Part 19 - the Dutch army

by George Gush

THE DUTCH ARMY was born with the nation, in 1568, when the Netherlands started upon their long war of independence against Spain War was continuous to the Twelve Years' Truce of 1609, and was then once more renewed during the Thirty Years' War period.
    Throughout, the survival of the United Provinces depended upon the efficiency of their army against the veteran troops of Europe's greatest military power, so it is not surprising to find the Dutch forces taking the lead in 16th Century tactical developments.
    Relatively few Dutch troops could be raised; the population was not large, and their efforts were directed more to the sea than the land, though there were always several native Dutch units, and the vital role of town defence to a considerable extent depended on the bravery of local burgher militia (including in the early days such picturesque units as the ferocious corps of women, armed with sword, dagger and firearm, raised by widow Kenau Hasselaer to help defend Haarlem in 1572).
    Thus, from the first, the Dutch army was made up largely of foreigners; all of them paid by the States, they included 'pure' mercenaries, official aid sent from England, and 'Gentlemen of the Religion' - Protestants from all over Europe, who fought for their faith as well as cash.
    Experienced mercenaries considered the Dutch to be Europe's best employers, since, they were not only fairly generous with pay, but offered regular Year-round employment (unlike, for example, the Poles, who paid very well, but for the campaigning season only), and even some Pension arrangements for the disabled.
    Nor was the possession of a largely-mercenary army a disadvantage - contemporaries indeed considered that the reforms of Maurice of Nassau could only have been carried out with a disciplined mercenary force.
    Indeed, some of Maurice's reforms were specifically for the benefit of the mercenaries: their career prospects were improved by his insistence that foreign units should have officers of their own nationality, and the military college he founded at Breda was open to foreign-born as well as Dutch officers. In 1609, the infantry comprised 43 English companies, in three Regiments (the first English unit in Dutch service, in 1572, was eventually to become The Buffs); 32 French companies in two regiments; 20 of Scots, 11 Walloon, nine German and only 17 Dutch.
    In the earlier stages of the war with Spain the Dutch forces, though managing to keep the war going, had an almost unbroken run of disaster, at least in the open field, lightened only by a single success, at Heiligerlee (1568). William the Silent was, however, a more persistent than lucky leader, and by 1580 the Netherlands total forces had been built up to 3,000 cavalry and some 28,000 infantry (including garrisons).
    Infantry companies were of, mainly, 150-200 men, and at this date were made up of roughly 2/3 shot to 1/3 pikemen. Their regiments varied from three to 15 companies (ten or 11 being typical), but on the battlefield they seem to have formed usually in the Spanish manner, in one to three very large 'battalions' (called 'Hopen' by the Dutch) of pikemen, formed deeper than they were wide, with shot flanking them and forming a thin screen or 'forlorn hope' in front.
    The cavalry were about 22 per cent lancers (carrying one pistol by the '90s), 70 per cent armoured pistoliers, and eight per cent mounted arquebusiers. They were formed in ensigns ('Vanen') of from 50 to 150 strong (arquebusiers usually in the smaller, pistoliers in the larger ensigns), regiments being only set up provisionally, for battle.
    In 1590, Prince Maurice of Nassau, already soldier and Stadtholder of the province of Holland, became, at 23, the Commander in Chief of the Dutch armies. Over the next 20 years, he fought Spinola and Farnese, Spain's finest generals, and their veteran tercios, to a standstill; commanded at 29 sieges and two full-scale battles, all successes; and effectively secured the independence of his country.
    He also drastically reformed the Dutch army, and provided a tactical model for most of the armies (at least of Protestant powers) of the 17th Century. His associate in these reforms, incidentally, was his cousin William Louis, whose use of lead soldiers must give him a fair claim to be the first wargamer.
    Like many military thinkers of the period, from Machiavelli onwards, Maurice was inspired by ancient works such as those of Vegetius and Leo; indeed, his enthusiasm seems at first to have been somewhat uncritical, extending to ordering his officers to learn Latin, and kitting out an experimental company Roman fashion, some with greaves, rectangular shield and sword, others with pike and buckler!
    More practical classical borrowings included the standardised layout of the camps in which his army spent the summer, neat company-streets with officers' tents at the end surrounding the train and the tall tent of the commander, also the regular drill and training, including mock-battles.
    Most important, however, was the new 'battalion', the basic infantry battlefield unit, reduced from several thousands to, officially, 550 (taken from the Roman cohort). Regiments would now form, usually, two or more battalions on the battlefield, each with pikes in the centre, five to ten deep, musketeers on each side of them, and arquebusiers on the extreme flanks, nine to 12 ranks deep. The army as a whole formed, usually, three lines, with the battalions drawn up, as shown, in chequer-board fashion.
    This network of small tactical units gave the Dutch far greater mobility and flexibility than their opponents, or indeed most contemporary armies.
    Though the figure of 550 is usually given for the battalions, it appears in practice to have varied a great deal - in 1592, Maurice reviewed his army in battalions for the first time, their strengths varying from 750 to 1,030; Eiton's diagram is for a battalion of at least 972.

Diagram showing a Dutch 'Battalion' of 550 men in battle order. A = arquebusiers, M musketeers and P = pikemen.

    Maurice is said also to have reduced the size of companies, but these varied very widely in any case, though a strength of 113-120 seems to have become common in place of 150 earlier. Maurice is also held to have increased the proportion of pikes to shot (Michael Roberts suggests that the increase of pikes was necessary to stiffen the thinner infantry line). However, the two pikes to three shot ratio usual under him is similar to that of the companies of the 1580s listed, though certainly above the 1:2 ratio at the beginning of that decade.
    Nor did Maurice standardise upon the musket, which does not seem to have become the sole infantry firearm until 1622, though as the lists show the proportion of muskets to arquebusses increased, and halberds, two-handers, etc, disappeared.
    Maurice did order that equipment should be standardised: pikemen were to have 18-foot pikes, helmet, gorget, corselet and sword; about a quarter of them also wore armour from shoulders to elbow and large tassets. Musketeers and arquebusiers were supposed to have helmets and swords as well as their firearms, the lengths and calibres of which were also standardised (musket balls weighed ten or 12 to the pound, arquebus balls half this).
    Maurice's most important change to the cavalry was the replacement of the lance by the pistol; the 11 ensigns of lancers in service in 1597 were all converted to pistol- armed cuirassiers, along with three ensigns of arquebusiers. At the same time, the heavy cavalry squadrons had attached to them up to 81 boys on 'baggage-horses'. Servants rather than combatants, though usually armed with a pistol, these youths were mainly intended to relieve the cavalry and their expensive mounts from becoming exhausted or dispersed through the necessity of foraging (English cavalry of this period, in Ireland, had similar servants).
    By 1606, the mounted arm, now given its own commander in Louis of Nassau, Lieutenant-General of the Cavalry, comprised some 40 ensigns, 2,853 Reiters and cuirassiers with pistols, 890 arquebusiers, 200 French lancers, and 350 Dragoons. These latter, mounted Dutch infantry, were a new experiment, and apparently not a successful one, since they re-mustered as arquebusiers by 1621.
    Like the infantry, the cavalry included many mercenaries, particularly Germans, but also the French mentioned, the Scots ensigns of Erskine and Hamilton, and the English ones of Francis de Vere, Sir Robert Sidney, and Thomas Viller. Maurice, however, seems to have increased the number of native Dutch cuirassiers. He had also improved cavalry training, especially in the use of firearms (he employed formations at least five deep, using caracole tactics), and though the ensigns remained independent he grouped them in regiments of three or four on the battlefield.
    Standard equipment for the cuirassier was a helmet - referred to as a 'salade' but probably of the 'Dutch pot' type, at least in the 17th Century - gorget and corselet (all pistol-proof), shoulder armour, steel gauntlets and tassets from waist to knee, with two short (42-bore) pistols and a sword; horse to be at least 15 hands.
    Mounted arquebusiers (also referred to as, Carabineers and Bandeliers) wore casquet or pot, gorget and corselet, carbine slung on a shoulder-belt, one pistol, and sword. The great success of the cavalry was Turnhout, 1597, where they overthrew both lancers and pikes practically on their own.
    Finally, artillery also was improved by Prince Maurice; it was a vital arm in view of the number of sieges the Dutch had to undertake. Again training was improved, cannon were standardised (48, 24, 12 and 6-pounders) and the use of limbers (probably derived from the Spanish) increased their mobility. A siege train of about 1605, with six 48 and eight 24-pounders, had 316 horses in the teams (including spare spans), no less than 390 wagons, 30 cannoneers and 300 matrosses (gunners' mates), 300 pioneers and a large body of technicians including a Petardier and a Master-Fire-worker.
    All in all the Dutch army was not especially large, but as well as its new tactics, gained in that it was among the best-paid, best-trained and best-equipped of its day (in the equipment field two Maurician innovations were effective hand-grenades - used for sieges - and telescopes for officers).
    Dutch 30 Years' War period armies followed the lines already laid down, the main difference being that the musket had become the sole infantry firearm. By 1635 the infantry had expanded to 35 regiments, still of widely varying size, from nine companies up; Colonel's companies were 200 or 150, the rest 120 strong. Some units seem to have had early flintlocks rather than the usual matchlocks in Maurice's time, and these may have become standard by the 1630s, giving the Dutch a firepower advantage. The cavalry at last received a permanent regimental organisation (regiments of four ensigns each); ensigns were 100 strong on paper, and three-quarters of the 4,000 cavalry were cuirassiers with pistols, the rest arquebusiers.

Uniform, flags, etc

    There was no general uniform, and it is likely that companies rather than regiments might wear coats of uniform colour. A probable exception is the Guards Regiment, which at least in the latter 17th Century wore blue. The line infantry in the later 17th Century wore grey, as did the original rebels against Spain, the 'Geux' or 'Beggars'. The national sign was an orange sash, though by the 1640s officers had taken to white sashes with coloured knots.
    Flags were, of course, carried by each company and ensign; they were often striped in the 16th Century, sometimes with personal or national devices; the lion of Orange and Holland shown seems to have been much used, by infantry at least, from 1599 on.
    In the early days of the revolt, William of Orange had flags showing a pelican feeding her young, and some with the motto 'Pro Lege, Rege, Grege'. At Heiligerlee, Louis of Nassau's standards were inscribed 'Nunc aut Nunquam Recuperare aut Mori'.

Dutch infantry companies

Date             1579    1587    1587    1596    1597
Officers           13      13      13      15      13
Musketeers         12      18      24      36      28
Arquebusiers       75      52      73      41      31
Pikemen            50      45      60      57      39
Two-handers         -       4       6       -       -
Halberds            -      12      18       -       -
Sword-and-buckler   -       3       3       -       -
Pages               -       3       3       2       2

Total             150     150     200     151     113
(The 'Officers' comprise Captain, standard-bearer, two sergeants, four corporals, two drummers, surgeon, provost and clerk.)


A Dutch lancer and carabinier of William of Orange's Guard, 1580. Note sling on lance. Pennon probably orange-white-blue. Carabinier has hanging sleeves, decorated cabacete helmet. Colours not known but stripes and borders are lighter than the ground colours. On the far left are two 'Dutch Pots' of the early 17th Century. These were generally simple, with single or no nasal, fixed peak, and often minus cheek pieces or ridge.

The photograph shows a Dutch pikeman's armour, circa 1630, in the Tower of London (Department of the Environment).

Arms and Armour of Knights and Landsknechts in the Netherlands Army Museum
by Jan Piet Puype & Harm Stevens

Dutch pikeman, late 16th or early 17th Century.

Dutch musketeer, late 16th or early 17th Century

Dutch cuirassier firing carbine, early 17th Century (De Gheyn).

The army of Maurice of Nassau at Nieuport, 1600, in 'battalions'. Note the English regiments of the de Veres in the advance guard (by kind permission of the National Army Museum).

'A Brigade or Tertia, the Third Part of an Army, according to the Prince of Orange'. After Richard Elion's The Compleat Body of the Art Military, 1650. This shows a later development of Dutch practice: 'battalions' are only six deep, and are supported by light guns, both features indicating Swedish influence (M = musketeers, P = pikemen).

Dutch flags. a, b and c are versions of the national tricolour, which was blue, white and orange in this period. d lion, appearing on some Dutch infantry standards; likely to be in natural colours, red or gold. e, f and g flags of Scots infantry, late 1570s or early 1580s. e has a slogan on the diagonal, the decipherable part of which runs '. . . D VIIL.DEFEND.AN.DAY. MANIEME .... NO...' The arms on f are those of Thomas Newton -quarterly, first and fourth argent a lion rampant sable, second and third gules a lion argent. Crest an arm with a sword. The arms on g are those of Wemyss: gules, a lion rampant argent on a chief azure, two stars argent. Crest two white ostrich feathers, one red. Colours of stripes unknown. Another flag was like g but with stripes only. h flag of a company in Johan Ernst van Nassau's Regiment. Flag blue, 'flames' white or cream. i carried by Dutch infantry, 1591. I think this belongs to an English unit and that the canton is probably a red St George's cross on a white ground. j infantry company flag 1621. Dark blue. Triangles orange and white, lions and wreath gold. k infantry company flag, 1621. Dark blue. Triangles red and yellow, diamonds white, lettering gold. Probably had border all round. l close-up of Venetian winged lion within wreath on h. 'Cliff' green, sea blue, lion brown, sword and bible white, surrounding wreath gold.

A pair of superb 54 mm Dutch infantry figures from the Rose Models range.

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