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Early Belgian Border Fortifications

The numerous fortresses in the Low Countries, so celebrated in former wars, had heen dismantled in the reign of (he Emperor Joseph ; and their destruction completed hy the French when they got possession of the country at the hattle of Fleurus, 1794, with the exception of Antwerp, Outend, and Nieuport, which they had kept up on account of their marine importance. The Emperor Joseph II. of Austria, in 1789 destroyed many of the frontier fortresses nearest France.

The necessity of re-estahlishing the principal fortresses on the Belgian frontier, which commanded the sluices and inundation of the country, had indeed already heen evident; and decided upon whilst Napoleon was yet in Elba. A committee of British engineers had heen employed in examining the country for that purpose, hut only the general plans and reports had heen prepared, when Buonaparte's sudden return and rapid advance upon Paris, and the prohahility of a speedy renewal of the war, called for expeditious and immediate means of defence. The declaration of the Congress of Vienna, of the 13th March, reached Paris on the same day he arrived there, which must have convinced him hewould not he allowed quietly to repossess his throne.

These were restored after the termination of the war in 1815. On the 13th of August, 1814, a Convention was signed in London between England and the Netherlands, to which three additional articles were annexed. In the 2 of the first additional article it was stipulated that ' an advance of 2,000,000 should be made by Great Britain, to be applied, in concert with the Prince Sovereign of the Netherlands, and in aid of an equal sum to be furnished by him, towards augmenting and improving the defences of the Low Countries. In order to carry out the stipulations of the Convention, it was proposed by the Duke of Wellington that a Commission of British Engineer officers should proceed to the Netherlands to enter into detailed projects for the restoration of such ruined fortresses, and for the construction of such new posts as were pointed out in a report which had been drawn up by His Grace.

The view entertained by the British Government was that England should take upon herself her proportion of the expense by fortifying the places it might be proposed to construct or repair from the Scheldt to the sea, the execution of the works to be entrusted to British Engineers; and that the Netherlands Engineers should be entrusted with the execution of the works between the Scheldt and the Meuse, the expense thereof to be borne by the Government of the Netherlands. It is not apparent why these arrangements were not carried out.

In November 1816, a convention founded on the Treaty of Paris, was signed between England and Holland, conferring on the Duke of Wellington full and complete control over the details of construction and expenditure for such military works, &c, as he might deem necessary for the kingdom of the Netherlands. It also gave him the sole disposal of a fund of six and a half millions for that purpose, being the joint contribution of England and the Allied Powers. All the details of position, construction, and expenditure being thus arranged to the satisfaction of every one concerned, the works were to be constructed by the Netherlands engineers, according to the plans approved of by the Duke of Wellington.

The Duke was pleased to name Colonel Jones to be his sole inspector. Suspicion and distrust were apparent in the first inspections ; all seemed jealous of the inquiries, and apprehensive of the reports; but after a short time confidence succeeded to distrust, and ultimately every Dutch officer from the Inspector-General downwards, regarded Colonel Jones as a personal friend, and were more ready to communicate than desirous to conceal any casualty or error, however unfavourable to themselves, of which it was interesting to him to be cognisant.

During the year 1826, in Belgium, a marked expression of the popular dislike to the Dutch rule, aided by court intrigue, led to a change in the military administration, in order that the engineer branch of the service might be placed under the Minister for War. By a very impolitic and unnational arrangement, scarcely any but native born Dutch officers were employed on the new frontier: this was sufficient motive to raise the jealous ire of the Belgians, and at this time (1826) a report was industriously spread, and generally credited, that fraud and peculation prevailed to a great extent among the officers charged with the construction of the several fortresses.

Colonel Jones commenced a searching scrutiny into the truth of the statements, and found that several slips and many cracks had occurred during the winter in the low grounds of Flanders, owing to the unavoidable haste in which the foundations and superstructions had been urged forward to meet the exigencies of political affairs, but when these blemishes were weighed against more than fifty miles' length of walling and parapet standing in perfect condition, he could not report otherwise than favorably of the whole.

In 1828 the Duke of Wellington became Prime Minister, which caused his personal inspections to cease. Colonel Jones, however, continued to act under, and report to, His Grace. At the commencement of the year 1830, each of the interior fortresses had attained such perfection, that their armaments, stores, and provisions were placed in their interior.

The fortifications of the Netherlands, those enormous bulwarks, raised with so much cost and labor as a means to strengthen the government and set the French at defiance, suddenly passed, without any sufficient cause, into rebel hands. The Dutch rule and English influence alike vanished from the land, French interests took their place, and in a few months, these fortresses, and the country they cover, became a barrier directly opposed to the views and intentions of the powers which gave them existence; and several of the fortresses were thrown down under the new system which is now in operation.

The fortifications were abandoned for a system which threw the defence of the kingdom almost entirely upon the army. The defence of the country therefore in a great degree devolves upon the national army. England decidedly would assist as much as possible, and Holland would also feel bound to aid with her troops: these combined would form but a small force to oppose the armies of France, and much inferior in point of numbers than was agreed upon between the allied powers, when the Convention was made by which their respective contingents were fixed.

Many of the fortresses, within a few years, had been demolished or abandoned as military stations; the system of defence, as then proposed and carried into execution, had been entirely changed; instead of a long and extended line of fortresses, requiring large garrisons, it has been determined, as more suitable to the existing military forces of the kingdom of Belgium, to form one great "Place de Guerre" at Antwerp, and by concentrating a large body of troops around it, successfully to resist an invading force, and to preserve the archives of the kingdom. This system was carried into effect, and considerable sums expended upon the works at Antwerp.




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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:08:12 ZULU