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Peasants' War (The Low Countries, 1798)


Last modified: 2007-10-20 by ivan sache
Keywords: peasants' war | boerenkrikg | cross (red) |
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Boerenkrijg flag

Flag of the Peasant's War, 1798 (modern reconstitution) - Image by Ivan Sache, 2 June 2007

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History of the Peasants' War

An uprising against the French ruler was planned by the "Brabantian patriots", mostly nobles, civil servants, priests and monks from Enunerich (Gelderland) and Rozendaal (North Brabant), supported by the Stadhouder Willem V of Oranje (1748-1806), who expected the recreation of the Netherlands (first for him, then for his son, later crowned as Willem I, 1772-1843) and also by England, Prussian and Austria. The beginning of the uprising was scheduled to 25 October 1798. On 24 September 1798, the French rulers decided the conscription (draft) of all men aged 16 to 25 all over the Low Countries, which increased the farmers' wrath.
The arrest of an inhabitant of Overmere (Berlare) for outstanding tax caused a spontaneous uprising on 12 October, two weeks earlier than planned, by the farmers (also called Brigands by the French).
The revolted farmers attempted to reach the mouth of the Scheldt, where an English fleet was expected. Two attempts of landing failed, the first on 21 October in Vlissingen and the second on 23-24 October in Blankenberge. The farmers withdrew to Klein-Brabant (Boom).
In West Flanders, the rebellion was quickly suppressed after the battle of Ingelmunster, during which 200 were killed. In South-East Flanders, Ronse and Oudenaarde were occupied by the insurgents, but the French army pacified the whole region on 20 October. Mechelen was occupied on 22 October but lost two days later; forty-one insurgents were shot in front of the St. Rombout tower. In Klein-Brabant, the Brigands were initially very successful, and occupied the old St. Margriet fortress near the mouth of the Rupel. They resisted there more than 14 days, led by Emmanuel Rollier, from Sint-Amands. Violent fightings took place every day in Dendermonde, Boom, Lier, Willebroek and mostly Bornem, which was burned on 5 November.
In Kempen, the uprising started on 15 October in Geel, led by Jozef Van Gansen, from Westerlo. The fightings took place in Westerlo, Geel, Mol, the abbey of Tongerlo, Diest, Turnhout and Herentals. After the fall of Herentals on 28 October, the farmers withdrew deeper into Kempen. In the Hageland, the uprising was let by Eelen, the son of a doctor from Scherpenheuvel. Zoutleeuw and Tienen were seized but the Brigands were eventually defeated in Leuven on 28 October.
After the battle of Bornem, Van Gansen led 10,000 Brigands in Geel, 3,000 in the Hageland and another 4,000 in Klein-Brabant. They had to withdraw from Turnhout and Geel but won a limited victory in Meerhout on 12 November. The same day, 6,000 Brigands took Diest by surprise, but they were quickly expelled by the French troops. Van Gansen was injured. On 14-15 November, the land surveyor Meulemans, from Tongerlo, allowed the Brigands to withdraw nightly on a small dyke crossing flooded fields along the Demer. Afterwards, the Brigands were split into two groups: Eelen moved southwards, to Kortenaken, whereas the printer Pieter Cobeels, from Turnhout, moved northwards, to Mol, with the bigger group. On 22 November, a big battle in Mol caused the death of 1,000. Corbeels and Meulemans were captured and brought triumphally to Brussels via Antwerp.
Eelen still resisted because he knew better the region then the French and won a small victory in Tienen on 2 December. Along with Van Gansen, he moved to Hasselt with 4,000 men on 4 December, aiming at the citadel of Maastricht. Unfortunately, the French troops were already in Hasselt, defending the three gates of the town. The Brigands withdrew to Alken, but the group was split in two. Those who could not have left the town were slaughtered and several other were captured outside the town.
On 7 December, the French celebrated their victory in Brussels with a torchlight procession. Hunders of Brigands were jailed and a dozen was sentenced to death and shot or beheaded, like Corbeels and Meulemans, beheaded on 21 June 1799 in Tournai. Eelen and Van Gansen, helped by Geert Heisen, the commander of the Brigands from Zoerle-Parwijs, carried on for months an unsuccessful guerilla. An attempt of English landing in Den Helder in August 1799 was another failure. The peace was restored and the survivors of the uprising hid.

Source: History of the Boerenkrijg, by Marc Alcide

Ivan Sache, 21 May 2007

Flag of the Peasants' War

No historical flag from the Peasants' War seems to have been preserved. The chapel of Hilst, where after the battle of Hasselt the remnant of the peasants was killed is decorated with a white flag with a red cross. In a barn nearby this event is commemorated every first Saturday of December, with the sam flag hanging on the wall.

The book De Boerenkrijg (1798), published in 1898 by the Davidsfonds in Leuven, shows a colour print (42 x 58 cm) entitled De strijd tussen de boeren en de Franschen (The fight between peasants and French). On the image, the flag has a thin red cross, not touching the edges of the flag; the staff of the flag is a pitchfork.

Jan Mertens, 2 June 2007