The Walcheren Debacle 1809
by Nick Brazil
Europe in turmoil
At the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Europe was in turmoil. Since 1792, France had been embroiled in wars with other European nations in a variety of coalitions. These included Sweden, Austria and, most notably Great Britain. Then in 1802, the continent experienced peace for the first time in a decade when Britain and France signed The Treaty of Amiens.
However, this fragile peace did not last and by the spring of the following year, the two great rivals were again at each other’s throats. In 1804, the Swedes joined the British, followed by the Austrians against the French. Once more the corrosive stain of war was spreading across the continent.
In August 1805, the roads, lanes and fields of France were filled with the blue masses of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. 200,000 men advanced in great secrecy across a front of 160 miles. In October 1805 they stormed across the Rhine and into Bavaria. This bold and early example of blitzkrieg finally netted 23,000 Austrian soldiers under General Mack. Surrounded and outnumbered by French forces the Austrians surrendered at the Bavarian City of Ulm.
The French seemed invincible
By 1809 the French seemed invincible. In one bold campaign after another, their forces steadily increased the size of Napoleon’s Empire. In Portugal and Spain they were fighting the British under Wellington. In the North they occupied a large chunk of Prussia and the Netherlands. Britain had been continuously at war with Napoleon for 6 years and was desperate to turn the tide.
On 30th July 1809, a large British expeditionary force sailed across the North Sea to the Dutch island of Walcheren. On board the ships were 40,000 soldiers, 15,000 horses, field artillery pieces and two siege trains. Although it was a far larger force than Wellington’s army in Iberia it would prove substantially less successful.
Amongst this convoy of large ships plying across the grey waters of the North Sea could be seen the substantial shape of the ocean going yacht Die Jong Vrow Rebecca Maria. On board was her owner Sir William Curtis (aka Billy Biscuit) who was carrying “delicate refreshments of all kinds to the military and naval commanders and the principal officers”.
Lord Castlereagh's obsession with Walcheren Island
A military expedition to Walcheren Island had long been an obsession of the leading Anglo-Irish politician, Lord Castlereagh. Situated at the twin mouths of the East and West Scheldt River in the French occupied Netherlands, this island was considered to be strategically very important to both France and Britain. Its main port of Flushing was only 160 miles from London and the Thames Estuary was situated directly opposite it across the North Sea. This area of the Low Countries had a significant part of Napoleon’s navy stationed there. Much of it was based at the main port of Antwerp. In addition to this, Walcheren and its neighbouring islands were well fortified by French shore batteries. To leading politicians such as Castlereagh, this made it “a pistol held at the head of England.” As Napoleon put it, this area would become “Le point d’attaque mortel à l’ennemi.”
As secretary to The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1798, Castlereagh had seen how a relatively small invasion force such as General Humbert’s French army of 4000 men supporting 50,000 Irishmen could threaten the seat of power. Like most leading British politicians at the time, he had come to regard Napoleon as the major threat to Britain’s existence. It was this guiding belief that drove his obsession with the invasion of Walcheren.
A plan is formulated
When he gained office as Secretary of State for War in William Pitt and Lord Portland’s Governments in 1805, he continued to agitate for the mounting of The Walcheren Expedition. In 1809 his efforts finally bore fruit. By the middle part of that year Castlereagh had formulated a plan to attack
The plan was to capture Walcheren and the ports of Flushing and Antwerp in a lightning commando raid. In attacking Antwerp, it was planned that the British Force would also cripple the French fleet that was moored there.
The idea was drawn up with the help of leading British military men. However, their support for the plan came with an important caveat. Whilst such an expedition was possible, it was also very risky and could only succeed if conducted with great speed.
"The Late Earl"
They may well have added that such an operation also required the best possible military leadership. In view of this, Castlereagh’s choice of commanders was not simply surprising, but also a catastrophic mistake. Not for the first or last time in military history, a leader was picked not because of their abilities but because their face fitted politically. In this case, it was John Pitt, Earl of Chatham and elder brother the late Prime Minister William Pitt who had only recently died at the relatively early age of 46 in January 1806.
Whilst Chatham could boast varied military experiences over his career, his performance was not exactly stellar. He had seen action in the American War for Independence and on the Russo-British Helder Campaign in Northern Netherlands in 1799. However, he had mainly worked behind a desk in the years running up to 1809. In 1788 he was appointed to be First Lord of The Admiralty. However, due to poor performance in that role he was soon demoted to the relatively lowly post of Lord Privy Seal.
Chatham’s public reputation for indolence, had earned him the nickname “The Late Earl.” This play upon words referred to his inability to rise out of bed in the morning. However, in spite of his reputation as a lazy, slow thinking military man, he was given the job of commanding The Walcheren Expedition. This fast moving operation required someone such as Wellington for it to have any chance of success.
The selection of "Mad Dick" Rear Admiral Sir Richard Strachan as naval commander.
The expedition also needed an experienced naval commander. Castlereagh picked a man of a totally different temperament for this task. Known by the nick name “Mad Dick” amongst his men, Rear Admiral Sir Richard Strachan was an impatient and impetuous man who favoured action over dilatoriness any day of the week. His nickname stemmed from his tendency to lapse into foul mouthed rants if things did not happen fast enough for him. Without doubt, as a man of action and extensive naval experience, he was well suited to his command of the naval part of the Expedition. However, his inability to grasp all of the operation’s complexities was also a fatal flaw that would help to condemn it to failure. The appointment of these two total opposites to the joint command of this operation was a tailor-made recipe for disastrous confrontation.
The expedition receives the kings blessing
On 22nd June 1809, the Walcheren Expedition received the official blessing of the King and was given the go-ahead. With a fighting force of 35,000 infantrymen, 1900 cavalry, 352 transport ships and 256 war ships, it would be the largest expeditionary force ever mounted in British military history. Whilst its main purpose was to destroy the French batteries and navy in the Netherlands, it was also designed to take pressure off Britain’s Austrian allies.
However, this secondary purpose was nullified when Napoleon beat the Austrians in The Battle of Wagram, near Vienna on 5th to 6th July 1809. It proved to be a very costly victory with a total of 74,000 dead and injured on both sides. Nevertheless, it had th effect of removing the Austrians from any further involvement in the Walcheren Expedition.
This force, including Curtis’s yacht Die Jong Vrow Rebecca Maria landed at Walcheren on 30th of July 1809. Initially, the invasion seemed to go well with the British largely destroying the French batteries on South Beveland and Walcheren Islands. The lethargic and incompetent nature of the expedition’s leadership under the Earl of Chatham soon cancelled any gains made.
The advance at a snail's pace
Whilst the success of the venture hinged on the speed with which British forces reached the French held port of Antwerp little or no progress was made in in that direction.
For the first two weeks of August. Chatham’s forces advanced at a snail’s pace towards their main objective. This was greatly to the bafflement and frustration of his fellow officers, particularly Strachan. An indication of the commander’s curious choice of military priorities was the placing of his pet turtle in a carriage at the front of his military column.
The port of Flushing was subjected to a heavy siege on 13th August and fell to the British on 15th. However, the slow progress of the British force under Chatham allowed the French a crucial advantage. From 30th July when news of the British Invasion reached Paris, Napoleon poured reinforcements in from Northern France, By 11th August there were 15,399 troops on the right bank of the Scheldt with 20,883 on the opposite side.
"I fear it will not be practicable to get to Antwerp"
Under their commander Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, the French also heavily fortified Antwerp and withdrew their fleet. Facing such formidable odds and the loss of their main objective, it was now impossible for the British to mount a successful lightning advance. Sir Home Popham summed it up in a note to Chatham: “I fear it will not be practicable to get to Antwerp”.
In addition to this, Chatham and Strachan were now severely at odds. That and Pitt’s incompetent leadership caused him to be recalled to London in disgrace. He was replaced by the eccentric Lt General Eyre Coote. In his turn, he was replaced by a third military commander General Sir George Don in October. With such a rapid change in the British Military High Command, it was obvious the Walcheren Expedition was in serious trouble.
In the midst of all these military manoeuvrings, another much more insiduous threat was causing the Expedition to unravel. The key to this unfolding disaster lay in the actual living conditions on Walcheren Island and their unsuitability for the troops being landed there. It was already well known that Walcheren was a hazardous place as far as human health was concerned. In 1747, a British expedition was virtually destroyed by “Walcheren Fever”. This was a lethal cocktail of diseases including typhus, typhoid and dysentery with malaria as its main driver. French forces stationed on the island had also suffered similar losses due to the fever.
However, little or no attention was paid to this threat by British political and military leadership from Castlereagh down. The British force stationed on the island had inadequate medical back-up in the form of surgeons, doctors and accommodation for the mounting numbers of sick troops.
Walcheren Fever rips through the British forces
Throughout the four month campaign only one hundred and six British soldiers died in action against the French. Walcheren Fever would kill another 4000 men. It ripped through the British forces leaving ten per cent of them dead and another 12,000 unfit for duty.
By the time the British finally left Walcheren Island in December the whole debacle had cost £8,000,000 – over £857 million in today’s values. This bungled venture had been a costly debacle in terms of money and human lives.
Warfare in this period was an extremely bloody business. For example,The Battle of Eylau in February 1807 left 50,000 French and Russian casualties. But in spite of this grisly reality, war was regarded as a gentlemanly pursuit amongst Europe’s nobility. It was not unknown for the local gentry to turn out in their carriages to observe the slaughter of battle from the safety of a distant hillside. To fortify them, they would bring picnic hampers complete with servants to wait on their every whim.
No doubt this is how Billy Biscuit regarded The Walcheren Expedition. It is also quite possible that he felt a duty to ‘keep an eye’ on Chatham who was leading the expedition. Chatham was the brother of one of Curtis’ close friends, William Pitt the Younger the late Prime Minister.
One of Britains' great military disasters
Whatever the reason, he was about to witness the start of one of Britain’s great military disasters. It is unclear whether William Curtis stayed for the whole campaign, although it seems unlikely. With his many commitments in the City, business and politics, he probably returned to England after not more than a few days. It is also possible that the spectacle of so many troops dying might have prompted his early departure.
British troops had started falling sick from Walcheren Fever in August 20th. Within a week just under 3,500 troops had been incapacitated by the Fever. This figure continued to rise rapidly. It is thought that Napoleon had held his forces back from attacking the British Forces in the hope that the Fever would do the job for him. If so, he could not have hoped for a more effective ally.
By the end of August, it had become clear that Antwerp and the French were beyond the reach of the British. From then on, the expedition to ‘teach Boney a lesson’ and destroy the French Fleet had become a long and humiliating withdrawal. It would not finally end until 23rd December of that year.
The repercussions of this military venture continued long after the end of the campaign. 12,000 troops involved in the expedition returned to England in a poor state of health. Many of these men remained permanently debilitated by their illness. A proportion of these troops were sent to join Wellington’s forces in the Iberian Peninsula Campaign. They were clearly unfit for duty and led to a doubling of the sick lists in that war.
This can only have added to the serious problem of sickness in Wellington’s Army. Diseases such as dysentery, typhoid and malaria claimed many more casualties in this war than those on the field of battle. It is estimated that between a quarter and a third of Wellington’s troops were permanently out of action due to sickness.
A staggering example of arrogant ineptitude
Following the ignominious failure of the Expedition, there was an unedifying blame game. In September, The Times had already labelled the whole venture a national disaster. In its opinion, the blame for this lay squarely on the shoulders of the incompetent Earl of Chatham. Satirical cartoons began appearing the press showing Chatham riding a chariot drawn by turtles and snails.
The Army’s Medical Department also caught it in the neck with some severe criticism for its woeful performance. Their main responsibility was to look after the health and welfare of the Expedition’s troops. However, they signally failed in this respect. One of the reasons for this was that the Board was not informed of the Expedition’s destination to a known desease hot spot until it was actually on its way.
However, the incompetence and complacency of its leaders also played a big role in this medical disaster. In the subsequent enquiry, the Physician General, Sir Lucas Pepys was asked why he had not personally attended the sick troops on Walcheren. His answer was that he had no military medical experience. Truly that was a staggering example of arrogant ineptitude.
The duel at Putney Heath
Thomas Keate, The Surgeon General was not far behind in the incompetence stakes when he explained that he had not personally visited Walcheren because he considered the situation “entirely medical.” It is no surprise that this Army Medical Board was scrapped and replaced soon after the enquiry.
The political fallout from the disaster was also considerable. An enquiry into the failure of the Walcheren Expedition found Chatham’s incompetent leadership largely responsible. However, Pitt deflected this criticism by explaining to King George III (to whom he was very close) that the debacle was all Admiral Strachan’s fault. Inevitably, Strachan became the main scapegoat.
Lord Castlereagh, The Minister for War became embroiled in a bitter dispute with The Foreign Secretary George Canning over who was to blame for the whole catastrophe. This culminated in Castlereagh challenging Canning to a duel at Putney Heath on 21st September 1809. Since Canning had never handled a pistol before the duel, it was an unequal contest. On the other hand, Castlereagh was an experienced marksman. Whilst Canning missed his opponent, Castlereagh injured him in the thigh.
The duel caused a huge scandal. It was too much for the sick and elderly leader of the Government, Lord Portland and he resigned. A little over a month later he died following an operation for stones on 30th October 1809. He was replaced as Prime Minister by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Spencer Perceval. Because of his diminutive stature and pale complexion Lord Eldon the Lord Chancellor referred to him dismissively as ‘Little P’.
Lessons to be learned
This was an unfair dismissal of an able and clever politician. Following the crisis of the duel, Perceval steadied the ship of state which he would lead for the next three years. Had matters turned out differently he would have gone down in history as one of our great Prime Ministers. However, on 11th May 1812, Perceval was shot and killed by an assassin called John Bellingham in the lobby of the Houses of Parliament. One of the two M.P.s who apprehended the murderer was none other than Billy Biscuit.
Besides picking competent leaders, the main lesson to be learned from the Walcheren Disaster is the value of good and timely intelligence. Had this been in place at the time, the British Government would have realised the Napoleonic Fleet was well out of reach even before the Expedition set out. Thus, a costly disaster in both human and financial terms would have been avoided. They might also have realised that Walcheren Island was a malaria trap for the British Forces.
Today, The Walcheren Expedition is one of Great Britain’s major military disasters that has been largely forgotten by history. Nevertheless, it remains a lesson on how not to run a military operation for any general who cares to heed it.
© Nick Brazil 2023
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