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Mayor regained his ‘vitality’ once French troops withdrew

Common ancestors unimpressed with Paris’ decrees

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

Dutch local history buffs and family tree researchers still find the reign by French emperor Napoleon and his eighteenth century occupation of the Netherlands (1795-1813) an intriguing subject. The dictator whose ongoing wars and ill-advised economic policies caused a prolonged malaise in much of Europe, also was an innovator of social and legal traditions. For genealogists Napoleon’s decrees regarding civil registry and name adoption make ancestral reseach far less complicated. A distant past waiting to be explored.

The seeds of the French revolution also were blown northwards to the Dutch Republic where the establishment - the Orangists - soon faced strong challenges from enlightened Patriots. The latter represented a formidable faction, generally drawing support from an upstart category of people who craved to share power with the establishment. After 1795, when the French chased Orangist leaders out or had them removed from power, the Patriots went through a series of changes themselves, only to discover that in effect their rule was subject to Napoleon’s whims and decrees, neither examples of democracy at work. Patriots in government often served as sheriffs who enforced decrees from Paris. Any euphoria with the new system soon evaporated.

One of the questions often raised about the French period concerns collaboration and civil disobedience. Did the French regime face resistance from our common ancestors? If so, how was such opposition played out?

A recent article about the centennial celebrations of the liberation from the French in the Dutch-German border region of Hardenberg (Overijssel) somewhat lifts the veil of history. The local history periodical, ‘Rondom den Herdenbergh’ in a recent issue relates by way of several incidents the frustration the town’s mayor Van Riemsdijk - he also was physician and notary - experienced in discharging orders from higher authorities.

Labour duty

Local men had been ordered to help reinforce the strategic fortification of nearby Venebrugge protected the Dutch hinterland from attacks across the German border, a serious concern after Napoleon had suffered several major military defeats. Other sites in need of upgrading were the banks overlooking the river Vecht, while folks from Hardenberg also were expected to help reinforce the stronghold of Coevorden. Archival material suggest that Mayor Van Riemsdijk was unable to deliver his quotas of men and of material for these endeavours.

The order to supply more men for Napoleon’s depleted army in January 1812 met with a similar lack of enthusiam for the Emperor’s cause. The order to report - all males born in 1789 were expected to draw lots to ascertain who would be conscripted - had caused widespread unrest and open defiance (an incident at Scheveningen is but one such example). Failure to show was considered to subordination and punishable as rebellion. Mayor Van Riemsdijk was spared open defiance but nonetheless had few conscripts to lend to Napoleon’s legions: the men escaped across the border into Germany. Although the article does not evaluate the mayor’s efforts to comply, his approach seems to be one of going through the motions of compliance but in a manner least harmful to his citizenry. When Van Riemsdijk learned that a certain draft evader (aptly named Berend Smoes, ‘Smoes’ also being the Dutch word for ‘excuse’) had been spotted working as a shepherd on the heath in adjoining Bentheim across the German border, he sent Smoes’ neighbours’ son Egbert Hamberg to check out the situation. An entry in the records reveals that Smoes took off when he saw Hamberg approaching. Van Riemsdijk was satisfied with his half-hearted attempt to check out a reported sighting and gave Smoes the opportunity to avoid becoming cannon fodder in Napoleon’s army.


Following Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig, ‘allied’ troops arrived in Hardenberg in November 1813, pushing French soldiers from the immediate area. However, the departure did little to relief the local citizens from fear and anxiety: maurading French units still penetrated the area from distant Coevorden, intent on plunder. Cossack horsemen which were stationed nearby Hardenberg were not exactly viewed as liberators and had little respect for property rights either.

The continued French threat prompted Hardenberg’s council to request weapons for arming a newly formed militia, later augmented by companies for civil defence (now Van Riemsdijk displayed vigor and leadership). The men did guard duty but also engaged the enemy in a few skirmishes - with local casualties - before the latter evacuated the region in May 1814. Over the objection of Van Riemsdijk, Danish and Swedish soldiers, numbering more then 12,000, passed through the area. Such traffic again meant additional burdens for the populace which was expected to supply fourage for horses, help the troops cart their baggage and supply manpower and horses at little or no pay. Subsequently, Hardenberg saw Hannoverian, Spaniard and Basque army units pull through the vicinity.

Hundred years later, Hardenberg folk raised decorated gates at entrances into town and enmasse celebrated the departure of their French tormentors with re-enactments in which Napoleon was chased by firing Cossack and German horsemen, King Willem I landed by boat, a historical parade and numerous games.