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- History of the United Netherlands, 1592 - 1/4 -


Return of Prince Maurice to the siege of Steenwyck--Capitulation of the besieged--Effects of the introduction of mining operations-- Maurice besieges Coeworden--Verdugo attempts to relieve the city, but fails--The city capitulates, and Prince Maurice retreats into winter quarters.

While Farnese had thus been strengthening the bulwarks of Philip's universal monarchy in that portion of his proposed French dominions which looked towards England, there had been opportunity for Prince Maurice to make an assault upon the Frisian defences of this vast realm. It was difficult to make half Europe into one great Spanish fortification, guarding its every bastion and every point of the curtain, without far more extensive armaments than the "Great King," as the Leaguers proposed that Philip should entitle himself, had ever had at his disposal. It might be a colossal scheme to stretch the rod of empire over so large a portion of the earth, but the dwarfish attempts to carry the design into execution hardly reveal the hand of genius. It is astonishing to contemplate the meagre numbers and the slender funds with which this world-empire was to be asserted and maintained. The armies arrayed at any important point hardly exceeded a modern division or two; while the resources furnished for a year would hardly pay in later days for a few weeks' campaign.

When Alexander, the first commander of his time, moved out of Flanders into France with less than twenty thousand men, he left most vital portions of his master's hereditary dominions so utterly unprotected that it was possible to attack them with a handful of troops. The young disciple of Simon Stevinus now resumed that practical demonstration of his principles which had been in the previous year so well begun.

On the 28th May, 1592, Maurice, taking the field with six thousand foot and two thousand horse, came once more before Steenwyck. It will be remembered that he had been obliged to relinquish the siege of this place in order to confront the Duke of Parma in July, 1591, at Nymegen.

The city--very important from its position, being the key to the province of Drenthe as well as one of the safeguards of Friesland--had been besieged in vain by Count Renneberg after his treasonable surrender of Groningen, of which he was governor, to the Spaniards, but had been subsequently surprised by Tassis. Since that time it had held for the king. Its fortifications were strong, and of the best description known at that day. Its regular garrison was sixteen companies of foot and some cavalry under Antoine de Quocqueville, military governor. Besides these troops were twelve hundred Walloon infantry, commanded by Lewis, youngest Count van den Berg, a brave lad of eighteen years, with whom were the lord of Waterdyck and other Netherland nobles.

To the military student the siege may possess importance as marking a transitional epoch in the history of the beleaguering science. To the general reader, as in most of the exploits of the young Poliorcetes, its details have but slender interest. Perhaps it was here that the spade first vindicated its dignity, and entitled itself to be classed as a military weapon of value along with pike and arquebus. It was here that the soldiers of Maurice, burrowing in the ground at ten stuyvers a day, were jeered at by the enemy from the battlements as boors and ditchers, who had forfeited their right to be considered soldiers--but jeered at for the last time.

From 30th May to 9th June the prince was occupied in throwing up earthworks on the low grounds in order to bring his guns into position. On the 13th June he began to batter with forty-five pieces, but effected little more than to demolish some of the breast-works. He threw hot shot into the town very diligently, too, but did small damage. The cannonading went on for nearly a week, but the practice was so very indifferent--notwithstanding the protection of the blessed Barbara and the tuition of the busmasters--that the besieged began to amuse themselves with these empty and monotonous salvos of the honourable Artillery Guild. When all this blazing and thundering had led to no better result than to convert a hundred thousand good Flemish florins into noise and smoke, the thrifty Netherlanders on both sides of the walls began to disparage the young general's reputation. After all, they said, the Spaniards were right when they called artillery mere 'espanta-vellacos' or scare-cowards. This burrowing and bellowing must at last give place to the old-fashioned push of pike, and then it would be seen who the soldiers were. Observations like these were freely made under a flag of truce; for on the 19th June--notwithstanding their contempt for the 'espanta-vellacos'--the besieged had sent out a deputation to treat for an honourable surrender. Maurice entertained the negotiators hospitably in his own tent, but the terms suggested to him were inadmissible. Nothing came of the conference therefore but mutual criticisms, friendly enough, although sufficiently caustic.

Maurice now ceased cannonading, and burrowed again for ten days without interruption. Four mines, leading to different points of the defences, were patiently constructed, and two large chambers at the terminations, neatly finished off and filled respectively with five thousand and twenty-five hundred pounds of powder, were at last established under two of the principal bastions.

During all this digging there had been a couple of sorties in which the besieged had inflicted great damage on their enemy, and got back into the town with a few prisoners, having lost but six of their own men. Sir Francis Vere had been severely wounded in the leg, so that he was obliged to keep his bed during the rest of the siege. Verdugo, too, had made a feeble attempt to reinforce the place with three hundred men, sixty or seventy of whom had entered, while the rest had been killed or captured. On such a small scale was Philip's world-empire contended for by his stadholder in Friesland; yet it was certainly not the fault of the stout old Portuguese. Verdugo would rather have sent thirty thousand men to save the front door of his great province than three hundred. But every available man--and few enough of them they were--had been sent out of the Netherlands, to defend the world-empire in its outposts of Normandy and Brittany.

This was Philip the Prudent's system for conquering the world, and men looked upon him as the consummation of kingcraft.

On the 3rd July Maurice ordered his whole force to be in readiness for the assault. The mines were then sprung.

The bastion of the east gate was blown to ruins. The mine under the Gast-Huys bulwark, burst outwardly, and buried alive many Hollanders standing ready for the assault. At this untoward accident Maurice hesitated to give the signal for storming the breach, but the panic within the town was so evident that Lewis William lost no time in seizing the overthrown eastern bulwark, from the ruins of which he looked over the whole city. The other broken bastion was likewise easily mastered, and the besieged, seeing the storm about to burst upon them with irresistible fury, sent a trumpet. Meantime Maurice, inspecting the effects of the explosion and preparing for the assault, had been shot through the left cheek. The wound was not dangerous, and the prince extracted the bullet with his own hand, but the change of half an inch would have made it fatal. He was not incapacitated--after his wound had been dressed, amidst the remonstrances of his friends for his temerity- from listening to the propositions of the city. They were refused, for the prince was sure of having his town on his own terms.

Next day he permitted the garrison to depart; the officers and soldiers promising not to serve the King of Spain on the Netherland side of the Rhine for six months. They were to take their baggage, but to leave arms, flags, munitions, and provisions. Both Maurice and Lewis William were for insisting on sterner conditions, but the States' deputies and members of the council who were present, as usual, in camp urged the building of the golden bridge. After all, a fortified city, the second in importance after Groningen of all those regions, was the real prize contended for. The garrison was meagre and much reduced during the siege. The fortifications, of masonry and earthwork combined, were nearly as strong as ever. Saint Barbara had done them but little damage, but the town itself was in a sorry plight. Churches and houses were nearly all shot to pieces, and the inhabitants had long been dwelling in the cellars. Two hundred of the garrison remained, severely wounded, in the town; three hundred and fifty had been killed, among others the young cousin of the Nassaus, Count Lewis van den Berg. The remainder of the royalists marched out, and were treated with courtesy by Maurice, who gave them an escort, permitting the soldiers to retain their side-arms, and furnishing horses to the governor.

In the besieging army five or six hundred had been killed and many wounded, but not in numbers bearing the same proportion to the slain as in modern battles.

The siege had lasted forty-four days. When it was over, and men came out from the town to examine at leisure the prince's camp and his field of operations, they were astounded at the amount of labor performed in so short a time. The oldest campaigners confessed that they never before had understood what a siege really was, and they began to conceive a higher respect for the art of the engineer than they had ever done before. "Even those who were wont to rail at science and labour," said one who was present in the camp of Maurice, "declared that the siege would have been a far more arduous undertaking had it not been for those two engineers, Joost Matthes of Alost, and Jacob Kemp of Gorcum. It is high time to take from soldiers the false notion that it is shameful to work with the spade; an error which was long prevalent among the Netherlanders, and still prevails among the French, to the great detriment of the king's affairs, as may be seen in his sieges."

Certainly the result of Henry's recent campaign before Rouen had proved sufficiently how much better it would have been for him had there been some Dutch Joosts and Jacobs with their picks and shovels in his army at that critical period. They might perhaps have baffled Parma as they had done Verdugo.

Without letting the grass grow under his feet, Maurice now led his army from Steenwyck to Zwol and arrived on the 26th July before Coeworden.

This place, very strong by art and still stronger by-nature, was the other key to all north Netherland--Friesland, Groningen, and Drenthe. Should it fall into the hands of the republic it would be impossible for the Spaniards to retain much longer the rich and important capital of all that country, the city of Groningen. Coeworden lay between two vast morasses, one of which--the Bourtange swamp--extended some thirty miles to the bay of the Dollart; while the other spread nearly as far in a westerly direction to the Zuyder Zee. Thus these two great marshes were a frame--an almost impassable barrier--by which the northern third of the whole territory of the republic was encircled and defended. Throughout this great morass there was not a hand-breadth of solid ground--not a resting-place for a human foot, save the road which led through Coeworden. This passage lay upon a natural deposit of hard, dry sand, interposed as if by a caprice of nature between the two swamps; and was about half a mile in width.

The town itself was well fortified, and Verdugo had been recently strengthening the position with additional earthworks. A thousand veterans formed the garrison under command of another Van den Berg, the Count Frederic. It was the fate of these sister's-children of the great founder of the republic to serve the cause of foreign despotism with

History of the United Netherlands, 1592 - 1/4

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