The Battle of Boxtel was fought in the Dutch province of North Brabant on 15 September 1794, during the War of the First Coalition. It was part of the Flanders Campaign of 1793-94 in which British, Dutch and Austrian troops had attempted to launch an invasion of France through Flanders. It is often considered most notable for the presence of Arthur Wesley, who later became Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington.
A major allied expedition had planned to overthrow the French Revolutionaries by invading France from the north through Flanders in co-ordination with other similar attacks from different directions. These forces had initially been successful but had suffered a serious reverse outside Dunkirk and by 1794 were retreating back northwards, pursued by an increasingly resurgent French army. In mid-September the French caught up with the Allied rearguard near the small town of Boxtel.
By the end of July the Duke of York was at Roosendaal, near Breda. His force, numbering some 32,000, excluding Hanoverians and Hessians, was of indifferent quality, partly due to peacetime neglect, but mostly to the purchase of commissions by young men who were placed in command of untrained, ill equipped and hastily raised recruits. The next day, York sent a division commanded by Ralph Abercromby to recover the town. The British ran into the French near the village of Schijndel and were forced to retire in confusion, pursued by French cavalry. The battle was a baptism of fire for Lieutenant-Colonel Wesley, who was in command of the second Brigade, whilst his own regiment the 33rd Regiment was serving under the newly appointed Lieutenant Colonel John Sherbrooke.
By September the army had retreated to a position along the River Dommel between Eindhoven and Hertogenbosch. On 14 September a strong French force captured the town and with it some 1,500 of the Hessian garrison. The following day the Duke ordered Lieutenant General Abercromby to recover the town. The task was given to the Guards Brigade and the 3rd Brigade, 12th (Suffolk), 33rd Regiment of Foot, 42nd (Black Watch) and the 44th (Essex), under the command of Arthur Wesley. Abercromby advanced boldly enough but, encountering unexpectedly superior opposition, he judged it prudent to withdraw. Then followed some disorder as the retreating infantry became mixed up with the cavalry squadrons. Seeing this, the French cavalry deployed for a charge and the situation became critical. It was resolved by the muskets of the 33rd, commanded by Sherbrooke. The action saved the day, enabling the rest of the force to withdraw.
The following account was dictated to Sherbrooke's daughter-in-law in 1830, the year of his death. Most accounts are based on that given in W.H. Maxwell's Life of Wellington (1849). This stated that Wesley commanded the 33rd at Boxtel, which is incorrect.
- When he (Sherbrooke) had obtained the rank of Lt-Col., he served under the Duke of York in Flanders, and during this unfortunate and memorable retreat, the 33rd was appointed to cover it... Two regiments of French Cavalry were seen coming down with the intention of charging the 33rd ... Col. Sherbrooke faced his Regt to the rear and gave the word 33rd 'Steady'. In this awful crisis not a man moved, but with determined fortitude they awaited the attack. When the first French Regt. was within 50 yards the command was given to Fire!'- the steady coolness of the men gave it full effect... men and horses were precipitated to the ground - those who were neither unhorsed nor wounded, halted and attempted to retreat, but before they had gained a very short distance a second volley completed the work of destruction and the whole Regt. lay stretched on the ground. The second Regt witnessing the dreadful over-throw faced about and were seen no more. This brilliant action Sir John (Sherbrooke) always declared was more satisfactory to him, and he took more pride in it, than any affair in which he was ever engaged.
The British were able to continue their retreat northwards and eventually reached the North Sea coast successfully, where they were withdrawn to Britain in 1795. The French pressed on to Amsterdam and overthrew the Dutch Republic, replacing it with a satellite state.
In popular culture
The battle of Boxtel was the first battle of Richard Sharpe, protagonist of the Sharpe novels. The battle is cited in Sharpe's Tiger when Sharpe is a private in Wellington's Regiment.
- The History of The Duke of Wellington's Regiment (West Riding) 1702-1992, page 93, by J.M. Brereton and A.C.S. Savoury, ISBN 0-9521552-0-6, Published by The Duke of Wellington's Regiment Regimental Headquarters
- Urban, Mark, Generals: Ten British Commanders Who Shaped the World. Faber and Faber, 2005
- Wills, Garry David, Wellington's First Battle, 2011
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