A bold and ambitious enterprise. The British Army in the Low Countries, 1813-1814, Andrew Bamford

Reviewer: Jelmer Rotteveel

A bold and ambitious enterprise. The British army in the Low Countries 1813-1814, Andrew Bamford

Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)
(London, 2013)

ISBN: 978 1 84832 685 9

320 pagina’s

£25, -/€ 36, 99

The British army in the Low Countries

Although not very well known, at least some among the general public may have heard of the Anglo-Russian landing on the beaches of the Batavian Republic, near Bergen and Den Helder, in 1799. The same cannot, in all probability, be said of the British involvement in the liberation of the Netherlands in 1813-1814. Historian Andrew Bamford has sought to remedy this by providing us with a clear and lively account of what transpired in and around Merxem (now a suburb of Antwerp), Bergen-op-Zoom and Antwerp itself in those chaotic –and not to mention very cold– first months of the nascent United Kingdom of the Netherlands. The lack of interest for this subject exhibited so far, especially in Great-Britain, is surprising. The eminent historian of the British Army, Sir John Fortescue purportedly said that without knowledge of this ‘minor expedition’, the much larger and more famous Waterloo campaign can hardly be understood. With his analysis Bamford aims, in his own words, ‘not to supplant, but to add to the amount of excellent general histories of the military and diplomatic aspects of the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon presently available.’ (p. 4) Although A Bold and Ambitious Enterprise is based mainly on the aforementioned Fortescue’s (20 volume) A History of the British Army and predominantly British eye-witness accounts, he has not forgotten to pay attention to the actions and motives of Britain’s Allies. For the Dutch perspective he leans heavily on the account of Dutch engineer officer Jan van Gorcum, whom, along with several of his countrymen, proved instrumental in supporting the British with supplies, intelligence and military assistance. Although the latter would prove rather insufficient due to the efforts of the just-returned William Frederick, Prince of Orange, who was more concerned with re-establishing and conserving his new Netherlands army. Bamford also bases much of his account on the work of G.J. Reniers Great Britain and the Establishment of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (The Hague 1930), thus, while writing mostly from the British perspective, the wider context and the other peoples involved are not at all forgotten. This is especially true on the level of higher-politics and army command, that decisively shaped the British ideas for providing ‘redcoats on the continent’ and their eventual deployment.
Apart from Sir Thomas Graham, the Prussian general Von Bülow and the French (marshal-turned-)crown prince Jean Baptiste Bernadotte (then Karl Johan of Sweden) are discussed repeatedly. The focus of A Bold and Ambitious Enterprise, however, lies with the ‘battles’ (or in the case of Merxem ‘skirmishes’) around the abovementioned localities. Almost a third of the book is devoted to the abortive attempt to capture Bergen-op-Zoom. Much of the rest is on the two-time capture of the village of Merxem. Bamford’s account of the storming of Bergen-op-Zoom’s defenses and the smaller actions fought around Merxem is clear and concise, but his chapter titles (such as: ‘First Blasts of Patriotism’ and ‘Out-Generalled and Gracefully Beaten’) could have used some toning down. He nevertheless provides us with a convincing and well-written impression of the harsh conditions in which Sir Thomas Grahams’ small expeditionary force struggled to serve Britains’ political and military interests. Far from providing a fair amount of leverage his rather diminutive band of redcoats seemed at times more like a ship lost at sea. This was due mainly to Britain’s allies, the abovementioned Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte in particular, who had a decidedly different agenda from his British, Austrian, Prussian and Dutch allies. Von Bülow provided some counterweight in this respect, in that he proved to be more helpful than his Swedish counterpart (and, at least at the start of the campaign in the Low Countries, nominal superior). But Prussia too, showed that she had her own interests firmly in mind. Bamford has paid due attention to these and other aspects of European power play in those confusing months of 1813-1814. This way he has made A Bold and Ambitious Enterprise far more valuable than if it would have entailed a solely operational account of the fighting. Because of this, Bamford’s account is quite on par with one that appeared in the Netherlands last year. While mainly concerned with the fighting in and around Arnhem in November 1813, the work Arnhem 1813. Bezetting en bestorming (Nijmegen 2013), written by a number of Dutch historians and edited by Onno Boonstra is made more valuable by the amount of attention paid to the wider European context in which the drama around Arnhem unfolded. Both works show that there is much to gain in two respects. First that there are, in spite of the already substantial amount of literature on the Napoleonic Wars, still plenty of interesting (local) stories to tell. Secondly, that there is still much work to do. The amount of literature on the military side of the regaining of Dutch independence and the establishment of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands is still rather small. Bamford, has, fortunately, provided us with his own valuable addition. Highly recommended!

Jelmer Rotteveel