Last week, i was in holland on a short vacation and visited the fascinating town of dordrecht. There is a fine church in the centre of the town, so naturally I went inside to look around. Imagine my surprise at finding a massive memorial tablet (about 10 feet by 5 feet), written in English and set into the wall of the south aisle, not far from the main altar.
War with France … Again
The story behind this memorial goes like this. The Revolutionary government in France declared war on Britain in February 1793, fearing that the main European powers were about to ‘gang up’ against them to reinstate the Bourbon kings. Surprisingly, Britain chose to strike the first blow in a war that was to last, in total, some 22 years and span much of the known world.
Early in March, a detachment of 3000 men of the Foot Guards was sent to the Netherlands, under the command of The Duke of York. Their orders were to help the Dutch drive out the French forces that were attempting to take over their country to export their revolutionary ideas. Additional soldiers were sent from Hesse and Hanover to help in the process. There was also a small Royal Navy presence.
It was one of these ships, the 32-gun frigate ‘Syren’, which figures next in this story. It served as the flagship of this naval squadron and was under the command of Captain John Manley. The ships were anchored at the Maese, from where an expedition was mounted against five French forts, which had been erected to bombard Willemstadt, about 30 miles east of Helvoetsluys.
The expedition consisted of three gunboats, under the command of the 22-year old Lieutenant John Western. He must have led his men with great verve and determination, since the French, amazed by the fire-power he directed against them, wildly overestimated the size of the attacking force and fled, leaving all their cannon behind.
On March 21st, Lieutenant Western was in action again, this time bombarding the French camp at the Noord post on the Moordyke. Sadly, his luck ran out and he was killed by a musket-ball which struck him in the head, making him the first British fatal casualty in the war. He must also have made a great impression on his superiors to merit both a full military funeral in Dordrecht and the presence of The Duke of York himself, who ordered the memorial erected which stands there to this day.
The wording reads:
To The Lamented Memory
JOHN WESTERN. Esq
Lieutenant of His Britannic Majesty’s Frigate SYREN
As a Testimony of the gallant services performed by HIM
This MONUMENT is erected
BY ORDER OF
HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS THE DUKE OF YORK.
After distinguishing himself by his Conduct and Intrepidity
With which he assisted
The Garrison of Williamstadt
(At that Time besieged by the French)
FELL EARLY IN THE CAREER OF GLORY,
Having been unfortunately killed by the Enemy
off the Moordych
On the Twenty-first Day of March, A. D 1793
In the TWENTY-SECOND Year of his Age,
IN THE SERVICE OR HIS COUNTRY,
AND IN DEFENCE Of HOLLAND.
Were deposited near this Place,
ATTENDED BY HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS THE DUKE OF YORK,
BY THE OFFICERS AND SEAMEN OF THE ROYAL NAVY,
The Companions of his
THE BRIGADE OF HIS BRITANNIC MAJESTY’S FOOT GUARDS
In Garrison at Dordrecht.
This extravagant funeral and memorial may have been a response to a genuine act of heroism or just an opportunistic piece of propaganda. I’m hoping some reader of this blog will be able to enlighten me on that. Either way, poor Lieutenant Western is still remembered 224 years after his death.
William, I am nominating you for a Blogger’s Bash Award and need to include your email – could you send that to me at email@example.com? Thanks!