The battle of Nieuwpoort of 1600 was a Dutch victory during the long Eighty Years war with Spain, but it came during a failed campaign, and as a result had no major short term results. However it did establish the new Dutch Republic as a major military power, and made it increasingly unlikely that the Spanish would ever regain control over the northern Netherlands. However the most important thing historically about this battle is that it was a clash between two very different armies.
The Spanish/ Royalist army was the inheritor of a proud military tradition, built around the Tercio, a unit that had originally contained an equal mix of swordsmen, pikemen and arquebusiers or musketeers and that had helped the Spanish win a series of major victories throughout the Sixteenth Century. However the tercio was a large and someone ponderous unit. On the Dutch side Maurice of Nassau led a movement to reform the army. Perhaps the most significant of his innovations was the basic idea of simply sitting down to think about how an army should be organised, testing out his ideas in practice, and adapting them if they didn’t. However he is most famous for introducing the idea of ‘drill’, where soldiers were trained to be able to carry out a series of key manoeuvres in response to a single order. This introduced now familiar commands (such as ‘about face’), and allowed drilled units to carry out these important manoeuvres without needing commands for every individual step, making the army easier to command, and also greatly speeding up many key moves as well as making the time they would take more predictable. Musketry drill greatly improved the accuracy of Dutch gunfire, and these drilled units also proved to be rather more resilient than their un-drilled opponents. In contrast each Spanish unit had its own training regime, and carried out key commands at different speeds. Amongst the many benefits of the new drill system was a massive reduction in the time needed to deploy the army, with John of Nassau claiming that his army could deploy from the march into the line of battle in fifteen minutes. In contrast the Spanish and other armies of the period needed several hours to achieve the same thing.
As a result this book has to focus much more on military theory that is normally the case in this series. The Opposing Armies chapter is the most important part of the book, looking at just why the Dutch army was so different to its contemporaries, and how that made it more effective in battle. This is one of the best short accounts of the Dutch military revolution that I’ve read, explaining just what it was that changed, and what that actually meant on the battlefield. There are also useful sections on the actual nature of combat in this period, including the rather unusual cavalry tactics in use, largely based around the ‘caracole’, a circular movement designed to allow the cavalry to keep up a constant harassing fire on infantry units. Other accounts of this tactic make it sound rather pointless, but here we are given a clear explanation not only of what it was, but also why it was used, and the problems it posed to the infantry.
One minor quibble in the chapter on the Dutch commanders is that several of them are simply labelled as Count of Nassau, including Maurice, Louis Gunther and Ernst Casimir amongst those who were present, and William Louis amongst the absentees. It would certainly have made things a bit clearer if it had been explained that the Nassau family had split into an impressive number of separate families, so Maurice was Count of Nassau-Breda, Ernst Casimir count of Nassau-Dietz, William Louis count of Nassau-Dillenburg and Louis Gunther count of Nassau-Katzenelnbogen!
Nieuwpoort is unusual in a second way, as the battle was fought right at the coast, with the two armies originally forming up on a wide beach, before being partly pushed into the nearby dunes by the rising tide. Later in the battle the falling tide began to create an exposed flank for each army, so we get a very unusual moving battlefield. The dunes were also an unusual environment to be fighting in, forcing both armies to adapt their normal tactics to compensate for the much reduced visibility amongst the rolling dunes.
This is a good account of this significant battle, and is one of those Ospreys that feels longer than its actual length because of the amount of information that the author has managed to pack into its pages.
Origins of the Campaign
Author: Bouko de Groot