When the going gets tough in Aceh, the Dutch resorted to their last option, they hated it but there was no other viable option left. Enter the highly trained mercenaries, they were, per se, not the elitist of the elit, out of jealousy, never being considered as the Janissaries of Dutch KNIL but one thing for sure, they are a bunch of killers, an effective machine that breeds fear among the insolent souls. They were equivalent to the British Gurkhas wielding those deadly kukris, only more fiendish and cruel.
They train to eliminate threats but they ended up being vicious, sadistic killers; of men, women and children. They do not need elaborate logistical supports in their quest against the local guerrillas, they just need their light weight carbines (which do not really endear to them) and klewangs (a native machete, which they love so much) to be as sharp as it can be! Their infamous reputation precede them, but not many of us ever heard of their name, the MARSOSE!
The Aceh War had begun on a faithful day of 8 April 1873 and the Dutch got it all wrong about the Acehnese since that day. They foolishly thought by capturing the keratons and scorching the Baiturrahman Mosque in Kuta Raja (Banda Aceh), the whole Aceh will bow down to them. In reality, the hard part just began! By retreating to the Bukit Barisan mountainous terrains and other remote areas, the guerrilla warfare started, lock stock and smoking barrels.
It was so bad for the Dutch that they can’t even protected strategic military outposts and resorted to mass camping in between the 16 fortified forts, alienating Kuta Raja from Acehnese threats, and the outside world too. This tactic known as gecocentreerde linie or concentrated line shows how ferocious and menacing the Acehnese were in their quest for freedom and honour.
Snouck Hurgronje, the official advisor for Dutch government on colonial affairs expressed his thorough view on the Aceh situation after 2 years of underground study. He suggested to the Dutch government and to the then military governor, Jeneral Henri Karel Frederick van Teijn and Joannes Benedictus van Heutsz that the only way to stymie and hamper the guerrilla progress is by befriending the local sympathizers, the Uleebalangs that have soft stand and more lenient approach towards Dutch presents (occupations) in Aceh. By having the Uleebalang’s support, the constant supply given to the guerrillas at the root level can be eliminated. This in turn will weaken the guerrillas position and make them more visible to the Dutch army.
Hence, on 2 April 1890, Marsose were introduced by Van Heutsz after agreeing to the idea coined by a local Acehnese collaborator by the name of M. Arif or Mohammad Syarif. Marsose is a short name for Korps Marechausse te voet, which loosely translated to ‘marshal corps on foot’, part of Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL).
The mercenaries were selectively picked among the people of Ambon, Madura, Manado and Java, with the Ambonese and the Manados made up majority of them. The Marsose always believe that they were better than the native Dutch soldiers due to their skills, the usage of klewang, higher salary and exclusive patch on the uniform. Not just klewang, these mercenaries learnt how to use local Acehnese deadly weapon, the rencong. They were train to think like the Aceh guerrillas, to act like them and to be more ruthless than them. In short, Marsose is a counterinsurgency unit or an anti-guerilla guerilla unit!
As mentioned earlier, in late 19th century, colonial Dutch faced strong opposition from local guerrillas all across Aceh. Small pockets of resistance made it difficult to pinpoint the exact location of the guerrillas stronghold. It was even harder to mount an elaborate attack on these positions but with the helps of local warlords, collaborators and defectors, the Marsose ventured deep into the woods to neutralise those positions.
Were the Marsose as brave as they were depicted?
One incident reported by Indische Krijgskundige Vereniging tells us the story of an ambush by Aceh guerrillas on a bivak (temporary camp build from woods) occupied by a Dutch high ranking officer in Kroeng Kloeet. The Aceh guerrilla wielding a klewang was about to hack the officer but was stopped on track by another klewang held by an Ambonese Marsose. In the end, 7 of the Aceh guerrillas were killed while the Ambonese had to endure 16 cuts on his body. He survived though.
Marsose were known for their unmerciful, stony-hearted and senseless killings. None other than the Kuta Reh massacre highlighted the magnitude of the brutality of ruthless Marsose. In this unfortunate incident, lead by Gotfried Coenraad Ernst van Daalen, 2,922 Acehnese died, among them were 1,149 women and children.
The incident reported back in Netherlands and condemned by the Dutch House of Representatives. However, Van Daalen was acquitted from all accusations. This though, was not an isolated case. There were many similar stories of horrific killings in his ‘Gayo, Alas and Batak Campaign’. It became a bad habit of the Marsose to take photos, standing on the bodies of their dead victims, women and children included.
However, the Marsose not always had it their way. Once, they were cornered, ambushed and each one of them was killed by rencong, all 160 of them.
For all the atrocities done towards the Acehnese, Marsose and Van Daalen were despised by many Dutch soldiers from other regiments. Even Van Heutsz and Hurgronje not happy with Van Daalen direct and confrontational approach.
This grim poignant episode in Aceh history cuts really deep even till now. Many died the unnecessary deaths. What makes it harder, the atrocities were done by fellow countrymen (as NKRI formed later on). The longing feeling, resentment, indignation and anger can still be felt whenever the subject of Marsose atrocities pop up from time to time.
The only thing that left of Marsose now is their carved names on the wall of Kherkof Cemetery in Banda Aceh while the names of all those brave freedom fighters, who died for their land and honour will always be remembered by the Acehnese and Indonesians alike.
This is the story of Marsose, the real soldiers of fortune.
Sources and further reading:
1. Satuan Korps Marechausse Di Aceh Tahun 1890 – 1930, I’anah Wulandri and Sri Mastuti, 2013
2. The Root Of Dutch Counterinsurgency Balancing And Integrating Military And Civilian Efforts From Aceh To Uruzgan, Thijs W. Brocades Zaalberg, 2010