The decision to send a detachment of Foot Guards to Holland was made on 16th February 1793. This was 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 of the Flanders Campaign.
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.
Duke of 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 chain was chaotic and it was not until 1st March 1793, when an Austrian force suddenly attacked the French. This was 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. He laid siege to border fortresses according to the traditions of 18th century warfare.
The Duke of York, was reinforced by a brigade comprising the 14th, 37th and 53rd Foot. He 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 1793.
The Duke of York was under orders from London to proceed to Dunkirk. It was 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 24th August 1793. They pushed the French back behind inadequate defences. Unfortunately, the Duke of York lacked the heavy artillery required to conduct a siege. After an Austrian setback at Hondschoote, on 8th September 1793 he had to retreat. A month later, the main Austrian army was defeated at Wattignies. It forced the Duke of York back through Ypres and Nieuport to winter quarters in Ostend.
The 1793 Flanders Campaign was therefore less than successful. Although individual British units did well, but a number of problems had emerged. The indicated the unsuitability of the Army for a sustained war. The Duke of 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, The Duke of York had problems with his Hanoverian troops (as early as 26th April 1793, two of the regiments mutinied over their conditions of service). The British reinforcements he received were often of poor quality, requiring extra training before being committed to battle.
The need to raise an expeditionary force for the West Indies arose in late 1793. The Duke of York even found that the troops he had were being withdrawn. By October 1793, he had fewer than 4,000 British soldiers under his command.
By April 1794, reinforcements had been received. The Allied army under the command of the Emperor of Austria, opened the new campaigning season by moving against Landrecies.
The British troops performed well at Vaux (17th April), Beaumont (26th April 1794) and Willems (10th May 1794). An Austrian defeat at Tourcoing (17th-18th May 1794) forced the Duke of York to pull back. Forcing his to spread 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 The Duke of 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, the British morale showed signs of cracking. It manifested in cases of indiscipline and looting and the subsequent withdrawal into Germany saw the virtual destruction of the Duke of York’s command.
March 1795, fewer than 6,000 British soldiers were eventually evacuated from Breman. The French were left in possession of the whole of the Netherlands. It was not an auspicious start to the war.