The Duke of Wellington’s First Campaign

Garry David Wills writes on Wellington’s first campaign


The Duke of Wellington’s last Campaign, which culminated at the Battle of Waterloo, and his First Campaign were both fought in the defence of the Netherlands. This article is a brief history of that First Campaign in the Austrian Netherlands and the United Provinces.


Fighting began along the border between France and the Austrian Netherlands almost immediately upon the French National Assembly’s declaration of war against Austria in April 1792. In northern France, the subsequent Allied invasion was stopped by the French victory at Valmy in September 1792. The French armies swept forward to liberate Lille and occupy Brussels in the Austrian Netherlands (which is now Belgium) by November 1792, annexing the latter early in 1793. During the summer of 1793 the Allies counterattacked, recapturing Brussels and subsequently the fortresses of Condé and Valenciennes in July 1793. This low point for the French was followed by Lazare Carnot’s “levée en masse”, which strengthened and revitalised the French armies. A string of French victories in autumn 1793 followed, preventing the capture of Dunkirk by the Duke of York and pushing the Austrians eastwards away from Maubeuge.

In 1794, the French once again resumed the offensive and once again occupied Brussels following Jourdan’s hard won victory at Fleurus in June 1794. Consequently, in July, August and September of 1794, the Duke of York was attempting to defend the United Provinces with his Dutch (to his right) and Austrian (to his left) allies.

Having sailed from Cork on the 6th June 1794, the Duke of Wellington, then known as Arthur Wesley, Lieutenant Colonel of the 33rd Foot, arrived at Ostend on the 25th June 1794, to be joined the next day by Lord Moira’s force, as reinforcements for the Duke of York’s army. Moira soon moved on to Ghent leaving the 33rd Foot as part of the small force, including the 44th Foot and a detachment of the 8th Light Dragoons, holding Ostend, under the command of Colonel Vyse. This force then evacuated Ostend on the 1st July, transferring by ship to Antwerp.

Colonel Vyse, in his report (National Archives: WO 1/170/465-469) described the operations around Ostend as follows;

 “..I embarked with the troops under my command, consisting of 33rd & 44th Regts of Infantry together with a small detachment of the Royal Irish Artillery, with another small one of the 8th Light Dragoons ….”

In describing the evacuation under the difficult conditions caused by the wind he said

“… I thought it necessary for the security of the whole, to detain likewise on land the 33rd Regiment, which lay that night on its bivouacks (sic) on the sand hills to the west of the town and to reinforce my outposts on both the sides of it. About 10 o’clock yesterday morning (i.e. 1st July 1794) my patrolles (sic) met with several small detachments of the enemy’s cavalry and my outposts were a short time after obliged to fall back by the approach of several larger squadrons…the enemy’s cavalry instead of advancing on the Bruges side of the town, filed off to the right and took possession of all of the villages and communications between Ostend, Blankenberg and Bruges. I embraced the moment to embark the remainder of my infantry with all expedition, ordering the Light Dragoons to keep possession of the outposts until the infantry were aboard in their boats and then to retreat to Nieuport, to which place I have already sent cavalry transports… I had all the troops on board by about an half hour after 5 o’clock p.m. & had no sooner done so than the enemy, in considerable force and from every side, entered the town….” Vyse reported no casualties and claimed that no accidents had happened nor a single person left behind.

Having joined the Duke of York’s main army, Wellington and the 33rd Foot, together with the 44th Foot, joined the 8th Foot to form the 2nd Brigade.

The continued retirement of the Austrian army forced the Duke of York to evacuate Antwerp on the 24th July. In the face of greater numbers the Duke of York retired from Bergen-op-Zoom to Breda on the 31st July. By the 15th August, the fall of the fortresses of Valenciennes and Le Quesnoi to the Army of the Sambre & Meuse, under General Jourdan, freed General Pichegru and his Armée du Nord, to begin their offensive into the southern United Provinces, while Jourdan pushed the supporting Austrian Army back to the Meuse.

On the 29th August, the Duke of York reorganised his army to accommodate recent reinforcements, and the 33rd Foot now joined the 44th Foot, 42nd Foot and 12th Foot in the 3rd Brigade.

By the 30th August, the Duke of York had retreated to the line of the river Aa, anchored on his right by the fortress of Bois-le-Duc (or s’Hertogenbosch) and surrounding inundations. His left was extended towards the Peel morass near the town of Helmond. Nevertheless, in front of the line of the river Aa, the Duke of York maintained a line of outposts based along the line of the river Dommel (more than a metre deep below Boxtel), from Bois-le-Duc itself, through Sint Michelsgestel, Boxtel , Sint Oudenarde and Aerle. This line was manned by Major General Hammerstein and the Advanced Guard comprised largely of the Hanoverian, Hesse-Darmstadt and Hesse-Cassel units, approximately 12,000 troops in all. Thus, with approximately 41,000 men, the Duke of York was attempting to fend off 55,000 or 60,000 men from General Pichegru’s Armée du Nord. The coming attack of the French Army was not a surprise to the Duke of York, who was expecting an attack on his left flank through Helmond, but it was not initially taken as seriously as it later was.

On Sunday, 14th September 1794, General Pichegru attacked these outposts using units from the divisions of Generals Souham and Delmas. Between 3 and 6 o’clock in the afternoon, the main thrust of the attack fell on General von Düring’s Brigade of Hesse-Darmstadt and Hesse-Cassel troops garrisoning Boxtel itself and their British and French Émigré supporting units. These troops were severely handled, losing approximately two thousand men killed, wounded and mainly prisoners. The Duke of York decided to try to re-take Boxtel on the 15th September and he ordered Lieutenant General Abercromby with the Reserve Corps, of approximately 5,000 men, to advance towards Boxtel with a view to retaking it. However, having marched from the main camp at Berlicom via Middlerode overnight, at 7 a.m. in the misty dawn outside the village of Schyndel they ran into Delmas’ 6th Division of the Armée du Nord, also approximately 5,000 men.

In the two hours that followed, Wellington first met the French in battle. He was the senior officer in the 3rd Brigade and was in a reserve position close to the village of Schyndel, while the Guards brigade advanced with the cavalry to attack the French. Once Abercromby realised that he would be unable to reach his goal of Boxtel, he determined to retreat back to the camp at Berlicom. The retreat through the closed terrain around the village of Schyndel proved problematic, and the 33rd Foot, Wellington’s regiment, had to be deployed to hold back the pursuing French 8th Hussars, while the Guards infantry retired.

When they reached the main Allied camp, Abercromby’s force found the army beginning a retreat to the Meuse.

The Duke of York was fortunate that the pursuit to the Meuse was not more eagerly pressed by the French, who on the 16th September were still on the River Dommel and still only on the River Aa on the 18th September.

Both commanders-in-chief were criticized following the retreat of the Duke of York’s army to the Meuse. General Pichegru was criticized by some, especially Generals Daendels and Reynier, for not being more aggressive on the 15th and 16th September. Daendels believed that a column sent around the Duke of York’s open left flank towards Grave, would have trapped the Duke against the Meuse with the resultant loss of his artillery, baggage and many prisoners. On the other hand, some, including von Porbeck and Jomini, believed that the Duke of York had been guilty of leaving von Hammerstein’s troops isolated and unsupported on the River Dommel. The Duke of York and Abercromby were both accused by their allies of not being aggressive enough on the 15th and retreating too readily given the forces facing them.

Immediately after Boxtel, Abercromby and the Reserve of the Army took up a position on the Meuse and on the 29th September were ordered to march to Gennep again on the Meuse, somewhat to the south east of Grave. The further retirement of the Austrian army behind the River Rhine, necessitated a further retreat by the Duke of York behind the River Waal. Consequently Abercromby’s brigades marched back to Nimegen on the 4th October and crossed the Waal on the 6th October, before establishing their cantonments either side of Tiel on the banks of the Waal. Wesley and the 33rd Foot were based at Ijzendoorn.

Meanwhile Pichegru sent Delmas to lay siege to the fortress of Bois-le-Duc in order to provide a forward supply depot. The fortress soon surrendered on the 10th October, by which time Moreau had taken command of the Armée du Nord from the by now sick Pichegru.

At the end of November, the Duke of York returned home to take up his new post as Field Marshal and Commander-in-Chief and was replaced by Lieutenant General Harcourt.

This was a trying time for Wellington who wrote, on the 20th December;

“…..At present the French keep us in a perpetual state of alarm, we turn out once, sometimes twice, every night; the officers and men are harassed to death…… I have not had the clothes off my back for a great time and generally spend the nights on the banks of the river…..”

It was also in this period, that Wellington, according to the first Earl of Ellesmere, later (in 1837) claimed to have learned his profession.

“I learnt more by seeing our own faults, and the defects of our own system in the campaign of Holland, than anywhere else. I was left there to myself with my regiment, the 33rd, on the Waal, thirty miles from headquarters, which latter were a scene of jollification and I do not think I was once visited by the Commander-in-Chief. The infantry regiments, taken individually, were as good in proper hands as they are now, but the system was wretched.”

The British were to remain cantoned on the Waal until January 1795. The deteriorating weather affected the armies very severely, the British, for example, reporting 11,000 men as sick on the 27th November.

Pichegru returned to his command on the 17th December 1794 and then resumed the offensive. He crossed the frozen Meuse onto the Bommelwaert, taking Tuil on the north bank of the Waal on the 27th December 1794 and advancing as far as Meteren near Geldermalsen. The next day, the British counter-attacked, driving the French out of Meteren and Tuil. On the 4th January the French re-crossed the Waal, retaking Tuil on the 5th, and advancing beyond Meteren again, before being stopped at Geldermalsen. Wellington and the 33rd Foot were engaged in both of these actions. Despite some limited success, these engagements resulted in the Allies retreating further across the River Leck and then on the 15th January across the River Yssel and on the 27th January the River Ems, in all a retreat of approximately 90 miles.

After several requests over the previous month or two, Wellington returned home on leave at the end of February 1795. Meanwhile the British army continued its retirement to Bremen, where it embarked for England, the 33rd Foot leaving for home on the 13th April 1795.

Meanwhile, in the face of a demoralized Dutch army, the French had completed their conquest of the Netherlands; the Stadtholder and his family fled to exile in England on the 17th January 1795 and the French entered Amsterdam the next day.

Wellington’s First and Last Campaigns are also linked in that several other Waterloo generals  were present at Schyndel/Boxtel for Wellington’s First Battle: Major General Sir Denis Pack was a Cornet in the 14th Light Dragoons; Major General Sir George Cooke was a Captain and an ADC to Major General Hulse, who led the Guards Brigade; Major General John Byng was a Captain in the 33rd Foot; and Lt. General Chassé led the French light troops. Sir Peregrine Maitland also fought in the Wellington’s first campaign as an Ensign in the First Foot Guards.


For more information, including the other references for this account, see my book “Wellington’s First Battle” available at

Garry David Wills

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