Reviews: Military Books


In the Wake of Napoleon: The Dutch in Time of War, 1792-1815

Hattem, Mark van; Mariska Pool; Mathieu Willemsen (eds.). In the Wake of Napoleon: The Dutch in Time of War, 1792-1815. Bussum (NLD): Thoth Publishers; Maidstone (UK): Amalgamated Book Services. 127 p. ISBN# 9068684033. Hardcover. € 34.90 or $43.

From October 14, 2005 to April 2, 2006 the Dutch Army Museum (Leger Museum) in Delft mounted a fascinating exhibition on Dutch soldiers and the role of the Netherlands in the Napoleonic wars. Items for this exhibit have been assembled from all over Europe, some as far away as the Artillery Museum in St. Petersburg. To accompany the exhibition, Thoth Publishers, in cooperation with the Army Museum has published a lavishly illustrated hardback book.

This book is not an 'exhibition catalogue' in the sense that all the objects on display are described one by one. It is more a collection of stories within chapters giving the background to the period as well as additional material, with the bonus of quite a lot of the exhibits being displayed in the book. This is due to the nature of the exhibition, in which much emphasis is placed on the fate and adventures of individual Dutchmen, a Dutch woman and even a horse caught up in the Napoleonic Wars.

The fact that a large number of the artifacts that have been handed down to us can be linked to individuals makes for a fascinating whole. These are not anonymous soldiers lined up on a faraway battlefield. They are individual human beings with their own experiences and tragedies. In a way these fates mirror the fate of the Netherlands in this period: a small state swept up a maelstrom of events beyond its control.

The Netherlands was overrun by the French in early 1795 and became one of the earliest client states of France, although it tried again and again to emphasize its nominal independence. In this period the failed Anglo-Russian invasion of North Holland took place (1799). To bring it more in line with his imperial policy Napoleon installed his brother Louis as King of Holland in 1806. But Louis quickly turned more Dutch than the Dutch, refusing, for example, to introduce conscription. It was during his reign that the failed British expedition to Walcheren took place. In 1810 Napoleon had had enough and annexed the country to France. Dutch troops, which until then had mostly been used as second line units guarding lines of communication, etc., now were thrust into the forefront and formed part of the Grande Armée of 1812. One of the bridges over the Berezina was built by Dutch pioneers.

What fascinating stories the book contains: Varying from Albert Gerrit Kanis, a conscript who was lucky to survive and write down his experiences as a common soldier to Jean Baptiste Dumonceau, general in Dutch and French service, who distinguished himself during the battles of the Anglo-Russian invasion of North Holland in 1799. The ladies who followed the drum are represented Ida Saint Elme, the so called 'courtesan of the Grande Armée', fiercely in love with Marshal Ney and survivor of the Russian campaign. And the above-mentioned horse is Wexy, the mount of Prince William of Orange, killed at Waterloo by a cannonball at the same time as the wounding of his master and since then stuffed and preserved as "Horse No. 1" at the Royal Stables in The Hague. His rider is covered in a separate chapter as well.

Sometimes personal tragedies are brought to light: in 1815 two brothers, Johannes and Lambertus Doyen, were on opposite sides at the field of Waterloo. Lieutenant Hendrik Jacob 't Hart left us a beautiful white infantry officers coat, specially made for him, which he barely wore before his death of illness on 15 August 1809. Another Dutchman in French uniform in 1815 was Johan Coenraad Duuring from Rotterdam, who commanded the 1st Battalion of the 1st Chasseurs à pied of the Imperial Guard and with his battalion covered the French retreat when the Armée du Nord collapsed.

These biographies make up the most of the book. However, a basic introduction to Napoleonic iconography and propaganda pictures is also provided. This covers both pro- and anti-Napoleon iconography; the latter mainly represented by a selection of Goya's etchings "Los Desastres de la Guerra". Furthermore there is a chapter covering the history of the Dutch small-arms factory at Culemborg, which existed from 1759 until 1812, of which several firearms have survived. The factory was too small, however, to provide all the arms needed by the Dutch army, which also depended on the factories of Liege and others. Finally there is a short chapter on swords and sabres of the period.

The chapters are richly illustrated with colour photographs of many objects on display in the exhibition. The photos are of a high quality and are well-described. With uniforms details of the materials used are given as well.  All in all the book is a valuable addition to any Napoleonic bookshelf and throws a vivid light on a hitherto lesser known army of the period. 

Reviewed by Frank van den Bergh, M.A. 1/06.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2006

 

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