By Ian Yonge
In 1808 the British were faced with several choices as to where their army should be deployed in Europe. Should Wellington be given more troops in the Peninsular or should perhaps the forces in Sicily be built up with the intent of opening up a second front on the Italian mainland?
Or should there be a landing on the Dutch coast? The Austrians were pressing for a British diversion there to draw off forces that could otherwise be used on the Danube and Elbe against them. However the experience of the Helder campaign of ten years before should have alerted the Government to the fact that a landing on the Dutch coast, even if a resounding success, was too far away from any likely action in a Franco-Austrian campaign, to be of any assistance. Perhaps more relevant to the proposal, were the repeated Admiralty warnings that Napoleon was planning to invade England from Antwerp. Napoleon boasted that his fleet based in the dockyards at Flushing and Antwerp was;
“a pistol at the head of England”
England was in fact far more vulnerable to attack from there than from the shallow harbours of the Channel ports and unpredictable Bay of Biscay. It was felt that 1809 offered perhaps a last chance to strike a decisive blow before the enemy fleet was operational.
Prior to 1804, the area of the arsenal at Antwerp was occupied by 1500 homes; all of which were levelled for the building works. In all Napoleon had expended upon the fortifications, basin, dock-yard, and arsenal, 66 million of francs, or £2,640,000.
However Antwerp was not deep enough to float the largest ships when fully loaded with guns and stores. Accordingly Napoleon had also built up the port of Flushing. By this means he gained control of the entrance of the Scheldt Estuary and was able to use a large deep water harbour, in which a fleet could either to go straight out to sea or retreat towards Antwerp, if menaced by the British.
The immediate problem for the British, was a lack of detailed intelligence. and what intelligence was gathered must have alerted the enemy to their intentions. On the 6th July 1809 the Admiralty had written up a digest of reports. These were quite detailed on the naval situation in the Flushing area but what the army would face further inland was another matter. Some typical entries are:
April 1st Lieut Duncan of the Idas cutter proceeded up the Weilingen and observed eight ships of the line anchored off the mouth of the Scheldt.
April 22nd Captain Boxer of the Skylark states that it appears from information obtained it appears eight gun ships had arrived from Boulogne and the number of troops at Flushing increased, composed of all nations.
May 13th Captain McKinon of the Calliope stated that by intelligence obtained from deserters it appears that the generality of the foreign troops at Flushing are dissatisfied and inclined to desert. ……. that the town of Flushing is well fortified and the inhabitants are in expectation of an attack. He further states that the troops on Walcheren are chiefly composed of deserters put upon the Island as they cannot get away and that there are about 4000 regulars plus the militia
Two English midshipmen who escaped from prison, observed five ships high up the river and were told that’s several ships had gone higher up the river, some as far as Lillo to avoid the English fireships………. that 10,000 men had arrived on the Kadsand and 10,000 more were on the march intended for the defence of Walcheren and that on the Island the people were employed in repairing the works at Flushing…
23rd June Lieut Cousins states that on the 22nd he boarded a brig, the master of which informed him…. that several of the line of battleships are weakly manned and their crews not compleat
Taken together the intelligence reports showed that there were already in position ten 74-gun ships, under the command of the French Rear-admiral, Missiessy. It was noted that two of these ships had Danish officers and men, who earlier in the year had refused to sail to Brest. There were also four Dutch frigates, all but two ships were said to be ready for sea although the powder for their guns for some reason had been sent to Ghent. There were, also, on the stocks at Antwerp, seven 84 guns ships building; one of them just ready to be launched, and several of the others in a very advanced state. In Antwerp it was reported there were 19 ships in all. At Flushing there was one 74, one frigate and one brig building and various smaller vessels.
The continual reconnaissance of the river by British vessels made the French nervous. By April a boom had been thrown across the river where it narrowed on the approaches to Antwerp, and that was at least two months before the expedition set sail. On the 17th May after a British Squadron was sited off Walcheren, General Clarke the French war Minister reported that all the batteries in the area were fully manned and ready. The French however remained short of men on the ground. Apart from their questionable quality, there were only 4000 men on Walcheren and just under 2000 on Kadzand. There were other troops available but it would take them days to arrive and deploy
It was first suggested that 16,000 troops be deployed for a hit and run surprise raid on Walcheren. However several more months, would be needed before the regular battalions had recovered from Corunna and furthermore the casualties of the campaign of 1808 had been heavy, and at the New Year the total of effectives stood at only 200,000, of whom 22,000 were serving in the Mediterranean and another 60,000 plus were on the other side of the Atlantic or Indian Oceans. Although some 16,000 militiamen had recently been added to the regular army, they were not yet trained.
The Government, accordingly decided against a surprise raid and prepared for a major expedition for the middle of 1809. By then it was hoped there would be sufficient trained and fit troops and that Austrian victories and a successful British campaign in Portugal would be making such demands on the French army that there would be insufficient troops to prevent a major attack on Antwerp.
The Second Earl of Chatham was the was the son of William Pit the elder and a brother of the Pitt the younger, was appointed the army commander and Sir Richard Strachan the Naval. They were an ill matched pair. Chatham last command was a brigade during the landing in Holland ten years before. But most of his life, had been spent in the world of politics. At the time of the Walcheren expedition he was in the cabinet as Master General of the Ordnance.
His reputation for extreme caution, had earned him the nickname ‘the late’ Lord Chatham and clearly made him an unsuitable choice for an operation likely to need a flexible quick thinking mind. He did however have the notional advantage that at one time he had been first Lord of the Admiralty so he should have had some ideas of the issues facing the Navy.
It was however hoped that his military limitations would be mitigated by his subordinate officers, who included Lieutenant-General Sir Eyre Coote and several of Sir John Moore’s officers from the Peninsular.
Chatham paired badly with Sir Richard Strachan, known in the navy as ‘Mad Dick’ because of his excitable nature. He was dynamic officer with a reputation for dash but like so many other naval officers he had little understanding or interest in the needs of the army.
Strachan’s deputy Commodore Sir Home Popham a keen exponent of combined operations was described by a fellow officer, perhaps unfairly, as being like a hippopotamus“an amfiberous animal, wot cannot live on the land, and wot dies in the water.”
A contemporary newspaper printed a jingle which summed up popular reactions to both commanders:
Great Chatham with his sabre drawn
Stood waiting for Sir Richard Strachan;
Sir Richard, longing to be at ’em,
Stood waiting for the Earl of Chatham
Even the King was concerned as to whether the army and navy would work together. Part of the orders to Chatham reads as follows:
“I am commanded to state to your Lordship that his Majesty feels afraid that his army and navy will vie with each other…………as a means of successfully surmounting every obstacle, His Majesty trusts that the mutual spirit of respect and harmony will prevail throughout the whole of their operations between their respective forces.”
Chatham wrote to Sir Richard Strachan on the eve of the departure “We have the most firm reliance upon your promoting to the utmost of your power a spirit of harmony and unanimity and upon your enforcing the importance of maintaining a perfect good understanding with the Army the cordial cooperation of the two services being essential to the happy and successful issue of this great enterprise”.
The following extract of a letter from Downing Street reinforced this message though perhaps it reflects more of a hope than a reality.
Downing Street 28th July “……..observed with particular pleasure the powerful effort as well as the marked cordiality with which the army and navy have combined their exertions on this present occasion”
Whatver spirit of goodwill there was among the commanders was not to last long. However whatever the problems at the top, lower down the two services did appear to work together.
Lieut Colonel St Clair wrote “In gaining the deck of the Revenge we were received by her captain ….. with great civility and attention…at this period all jealously between the two services had vanished for we solders had already proved to them that the only difference between a British sailor and a British solder was in the colour of their coats and we were greatly indebted to Napoleon for making our two services as one in esteem and friendship”
Thomas Hargreave FRCS asst surgeon to the Royal Horse Artillery wrote “The hospitality and good attention of our naval officers to the army exonerates them from an idea which once prevailing but which is justly losing ground…. that a want of unanimity existed between our naval and military services…… there were many kindnesses to the troops when under the influence of disease, this circumstance alone must prove to the contrary and add to the reputation of the British navy”.
Though it was towards the end of May that the decision was finally taken to send an expedition to the Scheldt, it was not until two months afterwards, that 40,000 men were ready and assembled on the Downs near Deal. This was more than Wellington had been allowed in the Peninsula but the Government did not want to risk failure by attacking the Continent with insufficient forces. However the delay meant that the season of settled weather was past and the time of autumn gales and rains was looming. The Helder expedition of only ten years before showed just how stormy the North Sea could get and the dangers that could pose to any amphibious operation. The delay and the slow buildup also meant that any chance of secrecy was long lost.
In the formal instructions issued to Chatham the objectives were defined as
” the capture or destruction of the enemy’s ships either building at Antwerp and Flushing or afloat in the Scheldt, the destruction of the arsenals and dockyards at Antwerp, Terneuse and Flushing, the reduction of the island of Walcheren and the rendering, if possible, the Scheldt no longer navigable for ships of war.”
To facilitate the passage up the Scheldt, Kadzand and the islands of Walcheren and South-Beveland (Zuid Beveland) were to be occupied with the long term intention of holding Walcheren. A proviso added that, if all the objectives were not practicable, as many should be attained as possible before returning home.
However of these objectives it was only the destruction of the citadel and fleet at Antwerp which could justify the huge effort which Britain was making and in the event the expedition did not even attempt to achieve this. Reality was to show that so often with invasions such as Gallipoli in 1915 and Anzio in 1944 the British spend too much time getting the landing right and then not following up with sufficient rapidity.
To understand the course of the expedition, it is necessary first to understand geography of the area. Walcheren Island is immediately to the north of present day Belgium and fronts the North Sea with the town of Flushing (Vlisingen) sat the southern most tip. It is very roughly square, about ten miles by ten miles and divides the Scheldt into the east and west Scheldt. The West Scheldt was divided into two channels, the channel opposite the Flushing shore was known as the Deurloo and the southern channel was known as the Weilingen channel. The East Scheldt was not navigable to Antwerp.
Once past Flushing lay a tortuous but perfectly possible sailing channel to the eastern extremity of the island of South Beveland where the river narrowed to a thousand yards. South Beveland which was separated from Walcheren by a narrow channel, which ran west east and is about 18 miles long. It starts in the west as quite broad but then narrows to a long peninsular. At the end of this peninsular, within twenty miles of its goal, it was proposed to disembark the army and artillery and stores, preparatory to a crossing from Bat, the fort at the eastern tip of South Beveland, to land on the mainland at Sandvliet. At this point where the river narrowed considerably, there were two forts of Lillo and Liefkenshoek, opposite one another on the northern and southern shores of the Scheldt. When these two forts were taken the way would be clear for an overland push to Antwerp of only 12 miles away.
The two islands of Walcheen and South Beveland bear little relation to the geography then as they both are joined to the mainland.
So long as Antwerp was controlled by the French, they could effectively fend off any attack on the Low Countries, while any warships lying at Flushing and menaced by the British could be moved up river to the protection of Antwerp’s guns. The French fleet could not be destroyed simply by occupying Walcheren. The only real option was a swift advance to Antwerp, destroy the facilities and destroy or remove the fleet and leave. Accordingly an early capture of and neutralising of guns at Flushing and on the opposite side at Fort Breskens so as to free the West Scheldt Channel was vital, since only by an amphibious advance up the river was an attack on Antwerp deemed practicable. The seventy mile march from the coast of Flanders had been ruled out from the onset because of the risks inherent in a long overland march and lack of a suitable sheltered landing place. However a French writer suggested that Blankenberg” was suitable for the safe disembarkation of an army and that from there a paved road ran straight to Antwerp.
While the French defenders were an unknown quantity, it was not however the French that the British would have to fear. Disease was to win this campaign for Napoleon. It was all rather unnecessary given Walcheren was known to be unhealthy. A few years before the French had lost 80% of their troops in the area to the fever. British troops had also in the past suffered. In 1747 Sir John Pringle had reported on a fever that had afflicted British troops near Antwerp.
The sickness never begins till the heats have continued long enough to give time for the putrefaction and evaporation of the water. The epidemics of this country may therefore be generally dated from the end of July or the beginning of August…… their decline, about the first fall of leaf; and their end, when the frost begins.
So the British were or should have been aware that in this low-lying land with its stagnant pools and dykes in which mosquitoes bred in their millions was not a good place to be in the summer. Especially this summer for heavy floods the previous year had made the conditions ideal for mosquitoes in the 1809 and the weather that August was particularly hot and steamy.
The plan was that Hope’s division would land on South Beveland and clear the shore line up to Bat at the eastern far end of the island, that 5000 men of Lord Huntly’s Division would land on Kadzand on the opposite shore to the south of Walcheren and that 12,000 troops under Eye Coote would land on Walcheren, take the island and neutralise Flushing. Grosvenors and Rosslyn’s divisions were to be the last to leave England with the idea that after the initial landing, with Walcheren, Kadzand and South Beveland all taken or neutralised, they would land at Santvliet a little to the north of Lillo which was east of South Beveland and make a speedy landward advance to Antwerp.
On July 20th, the embarkation began. However by the 23rd Windham was writing in his journal of ” terrible news from Germany” where at the battle of Wagram on the 10th of July the Austrian Archduke was driven from the field.
Just before the troops sailed there was an exchange of correspondence between the army authorities and the Treasury agreeing that while the troops were away that “the women and children of the regiments under foreign service [be permitted] to remain in the barracks under the charge of the detachment left with the heavy baggage and to the granting them the same barrack allowances as would be given to a similar number of men”. On more significant matters, as we shall see, the Treasury was less helpful.
At dawn on July 28th the main force set sail, with the Earl of Chatham, with the other units, sailing on the 29th and 30th. The main force consisted of 35 sail of the line (many of the ships had their lower guns removed to accommodate the thousands of horses being taken over, two 50 gun ships, three 44 gun ships, 10 frigates, 33 sloops, 5 bomb vessels, 23 gun brigs- 5 carrying mortars, 17 cutters, 14 Revenue vessels and various , and gun-boats, making, in all, about 250 warships, accompanied by about 400 transports of some 100,000 tons.
The army numbered some 39,143 officers and men. Over 6,000 horses were embarked as part of the force, including about 2657 cavalry. Artillery consisted of a battering train of 70 guns, 74 mortars, and Congreve Rockets and 3032 men. Foot Guards totalled some 2867. There were thirty-six infantry regiments comprising thirty seven battalions with a total strength of 30,299. There were also, 2 Companies of Engineers, a Wagon Train with 3 Troops, 132 wagons and 238 carts
Sergeant Hale of the 9th Regiment of Foot described their departure
“So, by having this party of volunteers from the militia, and a few more old hands that joined from different hospitals, our regiment mustered nearly one thousand strong, well clothed, and in good health; in consequence of which, we were soon summoned to hold ourselves in readiness for foreign service again; and on the 17th of July, 1809, at five o’clock in the morning, we assembled in the barrack yard, in marching order, to march to Deal, as the expedition was to assemble in the Downs. But in consequence of some misconduct of two men the night before, instead of marching off in the usual way, we were formed into square, and a drum-head court. martial ordered to sit immediately, for the trial of the two men, who bore but a middling character in general. So according to order, they were tried, and sentenced to receive two hundred lashes in the usual manner. But that they should not escape going on this expedition, the colonel mitigated the punishment, by giving them only one hundred lashes each, and to be marched as prisoners with the baggage. This being done, we marched off about seven o ‘ clock, with drums beating and colours flying, through the city and being so united with inhabitants, the streets were crowded with people who were waiting to bid us farewell; as also many young women with watery eyes, who were then deprived of their fancy men being heavy loaded, and the weather very warm, we continued moving along very slowly until about two o’clock, when we arrived at Deal, which was nineteen miles; but instead of being put into quarters for that night, as we expected to be, we were marched down to the place of embarkation, and put on board immediately: eight companies on board two transport ships, and the grenadier and light company in board the Thalia frigate, accompanied with the band and the staff of the regiment.
The Downs being the place appointed for the fleet to assemble at, we remained there several days, waiting for more troops, &c. and when the whole fleet was assembled, (which consisted of between two and three hundred sail), it appeared at a distance, or, as I might say, to people standing on the shore, something resembling a wood. This was the finest expedition ever known to sail England who came to take a view of the fleet; for when in full sail, it was a most beautiful sight; and as soon as all were under weigh, a signal was made to make sail and keep as close together as possible.”
By now however news came that Austria, had signed an armistice. Yet for the British, the expedition was perhaps now even more important than ever, for if Antwerp could be captured, that would destroy French invasion plans, which Napoleon, now that Austria was no longer a danger, could devote more time and resources. Napoleon would of course also have more troops to repel an invasion in Flanders.
By the evening of the 28th the two commanders-in-chief, in the 74-gun-ship Venerable and Captain Sir Home Popham, in the Amethyst, together with several other vessels, anchored in the roadstead. After dark the entrance to the channel was sounded, and vessels stationed at its entrance. On the 29th, in the morning, the transports joined; and in the evening they anchored in safety between the islands of North Beveland and Schouwen, and nearly opposite to the town of Zierikzee upon the latter. On the same evening, and on the morning of the 3Oth, Rear-admiral William Albany Otway, in the Monarch 74, arrived with the left wing of the army, about 17,000 strong, under Lieutenant-general Sir Eyre Coote.
It was at about 8.30 in the morning on the 29th of July, that the signal posts of Walcheren and Kadzand announced the appearance of the British off the coast; and immediately Rear-admiral Missiessy, weighed anchor and stood up the Scheldt. By the next evening’s tide most of his ships had passed through the boom at Lillo.
The original plan had been that Eyre Coote’s forces would land on the south west coast of Walcheren at Zouteland Bay, near to Flushing. However intelligence received at Deal, before departure, indicated that the French Fleet was moving out to sea, meant that Domburg was selected at the last moment. In the event during the 29th the breeze, which had carried it so swiftly and effortlessly across the North Sea on, the 28th did not hold. During the 29th a westerly gale with heavy surf made a landing at the intended site impossible. With great skill Sir Home Popham, managed to get the immense fleet of transports into the East Scheldt off the northern tip of Walcheren. It was late in the afternoon on the 30th, that the first of Eye Coote’s troops landed, with minimal resistance and without casualties.
The false reports that the French fleet were moving out to sea had serious consequence. Commodore Owen with Lord Huntly’s division was instructed not to risk an immediate landing at Kadzand but to lie off shore. Huntly also had another problem, which caused further delay. His instructions required him to land with 2000 troops in one operation but just as he was setting sail, he was informed by Owen that there only enough boats to land 700 at a time. His problems were compounded when he arrived off the Dutch coast and learned that the fort at Breskens on Kadzand had just been reinforced with some 2,000 French and Dutch reservists. He asked for orders yet nearly a week passed before any orders arrived, during the whole of which time Huntly and his division remained in their transports off the coast. Plans were made to land both on the 29th and 30th but bad weather frustrated these. Further the extra landing vessels which Strachan had promised after much pleading, were diverted at the last moment to a feint of the south west coast of Walcheren.
The change in landing place also had some more immediate consequences. With Coote’s forces having to land on the far northern side of the island, they had to march up to ten miles to Flushing and take on the way the fortified towns of Middelburg, which was in the centre of the island and Veer, both which blocked their way. All this was to put the expedition thirty six hours behind timetable.
Lt Col John Clair described their arrival and refers to a new enemy mosquitoes:
Descending from the sand hills we entered a perfectly level but rich country, highly cultivated and intersected with broad ditches filled with water, the road on which we proceeded having one of these trenches either side. It would have been easy for the enemy to retard our advance by cutting up these roads but fortunately for us no such measures were put in practice and we marched on without the smallest interruption.
I took the hint of smoking from these people [the locals] seeing the necessity of it in this climate ………and to these circumstances I attribute my escape from the ague, afterwards termed Walcheren fever, which so completely destroyed this army.
Soon fell into a deep sleep [on the night of the second] when I was aroused by the noise and bites of millions of mosquitoes. On first opening my eyes I imagined myself back in Demerara [in the West Indies] but to my lost I soon found that even there I had never met such asset of determined tormentors.
Still in the beginning all continued to go well even though not at the speed the planners had demanded. Since the peaceable surrender, on the morning of the 1st August of the defenceless town of Middleburg, in the middle of Walcheren, the fortress town of Veer had been cut off on the land side by a division of troops under Lieutenant-general Fraser, which had been diverted for that object, together with a brigade of seamen with nine artillery pieces and several cases of Congreve rockets. A flotilla of navy gunboats was also involved The fire of the British was returned from the fort, and continued until evening; when, the strengthening wind blowing and an adverse tide forced the flotilla to withdraw with a loss of three gun boats sunk but no crew lost. Veer was well defended with a battery of 38 guns, and a garrison of 600 men but the heart was taken out of the defenders because the commander, Major-general Brues, had on the appearance of the first British troops, fled over to South Beveland. The Dutch during the night sent a flag of truce, offering to capitulate. Terms were agreed and next morning, surrendered to the British.
Sergeant Hale wrote of the initial land movements on Walcheren
“A signal was made to disembark; and being supplied with three days’ provisions (which was done without delay), we were ordered into the boats. Our regiment and several others were ordered to proceed towards the main land, in order to make an attack there; at the same time, the other part of the army was to make an attack on the Island of Walcheren; but we had not got many yards towards the shore, when a signal was made for our regiment and all the others that were steering for the main land, to re-embark until further orders. But the other part of the army continued steering for the island, and made a grand attack. the enemy made a strong opposition, having several batteries close to the sea side nevertheless, in a short time the batteries were in our possession, and British colours place thereon. According to the English fashion, as soon as we could form up into line, we gave them a volley, and then three cheers and a charge, which put them into such confusion, that they began to run towards the town of Flushing something like a flock of sheep driven by a shepherd’s dog As they would not accept of the bayonet, we obliged them to accept of a few pills, by which many of them fell asleep. Our loss in making our landing good, was but trifling.
On the following morning, being the 1st of August, a signal was made for the remaining part of the army to disembark on the island of South Beveland, which was very convenient to the island of Walcheren. All being ready and waiting for the signal. we were immediately ordered into the boats. and proceeded towards that island. Expecting to have a warm breakfast but. fortunately, we made our landing good without opposition; for the enemy had evacuated the island in the night. There being several towns and villages on the island the different regiments were soon separated, some going one road and some another towards their respective quarters, which were pointed out to them, our regiment occupied two villages, the left wing at St Herenshock. In this village our company took up their quarters in a small chapel; and others, in barns that were most convenient to the village. The inhabitants showed us every mark of friendship, by giving us vegetables of every sort that the island did produce, which were much the same as in England.
This Island is about nine miles across a great part of it lies very low, and is generally covered with water in the wet season; in consequence of which the main roads are thrown up eight or ten feet above the surface of the land, Here we had our provisions very regularly; and likewise some fatigue: for in consequence of there being so many ditches. (that were made to lead the water off the land) we were ordered out most days, in order to practice jumping these ditches; that if the enemy should make an attack on the island, we should not be unacquainted with jumping. But, however we were not alarmed by the enemy during the time that we remained on the island”
At first the expedition seemed set to achieve its objectives. Efforts by the French to flood the land by breaching the dykes were in military terms only partly successful, and an air of initial optimism prevailed until the sickness appeared.
Early on William Keep of the 77th Regiment wrote home, “The more I see of this country the better I am pleased with it…. Here we frequently spread our table under the shade of luxuriant fruit trees, and enjoy all the pleasures of rustic life.” The mosquitoes were of course noticed but no one seemed especially concerned.
With Middleburg and Veer taken, the army, which was divided into three columns, now marched on towards Flushing, and, with the surrender of Fort-Rammekens, north east of Flushing. The army was by the 3rd, able to completely surround Flushing. There was little opposition on the way and the coastal forts were largely abandoned and in any event their guns pointed out to sea.
Flushing had in fact been reached by a few hundred troops on the 1st and Chatham was criticised for not taking it there and then. However it was bread daylight the troops were tired after their march and bad conditions at sea and Flushing was a fortified garrison town now fully alert.
Meanwhile John Hope with his division, of some eight thousand men, who had been conveyed some distance up the East Scheldt river in small boats, owing to the difficulty of navigation for larger vessels, landed some two thousand men without opposition about noon the morning of the 1st of August, about half way along the Island of South Beveland on the north side between Wilmenduye and Cattendyke, and as soon as a line was formed the grenadiers of the Guards, and a detachment of the 95th, moved forward to Cloeting, pushing on strong patrols inland to Goes, and leaving three companies of the 20th at Cattendyke. Goes capitulated, and was occupied by part of the 92nd Regiment. The third battalion of Guards did not land till the following day, the 2nd of August, when the division already on shore again advanced, surprising some eighty enemy troops and taking them prisoners without loss to themselves. The Dutch under Major General Brues withdrew and subsequently, on the 3/4th August, as the British continued their advance, all the remaining enemy forces on the Island then retreated back on the fortress town of Bat at the extreme eastern tip and then kept going, abandoning Bat, without a fight.
Rifleman Harris wrote of the landing on South Beveland:
…A fair wind soon carried us off Flushing, where one part of the expedition disembarked; the other made for South Beveland, among which latter I myself was. The five companies of Rifles immediately occupied a very pretty village, with rows of trees on either side of its principal streets, where we had plenty of leisure to listen to the cannonading going on amongst the companies we had left at Flushing. The appearance of the country (such as it was) was extremely pleasant, and for a few days the men enjoyed themselves much.
Batz lay on the low ground opposite to and commanding the entrance to where the Scheldt narrowed, and would have required a regular siege if the enemy had chosen to defend it. However although South Beveland had been quickly captured, on the 1st of August, late in the evening, six French gun-brigs, that had been lying in company with the three line-of-battle ships, at Bat left and sailed towards Antwerp; but the remainder of ships of the line remained at their anchors until just a very few hours before the British marched into of Bat. If the British had seized Bat earlier, the capture or destruction of the enemy vessels would have been almost certain. From Bat the British could see across the flat water meadows the masts of the French ships safe in Antwerp, some twenty miles away.
Relations with the Dutch were normally distant rather than actively hostile. Surgeon George Hargreaves wrote again “the hostile capacity which we were prejudiced to be deterred the inhabitants from associating with us, with that familiarity it was evident they wished, for those with whom we had intercourse uniformly showed the greatest hospitality and kindness and they treated us with friendship of old acquaintances than intruders on their native riches land and domestic happiness.”
The capture of Batz gave give the British control of both branches of the Scheldt, and one of the most extensive anchorages in the river. The British were now only divided from the mainland on which Antwerp lay by the narrowest part of the Scheldt, and they speedily erected batteries against the forts of Sandvliet and Lillo on the opposite shore. At his time there was still only 1,500 defenders of the poorest quality at Sandvliet and Lillo and only on that day did the first reinforcement of 2,500 regulars reach Antwerp. But the barges and gunboats on which the British relied to cross were still fifty miles away and on the far side of the island. Opportunities were slipping away
Sir Richard Strachan expressed the view that it was essential that the two forts of Lillo and Sandvliet were taken and though he said the navy would co-operate, he was emphatic that their capture was the responsibility of the army and that bearing in mind the approach of autumn, and the short supply of water in the fleet, he wanted an immediate action from the army.
The French were now feverishly preparing Flushing to resist a siege. The landing of the British though it had not taken them by surprise showed that their defence preparations were far from complete. At that time the garrison of Antwerp numbered only a few thousand reservists, South Beveland was without defenders, and the total force on Walcheren probably did not exceed three battalions. Realising the supreme importance of blocking the entrance to the River Scheldt for as long as possible, the French commander sent every available man, first to hold the beaches at Kadzand and then to strengthen Flushing.
Before the expedition sailed little had been known in England of the strength of the French forces in the area. It was not however an unreasonable assumption to make that in view of all the French commitments elsewhere in Europe, that few first line troops would be available to oppose the landings, especially since, with control of the sea, the British could dictate the place of landing. However although this assumption was correct, inertia seemed to set in after the initial landings.
The Navy did not move because the army did not move. The army did not move because Chatham did not move. The pace of the command was therefore that of the slowest, and nothing could have been slower than Chatham, who by this time had made himself very much at home– “cool and tranquil” was an onlooker’s description of his headquarters at Middleburg. Here could be seen his favourite turtles in the garden but seldom Chatham, for he seldom appeared before midday. A naval captain, asking a colonel in the trenches before Flushing when the bombardment was to begin, was met with an expressive:
“God knows! Everything goes on at Headquarters as if they were at the Horse Guards; it does not signify what you want, you must call between certain hours, send up your name and wait your turn.”
Lt Colonel John Clair wrote “It is a curious fact that during the siege [of Flushing] I never once saw our C in C the Earl of Chatham nearer to me than seated on the top of a church steeple in Middleburg five miles distant in the centre of the Island, surrounded by his staff. One day I heard a dry remark by one of our solders “look at the general like a flamingo on top of the church, he god man gives the business to the line, the line gives it to the staff, the staff give it to the artillery, the artillery to the engineers and the engineers to God.”
In the meantime however the three divisions of the army, in the transports at anchor in the Wielingen passage, intended to occupy Kadzand were at last on the 4th August ordered to the Veer-Gat, to be landed on Walcheren which was then changed to the northern shore of South Beveland so by passing Kadzand. This duly occurred on the 9th August after which the Earl of Rosslyn was put in command of the Island. There was no opposition but Hope had already reported that the island had been stripped of resources and supplies so the enlarged forces would be totally dependant on what the navy could bring in.
Surgeon George Hargreaves wrote “About this time provisions were extremely cheap in South Beveland, fowls butter eggs and vegetables in the interior of the Island were sold at so low a price as to surprise us all, as soon however as the army advanced the prices of every article increased enormously and the provisions became scarce and almost unobtainable.”
This was a great relief to General Rousseau, commanding at Kadzand, who, despite reinforcements was still short of men. Not so short however that he was not able to send across reinforcements to the garrison of Flushing. By means of small schuyts, helped by a favourable southerly wind, he succeeded, on the 1st and 2nd of August, in sending over 1600 men; but he failed on the 3rd, owing to the actions of a British 16-gun brig-sloop which frustrated all the French efforts. Other British gunboats tried also to intervene and on 5th 20 gunboats fired for some hours but were driven off by shore batteries at Breskens and by the evening of the 7th, as many as 3143 enemy troops had crossed over; a reinforcement which augmented the garrison of Flushing to 7000 men, all of which meant that more and more forces had to be committed to the capture of this increasingly strong fortress town, including the artillery and engineers, which should have been allocated for Antwerp according to the original plan.
St Clair refers to bombardment by the fleet on 7th and the delays “This I afterwards heard had been done by the admiral of the Fleet to convince our Commander in Chief the Earl of Chatham how easy it was for the fleet to pass up the Scheldt but the result unfortunately produced no benefit for we were kept working against the fortifications of Flushing when we ought to have been in Antwerp.”
Protected by a 100 foot moat which encircled the town and ran from shore to shore, the French felt sufficiently confident that on the afternoon of the 7th that they launched an attack on Graham’s division to the west of Flushing and for a time took some of the high ground in front of Flushing and was only driven back after several hours hard fighting.
The navy was criticised for their failure to do more to stop more of the reinforcements but the crossing was only just over fifteen minutes and winds and tides made it often impossible for British ships to sit astride the crossing point. It was not until between the 6th and 8th of August that the sea blockade of Flushing, was finally established.
On the afternoon of August 11th, two weeks after the British had first arrived off the coast, the noose was finally closed on Flushing by land and sea. Lord William, with his squadron of ten ships of the line forced the passage between the batteries of Flushing and Berskens. Although because of a weak breeze and contrary tide the ships were exposed to heavy fire from the enemy’s batteries for two hours, the only loses were two killed and nine wounded.
Just before the attack on Flushing the principal British Army units were deployed:
Right Wing: Major General Graham
Centre: Lieutenant General Lord Paget
Left Wing: Lieutenant General Fraser
3rd Division: Lieutenant General Grosvenor
Reserve: Brigadier Houston’s Brigade
Artillery: Adye’s Heavy 9 pounders
On South Beveland:
Light Division: Lieutenant General the Earl of Rosslyn
2nd Division: Lieutenant General Marquis of Huntly
Reserve Division: Lieutenant General John Hope
Artillery: Commander Brigadier general John MacDonald
The deliberate flooding by the enemy, though doubtless inconvenient and unpleasant for the troops does not seem to have had a too great a direct impact on military operations round Flushing. The Army Journal records 11th Aug
Report refers that guns and batteries would soon be in position. However unfortunately however about 9.p.m. o’clock pm a violent thunderstorm came on attended with much heavy rain that the ground very soon became impassable for the guns and heavy carriages and the trenches were so filled with water that the men could not work. In the morning the weather became more favourable and the seven guns, which had been brought down to the sand hills on the right by the assistance of the division of seamen sent by Capt Richardson, were got into the battery.
From all information obtained respecting the means of inundating the country it appeared that if the sea dykes were shut at spring tide the whole of the country would be laid under water but this work would cost need much labour and difficulty and at this season of the year the inundation
The surveyor of the Dykes was sent with a party to draw up all the places by which the seawater could be communicated by the ditches to our battery places
The highest ground except the sand hills appeared to be that of Major general Grahams quarters and is part of as ridge branching from the sand hills
Near Lieutenant General Grosvenor’s division the inundation increased in a very small degree notwithstanding the violent rain that fell last night. It was more apparent in the rear than in front of the trenches.
The country people recommended the majority of shipping up the ditches running in the meadows in point of the line of the 11th and 59th Regiments from the great ditch which ran from Flushing towards Middleburg – they also recommended that the bank of the great ditch should be heightened in order to confine the water entirely to that channel so that it might be carried off by the sluices opening to the Middleburg canal, performing the same operation on all the principal ditches in front of our position on the left also to throw up an embankment along the road between
A soldier of the 71st, believed to be Thomas Howell, wrote, “On the evening of the 10th we had a dreadful storm of thunder and rain. At the same time the French governor opened the sluices and broke down the sea dykes, when the water poured in on us and we were forced to leave the trenches”
On the night of the 13/14 August a cut made in eastern dyke and water flooded in (at high tide the sea level was several yards higher than the land behind the dykes) and Chatham ordered sluices at Middleburg and Teeveere to be opened to drain off excess water but still water rose so much that some British units were nearly cut off one from the other. It was lucky that it was just at this time that the town was taken.
On the 13th, at 1.30 p.m. a fire was opened upon Flushing by the army from 52 pieces of heavy artillery and by evening from six additional 24-pounders. While the navy had engaged enemy gun boats on the 11th, the main force was delayed by adverse winds and the difficulties of army navy co-operation but by the 10 a.m on following morning the bombardment increased in intensity with the addition of broadsides from seven ships of the line. Two of the ships grounded but managed to float off again at high tide. Further a flotilla of bomb and gun vessels, under the command of Captain Cockburn, was stationed off the south-east, and a similar flotilla, under Captain Owen, off the south-west end of the town; added to the bombardment. For two nights and days, a continuous hail of shells and rockets poured into Flushing from sea and land. By midday on the 14h the enemy artillery was virtually silenced and at 6 P.M. on the 14th the bombardment ceased. Under a flag of truce the defenders were invited to surrender but terms were not agreed and the bombardment recommenced that night, and was kept up, without intermission, until I 1 P.M, when British troops under Colonel Packer attacked and took one of the enemy’s outer defences on the east of the town. On the night of the 15th, after nearly every house had been hit, half the town burnt and six hundred civilians killed, the Governor, General Monnet entered into surrender negotiations and capitulated and on the 16th British troops took control of the town’s gates. However it was not till August 18th that the British entered the fortress and the 6,000 French laid down their arms. Ironically the bombardment did little damage to sea wall and the landward ramparts of the town or the military installations. Victory had been achieved but for what was a subsidiary objective it had all taken too long.
Sergeant Hale describes the preparations for the attack on Flushing and the results
“The troops that were on the island of Walcheren were very busily employed, day and night, making batteries and breast-works round the town of Flushing; for in consequence of their fortifications being so strong, there was no possibility of taking the town by storm, without the loss of an immense number of men; therefore, the only method that we could take, to get possession of the town, was to batter it down by heavy cannonading, or setting fire to it; both of which were done, but not without the loss of a great number of brave British soldiers: for the whole time that our works were being carried on, the enemy kept up continual fire, with shot and shell, day and night; and sometimes destroyed as much of our work in one day, as we could repair in a whole night But, however, as soon as our works were completed, we did not forget to let them feel the effects of our bull-dogs; at the same time throwing a quantity of Congreve rockets into the town, which would burn with such a fury , that the water engines were totally useless: therefore, in a short time several parts of the town were in a blaze of fire, and tumbling about in all quarters. In consequence of this, the enemy was obliged to surrender; for the town was so guarded by our shipping, that there was no possibility of making their escape: so having surrendered themselves prisoners of war, they were immediately conveyed to England.
When we entered the town, it was a most frightful place to behold; for many of their dead were then lying in the streets; and some of the inhabitants, who had not left the town were walking about in a miserable condition with their faces and heads cut and bruised in a frightful manner which appears to have been done by some pieces of slate or splinters falling from the buildings. Some of the houses that were standing appeared to be in a very dangerous state and likewise the church and tower were very much damaged by our shot. The principal thing that was found in the town was saltpetre, of which were several hundred tons and being a very useful thing in time war it was put on board as soon as possible, and likewise all other stores that were of any consequence.”
Thomas Hargreave’s wrote “On visiting the City of Flushing I could not but sympathise with every feeling mind on the destructive and melancholy appearance it presented, devastation and ruin marked every house, their finest church suffered same fate and on entrance of British troops merely exhibited a vacant shell.”
The losses of the British, in the attack on Flushing were minimal. Of the Navy’s ships the St. Domingo and Blake, having grounded, were the most exposed, but even their losses were just two men killed on the Blake, and nine each wounded on the two ships. The loss on board the flotillas were one lieutenant and six men killed, and one lieutenant, one surgeon and 20 men wounded. With the Navy brigade serving on shore, one midshipman and six men were wounded. The army losses during the bombardment and at preliminary skirmishes 103 killed, and 443 wounded.
As to French, some 6000 were taken prisoners and probably another 2000 were taken on Walcheren itself. As to French deaths, little is recorded apart from an incident on the 16th of August the British 38 gun frigate Imperieuse, in entering the entered by mistake the wrong channel and came under attack from the Terneuse battery, which was on Kadzand up river from Breskens. In returning that fire, one of the frigate’s shrapnel shells; burst near the fort’s magazine, and some 3000 barrels of powder, and a great quantity of cartridges, went up, killing 75 men at a stroke. The fort knocked out, the Imperieuse passed through.
With Flushing dealt with and the West Scheldt on at least the Flushing side, clear, the remaining objects of the expedition, the knocking out Lillo and Sandvlet forts (which according to the French accounts, now had some 40 pieces of heavy cannon, and were by now strongly garrisoned) and the taking of Antwerp itself had to be urgently pushed forward.
Even before Flushing fell Home Popham had started warping transports into the river above the port through the narrow Sloe channel between Walcheren and South Beveland, a course of action which Strachan had rejected when it had been suggested this was a way to bypass Breskens fort. There was however little sign of activity by the High Command. The Naval Journal records
17th Aug Sir R Keates called on Lord Rosslyn to co-operate –no order
18th August Sir R Strachan sent Sir H Popham to Lord Chatham for same purpose
20th August Sir H Popham returned- no reply
24th August Sir R Strachan again reported to Lord Chatham that the Navy was ready
25th August No reply – but Lord Chatham intended to consult
26th August Sir R Strachan wrote again that the navy would not advance without the army
These exchanges reflected the bad state of relations between the two military commanders. It began on the 31st of July when Chatham apparently ordered some navy gunboats to take part in the attack on Veer without consulting Strachan. In turn Chatham thought the navy too dilatory in clearing the West Scheldt. Strachan in turn felt the army had been too slow in marching across South Beveland. Each in turn thought the other was being unreasonable and in the wrong and while each probably had points, each also probably misunderstood the problems faced by the other.
Chatham also had another problem this not military or of his own making. Before the expedition set sale Chatham had been instructed by the Treasury that he was only to pay for items at pre invasion prices and that all expense had to be met by bills drawn in London and that these bills wee not to be discounted. In the event bills drawn in London were seen to be valueless by the locals and the British had no option but to seize what they wanted. The Commissary department wrote “we have often taken their cows which were of great value to them for the support of their families than can be made good by the highest price which can be paid for beef. We have also taken all their horses wagons and drivers without further remuneration and this at harvest time”.
Chatham asked urgently for more supplies and coins and pointed out that in accepting surrenders of towns that we had undertook to respect private property and that to seize items for no payment or underpayment would be a breach of faith. The reply from Castlereagh was not encouraging:
“We do not possess the power of sending a single foreign coin from hence, you will not be surprised at receiving peremptory orders to enforce the system agreed upon in London. I need not suggest what would be the impression if guineas were going out pay our army abroad. Besides it could not be done without an order in Council”
To his credit Chatham defended his Commissary and did his best to not to have to sully the reputation of the name of the British army. However as a cabinet minister he must have realised that his chances of achieving anything in this were remote.
As to further military activity after Flushing, Chatham had however already made up his mind to abandon an advance on Antwerp. However following the capture of Flushing, Chatham, and his headquarters, had moved on the 21st August from Middleburg on Walcheren and then on the 23rd to Goes and then to Fort Batz. Now was the time to move the troops from Walcheren over to South Beveland. Graham’s and Grosvenor’s divisions received orders to embark and move up river and started respectively on the 20 and 21st. Also on the 21st Hope’s, Rosslyn’s and Huntly’s divisions together with the 9th Light dragoons and the second Hussars of the German Legion all moved to the east end of the Island while the cavalry transports arrived at Bat. In the meantime General Fraser with Picton’s and Browns Brigades and the 71st regiment were left to hold Walcheren
However excluding the peaceable surrender, on the 17th of August, of the islands of Schouwen and Duiveland, situated to the northward of the eastern Scheldt, none of these mvoements were really relevant to the operation against Antwerp. The taking of Flushing was the effective end of the expedition.
In the meantime the French had not been idle; On August 12th Louis Bonaparte, the puppet King of Holland, had reached Antwerp with 12000 regulars. Bernadotte, who assumed command of the French forces, followed him four days later. He galvanised the French defenders. The level land to the north of the city was flooded; guns were mounted in the forts. Between Antwerp and Bergen-op-Zoom were moved 15,000 troops and in Bergen-op-Zoom, and on the left bank of the Scheldt, there were now 11,000 more, making a total of 37,000 men. These forces on the left flank were particularly dangerous as they could sever the British forces whether they were advancing or retreating or indeed just standing still.
The effective force of the British army was about 30,000 but of this number, 5000 plus would be required to remain in Walcheren, and upwards 2000 in South Beveland. It would also be necessary to cover Bergen-op-Zoom; 10,000 or so men would be required to cover the besiegers of Antwerp, leaving about 10,000 men for the siege of Antwerp itself. The expeditionary force, which had seemed so large in England, was not so large after all.
From Chatham’s camp at Bat, on South Beveland, the British could see the French digging in on the other side of the water, the chain and boom across the river and beyond the masts of the prized battleships which the French Admiral Missiessy had moved up to Antwerp for safety within days of the British landing.
Antwerp was now strongly fortified; the approaches to it could be completely inundated, the citadel commanded the arsenal and dockyards. The ships of war, with their guns and stores in, could retire to a spot within one mile of Ruplemonde, which is five miles above Antwerp and by taking out their guns and stores, they could go to Dendermonde, a fortified town situated a further 15 miles higher.
Not only that, while French numbers could only increase, Chatham had no hope of reinforcements and his effective strength was now to be devastated by disease.
Though as already mentioned the flooding of the land did not hamper military operations too directly, the indirect consequence were to be literally fatal. When the French opened the sluices around Flushing and let in the sea, this flooded the trenches and caused the water to rise in the ditches and dykes all over Walcheren. Further, a dense, evil-smelling mist rose from the decayed animal vegetable matter, in drainage channels at low tide. Soon fever began to break out among the troop. With unhealthy early morning and late evening mists that those on sentry duty at night seemed especially vulnerable.
A soldier of the 71st, believed to be Thomas Howell wrote of the onset of the disease. “The wet and fatigue of the last few days had made me ill. I was scarce able to stand. The next night I was on guard. The night was clear and chill, a thin white vapour seemed to extend as far as I could see, the only part free from it was the sand heights. I felt very uncomfortable in it, I could not breathe with freedom. The next morning I was in a burning fever at times, and at other times trembling with cold. I was sent to the hospital…. my spirits never left me, a ray of hope would break in on me the moment I got ease between attacks.”
Rifleman Harris wrote
But at the expiration of (I think) less time than a week, an awful visitation came suddenly upon us. The first I observed of it was one day as I sat in my billet, when I beheld whole parties of our Riflemen in the street shaking with a sort of ague, to such a degree that they could hardly walk; strong and fine young men who had been but a short time in the service seemed suddenly reduced in strength to infants, unable to stand upright-so great a shaking had seized upon their whole bodies from head to heel. The company I belonged to was quartered in a barn, and I quickly perceived that hardly a man there had stomach for the bread that was served out to him, or even to taste his grog, although each man had an allowance of half-a-pint of gin per day. In fact I should say that about three weeks from the day we landed, I and two others were the only individuals who could stand upon our legs. They lay groaning in rows in the barn, amongst the heaps of lumpy black bread they were unable to eat..
On August 27th, after three days of consultation with his seven lieutenant generals Chatham decided that with the French forces now facing him and taking into account the situation in Antwerp and the hidden enemy devastating his front line and rear, that it no longer going to be practical to take Antwerp, the purpose of the expedition. There was no point in going after secondary objectives and that they should return to England. Strachan was all for further adventures including taking Lillo fortress but this would have been a major operation which would have taken time to mount and time is what the British now did not have
On the 29th of August, Chatham received his orders “I have only to convey to your Lordship the Kings command that after providing effectually for the security of Walcheren you do return with the remainder of the army to England……… I am to express His Majesty’s confident persuasion that prior to your return and in conformity with your instructions you will co-operate with the Navy.”
At the end of August the defence works on South Beveland were destroyed and any moveable guns removed and at the start of the first week in September South Beveland began to be evacuated, with the evacuation complete by the 5th. Chatham himself returned to England left on the 11th September
There were fears of a French attack on Batz during evacuation and though they could have forded over to the Island at a point just half a mile away, they made no effort. Hargreaves wrote “However their mode of operation when did actually take possession of the island proved they had no idea of making any attack during our evacuation, for they halted at every hedge and ditch they came to, keeping up heavy fire, falsely supposing that our troops were concealed on the other side. This information we received from a number of inhabitants who afterwards came over to Walcheren”
However really the French had to do nothing but wait and let Walcheren fever do their work for them.
Within a few days of the fever first appearing entire units were out of action. Burials took place at night without lights so as to lesson the damage to morale. It started on Walcheren but by the 20th had spread to the troops on South Beveland.
The progress of “Walcheren fever” was relentless. Between 6 August and 3 September, the number of cases increased from 688 to 8,134. The army medical service was quite incapable of coping, and the number of doctors sent on so large an expedition was ridiculously low. With so many casualties at one time and men were forced to lie in barns or on the beaches in their own filth. The men suffering from fever needed to be returned to England, yet the position was little better once they got back home. Medical facilities were simply overwhelmed.
By the 27th August a fifth of the British force was in hospital and more were sickening every hour
The day to day journal of the campaign shows the rapid and disastrous spread of the fever.
Sickness increased very much in last 24 hours
The troops become more and more sickly
The sickness increased to an alarming proportion, some of the generals and many other officers were seized with fever and the number of men on the sick list was nearly 4000
Sickness continued to spread rapidly and in the evacuation of the Island it was feared that great difficulty would be found in getting the sick accommodated on board ships proper for their reception and in providing medical aid under such an increasing and already extreme calamity
The numbers of sick continue to augment in increasing proportion
Major General Dyotts Brigade marched to the Sloe ferry and crossed into Walcheren. This brigade had 600 sick, they were conveyed in wagons to the ferry and likewise crossed into Walcheren. Likewise 560 sick men of the 2nd Bts 43 and 52 Regiments.
Sickness increased and as in every case the actual numbers brought for embarkation were much greater than stated in the returns given to regulate the appropriation of transport. The additional numbers arriving were put on board the other ships, which occasioned a shortage of shipping for other purposes.
The task of re-embarkation had now unfortunately far exceeded what could have been speculated on even by those who had known the effects this unhealthy climate and it was consequently beyond the means of our hospital establishments either to furnish attention or comfort to the extent required. The officers of the medical staff suffered very much from the Disease and earned the greatest credit for their unremitting attention to their painful duties.
On the 31st August John Webbs of the army medical service wrote an urgent report to Sir Eyre Coote pleading for more medical help. This was promptly passed on to London. Sir Eye Coote strongly endorsed the report and added that three or four hospital ships be sent as at once as it was believed that sea air would be beneficial. His letter read:
“….the divisions of the Army which are in South Beveland and Walcheren are becoming so extremely sickly and the medical officers are suffering so severely from the effects of the climate and the exceptional duty they have to perform that it is with the utmost difficulty we can have the sick of this island properly attended to……I have just received a most positive order from the adjutant general directing that one physician, one staff surgeon and one hospital mate should be sent forthwith to South Beveland –it is with concern that I am obliged to add that I have but one medical officer whom I can profitably spare from this place,…..Under these circumstances of great evident difficulty and with the certainty of our increasing rapidly and our means of meeting it diminishing by sickness of medical officers I do submit to your consideration the absolute need of sending express to England for medical aid and applying that a fast vessel should be appointed to bring out the assistance that is urgently required.”
Sergeant Hale described his departure and arrival in England in early September.
This being done our stay here was very short; for at the beginning of September we received orders to quit these two islands and return to England and not much too soon for our army began to fall down very fast with sickness and the enemy advancing with a very powerful army which had assembled on the continent, and being a river which divided these two islands from the main continent, the enemy began to approach on the island of South Beveland before we can hardly make a shift to for as there was a boat or two more than was wanted to take us on board, a boat’s crew stepped on shore and ran into a village in order to purchase something to drink but they had not been there many minutes, before they were surprised by a party of French rifle-men, which pursued them so close, that they were obliged to give themselves up as prisoners of war.
Now the army being on board, a signal was made to put to sea and steer for the Downs; therefore, we immediately put to sea with a fair wind, crowding all sail that was needful until the next day, when we came to an anchor in the Downs; and on the following morning, being the 17th of September, 1809, we disembarked at Deal, and marched to Canterbury again for a little time When we came to the entrance of the town, we beheld the streets crowded with people, who had been previously informed by a party that was sent forward on some- necessary duty, that we were on the road, and about what time we should arrive, so we were received with shouts of joy; and the young women that we had left behind with watery eyes, were then gazing on us with smiling countenances. We took possession of the new barracks, as before: but in a short time our hospital was crowded with sick. every day the number of sick increased with the ague and fever, for in about one month, nearly half our regiment was on the sick list, by which a great many were summoned to their last homes. Several times, three or four in a day were carried to the burial ground; and there were but few in the regiment that escaped having the ague either sooner or later.
Rifleman Harris wrote
This awful spectacle considerably alarmed the officers, who were also many of them attacked. The naval doctors came on shore to assist the regimental surgeons, who, indeed, had more upon their hands than they could manage; Dr. Ridgeway of the Rifles, and his assistant, having nearly five hundred patients prostrate at the same moment. In short, except myself and three or four others, the whole concern was completely floored.
Under these circumstances, which considerably confounded the doctors, orders were issued (since all hopes of getting the men upon their legs seemed gone) to embark them as fast as possible, which was accordingly done with some little difficulty. The poor fellows made every effort to get on board; those who were a trifle better than others crawled to the boats; many supported each other; and many were carried helpless as infants…. On shipboard the aspect of affairs did not mend; the men beginning to die so fast that they committed ten or twelve to the deep in one day. It was rather extraordinary that myself, and Brooks, and a man named Bowley, who had all three been at Corunna, were at this moment unattacked by the disease, and notwithstanding the awful appearance of the pest-ship we were in, I myself had little fear of it, I thought myself so hardened that it could not touch me. It happened, however, that I stood sentinel (men being scarce) over the hatchway, and Brooks, who was always a jolly and jeering companion (even in the very jaws of death) came past me, and offered me a lump of pudding, it being pudding-day on board. At that moment I felt struck with a deadly faintness, shaking all over like an aspen, and my teeth chattering in my head so that I could hardly hold my rifle. Brooks looked at me for a moment with the pudding in his hand, which he saw I could not take, ‘Hullo’, he said, ‘why Harris, old boy, you are not going to begin are you?’ I felt unable to answer him, but only muttered out as I tumbled, ‘For God’s sake get me relieved, Brooks!’…. In fact I was now sprawling upon the forecastle, amongst many others, in a miserable state, our knapsacks and our great-coats over us,… and thus we arrived at Dover…. The Warwickshire Militia were at this time quartered at Dover. They came to assist in disembarking us, and were obliged to lift many of us out of the boats like sacks of flour. If any of those militiamen remain alive, they will not easily forget that piece of duty; for I never beheld men more moved than they were at our helpless state. Many died at Dover and numbers in Deal….
Thomas Wright a temporary physician to the forces, whose book is over 300 pages long, described in detail the various form symptoms and cures of Walcheren fever.
“It was this port [Harwich] about a hundred miles from Flushing…the physician and surgeon general very wisely chose and Government humanly ordered the barracks to be converted into a hospital….on their arrival [troops] were immediately visited by physicians and the worst cases only selected who could but at imminent hazarding of life bear further transmission. The remaining people were then divided into two descriptions, one of men able to bear the journey safely being convalescent were seldom marched, the general sent in covered wagons 20 miles of to Colchester, the remaining party incapable of any exertion with safety were conveyed in wheries to Ipswich.”
He refers to the high mortality rate among the doctors and then goes on “and many more have since died in their retirement unnoticed and on foreign service, to this is no doubt owing that an epidemic, the most disastrous since our army quit Santo Domingo, has remained so long undescribed “
Later in 1810 Wright wrote a letter to Parliament headed “A letter to members of the legislature who feel a real interest in the welfare of thousands of our solders who have suffered by sickness on Walcheren but who have not yet escaped its fatal influence though considered to be convalescent”
He wrote in the letter that many men suffered 4 or 5 relapses and ideally they should have a sabbatical or summer leave or realising that not possible at very least should be sent to temperate climates such as Madeira. Not surprisingly his suggestions were not taken up.
Within a few days of the departure of the main force in early September, half the strength of the Walcheren garrison was unfit for duty. The 1st battalion of the 6th Regiment and Brigade of Guards had each close on 450 men sick. In the 2nd battalion of the 23rd the Royal Welch Fusiliers, not a single man was left fit for duty. The same was true of the 1st battalion of the 25th Regiment.
The emergency hospitals “miserable, stinking holes,” according to General Dyott were so crowded that the men were forced to lie on top of one another on unboarded, steaming floors. Hospitals were set up in houses, churches, and warehouses, and conditions were appalling. Men were “packed together in hovels,such as would be thought unfit for dogs, exposed to the noxious night airs, and in some cases with only damp straw to lie on- The sick died almost by the minute, and all burials were ordered to be by night without candles or torches.” The overworked surgeons did their best, but it was hopeless. Sir Eyre Coote, who had been left in charge wrote.
“Something must be done or the British nation will lose the British Army – far more valuable than the island of Walcheren.”
The first troops to be sent back to England, landed at the beginning of September, but the hospitals at were overwhelmed by the number of patients and many of the sick and recovering had to be placed in temporary accommodation, including tents which the late autumn winds and rains adding to their misery.
A soldier of the 71st, believed to be Thomas Howell wrote “I was sent to Bradburn Lees where I remained 8 weeks….. I was shocked at the conduct of the medical men. Often I have seen them fighting over the expiring bodies of patients for articles of apparel. There was non to comfort , none to bring a drink of water with pleasant countenance.”
In early October Dr Mcgegor Inspector of Hospitals was sent across to Walcheren and he tried to bring some order to the chaos but the number of sick and dying continued to increase. By late October the 9000 troops sick on Walcheren easily outnumbered those fit for duty.
Eye Coote in complaining of the lack of orderlies requested that 300 men from the Royal Veterans Battalion be brought over. Nothing however came of this. It does not take much imagination to work out how several hundred elderly men brought over to Walcheren would have fared.
On the 27th of October General Eye Coote handed over to General Don. In one of his last despatches Eye Coote wrote, “I cannot take a better opportunity than the present of calling your Lordships attention to the precarious and critical situation of this Island, weakened as it has been by the frequent embarkation of the sick for England”
General Don immediately requested transports for 6000 sick men for England as the only hope of saving their lives.
By November, with the advent of the “healthy season” the situation had begun to improve but the garrison returns of the 12 November showed just over half of the remaining garrison of 8500 were still sick and not fit for duty
Originally troops were kept on Walcheren to keep the estuary open to British shipping and as late as early November labourers were coming over from England to build quarters and locals were employed in strengthening the defences of Flushing. However even if the troops had not been decimated by illness the chances of holding onto a small piece of Europe during the winter storms was remote. Any chance was dependant on the Navy but with the enemy massing on North and South Beveland there were fears that once batteries were in place that the navy would have to give up the waters separating these Islands from Walcheren which would then leave many miles of coast open to invasion.
A letter from Downing Street of the 11th November summarised the position “no effectual opposition to an invading enemy could be expected from inundation….most that can be expected from inundation is to determine the enemy’s advance to Flushing only by the roads which you can also destroy but before this measure can be resorted to your merchants and their property must be embarked from different ports and when you withdraw your outposts you must unavoidably leave 4/5th of the Island to your enemies.”
The order to evacuate was in fact given on the 4th of November with instructions to first destroy all facilities which might be of use to the enemy. A further brigade was sent over to help with the demolition works, which took about a fortnight. The Great basin at Flushing was breached and entrance blocked up and the Arsenal buildings were set on fire and the entire place rendered, for a time at least, useless as a naval base. France offered a safe exit under a truce, this was rejected but there was no attack anyway and the final evacuation took place on the 9th December. Of the three warships on the stocks, two, a frigate and a brig, were destroyed; but the timbers designed for a 74 were carried away, and used in the construction a third rate ship which was given the name of HMS Chatham. A new frigate the Fidelle, also fell into British hands and was afterwards commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Laurel but was wrecked only two years later.
The Return of the 1st February 1810 prepared by the Adjutant General shows that
embarked for service 1738 officers and 37481 men
killed in service 7 officers and 99 men
died on service 20 officers and 2041 men
died since sent home 20 officers 1859 men
total returned and alive 1671 officers and 33373 men
of this number those sick were 217 officers and a staggering total of 11,296 men
Two years later, many of these troops were still so debilitated, that Wellington requested that units that served at Walcheren should not be sent to him. Those that were sent were always the first to succumb to adverse conditions.
Robertson of the 92nd Foot wrote in 1842 “On 1/9 we sailed for England and when we arrived at Ramsgate we were obliged to put one half of our regiment in hospital, while the other half went to Woodbridge in Suffolk. The change of air soon restored most of the invaders to health. We arrived at the Tagus on the 8th October 1810 and disembarked on the 11th and moved inland. For some days the ain fell in torrents and as we had no tents to shelter us from it, the cold and wet brought Walcheren ague upon us.” Interestingly in a 160 page book he devoted just one page to Walcheren, perhaps reflecting an experience he did not wish to dwell on.
Surgeon George Hargreaves in his account made a number of observations on the medical situation. He noted a distinction between the illnesses of the troops on South Beveland and Walcheren in that those on South Beveland were highly inflamed whereas those on Walcheren were more subject to typhoid. He also said that those who were found to be contagious were speedily removed from general wards and that it was necessary to fumigate hospitals, change linen, ventilate rooms, need for good diet and keep little furniture in wards to lesson chance for dirt and filth to build up “and anything that could be supposed to conceal or collect dust or filth was instantly removed”
If these comments sound surprisingly modern, the reality for most troops must have been very different.
He continued “The Peruvian bark it will easily be imagined was a favourite medicine and the immense quantities that were hourly required induced us to make up dozens of bottles every daily in form of a strong infusion”
Other drugs he described were camphor, opium, sulphuric and nitrous ether, emerics, rhubarb, calomel, nitrate of potash, carbonate of soda, and sulphate of zinc, arsenic and port. All these remedies were described as effective to varying degrees on different patients
“What appeared to me to be the most curious effects of the Walcheren climate is that many officers and privates who escaped the disease in toto while on the service were attacked with intermitants when 8, 10 or 12 months at home. The only conclusion I can form relative to this fact is that seeds of the disease were imperceptibly entering the constitution while in South Beveland and Walcheren and they were possibly afterwards excited into action during the residence of those effected at some of the low marshy parts of these kingdoms.”
He also refers to fact usual ceremony of paying last respects to the dead was dispensed and that with many churchyards full up with dangerously shallow graves that a big pit was dug about a mile beyond Ramikens
The Report of the Surgeon General referred to one physician describing the prevalence of the fever as due to the fact that the men were frequently housed in damp and ill ventilated buildings as the there was no money to pay the locals to house them properly, that their poor diet led them to drink spirits and that to alleviate the thirst caused by the spirits they ate lots of fruit and drank stagnant water.
John Webbe, the Inspector of hospitals, wrote, in a letter dated September 1809:
“ The bottom of every canal that has direct communication with the sea is thickly covered with an ooze which, when the tide is out, emits a most offensive effluvia. Each ditch is filled with water which is loaded with animal and vegetable substances in a state of putrefaction, and the whole island is so flat and near the sea that a large proportion of it is little better than a swamp, and there is scarcely a place where water of tolerably good quality can be procured.”
The letter went on to refer to two different effects of malaria, malaria which degenerated into typhus alone and malaria which became typhoid. The report went on that there were precedents such as the West Indies to suggest such a disaster might befall the army in Walcheren. It further went on that Walcheren was known to be unhealthy and that if the medical authorities had known where the expedition was going that precautions could have been taken!
On 4 October 1809 the King had appointed Perceval as Prime Minister, while Chatham retained his post as Master General of the Ordinance. On the 23 January 1810, Perceval made a long speech in which challenged the Opposition’s criticisms of the conduct of the war and the Walcheren expedition in particular. This was in response to a speech of Lord Commissioners which was read to both Houses of Parliament. “His Majesty command us to express to you his deep regret that the exertions of the emperor of Austria against the ambition and violence of France have proved unavailing and that His Imperial Majesty has been compelled to abandon the contest and conclude a disadvantageous peace. Although the war was undertaken by that monarch without encouragement on the part of his Majesty, every effort was made for the assistance of Austria which his Majesty deemed consistent with the due support of his allies and with the welfare and interests of his dominions. An attack on the naval armaments and establishments in the Scheldt afforded at once the prospect of destroying a growing force, which was daily becoming more formidable to the security of the Country.”
The Opposition lost the vote, however, three days later the Opposition launched another attack on the management of the expedition and the government was defeated by 195 votes to 186.
In 1810 a resolution moved by General Crauford on the part of Ministers approving the expedition and of the retention of Walcheren with a list of majority who voted against opposition resolutions.
That this House taking into consideration the extreme importance of destroying the extensive and increasing naval means and arsenals in the Scheldt, where a considerable navy has already been constructed, which was growing with great rapidity and to a formidable extent and also taking into account the necessity of making a diversion in favour of Austria at a critical state of the war on the Continent at the period of the undertaking of the expedition: considering also the probability of success arising from the reduced state of the French in the neighboured of the Scheldt is of the opinion that his Majesties Ministers were justified in applying the naval and military moves in a manner which combined a great national object with the prospect of affording essential assistance to our allies, in advising the undertaking of the expedition notwithstanding the difficulty with which it seems to be attended – difficulties which appear to the House to have been increased to a degree not provided against by a state of wind and weather altogether unusual at this season of the year, which was most unfavourable to the projected operations.
That this House sees with deepest regret the loss of valuable lives occasioned by the sickness of the army in the late expedition to the Scheldt, yet taking into consideration the great and acknowledged importance of the possession of the Island of Walcheren, commanding the entrance of the principal naval station of the enemy, and in considering all the circumstances connected with its situation, as they appear in the papers and evidence before this House: the House is of the opinion that no blame should be imputed to His Majesties Ministers for not having at an earlier period advised of its evacuation.”
Following the publication of the findings of the Walcheren enquiry in the same month, March 1810, which had been forced on the Government by public consternation at the debacle, the Government narrowly survived four divisions. However, the reputation of the Earl of Chatham so damaged that he was later forced to resign.
Chatham in his own submission was very careful to lay the blame on the Navy but equally careful never to do it directly.
The chief object of this paper will be directed to show to your Majesty reason why the army was not brought up sooner………is purely a naval consideration and the delay did in no shape rest with me or depend on any arrangements in which the army was concerned
The troops after effecting their landing advanced towards Flushing it being hoped that by a powerful co-operation from the sea at the moment the troops presented themselves before the Place the labour and delay of a regular siege might have been avoided and a considerable portion of the force allotted to this service set at liberty to follow the army of the Scheldt. How far this cooperation was fulfilled………. or was wholly disappointed the information already before your Majesty will have in great measure shown.
From what cause the failure occurred whether it arose from insufficient arrangements or on the part of the Admiral or was the unavoidable result of difficulties inherent …is not for me, considering it entirely as a naval operation.
He blamed the navy in making slow use of Sloe once batteries silenced “unless an account of the naval difficulties which will be for the admiral not for me to explain, I deny.”
I know of nothing (but this is of course a point for the admiral to speak to) to have prevented the line of battleships and frigates from coming in and passing up above Flushing in the first instance according to the plans originally decided upon. As regards plan to destroy the Kadzand batteries and in particular that of Breskens had it been carried out once with effect and that the Admiral could have availed himself of it to take the ships up the West Scheldt it would have been of the utmost advantage. Unfortunately however this did not take place and for several nights after the army was before Flushing the enemy succeeded in throwing from the opposite coast considerable reinforcements”
He referred to throwing with vigour fresh troops into the siege and “that this was only done because I saw no movement marking to push forward a single vessel up the West Scheldt and it therefore seemed more advisable to have their assistance before Flushing than that they should lay inactive in the Veez Gat”
Immediately upon [the fever] had begun to attack the army about the 20th August and which was hourly increasing to an alarming extent created the most serious appreciation in the minds of the medical men as to its further progress and which fatal experience has since shown to have been but too well founded.
I am inclined to think that it is so clear and correct that no further operation could at that time and in the then sickly state of the Army have been undertaken with any prospect of success.
I shall here close this report which I fear has already detained your Majesty but too long by observing that whenever it has been necessary for me to avert to the disappointment experienced through the arrangements of the admiral in the naval cooperation I had been taught to expect I have confined myself to stating the facts of the expedition.”
The Parliamentary enquiry showed up a sorry state of affairs. The army medical department had not been informed of the expedition’s destination before its departure. Some medical men emerged with credit, but the most senior men were as inadequate the commander in chief. The physician general, Sir Lucas Pepys, when asked why he had not gone over to Walcheren to attend the sick, answered that he had no personal experience of military medicine. Thomas Keate, The Surgeon General, pointedly stated that he was not the appropriate person to visit Walcheren as it was an “entirely medical”matter!
The inquiry found that there were too few doctors, inadequate hospitals not enough transport for the sick, and a shortage of necessary drugs and supplies. Peruvian bark [quinine], was one of the few effective malarial treatments available and the beneficial effects of quinine were well known since about 1600 as an effective cure for malaria. However on the 29th September the army reported that there was in store only 300lbs of Peruvian bark sufficient for just a few days. On one occasion, so short were the supplies, that further quantities had to be seized from a passing American vessel,.
In conclusion the inquiry found that the expedition was ill-timed, because the malaria season had actually begun before the expedition set sail, was ill executed because of specific failures and by the dilatory actions of the Earl of Chatham.
To be fair however, it is doubtful however even if all had gone in its favour that the expedition could have succeeded. The task may well have been impossible. After all Bat had been captured by the first week of August and it could not have been done any sooner but just suppose Kadzand had been taken on the 29th of July and the channel opened up and Flushing had been taken on the 1st August then the Royal Navy would have had clear run. However it would have been necessary to buoy and chart the river and to move a mass of shipping up the river with flood tide for over sixty or seventy miles would have been a formidable task. Possibly this could have been done by the 3rd of August but it would taken even if all had gone very well, the army at least two days to embark and form itself up for the fifteen mile march to Antwerp then even at that point there were some eighteen thousand troops of admittedly variable quality at Antwerp or in the area. With each day that went by this number increased. By the 11th August and that is not allowing for many days slippage there were another 5500 regular troops in Antwerp
Whatever the military failures, the story of the Walcheren expedition is not one of fighting but of an army brought low by disease, so that within a few weeks, an entire army ceased to be an effective fighting force.
Identifying Walcheren Fever
The cause or causes are not clear. Most most army doctors kept to the traditional view that odours arising from rotting organic matter, were the cause of common fevers. Hence the name malaria which simply is Italian for “bad air”. This seemed the logical and simple answer in the low lying marshland and ditches of Walcheren. It could however be more complex than this.
Doctors at the time noted that the fevers the troops suffered from were both continuous and intermittent and that dysentery was a common symptom. While intermittent fever or relapses would be consistent with malaria, continuous fever would not be. The conclusion of many doctors of the time was that typhus fever or enteric fever also played a significant role .
The account written assistant surgeon George Hargreaves suggests further infectious diseases. He describes both a type of fever and the presence of signs, including surface blood spots, which are compatible with typhoid and typhus. Significantly he says that these symptoms mainly affected the troops living in crowded and dirty conditions. This would explain why the death rate was higher among men than the officers. It would also explain why fewer officers were affected. If malaria was the only cause, officers would have been just as vulnerable as the men. However the fewer officer deaths could be partly explained by the slightly better care they could have received.
The symptoms of malaria are fever, flue like illness, muscle aches, tiredness nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. If not treated it can result in kidney failure seizures mental confusion and death. First symptoms normally appear ten days after infection and the parasite can remain in the system and cause repeated attacks for years. It is not however contagious so the confined conditions of the troops would not in itself have resulted in mass outbreak. For typhus fleas from infected mice rats or lice can spread it and the symptoms are very similar to malaria, fever headache chills general pains, plus a body rash. It could be that there was some deadly combination of the two.
Whatever the true cause, the Walcheren expedition was a disaster. With a large land force and overwhelming naval strength, the British achieved only a very limited success against French warships and dockyards. The French admitted to suffering financial losses of £2,000,000 but the expedition had cost the British at least £8,000,000. That could be made good but the losses in men were irreplaceable; 4,000 dead (nearly all from fever) and 12,000 so badly affected by the fever that it was months before any were fit to serve again and many indeed never fully recovered.
As to the fears of the Admiralty, and at the end of the day it is these, which had really driven the expedition, they never materialised. Up to the end of the Napoleonic wars, the British continued to maintain a North Sea Fleet of up to 15 sail of the line, tasked with blockading the Dutch and German coasts, and in particular the Scheldt with its arsenal at Antwerp and also the main Dutch naval base at Helder. The French fleet at Antwerp was built up to some twenty two ships of frigate size and above and at Flushing and Flushing roadstead, consisted of some eight ships of frigate size and above, but only a few of these were ever fully manned and ready for sea.
Perhaps the last word should be left not to the prosaic debates of Parliament but to The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1809 [Vol. 79] when it published this sorrowful lament, which could have applied to so many “combined operations” of that era.
Ah! Wretched spot, by Nature’s hand unblessed,
Where fell Disease high rears her spotted crest,
Where horrid fogs eternally prevail,
And fatal damps from poisonous floods exhale,
Where blasts pestiferous taint the sullen air
And spread around contagion and despair…
Oh! God! what horror and what grief to tell
The dreadful fate of those we lov’d so well,
Of Fathers, Brothers, Sons, our Country’s boast!
Unnumber’d, dying on a foreign Coast.
It has been estimated that in all that the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars’ total British losses were just under a quarter of a million men, with probably only some 30,000 of these deaths being caused by enemy action. Of those places where death by disease struck, Walcheren was one of the most horrific and ironic for it did not happen on some remote tropical island but almost within sight of England.
Walcheren 1809 a Medical Catastrophe by Howard Wilberfoss 1999
Walcheren Expedition National Archives WO 17/249
Journal of Proceedings of Army under Chatham National Archives WO 1/190
Chronological description of raid on Walcheren National archives T1/111/57-58
Walcheren Expedition National Archives WO 6/26-28
History of the British Army by J. Fortescue Vol 8
Letters of William Thornton Keep 1808-1814 editor Ian Fletcher
A Soldier of the 71st (possibly Thomas Howell) edited by C. Hibbert 1997
Journal of James Hale late sergeant of 9th Regiment of Foot 1998
Recollections of Rifleman Harris edited by C. Hibbert 1976
Parliamentary Resolutions on the Walcheren Campaign 1810 BL holding number 14000.k.34(23.)
Journal of D. Robertson late of 92 Highlanders 1842 BL holding number X 808/36223
Thomas Wright- 1810 Letter to Members of Legislature BL holding number 7560.b.81
Thomas Wright-1811 History of Walcheren Remittent BL holding number 1168.h.16
George Hargreaves asst Surgeon RHA- 1812 An Account of the Island of Walcheren BL holding number 1299.k.15
St Clair Lieut Colonel– 1834 A Residence in West Indies and America BL Holding number 19501.15.16