Colin Halkett's brigade and opened fire on the French Guard.
Lux's battery was also ordered into action but had no success, it had trouble with crossing a sunken road and then remained in reserve in front of Mont St.Jean.
At 11 am Petters' battery received order to move forward and take position on the plateau
of Mont St.Jean. Petter wrote that his guns were "... standing opposite the farm named
Hougoumont.... in front of us was the farm ..." (Erwin Muilwijk wrote that "In a recent
book by Mark Adkin "Waterloo Companion", the battery is left standing in reserve for the
entire battle, see map 16, page 274.")
Comparison of British and Netherland Casualties.
Waterloo cost the Anglo-allied forces around 15,000 dead and wounded, and the Prussians some 7000. The casualty rolls struck home to brigades and regiments. Ghigny's and Somerset's brigades sustained a "record" loss of the war, 49 % within one day - in percentage the battle's greatest losses. Another challenger is Ponsonby's brigade, which lost 46 %. Experts have pointed out that the famed Light Brigade at Balaklava (ext.link) lost 'only' 36 % of its men.
1. 1st (British) 'Household' Cav. Brigade - MG Somerset - 49 %
1. (Belgian) 8th Hussar - 65 % casualties. These hussars fought with "insane gallantry" throughout the afternoon.
Terms Used by British Authors To Report on the War and Netherland Troops.
Interesting view on the differences in quality of Wellington's troops presents
Italian historian Mr. Barbero. "Nevertheless, there were still some identifiable
differences in quality between the armies in the field that had little to do with national
character. Such an assertion would have surprised the combatants' contemporaries, who put
great faith in cliches about the racial qualities of various peoples; indeed, many
generalizations of this kind were considered to have indisputable scientific value.
Unfortunately most of the British accounts have tended to magnify out of all proportion the accomplishments of the very modest numbers of British soldiers. These authors are unashamedly biased, their troops are super-human, the Duke practically a deity. Below is a fragment of hugely popular in English speaking countries book "Waterloo" by Cornwell (the adventures of super-soldier Major Sharpe). The readers are fed with some colorful descriptions of Belgian cowardice and 'Dutch courage'. The Belgians and Dutch flee without fight, their commander Prince Orange is "little Dutch boy" etc. In contrast the British soldiers are all-conquering heroes, and their commanders are either tough as a nail or geniuses (or both).
I just wonder who is more fictional, the author of Sharpe or some historians. They created a virtual reality, a feel-good network. Anything which seemed to detract from their reputation as pillars of the temple of belief in British martial invincibility is omitted in their works. The strong bias is confusing and at times comical. "Marshal Ney ... opened a most galling fire from the shelter of the olive trees, this threw our brigade into disorder and we retired rather in an irregular manner." - NCO, British Foot Guard.
The words describing the non-English (Dutch, French, German, belgian) defeats are very
expressive and damaging:
British setbacks are described in either dry or mild words:
The Dutch and German soldiers are:
English soldiers are:
Sources and Links.
The Atlantic Monthly, Vol VIII, Issue 48 (1861)
André Dellevoet - "Cowards at Waterloo ? A re-examination of Bijlandt's Dutch-Belgian Brigade..."
Vincent Esposito and John Elting - "A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars."
Discussion: Belgium, the most cowardly country.
another discussion: "Dutch courage"
A review of two books on Waterloo, by Peter Hunt.
Article: "Hop Off You Frogs !"
Waterloo Campaign 1815 -
and the contribution of the Netherlands Mobile Army
From one of our visitors:
"Hello, I am a fuselier in the 7th Batalajon infanterie van Linie in the Bylandt brigade. I am proud to inform you that the Bylandt Brigade has revived. The 27th jager btn. can be found under Vereniging Militaire Living History. A multiperiod reenactment society in Holland Europe. The 5th militia can be found under Voorwaarts MARS! Nederlandse Vereniging voor Militaire Levende Geschiedenis Also very interesting is: 7e Bataljon Infanterie van Linie (1815)
Greetings, Fuselier R. Kaspers"