No, I’m not ready to do that post just yet, but the Walcheren campaign of 1809 — and obviously the involvement of John, 2nd Earl of Chatham in that campaign — has been on my mind recently. I am aware that when I lay down my pen in a few months at the end of my novel, I am going to have to do some research on Walcheren: I feel I owe it to myself, and to my boy Chatham, to do it. I know it won’t be pleasant, but I can hardly call myself a Chatham expert until I have familiarised myself with every aspect of the campaign.
In due course, therefore, I will probably be writing a series of Walcheren-related posts. For now I’m thinking about it mainly because I have recently made contact with Dr Carl A. Christie, whose doctoral research was on the Walcheren campaign and who kindly sent me an article he wrote on the subject in 1981. While reading the article one of the references caught my eye, so I chased it up:
I was expecting the book to be harsh on John, but while it is not exactly favourable,I was surprised at how positive it was about him. I freely admit I’m much more likely to blog about the nice stuff at this stage (cross my heart I will be fair to Chatham when I come to look at Walcheren properly) but after the bad press he has in the history books I really wasn’t expecting his subordinates to, well … like him. Although it must be noted that being a likeable chap does not necessarily make for a great military commander, and there’s plenty of censure here too.
The anonymous officer of the 81st Regiment who wrote the letters printed in “Letters from Flushing” may have had a pro-Chatham agenda of some sort, I don’t know: I haven’t done enough research even to guess who he might have been. He certainly had an axe to grind against the navy, so would be expected to take the army’s side in a debate. Taking all that as given, he begins (pp. 3-5) with a lengthy description of Lord Chatham, and the way in which he was viewed at the beginning of the expedition at the end of July 1809. (The letter in question is dated from Ramsgate, 27 July 1809.)
There’s a fair amount of implied criticism in the account — the author is quite circumspect about his opinion: “there is an old proverb, that ‘walls have ears’, and perhaps there are some things which should not be committed to letters” — but the John I have come to know in my research is certainly recognisable here.
So much, however, I will say, that I could wish the Earl [of Chatham] would be more active in putting his talents forth. He is certainly a man of abilities, he thinks solidly, and writes extremely well; but it is not very easy to arouse him into exertion; he is indolent beyond any man I have ever seen. At the present moment he bustles about with some appearance of alacrity; but it is evidently only a fit and a start, and all of us begin to apprehend a relapse. If you pass his window in his hours of leisure, you will invariably see him yawning, or with a book, over which he is sleeping. To sum up all, however, and perhaps to compensate for all, he has the reputation of being as honest a man as Heaven ever formed; he is the perfect gentleman, moreover, in his manners and deportment, and, as I have said before, whatever he does, he does well. If his activity were but equal to his talents, he would be inferior to none of our most celebrated Generals.
The author goes on to hint at one possibility never mentioned by historians for why Chatham was chosen to lead the expedition: his name and heritage inspired loyalty in the troops under his command (pp 4-5).
As the brother of the immortal Pitt, his appointment has given universal satisfaction amongst all the officers; and I do really believe that, under this impelling principle, they would do more for him than for any General in the service. I can scarcely describe to you the enthusiasm with which the good people of Ramsgate flock around the brother of Pitt, and the son of Chatham.
Presumably the soldiery were at least expecting a man who would be at least half as brilliant as his father and brother, although as the account suggests Chatham’s reputation for indolence was well-known.
On pp 125-7, the author again speaks of Chatham’s popularity among the soldiers, something I found rather surprising: from a couple of sources quoted in Gordon Bond and Martin Howard’s accounts of Walcheren I had the impression he was viewed as a distant commander, rather out of touch with what was happening on the front lines. Still, John was always an affable chap, and well-mannered, as the author keeps mentioning (he’s not the only one to lay emphasis on John’s “manners”). There’s nevertheless a flavour of censure about his easy-goingness, and the author does attack his hesitation and inactivity:
As to our Commander in Chief, he spends the greater part of his time in Middleburg [the headquarters], and very freely and good-naturedly permits the officers to follow their own inclinations.
Above: Middelburg, Walcheren Island
So much I must say of him, that every one seems to feel a lively regard for him; his manners are so gentlemanlike, and his temper so easy and affable, that he has at least won all our hearts. But there are certainly some murmurs that he is not sufficiently decisive, that he wants confidence in his own powers [I’d say this is a very incisive observation], that he is too fond of councils of war, and that he is deliberating, where the nature of the service requires that he should be acting. Be this as it may, he is the perfect gentleman [but of course]; and when he thinks proper to exert himself, an excellent officer. Every one acknowledges his abilities, whilst they lament that he does not sufficiently put them forth.
Even the author, however, seems to have fallen under the spell of John’s charm, since he can’t resist finishing off with a sweet story from John’s childhood. It’s almost certainly apocryphal, but having read a fair amount of Pitt family correspondence there is a flavour of truth about the tale:
I have heard that the late Lord Chatham, the great Chatham as he is deservedly called, entertained a very high opinion of our Commander’s abilities. The late Lord Clarendon being one day at his house, and Mr Pitt and Lord Chatham, at that time boys, happening to pass — ‘There, my Lord,’ said Lord Chatham, ‘are my best services to my country; there are two boy who will hereafter be most useful men. The one, Mr Pitt, is the readiest; he has a due confidence in himself. The other will be the most solid thinker.’
There, then, you have it: easy-going, lazy, difficult to rouse, diffident, a slavish follower of official military protocol: yes, that is definitely a Chatham I recognise. But popular, intelligent, full of ability, respected by the men under his command? Now that’s a John I have yet to see in any history books.
All quotations from Letters from Flushing by an officer of the 81st Regiment (London, 1809)
 Carl A. Christie, “The Royal Navy and the Walcheren Expedition of 1809”, New Aspects of Naval History ed C. L. Symonds et al (Annapolis, 1981) 190-200