One of the terrible consequences of the French occupation starting in 1795 was the introduction of obligatory military service. Unmarried men between 16 and 25 had to enlist in the army for a period of 5 years in peace time and for an indefinite period while at war. Things military and the job of war making weren't exactly the most respected careers. Most preferred to be their own master and were averse to soldiering. That might very well have something to do with the fact that so many times our regions had been subjected to the pillage and destruction by gangs of lawless foreign soldiers totally out of control and with respect for nothing or no one.
And now our boys had to serve in far off countries in the army of the occupant whose language they didn't speak. No doubt to go do there what they had condemned here: when they ran out of provisions they had to take from the locals if they wanted to survive.
Blind obedience was demanded and anything other than blind obedience by the cannon fodder was severely punished. Soldiers were expendable, some were perhaps more equal than others but many of them were no doubt not always looked after too well. In fact there was an appalling indifference to the suffering of the wounded who were routinely abandoned on the battlefields. A small wound or a minor illness was often fatal and there were so many accidents with horses, cannon and gunpowder. So many young men never returned and year after year more soldiers were needed and more taxes were raised. (Nor was France the only country to treat its cannon fodder in this way. Read more about this and related matters here.)
Paul Johnson, an acclaimed historian, has this to say:
Bonaparte cared nothing for the lives of his soldiers. He disregarded losses, provided his objectives were secured. (...) Moreover, having got his army in a fix, and having written off the campaign accordingly, he repeatedly abandoned the army to its fate and hastened back to Paris to secure his political position. This happened in Egypt, in Russia, in Spain, and in Germany. Bonaparte was never held to account for these desertions, or indeed for his losses of French troops, which averaged more than 50,000 killed a year. By comparison, Wellington's losses from his six years' campaign in the Iberian Peninsula totaled 36,000 from all causes, including desertions, or 6,000 a year.
p 51, "Napoleon", by Paul Johnson, Penguin Group, 2002.
No wonder desertions were widespread: of a group of 730 who had drawn an unlucky number only 141 turned up. In Paris they were only 99 and in Dijon only 3 of them were left.
And so the hunt for deserters was declared open. The parents of a deserter were regularly emprisoned until he came forward. Or else they were fined 1,500 franks, when a qualified worker earned 1 frank per day. Or in the parental home of the deserter 5 to 10 soldiers were quartered. Then there were the flying brigades who scoured the land or quartered off whole towns in search of those gone AWOL.
In any case taxes were exorbitant. Here is another quote from Johnson's book on Napoleon (p. 83):
(...) Bonaparte was always forced in the end, and usually sooner rather than later, by financial and military necessity, to impose burdens that made his rule even more unpopular than the old regimes. His requirements for money and manpower were insatiable. The empire had to provide them, and hatred was the inevitable result.
And on the next page:
This was the pattern throughout occupied Europe. To the ordinary people, as opposed to the intellectuals of the towns, the coming of Bonaparte's armies often meant the loss of their crops, stores, horses, and livestock, the torching of their farms and barns, the rape of wives and daughters, the billeting of rapaceous soldiery, and the stabling of horses in their beloved local church. Bonaparte's orders to commanders were: You have the force, live off the land.
Horses? They were stolen in great numbers and worked to death in long forced marches which sometimes gave the Emperor the advantage of a surprise attack. Of course horses don't merrit a paragraph in our history books: what's the lives of a few thousand horses compared to those of humans? Except that horses weren't the luxury items they are today. A lot of horse power was required to run a farm. Yes of course, some of that back breaking labour could be done by men if they weren't commandeered to soldier for the greater glory of some Emperor. You can turn the soil with a spade but why do you think our ancestors preferred to do it with horse drawn plows? Let's not forget more wealth can be created if more people can be liberated from the task of producing food.
And an awful lot of wealth can be destroyed by soldiers with canon and guns.
With the law of 18 September 1798 all unmarried men between 18 and 25 were called under arms. And the anger boiled over. And it wasn't only the farmers: lots of young nobelmen, clerics and functionaries had gone north, emigrated to the Netherlands. The Dutch King wanted the Low Countries reunited — under the Dutch crown, needless to say. Secret negotiations were started with England, Prussia and Austria. They all wanted to help whoever would weaken France. But they weren't all interested in strengthening the Dutch King. And not everyone wanted the Catholic Belgians to join forces with the Protestant Dutch. Austria for instance wanted to retake possession of our country. In other words: politics as usual.
25 October 1798 is usually given as the starting date for the revolt. Secret preparations had been underway for months. But due to a spontaneous outburst of fury, due to the umpteenth seizure because of an overdue tax payment by an inhabitant of Overmere it started in fact two weeks early on 12 October 1798 in that village half way between Ghent and Dendermonde.
A band of Brigands as they were called, tried to reach the mouth of the Schelde river where aid from Britain was expected. Two attempts to land the aid failed. Too little too late? And/or politics as usual? In West-Flanders (nearest France) the revolt was broken after an early heavy defeat in Ingelmunster (200 dead). In South-East-Flanders the resistance was already broken on 20 October. Mechelen (Mechlin, Malines) is occupied by the Brigands on 22 October but already lost the next day when 41 prisoners are shot at the foot of the tower of the St Rombouts Cathedral.
In Klein-Brabant, the Brigands are successful at the outset. They hold the old fortress of St Margrets near the mouth of the Rupel river for more than 14 days under the leadership of Emmanuel Rollier from St. Amands. There are furious battles in Dendermonde, Boom, Lier, Willebroek and finally on 5 November in Bornem where the battle once again degenerates into plundering and looting while 88 houses go up in smoke and flames.
In the Kempen (Campine) region the leader is Jozef Van Gansen from Westerlo. The revolt starts in Geel on 15 October. A big army of Brigands controls the regions of Westerlo, Geel, Mol and the fortified abbey of Tongerlo. There are battles at Diest, Turnhout and Herenthals. But after the fall of this last city the Brigands pull back deep into the Campine country.
In the Hageland the leader is Eelen, the son of a physician from Scherpenheuvel. Zoutleeuw and Tienen are conquered from the French but a battle is lost near Leuven (Louvain) on 28 October.
In a surprise attack a 600 strong force of Brigands take the city of Diest but they are immediately besieged by a much larger well equiped French army. Van Gansen is wounded. Meulemans, a surveyor from Tongerlo, leads the rebels quietly out of the city in the dead of night along a narrow dike through inundated fields along the Demer river, to the great surprise of the French.
Gangs of refuseniks and deserters took to the hills and forests and fought the French occupants in a guerilla war. And the much better equiped French showed no mercy and quite often took no prisoners. And this violent repression of the revolt in its turn added to the anger.
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