Jean Baptiste van Merlen

Last updated
Jean Baptiste van Merlen

Baron de l'Empire
Van Merlen.jpg
Born15 April 1773 (1773-04-15)
Antwerp, Belgium
Died18 June 1815 (1815-06-19) (aged 42)
Waterloo, Belgium
AllegianceFlag of the Brabantine Revolution.svg United Belgian States
Flag of France.svg French Republic
Flag of the navy of the Batavian Republic.svg Batavian Republic
Flag of the Netherlands.svg Kingdom of Holland
Flag of France.svg French Empire
Flag of the Netherlands.svg United Kingdom of the Netherlands
Years of service1788–1815
Battles/wars French Revolutionary Wars
Napoleonic Wars
AwardsKnight of the Order of the Union
Knight of the Order of the Reunion
Officer of the Legion of Honour [1]

Major General Jean Baptiste Baron van Merlen (11 May 1772–18 June 1815) (also spelt Joannes Baptista Baron van Merlen) was a Dutch-Belgian army officer who, following the varied fortunes of his homeland, fought on both sides during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Fighting in a series of campaigns in the Netherlands, Germany and Spain, he played an important part in the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo, where he was killed in action.


Early life and French Service

Merlen was born in Antwerp on 11 May 1772, fifth of the thirteen children of merchant Bernardus Josephus Antonius van Merlen and his wife Isabelle Caroline Ligeois. [2] At age fifteen, he travelled to Brussels and became volunteer in the service of the state of Brabant on 17 March 1788. [3] During the Brabant Revolution a year later, he fought at Turnhout and the capture of Diest, and was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant on 21 March 1790. [2]

When Austria succeeded in suppressing the rebellion, Van Merlen was one of those who fled to France, settling in Douai in December 1790. On 15 July 1792, he was appointed 2nd Lieutenant in the Belgian Legion, part of the Army of the North under Charles François Dumouriez. [2] He fought at Jemappes and Neerwinden, [3] becoming a 1st Lieutenant on 13 March 1793 and Captain on 11 August the same year. At the battle of Lincelles, two of his ribs were crushed by a rifle bullet. The following year, he became adjutant to Jean-Baptiste Dumonceau, and took part in the battle of Tourcoing. [2]

Dutch service

On the formation of the Batavian Republic in 1795, Van Merlen transferred to the army of the new nation. He also moved from the infantry to the cavalry, though this necessitated a drop in rank, becoming a 1st Lieutenant in the Batavian Hussars on 10 July 1795. On 4 April 1798 he was promoted to Ritmeester , a rank equivalent to captain. The following year, his regiment helped defeat the Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland, with Van Merlen fighting at Bergen, Alkmaar and Castricum. In 1800 he was campaigning along the Main, distinguishing himself at the battle of Oberschwach and the siege of Würzburg. [2] In 1805, Van Merlen's regiment formed part of Auguste de Marmont's II Corps, and played a part in the Ulm campaign. [4]

When the Batavian Republic became the Kingdom of Holland in 1806, Van Merlen found favour with King Louis and was made a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Guard Hussars on 23 October 1806. Three days later he was marching with the Dutch army into Germany to support French forces in the war with Prussia. He saw service near Ertzen on 7 November 1806 and drove the Prussian vanguard into Hamelin. However, a dispute arose between Louis and his brother Napoleon which resulted in the Royal Guard being returned to The Hague without seeing further action. [2]

Van Merlen was promoted to Major on 6 April 1807, and to Colonel on 5 March 1808. He was placed in command of the newly formed Gardes te Paard (Horse Guards) Regiment, which consisted of hussars and cuirassiers. However, he seems to have offended King Louis and had to leave the court, becoming colonel of the 3rd Hussars who were already serving in the Dutch Brigade and fighting in the Peninsular War. He joined his new regiment in Spain and led it in the battles of Talavera, Arzobispo, Almonacid and Ocaña. [2] By this time casualties had reached such a level that Colonel van Merlen sent two squadrons of sick and disabled back to Holland in June 1810, retaining just a single squadron under his command in Spain. [5]

French empire

When the Kingdom of Holland was annexed by France in July 1810, Van Merlen found himself once more in French service. On 11 November 1810 he was transferred to the 2nd Regiment of Lancers in the French Imperial Guard, [6] the "Red Lancers", which was formed mainly for former members of the Dutch Royal Guard. He remained serving in Spain, and it was not until 11 March 1812 that his remaining hussars formally became the fifth squadron of the Red Lancers, with him as their colonel. When the Lancers departed to take part in the French invasion of Russia, Van Merlen remained at Versailles in command of the regimental depot. Here, he played a part in suppressing the Malet coup of 1812. [2]

Following Napoleon's return from Russia, Van Merlen was promoted to Général de Brigade on 12 January 1813, and on 1 March 1813 given command of a light cavalry brigade in the army forming for the new campaign in Saxony. [6] At the Battle of Lützen on 2 May 1813, Merlen commanded the 1st Brigade in the 3rd Light Cavalry Division under Louis Pierre Aimé Chastel. The division belonged to the I Cavalry Corps led by Victor de Fay de La Tour-Maubourg. The brigade counted only 22 officers and 520 men and included elements of the 6th, 8th, 25th and Portuguese Legion Chasseurs à Cheval and the 6th Hussars. [7] He went on to fight at Bautzen, Dresden and at Leipzig where two horses were shot under him. At Hanau, Van Merlen's charge at the head of his brigade helped clear the road back to France. [2]

For the Campaign in north-east France in 1814, Van Merlen's brigade was placed in Marmont's VI Corps. He fought at the battle of Brienne, but two days later he was captured in a cavalry skirmish between Montierender and Wassy taking three lance thrusts to his right arm and hand. When released at the end of the war, he learned that Napoleon had made him a Baron de l'empire on 5 April 1814, one day before his abdication. General Van Merlen resigned from the French army on 26 June 1814. [2] [6]

The hundred days

On 1 September 1814, Van Merlen joined the army of the new United Kingdom of the Netherlands as a Major General, [2] King William having decided that his new army needed experienced officers, even if they had recently fought under Napoleon. [8] When Napoleon returned from Elba in 1815, Van Merlen remained loyal to his new master and, like many other Dutch and Belgian officers, prepared to go into battle against an army in which he had served all his life. [9] His younger brother made the opposite choice and would fight for the French in Reille's II Corps. [10]

Van Merlen was given command of the 2nd Dutch Light Cavalry brigade. During the opening days of the Waterloo campaign they had the vital task of monitoring the road from Mons to Brussels. [11] The brigade was heavily engaged at Quatre Bras, and held in reserve at Waterloo, where they helped drive off the French cavalry attack. [10] Late in the day, he was seriously wounded by a cannonball and died two hours later. [2]

General Van Merlen was buried at the Church of Saint Joseph, Waterloo. [1] A street in The Hague, Van Merlenstraat  [ nl ], is named after him. [12]

Marriage and family

Van Merlen married Reina Gesina Star Lichtenvoort (1768–1841) in Groningen in June 1799. [2] The couple had one child:


  1. 1 2 van der Aa, A. J. (1869). "Merlen (Jean Baptiste, baron van)". Biographisch woordenboek der Nederlanden (in Dutch). Haarlem: J. J. Van Brederode. pp. 653–658.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Gabriëls, A. J. C. M. (2018). "Merlen, Joannes Baptista Van". Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland (in Dutch).
  3. 1 2 Vigneron, Hippolyte (1856). La Belgique militaire (in French). 2. Brussels: Renier. pp. 45–54.
  4. Bowden, Scotty (1997). Napoleon and Austerlitz. Chicago: The Emperor's Press. p. 443. ISBN   0-9626655-7-6.
  5. Pawly, Ronald (1998). The Red Lancers: Anatomy of a Napoleonic Regiment. Ramsbury: Crowood Press. p. 12. ISBN   1-86126-188-8.
  6. 1 2 3 Six, Georges (1934). "Van Merlen (Jean-Baptiste, baron)". Dictionnaire biographique des généraux et amiraux français de la Révolution et de l'Empire: 1792–1814 (in French). 2. Paris: Librairie Historique et Nobilaire. p. 531.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  7. Nafziger, George (1992). "French Order of Battle, Lützen or Gross-Görschen, 2 May 1813" (PDF). Napoleon Series.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  8. Develloet, André (2009). "The Dutch-Belgian Cavalry at Waterloo Archives: The Dutch 6th Hussars in the Waterloo Campaign". Napoleon Series.
  9. Barbero, Alessandro (2013). The Battle. London: Atlantic Books. p. 47. ISBN   9781782391388.
  10. 1 2 Adkin, Mark (2001). The Waterloo Companion. London: Aurum Press. p. 103. ISBN   1-85410-764-X.
  11. Hofschröer, Peter (1998). 1815, The Waterloo Campaign. London: Greenhill Books. p. 125. ISBN   1-85367-304-8.
  12. "Van Merlenstraat: Die mooie straat in Den Haag" (in Dutch). Archived from the original on 21 November 2018.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  13. Molhuysen, P. C.; Blok., P. J., eds. (1912). "Merlen (Jhr. Bernard van)". Nieuw Nederlandsch Biografisch Woordenboek (in Dutch). Leiden: Sijthoff. p. 901.

Further reading

Duchesne, Albert (1947). Un Général Belge de Napoléon: Jean-Baptiste van Merlen (in French). Brussels: L'Avenir. OCLC   71730911.

Related Research Articles

David Hendrik Chassé

David Hendrik, Baron Chassé was a Dutch soldier who fought both for and against Napoleon. He commanded the Third Netherlands Division that intervened at a crucial moment in the Battle of Waterloo. In 1830 he bombarded the city of Antwerp as commander of Antwerp Citadel during the Belgian Revolution.

Jacques Gervais, baron Subervie

Jacques Gervais, baron Subervie was a French general and politician.

2e régiment de chevau-légers lanciers de la Garde Impériale

The 2e régiment de chevau-légers lanciers de la Garde Impériale was a light cavalry regiment in Napoleon I's Imperial Guard. They were formed in 1810, after the Kingdom of Holland was annexed by France, but their original purpose was to serve as hussars of the Dutch Royal Guard. The units, who were of an elite order, were known for their loyalty and military might, as well as their professionalism in and out of battle.

Albert Dominicus Trip van Zoudtlandt

Jonkheer Albert Dominicus Trip van Zoudtlandt was a Dutch lieutenant-general of cavalry who headed the Dutch heavy cavalry brigade at the Battle of Waterloo.

Willem Frederik van Bylandt

Willem Frederik count of Bylandt or Bijlandt was a Dutch lieutenant-general who as a major-general commanded a Belgian-Dutch infantry brigade at the Battle of Quatre Bras and the Battle of Waterloo.

Hendrik George de Perponcher Sedlnitsky

Hendrik George, Count de Perponcher Sedlnitsky was a Dutch general and diplomat. He commanded the 2nd Netherlands Division at the Battle of Quatre Bras and the Battle of Waterloo.

Lieutenant General Sir John Colquhoun Grant was a British soldier.

Philip Julius van Zuylen van Nijevelt

PhilipJulius van Zuylen van Nijevelt was a Dutch general, nobleman and politician. He was appointed Marshal of Holland in the Kingdom of Holland and served as French senator following the annexation of Holland by the Napoleonic Empire. Van Zuylen van Nijevelt was also an amateur scientist and became known for his treatise on chess.

Pierre David de Colbert-Chabanais

Pierre David Édouard de Colbert-Chabanais was a general of the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars, noted for his unbreakable loyalty to Napoleon I.

Anne-François-Charles Trelliard

Anne-François-Charles Trelliard or Treillard or Treilhard, born 7 February 1764 – died 14 May 1832, joined the cavalry of the French Royal Army as a cadet gentleman in 1780. During the French Revolutionary Wars he fought in Germany and Holland, eventually rising in rank to become a general officer in 1799. He led a corps cavalry brigade at Austerlitz in the 1805 campaign. In the 1806-1807 campaign he fought at Saalfeld, Jena, and Pultusk.

The II Cavalry Corps of the Grande Armée was a French military unit that existed during the Napoleonic Wars. It was first formed in December 1806, but only enjoyed a brief existence under Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessières. The II Cavalry Corps was reconstituted for the invasion of Russia in 1812 and commanded by General Louis-Pierre Montbrun who was killed in battle, as was his successor a few hours later. During the War of the Sixth Coalition, General Horace François Bastien Sébastiani de La Porta led the II Cavalry Corps in 1813, while General Antoine-Louis Decrest de Saint-Germain led the corps in 1814. During the Hundred Days, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte raised the corps again and entrusted it to General Rémi Joseph Isidore Exelmans.

Viscount Nicolas-François Roussel d'Hurbal (1763–1849), was a French soldier during the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars.

Antoine Maurin

Antoine Maurin commanded a French cavalry division in 1814 during the Napoleonic Wars and in 1815 led his troops against the Prussians at Ligny where he was wounded. His army service began in 1792 during the French Revolution when he enlisted in a cavalry regiment as a trooper. He spent his entire military career as a cavalryman. During the French Revolutionary Wars he advanced through the ranks and became commander of a light cavalry regiment in 1802. While only a colonel, he commanded a brigade at Caldiero in October 1805. He fought in the Friedland campaign in 1807 and attained the rank of general officer that year. As a cavalry brigadier, he participated in the 1807 Invasion of Portugal but was captured in 1808 and held until 1812. He led a brigade in 1813 and a division 1814 during the War of the Sixth Coalition. After fighting for Napoleon during the Hundred Days, he retired in 1823. His surname is one of the names inscribed under the Arc de Triomphe, on Column 40.

Hendrik Detmers, was a Dutch general who played an important part in the Battle of Waterloo as a colonel, commanding a brigade.

The III Cavalry Corps of the Grande Armée was a French military unit that existed during the Napoleonic Wars. The corps was created in 1812 and reconstituted in 1813 and 1815. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte first mobilized the corps for the invasion of Russia. Commanded by General Emmanuel de Grouchy, two divisions of the corps fought at Borodino, Tarutino, and Vyazma. A third division fought at the First and Second battles of Polotsk and the Berezina. During the War of the Sixth Coalition in 1813, General Jean-Toussaint Arrighi de Casanova led the corps at Großbeeren, Dennewitz, Leipzig, and Hanau. During the Hundred Days in 1815, Napoleon reorganized the corps and appointed General François Étienne de Kellermann to lead it. One brigade of the corps was engaged at Quatre Bras and both divisions fought at Waterloo.

The IV Cavalry Corps of the Grande Armée was a French military unit that existed during the Napoleonic Wars. The corps was created in 1812 and rebuilt in 1813 and 1815. Emperor Napoleon I first organized the corps for the invasion of Russia. Under General Victor de Fay de La Tour-Maubourg, the corps fought at Borodino. During the War of the Sixth Coalition in 1813, General François Étienne de Kellermann commanded the all-Polish corps at Leipzig. During the Hundred Days in 1815, Napoleon reconstituted the corps and nominated General Édouard Jean Baptiste Milhaud to direct it. Composed entirely of cuirassier regiments, the two divisions fought at Ligny and Waterloo.

The V Cavalry Corps of the Grande Armée was a French military unit that existed during the Napoleonic Wars. The corps was created in 1813 and fought until 1814. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte first organized the corps during the summer armistice in 1813 and it fought at Dresden and Leipzig. General Samuel-François Lhéritier led the corps at first but was replaced by General Pierre Claude Pajol. After Pajol was wounded at Leipzig, General Édouard Jean Baptiste Milhaud commanded the corps at Hanau in 1813 and at Brienne, La Rothière, Mormant, Fère-Champenoise, and Paris in 1814.

Jean Marie Antoine Philippe de Collaert led the Dutch-Belgian cavalry division at the Battle of Waterloo. He became an officer in the Habsburg Austrian cavalry in 1778 and later served in the Dutch Republic army until 1786. After the armies of the First French Republic overran the Dutch Republic in 1795, Collaert became a lieutenant colonel of hussars in the new army of the Batavian Republic, a French satellite state. He fought with distinction at the Battle of Castricum in 1799 and was badly wounded fighting the Austrians in 1800. He was promoted colonel in 1803. Under the Kingdom of Holland he became a major general in 1806 and colonel-general of the King's Bodyguard in 1808.

Charles Étienne de Ghigny

Charles Étienne de Ghigny commanded a Kingdom of the Netherlands light cavalry brigade at the Battle of Waterloo. He joined a French light cavalry regiment in 1792 and served in the same regiment for 22 years, becoming its lieutenant colonel in 1806. He fought in the Peninsular War in 1810–1811 and in the latter year became colonel of the regiment. He fought in the 1812 French invasion of Russia, the 1813 German Campaign and the 1814 French Campaign. In 1814 he led a cavalry regiment at Fère-Champenoise and Paris. He changed his allegiance to the Netherlands in 1815 and was appointed major general. He was promoted to lieutenant general in 1826. He switched allegiance to the Kingdom of Belgium in 1831 and received the Order of Leopold in 1837.

Charles Claude Jacquinot

Charles Claude Jacquinot commanded a French cavalry division at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He joined a volunteer battalion in 1791 and transferred to a light cavalry regiment as a junior officer in 1793. He earned promotion to squadron commander and was acting commander of his regiment at Hohenlinden in 1800. After serving in a staff position at Austerlitz in 1805, he led a light cavalry regiment at Jena in 1806. Promoted to general of brigade he led his horsemen at Abensberg, Raab and Wagram in 1809. During the French invasion of Russia he fought at Ostrovno, Smolensk and Borodino in 1812. During the 1813 German Campaign he led a cavalry brigade at Dennewitz and Leipzig. After being appointed general of division he fought at Second Bar-sur-Aube and Saint-Dizier in 1814. During the Hundred Days he rallied to Napoleon and led a light cavalry division in the Waterloo campaign. After 15 years of inactivity, he was restored to favor in the 1830s. Thereafter he held a number of commands and was appointed to the Chamber of Peers. His surname is one of the names inscribed under the Arc de Triomphe, on Column 20.