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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Battles

The Netherlands as a Buffer State

The Sovereign State of the United Netherlands

The Crossroads: Netherlands Forces at Les Quatre Bras 15 - 16 June 1815

Part I: The Kingdom of the Netherlands

By Hans Boersma

The Netherlands as a Buffer State: the Hereditary Prince of Orange-Nassau

The concept of uniting the old northern and southern Netherlands [1] had been under serious consideration in British political circles for some years [2] when in 1814 Napoleon's defeat, followed by his expulsion from the European mainland, cleared the way for its implementation. A powerful bastion was to be created on France's northern border so as to keep this border at a safe distance from the vital port of Antwerp and the British coast. Since the reign of Louis XIV the French had persistently sought to push their border northward, continually threatening to shift the balance of power that was Britain's insurance for a quiet life. The port of Antwerp, as far as the British were concerned, was not to fall into French hands at any cost and not into the hands of any major continental power for that matter.

The Hamlet of Les Quatre Bras

Vital ground: the hamlet Les Quatre Bras, viewed in northern direction from the Charleroi - Bruxelles road. From the French border leading straight up to the second capitol of the newly created Kingdom of the Netherlands, this road was Napoleon's highway to his political goal in June 1815. Here, where these few buildings gather, it is intersected by the Nivelles-Namur road, which linked the Anglo-allied army under Field Marshall Wellington with the Prussian Army under Feldmarschall Bl�cher, giving these crossroads their strategic importance.The yellow coach on the right is coming from the direction of Sombreffe, Ligny and Namur; the horse and wagon appearing around the corner on the left come from the direction of Hautain-le-Val and Nivelles. The two-horse wagon in front is proceeding in the direction of Frasnes, Gosselies and Charleroi.
Lithography by Jobard, after Madou; year unknown, but probably made shortly after the Waterloo campaign. The front building on the right still stands today.

In 1813 the British Foreign Minister, Lord Castlereagh, arranged a meeting with the hereditary Prince Willem Frederik van Oranje-Nassau, which took place in London on November 4th. The Prince, who had only recently arrived in Britain after spending eighteen years in Germany, Poland and Austria, was informed that it was the Allies' desire to reinstall his House in the Netherlands, and on firmer foundations than it had enjoyed in the past. Furthermore, the territory of the old Dutch Republic was to be expanded in southern and eastern directions. This was everything the Prince had hoped for after the hardship he had experienced in the previous years [3] . He did not remain idle. Five days later, after consulting the Russian General von Pfuhl, he presented to the British government a memorandum in which he set out his view on the territorial aspects of the planned unification. In this he argued that the proposed enlargement of the old Republic should extend southward as far as the northern border of France, and further that it should also include the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the German lands between the Meuse, Rhine and Mosel, as otherwise the barrier of fortresses along the new Franco-Netherlands border could still be outflanked by a French army and rendered useless. The Prince was also keen to point out that if the lands between the Meuse and the Rhine were to fall to the Prussians, the latter would be able to dominate and control trade with Switzerland and south-west Germany, something from which Britain would hardly benefit; if these lands were to fall to the Netherlands however, that would be a different matter.
Due to Willem Frederik's ambiguous attitude towards Napoleon in the past, the British had initially not been at all eager to make him ruler of their new bastion state. They blamed him for prostrating himself before Napoleon, overlooking the fact that just about any monarch on the continent could be blamed for doing the same. He was referred to as "The Frog," a nickname clearly displaying the contempt they felt for the parvenue king of a small state which didn't even exist as such. Indeed for some while his eldest son, Prince Willem Frederik George (1792-1849), educated at Oxford University and afterwards from 1811-1813 serving as Aide-de-Camp to the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War, was seen by many British politicians as a more suitable man for their purposes. However, the stay of Willem Frederik in Britain from 1813 onwards allowed the rather brash and frivolous son to be compared with the serious and ambitious father, a man matured by twenty hard years in exile that had not broken him. Consequently Willem Frederik in British eyes gradually changed from a displaced German prince into the only serious pretender to the future throne of the Netherlands.

The Sovereign State of the United Netherlands

On 9 November 1813, a small vanguard of Russian Cossacks under General Narishken crossed the Dutch-German border in the north, taking the town of Groningen six days later. After organised anti-French riots in Amsterdam, the triumvirate Van Hogendorp, Van Limburg Stirum and Van der Duyn van Maasdam formed a provisional government in Den Haag on 20 November in the name of the hereditary Prince (without his knowledge), and proclaimed the renunciation of Napoleon. Lebrun, the French governor-general over the Dutch Departments of the Empire, had left the capitol after the riots and, apart from a small garrison, French authority in Amsterdam had ceased to exist. In Den Haag, the hated French prefect Stassart had also abandoned the town, followed shortly by the small French garrison.


Map of the Netherlands

The Netherlands and its new borders, as proposed in Willem Frederik's memorandum of 9 November 1813.  



















Yet there still was a sizeable body of French troops under General Molitor near Utrecht, while the military force over which the provisional government could dispose was negligible. This became evident on 23 November when the town of Leiden, having recognised the provisional government, tried to improve its military position by seizing the small town of Woerden, some 15 kilometres from Utrecht. A force of 250 men commanded by General de Jonge and Colonel Tullingh of the National Guard (now renamed Oranje-Garde) managed to occupy the objective without much trouble. Molitor, however, saw this action as an unfavourable shift in the status quo and responded by attacking the town on the following day with 1600 men. After two hours of fierce combat the Dutch troops were compelled to either surrender or withdraw. In the events that followed the French killed 26 civilians and wounded several others. This caused great anxiety in towns that had also recognised the provisional government, and military assistance from the Allies was now felt to be urgently needed. But help was approaching: one day earlier on November 23rd, Prussian troops under General von B�low had crossed the border with Germany and by the 24th had seized the towns of Doesburg and Zutphen. On 27 November, Molitor started to withdraw his troops from Utrecht. The next day Narishken's Cossacks reached Den Haag, and the town was further reinforced the day after when 200 British marines landed on the beach of Scheveningen.

Even had the British still harboured any reservations about Willem Frederik, they were left with little choice after two envoys sent out by the provisional government located the Prince in London and officially invited him to return to the Netherlands [4]. On 30 November 1813, the Prince followed the British marines and landed at Scheveningen - the same place where he had left the country 18 years before. Upon his debarkation the crowd assembled on the beach welcomed him enthusiastically with cheers of "Long live the King!" and the provisional government immediately offered him the title of King. He declined for he did not favour the emerging prospect of a constitutional monarchy to be a king bound by a constitution which he had not written himself. Initially his preference had been simply to become the next Stadhouder, Willem VI, leading an improved federal government with more personal power. No doubt he also had the British plans for the Netherlands in mind: by prematurely accepting the title of King he might offend the other ruling European dynasties and thus waste his opportunity for a considerable territorial expansion -an expansion against which, as far as the southern Netherlands were concerned, the other Allies seemed to have no objections, but which still needed to be worked out and ratified. After strong persuasive efforts by the provisional government and other politicians, the Prince agreed, as a compromise, to accept the title of Sovereign of the United Netherlands - not Stadhouder Willem VI, but Sovereign Willem I, a title which was soon thereafter recognised by the Allies.
Meanwhile the military situation was improving significantly in the other parts of the country as well. Prussian troops took the town of Arnhem on 30 November after bitter fighting, and by December 1813 the bulk of the French troops had vacated the country north of the Meuse, apart from the towns of Gorinchem, Deventer, Den Helder (the Dutch naval port), Coevorden, Deventer, Naarden and Delfzijl. Gorinchem fell in February, the other towns would remain occupied by French garrisons until April and May 1814.


1) The former Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (1648-1795; roughly comprising the current national territory of The Netherlands, commonly known as Holland), and the former Austrian Netherlands (1715-1794; roughly comprising the current national territory of Belgium).

2) The possibility is already mentioned in the treaty between Britain and Russia of 11 April 1805.

3) Shortly before French troops under General Pichegru reach Den Haag in 1795, Prince Willem Frederik's father, Willem V, the last Stadhouder, flees to Britain with his family. Unwilling to conform himself to his father's passive attitude Willem Frederik soon leaves for Germany and tries unsuccessfully to raise troops there. In 1799, he participates in the likewise unsuccessful Anglo-Russian invasion of North-Holland, in which it becomes painfully clear that the local population shows little inclination to choose the side of Oranje. The Prince buys some lands in Posen (Poznan) and applies himself to its administration. Being a realistic, sober and business-like man he develops a sense of respect for Napoleon's resoluteness, and in 1802, during a short period in which Britain seems prepared to negotiate with France, the Prince after a thorough political wooing in Paris manages to obtain some German lands from Napoleon as a compensation for his lost possessions in the Republic. The most notable of these is the princely state of Fulda. Willem Frederik throws himself into painstakingly governing this small state, showing himself an enlightened yet absolutist monarch (apparently to the satisfaction of at least the literate part of the population: after Napoleon's defeat the Bundestag of Frankfurt received a petition asking for the return of their former ruler).

His respect for Napoleon's sense of purpose does not however turn into admiration. When Napoleon organizes a meeting with all German monarchs in 1804 he does not show up. In 1806 the Prince refuses to join the French-dominated Confederation of the Rhine and chooses the Prussian side in the War of the Fourth Coalition. He receives command over a Prussian Division and serves with some distinction at the fateful battle of Auerst�dt in that same year, which battle ends in the virtual destruction of Prussia's military power. In the aftermath of the battle he stumbles during the surrender of the fortress of Erfurt. He finds the town and its fortifications indefensible for various reasons, and proposes to Feldmarschall Mollendorf to withdraw to Magdenburg, but the latter refuses. Soon after Willem has to lead the negotiations for the capitulation, which is afterwards judged unnecessary by a committee of inquiry, and Willem Frederik only escapes being court-martialled thanks to the intervention of the King of Prussia, his brother-in-law. As a consequence of the Prussian defeat Willem loses Fulda and his other German possessions, and despite a less than honourable prostration before Napoleon, he does not receive them back.

He finds few options left but to return to his possessions in Poland and Silesia. For diplomatic reasons he sends his eldest son, Willem George Frederik, to Oxford, realizing that in the long run the only chance for his House to play any significant role in Europe lies in linking up with the British. During Napoleon's war against Austria of 1809, Willem Frederik joins Austrian service something for which his brother in law, the King of Prussia, will never forgive him. He serves as Aide-de-Camp to Archduke Karl and is wounded twice in his legs at the Battle of Wagram, which ends in yet another defeat.  Encouraged by Napoleon's disastrous Russian Campaign, Prussia again declares war on France in 1813. Frederik Willem offers his service to the King of Prussia, but Friedrich Wilhelm refuses to allow him a field command and instead gives him a diplomatic role. When Prussian and Russian troops are nearing the Netherlands after the French defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, Willem Frederik leaves for Britain in the hope of preparing his return diplomatically.

4) One of these envoys was Hendrik de Perponcher, who was to command the 2nd Netherlands Division at Quatre Bras and Waterloo.

Placed on the Napoleon Series February 2001