Dunkirk.to cross bayonets, fled in all directions. The east front of Bergues was invested on the 23rd, and Freytag spread out his forces to cover the duke of York’s attack on Dunkirk, his right being opposite Bergues and his centre at Bambeke, while his left covered the space between Roosbrugge and Ypres with a cordon of posts. Houchard was in despair at the bad conduct of his troops. But one young general, Jourdan, anticipating Houchard’s orders, had already brought a strong force from Lille to Cassel, whence he incessantly harried Freytag’s posts. Carnot encouraged the garrisons of Dunkirk and Bergues, and caused the sluices to be opened. The moral of the defenders rose rapidly. Houchard prepared to bring up every available man of the Army of the North, and only waited to make up his mind as to the direction in which his attack should be made. The Allies themselves recognized the extreme danger of their position. It was cut in half by the Great Morass, stretches of which extended even to Furnes. Neither Dunkirk nor Bergues could be completely invested owing to the inundations, and Freytag sent a message to King George III. to the effect that if Dunkirk did not surrender in a few days the expedition would be a complete failure.
As for the French, they could hardly believe their good fortune. Generals, staff officers and representatives on mission alike were eager for a swift and crushing offensive. “‘Attack’ and ‘attack in mass’ became the shibboleth and the catch-phrase of the camps” (Chuquet), and fortresses and armies on other parts of the frontier were imperiously called upon to supply large drafts for the Army of the North. Gay-Vernon’s strategical instinct found expression in a wide-ranging movement designed to secure the absolute annihilation of the duke of York’s forces. Beginning with an attack on the Dutch posts north and east of Lille, the army was then to press forward towards Furnes, the left wing holding Freytag’s left wing in check, and the right swinging inwards and across the line of retreat of both allied corps. At that moment all men were daring, and the scheme was adopted with enthusiasm. On the 28th of August, consequently, the Dutch posts were attacked and driven away by the mobile forces at Lille, aided by parts of the main army from Arras. But even before they had fired their last shot the Republicans dispersed to plunder and compromised their success. Houchard and Gay-Vernon began to fear that their army would not emerge successfully from the supreme test they were about to impose on it, and from this moment the scheme of destroying the English began to give way to the simpler and safer idea of relieving Dunkirk. The place was so ill-equipped that after a few days’ siege it was in extremis, and the political importance of its preservation led not merely the civilian representatives, but even Carnot, to implore Houchard to put an end to the crisis at once. On the 30th, Cassel, instead of Ypres, was designated as the point of concentration for the “mass of attack.” This surprised the representatives and Carnot as much as it surprised the subordinate generals, all of whom thought that there would still be time to make the détour through Ypres and to cut off the Allies’ retreat before Dunkirk fell. But Houchard and Gay-Vernon were no longer under any illusions as to the manœuvring power of their forces, and the government agents wisely left them to execute their own plans. Thirty-seven thousand men were left to watch Coburg and to secure Arras and Douai, and the rest, 50,000 strong, assembled at Cassel. Everything was in Houchard’s favour could he but overcome the indiscipline of his own army. The duke of York was more dangerous in appearance than in reality—as the result must infallibly have shown had Houchard and Gay-Vernon possessed the courage to execute the original plan—and Freytag’s covering army extended in a line of disconnected posts from Bergues to Ypres.
Against the left and centre of this feeble cordon 40,000 men advanced in many columns on the 6th of September. A confused outpost fight, in which the various assailing columns dissolved into excited swarms, ended, long after nightfall, in the orderly withdrawal of the various allied posts to Hondschoote. The French generals were occupied the whole of next day in sorting out their troops, who had not only completely wasted their strength against mere outposts, but had actually consumed their rations and used up their ammunition. On the 8th, the assailants, having more or less recovered themselves, advanced again. They found Wallmoden (who had succeeded Freytag, disabled on the 6th) entrenched on either side of the village of Hondschoote, the right resting on the great morass and the left on the village of Leysele. Here was the opportunity for the “attack in mass” that had been so freely discussed; but Houchard was now concerned more with the relief of Dunkirk than with the defeat of the enemy. He sent away one division to Dunkirk, another to Bergues, and a third towards Ypres, and left himself only some 20,000 men for the battle. But Wallmoden had only 13,000—so great was the disproportion between end and means in this ill-designed enterprise against Dunkirk.
|Redrawn from a map in Fortescue’s History of the British Army, by permission
of Macmillan & Co., Ltd.
Houchard despatched a column, guided by his staff officer Berthelmy, to turn the Hanoverians’ left, but this column lost its way in the dense country about Loo. The centre waited motionless under the fire of the allied guns near Hondschoote. In vain the representative Delbrel implored the general to order the advance. Houchard was obstinate, and ere long the natural result followed. Though Delbrel posted himself in front of the line, conspicuous by his white horse and tricoloured sash and plume, to steady the men, the bravest left the ranks and skirmished forward from bush to bush, and the rest sought cover. Then the allied commander ordered forward one regiment of Hessians, and these, advancing at a ceremonial slow march, and firing steady rolling volleys, scattered the Republicans before them. At this crisis Houchard uttered the fatal word “retreat,” but Delbrel overwhelmed him with reproaches and stung him into renewed activity. He hurried away to urge forward the right wing while Jourdan rallied the centre and led it into the fight again. Once more Jourdan awaited in vain the order to advance, and once more the troops broke. But at last the exasperated Delbrel rose to the occasion. “You fear the responsibility,” he cried to Jourdan; “well, I assume it. My authority overrides the general’s and I give you the formal order to attack at once!” Then, gently, as if to soften a rebuke, he continued, “You have forced me to speak as a superior; now I will be your aide-de-