The Secret Expedition: The Anglo-Russian Invasion of Holland 1799
Geert van Uythoven
Helion & Company (2018)
Hardback, 447 pages, 46 illustrations, 16 maps
The 1799 Anglo-Russian campaign in Holland has not received much attention from English-speaking historians. When they do deign to notice it is usually cast as a second-rate misadventure involving a bumbling, but brave British army supported by a ragged and undisciplined swarm of Russians, including Cossacks. The opponents are Revolutionary France and its puppet state, the Batavian Republic, whose people wait only for the approach of the allied army to rise and throw off the shackles of Gallic oppression. In fact, as Geert Van Uythoven clearly shows in this book, which is the product of decades of research, the 1799 campaign was a much more complex matter than is held in popular wisdom.
The avowed purpose of the Allied operation was to demolish the Batavian republic and restore the House of Orange to the Dutch throne. It was a bit more complicated and Van Uythoven begins his study with a brief discussion of the complex background of Dutch politics, starting in the late 17th century. He reviews the animosity between the two main factions; the Orangists, who supported the established government, and the Patriots, who favoured the revolutionary populist winds blowing from France. He makes it clear that many people in Holland favoured a republican form of government as opposed to the traditional, monarchial system upheld by the Orange faction. The author’s research is very thorough. He seems to have examined every British, Dutch and French source on his subject and Russian sources in translation — there are more than two hundred titles in his bibliography. He includes lengthy quotations from these sources in his text, giving the reader insight into the thoughts of the participants. He does, however, provide a proper context for these quotes. Finally, he adds 20 appendices providing orders of battle (both on land and sea) and important documents and correspondence.
Van Uythoven’s objectivity is impressive; he favours neither the British, the French, the Russians, or the two opposing Dutch factions. One of the strong points of this book is that the author provides interesting information about the forces of all the belligerents, particularly the Batavians and the Russians. He dispassionately assesses the strength and weaknesses of each national contingent and his analysis is buttressed by the observations of period eyewitnesses.
The campaign of 1799 was not a lengthy affair, the first Allied troops landed on 27 August and an armistice, which led to their withdrawal, was signed on 18 October. Within those 52 days, no fewer than five major actions were fought, and Van Uythoven examines them in detail including lengthy accounts by participants. He also provides detailed tactical maps, orders of battle and photos of the locales as they appear today. Nor does he ignore the naval side of the campaign, although it was quickly resolved in favour of the Royal Navy. The terrain of Holland, as the Canadian army was to learn in 1944-1945, favours the defender because being flat and level it provides good fields of fire while being cut across by waterways it limits the approaches of the attacker. Speaking of Canadians, my fellow citizens will be interested to know that Major-General Isaac Brock, later deified as the saviour of this country, saw his first combat during the 1799 campaign, commanding the 49th Foot at the battle of Egmont op Zee, fought on 2 October 1799.
One aspect of the fighting that the author stresses is the presence of rifle-armed troops on the Franco-Batavian side. The Batavian army included four battalions of Jägers, which were partially armed with these weapons. A British officer noted that the enemy riflemen ‘gave them a great advantage over us, and in consequence of their having so many light troop many of our officers were picked off by them and the proportion of wounded officers was very great’. He recorded that all the officers in his company were wounded before a single enlisted man was hit. Adding to the Allied discomfort was the French employment of the light infantry/skirmisher tactics that had recently been developed. For the British army, the overall result of their troops’ seeming inability to deal with these new weapons and tactics was the decision to form an experimental corps of riflemen, which evolved into the famous 95th Rifles.
Like most Helion books, The Secret Expedition has exceedingly high production values including gloss paper and numerous maps and illustrations. It is a well-founded, deeply researched, and informative book on a military campaign that has been too often overlooked. It will be of interest to a wide audience including academic and general readers, and all those interested in the wars of the Revolutionary period.
Donald E. Graves