By Christiaan van der Spek


The Dutch narrative of the Napoleonic Era has long been dominated by nineteenth-century historiography, that considered the eighteen years of the Batavian Republic, the Kingdom of Holland and the subsequent incorporation in the French empire an alien spell in Dutch history. According to this narrative, the former Dutch Republic was occupied and fully controlled by French Republican and later Napoleonic troops, leaving the Dutch people with very little influence over their own government and society. In recent years, however, this traditional interpretation on the 1795-1813 period has been altered. New studies have shown that there was still some form of independence, that protests did occur, and that the Dutch frequently took matters in their own hands. A new, revisionist interpretation of the Dutch military has as yet not been published. It is therefore still unclear whether the Dutch leadership had any autonomy when it came to organizing its army and leading it into battle.

The focus in this paper will be on the early years of Louis Bonaparte’s kingship (1806-1810). Louis considered himself an autonomous sovereign. As the head of state he was the supreme commander of the Royal Dutch Army. Yet how much freedom did he really have? His older brother, the Emperor, was never far away. Immediately after his ascension Louis was confronted with an empty treasury, a disorganized army and growing international tensions that eventually would lead to a war with Prussia. The state of Dutch finance required major cutbacks, yet his brother kept insisting on a significant Dutch contribution to the French military effort. This was a daunting task for somebody as inexperienced and unstable as Louis.

Only three months after his arrival – time he spent reorganizing the army and building a large Royal Guard for himself – Louis and the Dutch army were forced to take part in Napoleon’s 1806-campaign against Prussia. The King tried hard to keep his troops separate from the rest of the Grande Armée and appealed to Dutch nationalist sentiment, but to no avail; in the end it was Napoleon, and nobody else, who decided how, where and with whom the Dutch soldiers operated.

This paper discusses Louis Bonaparte’s policies regarding the Dutch army, Napoleon’s reactions to his younger brother’s plans, the influences of the Emperor on the Dutch military and the deteriorating relationship between the two brothers.


Christiaan van der Spek is a researcher at the Netherlands Institute of Military History in The Hague and a PhD-student at the University of Utrecht. His PhD focuses on the Dutch army in the Napoleonic Era (1806-1813).