Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics


To Delft via Archangelsk: H.T. Verhoef (1790-1865) and His Uniform Jacket

By: Mariska Pool and Mark van Hattem

Editor's note: This article first appeared in Dutch in the annual of the Royal Netherlands Army and Arms Museum, ‘Armamentaria’ and appears here in English for the first time.

In 2005 the Army Museum is to mount a major exhibition devoted to the life and times of the Dutch soldier in the era of Napoleon. The subject is the daily life of the Dutch military men who fought in the wars that followed the French Revolution (1792) up to and including the battle of Waterloo (1815). The exhibition’s creators have combed the whole of Europe in their search for original objects that still bear the traces of what their owners experienced. M.J.B. Pool, textile conservator and art historian, and M.A. van Hattem, textile collection curator and historian, lift a corner of the veil in this article. From the collection of the Legermuseum (Armymuseum) in the Netherlands: the wonderful history of surgeon H.T. Verhoef and his uniform jacket.

A Curious Jacket

The Army Museum’s collection contains a strange uniform jacket, recorded as having belonged to an officer in the medical corps of Napoleon’s army that invaded Russia in 1812.. The man in question was H.T. Verhoef (1790-1865). In Napoleon’s army he held the post of chirurgin sous aide, which is about equivalent to ‘assistant surgeon’. Since 1803 this rank had been accorded to medical students or those who had just qualified but had not yet taken their doctor’s exam.[1] The regulations governing uniforms prescribed that his dress coat should be bleu barbeau in colour; this was a lighter blue than that worn by the infantrymen. Collar and cuffs should be made out of scarlet velvet with the assistant surgeon’s rank insigna applied in gold thread. The jacket buttons were to bear the emblem indicating the service de santé.[2]

Dutch Medical Officer's Coat: 1812
Uniform jacket of H.T. Verhoef, medical officer in Napoleon’s army, inventory no. 068824 (Photographs Jacket: C. van Bruggen, Legermuseum)

 

A first glance shows that the jacket in the museum’s collection deviates from this description. Instead of the prescribed cornflower blue, the jacket is made of brown woollen cloth of average quality.[3] The cuffs and the collar match the regulations that prescribe scarlet silk velvet. Again according to regulations, the collar has two rows of leaves, indicating the rank, embroidered in metallic thread and gold-coloured sequins..

Detail of the Collar of a Dutch medical Officer's Coat
The velvet collar with insignia of rank. The repair work carried out around the neckline can be seen.

 

The uniform jacket is in the model of a surtout,[4] a tail coat cut straight in the front or frac that closes over the upper body with a single row of buttons and, at midriff level, is cut away diagonally on the side towards the coat tails. These latter, where the pockets are to be found, have stitched borders bearing an embroidered eagle in appliqué work. The turnbacks of the tails have been mended with dark blue material. There are two bracket-shaped 'false' pocket flaps on the waist seam of the back, which fall over three gilded buttons. The buttons, like those on the front of the jacket, show the French Imperial Eagle[5] as used by the infantry of the Imperial Guard, but not by the service de santé. The small buttons on the cuffs show the Imperial Eagle with a staff of Aesculapius and a mirror. These buttons also seem at first sight not to be in accord with regulations. Buttons with the Aesculapius symbol and the Imperial Eagle were worn by the officiers de santé working in the military hospitals of the imperial guard. While it is true that the service de santé also wore buttons with an Aesculapian symbol, those buttons lacked the imperial eagle. A possible explanation for Verhoef’s wearing buttons actually reserved to the Imperial Guard’s officiers de santé could be that he had received his commission thanks to the personal intervention of the French Inspector General of Health, Baron Dominique Larrey (1766-1842). More of this remarkable fact later.

Detail of the Cuff Button of a Dutch medical Officer's Coat
Details of the Buttons on the Cuffs

 

Detail of False Pocket Button of a Dutch medical Officer's Coat
Close-up of the Buttons on the False Pocket on the Turnbacks

 

The jacket’s bodice is lined with natural brown cotton,[6] the sleeves with a natural cotton.[7] The front facing consists of various pieces of woollen material, differing in density of weave, and in colours varying from brown to light blue. The left side has an inside breast pocket and is finished off along the edge with black silk binding.[8]

This garment’s life as a uniform jacket was short but turbulent, since its wearer tramped through Europe and Russia for no less than three years. In his latter years Verhoef put his experiences on record for his son. This he did by writing down his memories, asking an artist friend to illustrate the work with drawings. The book thus created was given the title Memorabiliën 1812. It was lovingly preserved by the family and is at present kept in the Schiedam town archives.[9]

Verhoef Joins Napoleon’s Army

Verhoef took his doctor’s exam in Utrecht on 21st and 22nd March 1811. He must have become excited by the approaching war with Russia and the gigantic expedition expected throughout the whole of Europe, for in September 1811 he reported to Professor Brugmans in Leiden with the request to be put forward as candidate for the post of medical officer in the French army. Brugmans, a man with contacts, was agreeable and put in a good word for the young Utrecht doctor with the French Inspector-General of medical services, Baron Dominique Larrey, a man who held him in some esteem.

On 20th February 1812 Verhoef was given his commission, dated in Paris on 15th February, and signed personally by Larrey: ...Je vous préviens, Monsieur, que le 13de ce mois je vous ai nommé pour être attaché en qualité de chirurgien sous aide à l'armée dont le quartier général est à Maijence (I wish to inform you, sir, that on the 13th of this month I submitted your name for inclusion as chirurgien sous aide in the army whose general quarters are at Mainz).[10]

Why was Verhoef so keen to join Napoleon’s army? No few young men would have heaved a sigh of relief at being rejected![11] Verhoef did not state his motives literally in the Memorabiliën, but his writings give indirect clues. Verhoef was a medical man who still had a great deal to learn and who regarded Brugmans as an example to follow. Where better to do that than in the army? In addition, it was the distant horizons – adventure – that drew him on…. En zie daar mij dan van een stil burger tot lid dier groote armee benoemd, welke onder Napoleon, Keizer der Franschen en toen dan ook ons Vaderland bestond uit de meeste Natiën van Europa. Slechts vier dagen bleven mij er dus over om mij uit te rusten tot een reis aan welkers gevolgen men toen volstrekt niet juist konden denken... (And there I am, from being a quiet citizen, appointed to be a member of that great army which, under Napoleon, Emperor of the French and, at that time, of our country too, consisted of men from most European countries. I had a mere four days to equip myself for a journey whose consequences at the time could absolutely not have been dreamed of…).[12]  

The Trek through Germany and the Making of the Coat

In the four – probably hectic – days preceding his departure, Verhoef hastily took his leave of friends and family. His sister Catharina gave him, as something to remember her by, eene schoone dubbelde portefuelle[13] (a beautiful double wallet) which was to accompany him throughout his adventure. But his adventure probably became ‘real’ when he was issued with his indemnité de route (money to cover the travel expenses) eene uniformhoed met de Fransche concarde, goude broutels en luts (a uniform hat with the French cockade, golden broderies) and a blouwe pantalon in de laarsen gaande (blue trousers whose legs fitted into boots), which constituted Verhoef’s temporary uniform.[14] It was obviously impossible in Utrecht to obtain the required uniform components, although Verhoef remarked there was neither time nor knowledge to equip himself properly. However his nimmer hoog genoeg geschatte ouders (never sufficiently highly estimated parents) gave him enough money to complete his uniform during his trip.

Together with three others[15] entering service as doctors or apothecaries, Verhoef left on 24 February 1812 by coach via Nijmegen to Mainz where they arrived on 3 March, one day before the planned time. The group introduced themselves to the Inspecteur Général du Service de Santé Baron Larrey and were almost immediately set to work by surgeon Mangin  in the hospital. Verhoef worked for a week in the hospital but he also took time to complete his uniform. Het was alhier dat ik mij het verdere der uniform liet maken, bijvoorbeeld de rok (It was here that I had the rest of my uniform made – the jacket for instance.) Why the tailor made a brown uniform jacket that deviated from the prescribed pattern remains a matter of conjecture. Scientific studies of the pigments in the fibres have recently been carried out to exclude the fact that the jacket was once blue but had turned brown in the course of time. Red brazil wood and yellow weld on iron stain were found which, together, give a brown colour.[16]  So the jacket had been brown from the beginning, which raises many questions as to the reasons for the garment. Were neither the tailor nor Verhoef aware of the correct colours? In fact, Verhoef had earlier stated that there was insufficient know-how in Utrecht for his uniform to be properly made.[17] Did the same apply to Mainz? Was Verhoef perhaps equipped with the uniform the colour of that of an infirmier, a soldier assigned to work in a hospital? Or was it that the correct material – cloth in the colour bleu barbeau – was simply not available? Or perhaps under pressure of time the tailor ‘militarised’ a civilian jacket – Verhoef’s own? – by adding velvet details and French buttons? Subject to Verhoef’s ordering his uniform coat immediately after arriving in Mainz, the tailor would have had no more than seven days to create the new jacket. If he had nothing else to do and had perhaps some help, not an impossible task. But if Verhoef knocked at his door later in the week or if the tailor had more orders to deal with, there would have barely been sufficient time. In such a case, it is quite possible that a civilian jacket was used as a basis in order to save time.

Unfortunately, in his Memorabiliën Verhoef did not go deeper into the way his jacket was made, so that we do not know whether he received instructions as to the design of his uniform, whether a tailor was appointed for him or whether he had to find one himself. We will never be sure why the colour deviates from that prescribed. But what is certain is that a hasty departure unfortunately went against Verhoef once more: Het borduursel daar op konde men hier daar wij zoo schielijk vertrekken moesten niet vervaardigen...[18] (Because of our hasty departure it proved impossible for the embroidery to be done here.)

Verhoef left to travel on to Berlin on 11th March under the command of surgeon-major Girot. He was quartered in the Jerusalemmer Strasse with the old Mr. Grattenauer, who rented his house to workers. One of them was the tailor Hildebrand, who made various garments for Verhoef and Ohl – who had been with him from the start of the journey. Although Verhoef makes no specific mention of it, in all likelihood it was Hildebrand who finished off the uniform jacket and did the distinctive embroidery. The jacket shows differences between inside and outside varying from brown on the outside and two colours each of brown and blue on the inside. The variety of threads used and the different stitches also suggest that the jacket was made by ‘different hands’ at ‘different places’. By way of recompense for his work, tailor Hildebrand – who very much wished to travel to Rotterdam and The Hague – was given a letter of recommendation addressed to Verhoef’s father and Ohl’s father, asking them to be ‘friendly’ towards the tailor who had worked for them.

Verhoef spent a pleasant time in Berlin, with visits to friends of the family and to soldiers he had become acquainted with in Utrecht, but at the same time he gathered all the medical knowledge he was able. In the museum of anatomy he was amazed at the skeleton of the giant Frederik the Great, zeven voet acht duim, (seven foot eight inches) and he attended the two-hour long lectures given almost daily by Larrey in the Theatrum. Full of admiration, Verhoef reported that Larrey taught and operated simultaneously without notes. This scientific spectacle also drew many Berlin civilian scientists. Verhoef probably attended the lectures in civilian clothes. He made a special note of the fact that he mostly dressed as a civilian so that he could go anywhere he pleased. He would have to wear a uniform often enough in the coming months.

Verhoef enters Russia to Go to the Glubokoje Military Hospital

Verhoef remained some time in Berlin, until he was appointed to a detachment consisting of twelve doctors, who left Berlin on 30 April under the command of a French major. The journey, by horse and carriage, took them through the eastern part of Germany, via Prussia, to Poland. Finally the small group of young, inexperienced medics, with their improvised garments and equipment, crossed the River Niemen. The Niemen constituted the border between the Duchy of Warsaw, which was under Napoleon’s protection, and Russia. Dat dat overgaan diepe indruk op ons maakte zal wel niet nodig zijn te zeggen. Wij bevonden ons toch nu op vijands bodem, en niemand onzer had veel, ik in het geheel geene, ondervinding of wetenschap hoe ons te gedragen. Wij waren maar daar om het zij vriend of vijand zoo goed mogelijk het kon te genezen.[19] (It is hardly necessary to state that the crossing made a deep impression upon us. We were in enemy territory, and none of us had much – indeed I had none at all – experience or knowledge of how we should behave. We were there merely to cure friend and foe as best we could.)

Verhoef's Sketch of the Crossing of the Nieman
Verhoef’s detachement crossing the Niemen on 30th July 1812. Drawing taken from the Memorabiliën. (Collection of the Gemeentearchief Schiedam)

 

Napoleon’s Grande Armée had already crossed the Niemen a month earlier, on 24 June. The main force was in the centre and totalled – on paper – approximately 450,000 men. Advancing toward Riga on the extreme northern flank was a combined Prussian-French army corps. Between this force and the French main body, two and later three corps had the task of protecting Napoleon’s strategic right flank along the Dvina River.  It was for these corps that Verhoef’s detachement was to work. The corps were largely composed of non-French soldiers. The VI Corps consisted entirely of Bavarian troops; five regiments, French on paper but in fact successors to the regiments of the Kingdom of Holland,[20] served in the II and IX Corps. Furthermore, there were Germans, Portuguese, Swiss and Croatians serving in these 'French' army corps; the German 26th Division of IX  Corps was commanded by the Dutch General Daendels.

The front that formed in the region around Polotsk had been reasonably stable for some time; at the start of the war the Russians had not been sufficiently strong to break through the ‘French’ defences. While most of the fighting had taken pace at Polotsk, a field hospital had been set up somewhat to the south of there, in Glubokoje, to which Verhoef was directed. The journey there took him through Lithuania and the Baltic States and Belorussia, regions that few Dutch people had visited or described. Verhoef gave his eyes free rein, describing in his Memorabiliën the dwellings, the people, the habits and the local food. In Russia he saw traces of the war: advancing armies leave smoking ruins behind them. Verlatene huisen en hoven, beroofde landerijen langs de weg, als bezaaid met dode uitgemergelde paarden, welke eene ondraaglijke stank verspreide, welke evenwel gematigd werd door de ontelbare benden van kraijen welke er op aasden. Deze dieren begonnen die operatie in de omtrek van het fundament der dieren.[21]  (Abandoned houses and farms, ransacked estates along the road, all scattered with dead, emaciated horses, that gave off an unbearable stench, which was sometimes reduced by innumerable gangs of crows that preyed on the remains. These birds began their operations in the area around the bottom of the dead animals.). Finally, on 18th August, Verhoef arrived with a few of his remaining comrades in Glubokoje, where he reported to the field hospital.

Living and Working in the Glubokoje Field Hospital

Medical care in the armies taking part in the Napoleonic wars was in two parts: treatment ‘in the field’, given by the regimental doctors, and treatment in field hospitals behind the front lines. The main danger for the wounded soldier was the feared gangrene. This was caused when dead flesh was created by the vibrations coming from the penetration of a bullet. The dead flesh was an ideal medium for bacteria to grow and could lead to tetanus infections. Since it was impossible to remove only the dead flesh, generally speaking a large wound to an arm or a leg led to amputation.[22]  The most common sicknesses were ‘typhus’ and dysentery’. The terms should not be taken too literally: any symptoms consisting of high temperature and diarrhoea were included under these collective names. It is, in fact, no wonder that such ailments occurred, in a landscape scattered with the cadavers of animals and a hospital full of human corpses. Moreover, the most elementary rules of hygiene were not observed by the soldiers in the field. The cause of the illnesses was sometimes sought in ‘noxious air’, leading to a regime within the hospital whereby the building was aired, the clothes of the dead were incinerated and the wards were cleaned with gunpowder.

The Glubokoje hospital where Verhoef worked had a relatively relaxed atmosphere from 18 August to 20 October. On 18 August – the day that Verhoef arrived – a two-day battle was wound up in Polotsk, with the French and their allies beating the Russian Northern Army. In the first few days this must have led to a flood of wounded men, but shortly after that a lull occurred at the front and it was mainly sick men who reported in.[23] Verhoef found little to complain about in the hospital: ...Boltsi, een Piementieser, was hier het hoofd der Gezondheidsdienst, in verband met Martin en Carcassone bij de Franschen (...) verder trof ik hier aan vriend Koentsche, een Amsterdammer, Schillet, uit 's-Hage. Hier was veel werks, niet veel rust. Ik was gelogeerd zeer nabij het klooster, bij een economen, brave Lithouwers, had een goed vertrek met in 't klein, groote ramen, het was van het klooster gescheide door een klein meertje - groote waterplas - zoo dat ik wat de afstand van het hospitaal aanging, en ook wegensch de menschen, in woning niets te klagen had. (...) Wij hadden hier goed en geregeld te eten, een Franschman was kok, dus goede soep en gekookt vleesch met wortels, aardappelen enz. Veele wonden waren met wormen bezet, veel typhuslijders, weinig doden, veelen genazen.[24]  (Boltsi, a Piedmontese, was head of the health Service here, linked up with the Frenchmen Martin and Carcassone[…]and I also met my friend Koentsche, an Amsterdammer, here, and Schillet from The Hague. There was a great deal of work, not much rest. I had lodgings very close to the monastery, with a frugal, good-hearted Lithuanian. Had a good room with large windows on a small scale. It was separated from the monastery by a small pond – large pool of water – so that as far as distance from the hospital was concerned, and also because of the people, I had nothing to complain about as regards accommodation.[…]We had good and regular food here. The cook was a Frenchman, so we got good soup and cooked meat with carrots, potatoes etc. Many of the wounded were infested with worms, many suffering from typhus, few dead, many cured.) 

However Verhoef was not able to enjoy his good lodgings for long. As early as 10 September he was serving as accompanying doctor on a transport of 300 wounded men going to Vilnius (then known as Vilna) further into the hinterland. The journey to Vilnius and back to Glubokoje exhausted Verhoef completely. The route followed bad roads, with carts that screeched and cracked, and Verhoef had to check the wounds of all 300 men in the evening. On his return to Glubokoje on 28 September, Verhoef himself was a sick man. He did not recover until 20 October.

It was precisely in late October that the situation in the hospital became more urgent. Napoleon had occupied Moscow on 14 September after the battle at Borodino. On 19 October he had evacuated the city once again. He withdrew towards Smolensk. The Russians attempted to cut him off from the north and the south; pressure on the front at Polotsk grew ever greater. There was a major battle on 20 October. The troops suffered not only under the fighting but also from a shortage of forage. Many, especially in the VI (Bavarian) Corps, fell prey to dysentery and exhaustion. The Bavarian captain Thurn und Taxis later remembered the hospital as less rosy than painted by Verhoef: ...Das Hospital in Poltozk füllte sich täglich mehr, die nötigen Medikamente konnten noch dazu nicht aufgetrieben werden, und wir verloren (es klingt schrecklich, und ich kann nur mit Wehmut daran zurückdenken, aber es ist die reine Warheit) täglich zwischen vierzig und fünzig Mann durch diese fürchterliche Krankheit.[25] (The hospital in Poltozk filled up daily with more men, the essential medications were unavailable and every day we lost (it sounds horrific, and now I can only think back on it with sadness, but it is the honest truth) between forty and fifty men to this terrible sickness.)

Retreat from Glubokoje. Verhoef Taken Prisoner

The troops allied to the French were so decimated by disease that they could offer no resistance to the Russian advance. On 28  October the decision was taken to evacuate the hospital in Glubokoje and to transport everything and everyone back to Vilnius. Verhoef was put in charge of transporting sick and wounded men on carts. In Vilnius he crossed paths with a Dutchman, whose fanatical Bonapartism was unequalled by any Frenchman: his Excellency Governor Dirk, Duke of Hogendorp (1761-1822), General of division, aide-de-camp of the Emperor and Baron of the Empire. Between October and December 1812 he was to do his utmost, working from Vilnius, literally to drive the mass of refugees, flowing into the city from Moscow and Polotsk, back into Russia to cover Napoleon’s retreat. In the end, his efforts created just enough space in the last phase of Napoleon’s expedition to enable him to save his own skin.[26] Verhoef also became involved with Hogendorp’s fanaticism. The story ended with Verhoef and his companion being ordered back towards Glubokoje again; ...Reeds den 1e dag ontmoeten wij veele meestal op zig zelve terug tobbende soldaten en sleep - zoo als men zeg - der ongelukkige armée (...) een Poolse officier was bij ons. Hij was gelast om al die terugtrekkende (...) terug te drijven.[27] (As early as the first day we met many – mostly isolated – soldiers straggling back, a procession – as it is said – of the unfortunate army […]There was a Polish officer with us. He had been ordered to drive back all those retreating[…].) 

The journey on foot to Glubokoje was not pleasant for Verhoef. During the trip, practically all the armed soldiers deserted him, leaving him feeling under constant threat. Back in Glubokoje Verhoef found a hospital abandoned by the medical staff, where the remaining sick and wounded had set up shop as best they could. Those less sick looked after the rest.

Aided by a local nobleman, Verhoef decided to prepare a transport back to Vilnius. He organised sledges, a few provisions and helpers, and set off with his caravan in the hope of outdistancing the Cossacks. He failed: on 5th December, at two in the morning, and bij een zeer bittere koude (in the bitter cold), the procession fell into the hands of marauding Cossacks.

Capture by the Cossacks, 5 December 1812
Capture by the Cossacks, 5 December 1812. Drawing taken from the Memorabiliën. (Collection of the Gemeentearchief Schiedam)

 

While still far off, the Cossacks called to them that they need not be afraid. In fact, the feared enemy was not out to kill the soldiers but to steal their goods. Verhoef ‘lost’ his sword and grindstone, the loop, tassels and galon were removed from his bicorn so that it soon came to resemble a beggars hat. His watch and pocket instruments were taken; money was found in the belt tied around his middle and was grabbed; his long, warm, blue overcoat was ‘exchanged’ for a klein grijsje, dat mij kwam tot de ellebogen, en gekaapt van een Bijersche officier (a small grey one, that came to my elbows, and had been seized from a Bavarian officer). Only e few gold coins hidden in his boots and the wallet that Verhoef had received from his sister escaped the Cossacks’ grasping hands. And though the wallet containing his letter of appointment and paybook (livret) was discovered in his coat tail pocket

Dutch Surgeon's Wallet, circa 1812
Verhoef’s wallet, kept in the pockets of his coat tails during the journey.

Verhoef was able to persuade the Cossacks not to take it by saying in a firm voice Imperator! imperator! The Cossacks body search was not all that gentle. The physical force employed tore Verhoef’s leather-covered riding breeches so that they could scarcely be worn again. Verhoef’s companions were also dealt with and mishandled in a similar way.

The prisoners of war were led by the Cossacks in procession to the village of Kobelnikij. Here they were able to supplement their clothing with grey trousers with a light-blue stripe and gaiters intended for the Westphalian troops: these garments, piled onto sledges, had earlier fallen into the hands of the Cossacks. The Cossacks permitted the men, who were very much the worse for wear, to put on these clothes, and Verhoef drew on the grey trousers over his torn riding breeches and wriggled the gaiters on over his boots. But no matter how many pairs of trousers or gaiters they wore, the weather was extremely cold and no one was adequately clothed. On 6th December 1812 the Cossacks transported their prisoners of war further na wie weet welke streek...[in]de koude welke waarlijk onuitstaanbaar was (to a region that was anyone’s guess…[in]cold weather that was really unbearable). The ‘schnapps’ that the Cossacks occasionally distributed barely helped to warm the body and men died. Verhoef complained about the bitter cold to a Cossack, who remarkably enough was prepared to listen. The Cossack ‘organised’ a sheepskin ladies’ garment that he was prepared to swap for the Bavarian grey, a deal that Verhoef immediately agreed to. However the Cossack did not use the grey garment as a jacket but as a sort of cape over his bonneted head. Verhoef didn’t care: he was happy with the ladies’ coat that saved him from dying of cold. He wore a stripped tricorn on his head, the edges drooping sadly down, with a cloth tied around his ears. But the rest of the soldiers looked just as miserable. De soldaten liepen in groepjes van allerlijen wapenen, slecht gedekt met gescheurde of half verbranden klederen (The soldiers walked in intermingled groups from every branch of the service badly clothed in torn or half-burnt garments.)

Verhoef was lucky to have his sheepskin. He was the only one to possess such a warm garment. The other officers had to make do with totally inadequate jackets: of necessity they sewed the tails together to keep out the cold and the wind. Others made a type of poncho from horse blankets or other kinds of materials and, under it, wore strips of cloth covering straw to keep out the cold. Straw was also wrapped around the feet and used to sleep under. Every little bit helped. Verhoef reported that everyone remained healthy and cheerful and that sometimes they even sang in the evenings.

From Polotsk to Archangelsk: Verhoef’s Time as a Prisoner-of-War

Verhoef was to end up spending almost two years as a prisoner of the Russians. He was treated well, considering the circumstances. Sometimes while being transported he was given the chance to dress warmly, and the food he received was reasonable. In his capacity as a doctor, he had to treat the French and allied prisoners, a task that also took in work in the hospital at Polotsk, where he remained together with his old comrades. In that period, and also at a later date, when he had been placed in the city of Archangelsk, he was scarcely subject to supervision. His Memorabiliën are, for that reason, mild in their judgement of his Russian captivity. He realised full well that he had his profession to thank for this. As a doctor he was to some extent raised above the warring parties. Moreover, before being taken prisoner, he had treated Russians.[28] Verhoef believed that the Russian inhabitants of the towns where the prisoners were stationed were becoming more accustomed to their guests.  ...En daardoor was het dan ook, dat wij nu in September 1813 alhier niets te verduren hadden van dat alles waarover en teregt onze voorgangers zoo zeer beklaagde...[29] (And for that reason it came about that we, now in September 1813, suffered less from all that which our predecessors had rightly so sorely complained about).

Verhoef worked in the Polotsk hospital until 13 July when, for reasons unknown, he was put on a transport to Archangelsk. The journey took him via Vologda (5 September 1813) to Archangelsk (2 November 1813). He was still in the company of some comrades from the Glubokoje hospital and seemed to stand up to the journeys well. He continued his keen observations and made notes on the statues of saints, the making of 'house milk', the inhabitants’ clothing, the churches and the houses. On arrival in Archangelsk he acquired new clothes. From that moment on, he probably never wore the uniform jacket again.

His new clothes were mainly thick and warm – wollen kousen, laarsen van rendieren vel, jas van geel batlaken en schapenvacht, wanten van rendierenpels en een goed pelsmutsje (woollen stockings, reindeer skin boots, a jacket of yellow towelling and sheepskin, reindeer skin gloves and a good fur hat) – all of that merely in order to allow him to go outside![30]

In Archangelsk Verhoef met various Dutch people who had been taken prisoner, and also immigrants or their descendants. He did his utmost to learn some Russian and behaved as an inquisitive traveller; he described the religion, the churches and… the fun the people had in winter. Slowly but surely it became clear to him how lucky he had been. From time to time transports with Dutch prisoners entered the city with tales of how many had died on the way from exhaustion and the cold. Verhoef became deeply embittered, because to his way of thinking there was no need to have the prisoners march so far to the north. The soldiers taken prisoner were spread all over Russia; the officers, such as Verhoef, were transported on carts and sledges, but soldiers and NCOs had to walk. The ones who had to march north had the worst time. The extreme weather conditions, severe lack of food and exhaustion caused many victims to fall by the wayside. Anyone not strong enough failed to reach the final destination.

His imprisonment finally ended in the summer of 1814. After 1 July Verhoef was able to call himself a free man; the French emperor Napoleon had been banished to Elba and the prisoners began their journey homewards. A notable incident occurred as they left Archangelsk, something that showed how the prisoners would be awkward subjects of the new king, Louis XVIII of Bourbon. ....Ook onze onderoffisieren en soldaten, Fransche en Hollanders, stonden aldaar rijsvaardig en welgemoet. Toen door de Russe autoritijten het teken tot vertrek gegeven, en menens het "Vaardwel" had toegeroepen, we ons in beweging zoude zetten, daverde door de lucht het geroep onzer soldaten "Vive l'empereur! Vive l'empereur!...”[31]  (Our NCOs and soldiers, French and Dutch, were standing ready to depart and in good spirits. When the Russian authorities gave the signal for the departure, and had sincerely wished us “Farewell”, the air echoed to the cry of our soldiers: “Long live the Emperor! Long live the Emperor!”)

Urban Doctor with Memories

Verhoef travelled mainly by ship over the Baltic Sea and set foot on shore in Amsterdam on 25 October 1814, more than two-and-a-half years after leaving. His parents had already imagined him dead; another soldier who had made it back from the military expeditions in Russia had even sworn that he had seen Verhoef perish!

On 1 August 1817 he established himself as doctor and obstetrician in Beusichem, a position he was to hold for the rest of his life. His life as a doctor now showed every sign of solid citizenship. As a social-minded man, Verhoef was a member of all sorts of associations and the local church council; he enjoyed making himself useful. But throughout his entire life this valued member of Beusichem society treasured the memories of Russia in 1812.

He had brought back with him various souvenirs of his journey and kept them in a cardboard box. The inventory, made for his son[32]  in 1858, listed thirty-nine objects, varying from een litouwsche handdoek (a Lithuanian hand towel) and de portefeuille van mijn zuster… (my sister’s wallet) to vier bloemfragmenten, geplukt van het graf van Napoleon, op den 12den december 1840 door den Heere Med Doctor P.W.B. de Wilde... (four fragments of flowers plucked from Napoleon’s grave on 12 December 1840 by Doctor P.W.B. de Wilde) of which a great many have remained in the family.

The most remarkable object preserved is, of course, the brown leather wallet that survived the entire adventure in Russia. But further fine souvenirs are the pocket handkerchiefs and hand towels that Verhoef acquired or was given in Russia. In januarij 1813 kogten wij Heer Koentse en ik - deze lithouwse handdoek op de markt te Pelatik, sneden dezelve door, later werden die 2 stukken mijn eigendom als wanneer het weder door een naad een stuk werd. (In January 1813 we – Mr Koentse and myself – bought this Lithuanian hand towel on the market in Pelatik. We cut it in half, but later the two pieces once again came into my possession and were sewn together to make a single piece.) Indeed, the remaining white linen towel with a crocheted edging has been sewn together down the middle; a note pinned to it tells the story. And the brown cotton handkerchief with motifs in natural colours, that Verhoef’s notes report as having been given by the Jesuit Peterse in Polotsk, has been preserved. Unreported in the Memorabiliën, but clearly Russian souvenirs, are a wooden spoon that Verhoef bought in Archangelsk, a small, gilded, copper icon devoted to ‘Maria, the Mother of God’, various Russe munten van 1789, 1804, 1774, 1733… (Russian coins dated 1789, 1804, 1774, 1733…) and an egg made of ivory or bone that Verhoef identified as serving as a container for sweetmeats. The egg is carved in filigree with floral designs and can be screwed open.  It contains two minute baskets with handles, each bearing a pair of turtle doves, the entire piece less than one centimetre in size. These treasured and tiny pieces of Russian manufacture will have helped Verhoef to keep the memories of his journey alive.

Distinguished Service Medal

In 1848 another Bonaparte came to power in France: that year Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, son of the former King of Holland, was elected president and would later have himself crowned emperor in 1852. This Napoleon III made Bonapartism once more acceptable in the salons of Europe. In 1857 he issued the Saint Helena medal, to be awarded to all those who had taken part in one or more of Napoleon’s military expeditions and were still alive. Verhoef, hearing of this in the press, lost no time: he wrote immediately to Paris – a letter addressed to the Emperor himself – and on 3  January received the longed-for medal from the Lord Mayor of Beusichem. And Verhoef wore it, for he asked official permission to do so from the Chancellor of the Dutch Orders in The Hague.

The liberation of the Netherlands in 1813 was for years a national day of festivities celebrated on 17 November, the date that the Orange flag was raised in The Hague. In addition, every town had its own feast on its own day of liberation: Utrecht, for example, celebrated ‘Cossacks Day’ on 28 November, the date that Cossacks entered the town.

The fiftieth anniversary in 1863 was organised on a great scale. Not only were the old liberators welcome but also the veterans who had served in the Napoleonic wars. A major procession was organised, in which veterans and Cossacks in uniform were driven around on decorated floats. Among the floats was an ambulance cart with ‘sick and injured Cossacks and Frenchmen’.[33] It is not beyond the bounds of imagination that Verhoef, proud as he was of his past service as medical officer, rode on this cart wearing the uniform jacket that at present is part of the Army Museum’s collection.

Whatever the case, the uniform jacket would seem to have been altered to fit an older body. An extra piece of material has been inserted into both front panels and in the collar fastening from the shoulder seam, making the jacket easier to wear on a somewhat more corpulent body. Identical material has been used, probably recuperated from the turnbacks of the jacket’s tails. The extra pieces were added to the material with small stitches in black silk thread. And the jacket’s sleeves have been lengthened by making the cuffs somewhat longer. Forward-hanging shoulders and a bent upper back – alas, often signs of advanced age – make sleeves a little shorter, requiring that they be lengthened. The jacket also shows signs of various repairs: a three-cornered tear that has been sewn up, a piece let in at the elbow, a tear on the back, various small holes and almost complete renovation of the lining of the jacket tails with pieces of dark blue cloth. Although it is unlikely that Verhoef wore the uniform jacket every day of his journey, the garment indisputably suffered from the experience. Not only has the material become worn, but the holes and tears it bears are undoubtedly the result of quotidian tasks and extraordinary adventures. However the repairs are too skilful for them all to have been carried out during the Russian period. We cannot exclude the fact that the repair work – or at least a part of it – was performed[34]  in order to deck Verhoef out in all his glory on the fiftieth anniversary of Cossack Day.

Tombstone and Uniform Jacket

Verhoef took pride in having been part of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. His tombstone in Beusichem bears the following inscription: ... Henricus Theodorus Verhoef. geboren te Utrecht den 24 July 1790 overleden te Beusichem den 12 september 1865. Van af Februari 1812 tot October 1814 Officier van gezondheid bij het groote Fransche leger in Rusland. Sedert Augustus 1817 tot Mei 1865 geneesheer te Beusichem...[35] (Henricus Theodorus Verhoef. born in Utrecht 24th July 1790 died in Beusichem 12th September 1865. From February 1812 to October 1814 medical officer in the great French army in Russia. Since August 1817 to May 1865 physician in Beusichem).

The uniform jacket was donated to the museum in 1936;[36] a number of the souvenirs are still in the hands of the male line of the family. Unfortunately it is not known whether the paintings commissioned by Verhoef in the Netherlands have withstood the ravages of time.

The uniform jacket was stored in the museum, without any immediate attention being paid to it. Doubtless this was because the brown, mended and worn jacket seemed to be such an ugly duckling when compared to the beautifully decorated and restored uniforms of famous regiments. In hindsight, the jacket’s ugliness may be regarded as a stroke of good fortune: the garment has been passed down to us in a reasonably authentic state. Verhoef could not have passed on to the 21st Century a better memorial of the events of 1812.

 

Notes:

[1] John R. Elting, Swords around a throne: Napoleon’s Grande Armee (London 1997) 283

[2] Elting, Uniforms of Napoleon’s Army, parts I & II (New York, 1993), ‘plate I: Medical Service, surgeon 1st class'; Fallou, Le Bouton uniforme français de l’Ancien Régime à fin juillet 1914 (Paris 1915); Vincent Bourgeot and Alain Pigeard, Encyclopédie des Uniformes Napoléoniens 1800-1815 (Entremont-le-Vieux 2003) 155.

[3] The cloth is woven in plain weave with 22 threads per cm. The threads are S-twisted.

[4] The term ‘surtout’ was originally used in the 17th and 18th centuries for a buttoned men’s jacket. In ‘military circles’ the term was later applied to a tail coat or 'frock' A frock coat is a men’s jacket with straight-cut front panels and two loose, diagonally cut tails. This type of jacket was generally worn unbuttoned by civilians – something unthinkable for the serving soldier – and , in principle, was a main component of a suit or combination in civilian fashion. The frock worn between 1760 and 1860 is the predecessor of the dress suit with tails.

[5] In Le Bouton Français (Paris 1915). Fallou identifies these buttons as belonging to the infantry of the Imperial Guard.

[6] The cotton is woven in twill weave  with 29 threads per cm. The threads are S-twisted.

[7] The cotton is woven in plain weave with 27 threads per cm. The threads of the warp- and weft are Z- and S-twisted.

[8] Many types of thread were used in the making of the jacket. The outer layer and the lining of the turnbacks are sewn with a thick cotton Z-twisted hread. The jacket was mostly hand-made, though some of the seams would appear to have been reinforced at a later stage with machine stitching.

[9] With thanks to Messrs. H. and D. Verhoef for pointing this out to us and providing a transcription. Gemeentearchief Schiedam, Memorabiliën; hereinafter referred to as Memorabiliën.

[10] Memorabiliën, 1.5; 8.

[11] The Verhoef case does not match the bad reputation of the sous aides written about by Elting; Elting, Swords around a throne (London 1997) 283. Cf. Allan Forrest, Napoleon's men: the soldiers of the revolution and empire (New York 2002) x-xiv for positive motivation on the part of civilian soldiers.

[12] Memorabiliën, 1.5; 8.

[13] Memorabiliën, 1.5; 9.

[14] Idem, 8.

[15] These were Van der Lek from Utrecht and IJsendoorn from Gouda, who wished to serve as officiers de santé, and Ohl who reported for duty as apothecary.

[16] The Instituut Collectie Nederland has investigated the dyes and colourings used. The organic dyes were analysed by high performance liquid chromatography. The chromatogram revealed four components that could be identified as red brasil wood, the yellow components luteolin and apigenin, probably obtained from weld , and a trace of indigotin (blue). However the amount of indigo used is too little to have influenced the colour. Combined with an iron stain, the yellow and red dyes produce a brown colour. The presence and identity of the stain were determined with X-ray Fluorescence analysis. A high concentrate of phosphor and sulphur was found and a low concentration of calcium and iron. The sulphur probably originated in the wool, the iron (perhaps also iron sulphate) is probably the stain and the calcium was used to neutralise dye and stain after dying. The study was unable to explain the high concentration of phosphor. 

[17] Op. cit. 4.

[18] Memorabiliën, 2.2; 11.

[19] Ibid.

[20] There are many different estimates of the numbers of men in the French army. The figures given here are based on David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London 1966).

[21] Memorabiliën, 2.6, 14.

[22] For a good description and an interesting account of the career of a regimental doctor, see Charles Boutflower, The Journal of an Army Surgeon during the Peninsular War, Dr. A.C. Ticehurst (ed.), (Staplehurst 1997) & Salomon-Louis Laurillard-Fallot, Souvenirs d'un medicin Hollandais sous les aigles Francaises (Paris 1997)

[23]Those interested in the role of the Dutch units in this battle can refer, among others, to F.H.A. Sabron, Geschiedenis van het 124ste Regiment Infanterie van Linie onder keizer Napoleon I (Breda, 1910), which relates the misery in the army ambulances on page 56.

[24] Memorabiliën, 2.7, 18.

[25] Eckart Kleßman, Napoleons Rußlandfeldzug in Augenzeugen Berichten (Düsseldorf 1964) 296.

[26] Paul Britten Austin, 1812: Napoleon's Invasion of Russia (London 2000) p.III, 339 pp.

[27] Ibid., 22.

[28] Old Russian patients also put in a good word for him; Memorabiliën, 4.1, 28.

[29] Memorabiliën, 4.5, 35. Verhoef means the Dutch Captain Wagevier of the 125th regiment, who published his grievances in Aantekeningen gedurende 1812, '13 en '14 (Amsterdam, 1820).  

[30] Ibid., 5.1, 42.

[31] Memorabiliën, 61, 51.

[32] This son, A.M. Verhoef, was a medical officer in the Royal Dutch Army (Koninklijke Nederlandse Landmacht) and stationed in Bergen-op-Zoom. Legermuseum Collection, first-person documents, H.T. Verhoef (1790-1865), Het een en ander omtrent de St Helena medaille...1857/1858.

[33] Mark van Hattem, Kozakkendag. De bevrijding van Utrecht in 1813 (Utrecht 1993) 87.

[34] The Army Museum has no reports of restoration work nor any other notes that would suggest that the alterations were made during the jacket’s life in the museum.

[35] With thanks to H. Verhoef.

[36] Nederlandsch Legermuseum, Verslag 1936 (Hattem 1936)

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2006

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