Count Meghem, still in possession of Groningen, was ordered by Alva on no account to fight with the enemy. Reinforcements were hurriedly sent to the seat of the war, and by July 14 the force in and around the city amounted to 15,000 picked troops, and a large number of less experienced soldiers.
Meanwhile Louis of Nassau was helpless, owing to the total want of funds. The inhabitants of the province, knowing that the terrible Alva was already on his way to Friesland, were afraid to offer the help it was in their hearts to give Louis and his patriot band. Accordingly the only funds the Count could secure were obtained by blackmailing the affrighted inhabitants of the province, and his troops were on the point of mutiny.
As the Duke drew nearer, Louis hastily called together his whole force and stationed it at a strongly fortified camp, within half a cannon-shot of Groningen. His army numbered from ten to twelve thousand men.
Alva, reaching the city, marched his troops towards a spot from which it was easy to inflict damage upon the camp. His experienced eye at once saw the strength of the enemy's position. In front of Louis' Camp, serving as a moat, flowed the river. Two wooden bridges leading across it were commanded each by a fortified house, in which was a provision of pine torches. These at a moment's notice would set fire to the bridges. The Duke resolved to send a small force of 500 musketeers to skirmish with the enemy, and if possible to tempt them from their trenches. But Louis, having little faith in his soldiers, who were on the verge of mutiny, had no wish to fight. Indeed he would gladly have fallen back before his formidable foe. Towards evening, however, a large body of the patriot army was tempted to leave their trenches, and soon they were engaged in a fierce fight with the Spaniards. In but a few minutes the patriots were routed, and fled in confusion back to their camp. A regular panic followed upon their arrival, and the whole of Count Louis' army was soon in retreat. Fortunately the bridges had not been forgotten, the pine torches had done their work, and the retreating army had gained a slight start at the beginning of the chase.
But the Spaniards were to be kept back by neither the blazing bridges nor the flowing river. Vitelli, a Spanish officer, obtained permission to follow with 2000 troops. Some of his men dashed across the blazing bridges with their garments, and even their beards, on fire. Others sprang into the river and swam to the other side. The cavalry dismounted and drove their horses into the water. Then, clinging to their tails, they pricked their steeds forward with their lances. Having thus been dragged across the river, they joined their comrades in the mad chase; along the narrow dykes and through the pitfalls of swamp and marsh they followed, wherever the rebels fled. Darkness came with the night and put an end to the wild hunt. Three hundred of the patriots lay dead on the field; at least as many perished in the rivers and canals.
Next morning the Duke started with his men in search of the remnant of the rebel army, and four days later he reached Reyden on the Ems. It was here that he expected and feared to find that Count Louis had taken up his position. Feared, for the position was one which could not have been assailed without great difficulty, while a bridge across the river would have made it possible for Louis at any moment to retreat into Germany. But Alva looked in vain for the sight he had feared to see. Indeed Louis was at Jemmingen, a little farther down the river, and about four leagues from Reyden. Bold, but not very patient, the Count, who had seen little chance of keeping his rebellious troops much longer together, had placed them in a position where they would be forced either to fight or to perish.
Alva was delighted with the false move made by Count Louis. He had placed himself in a trap, being shut up between 12,000 Spanish veterans and the River Ems. And the river, flowing deep and wide, could not be forded, nor would the passage be feasible save for a powerful swimmer, while as for boats, not more than two or three were available.
Louis did not hesitate to show his rebellious soldiers the position in which they stood. He was as clearly aware of the danger as Alva. Flight, he showed them, was impossible, for they knew that from the lances of the Spaniards they need expect no mercy. Their only chance of safety lay in their own swords.
Yet even as he spoke thus to his men, Count Louis was aware of one other means by which the onward course of the enemy might yet be stayed. He might enlist the great ocean itself in his defence. Had he but time to break down a few dykes, to open a few sluices, the whole country through which the Spaniards had still to pass would be laid under water. A strong detachment was at once ordered to begin the work of breaking down the dykes, while Louis himself, seizing a spade, showed his men the need there was for haste if the work of destruction was to be accomplished in time. Two or three tide-gates had been opened, two or three breaks in the dykes effected, when Alva, riding in advance of his army, appeared within a mile or two of Jemmingen.
It was then eight o'clock on the 21st July. The patriots redoubled their efforts. By ten o'clock the waters already reached to the knee, in some places they rose even to the waist. At that hour the advanced guard of the Spaniards arrived. Fifteen hundred musketeers were at once ordered forward by the Duke. In front of them rode a company of carabineers, attended by a small band of distinguished volunteers. This little band threw itself at once upon the troops engaged in destroying the dykes, and the rebels, heedless of the importance of holding their position, fled at the first onset. Count Louis, without a moment's delay, ordered a large force of musketeers to recover the position and complete the work of inundation.
It was too late—the little band of Spaniards held the post with superb tenacity. Charge after charge, volley after volley crashed in among them, making terrible havoc of the little force. Yet still the Spaniards never loosened the fierce grip with which they held fast what they knew was the key to the whole situation. Before they could be driven from the dykes reinforcements arrived and the patriots made a hurried retreat to their camp.
Alva then ordered 1500 musketeers to advance nearer to the camp to skirmish and draw the enemy out of the trenches as soon as possible. Gradually Count Louis' men grew bolder and the fight more grim. The Spaniards seemed but few in numbers. As the patriots redoubled their efforts the commander of the musketeers became alarmed and sent to the Duke for reinforcements. But the Duke's answer was that if he could not do the enemy any harm, he could at least, in the meantime, hold his own. So much he had a right to expect from a Spanish soldier. Again the fight raged so fiercely that the commander once more ventured to send for help. But again Alva refused his request. A third time the Spanish body was in such desperate straits that still more urgent entreaties for succour were sent to the Duke, but still he relentlessly refused to send troops to their assistance.
The result of his determination was seen about noon, when the patriots began to feel assured that the force they had to fight was but a small one. Perhaps the inundation had, after all, been successful. Perhaps the main body of the Spanish army was even now floundering in the onrush of the mighty ocean.
The patriots sent out boats to reconnoitre, and they returned to report that no large force lay in the neighbourhood.
Count Louis resolved to work on the rising courage of his men. He would incite them to make one supreme effort to cut their way out of the trap which held them fast. He was successful. His whole army at last marched boldly forth from their entrenchments, drums beating, colours flying. But already the concealed reinforcements of the Spaniards were on the spot, and the patriots found a stronger foe than they had expected. Their courage began quickly to decrease. Hardly had they advanced three hundred yards, when the whole body wavered and then retreated hastily to the encampment, having scarcely exchanged a shot with the enemy. Count Louis rushed from rank to rank, but neither commands nor entreaties were of any use; his terror-stricken men refused to be rallied. When even the battery which guarded the road was entirely deserted, Count Louis himself rushed to the cannon and fired them all with his own hand. But his single arm had no strength to turn the tide of battle, and he was swept backward with his coward troops. A moment longer and the Spaniards had dashed upon the battery, and, turning upon the rebels their own guns, the road was soon swept clear. Then, rushing through the trenches, the Spanish soldiers pursued the retreating foe. A terrible massacre followed, the patriots forgetting even to defend themselves, so abject was their fear. While 7000 rebels were killed, only seven of the great Spanish host were slain. Count Louis himself, when all was over, barely succeeded in escaping by swimming across the Ems.
Two days later the victorious Spanish army marched back to Groningen, committing on their way such cruelties that Alva hanged those of his own soldiers who had been foremost in the dastardly brutalities.