Image of a Dutch tanked submerged while testing the waterline on 1 January 1939, months before World War II began. Source: ANP Foundation.

The Past Comes Flooding Back: The War That Almost Sank Holland

Image of a Dutch tanked submerged while testing the waterline on 1 January 1939, months before World War II began. Source: ANP Foundation.

Editor’s NoteThis post is the tenth in the “Seeds: New Research in Environmental History” series cosponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects, highlighting the work of members of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Graduate Student Caucus. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues. Graduate caucus members were asked to respond to the following questions: ““How does your work push at the boundaries of current literature and add to existing discussions of the environment/environmental history? What forces drive your research?” 

All environmental history graduate students are encouraged to join the caucus by contacting current student liaison, Zachary Nowak, at znowak@fas.harvard.edu. Follow ASEH Grad Caucus on Twitter: @ASEHGradCaucus.

By Robert Tiegs

Without wanting to go too far down the road of counterfactual history, it is entirely possible that during the Dutch Wars of Independence (1566-1648) the province of Holland could have been permanently flooded and lost to the North Sea: meaning no Rembrandt, no Vermeer, and no Dutch Golden Age.  In this conflict both combatants, the Spanish and the rebel Dutch, planned and carried out a number military inundations, intentionally flooding enormous swaths of land in order to secure their strategic objectives.  While Holland survived, the political ramifications from the militarization of the landscape would have profound consequences for the province and the region.

From the Spanish perspective, the military inundations were essentially the “nuclear option” offering them the chance to obliterate the province forever in a single command.  It was an option which several of the Spanish commanders seriously entertained.  Apparently, they started thinking along these lines in the early years of the struggle after one of the commanders intercepted a letter written by the Dutch leader William of Orange.  In this letter Orange rescinded one of his previous orders to break a sluice along the Maas River, since doing so would irreparably flood a portion of southern Holland.  This letter, which described a serious vulnerability in the rebel position, was passed up the chain of command to the Spanish General, the Duke of Alba.  Alba went so far as to commission a local surveyor to complete a map of Holland outlining how the entire province could be permanently flooded by cutting several dikes along the North Sea.

A portion of the map Alba commissioned showing how to flood Holland permanently. Source: the Rijksmuseum

A portion of the map Alba commissioned showing how to flood Holland permanently. Source: the Rijksmuseum

At this point, the only thing missing was the go-ahead from the Spanish King, Philip II.  Philip believed that such an escalation was warranted for individuals that he viewed as heretics, but ultimately rejected the plan for practical reasons.  The fact remained that even though Holland was in rebellion, it was still one of his possessions.  Furthermore, he worried that if Holland were destroyed then neighboring provinces might be at increased risk of flooding.  Lastly, he worried this act might give the Spanish a bad reputation around Europe.

While the Spanish viewed military inundations in terms of total annihilation, the rebel Dutch forces used them incrementally, although their possible devastation was no less complete.  This reality is echoed in the rebel motto, “Better broken land than lost land,” demonstrating they were quite willing to destroy their lands rather than let them fall into Spanish hands.  From the rebel perspective these floods were one of the few ways in which they could compensate for their relative weakness in terms of traditional military strength.  Spain boasted one of the largest and best trained militaries in Europe while the Dutch relied heavily on local militias and foreign troops.  As such, militarizing the landscape was a practical expedient which the Dutch used repeatedly.

An interactive map on my website that shows which cities and villages were affected by military and natural floods during the Dutch Wars of Independence.

An interactive map on my website that shows which cities and villages were affected by military and natural floods during the Dutch Wars of Independence.

During the first two decades of the conflict military inundations accompanied nearly every single rebel victory.   During the siege of Alkmaar the rebels created an impassable water barrier, flooding a swath of land from the North Sea in the west to the Zuider Zee in the east.  The Spanish were not easily deterred, however, and set up a formidable siege of the city of Leiden.  This city was located in the center of Holland, and if captured, would surely have spelled defeat for the Dutch.  In order to save the beleaguered city the rebels began the systematic flooding of Holland.  They began cutting dikes and opening sluices in the south, along the Maas and Ijssel rivers, and worked their way north towards the city.  The plan involved introducing enough flood waters so that they could literally sail to Leiden, delivering food and supplies.  For two months the rebels broke dikes and held sluices open, but their cause appeared doomed until a change in weather brought in a rainstorm and a shift in the direction of the wind.  The rebel’s viewed this as a sign of divine providence, but they had a direct hand in flooding roughly half of Holland.  It would take years to repair the damage in some areas, while other areas were abandoned completely.  The rebels saved Holland, but at a tremendous cost.

Image of a partially destroyed letter by William of Orange directing the supplies and logistics for the relief of Leiden. Source: The Correspondence of William of Orange 1549-1584.

Image of a partially destroyed letter by William of Orange directing the supplies and logistics for the relief of Leiden. Source: The Correspondence of William of Orange 1549-1584.

Even when these inundations failed to secure their primary military objective they still often achieved some strategic benefit for the Dutch.  For instance, during the siege of Antwerp to the south of Holland, rebel forces carried out a number of unsuccessful military inundations in the neighboring provinces of Flanders and Brabant.  These floods failed to save the city from being captured, but they were destructive enough to create another impassable water barrier along the northern coast of Flanders which protected the rebel positions.  Many of these lands were lost permanently to the North Sea and are still un-reclaimed.

Politically, militarizing the landscape in this manner would have enormous political ramifications for Holland and the region.  Domestically, the inundations created considerable political opportunities for talented individuals who could help carry out repair work and negotiate some of the conflicts caused by the floods.  A great example is the famous Dutch statesman, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, who was a master of medieval dike laws and used this expertise to advance his career.  It was Oldenbarnevelt who eventually provided the rebellion with a solid footing, serving as the architect of the political organizations of the Dutch Republic.  On the regional level, the military inundations served to harden the boundaries between the two states which emerged from this conflict, the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Netherlands.  In many ways, these floods helped to redraw the political map of the region.

In the later phases of the Dutch Wars of Independence, the Dutch military gained a degree of parity with their Spanish counterparts and, as a result, had to rely less on the military inundations.  Nevertheless, from a strategic perspective, they were too appealing to simply do away with.  Going forward, the Dutch developed plans and systems which could still militarize the landscape but which minimized the destruction.  In short, like so much military planning, they attempted to instill order and discipline on the floods.  The greatest example of this line of thinking is the Old and New Dutch Waterlines, a series of fortifications and strategically placed sluices along Holland’s eastern border which could be systematically flooded in the event of war.  They used these waterlines with varying degrees of success against Louis XIV in the seventeenth century and against the Germans during World War II.  The environment could be a powerful ally for the Dutch, but also a destructive one, so if they were going to enlist it for support, it would have to be well-trained, orderly, and disciplined just like all the other soldiers.

Image of a Dutch tanked submerged while testing the waterline on 1 January 1939, months before World War II began. Source: ANP Foundation.

Image of a Dutch tanked submerged while testing the waterline on 1 January 1939, months before World War II began. Source: ANP Foundation.

 

 

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Robert Tiegs

Adjunct Professor at Sheridan College
I am a recent graduate from Louisiana State University and adjunct professor at Sheridan College. As an early career scholar, I am passionate about making history both meaningful and accessible to my students and the public alike. My research focuses on the impact of military inundations, the intentional flooding of land for strategic purposes, during the Dutch Wars of Independence (1572-1648). I employ an interdisciplinary approach to this subject, examining the social, cultural, and political ramifications of this tactic from a variety of perspectives. As this field of study is rather understudied and fairly new. Each day I look forward to the challenges of studying this important subject matter.

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