Napoleonic War

The Campaign in Flanders (1793 - 1795)

The decision to send a detachment of Foot Guards to Holland was made on 16 February 1793, in response to a French attack from the direction of Antwerp. The Duke of York, George III’s second son, was appointed to command the expeditionary force and a total of just over 6,500 men embarked at Greenwich nine days later. By then the Dutch had been forced back beyond Breda and were desperate for help. York could do little, for although his British troops landed at Helvoetsluys in reasonable order, his instructions were vague and a promised reinforcement of 13,000 Hanoverian and 8,000 Hessian troops had not yet materialised. Moreover the Allied command chan was chaotic and it was not until 1 march, when an Austrian force suddenly attacked the French from across the River Meuse, that a coalition army began to emerge under the overall command of Prince Josias of Coburg-Saalfeld. The French pulled back abandoning Antwerp and Brussels.

This opened up the possibility of an Allied assault into France itself, but the opportunity was wasted. Instead of initiating a swift attack, Coburg insisted on conducting a ponderous advance, laying siege to border fortresses according to the traditions of 18th century warfare. York reinforced by a brigade comprising the 14th, 37th and 53rd Foot, was directed to concentrate his army in support of Coburg, preparatory to an attack on Valenciennes. This begun in may and by all accounts the British contingent did well capturing Famars Camp and contributing in no small measure to the seizure of Valenciennes on 28 July. But York was under orders from London to proceed to Dunkirk, regarded as an important objective in term of maintaining free passage through the Straits of Dover.

The British, with Austrian and Hanoverian units in support, reached Dunkirk on 24 August pushing the French back behind inadequate defences. Unfortunately, York lacked the heavy artillery required to conduct a siege and after an Austrian setback at Hondschoote on 8 September he had to retreat. A month later, the main Austrian army was defeated at Wattignies, forcing York back through Ypres and Nieuport to winter quarters in Ostend.

The 1793 campaign was therefore less than successful, for although individual British units did well, a number of problems had emerged, indicating the unsuitability of the Army for a sustained war. York’s ability to co-operate with his allies was undermined by the insistence that he split away from the main force to lay siege to Dunkirk, implying a lack of strategic wisdom in London. While the failure to provide him with siege artillery suggested poor pre-planning. In addition, York had problems with his Hanoverian troops (as early as 26 April two of the regiments mutinied over their conditions of service) and the British reinforcements he received were often of poor quality, requiring extra training before being committed to battle. Indeed, as the need to raise an expeditionary force for the West Indies arose in late 1793, York even found that the troops he had were being withdrawn; by October he had fewer than 4,000 British soldiers under his command.

By April 1794, however reinforcements had been received. The Allied army under the command of the Emperor of Austria, opened the new campaigning season by moving against Landrecies. British troops performed well at Vaux (17 April), Beaumont (266 April) and Willems (10 May), but an Austrian defeat at Tourcoing (17-18 May) forced York to pull back, spreading his army thinly to defend the area around Tournai. A month later, the Austrians suffered another defeat at Fleurus and the coalition began to collapse. French attacks along the Dutch coast threatened to cut York off from his supply bases in England, his army began a retreat that was to prove impossible to reverse. As the winter weather closed in, British morale showed signs of cracking, manifested in cases of indiscipline and looting and the subsequent withdrawal into Germany saw the virtual destruction of York’s command. Fewer than 6,000 British soldiers were eventually evacuated from Breman in March 1795, leaving the French in possession of the whole of the Netherlands. It was not an auspicious start to the war.