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The Only Time in History When Men on Horseback Captured a Fleet of Ships

A Dutch fleet stuck in the ice. A group of French soldiers sent to capture it. What could go wrong?

Watercolor painting of the Battle of Texel by painter Léon Morel-Fatio. (Léon Morel-Fatio/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

The French Revolutionary Wars lasted a decade, but their strangest moment may have lasted just a few days.

The Battle of Texel remains the only instance in history where a cavalry troop — horse-riding soldiers — captured a fleet of ships. It happened on this day in 1795, though it wasn't exactly a battle.

The winter of 1794-1795 was extremely cold in Holland, and when a storm rolled in, a Dutch fleet anchored in the strait of Marsdiep tried to shelter by Texel Island until the storm blew over, but then found themselves iced in, writes author David Blackmore. At the time, the French were fighting against the Dutch Republic as well as alongside revolutionaries within the Netherlands who supported the ideas of the French Revolution.

News of the stuck ships reached French general Jean-Charles Pichegru, who told Johan Williem de Winter, a Dutch admiral who worked for the French, to deal with it. De Winter sent out infantry, calvary and horse-artillery; the troops arrived on January 22 and camped out for the night.

“Seeing their campfires, Captain Reyntjes, oldest and most senior officer in the Dutch fleet and in temporary command of it, prepared to spike all guns and scuttle the ships,” Blackmore writes. But then around midnight, news arrived that the revolutionaries had taken over the government and wanted to pause the fighting.

“But for this timely ceasefire there might have been an epochal fight between a land army and a fleet,” he writes. 

There are other smart reasons the battle didn't happen. The French would have needed heavy guns and ladders to climb the ships: the Dutch weren’t quite as vulnerable as they seemed. Frozen into the ice near one another, and well-armed, Dutch forces from one ship could cover another. And there were 14 Dutch ships in total: a fair amount of firepower.

The French leader sent Hussars, famed French cavalrymen, to go see if they could intimidate the Dutch into surrendering, but at this point the Dutch weren’t intending to do much else.

“Subsequent French military propagandists sponsored the unlikely story of ‘Ragged men… thundering on their horses across the ice to capture with naked sword the battlefleet of Holland,” Blackmore writes. “In fact, it was a lot more mundane.”

It’s not totally clear what happened, he writes, but there wasn’t a big battle, and it’s likely the scene was pretty quiet: they rode up to Reyntjes’ ship and the two sides agreed to wait for orders.

“Five days later, the Dutch crews swore an oath to comply with French orders and maintain naval discipline, but were allowed to remain under the Dutch flag,” he writes. 

One of history’s weirder moments, for sure.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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