A Game of Starvation: The Staggering Siege of Breda 1624 An army commanded by the famous Italian strategist Ambrogio Spinola, sent by the Spanish crown, arrived at the Dutch town of Breda on 27th August in 1624. Spinola came to stay and he began a siege characterized by supply shortages, a tight encirclement of the city, and various attempts to supply and relief the town.
The siege of Breda is considered Spinola’s greatest success and one of the last major Spanish victories in the Eighty Years’ War. It is also one of only few early modern sieges that made it on TV, namely in the historical fictional movie Alatriste, starring Viggo Mortensen. This is how contemporary historiography tells the story of the staggering siege of Breda.Chapter 1: A Target Well Supplied…
A Game of Starvation:
After a long truce of twelve years, the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the united provinces of the Netherlands recommenced in 1621. At the time, the Seven United Provinces fought for their independence from the Spanish Crown who controlled big parts of what is modern day Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. When the Spanish renewed the war, they didn’t want to bring down the Dutch Republic by armed force but to revive the commercial life in the Spanish Netherlands.
They embargoed Dutch trade and committed their armada to suppressing Dutch naval activity, central to this strategy were the so called Dunkirkers, Dutch privateers in Spanish service, who operated from the ports of Dunkirk, Oostende and Nieuwpoort. This was so effective that the Dutch Republic was soon under immense financial and strategical pressure. Even more so when the Dutch allies France and England made peace with Spain. Because both the Dutch and the Spanish kept to a policy of defensive warfare, the struggle was largely confined to the southern approaches of the Maas-Waal-line, which runs along two rivers in the center of the Netherlands. Both sides confined themselves to the rather passive siege routine established in the earlier decades. According to the expert on siege warfare Christopher Duffy, the sieges of the time were “vast, predictable and dull”, followed constantly recurring methods and lacked technical innovation. The one man to retain his fighting spirit was the famous military commander Ambrogio Spinola, an Italian strategist in Spanish service. He was no fan of defensive ways of warfare and his plans were very aggressive. At first, the Spanish government was concerned about this and worried about the immense costs of the concurrent Eighty and Thirty Years War. Despite lacking money and supplies to put all his plans into practice, Spinola took the city of Jülich in early 1622 and then advanced west to attack Bergen-op-Zoom. However, here, he bit off more than he could chew.
Siege of Breda 1624/25
His army, poorly paid and in a mutinous mood, captured a few outworks of the town but then had to abandon the siege because the relief force of the Republic arrived. After this defeat which chipped away both at Spinola’s public image and ego, he took some time to reform his army and to recruit more men. In spring 1624 the great strategist sat in Brussels, preparing for his last siege in the Netherlands, the siege of Breda. Breda was a rich town in northern Brabant. It was one of the strongest fortresses in the defensive line of the Republic. This made it a difficult but interesting target. Conquering Breda would give the Spanish a strong position to defend Spanish Brabant and deprive the Republic of a base from which the Dutch were making regular raids into Spanish territory. In addition, it could serve as a bridgehead for the occupation of further strongholds in the area such as Bergen-op-Zoom and improve the Spanish position in case of peace negotiations. When first rumors of a coming siege arose, the city prepared itself. Its garrison of 11’500 men was supplemented by an additional 5200 soldiers. In addition, able bodied citizens were recruited and armed so that a militia of 1’800 men supported the professionals. The governor of Breda, Justinus van Nassau, an illegitimate son of William of Orange, watched the preparations of the town closely. Supplies for a siege of one year were stocked in the city, most importantly weapons, powder and food. Breda was a compelling target – but not one easily taken.Chapter 2: Storm or Starve? Spinola left Brussels on 21 July 1624 – still without approval of the Spanish crown – and after five days arrived near Breda. To obscure his intention, he split his army and sent Hendrik van den Bergh to the east of the Republic while the main body of the army set up a temporary camp between the villages of Chaam, Baarle and Gilze. While Spinola’s men already struggled because of supply problems, their presence didn’t cause much concern in the republic. It was still unclear whether the Spaniards would attack Bergen-op-Zoom, Breda or Grave and the people were confident that the strengthened garrison was sufficient to defend Breda. It is not entirely clear how many men Spinola had at hand.
Siege of Breda 1624/25 History
The historians Rooze and Eimermann estimate that about 40’000 were deployed at the end of September 1624. By continuously arriving reinforcements the besieging army had been growing to 80’000 by the beginning of May 1625. About 10% were cavalry and the army brought at least 30 guns to fire at the town. Guns which they desperately needed since the already formidable defenses of the town had been strengthened even further. Breda was in a strategically favorable location at the river Mark and several important roads. Nature was the foundation of its defenses. The woods in the vicinity of the town seriously hampered the movement of horsemen and artillery and several rivers, most importantly the Mark and the Aa formed an obstacle for besiegers. The areas north and south of the city could be flooded by opening two sluices.
Siege of Breda 1624/25 History In English
Beyond that, the man made defenses of the fortress were in a formidable condition. They had been renewed and extended in 1587 and 1622. At the time of the siege the city was guarded by thick and high walls of earth, as was common with fortresses in the Netherlands. 15 bastions provided space for numerous cannons and were arranged to cover every angle of attack. The ditch, which was fed from the river Mark, was between 55 to 117 meters broad and housed several ravelins. On two places the curtain wall was enhanced with cavaliers, heightened artillery platforms, and a fausse braye, which is a small wall outside the main wall. a strong covered way provided further protection. Hornworks, also surrounded by a ditch and palisades, protected the four city gates and the monastery. All in all, Breda was a textbook example for defensive military engineering. It didn’t take Ambrogio Spinola with all his experience long to recognize that these defenses would be hard to break through and he couldn’t take the city by stratagem or bribery.
The only option remaining was to starve it out – this was a risky plan and although some of his advisers dissuaded him from doing so because it was so late in the season and the long distances could cause problems supplying his own men, he chose to encircle Breda and starve its inhabitants into surrender.Chapter 3: Fight Fire with Fire Spinola’s plan could only work if he managed to seal the city off completely, so that neither food nor people could pass through. Accordingly, Spinola first began to surround the city. He divided the area around Breda into four compartments, each under one or two of his trusted commanders.On 26 August 4’000 infantry and 1’000 horsemen seized Ginneken to establish a service area in the village. For that purpose, they occupied the church, the castle, the bridge and several other buildings.
At the same time, a detachment of 7’000 infantry men accompanied by some horsemen went to Terheijden, from where they went on to occupy the Hartelbergen, a dune south of the village. To hinder the Spanish from establishing this position near Breda, Justinus von Nassau sent 800 Musketeers to the Hartelbergen. They held the dune for a short time until the Spanish cannons opened fire and a charge of the cavalrymen drove them back. Spinola himself with 10’000 infantry and almost all horsemen established his camp at Ginneken. These troops served as a general reserve to be deployed around Breda or in the supply corridor if necessary. Soon, the Spanish guns opened fire. As the Spaniards came ever closer to Breda, the garrison cleared the area around the town by burning buildings and cutting bushes and trees.
In English Siege of Breda 1624/25 History
That way they had clear sight and the area provided no cover for the attackers. When the three camps at Ginneken, Terheijden and the Hartelbergen were ready, the Spaniards established a fourth at Teteringen and then cleared the Hage section. When these fortified camps had been established, Spinola’s men began to dig a so called contra- and circumvallation. The circumvallation protected the besiegers against sorties and helped to seal the encirclement. The contravallation was about 300 meters further from the town and outside the camps and protected the Spaniards against help from the outside, for example a Dutch relief army. Spinola felt the Spanish were very vulnerable in their position. He ordered to quickly erect two provisional fortified lines closer together and with a small parapet and ditch. During the next weeks, the Spaniards constructed the definitive defensive works. Quite unusually, the groundwork was done by the soldiers themselves. However, this was work they despised and only a generous extra on the pay could motivate them to pick up the shovels.
Redoubts between the two entrenchments served as shelter for soldiers on guard and earthen walls allowed for save displacement between redoubt and rampart. So, basically Spinola decided to build his own fortress around the fortress of Breda, or in other words: to fight fire with fire.Chapter 4: Resistance & Spectacle The garrison of Breda didn’t stand idle as they were confined bit by bit. They harassed the digging Spaniards whenever they could and raided them regularly. During the first months of the siege, they made a sortie every two days; when the encirclement was completed the number of sorties was somewhat reduced. For the Spaniards, this was both really annoying and threatening. When such a sortie was executed cleverly and efficiently the risk of shoveling Spaniards getting caught on the wrong foot was very high. In such cases they not only suffered high losses but also risked being driven from their current position. The constant threat slowed down the earthwork massively since the men always had to be on high alert. However, the sorties became fewer in spring 1625 and according to Francesco Pieri, an Italian captain in Spanish service,
the Dutch did not resume them until after 27 February. Breda was not on its own in this fight. On 10 September Maurits of Nassau entered the stage. After 20 days of marching his army, he crossed the river Donge over a pontoon bridge and arrived in Made. There, they established a fortified camp, from which they dug an approach trench towards the Spanish circumvallation. According to Francesco Pieri , the army of the States consisted of about 25’000 foot soldiers and 2’400 horsemen. While these were too few for a frontal attack, the presence of such a force within 3 to 4km of the Spanish defenses prevented Spinola from fully focusing on the city. He simply couldn’t risk freeing up enough men for a storm assault.
When news of the arriving force reached the Spanish commander, he ordered his men to finish and reinforce this side of the defenses further.Like many other sieges of this time, the siege of Breda attracted numerous spectators. Among them was the Polish prince Wladislaus Wasa. He stayed in Brussels as a guest of Isabella , the governess of the Spanish Netherlands. When he wanted to visit the siege on 25th September, Isabella ordered Spinola to provide an escort of 1’000 horsemen to bring the prince to Breda safely. This was problematic since such a large part of the Spanish cavalry was tied down by a rather unnecessary task. Frederik Henry, the half-brother of Maurits wrote in his memoirs that the Spanish would have been in trouble,
if Maurits had attacked at this moment. However, the attack never came and in general both sides actually avoided a decisive battle on open field.Chapter 5: A Game of Starvation While the earthwork progressed relatively well, Spinola was facing his most difficult task. He had to supply his army over a considerable distance from Liers and later Herentals in present day Belgium. The logistical challenge of transporting the mass of goods required was further complicated by Dutch soldiers constantly harassing the convoys. Consequently, large escorts had to be provided. According to Rooze and Eimermann 25’000 of the 80’000 soldiers under Spinolas’ command were employed for this task. From October 1624 they were commanded by Spinola’s trusted general, Hendrik van den Bergh, who had joined the siege in September.