Battle of Alkmaar (1799)

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Battle of Alkmaar
Part of Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland
Date2 October 1799
Location
Alkmaar, The Netherlands
Result Anglo-Russian victory
Belligerents
Flag of France.svg France
Flag of the navy of the Batavian Republic.svg  Batavian Republic
Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg  Great Britain
Flag of The Russian Empire 1883.svg  Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France.svg Guillaume Marie Anne Brune
Flag of the navy of the Batavian Republic.svg Herman Willem Daendels
Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany
Flag of The Russian Empire 1883.svg Ivan Essen
Strength
25,000 40,000
Casualties and losses
3,000 2,200
For the 16th century siege, see Siege of Alkmaar.

The Battle of Alkmaar (also sometimes called the Second Battle of Bergen or the Battle of Egmond-aan-Zee [1] ) was fought on 2 October 1799 between forces of the French Republic and her ally, the Batavian Republic under the command of general Guillaume Marie Anne Brune, and an expeditionary force from Great Britain and her ally Russia, commanded by Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany in the vicinity of Alkmaar during the Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland. Though the battle ended in a tactical draw, the Anglo-Russians were in a position at the end of the battle that favored them slightly in a strategic sense. This prompted Brune to order a strategic withdrawal the next day to a line between Monnickendam in the East and Castricum in the West. There the final battle of the campaign would take place on 6 October.

Contents

Background

After the first Battle of Bergen (1799) of 19 September 1799 had left both armies in almost the same positions as they had held before that battle, a resumption of the Anglo-Russian offensive was for a while precluded by very bad weather. Torrential rains made the roads impassable. The defenders profited from this lull in the campaign by completing their inundations in the low-lying eastern part of the North-Holland peninsula. These soon made their defenses in that part of the country impregnable. As a consequence a repeat of the thrusts by Sir Ralph Abercromby toward Hoorn, [2] and general Pulteney toward Oudkarspel along the Langedijk had become pointless. The Langedijk was now a narrow island in a big lake that could easily be defended by the 1st Batavian Division of General Herman Willem Daendels. [3]

The delay had the advantage for the expeditionary force, however, that a final installment of Russian troops in the form of the division of General Emmé reinforced it with 6,000 men. With the British reinforcements that landed about the same time the total complement on the Anglo-Russian side came therewith to 40,000 men, an appreciable numerical superiority over their Franco-Batavian adversaries. [4]

The Duke of York, aware that French reinforcements from Belgium were on the way, therefore decided to make use of this numerical superiority as soon as practicable. His plan was to concentrate his attack entirely on the Franco-Batavian left wing, consisting of the 2nd Batavian division near Koedijk (which was still commanded by General Bonhomme, as General Jean-Baptiste Dumonceau was recuperating from the wound sustained during the Battle of Bergen) and the French division of General Dominique Vandamme between Alkmaar and the sea, around the village of Bergen. The attack was to be made on 30 September, but it turned out that the roads were still very bad: the soldiers sunk to their knees into the mud. The attack was then advanced to 1 October (Emperor Paul I of Russia's birthday), but again had to be postponed, now to 2 October. [5]

The battle

The Anglo-Russian dispositions were as follows:

Map of the battlefield near Bergen Bergen NH 1866.png
Map of the battlefield near Bergen

These dispositions make clear that the main thrust of the attack again was towards the village of Bergen. Other than the first battle of Bergen this time the attack would be concentrated on a much narrower front, between Schoorl and the North Sea. As Abercromby was supposed to advance along the beach to a point beyond the left flank of the French, the plan of attack may be characterized as one of "single envelopment." [7]

The first stages of the battle went according to the British plan. To allow all columns to advance at the same time the start time had to be delayed till low tide (6.30 AM that day) to allow general Abercromby's column to make use of the beach. Soon Coote and Chatham drove the French outposts from the villages of Camp and Groet, and cleared the dunes (which start to widen appreciably at this point). Essen's central column then advanced cautiously. Meanwhile, Burrard and Sedmoratzky drove the French and Batavian troops out of the villages of Schoorl and Schoorldam toward Koedijk. Here the Russians halted and limited themselves to shelling Koedijk and Bergen with their artillery for the remainder of the day. [8]

Meanwhile, the French left wing had fallen back on the village of Bergen. This was a strong position and York realized they had to be removed from it to secure success. He therefore ordered Chatham to bring up his brigade from the plain and support Coote's brigade in a combined attack on the French in the dunes. They managed to push the French back and forced them to give up their position in the heights near Bergen. All now seemed ready for an attack on that village, but Essen seemed to be very reluctant to press that attack and, as the two British brigades lacked the strength to go it alone, the allied attack stalled there. [9]

The French noted the Russian hesitation and at this time launched a fierce counterattack from Bergen in two columns under generals Gouvion and Boudet. These attacks were successfully countered by the British Reserve in cooperation with Coote's brigade. The French were driven from the dunes after a spirited fight (during which the British 27th Foot distinguished itself), but remained in possession of Bergen. Dundas' column remained in fire contact until 11 PM, but did not advance further that day. [10]

While this was going on, Abercromby's column had been steadily, if slowly, advancing along the beach. The incoming tide made the beach narrower all the time and forced the infantry to march through loose sand, while the cavalry on the right flank was forced to wade through the surf. After some time, the French discovered the advance and brought up sharpshooters who started to exact a steady toll, especially among the British officers. Abercromby detached more and more troops to drive them off, but the French also brought up reinforcements that eventually blocked the advance by taking up a strong position on the dunes overlooking the beach. General Moore with the 4th Brigade tried to drive them off with a bayonet attack, but the French line held. The engagement continued for several hours and was fought on both sides with great tenacity. Abercromby had two horses killed under him and Moore was severely wounded. Finally, the British troops managed to penetrate the French defense and occupy the road between Bergen and Egmond aan Zee, cutting off the French extreme left wing at the latter village. [11]

This prompted Brune, still at Bergen, to order Vandamme to take personal command at this danger point, while Daendels was ordered to send Batavian cavalry and infantry from his position on the extreme right wing by way of Alkmaar to reinforce the French on the left wing. Vandamme, on arrival at Egmond aan Zee, noticed that Abercromby's horse artillery had advanced too far along the beach and thought he had a chance to turn the tide in the battle by leading a cavalry charge on those guns. However, he had not reckoned with Lord Paget's dragoons, which managed to ambush him just when he had captured the British guns. Paget routed the French cavalry, who retreated all the way to Egmond aan Zee. Ad darkness now fell, this last action in effect ended the battle. Abercromby, aware that he had advanced beyond the position of Bergen, decided to spend the night at the beach. Both his men and their horses were tortured with thirst, because fresh water was very scarce in the dunes. They slept on their arms that night, being harassed by intermittent French artillery fire. [12]

Brune, though not directly threatened by Abercromby, was aware that the latter had technically turned the French left flank and cut off the communications between Bergen and Egmond aan Zee. He therefore decided to give up his position in Bergen and commence a strategic retreat all the way to the line Wijk aan Zee over Castricum to Uitgeest the next day. Though at first sight the battle had ended with only a slight tactical advantage for the British, the strategic consequences were therefore great. Alkmaar, abandoned by the French and Batavian troops opened its gates to the British and prudently hoisted the orange flag of the former stadtholder [13]

The Anglo-Russian losses in this battle were 2,200 killed and wounded among whom many officers, nine of field rank. The losses on the side of the Franco-Batavian forces are estimated at 3,000 in all. A number of British regiments were given the right to bear the honorary distinction "Egmont op Zee" (as the British render the name of the village) on their colors and guidons. [14]

Aftermath

For a few days the British were riding high, apparently having gained control of the greater part of the North-Holland peninsula, including its major cities. However, large parts of that area, including the rich farmland of the Schermer, Beemster, and Purmer polders had been flooded by the Batavian army. The Anglo-Russians were therefore denied provisions from those areas and still had to be supplied by sea. The advance had also appreciably lengthened the supply lines from their base at Den Helder. The appalling state of the roads, due to the bad weather made supply increasingly difficult. [15] The Duke of York was therefore forced to press his offensive toward Haarlem, the more so as the French received reinforcements from Belgium. At the same time, an increasing number of sick depleted the Anglo-Russian ranks. [15] The Duke therefore started an armed reconnaissance in force on 6 October, which through Russian impetuosity degenerated into the Battle of Castricum. This battle the Anglo-Russians arguably lost and the worsening strategic situation forced the York to make a strategic withdrawal all the way to his original bridgehead at the Zijpe polder. After agreeing to an honorable capitulation in the form of the Convention of Alkmaar the expeditionary forces evacuated the peninsula by 19 November 1799. [16]

Notes

  1. Smith, “The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book”, p. 170, where the battle is called, ‘Egmond-aan-Zee’.
  2. Which city had in any case been retaken by the British fleet in the days after 19 September; Campaign, pp. 37–38
  3. Campaign, p. 39–40
  4. Campaign, p. 39
  5. Campaign, p. 41; Krayenhoff, p. 171
  6. Campaign, pp. 42–44; Krayenhoff, pp. 171– 174
  7. Krayenhoff, p. 175
  8. Krayenhoff, pp. 176–179; Campaign, p. 45
  9. Krayenhoff, pp. 170–180; Krayenhoff, displaying a commendable skepticism toward British claims of Russian cowardice, nevertheless states that he obtained anecdotal testimony from local people after the battle that appears to support the British claims; Krayenhoff, p. 180 fn *
  10. Campaign, pp. 45–48
  11. Campaign, pp. 48–50; Jomini, pp. 208–209
  12. Campaign, pp.50–51; Krayenhoff, pp. 183–184
  13. Campaign, pp. 51–53
  14. Campaign, p. 54 and fn. *
  15. 1 2 Campaign, p. 57
  16. Campaign, pp. 67–70

Sources

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