The Crossroads: Netherlands Forces at Les Quatre Bras 15 - 16 June 1815
Part I: The Kingdom of the Netherlands
By Hans BoersmaThe Netherlands as a Buffer State: the Hereditary Prince of Orange-Nassau
The concept of uniting the old northern and southern Netherlands  had been under serious consideration in British political circles for some years  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.
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  . 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.
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.
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 Bülow 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 . 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.
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 Auerstädt 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
© Copyright 1995-2012, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.