Jan 232019
 

On this date in 1795 a regiment of French hussars supposedly captured the Dutch fleet at Den Helder, making the incident an extraordinary feat of cavalry defeating ships at sea. If you accept the French account, the hussars surprised a Dutch Republican fleet frozen at anchor between the 3 km (1.9 mi) stretch of sea that separates the mainland port of Den Helder and the island of Texel. After a charge across the frozen Zuider Zee, the French cavalry captured 14 Dutch ships and 850 guns. While there have been a few legendary battles that took place on frozen water (e.g. https://www.bookofdaystales.com/battle-on-the-ice/ ) you might want to be a little skeptical about this one.

The French units were the 8th Hussar Regiment and the 15th Line Infantry Regiment of the French Revolutionary Army. Jean-Charles Pichegru was the leader of the French army that invaded the Dutch Republic. The Dutch fleet was commanded by captain Hermanus Reintjes. The actual capture was accomplished by Louis Joseph Lahure. The action happened during the War of the First Coalition, part of the French Revolutionary Wars. Let’s be clear: the capture occurred, but how it occurred is up for question.

Pichegru

Den Helder is at the tip of the North Holland peninsula, south of the island of Texel, by an inlet to what was then the shallow Zuider Zee  (Southern Sea). The Zuider Zee has been closed off and partly pumped out in the 20th century, and what is left of it now forms the freshwater IJsselmeer. The French entered Amsterdam on the 19th January 1795 to stay there over winter. Pichegru was informed that a Dutch fleet was anchored at Den Helder, approximately 80 kilometers north of Amsterdam. The winter of 1794–1795 was exceptionally cold, causing the Zuider Zee to freeze. Pichegru ordered general Jan Willem de Winter (great name for this cold expedition !!) to lead a squadron of the 8th Hussars north. De Winter had been serving with the French since 1787, and would later command the Dutch fleet in the Battle of Camperdown.

According to the French account that entered the history books, general de Winter arrived at Den Helder with his troops during the night of the 23rd January 1795. The Dutch fleet was there as expected, trapped by ice. Each hussar carried an infantryman of the 15th Line Infantry Regiment on his horse. After a careful approach to avoid awakening the Dutch sailors (the hussars had covered the horses’ hooves with fabric), Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Joseph Lahure launched the assault. The ice did not break, and the hussars and infantrymen were able to board the Dutch ships. The French captured the Dutch admiral and the vessels’ crews, and the French suffered no casualties. With the capture of 14 warships, 850 guns, and several merchant ships, the French conquest of the Netherlands was brought to an end.

Nice story, but almost certainly untrue. According to Dutch historian, Johannes Cornelis de Jonge, the Dutch fleet had already received orders on 21st January to offer no resistance, and his account is based on documentary sources. Apparently, a couple of French hussars merely crossed the ice to negotiate a handover by the Dutch officers. Captain Hermanus Reintjes, the Dutch commanding officer, stayed aboard the Admiraal Piet Heyn to await the arrival of general De Winter, who was scheduled to arrive in three days. De Winter subsequently had the officers and crews of the ships pledge an oath that they would peacefully surrender — similar to the oath administered at the surrender of the fleet at Hellevoetsluis several days earlier.

Which account seems more likely to be true? A cavalry regiment surprising a heavily armed fleet without casualties, or a peaceful handover? Even when trapped in ice, fleets have watches on duty and they could certainly have mounted a vigorous defense if they had wanted to. The ships had cannons and the sailors had muskets and cutlasses. As soon as one ship had raised the alarm, the others would have sprung into action if they had intended to fight. Also, it’s hard to imagine that a regiment of cavalry, with each horse bearing a rider and infantryman would want to venture on to frozen water, no matter how solid it seemed. Why wouldn’t the infantrymen simply have walked or marched into action? Why did they need to be carried by cavalry?

The whole account leads me to repeat what I have said for years: USE YOUR BRAIN. The legitimate study of history is not helped by unthinkingly accepting stories without verifying the sources. In this case: Are there eyewitness accounts? No. Are there military or naval logs confirming the events? No. Are there newspaper reports? No. There is not a single document confirming the French version and there are documents confirming the Dutch version. Yet – you will sometimes read about “the time a cavalry regiment defeated a naval fleet.” Be skeptical !! It’s good for you. Repeating a false story will not make it true, no matter how good it sounds (politicians take note).

There are a few Dutch recipes with Zuider Zee in the name (for no good reason, as far as I can tell), and this one seemed decent, even though I have not tried it. It’s a custard pie made in a biscuit crust with a meringue topping. Make a 9” biscuit crust using Holland rusks, graham crackers, or biscuits of your preference – or, as I do, buy one premade.

Zuider Zee Pie

1 9” biscuit pie shell
2 tbsp butter
1 cup plus 1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
1 quart warm milk
4 eggs, separated
1 tsp baking powder
⅔ cup cornstarch
2 tsp vanilla extract

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Melt the butter in the top of a double boiler and add the cinnamon. Stir to blend Add the milk, 1 cup of sugar, cornstarch and egg yolks, and mix well. Cook the custard in the double boiler over simmering water, stirring constantly, until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Pour the custard into the pie crust.

Beat the egg whites, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of baking powder and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract until they form stiff peaks.  Spread the egg whites over the custard.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the meringue starts to turn golden.

Turn off the oven, open the oven door and let the pie cool in the oven. Refrigerate and serve chilled.

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