Napoleonic War


The Helder Campaign (1799)


The 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 under the overall command of the Duke of York were forced to conduct a humiliating withdrawal back to England. It was a familiar pattern of events.

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. York first mooted the idea of an expedition to the King in November 1798, but it was not until the following January that it was taken seriously by Pitt and his adviser. 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, threatening 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, the fleet sailed past the Helder to receive the surrender of Dutch warships but then took little active part in the campaign, and as in Flanders six years earlier, inter-allied command links were weak. When York arrived on 7th September (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, 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. York therefore ordered a thrust under Abercromby in that direction while 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, but it soon went wrong. The Russians advanced two hours too early, giving the game away while Abercromby, although in possession of Hoorne, did nothing to turn the enemy flank. After only a few hours of fighting. York ordered his troops to return to the Zype line.

Another Attack on 2nd October, this time towards Egmont on the coast, fared better forcing the enemy back to a line further South, but again the advantage was not exploited. Indeed when 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. York seemed to lose his nerve, convinced by his own half-hearted generals that the campaign could not be sustained and on 7th October 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 campaign had achieved nothing of value.