From the Memoirs of Jan-Willem van Wetering. The year 1809.
Translation by Bas de Groot, IJsselstein, the Netherlands, 2009
This is a translation of a part an unpublished transcript of Van Wetering’s memoirs. For his service record and other parts of his memoirs, please see Chassé's Division at Waterloo: Two Eye-witness Accounts
At the start of this part of Van Wetering’s memoirs, he serves as a Grenadier in the 1st Battalion, 9th Regiment of Infantry of the Kingdom of Holland. From 1807 until April 1809, his battalion has been garrisoned in Hamburg. This is where and when the memoirs start.
“Then the Prussian Major Schill arose with his free corps, and we were assigned to give chase to him, and capture him if possible. We marched through Leipzig, Dresden, all of Saxony, Bohemia, Prussia, Westphalia until we reached Mecklenburg, where, in Wismar, we captured two ships full of ammunition and clothing, which were meant for Schill’s corps, and which had probably been sent from England. There, we learned that Schill had put his entire corps, which was said to be composed of 4,000 troops, into Stralsund (which had been ours, and had been defended by two companies of French artillery and some Mecklenburg troops, which Schill had captured), and was making every preparation he could to defend it against us.
On the 31st of May 1809 we advanced against the city until we were within the range of its guns. Here, we stood in ordre de bataille (line, BdG), and suffered much from the cannonfire. Meanwhile, the 6th Dutch Regiment, the horse artillery and the Danish troops prepared themselves to storm the fortress, in which they failed. They were beaten back with severe losses in both dead and wounded. We now charged bayonets and advanced on the enemy’s batteries. There, we were ordered to kneel, so that the most part of the enemy’s shot and shell passed over our heads, while at the same time our Voltigeurs clambered up and into the batteries, and shot every artilleryman within their reach. Whilst kneeling, we also continued our fire. When the cannonfire lessened, we got up and charged up the bridge and up the batteries. This assault cost us dearly. General Katret (Carteret, BdG), the lieutenant-colonels of our 1st and 2nd battalion, Batenburg and Dolleman, and several other officers and men were killed. As I was serving as a corporal in the Grenadier company of the 1st Battalion of the 9th Infantry Regiment, and as we formed the 1st division of the storming party, we suffered the most. Before we had taken the fortress, our company lost 18 men killed. Our captain Durink (Note: this is the same man who commanded Napoleon’s 1st Regiment of Old Guard Chasseurs at Waterloo, BdG) was wounded in both knees by a musket ball as he stepped unto the bridge. Lieutenant Lembregts was wounded in the foot, which was later amputated, and several NCOs, corporals and grenadiers were wounded. I was wounded in the back of my head by a musket ball later on, which came from a house, but it wasn’t a dangerous wound, and so I decided to stay with my company.
When we had stormed the walls of the fortress, the fight wasn’t over yet. In the city itself, we still met a strong resistance. Schill’s troops had occupied many of the houses, from which they kept up an incessant fire, which cost us many men. As we were the first platoon which had entered the city, we reached the town square first. There we saw a squadron of those Prussian vieux moustaches, Schill’s hussars, standing in line, who charged us the moment they saw us appear, a charge we received with fixed bayonets. Their resistance didn’t last long. In these skirmishes, Major Schill was killed by several wounds. Nobody could say who killed him, and whoever did, did not know that it was Schill, for the King of Holland had issued a reward of 10,000 francs for the capture or killing of Schill. The body was displayed for 3 days, after which Schill’s head was sent to Holland.
After most of the city had been cleared of the enemy, a general fall-in was beaten. The troops rallied, and the 6th Regiment was instantly ordered to cross over to the island of Rugen, to chase all those of the enemy who had fled there, and capture them. We now took up our quarters. I, along with three other grenadiers, was quartered on a cloth salesman. In the ten days that we stayed with him, he made us all a new watchcoat and a pair of pantaloons each. We stood in great need of those items, because our clothing had suffered greatly from the many forced marches and bivouacs that we had gone through.
Before I leave this bloodbath, I have to write down that at the time we stormed the bridge, the batteries were also taken simultaneously. All remaining enemy troops fled for safety, and to the gate, which was narrow, as fortress gates commonly are. The gate was very speedily completely choked by cavalry, infantry and artillery. And as we had orders to give no quarter, all those in front of us were either sabred or shot, so that we were forced to climb and walk over the bodies of the dead and the wounded, who were piled upon one another.
We then marched away from Stralsund, taking with us 13 officers who had served under Schill, whom we had captured. These unhappy men, who were spared in Stralsund, were destined to end their lives in Wesel, where they were shot by a firing squad. We escorted them until Brunswick, and there handed them over to Westphalian troops.
Because the Duke of Brunswick, together with a considerable corps from England, was at that time trying to help liberate Germany from French rule, we were ordered to advance against the Duke, and to either defeat or capture him. To that end we marched past Helmstad, Berlin, Potsdam, Brandenburg and Magdeburg until we reached Halberstad. There we met the enemy corps for the first time, despite having pursued them very closely for some considerable time, and having taken prisoner several of their stragglers. They had advanced on the town, had clashed with the 5th Westphalian Regiment, and there were numerous men dead or dying by the time we arrived on the scene. We had forced-marched and were immediately thrown into the fray. This did not last long. When the Brunswickers saw that they would have to surrender, they retired towards Brunswick. Our Grenadier and Voltigeur company gave chase, and marched until they reached Wolfenbuttel. There, we were ordered to halt, even though the Duke had been joyously received by the inhabitants of that town that very morning, on which occasion they had brought him in on feather beds. If we hadn’t been given the order to halt, we would surely have taken the town and all the remaining enemy troops in it. But it wasn’t to be. The cause of this, it was presumed, was that at that particular time a great Mass or Fair was being held, and that the senior merchants of the town had quickly opened negociations with our General to save the town from great damages. We received orders to break camp early the next morning and to march on Brunswick. The two hours necessary to reach that town were quickly covered (Note: in the Netherlands, ‘an hour’s march’ equaled a distance of roughly 5 kilometers, BdG), but we found the city completely tranquil, the much-loved Brunswick Monarch along with his underlings having beaten a nightly retreat. We chased him into Hanover, as he was taking the route to Helsvliet (in Oldenburg) to embark for England. By that time this entire part of Germany had been cleared from the enemy, and as the war between France and Austria hadn’t ended yet, we received orders to advance into Bohemia.
To that end we marched from Hanover to Brunswick, Magdeburg, Dessau, Hall, Leipzig, Dresden, Freiburg and Blauwe (Note: unknown, BdG). Here we halted, because we were now very close to the Austrian outposts. Bivouacs were set up and firepits dug, and very strict orders were read out to us that nobody was to leave the bivouac under any pretext. Everybody was ordered to clean and check their weapons, in order to be ready to attack the enemy the next day. But as dusk crept up, I and some other Grenadiers took the opportunity to head out to a village that was located about half an hour’s march from the bivouac, which we had noticed as we had come up. We didn’t know if there were enemy troops stationed there, but as the rations we had received in the bivouac were not enough to feed us all, we were forced to go and look for food. Because of this, the order to remain in camp was not enforced as strictly as could have been. Armed with our sabers we marched along until we were 5 minutes away from the village, when suddenly we heard a cannon fire. We stood completely still, and heard the cannonade become general along the entire front of our line. What to do? Without our muskets, without leave-tickets, and against the strictest orders not to leave camp, we had left the bivouac. This was a matter of some importance to us, for if the enemy had attacked us, we could have been held to be deserters, gone over to the enemy, and liable to be shot. We clearly all of us realized all of this, but what to do? Eventually, we decided to head back to the picket and try to gather information there, and act according to circumstances, for we were none of us very eager to be caught as deserters and have our brains blown out. There was still plenty of time for that much, much later. When we reached the outposts, completely out of breath, we were told to our great joy that the cannonfire had been a feu de joie, that tidings had been received that an armistice had been signed, which would be followed up by a peace treaty, which eventually happened. We were saved! We had passed out of danger, and returned to camp, where we and our comrades in arms celebrated that night as best as we could.
While we remained here, us Dutchmen received yet another destination: Holland. The English had landed in Zeeland.
We received orders to forced-march to Erfurt, Weimar, Kassel, Göttingen, Detmond and Münster until we reached Enschede. There we were lovingly received in our fatherland. Carts and wagons stood ready to receive us, and deliver us elsewhere. We got 2 hours rest to eat white bread, cheese, and some beer. When we had finished with this meal, we clambered unto the wagons. The route continued day and night through Delden, Zutphen, Arnhem, Nijmegen and Grave until we reached ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Bois le Duc, BdG), where we arrived in the morning, and were again treated to a breakfast of white bread and beer, like all the places that we had passed and where we had exchanged our wagons for fresh ones.
That same day we marched from ‘s-Hertogenbosch to Kuilenburg, where an aunt and uncle of mine resided. I requested the privilege of accompanying our quartermaster, and preceded the column. My request was granted, and a little later I was mightily surprised, for upon entering the gate of the town I met my own mother, who was in town visiting her sister. At first she did not recognize me. She had not seen me since 1806, and since that time I had grown from 5 foot 6 inches to a full 6 feet. Besides which I was wearing a tall bearskin cap with a red plume, whereas when I left I had worn a tricorne. She approached me and asked me if I by chance knew her son. I asked her for her son’s name. She named me. I told her he was my comrade, and was approaching the town. My comrades however could not keep a straight face any longer, and roundly told my mother that indeed I was her son. Mad with joy I went with her to my aunt and uncle’s house, where I was received, again with joy. The Regiment was quartered in the town for the night.
The next day we marched for the Military Camp at Naarden, where we were graciously received by the King’s Guard, and our entire Regiment was treated to a dinner with wine. After a few days and with heartfelt thanks for our gracious reception, we left the Camp and marched to Bergen-op-Zoom. There we lent our aid in manning forts and wherever else the defenders of the Fatherland were called upon.
After the enemy had withdrawn his forces, we marched to ‘s-Gravenhage (The Hague, BdG). Having arrived there we passed in review for H.M. the King. On this occasion several NCOs were promoted to officers, and a number of Golde and Silver Medals were awarded to those whose behavior during the taking of Stralsund had been exemplary. When this had ended, we occupied the barracks, where everything had been put in readiness for our arrival, and a hearty lunch was awaiting us. As our stomachs had been sending us warning signals, we didn’t wait long before setting ourselves down to it.”
After a few days, van Wetering’s Regiment sets out for Utrecht, where their regimental number was changed to no. 5 (the former 5th Regiment having been wiped out and having been taken out of the line, having formed the permanent garrison of Walcheren until mid-1809). Van Wetering’s Regiment is later involved in taking up blocking positions around Amsterdam when King Louis Bonaparte refuses to let a French “Corps of Observation” advance into Dutch territory, but nothing happens and Louis abdicates his throne.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2011