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Recollections of Marshal Macdonald
Chapter 4
Passage of the Waal—Its Results—Reconnaissance at Arnheim—Arrival at Naarden—Capitulation of Naarden—On the Banks of the Yssel —Delfzyl—The Peace of Basle—Command in Overyssel—Ordered to Walcheren—Fever—Removal to Utrecht—Convalescence.


PICHEGRU, the new Commander-in-chief, being ill, had retired to Brussels, and the command was meanwhile made over to Moreau, the senior General-of-Division; the latter division was added to mine, which extended my command from Fort St. Andre to Urdingen, where I joined the left of the Army of the Sambre and Meuse, now in position on the Rhine. We took advantage of this interruption of operations to revictual our troops and reorganize them, and to train and discipline our recruits.

We had no means, no possibility of crossing the Waal, a considerable river, whose right bank was defended by fortified dykes. The forts of Knodsenburg, opposite Nimeguen, and Kekerdam, opposite Kronenburg, were well armed. We constantly exchanged shots along the entire line; from one point of view this meant a considerable waste of ammunition, from another, however, it gave us a valuable chance of familiarizing our new recruits with the fire of the enemy.

The frost came to our assistance. I had the ice sounded two or three times a day. As regards provisions we were unfortunately situated; our communications with our stores at Antwerp and Bois-le-Duc were cut off, the bridge had been destroyed, and the country between the Meuse and the Waal was exhausted, while we could only get very slender resources from our right towards Cleves. I myself was reduced to regimental bread and cheese, and that only irregularly. The Nimeguen shopkeepers had closed their doors, as we could only offer them assignats, which they would not accept. We were compelled, therefore, to leave our present quarters and cross the river in search of plenty.

All my preparations for crossing the river were made, and instructions given to start at the first signal. The ice was thickening, and we observed that the enemy were making ready to retire, as we imagined, when I suddenly received intelligence that they had evacuated Thiel, opposite Fort St. Andre. I saw with my own eyes a cannon being removed from the right bank. Never doubting that a retreat had been determined upon, the General in command at that point received orders to cross the river, now sufficiently frozen, and to follow the enemy, who had taken the direction of Arnheim. I signalled to the rest of the troops that they were to attempt the passage at the points indicated. All the columns moved forward simultaneously at break of day, and crossed the river, almost without resistance, somewhat above and below 'Nimeguen. The stream had not frozen in the middle of the town. As soon as I could distinguish through the fog the head of the first column nearing the fort by the dyke, I caused several skiffs that I had previously prepared to be launched, and crossed to the other side with two companies of grenadiers. The fort had just been evacuated. I ordered my men to pursue slowly, so as to give time for all our columns to come up with us, and for the cannon to pass. That was the difficulty. The small ordnance was brought up without trouble, then the larger, and finally the howitzers.

During this operation we heard a violent explosion, which made the very ground tremble. It was, as I imagined, the enemy blowing up their magazines and setting their camp on fire. Fearing lest this terrible explosion might astonish the troops, I sent the Generals, who had come to take my orders, to their posts, desiring them to explain this event, which signified the absolute retreat of the enemy, and to watch our right, while I took upon myself the charge of the centre.

They arrived just in time, for a hot and well-sustained fire had broken out. My troops were engaged and attacked by a considerable force. The right division had only succeeded in putting one regiment across, and was repulsed on the left bank of the river; but the General who had provisional command of this division arrived with two other brigades, rallied the first, and finally, after a severe struggle, broke the enemy's ranks. The intermediate division, which was mine, had left its place, and so had the centre, where I was; we were without news from the left. I advanced my lines as far as the Linge, the point which I had named in my orders as that at which we were to concentrate.

This day brought about two important results: first, it facilitated the invasion of Holland by separating her cause from that of her allies, who were forced to evacuate the country ; secondly, it put into our hands at least a hundred pieces of cannon, with which the dykes and fort of Knodsenburg, which served us as a tete-de-pont were armed, besides ammunition and a large number of prisoners.

This event proves that in war it is necessary on many occasions to trust to chance, for I repeat now what I said at the time, that I owed more to luck than to wisdom, although success is generally supposed to depend upon plans, schemes, and arrangements. On this occasion the evacuation of Thiel seemed to me the evident result of a retrograde movement; whereas in reality that movement was caused by a misunderstanding. The General commanding my left wing had conscientiously carried out his instructions, and begun his march, when he met the evacuating body, who, having notified their retreat, received injunctions to return to the post they had quitted. But it was too late— the place was already occupied. The two bodies marching in contrary directions met, and an engagement was the result; but, notwithstanding the numerical superiority of their adversaries, our men kept their ground. The successful crossing of the Waal above and below Nimeguen, together with the advantages gained by my extreme right, which took the offensive after its first brigade had been repulsed, checked the enemy who were opposed to them and.broke their lines. Our success was complete. Shortly afterwards the enemy's corps sent to Thiel was recalled to Arnheim. This is a very simple explanation of the reasons that caused my left to remain stationary , it could not come up or set out for the Linge until the following day.

I went to Nimeguen to make my report. The Commander-in-chief and the Commissioners came to meet me. I was almost ashamed to receive their congratulations, because chance had had a much greater share in the success of the day than my combinations, which, as a matter of fact, were founded upon the apparent retreat of the forces opposed to me, who in reality had no idea of such a thing; but the manner I had adopted in spreading out my lines, and the various points I had attacked, had made the enemy believe that they were bearing the brunt of the whole

French army, while their own was scattered over a wide extent of territory.

Next evening, towards dusk, we made a reconnaissance in the direction of Arnheim. The noise and shouting that we heard, combined with the accounts of some deserters and country folk, confirmed our unanimous opinion that a general retreat was going on, and the Commander-in-chief gave his orders in consequence. We were, however, too weak to pursue the enemy, invade Holland, and surround the strongholds at one and the same time. This condition of affairs was explained to the Commissioners, and they were requested to write to their colleagues with the Army of the Sambre and Meuse, to which we had now come very close; while our Commander-in-chief asked his colleague to lend him for the time two divisions to replace those under my command. This request, approved by the Commissioners, was granted without delay, and I quitted my position in order to strengthen my left.

A general movement had been caused on the one side by the enemy's retreat, and on the other by the general advance of the army. I crossed the Leek at Amerungen without meeting any enemies, and advanced towards Amersfort, after having turned the lines of the Greb, armed with two hundred guns. The Dutch troops were drawing away from their allies, but being too weak to make a stand against us, they retired into fortresses or distant provinces.

None of our corps remained long bivouacked. They only needed a few hours' rest, for great emulation existed as to who should first reach and take Amsterdam. I did not waste any time, but I had a diagonal line to follow, while the others could march straight ahead. The floods were out and the roads under water, but that was no obstacle, on account of the frost. I arrived in front of

Naarden, one of the strongest places in Europe, on the ice. This is the masterpiece of Cohorn, emulator and rival of Vauban ; but the water, the principal defence of the place, was now useless. I invested it, and ordered the gates to be opened. The garrisons had orders to commit no act of hostility, to offer no resistance, and to make the best terms possible. They therefore parleyed with us.

The cold was very sharp, and we warmed ourselves at our bivouacs on the ice. My injunctions were to agree to everything, provided that the place were handed over to me on the spot. The articles of capitulation were at length signed, and I took possession of the town. As I reached the gates, a Dutch officer, who had just been replaced by one of ours, and who was drunk, threw himself at the feet of one of my aides-de-camp, exclaiming: ' Brave republican, I owe you my life !' Observe that we had fired neither cannon nor musket, and that we had not even drawn our swords from their scabbards !

At sunrise next day, leaving a strong garrison at Naarden, I started for Amsterdam, and on the road learned that the capital of Holland had been occupied by our troops the previous evening. Mine thus became useless, so I sent them into cantonments, going myself to Amsterdam to take the news of the capitulation of Naarden, and to receive fresh orders. On arriving in presence of the General in command, I presented him with the signed articles. He answered jokingly:

' I pay no attention now to anything less than the surrender of Provinces !'

As a matter of fact, and since the general capitulation of the Netherlands, with the exception of a few places still held by the enemy, my conquest decreased in importance, whereas under other circumstances it would have redounded to the credit of the General who had succeeded in subduing it. It was against this very place that Louis XIV., himself there in person, in the zenith of his power, had failed.

I received orders to move upon the Yssel, to occupy Harderwick, Kampen, Zwolle, Zutphen, Deventer, and to replace the troops of the Sambre and Mouse Army at Arnheim. The enemy retreated at our approach.

The weather had become milder during my short stay at Amsterdam, and the thaw had begun. It was thawing rapidly when I reached the Yssel, and the ice had broken in several places, causing a dyke to burst. The bridge of boats at Kampen could not be removed, and the ice accumulated round it. Half my men had already crossed; the remainder had halted, on learning from the inhabitants that they could only cross at imminent risk, as the bridge must infallibly be carried away. At this moment I came up. Reflecting that the troops already on the other side ran a great risk of falling into the hands of the enemy, I determined to chance it, and gave orders to advance, rapidly crossing the bridge, which was already much strained. The bridge bore us because the waters that had carried away the dyke on the right bank had found an outlet, and were spreading over the country, but then we incurred another danger, that, namely, of inundation. However, all my men got safely across; we reached higher ground, and escaped with nothing worse than wet feet.

Having thus carried out my orders, I received fresh ones to drive the enemy out of the provinces of Frisia, Groningen and Drenthe. This portion of the campaign was very difficult because of the thaw, the roads were shocking, and for the most part under water. The country through which we were marching was perfectly flat. We had to redouble our speed and activity, so as to prevent the enemy from fortifying and victualling Groningen, Delfzyl, and Coevorden. Frisia, owing to its situation, had been already evacuated, but the inhabitants of Groningen came to me, imploring me to hasten our march, and to deliver them from our common enemies, as they expressed it; in making this request they were almost asking for a change of enemies, although my troops kept most rigorous discipline. My advance-guard entered the town as the enemy quitted it. We pursued, overtook, and defeated their rear-guard near Delfzyl. At the same time I heard that Coevorden had opened its gates, and I extended my line as far as the Ems, which the enemy had recrossed. We respectively took up our positions on either side of the river, having, both of us, great need of rest.

While I was inspecting my lines, I was informed of the march of the Prussian army, and shortly afterwards a messenger with a flag of truce brought me a letter announcing that the latter Power had just concluded the Peace of Basle ; but as I had no official notification, I at once communicated with the Commander-in-chief, who was also in ignorance of the event. I asked for large reinforcements, and meanwhile kept a very strict look-out. Two fresh divisions were sent to join and precede me, and these would not have been too many had the first news of this unexpected peace proved untrue, because the Prussians would have effected a junction with the allied army that I already had in front of me. We at length received confirmation of the news, to the joy of both sides. The line of demarcation laid down by the treaty followed the right bank of the Rhine and the Ems to its mouth, the Prussians took the place of their former allies on this bank, while we occupied the left. Territorial divisions were formed, of which I had command of the first, composed of the provinces of Drenthe, Frisia, and Groningen, and I established my headquarters in the town of that name. .

After three months' rest, of which we all stood in great need, I was called to the command of the provinces of Overyssel and Gueldres, and later on to Utrecht and Holland.

Zealand being at this time threatened by the English, I was ordered to go either to Middleburg or Flushing, whichever I preferred, in the island of Walcheren, and a most unhealthy country. Five-sixths of my men were soon down with fever, and I was so violently attacked that, in fear of my life,I was ordered back to France to recover. All the events I have just described occurred in the years 1794-5 It was towards the end of the latter year that I returned to France, where my fever, which had been somewhat checked before I left Flushing, seized me again at the end of six weeks.

By the end of the summer, 1795, I had recovered, and was ready to return to my duty, when I had the pleasure of greeting Beurnonville, who had just been exchanged and restored from his captivity. The command of the army in Holland had been given to him. He offered to exchange with me. I refused from a mistaken sense of delicacy, on account of our friendship, fearing lest this preference should prejudice other Generals against him.

Scarcely had I returned first to Flushing, and then to Middleburg, when, coming back from a tour of inspection round the island, I was again seized with fever, and not withstanding all the measures employed, especially quinine in large quantities, it could not be subdued until the following spring, when the doses were trebled, and I was removed from that horrible climate.

My friend Beurnonville had his headquarters at Utrecht. He summoned me thither to recover. I had to diet myself very severely; but my relapses, though still acute, were but the prelude to a fresh attack, which I believe has remained unparalleled. Beurnonville was away at the time. On hearing of the danger I was in, he hastened back at once. At length skill and perseverance checked the fever, and I was sent to pass my convalescence at Deventer, in Overyssel, where troops were assembling for the manoeuvres at Gorssel. They were put under my command. I spared no pains to instruct and train them, and thus got much exercise, which was good for my health. Beurnonville came to inspect us.

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