January 23, 1795 Cavalry 1, Navy 0

The history of human conflict is hardly a subject for mirth, yet there are times when the irony has risen to the level of the sublime

War and warfare has never been the source of a great deal of humor.  The history of human conflict is hardly a subject for mirth, yet there are times when the irony has risen from the ridiculous to the sublime.

In 585BC, the battle between the Medes and the Lydians was stopped in its tracks, on account of a solar eclipse.  In the 3rd Mithradatic War of 76-63BC, a meteor was enough to do the trick.

In the middle ages, a handful of French soldiers once saw fit to mouth off to an Italian woman on her way home from church, and France ended up losing Sicily, to Spain.

At least one WWI battle was called, on account of an amphibious landing force being attacked, by bees.

120,000 Chinese troops poured into North Korea between November 27 and December 13 1950, overwhelming 20,000 American and United Nations forces at the Chosin Reservoir.  Desperately low on ammunition, one Marine Corps mortar division called in re-supply, by parachute.  The battle of the “Frozen Chosin” might have ended differently, had some supply clerk understood that the code-name for mortar shells was “Tootsie Rolls”, and not sent candy into the combat zone.  At least those guys had something to eat, as they broke through their encirclement and retreated south.

zuiderzeeIn all the annals of warfare, there may be nothing more ironic, than the time a naval force was defeated by men mounted on horseback.

In early 1793, Austria, Prussia, Spain, Great Britain and the Dutch Republic formed the first of seven coalitions, that would oppose the French Republic over the next 23 years.  France declared war on its neighbor to the north.  By the end of the following year, many of Holland’s provinces as well as those of the Austrian Netherlands, had been overrun.

The winter of 1794-95 was particularly severe.  A number of Dutch ships sought shelter near the North Sea village of den Helder, becoming icebound near the mouth of a shallow bay called the Zuiderzee.capture

General Johan Willem de Winter, a former Dutch naval officer, had been in service to the French since 1787.  On the night of January 23, de Winter arrived at the head of a regiment of French light cavalry.  The following morning, a number of these “hussars” rode out over the ice, to the Dutch ship-of-the-line “Admiraal Piet Heyn”, demanding its surrender.   The surgeon aboard another ship, the “Snelheid”, later wrote “On Saturday morning, my servant informed me that a French hussar stood near our ship. I looked out my porthole, and indeed, there stood an hussar.”

This was a significant part of the Dutch fleet, 15 ships, 11 of which were manned and seaworthy, and it was now in the hands of French horsemen.

capture-of-the-dutch-fleet-frozen-in-at-den-helder-by-the-french-hussarsAt least one source will tell you that this event never occurred, or at least it’s an embellished version, as retold by the hussars themselves.   I guess you can take your pick.  A number of 19th century authors have portrayed the episode as unvarnished history, as have a number of paintings and sketches.

In February 1846, French Lieutenant-General Baron Lahure published a letter in the newspaper “Echo de la Frontière”, describing the event.  “I departed immediately with a company of tirailleurs in wagons and a squadron of light cavalry; before dawn I had taken position in the dunes. When the ships saw us, they prepared their defences. I sent some tirailleurs ahead, and followed with the rest of my forces. The fleet was taken. The sailors received us ‘de bonne grace’ on board… This is the true story of the capture of the Dutch fleet, devised and executed by a 23 year old Chef de Bataillion”.

Archibald Gordon Macdonell included the episode in his 1934 “Napoleon and his Marshals”.  It’s one of those stories that I Want to be true, even if it isn’t.  “(when) the ragged men” Macdonell  wrote, “thundered on their horses across the ice to capture with naked swords the battlefleet of Holland”.  The only time in recorded history, when a naval fleet was captured, by a cavalry charge.

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Author: capecodcurmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, father and grandfather, a history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. Four years ago, I began writing a daily "Today in History" story, as sort of a self-guided history course.  At some point I committed to myself to write 365.  The leap year changed that to 366. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but Lord knows I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories, in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them as much as I have in writing them. Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share. Rick Long

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