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Who wrote “Letters from Flushing”?

One of the most famous contemporary descriptions of the Walcheren campaign is a small volume entitled Letters from Flushing … an account of the expedition to Walcheren, Beveland, and the Mouth of the Scheldt, under the command of the Earl of Chatham (London: Richard Phillips, 1809). The book consists of 14 letters allegedly written home to friends by ‘an officer of the 81st Regiment’, covering the period from 27 July (just before the expedition sailed) to 8 September (just before half of the forces returned to Britain).

 

lettersfromflushing

This book has long been a puzzle to me. It’s a brilliant text – apart from anything else, the description of the bombardment of Flushing between 13-15 August is just fabulous – and some of the details given in it about life in Zeeland under the British occupation are wonderful. But there are several odd things about it. Why does the author of the letters return to England in mid-September, when the 81st remained on Walcheren until the final evacuation of the island in December? Why is he hardly ever with his regiment, when the movements of the 81st can be easily traced in the various diaries and official proceedings?

These mysteries, I feel, ought to be cleared up if the author can be identified. We know he was on the 81st; the fact that he is hardly ever with the 81st, and in fact finally leaves without it in mid-September, suggests he was on the staff. This is supported by his birds’ eye view of the campaign and his familiarity with the higher echelons of command, which is highly unusual for a junior officer attached to a particular regiment.

Who, then, was the author? He was educated although probably not classically so. He had his ear to the ground (there are frequent references to public affairs that could only be garnered by someone with an interest in them). He was unmarried, referring approvingly to ‘Sir John Moore’s maxim that a soldier should have nothing to do with a wife’ – but possibly attached, going on to say ‘And yet I think that some of these wives are too precious luxuries for us contentedly to give the monopoly of them to you non-military gentlemen’ (p. 19). He probably wasn’t at Corunna with the rest of the 81st, as he talks of opinions ‘which I have frequently heard from the officers who have served in Spain’ (p. 154), suggesting he did not do so himself. Otherwise, I had to guess.

The obvious place to start in my quest to identify this officer was to see if anyone had done it before me. (That would have been handy.) Were there any identifying marks on the various versions of Letters available on the internet, or recorded in any online catalogues? Alas, no.

My next port of call was the Army List (annual and monthly), although I’m not entirely sure what I was looking for here. I guess I was I was kind of hoping one of the names would leap out at me waving a sign reading ‘I wrote Letters from Flushing!’, but no such luck. Not only that, but most of the names from both battalions of the 81st were jumbled together, with only a few identified as belonging to one or the other (only the second battalion was at Walcheren).

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My eureka moment was provided by a visit to the National Archives, where I called up the muster book of the second battalion of the 81st [1] and the monthly returns of the officers attached to the Walcheren campaign [2]. This latter document contained a detailed list of the staff, including regimental affiliation.

Squeezed at the very bottom of the first page was the only officer attached to the 81st – Captain George Charles D’Aguilar, ADC to Colonel Thomas Mahon (a staff officer).

officersreturn_daguilar

D’Aguilar (1784-1855) is an interesting character of himself. Of Jewish extraction, he entered the Army as an ensign in the 86th Regt in 1799. He spent nearly his entire early career in India with his regiment, before transferring to a captaincy in the 81st and returning home in May 1809 – just in time for Walcheren. He went on to become Assistant Adjutant-General in Ireland and at Horse Guards, before participating in the Opium Wars and becoming Lieutenant Governor of Hong Kong.

George_Charles_D'Aguilar

G.C. D’Aguilar in later life, from here

Could D’Aguilar have written Letters? It’s certainly possible. He sailed on 29 July with Mahon, which corroborates information given in the second letter of Letters (which clearly shows the author to have sailed with the second part of the fleet). Excitingly, he also seems to have returned in mid-September. The Gentleman’s Magazine [3] states that he ‘returned to England with the cavalry’ under Mahon’s command, and he was certainly in Lancashire to propose to his future wife, Eliza Drinkwater, at the end of September.[4]

The fact D’Aguilar had left Walcheren by the end of September is confirmed by the officers’ return.[2] Although the return shows him as still being on Walcheren in October, this was an error, as shown by a pencilled ‘LA’ (Leave of Absence) next to his name.

officersreturn_LA

The next return confirms that he was given leave until the end of December.

officersreturn_absentI must admit that D’Aguilar’s authorship is a speculative, rather than a definite, identification. I can’t find any obvious connection between D’Aguilar and the printer of Letters, Richard Phillips, except that Phillips was a well-known publisher of other military works. Nor can I confirm that D’Aguilar stayed at Bedford Square, where the Advertisement at the beginning of Letters is signed. D’Aguilar did, however, go on to publish several other works in his lifetime, including The Officers; Manual (a translation of the Military Maxims of Napoleon).[5]

And yet, if I can’t confirm that D’Aguilar was the author, I can’t find anyone else in the 2nd battalion of the 81st who fits the bill. This is evident from comparing the information in the payroll [1] and the officers’ returns. [2]

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At the end of September, only a handful of 2nd battalion officers were not present on Walcheren. Apart from D’Aguilar (and a scattering of officers who were serving with the 1st battalion in Sicily), 18 officers were listed as absent:

  • Lt-Col James Kempt – serving in North America as QMG
  • Major Henry Milling – severely wounded at Corunna and not yet fit for duty
  • Capt J. Lutman – severely wounded at Corunna (effectively invalided for life)
  • Capt Ralph Crofton – guarding the battalion’s heavy baggage at Bletchington, Oxon. (the regimental depot)
  • Capt Caesar Colclough – recruiting in England since July
  • Capt William Dams – recruiting in England since July
  • Lt J.G. Hort – lost his right leg at Corunna
  • Lt Armstrong – recruiting in England since July
  • Lt Thomas Thomson – recruiting in England since July
  • Lt William Hyde – recruiting in England since July
  • Lt Thomas Manning – recruiting in England since July
  • Ens R.J. Marston – recruiting in England since July
  • Ens J.L. Serjeant – recruiting in England since July
  • Ensigns Anderson and Pringle – absent without leave, but last seen alive during the march to Corunna and ‘presumed dead’
  • Ens White – sick with fever since 12 Sept
  • Apothecary Chislett – sick with fever since 13 Sept

None of these people could possibly have written Letters – leaving D’Aguilar as the only possible person capable of compiling Letters as early as October 1809.

References

[1] WO 12/8953.

[2] WO 17/2479.

[3] Gentleman’s Magazine, vols 198-9 (1855), p. 94.

[4] D’Aguilar v Drinkwater, Francis Vesey and John Beames, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery during the time of Lord Chancellor Eldon, vol 2 (London: Reed and Hunter, 1814), p. 227.

[5] H. Stephens (2008) D’Aguilar, Sir George Charles (1784–1855), army officer. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 15 May 2019, from here.

 

2 thoughts on “Who wrote “Letters from Flushing”?

    • I live in hope that one day I’ll find a letter reading “I wrote ‘Letters from Flushing’, or (even better) find the letters the book was based on … ah well!

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