In the autumn of 1794, the resurgent French Republic was on the march. The royal family had been executed, various attacks on France had been repulsed, and it was time for the revolution to be exported to her neighbours, by force if necessary. After several years of bitter fighting against a coalition of European powers in the low countries, French armies had triumphed. The territory known as the Southern Netherlands (modern day Belgium), then under the rule of Hapsburg Austria had been annexed by France, and her armies had pushed their way deep into Holland, reaching Amsterdam just in time for the onset of winter.
The 1794/5 winter was notoriously cold. In London the temperature is said to have reached minus twenty-one, freezing the Thames so thickly that carriages could be driven on it; while in rural Norfolk, English clergyman James Woodforde recorded in his diary that the weather was “…more severe than ever, it froze apples within doors, [and]…last night the Chamber Pots above Stairs.” In the Dutch naval base of Texel, eighty kilometres north of Amsterdam, a squadron of fourteen Dutch warships under the command of Hermanus Reintjes found that the sea around their ships had frozen solid, trapping them in the ice.
News of the Dutch fleet’s predicament reached the French army in Amsterdam, who decided to exploit the situation. Serving with the French army was the appropriately named Dutch revolutionary Jan Willem de Winter, who knew the area well. He was despatched into the snow with a regiment of cavalry, each horse carrying an additional infantry man behind the rider. The force arrived during the night of the twenty-third of January, and immediately attacked. The ice of the frozen Zuiderzee proved to be quite thick enough to take the weight of even a mounted cavalry man. The French approached in silence, having first wrapped the horses’ hooves in cloth to muffle the sound of their approach, so as not to wake the sleeping Dutch. They also attacked the ships from the stern, where their main batteries of guns would not be able to fire. Since the Dutch ships were moored in a line, they could effectively be captured one after another, falling to the attackers like dominoes. The assault was a complete success, and by dawn the whole squadron was in French hands.
It should be pointed out that the Dutch account of the action is a little different from the French. Their sources claim that their sailors were ordered not to resist the attack, since the war with France had effectively been lost already, and it is this that explains the ease with which the ships were captured. French casualties certainly seem to have been very light, and given that Dutch sailors had a reputation as tough fighters, there may well be some truth in this version of events.
What is not in dispute is that a considerable fleet, including five ships of the line, was captured undamaged by the French, and that the Battle of the Texel is one of the few occasions in history when ships were directly attacked by and surrendered to soldiers. As for De Winter, he went on to command many of the ships he had seized. When the French set up a puppet regime in the Netherlands called the Batavian Republic, de Winter served as its main admiral. He would go on to lead the Dutch fleet to defeat against the Royal Navy at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797.
My blog will be taking a Summer break now - back on the 7th of September with a blog on Royal Navy Press Gangs