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The 1799 Helder Expedition


(British forces landing at the Helder, 27 August 1799, by Dirk Lengendyck, from here)

The Helder Expedition was one of the campaigns that formed a part of the Second Coalition of allies against France. Its purpose was to open a second front in Holland to distract the French, who when the campaign was planned doing badly in the Rhineland and northern Italy fighting against Austrian and Russian troops.

Forty-five thousand British and Russian troops landed on the North Holland peninsula between the end of August and the middle of September 1799. Their objective was to march on Amsterdam, with the aim of flushing the French occupying forces out of the country and restoring the regime of the House of Orange.

Strong winds prevented the forces landing at all until the very end of August. The campaign initially went well, with the Dutch navy surrendering without a shot being fired on 30 August, but things quickly went downhill. At the beginning of September the bad weather re-established itself and did not let up for weeks. The allied commander-in-chief, the Duke of York, quickly discovered that he had not been adequately supplied for a lengthy campaign and that the Dutch inhabitants were either indifferent or hostile to the invading forces. The allied forces entrenched themselves behind the Zijpe Canal and waited for the weather to improve.


(Map of the main locations involved in the Helder campaign, from here)

From the very first the British and Russian forces did not get along well. The two forces did not mix: the British considered the Russians to be little more than savages, “repulsive and ferocious” (Edward Walsh, A narrative of the expedition to Holland 1800, p 47). Matters did not improve when, on 19 September, the Duke of York ordered the troops to attack the French and Dutch lines and force them to retreat further south. Possibly due to poor communication the Russians began marching earlier than planned and soon over-extended their line. The Russian commander in chief, Hermann, and his deputy were captured in the ensuing fight in the town of Bergen. The British troops were forced to abandon their original objective in order to rescue the Russian forces from disaster.

It was not an auspicious beginning, and from that moment on the Russian command— now headed by General Ivan Essen— harboured a deep distrust of their British allies. Two weeks passed before the weather improved sufficiently for another attempt, and on 2 October the allies attempted to capture the towns of Egmont op Zee, Bergen and Alkmaar from the French.


(Battle of Egmont, 2 October 1799)

On this occasion they were more successful, and by the end of a lengthy day of fighting on the beaches and sand dunes the French fell back. The allies suffered heavy casualties, however, in part due to the nature of the terrain.


(17th century depiction of Egmont op Zee, showing the huge sand dunes)

The towns were surrounded by a network of enormous sand dunes, some as high as 80 or 100 feet, and criss-crossed with deep narrow valleys. This made it impossible to form up large units of men, and the British in particular found it heavy going. A private soldier from the 92nd regiment of Highlanders wrote afterwards:

“In one instance, one of our parties having climbed to the top of a sand ridge, found that a party of the enemy was just beneath, and instantly rushed down the ridge upon them; but the side of the ridge was so steep and soft, that the effort to keep themselves from falling prevented them from making regular use of their arms. They were involuntarily precipitated amongst the enemy, and the bottom of the ridge was so narrow, and the footing on all sides so soft, that neither party were [sic] able, for want of room, to make use of the bayonet; but they struck at each other with the butts of their firelocks, and some individuals were fighting with their fists.” (Narrative of a private soldier in His Majesty’s 92nd regiment of foot… 1820, p 75)


(Photograph of the sand dunes around Schoorl, North Holland)

Following the battle of the 2nd October the allied forces were able to move out from behind the Zijpe and entrench themselves further south around Alkmaar. They were still several miles away from Amsterdam, however. A further attempt to push the lines further forward was made on 6 October in an assault on Beverwijk.

Once again, however, poor communication between the brigades led to near disaster. The weather was so poor that the troops could barely see each other, let alone the enemy. The Duke of York, who remained at Alkmaar, had no idea what was going on and sent one of his aides up a church spire with a telescope to check on his troops’ progress.

Reports of the battle are sketchy, but what seems to have happened was that the Russians became over-extended for a second time. They pushed on to Castricum and more British divisions had to be hastily sent out to reinforce them and extend their flank. The French commander, General Brune, charged at the head of his cavalry in person, but were turned back by a British cavalry charge through the sandhills which pretty much saved the day.

By evening the French and Dutch retreated but the allied forces were exhausted and had, once again, suffered heavy casualties. The rain had mired down the roads and cut off their precarious supply lines. They had no choice but to retreat, in some disorder— some British units confused the dykes that criss-crossed the country with the wet roads and fell in. The army retreated back to the Zijpe and the French and Dutch regained their lost territory.

It was status quo, and the weather continued dreadful. The supplies were running low, the men were beginning to fall victim to marsh fever, and there was no immediate prospect of success in a march on Amsterdam. More seriously, news came in of General Suvorov’s defeat in Switzerland at the hands of Massena: the allied force, originally meant to be a distraction for the French, was now in danger of becoming the whole French army’s main focus.

The commanders decided to cut their losses and make terms. These were signed on 18 October and permitted the allied forces to evacuate unmolested, provided 8000 French prisoners of war were released from Britain.

The end result of the campaign was several thousand casualties, mostly Russian, and extreme bad feeling between Britain and her ally. Shortly afterwards Russia dropped out of the coalition, although the Russian troops remained in the Channel Islands until the spring thaw allowed them to return home.


2 thoughts on “The 1799 Helder Expedition

  1. Pingback: The Helder Campaign, 1799: research visit to Noord-Holland | Always Wanted to be a Reiter

  2. Pingback: The Helder Campaign, 1799: research visit to Noord-Holland, Part 2 | Always Wanted to be a Reiter

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