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Willem Jan Knoop as a captain

Willem Jan Knoop (Deventer, May 2, 1811 — The Hague, January 24, 1894) was a Dutch lieutenant-general, military historian, and politician. As a young captain of the Dutch General Staff he wrote a rebuttal of the English military historian captain William Siborne's account of the Battle of Quatre Bras and the Battle of Waterloo, published as History of the war in France and Flanders in 1815 in 1844, in which Siborne disparaged the conduct of the Dutch army at these battles. Siborne's book had caused a furore in the Netherlands as he saw fit to insult the honor of the Dutch army, and of king William II of the Netherlands, who as Prince of Orange had commanded that army at both battles, and was revered as a national hero by the Dutch. As Siborne's book is still in use as a source for Anglophone historiography of the battles, and is still the subject of controversy, Knoop's criticisms are still relevant, and play a role in this controversy.


Knoop, a lifelong bachelor, was the son of colonel Willem Hendrik Knoop and Henrica Willemina Hartkamp. He spent his early years in Bruges (his father was military governor there) where he frequented the library of the Maatschappij der Letterkunde, a Dutch benevolent society, promoting popular education, where he proved a promising autodidact.

He started his military career at age 14 in 1825 as a volunteer in the Sixth Division Infantry in Bruges. In 1829 he was commissioned as a second-lieutenant of infantry. In 1842, with the rank of captain of infantry, he was appointed as professor of strategy, tactics, and military history at the Royal Military Academy of the Netherlands at Breda. (As such he was apportioned to the Dutch General Staff). As a reward for his work there he was made a knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion in 1845.[1]


This was remarkable, because in 1844 he had become involved in a celebrated scandal. Like many contemporary military men, Dutch officers were prone to duelling, though this was a criminal offense. A colleague of Knoop at the Academy, Professor Bolhuis, had quarrelled with a young cavalry officer, and Knoop had been one of his seconds at the ensuing duel. Unfortunately, Bolhuis had been killed at this duel on February 14, 1844, and Knoop had subsequently been arrested for his participation in this "affair of honor." He was court-martialed and acquitted, but after the prosecution appealed to the High Military Court, sentenced to three years in prison. However, he was soon pardoned by King Wiliam II, and apparently his career did not suffer.[2]

The Siborne Controversy[]

Though Knoop of course had been only four at the time of the battle, so he had no personal knowledge, he could avail himself of the recollections of many Dutch veterans who had been there, and as a general-staff member he had access to the after-battle reports the Dutch units had made within two days after the battle ended. (These archived reports could have been made available to Siborne, and in one case he appears to have been in actual possession of one, but he never bothered to consult them[3]). As a trained historian, Knoop now started to research these sources and wrote a detailed repudiation of Siborne's book[4] based on all these sources. This book (published with the explicit consent of King William II as a semi-official rebuttal), was received with much enthusiasm in Dutch military circles. When soon thereafter there was a false rumor in the Dutch press that captain Siborne was on his way to demand satisfaction, no less than six officers of horse-artillery spontaneoulsy offered to act as Knoop's seconds, if necessary.[5] But Siborne stayed safely in England.

Knoop's book was soon translated in French and German, and met with much interest in France and Prussia at the time. These translations were sent to the editor of the United Service Magazine, but no acknowledgement was ever received, at least directly. However, many years later Knoop received an indirect indication that his book had registered, when in the February 17, 1855 issue of the English magazine Athenaeum, in a review of another historical article by his hand (quite unrelated) he was introduced as the man "...who acquired his first reputation by an angry and dashing attack on captain Siborne.".[6] Siborne himself, though not deigning to reply directly to Knoop, wrote an indirect reply in a later edition of his work (reprinted in the modern edition) in which he repeated his bold accusations against the Dutch-Belgian troops, and complained about the tone in Knoop's "pamphlet," which he calls "abusive." In defense of his accusations he just states that these are based on the testimony of the officers he surveyed, implying that the word of a British officer and gentleman ought to suffice.[7]

Siborne's book nevertheless became a celebrated source in Anglophone historiography for many secondary accounts of the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo, that faithfully perpetuated the many egregious errors of fact and fabrications (willful or accidental) in Siborne's work. His son, Major-general Herbert Siborne, edited and republished his work and his sources in 1891 as Waterloo Letters. Of course, Siborne had his detractors in England also (the Duke of Wellington not being the least of them), but his supporters there seem to have the upper hand. Recently the controversy resurfaced with the attack by David Hamilton-Williams, who used Knoop's rebuttal as one of his sources (though not for his accusations of fraud aimed at Siborne).[8] This apparently earned Hamilton-Williams the enmity of many Siborne-fans, and an avalanche of mostly ad hominem attacks. Of course, because Knoop was favorably mentioned by Hamilton-Williams (though he misspelled his name[9]) he also was drawn into the modern controversy. An example is the attack by Peter Hofschröer, a defender of Siborne, on a minor point in Knoop's book in the article linked in the External Links.

Further career[]

Knoop's military career progressed apace. Though his scholarly work at the Academy did not seem to prepare him for great military advances, he was promoted to colonel in 1858, commanding a regiment at Breda. In 1861 he was promoted to major-general, commanding divisions in Limburg and Noord-Brabant until he temporarily went into politics in 1869. He was a Liberal, unlike many of his colleagues, and as such not very popular with king William III of the Netherlands (who had succeeded his father William II in 1850). Probably because of his political leanings he had been offered the post of Minister of War in a Liberal Cabinet in 1862, but he declined. In 1869 he stood for the Second Chamber of the States-General of the Netherlands and was elected. This required that he temporarily resigned his commission. But he was recalled to duty during the mobilisation of the Dutch army at the crisis of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, during which the Netherlands maintained an armed neutrality. For that reason he had to resign his seat in parliament, as serving officers cannot sit in Dutch parliament. He retired as a lieutenant-general of infantry in 1872.

During his entire career Knoop was a recognized authority on military history. In 1847 he became a contributor to the literary magazine De Gids that published many scholarly articles on historical subjects. As such he became a friend and colleague of the eminent Dutch historian Robert Fruin, with whom he sometimes had friendly disputes. He was the editor-in-chief of the Dutch military history journal Militaire Spectator from 1849 till 1869. His renown as a historian earned him a membership of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1857. He also was president of the Vereeniging tot beoefening van de krijgswetenschap (Society for military arts and science) for many years.[10]

In retirement he remained very active as a military scholar, writing many articles, and eventually publishing eleven volumes in a standard work on stadtholder William III.[11] A listing of his works, and many of those articles, are available online in the Digital library for Dutch literature (see External Links).

Knoop died almost eighty-three years old in 1894.


  1. Netscher, p. 279
  2. Netscher, p. 280-282
  3. Hamilton-Williams, D. (1993) Waterloo. New Perspectives. The Great Battle Reappraised, John Wiley & sons, ISBN 0-471-05225-6, p.25 and fn. 12
  4. "Beschouwingen over Siborne's Geschiedenis van den oorlog van 1815 in Frankrijk en de Nederlanden" en wederlegging van de in dat werk voorkomende beschuldigingen tegen het Nederlandsche leger. Breda 1846; 2nd printing 1847; reprinted in: Knoop, W.J. (1861) Krijgs- en geschiedkundige geschriften. Vol. 1, pp. 1-70 [1]
  5. Netscher, p. 283, fn. 1
  6. Netscher, pp. 284, 297
  7. Siborne, W. History of the War in France and Belgium, in 1815. Containing Minute Details of the Battles of Quatre-Bras, Ligny, Wavre, and Waterloo, Adamant Media Corporation, ISBN 1-4021-7153-6, ISBN 978-1-4021-7153-6, pp. 391-392, fn. *
  8. Hamilton-Williams, op. cit., pp. 19-30, for an account of the controversy up to the publication of his own book
  9. Hamilton-Williams, op. cit.p. 25
  10. Data taken from the entry in Parlement & Politiek
  11. Krijgs- en Geschiedkundige Beschouwingen over Willem den Derde (1862-68 and 1895)


  • (Dutch) Netscher, P.M. (June, 1894) "Levensbericht van Willem Jan Knoop", in: Jaarboek van de Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde 1894, pp. 276–313 [2]

External links[]

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