How Ice Skates Helped to Win the War

How the Dutch defeated the Spanish invasion in the Eighty Years' War …with ice skates! Here's the story, from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids.


During the 15th and 16th centuries, the heyday of the Spanish Empire, the country’s kings and queens tended to go brutally overboard in their support of the Roman Catholic Church. They forced Jews and Muslims to convert or get out of the country in 1492, and then created the infamous Inquisition to root out atheists, freethinkers, Christians of the wrong kind, and any former Jews and Muslims who were only pretending to be Catholic. Torture, forced confessions, and burnings at the stake were common tools used to “save” the souls of those deemed insufficiently Catholic.

In 1566 Spain’s King Philip II got some disturbing news about a distant province ruled by his empire. Thanks to the devilish and revolutionary influence of people like Martin Luther and John Calvin, the scourge of Protestantism had taken root in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands. After trying out slightly gentler methods, Philip sent in Spanish troops with orders to scare the devil— or at least the Calvin and Luther— out of the locals. In response, many of the Dutch people rose up in rebellion, and Philip decided that anything, even mass murder, was acceptable in the effort to convince the Dutch to accept Catholicism.


Not all Dutch towns resisted or wanted trouble, but even that didn’t help them. In November 1572, the city of Naarden tried to negotiate surrender with the Spanish by inviting the invading army to a lavish feast. But after the food and toasts and expressions of friendship and loyalty were finished, the army gathered the 3,000 residents into the town church. Moments after sending in a reluctant priest to tell the people to pray, the army rushed in with swords and began slaughtering the townspeople. Eventually, the soldiers burned the church down to make sure there were no survivors. Other cities and towns were similarly ransacked, and an estimated 100,000 people were killed.


News of the massacres spread quickly through the rest of the Netherlands, and resistance became the only way the Dutch could see to throw off the Spanish invasion, even for towns that had been loyal to the empire and Catholicism. That wouldn’t be easy, though. The Spaniards were marching toward Amsterdam, and the small cities along the way didn’t have the armies to resist them. But evacuating thousands of citizens on short notice with winter coming wasn’t possible either. Still, they couldn’t just wait around to be killed. So what could they do?

Further complicating matters was the fact that the Netherlands didn’t have any mountains or other high places to use defensively. In fact, because so much of the Dutch countryside had once been swamps, lakes, and ocean floor, 30 percent of its land is actually below sea level and most of the rest, just barely above it. But then, officials in the city of Alkmaar in the central part of the country came up with a plan so crazy it probably shouldn’t have worked.

Here’s how the plan went: Flood everything. Breach the levees and dikes that kept rivers and the waters of the North Sea at bay. Create a huge lake on farmland around the city, making it difficult for marching armies to reach its gates. The townspeople went to work— opening water gates, digging holes in levees, and damming rivers. Soon there was water everywhere, and it was too deep to  cross on foot. Other towns did the same thing, and when the Spanish army arrived, it looked out helplessly over broad waters and stopped dead.


The Spanish then retreated back to their ships and decided to attack Amsterdam by way of its harbor instead. Time was running out, though, because winter was coming. For the Spanish, that looked like it might be a silver lining: When the cold of winter came, all of those lakes would freeze into ice highways.

The first test of that theory came shortly afterward when the ragtag Dutch fleet was frozen into the Amsterdam harbor, making the Dutch unable to confront the Spanish ships head-on. Taking that advantage, Spanish troops began marching across the ice to attack the ships first, and then they planned to head to the coastline on foot.

But as they marched gingerly across the frozen ice, they were confronted by a horrifying apparition. Wave after wave of Dutch soldiers flew across the surface of the ice with incredible speed, flitting into range just long enough to fire a musket before retreating again behind walls of ice and frozen snow. The Spanish soldiers had never seen anything like it: “It was a thing never heard of before today,” the Spanish Duke of Alva recounted with grudging admiration, “to see a body of musketeers fighting like that on a frozen sea.”


The Spanish didn’t stay for long. Alva ordered a quick retreat… or at least as quickly as the Spanish soldiers could go with slippery shoes and frostbitten toes. The Dutch skating masters followed, pushing Alva’s men back to their ships and picking off several hundred of them in the process.

Alva killed a few Dutch soldiers and finally got his hands on the real cause of their high-speed dexterity: ice skates. He sent a pair back to Spain with a message that his soldiers needed skates of their own. When he received that message, the king of Spain ordered 7,000 pairs of ice skates made, and the Spanish military started offering skating lessons.


The Spanish became decent skaters, but as defenders, the Dutch held a significant advantage. They were also able to push the Spaniards onto thin ice by cutting the frozen flooded cities at tactical spots, creating deadly traps that sent their enemies plunging deep into freezing water. The Dutch also doubled their fighting forces by teaching civilian women how to shoot and repair damaged walls (often raiding Catholic churches for statues and using them as building material to taunt and demoralize the Spanish).

The war lasted for 80 years, alternating between stalemates and horrifying brutality, but by 1648, the Netherlands and Belgium had driven out the Spanish once and for all. The Dutch continued to refine strategic flooding as a defensive tactic, adding forts along roads and bridges. The “Dutch Water Line” remained effective as a defensive strategy until the air power of World War II finally made it obsolete.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids. Weighing in at over 400 pages, it's a fact-a-palooza of obscure information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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