Battle of Nieuwpoort
The Battle of Nieuwpoort, took place on 2 July 1600 during the Eighty Years War and the Anglo-Spanish war in the dunes near Nieuwpoort. The Anglo-Dutch companies met the Spanish veterans head on which although their left flank nearly broke were able to assail them with both infantry and cavalry. The Spanish gradually scattered in all directions and left their guns on the field.
|Battle of Nieuwpoort|
|Part of the Eighty Years' War|
Prince Maurice at the Battle of Nieuwpoort
by Pauwels van Hillegaert. Oil on canvas
Kingdom of Scotland
|Commanders and leaders|
Maurice of Nassau|
|Casualties and losses|
|2,000-2,700 dead or wounded||2,500-4,000 killed wounded or captured|
The battle pitted the leaders of both Netherlands against each other. For the Republic this was Maurice, Count of Nassau (and eventually Prince of Orange). For Spain this was Albert, Duke of Burgundy (and eventually Archduke of Austria). Albert ruled autocratically, Maurice had to abide by the demands of the Dutch parliament. Both commanded multinational armies. The Spanish army was 100 percent Catholic, the Dutch army predominantly Protestant.
Maurice (1567-1624) was the son of the leader of the original Dutch rebellion, William the Silent. He had been fighting from an early age. During the past five years, he had set in motion a military revolution by completely reforming the Dutch army, introducing new concepts of drill and standard commands, and combining them with standardization and thorough bookkeeping. This created a dependable, predictable, manoeuvrable and steadfast army, with high continued firepower, deadly cavalry, and experienced officers high and low.
Albert (1559-1621) was son and brother of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor. His uncle, brother-in-law, and father-in-law was King Philip II of Spain. Albert ruled the Royal Netherlands with his spouse, Philip’s daughter Elisabeth. He had little military experience. The Spanish army was as experienced as the Dutch, as were its officers, except for several of the highest in command. During Albert's absence in 1598-99, getting married in Spain, the Spanish army had been led by Mendoza, aka the Admiral of Aragon.
Big ambitions had grown Mendoza’s army to beyond the territory’s financial means. As a result, units hadn’t been paid in a long time. Exacerbated by Albert’s policy to promote bloodline over merit and to break up new regiments to reinforce older, mutiny had become commonplace. Several mutineer ‘republics’ had sprung up along the Dutch border, Diest the biggest. One new regiment even mutinied the moment it arrived from southern Europe and was told it would be broken up, it then camped around Hamont.
Maurice used this misery to capture several important border forts. Chief among those was brand new and very strong Crevecoeur (north of 's-Hertogenbosch, part of that big ambition the previous year). Its men had mutinied but stayed loyal to the King of Spain. After a two month siege, and despite Spanish relieving efforts, it surrendered in May 1600, with full honours intact. Maurice had offered them the pay they were still due by Spain, plus service in the Dutch army, all of which they accepted.
The relative ease of this win convinced the Dutch government to try something bigger. Dunkirk was the major Spanish port in the north. It caused a lot of damage to Dutch merchants and fishermen. Maintaining the permanent blockade was quite expensive. Capturing it would also give the Dutch a bargaining chip with France and England. It was an ambitious target though and two earlier attempts (1594, 1595) to land an army close by had failed. A safer bet was to use Dutch-held Ostend to the north as a base of operation. Only two obstacles remained between the two ports: the strong fort of Fort Albert just south of Ostend, and the port city of Nieuwpoort. It was decided to land an army right in front of Nieuwpoort, take it and the fort, and then march to Dunkirk.
The time was right for an operation deep inside enemy territory. Apart from Spanish mutiny issues, Ostend was being slowly encircled by forts. It was only a matter of time before Albert would lay siege to it: so using Ostend as a base was a matter of now or never. Maurice and the military didn’t agree on Dunkirk however. They’d much rather focus on Sluis, the Spanish galley port north of Ostend. Maurice knew the area well, after landings in 1586, 1591, and two in 1593. Sluis was closer to the Republic and important to control the sea access of major trade centre Antwerp. The government overruled the military however: it was to be Dunkirk.
For this operation, by 21 June Maurice had collected an army of twelve infantry regiments and 25 troops of cavalry: some 12,000 Foot and 2,000 Horse. The following day he crossed the Scheldt Estuary in a multitude of small vessels and moved to Ostend, his base of operations; there he left a half regiment and four troops to reinforce the garrison and, on 30 June, started for Nieuwpoort.
When Maurice arrived in front of the place on 1 July, he sent two thirds of his force across the Yser River to blockade it from the West. That night, while he was making preparations for a regular siege, he received news that the Archduke was close at hand with a field army; knowing that he was cut off from his base, he ordered his cousin Ernst Casimir (Ernst Casimir I of Nassau-Dietz) to delay with a force the advancing Spanish troops, while he was bringing the best part of his army to cross again the Yser and rejoin the rest, to face the Archduke: he had no option left but to present battle, or risk a potentially disastrous retreat by sea.
Ernst Casimir - commanding the Edmonds (Scottish) and the Van der Noot (Dutch) regiments, together with four troops of cavalry and two guns - was ordered to seize the Leffinghen bridge but, as he arrived, he found the Spanish already in its possession; Ernst deployed his force behind a ditch, hoping to fight a delaying action, but the Spaniards were already in great strength across the bridge and charged right home, piercing his centre routing the infantry at once while his cavalry fled in panic. Over 600 Scots were killed, with five out of the twelve company commanders being killed on the field and another two executed by the Spanish afterwards. The Dutch fared only slightly better, taking refuge in Ostend: for all purposes, Ernst's command had ceased to exist.
After that cheap victory, the Archduke held a conference with his captains. Most urged to entrench the army across the road to Ostend, forcing Maurice to attack along a narrow front where the Dutch cavalry, mostly heavy, would not be effective against the lighter Spanish cavalry. However, the mutineers, who had been rallied by the Archduke on the promise of free plunder, were eager for a fight and out-argued the rest. The army therefore advanced in battle order along the coast; it was midday and the tide was coming in, so that in the end they were forced to abandon the shrinking beach and climb slowly up the slippery dunes. Maurice just had time to assemble his whole army to face the Archduke.
Maurice had posted his best regiments in a strong defensive position on top of a stretch of dunes, with guns covering both flanks with enfilade fire. Under the command of the experienced Francis Vere the English, who composed of one third of the States army (some twenty four companies in total) were the first line of infantry and were placed on this stretch of dunes, and awaited the Spanish army to arrive.
The Spanish sent a screen of 500 harquebusiers to cover their advance; but soon the two unruly mutineer regiments in the vanguard started the attack with a rash charge up the hill. They were repulsed in disorder, while the light cavalry, counter-charged by the Dutch cuirassiers, were routed. It was then time for the second line of the Spanish infantry to advance. The Sapena and Ávila Tercios made quick progress against the Frisian regiment on the Dutch right, and Maurice sent his entire second line to protect that sector, stabilising the front.
Meanwhile offshore an Anglo-Dutch fleet had moved close to the shore and bombarded the Spanish positions supporting the land forces. Maurice then sent his entire cavalry against the Spanish flank, except for the small body of cavalry in the second line that he kept in reserve behind the infantry. The Dutch cuirassiers easily routed the lighter Spanish cavalry, and the mutineer cavalry, that had just rallied, fled the battlefield never to return. However, the Dutch were checked by the Spanish third line of infantry, supported by some guns, and retreated with heavy losses.
Meanwhile, on the Dutch left, the English regiments faced the veteran tercios of Monroy and Villar; the elite of the Spanish infantry. The English, well drilled in Maurice's new tactics, kept a rolling fire on the Spaniards who advanced up the slope at a steady pace, covered by a screen of skirmisher harquebusiers. The fight was even for a time, until it came to the push of pike, the Spaniards finally dislodging the English from the top of the hill. Francis Vere, seeing the risk, asked for reinforcements, but they did not arrive in time and the English were finally routed. However, the Spaniards, exhausted after a day of fighting and marching on difficult terrain, pressed their advantage very slowly.Even more dangerously, they were disordered, with musket and pike units mixed. Maurice sent his reserve cavalry against them, only three troops strong. Their well-timed charge was unexpectedly very successful. The Spaniards were thrown into confusion and started a slow retreat. Vere, who had been able to rally some English companies behind a battery, joined the fight, and he was reinforced by the regiments in the third line that had finally arrived. Finally Vere sent his own cavalry against the Spaniards who were now heavily assailed and retreated in disorder.
On the Dutch right, the Archduke had committed his third line into the assault. Maurice saw his chance and asked his tired cavalry for one last effort. Under the command of his cousin Louis, another charge was delivered and the Spanish cavalry was finally driven from the field. The Spanish infantry, already engaged at the front, was this time unable to repulse the attack on their flank and started to give ground. After a while, the front crumbled and, one after another, all units were running in confusion, leaving behind their guns. The survivors scattered in all directions, but the inactivity of the Dutch garrison in Ostend allowed the Spanish army to avoid total destruction.
Spanish losses were high; in total from 2,500 to 4,000 killed and wounded and included some 600 taken prisoner.  Many officers were lost and casualties were suffered by the elite units of the second line, veteran soldiers who were very hard to replace. The artillery train was also lost, while ninety Spanish standards were captured, while the Scots and Zeeland colours lost at Leffinghe were recaptured. Allied losses were also high - they amounted from 2,000 to 2,700 - these included the casualties at Leffinghen. British forces who bore the brunt of the Spanish attack suffered heavy losses of nearly 600 men, but was proof to the Dutch of their reliability in battle.
Maurice's army remained in Nieuwpoort for fourteen days, and although his army had driven a Spanish army from the field, a rare feat at the time, the battle achieved little beyond that. The Dutch did not proceed to occupy or even invest Dunkirk, which had been the principal objective of the campaign. Their lines of communication had already been stretched to the limit and Maurice was soon forced to withdraw from the territory of the Spanish Netherlands. The Flemings, whom Maurice had hoped to rally to his revolt, remained loyal to the Spanish monarchy. Dunkirkers would continue to prey on Dutch and English trade. Instead the allied army proceeded to Ostend, where they captured a large Spanish fort named 'Isabella'.
Strategically, the lesson drawn from this battle was that it was more advantageous to besiege and capture towns than to attempt to win in the open field. This would increasingly characterise operations in the Eighty Years' War thenceforth. Nevertheless on the tactical side, Maurice's army had beaten a Spanish army. However, his reformed infantry had been dislodged from a strong defensive position by the Spanish infantry using its traditional methods and it was only his cavalry that had saved him from defeat. The Battle of Nieuwpoort is considered as the first challenge to the dominance of the tercios in sixteenth and seventieth century warfare. Spanish experts were quick to notice Maurice's innovation in tactics - furthermore there was even an adoption in the increase of light mounted troops in the Spanish army.
News of the victory reached England; Elizabeth I was overjoyed - she repeatably said to her courtiers that Vere was, 'the worthiest captain of our time'. In addition several ballads entertained the English public after news of victory had broke. Meanwhile Isabella bore disappointment on news of the defeat but was relieved to find that her husband the Archduke had escaped the rout.
Order of battleEdit
Dutch States ArmyEdit
- 1st Line
- Horace Vere Regiment (English)
- Francis Vere Regiment (English)
- Hertinga Regiment (Frisian, it was double-sized regiment, with 19 companies, including two companies of Maurice's own Foot Guards)
- 6 troops of Cuirassiers
- 3 troops of Light Cavalry
- 2nd Line
- Domerville Regiment (French Huguenot mercenaries)
- Swiss Battalion (4 mercenary companies)
- Marquette Regiment (Walloon regiment composed entirely of Spanish deserters)
- 6 troops of Cuirassiers
- 3rd Line
- Ernst Casimir I of Nassau-Dietz Regiment (German, lieutenant-colonel Huysmann in command)
- Hurchtenburch (Dutch)
- Ghistelles (Dutch, 6 companies strong, as the others had been left in Ostend to reinforce the Garrison)
- 3 troops of Cuirassiers
- 1st Line
- 1st Provisional Tercio (Spanish)
- 2nd Provisional Tercio (Walloon)
- 7 troops of light cavalry
- 2nd Line
- Monroy Tercio (Spanish)
- Villar Tercio (Spanish)
- Sapena Tercio (Spanish)
- Avila Tercio (Italian)
- 1 troop of Light Lancers
- 5 troops of Cuirassiers
- 3rd Line
- La Barlotte Tercio (Walloon)
- Bucquoy Tercio (Walloon)
- Bostock Regiment (English deserters and reinforced by English Catholics)
- 6 troops of Light Cavalry
- Anglo-Dutch: 14 guns, 650 English musketeers.
- Spanish: 9 guns, 50 cavalry, 400 infantry.
- States: 1,200 riders
- Spanish: 1,000 riders
- States: 9,350 infantry
- Spanish: 7,300 infantry
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- Also known as the Battle of the Dunes
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- Most of the Crevecoeur mutineers were Walloon. These formed a new Walloon regiment in the Dutch army. They were nicknamed the New Beggars and wore red sashes instead of Dutch orange, but over the wrong - left - shoulder, to proudly show their ancestry. The Spanish army had standing orders to execute any of these men if captured.
At Nieuwpoort, this was the only unit in the Dutch army that hadn’t been drilled up to army standards yet. Maurice therefore expressed some doubts about them before the battle. Their field commander Ltn-Col Marquette replied by having the whole regiment swear an oath there and then on the beach, to either fight or die with Maurice that day. They performed well.
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- McNab, Chris (2017). Famous Battles of the Early Modern Period. Cavendish Square Publishing, LLC. ISBN 9781502632500.
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