Battle of Camperdown - Background


In the winter of 1794–1795, forces of the French Republic overran the neighbouring Dutch Republic during the French Revolutionary Wars. The French then reorganised the country as a client state named the Batavian Republic, and it joined France against the allies in the War of the First Coalition. One of the most important Dutch assets of which the French gained control was the Dutch Navy, which had been captured in its frozen harbour in the Texel by French cavalry advancing across the ice. The Dutch fleet provided a substantial reinforcement to the French forces in Northern European waters, which were principally based at Brest on the Atlantic Ocean and whose main opponent was the Royal Navy's Channel Fleet. The location of the main anchorage of the Dutch fleet in the waters off the Texel prompted a reorganisation of the distribution of British warships in Northern European waters, with a new focus on the importance of the North Sea. With the Navy suffering severe shortages in men and equipment and with other theatres of war deemed more important, small, old and poorly maintained ships were activated from reserve and based in harbours in East Anglia, principally the port of Yarmouth, under the command of Admiral Adam Duncan. The 65-year-old Duncan was a veteran of the wars of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), the Seven Years War (1756–1763) and the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and had fought at numerous engagements with distinction and success. Standing at 6'4" he was also noted for his physical strength and size: a contemporary described him as "almost gigantic".

The French Navy had suffered a series of disasters in the opening years of the war, suffering heavy losses at the Glorious First of June in 1794 and during the Croisière du Grand Hiver the following January. In the winter of 1796, after prompting from representatives of the United Irishmen (a society dedicated to ending British rule of the Kingdom of Ireland), the French Atlantic fleet launched a large scale attempt to invade Ireland, known as the Expédition d'Irlande. This too ended in disaster, with twelve ships lost and thousands of men drowned in fierce winter gales. Their ambitions frustrated, the representatives of the United Irishmen, led by Wolfe Tone, turned to the new Batavian state for support and were promised assistance in the coming year by a united French and Dutch fleet. A plan was formulated to merge the French and Dutch fleets and attack Ireland together in the summer of 1797. Tone joined the staff of Vice-Admiral Jan de Winter on his flagship Vrijheid in the Texel and 13,500 Dutch troops were equipped in preparation for the operation, the fleet waiting only for the best moment to take advantage of westerly winds and sweep past the British blockade and down the English Channel.

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