Capture of the Dutch fleet at Den Helder
The Capture of the Dutch fleet at Den Helder on the night of 23 January 1795 presents a rare occurrence of a "naval" battle between warships and cavalry, in which a French Revolutionary Hussar regiment captured a Dutch Republican fleet frozen at anchor between the 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) stretch of sea that separates the mainland port of Den Helder and the island of Texel. After a charge across the frozen Zuiderzee, the French cavalry captured 14 Dutch ships and 850 guns. A capture of ships by horsemen is an extremely rare feat in military history.
The French units were the 8th Hussar Regiment and the 15th Line Infantry Regiment of the French Revolutionary Army. Jean-Charles Pichegru was the leader of the French army that invaded the Dutch Republic. The Dutch fleet was commanded by captain Hermanus Reintjes. The actual capture was accomplished by Louis Joseph Lahure. The action happened during the War of the First Coalition, part of the French Revolutionary Wars.
Den Helder is at the tip of the North Holland peninsula, south of the island of Texel, by an inlet to what was then the shallow Zuiderzee bay (Southern Sea). The Zuiderzee has been closed off and partly drained in the 20th century, and what is left of it now forms the freshwater IJsselmeer.
In the fall of 1794, during the War of the First Coalition of the French Revolutionary Wars, general Jean-Charles Pichegru commanded the French Army forces during the conquest of the Netherlands. The French entered Amsterdam on the 19 January 1795 to stay there over winter. Well informed, the general found out that a Dutch fleet was anchored at Den Helder, approximately eighty kilometers north from Amsterdam.
The winter of 1794–1795 was exceptionally cold, causing the Zuiderzee to freeze. Pichegru ordered General of Brigade Jan Willem de Winter to lead a squadron of the 8th Hussar. De Winter had been serving with the French since 1787, and would later command the Dutch fleet in the Battle of Camperdown.
General de Winter arrived at Den Helder with his troops during the night of the 23 January 1795. The Dutch fleet was there as expected, trapped by ice. Each hussar carried an infantryman of the 15th Line Infantry Regiment on his horse. After a careful approach to avoid awakening the Dutch sailors (the hussars had covered the horses' hooves with fabric), Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Joseph Lahure launched the assault. The ice did not break, and the hussars and infantrymen were able to board the Dutch ships. The French captured the Dutch admiral and the vessels' crews; the French suffered no casualties.
With the capture of 14 warships, 850 guns, and several merchant ships, the French conquest of the Netherlands was brought to an end. It is one of the few times in recorded military history wherein cavalry captured a fleet; José Antonio Páez's cavalry attack across the Apure River in 1818 is another example.
The ships of the line, frigates, and corvettes received French crews in February 1795. France returned all her prizes to the Batavian Republic in May 1795 under the Treaty of The Hague; one of its other provisions was an indemnity of ƒ100 million.
In the Vlieter Incident on 30 August 1799, a squadron of the navy of the Batavian Republic under the command of Rear-Admiral Samuel Story surrendered to the British Royal Navy. The incident occurred during the Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland. It took place in a tidal trench in the channel between Texel and the mainland that was known as De Vlieter, near Wieringen. Two of the vessels the British seized were Admiral de Ruyter and Gelderland.
The traditional narrative of French cavalry storming and capturing the ships at Den Helder is primarily based on French sources. Dutch historian Johannes Cornelis de Jonge states that the Dutch fleet had already received orders on 21 January to offer no resistance, based on documentary sources. Instead, a couple French hussars merely crossed the ice to negotiate a handover by the Dutch officers.
Captain Hermanus Reintjes, the Dutch commanding officer, stayed aboard the Admiraal Piet Heyn to await the arrival of general De Winter, who was scheduled to arrive in three days. De Winter subsequently had the officers and crews of the ships pledge an oath that they would peacefully surrender — similar to the oath administered at the surrender of the fleet at Hellevoetsluis several days earlier. De Jonge states that the misconception stems from an 1819 publication by Swiss general Antoine-Henri Jomini, whose account was subsequently cited by French historians.
- De Jonge quoting correspondence with Lahure, notes that the French troops moved from Haarlem to Den Helder overland, which was more convenient, as there is no need to make a long detour across the Zuiderzee, whether there was ice on it or not; de Jonge, p. 187, note 1. Besides, on the basis of the testimony of eye witnesses he says that the ice on the Zuiderzee would not have been strong enough to carry a squadron of cavalry; de Jonge, p. 184.
- De Jonge states that general de Winter only three days later arrived in Den Helder; p. 191.
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