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- History of the United Netherlands, 1604-05 - 1/9 -


Policy of the King of France--Operations of Prince Maurice--Plans for a Flemish Campaign--Passage into Flanders--Fort St. Catharine-- Flight of its garrison, and occupation by Maurice--Surrender of Ysendyke and Aardenburg--Skirmish at Stamper's Hook--Siege of Sluys by Prince Maurice--Ineffectual attempt of Spinola to relieve the town--Its capitulation and restoration to the States--Death of Lewis Gunther of Nassau--Operations at Ostend--Surrender of the garrison-- Desolation of the scene after its evacuation.

The States-General had begun to forget the severe lesson taught them in the Nieuport campaign. Being determined to hold Ostend, they became very impatient, in the early part of the present year, that Maurice should once more invade Flanders, at the head of a relieving army, and drive the archdukes from before the town.

They were much influenced in this policy by the persistent advice of the French king. To the importunities of their envoy at Paris, Henry had, during the past eighteen months, replied by urging the States to invade Flanders and seize its ports. When they had thus something to place as pledges in his hands, he might accede to their clamour and declare war against Spain. But he scarcely concealed his intention, in such case, to annex both the obedient and the United Netherlands to his own dominions. Meantime, before getting into the saddle, he chose to be guaranteed against loss. "Assure my lords the States that I love them," he said, "and shall always do my best for them." His affection for the territory of my lords was even warmer than the sentiments he entertained for themselves. Moreover, he grudged the preliminary expenses which would be necessary even should he ultimately make himself sovereign of the whole country. Rosny assured the envoy that he was mistaken in expecting a declaration of war against Spain. "Not that he does not think it useful and necessary," said the minister, "but he wishes to have war and peace both at once--peace because he wishes to make no retrenchments in his pleasures of women, dogs, and buildings, and so war would be very inopportune. In three months he would be obliged to turn tail for want of means (to use his own words), although I would furnish him funds enough, if he would make the use of them that he ought."

The Queen of England, who, with all her parsimony and false pretences, never doubted in her heart that perpetual hostility to Spain was the chief bulwark of her throne, and that the republic was fighting her battles as well as its own, had been ready to make such a lively war in conjunction with France as would drive the Spaniard out of all the Netherlands. But Henry was not to be moved. "I know that if I should take her at her word," said he, "she would at once begin to screw me for money. She has one object, I another." Villeroy had said plainly to Aerssens, in regard to the prevalent system of Englishmen, Spaniards, and Frenchmen being at war with each other, while the Governments might be nominally at peace, "Let us take off our masks. If the Spaniard has designs against our State, has he not cause? He knows the aid we are giving you, and resents it. If we should abstain, he would leave us in peace. If the Queen of England expects to draw us into a league, she is mistaken. Look to yourselves and be on your guard. Richardot is intriguing with Cecil. You give the queen securities, fortresses, seats in your council. The king asks nothing but communication of your projects."

In short, all the comfort that Aerssens had been able to derive from his experiences at the French court in the autumn of 1602, was that the republic could not be too suspicious both of England and France. Rosny especially he considered the most dangerous of all the politicians in France. His daughter was married to the Prince of Espinoy, whose 50,000 livres a year would be safer the more the archduke was strengthened. "But for this he would be stiffer," said Aerssens. Nevertheless there were strong motives at work, pressing France towards the support of the States. There were strong political reasons, therefore, why they should carry the war into Flanders, in conformity with the wishes of the king.

The stadholder, after much argument, yielded as usual to the authority of the magistrates, without being convinced as to the sagacity of their plans. It was arranged that an army should make a descent upon the Flemish coast in the early spring, and make a demonstration upon Sluys. The effect of this movement, it was thought, would be to draw the enemy out of his entrenchments, in which case it would be in the power of Maurice to put an end at once to the siege. It is unquestionable that the better alternative, in the judgment of the prince, was to take possession; if possible, of Sluys itself. His preparations were, however, made with a view to either event, and by the middle of April he had collected at Willemstad a force of fifteen thousand foot and three thousand horse. As on the former memorable expedition, he now again insisted that a considerable deputation of the States and of the States' council should accompany the army. His brother Henry, and his cousins Lewis William, Lewis Gunther, and Ernest Casimir, were likewise with him, as well as the Prince of Anhalt and other distinguished personages.

On the 25th April the army, having crossed the mouth of the West Scheld, from Zeeland, in numberless vessels of all sizes and degrees, effected their debarkation on the island of Cadzand.

In the course of two days they had taken possession of the little town, and all the forts of that island, having made their entrance through what was called the Black Channel. Had they steered boldly through the Swint or Sluys channel at once, it is probable that they might have proceeded straight up to Sluy's, and taken the place by surprise. Maurice's habitual caution was, perhaps, on this occasion, a disadvantage to him, but he would have violated the rules of war, and what seemed the dictates of common sense, had he not secured a basis of operations, and a possibility of retreat, before plunging with his army into the heart of a hostile country. The republic still shuddered at the possible catastrophe of four years before, when circumstances had forced him to take the heroic but dangerous resolution of sending off his ships from Nieuport. Before he had completed his arrangements for supplies on the island of Cadzand, he learned from scouts and reconnoitring parties that Spinola had sent a thousand infantry, besides five hundred cavalry, under Trivulzio, to guard the passage across the Swint. Maurice was thus on the wrong side of the great channel by which Sluy's communicated with the sea?

The town of Sluy's and its situation have been described in a former chapter. As a port, it was in those days considered a commodious and important one, capable of holding five hundred ships. As a town, it was not so insignificant as geographical and historical changes have since made it, and was certainly far superior to Ostend, even if Ostend had not been almost battered out of existence. It had spacious streets and squares, and excellent fortifications in perfectly good condition. It was situate in a watery labyrinth, many slender streams from the interior and several saltwater creeks being complicated around it, and then flowing leisurely, in one deep sluggish channel, to the sea. The wrath of Leicester, when all his efforts to relieve the place had been baffled by the superior skill of Alexander Farnese, has been depicted, and during the seventeen years which had elapsed since its capture, the republic had not ceased to deplore that disaster. Obviously if the present expedition could end in the restoration of Sluy's to its rightful owners, it would be a remarkable success, even if Ostend should fall. Sluy's and its adjacent domains formed a natural portion of the Zeeland archipelago, the geographical counterpart of Flushing. With both branches of the stately Scheld in its control, the republic would command the coast, and might even dispense with Ostend, which, in the judgment of Maurice, was an isolated and therefore not a desirable military possession. The States- General were of a different opinion. They much desired to obtain Sluy's, but they would not listen to the abandonment of Ostend. It was expected of the stadholder, therefore, that he should seize the one and protect the other. The task was a difficult one. A less mathematical brain than that of Maurice of Nassau would have reeled at the problem to be solved. To master such a plexus of canals, estuaries, and dykes, of passages through swamps, of fords at low water which were obliterated by flood- tide; to take possession of a series of redoubts built on the only firm points of land, with nothing but quaking morass over which to manoeuvre troops or plant batteries against them, would be a difficult study, even upon paper. To accomplish it in the presence of a vigilant and anxious foe seemed bewildering enough.

At first it was the intention of the stadholder, disappointed at learning the occupation of the Swint, to content himself with fortifying Cadzand, in view of future operations at some more favourable moment? So meagre a result would certainly not have given great satisfaction to the States, nor added much to the military reputation of Maurice. While he hesitated between plunging without a clue into the watery maze around him, and returning discomfited from the expedition on which such high hopes had been built, a Flemish boor presented himself. He offered to guide the army around the east and south of Sluy's, and to point out passages where it would be possible to cross the waters, which, through the care of Spinola, now seemed to forbid access to the place. Maurice lingered no longer. On the 28th April, led by the friendly boor, he advanced towards Oostburg. Next morning a small force of the enemy's infantry and cavalry was seen, showing that there must be foothold in that direction. He sent out a few companies to skirmish with those troops, who fled after a very brief action, and, in flying, showed their pursuers the road. Maurice marched in force, straight through the waters, on the track of the retreating foe. They endeavoured to rally at the fort of Coxie, which stood upon and commanded a dyke, but the republicans were too quick for them, and drove them out of the place." The stadholder, thus obtaining an unexpected passage into Flanders, conceived strong hopes of success, despite the broken nature of the ground. Continuing to feel his way cautiously through the wilderness of quagmire, he soon came upon a very formidable obstacle. The well-built and well-equipped redoubt of St. Catharine rose frowning before him, overshadowing his path, and completely prohibiting all further progress. Plainly it would be necessary to reduce this work at once, unless he were willing to abandon his enterprise. He sent back to Cadzand for artillery, but it was flood- tide, the waters were out, and it was not till late in the afternoon that nine pieces arrived. The stadholder ordered a cannonade, less with the hope of producing an impression by such inadequate means on so strong a work, than with the intention of showing the enemy that he had brought field-guns with him, and was not merely on an accidental foray. At the same time, having learned that the garrison, which was commanded by Trivulzio, was composed of only a few regular troops, and a large force of guerillas, he gave notice that such combatants were not entitled to quarter, and that if captured they would be all put to the sword. The reply to this threat was not evacuation but defiance. Especially a volunteer ensign mounted upon a rampart, and danced about, waving his flag gaily in the face of the assailants. Maurice bitterly remarked to his staff that such a man alone was enough to hold the fort. As it was obvious that the place would require a siege in form, and that it would be almost impossible to establish batteries upon that quaking soil, where there was no dry land for cavalry or artillery to move, Maurice ordered the nine guns to be carried back to Cadzand that night, betaking himself, much disappointed, in the same direction." Yet it so happened that the cannoneers, floundering through the bogs, made such an outcry--especially when one of their guns became so bemired that it was difficult for them to escape the disgrace of losing it--that the garrison, hearing a great tumult, which they could not understand, fell into one of those panics to which raw and irregular troops are liable. Nothing would convince them that fresh artillery had not arrived, that the terrible stadholder with an immense force was not creating invincible batteries, and that they should be all butchered in cold blood, according to proclamation, before the dawn of day. They therefore evacuated the place under cover of

History of the United Netherlands, 1604-05 - 1/9

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