By England's Aid
G. A. Henty
Part 7 out of 7
On the 1st of August a batch of recruits had arrived from England, and
on the 8th 1200 more were landed. The fire of the besiegers was now so
heavy that the soldiers were forced to dig underground quarters to
shelter themselves. Sir Horace Vere led out several sorties; but the
besiegers, no longer distracted by the feints contrived by Sir Francis,
succeeded in erecting a battery on the margin of the Old Haven, and
opened fire on the Sand-hill Fort.
On the 19th of September Sir Francis Vere returned to the town, to the
great joy of the garrison. Reinforcements continued to arrive, and at
this time the garrison numbered 4480. There were, too, a large number
of noblemen and gentlemen from England, France, and Holland, who had
come to learn the art of war under the man who was regarded as the
greatest general of the time. All who were willing to work and learn
were heartily welcomed; those who were unwilling to do so were soon
made to feel that a besieged city was no place for them.
While the fighting was going on the archduke had attempted to capture
the place by treason. He engaged a traitor named Coningsby; who crossed
to England, obtained letters of introduction to Vere, and then went to
Ostend. Thence he sent intelligence to the besiegers of all that took
place in the town, placing his letters at night in an old boat sunk in
the mud on the bank of the Old Haven, a Spaniard wading across at low
tide and fetching them away. He then attempted to bribe a sergeant to
blow up the powder magazine. The sergeant revealed the plot. Coningsby
was seized and confessed everything, and by an act of extraordinary
clemency was only sentenced to be whipped out of town.
This act of treachery on the part of the archduke justified the
otherwise dishonourable stratagem afterwards played by Vere upon him.
All through October and November the Spaniards were hard at work
advancing their batteries, sinking great baskets filled with sand in
the Old Haven to facilitate the passage of the troops, and building
floating batteries in the Geule. On the night of the 4th of December
they advanced suddenly to the attack. Vere and his officers leapt from
their beds and rushed to the walls, and after a fierce struggle the
besiegers were driven back. Straw was lighted to enable the musketeers
and gunners to fire upon them as they retreated, and the assault cost
them five hundred lives.
On the 12th a hard frost set in, and until Christmas a strong gale from
the south-east blew. No succour could reach the town. The garrison were
dwindling fast, and ammunition falling short. It required fully 4000
men to guard the walls and forts, while but 2500 remained capable of
bearing arms. It was known that the archduke soon intended to make an
assault with his whole force, and Vere knew that he could scarcely hope
to repel it. He called a council of his chief officers, and asked their
opinion whether with the present numbers all parts of the works could
be manned in case of assault, and if not whether it was advisable to
withdraw the guards from all the outlying positions and to hold only
They were unanimously of opinion that the force was too small to defend
the whole, but Sir Horace Vere and Sir John Ogle alone gave their
advice to abandon the outlying forts rather than endanger the loss of
the town. The other officers were of opinion that all the works should
be held, although they acknowledged that the disposable force was
incapable of doing so. Some days elapsed, and Vere learned that the
Spanish preparations were all complete, and that they were only waiting
for a low tide to attack. Time was everything, for a change of wind
would bring speedy succour, so without taking council with anyone he
sent Sir John Ogle with a drummer to the side of the Old Haven.
Don Mateo Serrano came forward, and Ogle gave his message, which was
that General Vere wished to have some qualified person to speak to him.
This was reported to the archduke, who agreed that Serrano and another
Spanish officer should go into the town, and that Ogle and a comrade
should come as hostages into the Spanish camp. Sir John Ogle took his
friend Sir Charles Fairfax with him, and Serrano and Colonel Antonio
crossed into Ostend. The two Englishmen were conducted to the archduke,
who asked Sir John Ogle to tell him if there was any deceit in the
matter. Ogle answered if there were it was more than he knew, for Vere
had simply charged him to carry the message, and that he and Fairfax
had merely come as hostages for the safe return of the Spanish
Ogle was next asked whether he thought the general intended sincerely
or not, and could only reply that he was altogether unacquainted with
the general's purpose.
The next morning Serrano and Antonio returned without having seen Vere.
The pretext on which they had been sent back was that there was some
irregularity in their coming across; but instead of their being sent
back across the Old Haven they were sent across the Geule, and had to
make a long round to regain the archduke's camp.
Thus a day and a night were gained. The next day, towards evening, the
two Spanish officers were admitted into Ostend, and received very
hospitably by Sir Francis. After supper many healths were drunk, and
then Sir Francis informed them to their astonishment that his proposal
was not that he should surrender Ostend, but that the archduke should
raise the siege. But it was now far too late for them to return, and
they went to bed in the general's quarters. During the two nights thus
gained the defenders had worked incessantly in repairing the palisades
facing the point at which the attack would take place, a work that they
had hitherto been unable to perform owing to the tremendous fire that
the Spaniards kept up night and day upon it.
At break of day five men-of-war from Zeeland came to anchor off the
town. They brought four hundred men, and provisions and materials of
war of all kinds. They were immediately landed under a heavy fire from
the enemy's batteries on both sides. The firing awoke the two Spanish
envoys, who inquired what was taking place. They were politely informed
by Sir Francis Vere that succour had arrived, and the negotiations were
of course broken off; and they were accordingly sent back, while Ogle
and Fairfax returned to Ostend.
Vere's account of the transaction was that he had simply asked for two
Spanish officers to speak with him. He had offered no terms, and there
was therefore no breach of faith. The commander of a besieged town, he
insisted, is always at liberty to propose a parley, which the enemy can
accept or not as he chooses. At any rate, it was not for the archduke,
who had hired a traitor to corrupt the garrison, to make a complaint of
Twelve hundred men were employed for the next eight days in
strengthening the works, Sir Francis being always with them at night,
when the water was low, encouraging them by his presence and example.
Early in January he learned that the enemy were preparing for the
assault, and on the 7th a crushing fire was kept up on the Porc-Espic,
Helmond, and Sand-hill forts. The Spaniards had by this time fired
163,200 cannon-shot into the town, and scarcely a whole house was left
standing. Towards evening they were seen bringing scaling-ladders to
the opposite bank of the Haven. Two thousand Italian and Spanish troops
had been told off to attack the sand-hill, two thousand were to assault
Helmond and the Porc-Espic, two parties of five hundred men each were
to attack other works, while on the east side Count Bucquoy was to
deliver a general assault.
The English general watched all these preparations with the greatest
vigilance. At high water he closed the west sluice, which let the water
into the town ditch from the Old Haven, in the rear of Helmond, in
order to retain as much water as possible, and stationed his troops at
the various points most threatened. Sir Horace Vere and Sir Charles
Fairfax, with twelve weak companies, some of them reduced to ten or
twelve men, were stationed on the sand-hill.
Four of the strongest companies garrisoned the Porc-Espic; ten weak
companies and nine cannon loaded with musket bullets defended the
Helmond. These posts were commanded by Sergeant-major Carpenter and
Captain Meetkerk; the rest of the force were disposed at the other
threatened points. Sir Francis himself, with Sir Lionel Vickars as his
right hand, took his post on the wall of the old town, between the
sand-hill and the Schottenburg, which had been much damaged by the
action of the waves during the gales and by the enemy's shot. Barrels
of ashes, heaps of stones and bricks, hoops bound with squibs and
fireworks, ropes of pitch, hand-grenades, and barrels of nails were
collected in readiness to hurl down upon the assailants.
At dusk the besiegers ceased firing, to allow the guns to cool. Two
engineer officers with fifty stout sappers, who each had a rose-noble
for every quarter of an hour's work, got on to the breach in front of
the sand-hill, and threw up a small breastwork, strengthened by
palisades, across it. An officer crept down towards the Old Haven, and
presently returned with the news that two thousand of the enemy were
wading across, and forming up in battalions on the Ostend side.
Suddenly a gun boomed out from the archduke's camp as a signal to
Bucquoy, and just as the night had fairly set in the besiegers rushed
to the assault from all points. They were received by a tremendous fire
from the guns of the forts and the muskets of the soldiers; but,
although the effect was serious, they did not hesitate a moment, but
dashed forwards towards the foot of the sand-hill and the wall of the
old town, halted for a moment, poured in a volley, and then rushed into
the breach and against the walls. The volley had been harmless, for
Vere had ordered the men to lie flat until it was given. As the
Spaniards climbed up barrels of ashes were emptied upon them, stones
and heavy timbers hurled down, and flaming hoops cast over their necks.
Three times they climbed to the crest of the sand-hill, and as many
times gained a footing on the Schottenburg; but each time they were
beaten back with great slaughter. As fiercely did they attack at the
other points, but were everywhere repulsed.
On the east side three strong battalions of the enemy attacked the
outwork across the Geule, known as the Spanish Half-moon. Vere, who was
everywhere supervising the defence, ordered the weak garrison there to
withdraw, and sent a soldier out to give himself up, and to tell them
that the Half-moon was slenderly manned, and to offer to lead them in.
The offer was accepted, and the Spaniards took possession of the work.
The general's object was to occupy them, and prevent their supporting
their comrades in the western attack. The Half-moon, indeed, was quite
open towards the town. Tide was rising, and a heavy fire was opened
upon the captors of the work from the batteries across the Geule, and
they were driven out with the loss of three hundred men. At length the
assault was repulsed at all points, and the assailants began to retire
across the Old Haven. No sooner did they begin to ford it than Vere
opened the west sluice, and the water in the town ditch rushed down in
a torrent, carrying numbers of the Spaniards away into the sea.
Altogether, the assault cost the Spaniards two thousand men. An
enormous amount of plunder in arms, gold chains, jewels, and rich
garments were obtained by the defenders from the bodies of the fallen.
The loss of the garrison was only thirty killed and a hundred wounded.
The repulse of the grand attack upon Ostend by no means put an end to
the siege. Sir Francis Vere, his brother Horace, Sir John Ogle, and Sir
Lionel Vickars left, the general being summoned to assume command in
the field; but the siege continued for two years and a half longer.
Many assaults were repulsed during that time, and the town only
surrendered on the 20th September, 1604, when the sand-hill, which was
the key of the whole position, was at last captured by the Spaniards.
It was but a heap of ruins that they had become possessed of after
their three years' siege, and its capture had not only cost them an
immense number of men and a vast amount of money, but the long and
gallant defence had secured upon a firm basis the independence of
Holland. While the whole available force of Spain had been so occupied
Prince Maurice and his English allies had captured town after town, and
had beaten the enemy whenever they attempted to show themselves in the
open field. They had more than counterbalanced the loss of Ostend by
the recapture of Sluys, and had so lowered the Spanish pride that not
long afterwards a twelve years' truce was concluded, which virtually
brought the war to an end, and secured for ever the independence of
During the last year or two of the war Sir Francis Vere, worn out by
his fatigues and the countless wounds he had received in the service of
the Netherlands, had resigned his command and retired to England, being
succeeded in his position by Sir Horace. Lionel Vickars fought no more
after he had borne his part in the repulse of the great assault against
Ostend. He had barely recovered from the effect of the wound he had
received at the battle of Nieuport, and the fatigues and anxiety of the
siege, together with the damp air from the marshes, brought on a
serious attack of fever, which completely prostrated him as soon as the
necessity for exertion had passed. He remained some weeks at the Hague,
and then, being somewhat recovered, returned home.
While throughout all England the greatest enthusiasm had been aroused
by the victory of Nieuport and the repulse of the Spaniards at Ostend,
the feeling was naturally higher in the Vere's county of Essex than
elsewhere. As soon as Lionel Vickars was well enough to take any share
in gaieties he received many invitations to stay at the great houses of
the county, where most of the gentry were more or less closely
connected with the Veres; and before he had been home many months he
married Dorothy Windhurst, one of the richest heiresses in the county,
and a cousin of the Veres. Thus Geoffrey had, after Juan Mendez retired
from taking any active part in the business, to work alone until his
sons were old enough to join him in the business. As soon as they were
able to undertake its active management, Geoffrey bought an estate near
Hedingham, and there settled down, journeying occasionally to London to
see how the affairs of the house went on, and to give advice to his
sons. Dolores had, two or three years after her arrival in England,
embraced the faith of her husband; and although she complained a little
at times of the English climate, she never once regretted the step she
had taken in leaving her native Spain.
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