Chapter XXIII. The Siege of Ostend




On the 5th of July, 1601, the Archduke Albert began the siege of Ostend with 20,000 men and 50 siege guns. Ostend had been completely rebuilt and fortified eighteen years previously, and was defended by ramparts, counterscarps, and two broad ditches. The sand hills between it and the sea were cut through, and the water filled the ditches and surrounded the town. To the south the country was intersected by a network of canals. The river Yper Leet came in at the back of the town, and after mingling with the salt water in the ditches found its way to the sea through the channels known as the Old Haven and the Geule, the first on the west, the second on the east of the town.

On either side of these channels the land rose slightly, enabling the besiegers to plant their batteries in very advantageous positions. The garrison at first consisted of but 2000 men under Governor Vander Nood. The States General considered the defence of Ostend to be of extreme importance to the cause, and appointed Sir Francis Vere general of the army in and about Ostend, and sent with him 600 Dutch troops and eight companies of English under the command of his brother, Sir Horace. This raised the garrison to the strength of 3600 men. Sir Francis landed with these reinforcements on the sands opposite the old town, which stood near the seashore between the Old Haven and the Geule, and was separated from the new town by a broad channel. He was forced to land here, as the Spanish guns on the sand hills commanded the entrances of the two channels.

Sixteen thousand of the Spanish troops under the order of the archduke were encamped to the west of the town, and had 30 of their siege guns in position there, while 4000 men were stationed on the east of the town under Count Bucquoy. Ten guns were in position on that side. Ostend had no natural advantages for defence beyond the facility of letting the sea into the numerous channels and ditches which intersected the city, and protected it from any operations on the south side. On the east the Geule was broad and deep, and an assault from this side was very difficult. The Old Haven, on the west side, was fast filling up, and was fordable for four hours every tide.

This, therefore, was the weak side of the town. The portion especially exposed to attack was the low sandy flat on which the old town stood, to the north of Ostend. It was against this point, separated only from the enemy's position by the shallow Old Haven, that the Spaniards concentrated their efforts. The defence here consisted of a work called the Porc Espic, and a bastion in its rear called the Helmond. Three works lay to the north of the ditch dividing the old from the new town, while on the opposite side of this ditch was a fort called the Sand Hill, from which along the sea face of the town ran strong palisades and bastions.

The three principal bastions were named the Schottenburg, Moses' Table, and the Flamenburg, the last named defending the entrance to the Geule on the eastern side. There was a strong wall with three bastions, the North Bulwark, the East Bulwark or Pekell, and the Spanish Bulwark at the southeast angle, with an outwork called the Spanish Half Moon on the other side of the Geule. The south side was similarly defended by a wall with four strong bastions, while beyond these at the southwest corner lay a field called the Polder, extending to the point where the Yper Leer ran into the ditches.

Sir Francis Vere's first step after his arrival was to throw up three redoubts to strengthen the wall round this field, as had the enemy taken possession of it they might have set the windmills upon it to work and have drained out many of the ditches. Having secured this point he cut a passage to the sea between the Northwest Bulwark and the Flamenburg Fort, so that shipping might enter the port without having to ascend the Geule, exposed to the fire of the Spanish guns. To annoy the enemy and draw them away from the vital point near the sea, he then stationed 200 men on some rising ground surrounded by swamps and ditches at some distance to the south of the city, and from here they were able to open fire on the enemy's boats coming with supplies from Bruges.

The operation was successful. The Spaniards, finding their line of communication threatened, advanced in force from their position by the sea, and their forts opened a heavy fire on the little work thrown up. Other similar attempts would have been made to harass the Spaniards and divert them from their main work, had not Sir Francis Vere been severely wounded in the head on the 4th of August by a shot from the Spanish batteries, which continued to keep up a tremendous fire upon the town. So serious was the wound that the surgeons were of opinion that the only chance of saving his life was to send him away from the din and turmoil of the siege; and on the 10th he was taken to Middelburg, where he remained for a month, returning to Ostend long before his wound was properly healed.

On the 1st of August a batch of recruits had arrived from England, and on the 8th 1200 more were landed. The fire of the besiegers was now so heavy that the soldiers were forced to dig underground quarters to shelter themselves. Sir Horace Vere led out several sorties; but the besiegers, no longer distracted by the feints contrived by Sir Horace Vere, succeeded in erecting a battery on the margin of the Old Haven, and opened fire on the Sand Hill Fort.

On the 19th of September Sir Francis Vere returned to the town, to the great joy of the garrison. Reinforcements continued to arrive, and at this time the garrison numbered 4480. There were, too, a large number of noblemen and gentlemen from England, France, and Holland, who had come to learn the art of war under the man who was regarded as the greatest general of the time. All who were willing to work and learn were heartily welcomed; those who were unwilling to do so were soon made to feel that a besieged city was no place for them.

While the fighting was going on the archduke had attempted to capture the place by treason. He engaged a traitor named Coningsby; who crossed to England, obtained letters of introduction to Vere, and then went to Ostend. Thence he sent intelligence to the besiegers of all that took place in the town, placing his letters at night in an old boat sunk in the mud on the bank of the Old Haven, a Spaniard wading across at low tide and fetching them away. He then attempted to bribe a sergeant to blow up the powder magazine. The sergeant revealed the plot. Coningsby was seized and confessed everything, and by an act of extraordinary clemency was only sentenced to be whipped out of town.

This act of treachery on the part of the archduke justified the otherwise dishonourable stratagem afterwards played by Vere upon him. All through October and November the Spaniards were hard at work advancing their batteries, sinking great baskets filled with sand in the Old Haven to facilitate the passage of the troops, and building floating batteries in the Geule. On the night of the 4th of December they advanced suddenly to the attack. Vere and his officers leapt from their beds and rushed to the walls, and after a fierce struggle the besiegers were driven back. Straw was lighted to enable the musketeers and gunners to fire upon them as they retreated, and the assault cost them five hundred lives.

On the 12th a hard frost set in, and until Christmas a strong gale from the southeast blew. No succour could reach the town. The garrison were dwindling fast, and ammunition falling short. It required fully 4000 men to guard the walls and forts, while but 2500 remained capable of bearing arms. It was known that the archduke soon intended to make an assault with his whole force, and Vere knew that he could scarcely hope to repel it. He called a council of his chief officers, and asked their opinion whether with the present numbers all parts of the works could be manned in case of assault, and if not whether it was advisable to withdraw the guards from all the outlying positions and to hold only the town.

They were unanimously of opinion that the force was too small to defend the whole, but Sir Horace Vere and Sir John Ogle alone gave their advice to abandon the outlying forts rather than endanger the loss of the town. The other officers were of opinion that all the works should be held, although they acknowledged that the disposable force was incapable of doing so. Some days elapsed, and Vere learned that the Spanish preparations were all complete, and that they were only waiting for a low tide to attack. Time was everything, for a change of wind would bring speedy succour, so without taking council with anyone he sent Sir John Ogle with a drummer to the side of the Old Haven.

Don Mateo Serrano came forward, and Ogle gave his message, which was that General Vere wished to have some qualified person to speak to him. This was reported to the archduke, who agreed that Serrano and another Spanish officer should go into the town, and that Ogle and a comrade should come as hostages into the Spanish camp. Sir John Ogle took his friend Sir Charles Fairfax with him, and Serrano and Colonel Antonio crossed into Ostend. The two Englishmen were conducted to the archduke, who asked Sir John Ogle to tell him if there was any deceit in the matter. Ogle answered if there were it was more than he knew, for Vere had simply charged him to carry the message, and that he and Fairfax had merely come as hostages for the safe return of the Spanish officers.

Ogle was next asked whether he thought the general intended sincerely or not, and could only reply that he was altogether unacquainted with the general's purpose.

The next morning Serrano and Antonio returned without having seen Vere. The pretext on which they had been sent back was that there was some irregularity in their coming across; but instead of their being sent back across the Old Haven they were sent across the Geule, and had to make a long round to regain the archduke's camp.

Thus a day and a night were gained. The next day, towards evening, the two Spanish officers were admitted into Ostend, and received very hospitably by Sir Francis. After supper many healths were drunk, and then Sir Francis informed them to their astonishment that his proposal was not that he should surrender Ostend, but that the archduke should raise the siege. But it was now far too late for them to return, and they went to bed in the general's quarters. During the two nights thus gained the defenders had worked incessantly in repairing the palisades facing the point at which the attack would take place, a work that they had hitherto been unable to perform owing to the tremendous fire that the Spaniards kept up night and day upon it.

At break of day five men of war from Zeeland came to anchor off the town. They brought four hundred men, and provisions and materials of war of all kinds. They were immediately landed under a heavy fire from the enemy's batteries on both sides. The firing awoke the two Spanish envoys, who inquired what was taking place. They were politely informed by Sir Francis Vere that succour had arrived, and the negotiations were of course broken off; and they were accordingly sent back, while Ogle and Fairfax returned to Ostend.

Vere's account of the transaction was that he had simply asked for two Spanish officers to speak with him. He had offered no terms, and there was therefore no breach of faith. The commander of a besieged town, he insisted, is always at liberty to propose a parley, which the enemy can accept or not as he chooses. At any rate, it was not for the archduke, who had hired a traitor to corrupt the garrison, to make a complaint of treachery. Twelve hundred men were employed for the next eight days in strengthening the works, Sir Francis being always with them at night, when the water was low, encouraging them by his presence and example.

Early in January he learned that the enemy were preparing for the assault, and on the 7th a crushing fire was kept up on the Porc Espic, Helmond, and Sand Hill forts. The Spaniards had by this time fired 163,200 cannon shot into the town, and scarcely a whole house was left standing. Towards evening they were seen bringing scaling ladders to the opposite bank of the Haven. Two thousand Italian and Spanish troops had been told off to attack the sand hill, two thousand were to assault Helmond and the Porc Espic, two parties of five hundred men each were to attack other works, while on the east side Count Bucquoy was to deliver a general assault.

The English general watched all these preparations with the greatest vigilance. At high water he closed the west sluice, which let the water into the town ditch from the Old Haven, in the rear of Helmond, in order to retain as much water as possible, and stationed his troops at the various points most threatened. Sir Horace Vere and Sir Charles Fairfax, with twelve weak companies, some of them reduced to ten or twelve men, were stationed on the sand hill.

Four of the strongest companies garrisoned the Porc Espic; ten weak companies and nine cannon loaded with musket bullets defended the Helmond. These posts were commanded by Sergeant Major Carpenter and Captain Meetkerk; the rest of the force were disposed at the other threatened points. Sir Francis himself, with Sir Lionel Vickars as his right hand, took his post on the wall of the old town, between the sand hill and the Schottenburg, which had been much damaged by the action of the waves during the gales and by the enemy's shot. Barrels of ashes, heaps of stones and bricks, hoops bound with squibs and fireworks, ropes of pitch, hand grenades, and barrels of nails were collected in readiness to hurl down upon the assailants.

At dusk the besiegers ceased firing, to allow the guns to cool. Two engineer officers with fifty stout sappers, who each had a rose noble for every quarter of an hour's work, got on to the breach in front of the sand hill, and threw up a small breastwork, strengthened by palisades, across it. An officer crept down towards the Old Haven, and presently returned with the news that two thousand of the enemy were wading across, and forming up in battalions on the Ostend side.

Suddenly a gun boomed out from the archduke's camp as a signal to Bucquoy, and just as the night had fairly set in the besiegers rushed to the assault from all points. They were received by a tremendous fire from the guns of the forts and the muskets of the soldiers; but, although the effect was serious, they did not hesitate a moment, but dashed forwards towards the foot of the sand hill and the wall of the old town, halted for a moment, poured in a volley, and then rushed into the breach and against the walls. The volley had been harmless, for Vere had ordered the men to lie flat until it was given. As the Spaniards climbed up barrels of ashes were emptied upon them, stones and heavy timbers hurled down, and flaming hoops cast over their necks. Three times they climbed to the crest of the sand hill, and as many times gained a footing on the Schottenburg; but each time they were beaten back with great slaughter. As fiercely did they attack at the other points, but were everywhere repulsed.

On the east side three strong battalions of the enemy attacked the outwork across the Geule, known as the Spanish Half Moon. Vere, who was everywhere supervising the defence, ordered the weak garrison there to withdraw, and sent a soldier out to give himself up, and to tell them that the Half Moon was slenderly manned, and to offer to lead them in. The offer was accepted, and the Spaniards took possession of the work.

The general's object was to occupy them, and prevent their supporting their comrades in the western attack. The Half Moon, indeed, was quite open towards the town. Tide was rising, and a heavy fire was opened upon the captors of the work from the batteries across the Geule, and they were driven out with the loss of three hundred men. At length the assault was repulsed at all points, and the assailants began to retire across the Old Haven. No sooner did they begin to ford it than Vere opened the west sluice, and the water in the town ditch rushed down in a torrent, carrying numbers of the Spaniards away into the sea.

Altogether, the assault cost the Spaniards two thousand men. An enormous amount of plunder in arms, gold chains, jewels, and rich garments were obtained by the defenders from the bodies of the fallen. The loss of the garrison was only thirty killed and a hundred wounded.

The repulse of the grand attack upon Ostend by no means put an end to the siege. Sir Francis Vere, his brother Horace, Sir John Ogle, and Sir Lionel Vickars left, the general being summoned to assume command in the field; but the siege continued for two years and a half longer. Many assaults were repulsed during that time, and the town only surrendered on the 20th September, 1604, when the sand hill, which was the key of the whole position, was at last captured by the Spaniards.

It was but a heap of ruins that they had become possessed of after their three years' siege, and its capture had not only cost them an immense number of men and a vast amount of money, but the long and gallant defence had secured upon a firm basis the independence of Holland. While the whole available force of Spain had been so occupied Prince Maurice and his English allies had captured town after town, and had beaten the enemy whenever they attempted to show themselves in the open field. They had more than counterbalanced the loss of Ostend by the recapture of Sluys, and had so lowered the Spanish pride that not long afterwards a twelve years truce was concluded, which virtually brought the war to an end, and secured for ever the independence of Holland.

During the last year or two of the war Sir Francis Vere, worn out by his fatigues and the countless wounds he had received in the service of the Netherlands, had resigned his command and retired to England, being succeeded in his position by Sir Horace. Lionel Vickars fought no more after he had borne his part in the repulse of the great assault against Ostend. He had barely recovered from the effect of the wound he had received at the battle of Nieuport, and the fatigues and anxiety of the siege, together with the damp air from the marshes, brought on a serious attack of fever, which completely prostrated him as soon as the necessity for exertion had passed. He remained some weeks at the Hague, and then, being somewhat recovered, returned home.

While throughout all England the greatest enthusiasm had been aroused by the victory of Nieuport and the repulse of the Spaniards at Ostend, the feeling was naturally higher in the Vere's county of Essex than elsewhere. As soon as Lionel Vickars was well enough to take any share in gaieties he received many invitations to stay at the great houses of the county, where most of the gentry were more or less closely connected with the Veres; and before he had been home many months he married Dorothy Windhurst, one of the richest heiresses in the county, and a cousin of the Veres. Thus Geoffrey had, after Juan Mendez retired from taking any active part in the business, to work alone until his sons were old enough to join him in the business. As soon as they were able to undertake its active management, Geoffrey bought an estate near Hedingham, and there settled down, journeying occasionally to London to see how the affairs of the house went on, and to give advice to his sons. Dolores had, two or three years after her arrival in England, embraced the faith of her husband; and although she complained a little at times of the English climate, she never once regretted the step she had taken in leaving her native Spain.



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