Siege of Dunkirk, 23 August-8 September 1793

The siege of Dunkirk (23 August-8 September 1793) was a British failure that demonstrated the poor condition of the British army at the start of the War of the First Coalition, and marked the beginning of a period of French success in Belgium and northern France. The British cabinet considered the capture of Dunkirk to be an important war aim, and so after the Allied successes around Condé and Valenciennes, both of which fell to the Allies in July, the Allied army under the Prince of Saxe-Coburg split into two. While Saxe-Coburg took an Austrian army to besiege Quesnoy, the Duke of York led a combined British, Austrian, Hanoverian and Hessian army north west to attack Dunkirk.

The British contingent was actually one of the smaller parts of the combined army. The Duke of York had 11,000 Austrians (10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry), 10,600 Hanoverians (9,000 infantry and 1,600 cavalry), 7,000 Hessians (5,500 infantry and 1,500 cavalry) and 5,500 British (5,200 infantry and 1,300 cavalry), giving him a total of 29,700 infantry and 5,400 cavalry. He was supported by the Hanoverian General Heinrich Wilhelm von Freytag, and General Ludwig Georg Graf von Wallmoden-Gimborn (normally called Wallmoden).

The combined army left Marchiennes on the Scarpe on 15 August, and reached Menin on 18 August. That day part of the army fought a skirmish at Linselles to help the Prince of Orange. The army was then split into two. Freytag was given command of a covering force of 14,500 men, which by 24 August was defending a 21 mile long circuit around Dunkirk, starting close to Ypres. Freytag himself was based in the eastern part of this line (probably at Hondschoote), while Wallmoden took up a position at Bergues, to the west. Both places were about five miles from the coast, while the covering army itself was based another five miles to the south.

The Duke of York advanced to Furnes (Veurne) on 20 August. On 22 August he advanced along the coast towards the fortified camp at Ghyvelde, harassed all the time by French gunboats. On the night of 22-23 August the French abandoned the camp, and the siege is normally dated as having begun on 23 August. On the following day the French were forced out of the suburb of Rosendahl, and the Allies were able to take up their preferred positions. These ran from the coast south to Téteghem, and only threatened the eastern side of the town. The northern part of the Allied position was in the sand hills along the coast, while the southern part was in an area of swampy ground known as the Great Moor.

The Duke of York suffered from two major disadvantages during the short period of the siege. He did not have any have guns, and eventually had to take the cannons from a frigate. Only then, at the start of September, was he able to begin bombarding the walls. His second problem was a lack of naval support. One frigate, HMS Brilliant, arrived on 29 August, but was blown away by a storm three days later. The Government had planned to provide naval support, and on 30 August the commander of that fleet, Admiral Macbride, arrived outside Dunkirk, but his fleet did not appear until the siege was over.

The French response to the threat to Dunkirk was rather more effective. On 14 August Carnot had joined the Committee of Public Safety, with control over the formation, training and movements of the armies of the republic. On 16 August he issued his famous decree calling for a levy en masse of the male population, by which time the French armies were already beginning to benefit from an earlier round of conscription. Carnot decided to concentrate his efforts against the British at Dunkirk, and by 24 August General Houchard had command of 23,000 men in a fortified camp at Cassel, only a few miles south of the Allied lines, 4,000 men from Lille and 12-15,000 men who were approaching from the Moselle. Dunkirk itself was defended by 8,000 men under General Souham.

Houchard made his move on 6 September, attacking Freytag's covering force with five columns. Most of the Allied line held, but the attacks on the French right succeeded, and Freytag was forced to order a retreat back to Hondschoote. During the fighting on 6 September Freytag was captured, wounded, and then rescued, and command fell to Wallmoden. On 8 September Houchard attacked again, and after a battle lasting several hours Wallmoden was forced to retreat back to Furnes. When this news reached the Duke of York, he was forced to abandon the siege. The heavy baggage was sent away at four in the afternoon, and the army moved away at midnight. The heavy guns had to be abandoned, but Houchard made no effort to attack the retreating army, and by noon on the following day the Allied army had reunited at Furnes. The campaign was said to have cost the Duke of York 10,000 casualties, over a quarter of his original army, many caused by disease.

Houchard followed up his victory at Hondschoote with a victory over the Dutch at Menin on 13 September, but was then defeated by an Austrian counterattack at Coutrai on 15 September. He was soon removed from power, and after a trial for military inefficiency was guillotined.

The Duke of York’s Flanders Campaign – Fighting the French Revolution, 1793-1795, Steve Brown. Looks at the Flanders campaigns of the War of the First Coalition, the first major British involvement in the Revolutionary Wars and the campaigns in which the ‘old style’ Eighteenth Century armies and leadership of the Coalition proved lacking when faced with the new armies of Revolutionary France. Focuses on the British (and hired German) contribution, and the role of the young Duke of York, whose Royal status gave him a command that his military experience didn’t justify (Read Full Review)
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 January 2009), Siege of Dunkirk, 23 August-8 September 1793 ,

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