By England's Aid or The Freeing of the Netherlands (1585-1604) by G. A. Henty
Chapter XIV. The Surprise of Breda
Lionel Vickars had, by the beginning of 1590, come to speak the Dutch language well and fluently. Including his first stay in Holland he had now been there eighteen months, and as he was in constant communications with the Dutch officers and with the population, he had constant occasion for speaking Dutch, a language much more akin to English than any other continental tongue, and indeed so closely allied to the dialect of the eastern counties of England, that the fishermen of our eastern ports had in those days little difficulty in conversing with the Hollanders.
He was one day supping with Sir Francis Vere when Prince Maurice and several of his officers were also there. The conversation turned upon the prospects of the campaign of the ensuing spring. Lionel, of course, took no part in it, but listened attentively to what was being said and was very pleased to find that the period of inactivity was drawing to an end, and that their commanders considered that they had now gathered a force of sufficient strength to assume the offensive.
"I would," Prince Maurice said, "that we could gain Breda. The city stands like a great sentinel against every movement towards Flanders, and enables the Spaniards to penetrate at all times towards the heart of our country; but I fear that it is altogether beyond our means. It is one of the strongest cities in the Netherlands, and my ancestors, who were its lords, little thought that they were fortifying and strengthening it in order that it might be a thorn in the side of their country. I would give much, indeed, to be able to wrest it from the enemy; but I fear it will be long before we can even hope for that. It could withstand a regular siege by a well provided army for months; and as to surprise, it is out of the question, for I hear that the utmost vigilance is unceasingly maintained."
A few days after this Lionel was talking with Captain de Heraugiere, who had also been at the supper. He had taken part in the defence of Sluys and was one of the officers with whom Lionel was most intimate.
"It would be a rare enterprise to surprise Breda," Captain de Heraugiere said; "but I fear it is hopeless to think of such a thing."
"I do not see why it should be," Lionel said. "I was reading when I was last at home about our wars with the Scotch, and there were several cases in which very strong places that could not have been carried by assault were captured suddenly by small parties of men who disguised themselves as waggoners, and hiding a score or two of their comrades in a wagon covered with firewood, or sacks of grain, boldly went up to the gates. When there they cut the traces of their horses so that the gates could not be closed, or the portcullis lowered, and then falling upon the guards, kept them at bay until a force, hidden near the gates, ran up and entered the town. I see not why a similar enterprise should not be attempted at Breda."
"Nor do I," Captain Heraugiere said; "the question is how to set about such a scheme."
"That one could not say without seeing the place," Lionel remarked. "I should say that a plan of this sort could only be successful after those who attempted it had made themselves masters of all particulars of the place and its ways. Everything would depend upon all going smoothly and without hitches of any kind. If you really think of undertaking such an adventure, Captain Heraugiere, I should be very glad to act under you if Sir Francis Vere will give me leave to do so; but I would suggest that the first step should be for us to go into Breda in disguise. We might take in a wagon load of grain for sale, or merely carry on our backs baskets with country produce, or we could row up in a boat with fish."
"The plan is certainly worth thinking of," Captain Heraugiere said. "I will turn it over in my mind for a day, and will then talk to you again. It would be a grand stroke, and there would be great honour to be obtained; but it will not do for me to go to Prince Maurice and lay it before him until we have a plan completely worked out, otherwise we are more likely to meet with ridicule than praise."
The following day Captain Heraugiere called at Lionel's lodgings. "I have lain awake all night thinking of our scheme," he said, "and have resolved to carry out at least the first part of it -- to enter Breda and see what are the prospects of success, and the manner in which the matter had best be set about. I propose that we two disguise ourselves as fishermen, and going down to the river between Breda and Willemstad bargain with some fishermen going up to Breda with their catch for the use of their boat. While they are selling the fish we can survey the town and see what is the best method of introducing a force into it. When our plan is completed we will go to Voorne, whither Prince Maurice starts tomorrow, and lay the matter before him."
"I will gladly go with you to Breda," Lionel said, "and, as far as I can, aid you there; but I think that it would be best that you only should appear in the matter afterwards. I am but a young volunteer, and it would be well that I did not appear at all in the matter, which you had best make entirely your own. But I hope, Captain Heraugiere, that should the prince decide to adopt any plan you may form, and intrust the matter to you, that you will take me with you in your following."
"That I will assuredly," Captain Heraugiere said, "and will take care that if it should turn out successful your share in the enterprise shall be known."
"When do you think of setting about it?" Lionel asked.
"Instantly. My company is at Voorne, and I should return thither with the prince today. I will at once go to him and ask for leave to be absent on urgent affairs for a week. Do you go to Sir Francis Vere and ask for a similar time. Do not tell him, if you can help it, the exact nature of your enterprise. But if you cannot obtain leave otherwise, of course you must do so. I will be back here in two hours' time. We can then at once get our disguises, and hire a craft to take us to Willemstad."
Lionel at once went across to the quarters of Sir Francis Vere.
"I have come, Sir Francis, to ask for a week's leave of absence."
"That you can have, Lionel. Where are you going --shooting ducks on the frozen meres?"
"No, Sir Francis. I am going on a little expedition with Captain Heraugiere, who has invited me to accompany him. We have an idea in our heads that may perhaps be altogether useless, but may possibly bear fruit. In the first case we would say nothing about it, in the second we will lay it before you on our return."
"Very well," Sir Francis said with a smile. "You showed that you could think at Sluys, and I hope something may come of this idea of yours, whatever it may be."
At the appointed time Captain Heraugiere returned, having obtained leave of absence from the prince. They at once went out into the town and bought the clothes necessary for their disguise. They returned with these to their lodgings, and having put them on went down to the wharf, where they had no difficulty in bargaining with the master of a small craft to take them to Willemstad, as the Spaniards had no ships whatever on the water between Rotterdam and Bergen op Zoom. The boat was to wait three days for them at that town, and to bring them back to Rotterdam. As there was no reason for delay they at once went on board and cast off. The distance was but thirty miles, and just at nightfall they stepped ashore at the town of Willemstad.
The next morning they had no difficulty in arranging with a fisherman who was going up to Breda with a cargo of fish to take the place of two of his boatmen at the oars.
"We want to spend a few hours there," Captain Heraugiere said, "and will give you five crowns if you will leave two of your men here and let us take their places."
"That is a bargain," the man said at once; "that is, if you can row, for we shall scarce take the tide up to the town, and must keep on rowing to get there before the ebb begins."
"We can row, though perhaps not so well as your own men. You are, I suppose, in the habit of going there, and are known to the guards at the port? They are not likely, I should think, to notice that you haven't got the same crew as usual?"
"There is no fear of that, and if they did I could easily say that two of my men were unable to accompany me today, and that I have hired fresh hands in their places."
Two of the men got out. Captain Heraugiere and Lionel Vickars took their places, and the boat proceeded up the river. The oars were heavy and clumsy, and the newcomers were by no means sorry when, after a row of twelve miles, they neared Breda.
"What are the regulations for entering Breda?" Captain Heraugiere asked as they approached the town.
"There are no particular regulations," the master of the boat said, "save that on entering the port the boat is searched to see that it contains nothing but fish. None are allowed to enter the gates of the town without giving their names, and satisfying the officer on guard that they have business in the place."
An officer came on board as the boat ran up alongside the quay and asked a few questions. After assisting in getting the basket of fish on shore Captain Heraugiere and Lionel sauntered away along the quay, leaving the fishermen to dispose of their catch to the townspeople, who had already begun to bargain for them.
The river Mark flowed through the town, supplying its moats with water. Where it left the town on the western side was the old castle, with a moat of its own and strong fortified lines. Within was the quay, with an open place called the fish market leading to the gates of the new castle. There were 600 Spanish infantry in the town and 100 in the castle, and 100 cavalry. The governor of Breda, Edward Lanzavecchia, was absent superintending the erection of new fortifications at Gertruydenberg, and in his absence the town was under the command of his son Paolo.
Great vigilance was exercised. All vessels entering port were strictly examined, and there was a guard house on the quay. Lying by one of the wharves was a large boat laden with peat, which was being rapidly unloaded, the peat being sold as soon as landed, as fuel was very short in the city.
"It seems to me," Lionel said as they stood for a minute looking on, "that this would be just the thing for us. If we could make an arrangement with the captain of one of these peat boats we might hide a number of men in the hold and cover them with peat. A place might be built large enough, I should think, to hold seventy or eighty men, and yet be room for a quantity of peat to be stowed over them."
"A capital idea," Captain Heraugiere said. "The peat comes from above the town. We must find out where the barges are loaded, and try to get at one of the captains."
After a short walk through the town they returned to the boat. The fisherman had already sold out his stock, and was glad at seeing his passengers return earlier than he expected; but as the guard was standing by he rated them severely for keeping him waiting so long, and with a muttered excuse they took their places in the boat and rowed down the river.
"I want you to put us ashore on the left bank as soon as we are our of sight of the town," Captain Heraugiere said. "As it will be heavy work getting your boat back with only two of you, I will give you a couple of crowns beyond the amount I bargained with you for."
"That will do well enough," the man said. "We have got the tide with us, and can drop down at our leisure."
As soon as they were landed they made a wide detour to avoid the town, and coming down again upon the river above it, followed its banks for three miles, when they put up at a little inn in the small village of Leur on its bank. They had scarcely sat down to a meal when a man came in and called for supper. The landlord placed another plate at the table near them, and the man at once got into conversation with them, and they learnt that he was master of a peat boat that had that morning left Breda empty.
"We were in Breda ourselves this morning," Captain Heraugiere said, "and saw a peat boat unloading there. There seemed to be a brisk demand for the fuel."
"Yes; it is a good trade at present," the man said. "There are only six of us who have permits to enter the port, and it is as much as we can do to keep the town supplied with fuel; for, you see, at any moment the river may be frozen up, so the citizens need to keep a good stock in hand. I ought not to grumble, since I reap the benefit of the Spanish regulations; but all these restrictions on trade come mighty hard upon the people of Breda. It was not so in the old time."
After supper was over Captain Heraugiere ordered a couple of flasks of spirits, and presently learned from the boatman that his name was Adrian Van de Berg, and that he had been at one time a servant in the household of William of Orange. Little by little Captain Heraugiere felt his way, and soon found that the boatman was an enthusiastic patriot. He then confided to him that he himself was an officer in the State's service, and had come to Breda to ascertain whether there was any possibility of capturing the town by surprise.
"We hit on a plan today," he said, "which promises a chance of success; but it needs the assistance of one ready to risk his life."
"I am ready to risk my life in any enterprise that has a fair chance of success," the boatman said, "but I do not see how I can be of much assistance."
"You can be of the greatest assistance if you will, and will render the greatest service to your country if you will join in our plan. What we propose is, that we should construct a shelter of boards four feet high in the bottom of your boat, leading from your little cabin aft right up to the bow. In this I calculate we could stow seventy men; then the peat could be piled over it, and if you entered the port somewhat late in the afternoon you could manage that it was not unladen so as to uncover the roof of our shelter before work ceased for the night. Then we could sally out, overpower the guard on the quay, make for one of the gates, master the guard there, and open it to our friends without."
"It is a bold plan and a good one," Van de Berg said, "and I am ready to run my share of the risk with you. I am so well known in Breda that they do not search the cargo very closely when I arrive, and I see no reason why the party hidden below should not escape observation. I will undertake my share of the business if you decide to carry it out. I served the prince for fifteen years, and am ready to serve his son. There are plenty of planks to be obtained at a place three miles above here, and it would not take many hours to construct the false deck. If you send a messenger here giving me two days' notice, it shall be built and the peat stowed on it by the time you arrive."
It was late at night before the conversation was concluded, and the next morning Captain Heraugiere and Lionel started on their return, struck the river some miles below Breda, obtained a passage over the river in a passing boat late in the afternoon, and, sleeping at Willemstad, went on board their boat next morning and returned to Rotterdam. It was arranged that Lionel should say nothing about their journey until Captain Heraugiere had opened the subject to Prince Maurice.
"You are back before your time," Sir Francis Vere said when Lionel reported himself for duty. "Has anything come of this project of yours, whatever it may be?"
"We hope so, sir, Captain Heraugiere will make his report to Prince Maurice. He is the leader of the party, and therefore he thought it best that he should report to Prince Maurice, who, if he thinks well of it, will of course communicate with you."
The next day a message arrived from Voorne requesting Sir Francis Vere to proceed thither to discuss with the prince a matter of importance. He returned after two days' absence, and presently sent for Lionel.
"This is a rare enterprise that Captain Heraugiere has proposed to the prince," he said, "and promises well for success. It is to be kept a profound secret, and a few only will know aught of it until it is executed. Heraugiere is of course to have command of the party which is to be hidden in the barge, and is to pick out eighty men from the garrisons of Gorcum and Lowesteyn. He has begged that you shall be of the party, as he says that the whole matter was in the first case suggested to him by you. The rest of the men and officers will be Dutch."
A fortnight later, on the 22nd of February, Sir Francis Vere on his return from the Hague, where Prince Maurice now was, told Lionel that all was arranged. The message had come down from Van de Berg that the hiding place was constructed. They were to join Heraugiere the next day.
On the 24th of February the little party starred. Heraugiere had chosen young, active, and daring men. With him were Captains Logier and Fervet, and Lieutenant Held. They embarked on board a vessel, and were landed near the mouth of the Mark, as De Berg was this time going to carry the peat up the river instead of down, fearing that the passage of seventy men through the country would attract attention. The same night Prince Maurice, Sir Francis Vere, Count Hohenlohe, and other officers sailed to Willemstad, their destination having been kept a strict secret from all but those engaged in the enterprise. Six hundred English troops, eight hundred Dutch, and three hundred cavalry had been drawn from different garrisons, and were also to land at Willemstad.
When Heraugiere's party arrived at the point agreed on at eleven o'clock at night, Van de Berg was not there, nor was the barge; and angry and alarmed at his absence they searched about for him for hours, and at last found him in the village of Terheyde. He made the excuse that he had overslept himself, and that he was afraid the plot had been discovered. As everything depended upon his cooperation, Heraugiere abstained from the angry reproaches which the strange conduct of the man had excited; and as it was now too late to do anything that night, a meeting was arranged for the following evening, and a message was despatched to the prince telling him that the expedition was postponed for a day. On their return, the men all gave free vent to their indignation.
"I have no doubt," Heraugiere said, "that the fellow has turned coward now that the time has come to face the danger. It is one thing to talk about a matter as long as it is far distant, but another to look it in the face when it is close at hand. I do not believe that he will come tomorrow.
"If he does not he will deserve hanging," Captain Logier said; "after all the trouble he has given in getting the troops together, and after bringing the prince himself over."
"It will go very near hanging if not quite," Heraugiere muttered. "If he thinks that he is going to fool us with impunity, he is mightily mistaken. If he is a wise man he will start at daybreak, and get as far away as he can before nightfall if he does not mean to come."
The next day the party remained in hiding in a barn, and in the evening again went down to the river. There was a barge lying there laden high with turf. A general exclamation of satisfaction broke from all when they saw it. There were two men on it. One landed and came to meet them.
"Where is Van de Berg?" Captain Heraugiere asked as he came up.
"He is ill and unable to come, but has sent you this letter. My brother and myself have undertaken the business."
The letter merely said that the writer was too ill to come, but had sent in his place his two nephews, one or other of whom always accompanied him, and who could be trusted thoroughly to carry out the plan. The party at once went on board the vessel, descended into the little cabin aft, and then passed through a hole made by the removal of two planks into the hold that had been prepared for them. Heraugiere remained on deck, and from time to time descended to inform those below of the progress being made. It was slow indeed, for a strong wind laden with sleet blew directly down the river. Huge blocks of ice floated down, and the two boatmen with their poles had the greatest difficulty in keeping the boat's head up the stream.
At last the wind so increased that navigation became impossible, and the barge was made fast against the bank. From Monday night until Thursday morning the gale continued. Progress was impossible, and the party cramped up in the hold suffered greatly from hunger and thirst. On Thursday evening they could sustain it no longer and landed. They were for a time scarce able to walk, so cramped were their limbs by their long confinement, and made their way up painfully to a fortified building called Nordand, standing far from any other habitations. Here they obtained food and drink, and remained until eleven at night. One of the boatmen came to them with news that the wind had changed, and was now blowing in from the sea. They again took their places on board, but the water was low in the river, and it was difficult work passing the shallows, and it was not until Saturday afternoon that they passed the boom below the town and entered the inner harbour.
An officer of the guard came off in a boat and boarded the barge. The weather was so bitterly cold that he at once went into the little cabin and there chatted with the two boatmen. Those in the hold could hear every word that was said, and they almost held their breath, for the slightest noise would betray them. After a while the officer got into his boat again, saying he would send some men off to warp the vessel into the castle dock, as the fuel was required by the garrison there. As the barge was making its way towards the watergate, it struck upon a hidden obstruction in the river and began to leak rapidly. The situation of those in the hold was now terrible, for in a few minutes the water rose to their knees, and the choice seemed to be presented to them of being drowned like rats there, or leaping overboard, in which case they would be captured and hung without mercy. The boatmen plied the pumps vigorously, and in a short time a party of Italian soldiers arrived from the shore and towed the vessel into the inner harbour, and made her fast close to the guard house of the castle. A party of labourers at once came on board and began to unload the turf; the need of fuel both in the town and castle being great, for the weather had been for some time bitterly cold.
A fresh danger now arose. The sudden immersion in the icy water in the close cabin brought on a sudden inclination to sneeze and cough. Lieutenant Held, finding himself unable to repress his cough, handed his dagger to Lionel Vickars, who happened to be sitting next to him, and implored him to stab him to the heart lest his cough might betray the whole party; but one of the boatmen who was standing close to the cabin heard the sounds, and bade his companion go on pumping with as much noise and clatter as possible, while he himself did the same, telling those standing on the wharf alongside that the boat was almost full of water. The boatmen behaved with admirable calmness and coolness, exchanging jokes with acquaintances on the quay, keeping up a lively talk, asking high prices for their peat, and engaging in long and animated bargains so as to prevent the turf from being taken too rapidly ashore.
At last, when but a few layers of turf remained over the roof of the hold, the elder brother told the men unloading that it was getting too dark, and he himself was too tired and worn out to attend to things any longer. He therefore gave the man some money and told them to go to the nearest public house to drink his health, and to return the first thing in the morning to finish unloading. The younger of the two brothers had already left the boat. He made his way through the town, and started at full speed to carry the news to Prince Maurice that the barge had arrived safely in the town, and the attempt would be made at midnight; also of the fact they had learned from those on the wharf, that the governor had heard a rumour that a force had landed somewhere on the coast, and had gone off again to Gertruydenberg in all haste, believing that some design was on foot against that town. His son Paolo was again in command of the garrison.
A little before midnight Captain Heraugiere told his comrades that the hour had arrived, and that only by the most desperate bravery could they hope to succeed, while death was the certain consequence of failure. The band were divided into two companies. He himself with one was to attack the main guard house; the other, under Fervet, was to seize the arsenal of the fortress. Noiselessly they stole out from their hiding place, and formed upon the wharf within the inclosure of the castle. Heraugiere moved straight upon the guard house. The sentry was secured instantly; but the slight noise was heard, and the captain of the watch ran out, but was instantly cut down.
Others came our with torches, but after a brief fight were driven into the guard house; when all were shot down through the doors and windows. Captain Ferver and his band had done equally well. The magazine of the castle was seized, and its defenders slain. Paolo Lanzavecchia made a sally from the palace with a few of his adherents, but was wounded and driven back; and the rest of the garrison of the castle, ignorant of the strength of the force that had thus risen as it were from the earth upon them, fled panic stricken, not even pausing to destroy the bridge between the castle and the town.
Young Paolo Lanzavecchia now began a parley with the assailants; but while the negotiations were going on Hohenlohe with his cavalry came up -- having been apprised by the boatman that the attempt was about to be made -- battered down the palisade near the watergate, and entered the castle. A short time afterwards Prince Maurice, Sir Francis Vere, and other officers arrived with the main body of the troops. But the fight was over before even Hohenlohe arrived; forty of the garrison being killed, and not a single man of the seventy assailants. The burgomaster, finding that the castle had fallen, and that a strong force had arrived, then sent a trumpeter to the castle to arrange for the capitulation of the town, which was settled on the following terms:-- All plundering was commuted for the payment of two months' pay to every soldier engaged in the affair. All who chose might leave the city, with full protection to life and property. Those who were willing to remain were not to be molested in their consciences or households with regard to religion.
The news of the capture of Breda was received with immense enthusiasm throughout Holland. It was the first offensive operation that had been successfully undertaken, and gave new hope to the patriots.
Parma was furious at the cowardice with which five companies of foot and one of horse -- all picked troops -- had fled before the attack of seventy Hollanders. Three captains were publicly beheaded in Brussels and a fourth degraded to the ranks, while Lanzavecchia was deprived of the command of Gertruydenberg.
For some months before the assault upon Breda the army of Holland had been gaining vastly in strength and organization. Prince Maurice, aided by his cousin Lewis William, stadholder of Friesland, had been hard at work getting it into a state of efficiency. Lewis William, a man of great energy and military talent, saw that the use of solid masses of men in the field was no longer fitted to a state of things when the improvements in firearms of all sorts had entirely changed the condition of war. He therefore reverted to the old Roman methods, and drilled his soldiers in small bodies; teaching them to turn and wheel, advance or retreat, and perform all sorts of manoeuvres with regularity and order. Prince Maurice adopted the same plan in Holland, and the tactics so introduced proved so efficient that they were sooner or later adopted by all civilized nations.
At the time when William of Orange tried to relieve the hard pressed city of Haarlem, he could with the greatest difficulty muster three or four thousand men for the purpose. The army of the Netherlands was now 22,000 strong, of whom 2000 were cavalry. It was well disciplined, well equipped, and regularly paid, and was soon to prove that the pains bestowed upon it had not been thrown away. In the course of eighteen years that had followed the capture of Brill and the commencement of the struggle with Spain, the wealth and prosperity of Holland had enormously increased. The Dutch were masters of the sea coast, the ships of the Zeelanders closed every avenue to the interior, and while the commerce of Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, and the other cities of the provinces that remained in the hands of the Spaniards was for the time destroyed, and their population fell off by a half, Holland benefited in proportion.
From all the Spanish provinces men of energy and wealth passed over in immense numbers to Holland, where they could pursue their commerce and industries -- free from the exactions and cruelty under which they had for so many years groaned. The result was that the cities of Holland increased vastly in wealth and population, and the resources at the disposal of Prince Maurice enormously exceeded those with which his father had for so many years sustained the struggle.
For a while after the capture of Breda there was breathing time in Holland, and Maurice was busy in increasing and improving his army. Parma was fettered by the imperious commands of Philip, who had completely crippled him by withdrawing a considerable number of his troops for service in the war which he was waging with France. But above all, the destruction of the Armada, and with it of the naval supremacy of Spain, had changed the situation.
Holland was free to carry on her enterprises by sea, and had free communication and commerce with her English ally; while communication between Spain and the Netherlands was difficult. Reinforcements could no longer be sent by sea, and had to be sent across Europe from Italy. Parma was worn out by exertions, disappointment, and annoyance, and his health was seriously failing; while opposed to him were three young commanders -- Maurice, Lewis William, and Francis Vere -- all men of military genius and full of confidence and energy.