“... on Saturday morning, my servant informed me that a French hussar stood near our ship" - The Capture of the Fleet in the Ice

28 January 1795,  a major part of the Dutch navy, 15 ships-of-the-line among them, trapped by ice off Den Helder, officially surrendered to Brigadier General Jan Willem de Winter of the French Revolutionary Army after their capture by Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Lahure and his 8th Hussars during the previous week.

“... on Saturday morning, my servant informed me that a French hussar stood near our ship. I looked out my porthole, and indeed, there stood an hussar." (Surgeon Ahlé of the Dutch ship-of-the-line "Snelheid")

 The French naval painter Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio’s imagination of Lahure’s 8th Hussars closing in on the Dutch ships-of-the-line across the ice off the Texel.

A “Husarenstück” is a daring coup de main accomplished by light horsemen, “hussars”. Daredevilry done by dashing young men in smart uniforms against all odds or probability. The first deed that was later called a “Husarenstück” was the capture and occupation  of Berlin
 by a regiment of Austro-Hungarian hussars for a day during the Seven Years’ War that made Frederick the Great bite the carpet with rage. 40 Years later, during the invasion of the Dutch Republic by armies of revolutionary France, another whimsical “Husarenstück” occurred at Den Helder. It happened during a particular harsh winter, channels froze over, allowing for a rapid advance of General Pichegru’s army. Utrecht fell on January 17th, William V, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the United Provinces fled from Haarlem to Britain during the following night, the Batavian Republic was proclaimed, Amsterdam was occupied on January 20th by the French and fifty miles to the north, the Dutch navy lay frozen in the Marsdiep between Texel and Den Helder since December. And off rode 23-years old Colonel Lahure with his 8th Hussars and four pieces of horse artillery to capture 15 battleships-of-the-line, with about 5,000 sailors and marines and more than 800 guns on board. More ordnance than the whole French army had at its disposal. The bonny light horsemen rode across the ice, boarded the battleships, many Dutch matelots were rather revolutionary-minded and welcomed Lahure’s men 'de bonne grace' and that was the only event in history when a naval squadron was captured in a cavalry charge. Or so the story goes.

Théodore Géricault’s rendition of a charging French hussar from 1812

In fact, the Seven United Provinces were in quite a revolutionary mood since at least 1785 and the days of Pro-Orange restoration were finally numbered when Stadtholder William V sided against France in the War of the First Coalition. Pro-Orange Admiral van Kinsbergen contemplated an evacuation of the fleet to Britain, not an option anymore when the ships were put on ice and the attempt to blast a navigable channel through the obstacle failed. The waters in the Texel were too shallow to for scuttling the ships and their precious guns and when Amsterdam surrendered, van Kinsbergen was forced by the government of the new Batavian Republic to relay the orders to the fleet that the ships were not to resist a capture by the French. And while van Kinsbergen stepped down from his office in disgust afterwards, most officers and crews of the fleet were Republicans and welcomed the French and after almost two months in the ice, the ships were in a rather lamentable state anyway. Lahure’s daring ride to capture a naval squadron was actually a political formality and the hussars, along with men of the French 15th Infantry Regiment were indeed welcomed aboard. Lieutenant-Colonel Lahure and the most senior captain present, Hermanus Reintjes of "Admiraal Piet Heyn", agreed upon doing nothing until receipt of further orders.

Charles Louis Mozin (1806-1862): “Prise de la flotte Anglo-Batave“

A week later, matters became official when Jan Willem de Winter arrived on the scene, a former lieutenant of the Dutch Navy, who, after having fled to France in the wake of the failed revolt against the Stadtholder in 1787, had become a brigadier in the French Revolutionary Army. Respected by everyone on the spot, the ships surrendered to de Winter, were allowed to fly the flag of the Batavian Republic and keep their arms as long as military discipline was maintained and French orders being followed. De Winter became a sailor again, assumed command as vice-admiral and tried to wrest control of the North Sea from the British. De Winter and the navy of the Batavian Republic were defeated at Camperdown in October 1797 in a brutal battle and most of the 11 still seaworthy ships that had surrendered at Den Helder two years before were captured by the Royal Navy along with their admiral.  

And more about the “Capture of the Dutch fleet at Den Helder” on: