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Britain’s military adventure in Walcheren Island met a watery fate in 1809

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, War on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about the Napoleonic Wars originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

British lines at Flushing, picture, image, illustration

Soldiers in the flooded British lines at Flushing by C L Doughty

It is brash and noisy where once it was sleepy. There are crowds of people where once folk drifted by in twos and threes. There are cars, sounding like clockwork trains as they chug past in low gear, where once big raw-boned horses stepped sedately. There is hygiene, clean air and concrete where once there were stagnant waters and flies. There is life where once there was a graveyard.

Where? On the island of Walcheren at the mouth of the River Schelde on the southern frontier of Holland. There in 1809 a British army lay down and died, victim of criminal neglect, by its government, its leaders and its doctors.

The army had been sent to Walcheren to weaken Napoleon in the west. By destroying the enemy’s fleet in the Schelde, by destroying its arsenals at Flushing and Antwerp, Britain would not only have smashed a significant concentration of Napoleon’s forces but she would have established a powerful base from which to operate in the Low Countries.

Unfortunately, although the scheme looked well on paper, it was based on faulty intelligence about the plans and strength of the enemy and about the nature of the territory and waters.

Worse still, the Government was unfortunate in its choice of leaders. To command the expedition it chose Lord Chatham. He was a good soldier but he had one fault, he was lazy and, as a result, unpunctual; he was known as the late Lord Chatham, long before his death.

In charge of the naval force was Sir Richard Strachan, again an excellent seaman, but given to eccentric conduct. Either of the two men might have done great things by himself; together, they were the worst possible choice for an operation that depended essentially on co-operation and timing.

In early summer, the expedition was assembled, the greatest armament that had sailed from British shores. The troops numbered about 40,000 and there were 35 ships of the line, 23 frigates and 180 gun-boats and other craft. But it did not sail until July; this was not just a bad omen, it presented practical problems, since the waters along the coast of Holland were notoriously dangerous and the great fleet would have to navigate channels of constantly-changing form in unpredictable weather.

The French were expecting the force. The Government had tried to plan the expedition in secret but French spies kept Napoleon well informed as to its date of sailing and their information was corroborated by some escaped prisoners of war. Napoleon at once ordered the fortifications of the towns on Walcheren to be reinforced.

After its bad start, the expedition soon encountered further difficulties. Although the main force was to be concentrated on the Walcheren towns – Flushing, Veere and Middleburg – another section was intended to capture the island of Kadzan which lay opposite Flushing and formed a twin sentry at the mouth of the Schelde.

The main army ran into trouble with the weather as it approached Walcheren, changed its landfall and unloaded its troopships in foul seas, leaving men sprawled on the shores barely able to stand from sea-sickness.

The force bound for Kadzan was also unable to make its proper landfall and discovered too late that the island was more strongly held than had been imagined.

Eventually, the main army took Middleburg and Veere and turned to Flushing. But Kadzan remained untouched. This factor changed the course of the campaign. From the smaller island, re-inforcements were ferried across to Flushing. Thousands of men sailed from one garrison to the other and, owing to the disposition of their ships and men, the British could do nothing about it.

The siege of Flushing began. But not without difficulty. The siege-guns had to be hauled into position by gun-horses but they travelled slowly over the island’s narrow roads and, when they were taken across country, they became bogged down in the water-logged fields.

It had begun to rain, the dismal, grey sheets of unceasing rain that Holland knows so well. And, if that were not enough, Napoleon had ordered the sea dykes to be breached, flooding the British lines. Outside Flushing, the best regiments of the British army floundered knee- then thigh-deep in their trenches, vainly battering the town.

Then in the damp, disease began to spread. Slowly at first, but with gathering momentum. Men fell sick from pneumonia, from rheumatism and from consumption, but most of all they went down with malaria and typhoid fever. Why? The low-lying moist ground was a breeding-place for diseases of this sort and the flies that hovered over the camp and the rats that ran around it helped to spread them.

The Government itself was much to blame. It had assembled a great array of men and armour but had failed to back it up with sufficient money. The troops were quartered in dilapidated hovels and barns, instead of being billeted on the local people, to save the expense of providing accommodation. Their food was salty meat and weevilly biscuit, to save expenditure on fresh supplies from the area. To quench their thirst and drown their misery, the soldiers swigged Dutch spirits, ate tainted fruit and drank impure water. Sickness quickly followed. But, again as an economy, the sick were without warm clothing or blankets.

An eye-witness, an officer visiting his men, wrote: “I was distressed to see in what miserable places the soldiers were put up. In one house I found fifteen men belonging to the 5th Regiment in a room scarce twelve feet square and with twelve of the men sick, and nothing but a couple of blankets to lie down upon.”

At last Flushing fell. But Lord Chatham realised that his men could go no further. Over 4,000 were sick and more were falling ill every hour. His surgeons did what they could for the invalids but they had few resources. Later the Army medical authorities claimed that if the affair had not been a secret and if they had known to where the force was bound, they would have taken special precautions.

Once the condition of the forces was known, however, they were not much help. They tried to recruit local nurses, but in vain. They tried to bring out veterans to act as attendants; but since the Physician in Chief to the Army refused to venture out to the island, claiming that he knew nothing of soldiers’ diseases, it is scarcely surprising that they had little success. Eventually two leading medical men did come out to see what could be done but by then it was too late. All they could recommend was that the sick should be evacuated as soon as possible.

It was not only the sick who needed to be taken off Walcheren. It was the entire army. It was bogged down, its numbers gravely reduced, while its commanders quarrelled between themselves and quarrelled with the Government. It was clear that nothing more could be done on the island and information was coming in that Napoleon was planning a counter-attack while the force was under strength. In October the Government agreed to a withdrawal and by December the last man had left. At the final count, it was discovered that 106 men had died in battle; 4,000 had died of sickness; and that of the 35,000 survivors, some 11,500 were invalids.

There have been several instances in British history when a campaign has become notorious for the inefficiency of its leaders, for the ill-fortune of its plans or for the hardships endured by its armies. But rarely have all three disasters occurred on such a scale. A great enterprise was begun with overwhelming confidence for which there was no justification and was mismanaged in such a way that Britain lost many of her best soldiers at a time when she needed every man she could muster.

It was fortunate for all concerned that the successes of Wellington in Spain and of the Allies on the continent gradually blotted out the infamous affair of Walcheren Island.

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