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The Assault on Bergen-op-Zoom, 1814: a British Army Defeat in Holland by Napoleon’s French Forces

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The Assault on Bergen-op-Zoom, 1814: a British Army Defeat in Holland by Napoleon’s French Forces
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Author(s): John Murray Graham, Alex M. Delavoye, Percy Groves, J. W. Dunbar Moodie & Sir John T. Jones
Date Published: 2018/10
Page Count: 136
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-781-8
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-780-1

The British Army’s neglected disaster of the Napoleonic wars


For many students of the Napoleonic Age the war in the Iberian Peninsula, which came to an end with the defeat and abdication of the emperor in 1814, was followed by Wellington’s final victory over Napoleon in his attempt to restore his power at Waterloo in 1815. However, this was not a time of seamless victories for the British Army. The British general, Sir Thomas Graham had proved himself to be a courageous and able commander during the Peninsular War, notably in 1811 at the Battle of Barrosa in southern Spain where, outnumbered by the French force and abandoned by his Spanish allies, he nevertheless achieved a decisive victory. Though by 1814 he believed himself done with soldiering, Graham was reluctantly once again commanding British troops in the Low Countries where, among other duties, it fell to him to take by storm the French occupied, walled city of Bergen-op-Zoom. Although Graham’s battle plan has been acknowledged as fundamentally sound, the outcome of the assault on Bergen-op-Zoom was a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the French garrison. Perhaps predictably, little historical attention has been given to this debacle, though its details are fascinating. This special Leonaur volume has been created by drawing together the detailed eye-witness accounts of a participating soldier and of Sir Thomas Graham, together with the writings of highly regarded historical researchers, including officers of the Intelligence service and the acknowledged authority on siege-craft of the period. Included are essential maps and illustrations not all of which accompany the texts when first published.

Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

Bergen-op-Zoom is situated on the right bank of the Scheldt, and takes its name from the little river Zoom, which, after supplying the defences with water, discharges itself into the Scheldt. The old channel of the Zoom, into which the tide flows towards the centre of the town, forms the harbour, which is nearly dry at low-water. The mouth of the harbour was the point fixed upon for the attack of the right column, under Major-General Skerret, and Brig.-Gen. Gore. This column consisted of 1100 men of the 1st regiment, or Royal Scots, the 37th, 44th, and 91st, (as far as I can recollect). Lieut.-Col. Henry, with 650 men of the 21st, or Royal Scot’s Fusiliers, was sent on a false attack near the Steenbergen-gate, to the left of the harbour, (I suppose the reader to be standing at the entrance of the harbour facing the town). Another column, consisting of 1200 men of the 33d, 55th, and 69th regiments, under Lieut.-Col. Morrice, were to attack the place near the Bredagate, and endeavour to enter by escalade.
A third column, under Col. Lord Proby, consisting of 1000 men of the 1st and Coldstream Guards, was to make nearly a complete circuit of the place, and enter the enemy’s works by crossing the ice, some distance to the right of the entrance of the harbour and the Waterport-gate. This slight account of the plan of attack I have borrowed in some degree from Col. Jones’ Narrative, (included in this edition), who must have procured his information on these points from the best sources. However, as I only pretend to speak with certainty of what fell under my own immediate observation, I shall return to the right column, with which I served on this occasion.
When we had proceeded some way, we fell in with a picket, commanded by Capt. Darrah, of the 21st. Fusiliers, who was mustering his men to proceed to the attack. Thinking that our regiment (the 21st), must pass his post on their way to the false attack, he told me to remain with him until they came up. I, in consequence, waited some time, but hearing nothing of the regiment, and losing patience, I gave him the slip in the dark, and ran on until I regained my place with the grenadier company of the Royals. On approaching the place of attack, we crossed the Tholen-dike, and immediately entered the bed of the Zoom, through which we had to push our way before we entered the wet ditch. It is not easy to convey an idea of the toil we experienced in getting through the deep mud of the river; we immediately sank nearly to our middles, and when, with great difficulty, we succeeded in freeing one leg from the mire, we sank nearly to the shoulder on the other side before we could get one pace forward.
As might be expected, we got into some confusion in labouring through this horrible slough, which was like bird-lime about our legs; regiments got intermixed in the darkness, while some stuck fast, and some unlucky wretches got trodden down and smothered in the mud. Notwithstanding this obstruction, a considerable portion of the column had got through, when those behind us, discouraged by this unexpected difficulty, raised a shout to encourage themselves. Gen. Skerret, who was at the head of the column, was furious with rage, but the mischief was already done. The sluices were opened, and a torrent of water poured down on us through the channel of the river, by which the progress of those behind was effectually stopped for some time.
Immediately after the sluices were opened, a brilliant firework was displayed on the ramparts, which showed every object as clearly as daylight. Several cannon and some musketry opened on us, but did us little harm, as they seemed to be discharged at random. At the moment the water came down, I had just cleared the deepest part of the channel, and making a great effort, I gained a flat piece of ice which was sticking edgeways in the mud; to this I clung till the strength of the torrent had passed, after which I soon gained the firm land, and pushed on with the others to the ditch. The point at which we entered was a bastion to the right of the harbour, from one of the angles of which a row of high palisades was carried through the ditch. To enable us to pass the water, some scaling-ladders had been sunk to support us in proceeding along the palisade, over which we had first to climb with each other’s assistance, our soldiers performing the office of ladders to those who preceded them.
So great were the obstacles we met with, that had not the attention of the enemy fortunately (or rather most judiciously), been distracted by the false attack under Col. Henry, it appeared quite impossible for us to have affected an entrance at this point. While we were proceeding forward in this manner, Col. Muller of the Royals, (now of the Ceylon regiment), was clambering along the tops of the palisade, calling to those who had got the start of him, to endeavour to open the Waterport-gate, and let down the drawbridge to our right; but no one in the hurry of the moment seemed to hear him. On getting near enough, I told him I should effect it if it was possible.
We met with but trifling resistance on gaining the rampart; the enemy being panic struck, fled to the streets and houses in the town, from which they kept up a pretty sharp fire on us for some time. I got about twenty soldiers of different regiments to follow me to the Waterport-gate, which we found closed. It was constructed of thin paling, with an iron bar across it about three inches in breadth. Being without tools of any kind, we made several ineffectual attempts to open it. At last, retiring a few paces, we made a rush at it in a body, when the iron bar snapped in the middle like a bit of glass. Some of my people got killed and wounded during this part of the work, but when we got to the drawbridge, we were a little more sheltered from the firing.
The bridge was up and secured by a lock in the right-hand post of the two which supported it. I was simple enough to attempt to pick the lock with a soldier’s bayonet, but after breaking two or three, we at last had an axe brought us from the bastion where the troops were entering. With the assistance of this instrument we soon succeeded in cutting the lock out of the post, and taking hold of the chain, I had the satisfaction to pull down the drawbridge with my own hands.
While I was engaged in this business, Col. Muller was forming the Royals on the rampart where we entered; but a party of about 150 men of different regiments, under General Skerret, who must have entered to the left of the harbour, were clearing the ramparts towards the Steinbergen-gate, where the false attack had been made under Col. Henry; and a party, also, under Col. Carleton, of the 44th regiment, was proceeding in the opposite direction along the ramparts to the right, without meeting with much resistance. Hearing the firing on the opposite side of the town from Gen. Skerret’s party, and supposing that they had marched through the town, I ran on through the streets to overtake them, accompanied by only one or two soldiers, for the rest had left me and returned to the bastion after we had opened the gate.
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