The discovery of a mass grave of 81 British soldiers from the War of the First Coalition in Holland has focused attention on a conflict that seems to contradict some of what is assumed about coalition warfare, and poses a central question about the early days of the Revolutionary Wars of 1792-97: Why did the Allies do so badly against the French in the Netherlands?
At first glance, the soldiers seem to have died from a number of different causes. Hacksaw marks on limbs suggest that amputations that went gangrenous might account for a number of them, but we also know that three times more Britons in that campaign died of disease than from anything that happened on a battlefield. The corpses have not been analyzed yet, but it will be surprising if dysentery, typhus, and malaria had not accounted for a significant proportion of them. Which begs the question: Since Britain had been fighting in the Low Countries since the Hundred Years War, why did its army not learn about the medical dangers?
Indeed, even after the defeats of British forces by the French in the Netherlands in 1794 and 1795, they still returned to the same geographical area for the notorious Walcheren Expedition of June to December 1809, during the War of the Fifth Coalition, only to suffer the same disasters. The explanation for the original expedition seems to lie in the vital strategic importance of the Channel invasion ports, but by 1809, four years after the battle of Trafalgar had destroyed any chance of a French invasion of Britain, there was less of an excuse. The contemporaneous campaign under the Duke of Wellington in the Iberian Peninsula seemed to offer far better returns in the struggle against Napoleon.
The coalition that fought in Holland against the French was a remarkably varied one. As well as British forces, there were at different times also Austrian, Prussian, Russian, Holy Roman Empire (i.e. German), and local Dutch units trying to deny the Netherlands to the revolutionary French republic. Yet they all failed against a new republic that had adopted mass conscription, the levée en masse.
The War of the First Coalition in Holland is almost completely forgotten today, except when such grisly news appears as we have seen this week—and it is believed that another mass grave lies nearby—but it did give rise to a popular nursery rhyme. King George III’s son, Prince Frederick, Duke of York, commanded a British contingency of around ten thousand men, and it was he who “marched them up to the top of the hill, then he marched them down again.”