Briefing - The Belgian War for Independence
In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna gave what is now Belgium to the Netherlands, recently elevated into a kingdom ruled by the House of Orange. This was a mite confusing to the Belgians. Until the early 1790s they had been owned by Austria. Then for nearly two decades they had more or less been incorporated into the French Empire. Now, rather suddenly, the Catholic Belgians were forcibly united with the Protestant Dutch. Needless to say, the Belgians were rather unhappy under Dutch rule.
In July of 1830 a popular uprising broke out in Paris. Although brutally suppressed, it would later result in the installation of the “Liberal Monarchy” under King Louis Philippe. As the old adage had it, “If France has the sniffles all Europe will catch a cold,” and unrest and insurgencies soon broke out in many other parts of Europe – Poland, Italy, Spain, even Britain. And in August of 1830, anti-Dutch rioting broke out in Brussels.
With only 2,000 troops in the city, the Dutch were unable to suppress the uprising. As the rebels installed a temporary government in the city, the Dutch gathered reinforcements. On September 21st, 10,000 Dutch troops entered Brussels, intend on crushing the uprising. But the Belgians fought back, from windows, rooftops, and cellars, and behind improvised barricades in the streets. On the 26th the Dutch fell back on the fortress of Antwerp. On October 4th, the elated Belgians declared their independence from the Netherlands. With the help of an improvised army, the largely Belgian inhabitants of Antwerp promptly seized the city. But the citadel remained in Dutch hands, with a strong garrison under Lieut. Gen. David Henri de Chassé – who had fought both for and against France during the era of the Revolution and Napoleon. On October 27th de Chassé began a desultory bombardment of the, just to remind the Belgians that he was still there.
Now while all of this was unfolding, the great powers were by no means sitting idly by; fearful that the Belgian revolt would unleash a spasm of revolutionary activity across Europe. On November 4th, at a hastily convened conference in London, Britain, France, and Prussia, the three great powers most threatened by instability in the region, backed by Austria and Russia, ordered a cease-fire. A few weeks later the powers decreed independence for Belgium. Although this was a major break in the reactionary anti-nationalist policies which the “Concert of Europe” had been pursing since the fall of Napoleon, it was politically expedient. Neither Britain nor France nor Prussia were particularly happy over the incorporation of Belgium into the Netherlands, turning a small power into a potentially major one, while Austria, which had in pre-Revolutionary times owned Belgium, acceded to its independence as well.
Of course the Dutch, under King Wilhelm I, demurred. And Baron Chassé still held the citadel of Antwerp. Although it took a while to get organized, on August 2, 1831, the Prince of Orange led 36,000 Dutch troops with 72 guns into Belgium. The Belgians had been working hard to improvise an army. One force was at Brussels, under Gen. Nicolas Daine, while the other held Antwerp – save for its citadel, still in Dutch hands. Orange defeated Daine at Louvain on August 12th. This interposed his army between the Belgian capitol and the principal remaining Belgian force, at Antwerp. But the Dutch invasion had been taken against the distinct wishes of the Great Powers. And they weren’t called “great” for nothing.
Within days of the Dutch entry into Belgium, a French army over 60,000 strong was on the march, under Marshal Etienne Maurice Gérard, another one of Napoleon’s veterans. By October Gerard had forced the Dutch to retreat back into the Netherlands. Gérard began an investment of the citadel of Antwerp, to which Chassé still clung. Amazingly, the old general held out for more than a year. Finally, aided by the Royal Navy, the French began a close siege of the citadel in November of 1832. By the end of December Chassé had to give it up. He surrendered with the honors of war, and was later promoted to “General of Infantry.”
Although desultory fighting continued until a general armistice was concluded in late May 1833, the war was over.