Helder Campaign 1799

The Helder Campaign was an Anglo-Russian invasion of the North Holland peninsula, against the Franco-Batavian army during 1799.

The British Army as a whole had to gain experience and learn how to win its battles. It proved to be a painful process, in which many of the problems noted between 1793 and 1797 were repeated. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Helder campaign of August-October 1799 when, despite early success.

British and Russian troops were under the overall command of Prince Frederick, the Duke of York. They were forced to conduct a humiliating withdrawal back to England. It was a familiar pattern of events.

english troops at calantsoog, north holland 1799
Landing of English troops at Calantsoog, North Holland on 27th August 1799 – painting by Dirk Langendyk

The Helder, situated on the tip of a peninsula which divided the Zuyder Zee from the North Sea in Holland, was chosen as an objective partly because of its importance as a naval base and partly because it was thought that the Dutch, under French occupation since 1794, were ready to rise revolt.

The Duke of York first mooted the idea of an expedition to the King in November 1798. It was not until the following January that it was taken seriously by the British Prime Minister William Pitt.

They managed to gather a force of nearly 30,000 British soldiers and persuaded the Russian Tsar to contribute a further 18,000. All of whom would be carried to the Helder by the Royal Navy. The aim was to seize the area as a base for future operations in conjunction with Dutch rebels. It would threaten the French hold on the whole of the Netherlands.

It did not go according to plan. Co-operation between the army and navy was poor, after the landings on 27th August 1799. The fleet sailed past the Helder to receive the surrender of Dutch warships. They then took little active part in the campaign, and as in Flanders six years earlier, inter-allied command links were weak.

The Duke of York arrived on 7th September 1799 (the same day on which the Russian force came ashore). He found that the commander of the British contingent, Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby (last seen in the West Indies), had made no attempt to advance beyond the shoreline or to conduct a reconnaissance of enemy positions. Instead his troops were strung out along the so-called Zype Line, just to the South of their landing site. They were facing a Franco-Dutch army, that was rapidly increasing in size. There was no sign of and Dutch revolt.

But the situation did offer room for optimism. The enemy right flank, to the South-East of the Zype Line at Hoorne, was not well defended. The Duke York therefore ordered a thrust under Lieutenant-General Abercromby in that direction. The rest of the Anglo-Russian force conducted a frontal assault on Bergen in the centre. The attack was scheduled to begin at daybreak on 19th September 1799, but it soon went wrong.

The Russians advanced two hours too early, giving the game away while Lieutenant-General Abercromby, although in possession of Hoorne, did nothing to turn the enemy flank. After only a few hours of fighting. The Duke of York ordered his troops to return to the Zype line.

Another Attack on 2nd October 1799, this time towards Egmont on the coast. It fared better forcing the enemy back to a line further South, but again the advantage was not exploited. The Duke of York ordered an advance on Kastrikum four day later.

The enemy had recovered and was in the process of mounting its own counter attack. The resulting battle was confused and appeared to be indecisive, particularly as Russians were proving less than effective.

anglo-russian troops departing den helder
Anglo-Russian troops departing Den Helder, by J.A. Langendijk

The Duke of York seemed to lose his nerve, convinced by his own half-hearted generals that the Helder Campaign could not be sustained.

On 7th October 1799 he ordered his army to pull back yet again to the Zype Line. Three weeks later hostilities ceased and under the terms of a local agreement, the Allies reboarded their transports. The Helder Campaign had achieved nothing of value.