Sir Home Popham and the 2nd Viscount Melville: BL Loan MS 57/108

It’s no secret that Sir Home Popham much owed almost his entire career to Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville. As Secretary of State for War and then First Lord of the Admiralty, Melville gave Popham nearly all his early employment (official AND unofficial) and helped him into politics. As useful as Popham undoubtedly was, however, I wonder if Melville occasionally wilted under the weight of the masses of correspondence involved in being Popham’s patron.

Raeburn, Henry; The 1st Viscount Melville; Tate; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-1st-viscount-melville-201350

This was a hereditary attachment, as is clear from Popham’s correspondence (BL Loan MS 57/108) with Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville, also First Lord of the Admiralty. Like his father, Melville Mark 2 clearly knew the versatile naval captain could be of use. Also like his father, Melville must have grown to hate the sight of Popham’s handwriting on the vast number of (probably very, very fat) letters that came in, sometimes on a thrice-daily basis.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Most of BL Loan MS 57/108 dates from 1812, when Popham was off the north coast of Spain, tasked with liaising with the local guerrillas and trying to tie down as many French troops as possible to take the heat off Lord Wellington and his British army. It was all business, of course, but that never stopped Popham being Popham. Some of the correspondence, indeed, is absolutely tip-top Peak Popham. I summarise it here.

No. 17: 17 May

Popham: HelloooooOOOOOOooooo.

Melville: Hi.

Popham: Thank you SO much for this appointment to the north coast of Spain, after nearly a year of kicking my heels. I promise I will NOT disappoint you.

Melville: You’re welcome. My father said you were a useful man.

Popham: May I take this occasion to report that the flour used by the Mediterranean fleet is REALLY bad? I have some ideas for how to improve your supply from Tangiers, based on an idea I had while in South America. I’ve worked it up into a slim pamphlet for you. Here it is. [loud WHOOMP] [the walls shake]

Melville: ….. ah yes. My father also said you were a man of … ideas.

Popham [proudly]: Damn straight.

No. 20: 22 June, North Coast of Spain

Popham: We’re here!

Melville: Excellent news.

Popham: We could do with two or three cutters for dispatches.

Melville: Righto.

Popham: We could also do with some troop frigates. The Diadem‘s kind of heavy.

Melville: Erm. We don’t have —

Popham: Here’s a brief diary of my movements to date, which I have also sent to Mr Croker and Lord Keith. [loud WHOOMP] [the walls shake]

No. 21: 30 June, North Coast of Spain

Popham: I’ve opened communication with the brigands.

Melville: [chokes] The what?

Popham: I’ve worked out there are about 3,000 French troops in the area. The brigands can muster about 1,000.

Melville: These brigands are the guerrillas, yes? The allies you’re meant to be working with?

Popham: We need a brigade of regulars. Maybe a couple of companies of rriflemen, too. And a couple of engineers. Are you sending that troopship I asked for?

Melville: I really don’t —

Popham: Sorry, French are attacking. Laters.

No. 23: 14 July, off Castro

Popham: I’m sending you volume 2 of my diary.

Melville: Thanks.

Popham: … and also volumes 3, 4, and 5.

Melville: I —

Popham: Is my troopship here yet?

Melville: You see, here’s the thing —

Popham: We’d like two troopships now.

Melville: *wilts*

Popham: Oh, and a bomb vessel. And some Congreve rockets, shrapnel shells, hand grenades, 20,000 muskets, a gun brig (a big one — actually, MAKE IT SIX BIG ONES), some brass mortars, and some 24 pounders. You can send them in the three cutters I asked for. Oh, and — Hang on a tick. Enemy spotted. BRB.

No. 24: Same day, a little later

Popham: Sorry about that. Where were we? Oh yes. We also need $2,000 Spanish dollars, a commissary, and lots of gunpowder.

Melville: THERE’S A BLOODY WAR ON, POPHAM

No. 26: 15 July

Popham: … and some light field pieces (6 and 4 pounders), yet ANOTHER troopship, and a pony.

Melville: We can probably manage the pony.

Popham: I was just joking. I don’t actually want a pony. Hahahaha.

No. 27: 15 July

Popham: Those marines you sent us instead of the riflemen.

Melville: Oh, I’m so glad they arrived safely.

Popham: They bloody SUCK. I’ve tried drilling them, but all the drilling on Earth will never do for Major Graham is quite an imbecile and Major Williams has no great a share either of energy or enterprise.

Melville: You really don’t play well with others, do you?

No. 29: 19 July, Castro

Popham: I’m HURT.

Melville: What happened? Are you OK?

Popham: Your Secretary of the Admiralty has given me a public dressing down.

Melville: … Ah. Is this about moving the arms depot from Corunna to Machechico?

Popham: I can assure you that when I was arrested to be tried by court martial on going to South America, I did not feel half so much as I did when I read Mr Croker’s letter. We really need weapons and Machechico is closer than Corunna.

Melville: But Popham, Lord Wellington needs arms too, and Corunna is —

Popham: I feel so BETRAYED. No squadron ever exerted itself more to obtain the approbation of its country than mine. *sobs*

Melville: … there, there…

No. 36: 16 August

Popham: I’ve just got back from Bilbao, which we re-took from the enemy.

Melville: Brilliant.

Popham: I think the severe lecture which I gave the Spanish generals on the subject of military precaution will have a very good effect.

Melville: ….. you didn’t call them brigands, did you?

Popham [proudly]: YES

No. 42: 25 August, off Bilbao

Popham: I’ll make sure the Belle Poule is at Corunna to carry Lord March to England with dispatches.

Melville: Thank you.

Popham: ……… Although if he had come to Santander he would have been in England long ago.

Melville: NO, Popham. We are NOT moving the depot from Corunna.

No. 48: 1 September, Santander

Popham: BLASTED BRIGANDS — IF THEY POSSESSED ONE GRAIN OF MILITARY TALENT WE WOULD HAVE CAPTURED GUETARIA. Why can’t they just LISTEN to me?!

Melville: Maybe because you keep calling them brigands?

No. 50: 15 September, Santander

Popham: I sent Lieutenant MacFarlane to Lord Wellington with dispatches. I hope you realise a messenger from Corunna took 12 days longer than he did, even though he is just a sea officer on horseback.

Melville: Popham. Can we talk about this? Again?

No. 59: 6 October, Santander

Popham: I’ve decided I need to take Santona.

Melville: OK, fine.

Popham: But the French will probably resist us strongly.

Melville: Bear it in mind.

Popham: It is wonderfully strong, too.

Melville: I get it.

Popham: And will require a great deal of battering.

Melville: Do you want to attack Santona or not?!

No. 64: 15 October, Santander

Popham: OMG OMG OMG did you see what Lord Wellington said about me?! ‘If you were not known to be on the coast, the enemy and the Spaniards will be convinced nothing is intended to be done and I shall have upon my hands more of the enemy than I can well manage. O M actual G *SQUEEEEEEEEEE*

Melville: Yes, well done.

Popham: WELLINGTON LOVES ME

Melville: Good boy, Popham.

Popham: I AM INDISPENSABLE TO THE WAR EFFORT

Melville [to secretary]: He’s going to be insufferable now, isn’t he?

No. 65: Later, same day

Popham: ………….. so can I have several thousand greatcoats and pairs of shoes and 10,000 muskets?

Melville: No.

No. 67: 18 October, Santander

Popham: Since I’m so indispensable now, Wellington’s right-hand man and all that, could you make me a commodore? I mean, officially like? With, you know … the salary?

Melville: No.

Popham:

Melville:

Popham: Also, Lieutenant MacFarlane says that Corunna is much too diff —

Melville: DROP IT.

No. 68: Later, same day

Popham: Did I mention Lord Wellington thinks my presence is VITAL TO THE WAR EFFORT?

Melville [glumly]: Not recently.

No. 71: 19 October, Santander

Popham: You know Lord Wellington said —

Melville: I KNOW

No. 72: 21 October, Santander

Popham: I wanted to apologise for the fact the Diadem has been delayed by the weather. Since she’s carrying several hundred letters I wrote since [checks notes] the day before yesterday, this will occasion Your Lordship a trial of patience to get through them all.

Melville: I’m glad you have finally realised it.

Popham: But I feel I have to acquaint you with every occurrence here.

Melville: You really don’t.

Popham: ANYWAY. Have I got news for you.

Melville [runs hand down face]: What now.

Popham: I had an idea.

Melville: An idea.

Popham: You know Lord Wellington said he could take the fortress of Burgos if only he had more guns, but it was impossible to get them to him in time?

Melville: You … haven’t mucked about with the depot again, have you?

Popham: Oh no. I should be sorry to repeat the errors of my early service on this coast by invading the forms of office in asking in an irregular manner for that which I consider necessary.

Melville: [collapses in silent relief]

Popham: SO I DECIDED TO SEND TWO OF MY OWN SHIP’S GUNS UP TO LORD WELLINGTON.

Melville: ………… and what did Lord Wellington say about this, erm … unusual course of action?

Popham: Oh, I didn’t ask him. But I did send him a letter.

Melville [tensely, through gritted teeth]: …. and what did you say?

Popham: ‘Dear Lord Wellington, you know you told me it was impossible to get my ship’s guns to you? Well, Tah-dah!!! Surprise!!!! IT’S NOT!!! Honestly, I had nothing better to do. If you want more, I can send you ten. No, forty. In THIRTY-SIX HOURS. Beat that, messengers from Corunna. Yours, Popham the Indispensable’

No. 73: 23 October

Melville: OK. So, assuming Lord Wellington doesn’t actually kill you, have you decided to attack Santona yet?

Popham: I think I probably will. [short pause] Or maybe I won’t.

Melville: So you haven’t decided, in fact.

Popham: No, not in so many words.

Melville: I have only to repeat my confidence in your judgement and exertions, and my full persuasion that you will not heedlessly hazard the squadron and marines, right? In other words, you won’t do anything rash?

Popham: Rash? Me?! I WOULD NEVER

Melville: Of course not.

Popham: I’M INDISPENSABLE, REMEMBER?

Off the record

Melville: Dad? I know you can’t hear me, being dead and all. But I want to have a word about this Popham chap. I know we didn’t always get on. But honestly, WHAT THE HECK DID I DO TO YOU FOR YOU TO FOIST HIM ON ME?!

“Comedy Walcheren” 1809, part 2

Apologies for being a day late, but I couldn’t access the blog yesterday. So here is Part 2 of Comedy Walcheren 1809. (For disclaimer and further context, see Part 1.)

***

[After the fall of Flushing, August 1809]

flushing_after_bombardment

Flushing after the bombardment, from here

COOTE: Right. That went swimmingly. Shall we send in some commissioners to negotiate the surrender of the city? I thought, since the siege was my responsibility, we might send in two members of my staff.

 

CHATHAM: The Admiral’s going to have to send someone in too, isn’t he?

COOTE: I’m afraid it can’t be helped. He’s chosen Captain Cockburn.

CHATHAM: Well, we can’t let him get one over on us. We need a full colonel.

COOTE: …. but I haven’t got any full colonels on my staff.

CHATHAM: Then we’ll have to send in one of mine. Colonel Long will do.

Robert_Ballard_Long_(1771-1825)

Robert Ballard Long (wikipedia)

COOTE [staring at him]: But … but I was in charge.

CHATHAM: So we’re agreed, I’ll send in Colonel Long.

[Sound of running from a distance; gets closer and closer and closer, until…]

STRACHAN [breathless]: I’M HERE! Did I miss anything?

CHATHAM: Ah, Sir Richard. I trust your boat isn’t too damaged.

STRACHAN: Ship. And I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

CHATHAM: Of course you don’t. [BROWNRIGG looks meaningfully at CHATHAM] [Long pause] [CHATHAM looks like he’s struggling with himself, then says, through gritted teeth] You and your men did a splendid job.

STRACHAN [beaming]: Thanks, Johnboy.

CHATHAM: Now we’ve sent our commissioners, and we wait to find out what terms the French will accept to surrender.

COCKBURN: Admiral. My lord. The city has surrendered. Here are the terms.

CHATHAM: Excellent. The entire garrison is becoming prisoners of war; we can take possession of the city as soon as they have evacuated.

STRACHAN: And then do we press on to Antwerp?

CHATHAM: Have you got my men and ordnance supplies through the Sloe Passage yet?

STRACHAN: …………… Oh goodness, is that the time? I really must be off; appointment in Batz, don’t you know. [Runs off at full speed]

CHATHAM [calling after him]: I suppose not, then.

COOTE: Here are the orders of the day for tomorrow, when the French will march out of Flushing and pile their arms. [pause] After that, my lord … you are going to South Beveland, yes? And on to Antwerp?

south beveland

South Beveland

CHATHAM: Well, those are my orders.

COOTE [visibly excited now]: Oh, I can’t wait to lay siege to another city!

CHATHAM: You’re not going. You need to stay here and garrison Walcheren.

COOTE: But you said—

CHATHAM: You said you wanted to be in charge here, yes? Well, now’s your chance.

COOTE: If you say so, sir. [whispers as he retreats] Bastard.

STRACHAN [coming back in]: What’s his problem?

CHATHAM: Indigestion. Got your ship off that rock yet?

STRACHAN: You’re never letting me live that down, are you?

CHATHAM: No. So. Are my men through the Sloe?

STRACHAN: Wow. I really keep forgetting these meetings with Sir Home Popham. Really must get a better grip of my schedule. [zips off]

[Next day, outside Flushing]

COOTE: Men! Salute! [Men salute] [COOTE consults watch] Where is he? It’s eight o’clock already.

BROWNRIGG: Did you really expect him to be on time?

COOTE: I mean, the French are over there waiting. It’s getting hot.

BROWNRIGG: You did say seven in the morning, General.

[Men still salute; starting to look a little constipated now]

COOTE: Oh for goodness’ sake, at ease. I don’t think he’s coming any time soon. Are you sure he’s coming at all?

BROWNRIGG: Here he is now.

[CHATHAM and his suite turn up, crisp and fresh. Everyone else glares at them, dripping with sweat.]

CHATHAM: Well, where are the French? What are you waiting for?

COOTE: I can’t imagine.

CHATHAM: Let’s get them marching, then. We haven’t got all day.

[French march out. Rather ragged. They lay their arms at CHATHAM’s feet.]

COOTE: Well, that’s them gone. [hopefully, to CHATHAM] Are you going now, too?

CHATHAM: Yes, as soon as I—

COOTE: I’ve already packed your bags.

CHATHAM:—that’s kind.

COOTE: And loaded them up. In fact, I sent your baggage train out of Middelburg yesterday. It’s waiting for you at Arnemuiden.

CHATHAM: You really shouldn’t have bothered.

COOTE: No, no, I really, really wanted to help. Shall I have your horse saddled?

BROWNRIGG: Lord Chatham! I’m afraid you’ll have to postpone going to South Beveland for a day or so. A letter’s just come from the Treasury. They’re refusing to send us any more money to pay the troops.

[COOTE slopes off, cursing]

CHATHAM: What? Let me see that. [Snatches letter off BROWNRIGG] ‘Dear General Brownrigg, No, you can’t have any more money. We haven’t got any. Take it off the local population—you’ve conquered them, after all, and they should be expecting it. Now get on with it, I feel I’ll have grown a beard before Flushing finally falls. Yours sincerely, Huskisson.’ Argh, the fool! Fetch me my writing desk.

Im1894OurRail1-Huskisson

BROWNRIGG: Certainly, sir.

CHATHAM [writes]: ‘Dear Mr Huskisson, the island of Walcheren has surrendered to us, and we really shouldn’t set a bad example by taking all their gold, especially when they have to feed us and keep a roof over our heads. The men haven’t been paid for a week and are starting to get restless. Please send us some money before they mutiny, and furthermore you’re an idiot. Sincerely yours, Chatham.’

BROWNRIGG: Looks fine, sir. Well done.

CHATHAM: Right then, I’m off to South Beveland. Not that we can go far; the ordnance supplies are still stuck in the Sloe. What in the name of all that’s holy is the Admiral doing?

BROWNRIGG: …. I did hear a rumour—

CHATHAM: What?

BROWNRIGG: Nothing of significance. Only … only I heard someone say Strachan had asked Lord Rosslyn if he’d consider sending the troops on South Beveland under his command on to Antwerp…

CHATHAM: WHAT?!

BROWNRIGG: I know, he should have asked you first.

CHATHAM: THIS IS A BLATANT USURPATION OF MY PREROGATIVE AS COMMANDER OF THE FORCES!

BROWNRIGG: Yes, I know, but—

CHATHAM: I SHALL NEVER SPEAK TO THE MAN AGAIN!

BROWNRIGG: You might have to.

CHATHAM: WHY?

BROWNRIGG: Well, you’re engaged in a joint concern with him. He’s also standing right behind you.

STRACHAN: Hey, Johnboy, Sir Home Popham says we probably ought to move it before the 30,000 French reinforcements headed for the Scheldt basin make it here. Could you—

CHATHAM: HANDS OFF MY TROOPS!

STRACHAN: … I haven’t touched them?

CHATHAM: NOBODY IS GOING TO ANTWERP WITHOUT MY SAY-SO. NOT EVEN LORD ROSSLYN’S MEN.

STRACHAN: …. Ah. About that—[CHATHAM brushes past him, almost knocking him over] Bastard.

BROWNRIGG: Well, you did try to go over his head and press on to Antwerp without him. What did you expect?

STRACHAN: We could be here all year if I waited for him.

BROWNRIGG: He’s on his way. How are the transports in the Sloe?

STRACHAN: Dear God, I have another appointment. How do I manage to forget about so many of them? [Disappears]

COLONEL LONG: General Brownrigg, we have a problem.

BROWNRIGG: What, another one?

COLONEL LONG: Er, this one’s a biggie. Take a look at these sick returns. [Hands BROWNRIGG a paper]

BROWNRIGG: So what? We always have some sickness on campaigns. This weekly report suggests sickness is a little higher than usual, but nothing we can’t handle.

COLONEL LONG: That’s not a weekly sick return. That’s the sick since yesterday evening.

sick list

Johnny on the Sick List, Thomas Rowlandson (from here)

BROWNRIGG: Seriously?! [Looks at document] [Stares at it some more] [Long pause] Shit.

COLONEL LONG: That’s the same thing I said.

BROWNRIGG: Keep an eye on it. It may be nothing.

[Next day, on South Beveland]

CHATHAM: Well, this is nice.

BROWNRIGG: Here are Lord Rosslyn and Sir John Hope.

ROSSLYN: Welcome to South Beveland, Lord Chatham. Happy to report absolutely zero chance of our getting to Antwerp now. Thirty thousand Frenchmen between here and the city. To press on would be madness. Plus, we’re starting to get a lot of sick.

expedition birds eye view antwerp

CHATHAM: That many? Nobody’s sick on Walcheren.

BROWNRIGG: Um.

CHATHAM: You mean you knew about this? How long has this been going on for?

BROWNRIGG: A few days, I think.

CHATHAM: May I see your sick returns? [ROSSLYN hands them over] These aren’t so bad. I mean, 300 since the beginning of the campaign is—

ROSSLYN: Three hundred today, my lord.

CHATHAM: Today?!

ROSSLYN: Yes. We’ve had pretty much that many sick every day for the last week.

CHATHAM:

BROWNRIGG: Erm. And on Walcheren.

CHATHAM:

STRACHAN [dashing up, breathlessly]: Here I am! I heard you wanted to see me, Rosslyn, old boy? Are we going to Antwerp then? I—hello, what’s he doing here?

CHATHAM: My word, is somebody talking?

STRACHAN: He seems to have gone deaf. JOHNBOY CAN YOU HEAR ME

CHATHAM: I think it may be the wind.

STRACHAN: Must have been the bombardment. Has that effect on some people, loud noises. Bursts their eardrums. I THINK YOU SHOULD HAVE YOUR EARS CLEANED OUT

BROWNRIGG: Strachan, just leave it, he’ll be fine.

ROSSLYN: What is it, Admiral?

STRACHAN: Now he’s here [points at CHATHAM, who flinches], I guess we’re all going up to Antwerp now? Eh? Eh?

BROWNRIGG: And the ordnance supplies in the Sloe?

STRACHAN [proudly]: They’re all here. Look! They arrived this morning. I guess this means we’re ready, yes? [silence] [longer silence] [STRACHAN looks worried] Yes?

BROWNRIGG: Now here’s the thing. You know when we last spoke of taking Antwerp, before Flushing fell?

STRACHAN: Of course.

BROWNRIGG: When there weren’t nearly so many French in the Scheldt basin?

STRACHAN: Yes, but—

BROWNRIGG: Nor was sickness tearing through the army at an alarming rate?

walcheren_sick

Evacuation of Suid-Beveland, 30 August 1809 (from here)

STRACHAN: I heard rumours about that, but aren’t we—

CHATHAM: NO. No, we bloody well are not.

STRACHAN:

CHATHAM: Our men got stuck in the Sloe and we missed our chance. You bastard.

STRACHAN: Well, if you’d hurried up with the siege of Flushing—

CHATHAM: I bloody well would have done had you got your BLEEDING ships through the BLEEDING Deurloo and into the West Scheldt!

STRACHAN: Well, if Lord BLEEDING Chatham had taken adverse wind into account—

CHATHAM: I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ANY MORE ABOUT WIND!

BROWNRIGG [to ROSSLYN]: I rather preferred it when they weren’t talking.

STRACHAN:—what did you expect us to do, pull the boats down the river on a piece of string?

CHATHAM: I EXPECTED YOU TO GET ME TO SANDVLIET YOU FOOL

STRACHAN: WELL I CAN’T CONTROL THE WEATHER—CAN YOU?

CHATHAM: I’LL SHOW YOU WEATHER IF YOU COME ANY CLOSER

BROWNRIGG [hastily]: My lord, I think you should go and have a rest. Admiral, perhaps … a walk? In the fresh air? [The naval and army commander leave the room; BROWNRIGG looks at ROSSLYN] Jesus Christ.

ROSSLYN: I know. As though sickness wasn’t enough, eh?

[Later]

LONG: General Brownrigg, the latest Gazette has just come in.

gazette

BROWNRIGG: Oh splendid. I wonder what—BUGGER

LONG: What is it?

BROWNRIGG: Did you read Strachan’s letter?

LONG [reads]: ‘I wanted to keep going on to Antwerp, but the generals were all against. I had the fleet ready to take us there and the army said no.’ Oh my god.

BROWNRIGG: He’s trying to play the army off against the navy.

LONG: And pin the blame on Lord Chatham.

BROWNRIGG: Has His Lordship seen this?

LONG: Are you going to tell him?

BROWNRIGG: Maybe you should.

LONG: You’re QMG.

BROWNRIGG: You’re Adjutant General. You deal with the correspondence.

LONG: You usually do the letters home, though.

BROWNRIGG: I’m senior to you. I order you to tell him.

LONG: You bastard. [enters CHATHAM’s room] Your Lordship?

CHATHAM [writing; doesn’t look up]: Yes?

LONG: The Gazette has arrived.

CHATHAM: Mmhmm.

LONG: There’s a really nice bit in it reprinting your last dispatch. [pause; really fast] And Sir Richard Strachan’s written a letter blaming the failure of the campaign on the army and exonerating the navy from all responsibility. [more slowly] And some stuff about the fall of Flushing.

CHATHAM: Very good, I—hang on, what?

LONG: It’s not as bad as it sounds—

CHATHAM [reading]): No, it bloody is as bad as it sounds.

LONG: I’m sure he didn’t mean it. The Admiral—

CHATHAM: —is a dead man. BROWNRIGG! [BROWNRIGG hurries in] Have you seen this?

BROWNRIGG: It’s not as bad as it looks, my lord—I’m sure he didn’t mean it—

CHATHAM: Get the Admiral in at once! And get rid of the awful echo here!

BROWNRIGG: I had already thought to summon him, my lord, but nobody can find him. I got a letter from him saying he wasn’t feeling well and had gone off to get some fresh air. I hope he hasn’t got the prevailing fever.

CHATHAM: I really hope he has.

BROWNRIGG: And, er, sir, I—

CHATHAM: What now?

BROWNRIGG: These newspapers came from home too.

[CHATHAM reads in silence] [his face changes]

BROWNRIGG: They’re not very complimentary, are they?

CHATHAM: This one actually calls for my court martial.

BROWNRIGG: I’m sure you’ve had worse.

CHATHAM: This one calls me an indolent, effete idiot unfit for public business.

BROWNRIGG: My goodness, those journalists are scamps.

AN00079358_001_l

Just one example of a print showing a sailor (far left) complaining Chatham’s army directly caused the failure of the expedition (From here)

CHATHAM: If there’s any more bad news, tell me now, because I think I’m going to burst a blood vessel, so we might as well make my death a clean one.

BROWNRIGG: Well, there is … one thing. Apparently the Duke of Portland’s had a stroke.

CHATHAM: He’s resigned over ill health?

BROWNRIGG: No, he recovered. But then Canning found out the expedition was over and said Portland had promised to fire Castlereagh from the War Department if the campaign failed. Castlereagh found out. They both resigned. There was a duel.

CHATHAM: Please tell me one of them died. No. Better. Please tell me they both died.

BROWNRIGG: Castlereagh shot Canning in the—erm. The thigh?

CHATHAM: Not quite as good as if he’d killed him, but my day is looking up.

BROWNRIGG: Unfortunately they took the government down with them. Portland left office.

CHATHAM: Who replaced him?

BROWNRIGG: Spencer Perceval.

CHATHAM: Bugger. He hates me. [Pause] Please find me the Admiral. I need to shout at someone.

BROWNRIGG: I’m sorry, my lord, I really can’t—

CHATHAM: STRACHAN!

POPHAM [comes in]: I’m afraid he’s not here, my lord. He’s ill.

CHATHAM: How sad. Is it the wrong wind again?

POPHAM: No, he’s just ill.

CHATHAM: Conveniently so. Tell him if he wants a proper illness, I’ll gladly break both his legs for him.

POPHAM: I’ll be sure to pass on the message.

[CHATHAM exits]

STRACHAN [poking head out of a vase]: Is it safe to come out yet?

POPHAM: Soon. He sails tomorrow.

STRACHAN: Good, because it’s a bit cramped in here.

464487583

Yet another print showing Strachan (far left) blaming Chatham for the expedition’s failure

[Next day]

CHATHAM: Come Brownrigg, time to say farewell to this place. We have had good times here, have we not? Glory, victory, and memories to last a lifetime. Oh—who’m I kidding? The place is a disease-ridden dunghole. Sir Eyre Coote, have fun without me. [Runs up gangplank and disappears]

COOTE: Thanks for nothing. [Turns back] Now, all we have to do is survive until we get called home, and all will be well.

[Stares at troops. As he watches, several fall down on the spot]

COOTE [brightly]: Here’s the intrepid warrior, facing certain death from disease on a godforsaken island with 16,000 men, half of whom are already ill. What could possibly go wrong?

STRACHAN [distantly, from vase]: Is it safe to come out yet?

 

“Comedy Walcheren” 1809, part 1

Now before you yell at me at once, some context. Bear with me.

I wrote this after finishing The Late Lord. I felt like an emotional punch-bag; it turns out writing a biography and getting into someone’s head is an all-consuming thing, particularly when the story you’re telling is quite depressing in parts. ‘Comedy Walcheren’ was intended as a kind of exorcism to get rid of the demons I had invited into my head, effectively by laughing at them.

It’s not meant to be serious, and I hope I have been respectful of a topic that isn’t, frankly, very amusing. But it also seemed to me that the whole Walcheren debacle had elements of farce to it — and I really, really, really needed to laugh.

I’m told this has good bits, so I have decided to release it into the public domain (inspired by my good friend Lynn Bryant’s recent blog on the battle of Tenerife, which was very much written in the same spirit).

So here it is … enjoy. And please don’t kill me. (Further warning: mostly written in English, but also contains some … mild Anglo-Saxon)

***

COMEDY WALCHEREN: PART 1

[Scene: London, 1809]

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Lord Castlereagh

CASTLEREAGH: So lads at Horse Guards … if I were to suggest joining Austria in the Fifth Coalition by organising an expedition to the Scheldt—nothing fancy, let’s call it a coup de main—with the aim of taking Antwerp and destroying the French and Dutch fleet at Flushing, what would you say?

COLONEL GORDON: Frankly, I’d say you were nuts.

CASTLEREAGH: But do you think it’s impossible?

ALEXANDER HOPE: I wouldn’t say impossible, exactly, but—

CASTLEREAGH: Wonderful. I knew you’d love the plan. Commander-in-Chief, when can we have—oh, 20,000 men ready?

GENERAL DUNDAS: I thought you said it was ‘nothing fancy’?

CASTLEREAGH: That’s precisely what I said, yes. Better make it 30,000 to be sure.

GENERAL DUNDAS: You’ll need to move quickly, or the French will just pull all their ships upriver.

CASTLEREAGH: We’ll be a blur. I’ll expect my 40,000 men by June. [To LORD MULGRAVE] I say, I don’t suppose you can provide me with 600 ships, can you?

fortifications_antwerp

MULGRAVE: What in the name of all that’s holy are you going to do with 600 ships?

CASTLEREAGH: Take Antwerp. Do you have them?

MULGRAVE: You know Antwerp is up a very narrow river and heavily guarded by the French, don’t you?

CASTLEREAGH: Possibly heavily guarded by the French. We’re not too clear on that bit. So. Six hundred ships?

MULGRAVE: I’ll see what I can do. Who’s commanding the military bit?

CASTLEREAGH: Good question. [To LORD CHATHAM] You up, Chatham?

CHATHAM: Of course I’m up. What’s the matter? Need another 40,000 muskets we haven’t got to send to Portugal at short notice?

chathamturner

Lord Chatham, engraved by Charles Turner (1809)

CASTLEREAGH: Not this time. I was thinking … you know that expedition we’re planning? We need a commander for it. Nobody else wants to do it  I can’t find anyone else to do it Will you do it?

CHATHAM: Will I what?

CASTLEREAGH: Oh go on. It’ll be easy, maybe even fun.

CHATHAM:

CASTLEREAGH: Do I really have to remind you that you haven’t done a bally thing since the Helder Expedition in 1799? Tick tock tick tock, and all that.

CHATHAM: Oh all right. Dammit.

CASTLEREAGH: Good man. It’ll be fine. The defences of Antwerp are very weak. At least they were in 1794.

CHATHAM: Fifteen years ago?

CASTLEREAGH: Look, the French have been a bit busy elsewhere. I’ve heard they’ve done nothing to Antwerp since then.

CHATHAM: Who told you that?

CASTLEREAGH: Sir Home Popham. Here, let me introduce you. Popham, this is Lord Chatham. Tell him how easy it will be to get to Antwerp.

POPHAM: Hi! Oh, it’ll be easy. But you need to move quickly.

CASTLEREAGH: Oh, Chatham’ll move quickly. Won’t you, Chatham?

CHATHAM: Whatever.

Sir_Home_Riggs_Popham

Sir Home Popham

POPHAM: Excellent. I have a cunning plan. We take our 40,000 men and divide them into three forces. One goes to Cadzand and disables the batteries there. The other lands on Walcheren and masks Flushing from the land, while the navy completes the blockade by sea. The last lot go ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIP up the West Scheldt to Sandvliet. The navy follows them, covering them to Antwerp. It’ll take a week at most: the French’ll never know what hit them.

CHATHAM:

POPHAM: I know, it’s brilliant, isn’t it? I amaze myself sometimes.

CHATHAM: So who’s commanding the naval bit? Surely not Captain Fancy-Pants here?

POPHAM: Hey!

CASTLEREAGH: Good question. Hold on… [to MULGRAVE] Who’ve you picked?

MULGRAVE: Sir Richard Strachan.

CASTLEREAGH: OK…… although he’s never done anything like this, has he?

MULGRAVE: Doesn’t matter. He’s been off Holland for ages. Knows the waters really well. Er. The bits we’ve been able to get to, anyway. Plus he’s impulsive, and speed is of the essence. Who’ve you picked?

Henry Lord Mulgrave

Lord Mulgrave

CASTLEREAGH: Lord Chatham.

MULGRAVE: Lord Chatham?

CASTLEREAGH: Yes.

MULGRAVE: LORD CHATHAM?

CASTLEREAGH: Yes.

MULGRAVE: The guy’s never been on time to a cabinet once in 20 years and you want to send him on a pre-emptive raid to Antwerp?

CASTLEREAGH: It’s a foolproof plan.

MULGRAVE: It had better be.

[Later]

CASTLEREAGH: Chatham, this is Sir Richard Strachan. Strachan, Lord Chatham.

CHATHAM: Hello.

STRACHAN: Hi!

CASTLEREAGH: So the 40,000 men and 600 boats are ready. Are you ready?

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Sir Richard Strachan (detail from “The Grand Duke of Middleburg”, caricature, 1809)

STRACHAN: Yeah!!!!! All ready to go!

CHATHAM: Whatever.

STRACHAN: Oh come on Johnboy, this is going to be SO MUCH FUN. Let’s go get ’em!

CHATHAM: Don’t call me Johnboy ever again. [To General BROWNRIGG] General Brownrigg?

BROWNRIGG: Yes?

CHATHAM: You’re my Chief of Staff, right?

BROWNRIGG: Sure am.

CHATHAM: Why have I got all this paperwork?

BROWNRIGG: Well, you’re—

CHATHAM: Deal with it please. I need a nap. No wait, hang on a moment. Here comes Sir Huge Plopham.

BROWNRIGG: Sir Home Popham.

CHATHAM: Whatever.

POPHAM: Hey guys! Are you ready to go? The wind has finally changed and Sir Eyre Coote has arrived from Portsmouth.

Illustrated Battles of the Nineteenth Century. [By Archibald Forbes, Major Arthur Griffiths, and others.]

Sir Eyre Coote, from Wikipedia

COOTE [out of breath]: I’m here!

STRACHAN: About bloody time. Are we going yet?

CHATHAM: Yes, we can go now.

CASTLEREAGH: Er guys….

CHATHAM: What?

CASTLEREAGH: I hate to say this, but… er… there’s been some bad news…

CHATHAM: What’s up?

CASTLEREAGH: The Austrians have been heavily defeated at Wagram. They’re out of the war.

CHATHAM: Bugger. Now what?

CASTLEREAGH: Keep going. Your victory will help keep Austria in the war, most probably.

[At sea]

STRACHAN: So we’re FINALLY underway. I can’t wait to engage the French on the open seas.

CHATHAM: What makes you think they’ll come out to find us?

STRACHAN: Of course they will. Why would they stay holed up behind Antwerp, where they’re safe?

CHATHAM: Why indeed?

STRACHAN: Exactly.

CHATHAM: This boat moves a lot.

STRACHAN: Ship. They do that.

stormatsea

Storm at sea, from here

POPHAM: Admiral, I’m afraid there’s a bit of a storm starting up… pesky south-westerly wind.

CHATHAM: Any way to stop this boat moving so much?

STRACHAN: Ship. And no. Didn’t you learn anything when you were First Lord of the Admiralty?

POPHAM: We can’t land at Domburg. I could try and get the fleet into the Roompot…

STRACHAN: Sounds like a fine plan. What’s the Roompot?

POPHAM: Oh, it’s a sheltered area to the north-east of the island.

STRACHAN: Fabulous. Let’s do it.

POPHAM: We’d have to get through the Veere Gat, though. It’s a pretty narrow channel but I think I can do it.

Annotation 2020-02-24 143205

Map of the 1809 Walcheren expedition drawn by Martin Brown

CHATHAM: Won’t we end up on the wrong side of the island? This is the East Scheldt. We’re supposed to go down the West Scheldt, remember?

STRACHAN: I’m sure we can get from the East Scheldt to the West Scheldt. Isn’t there a passage between them, Popham? Between Walcheren and South Beveland?

POPHAM: Yes, the Sloe. But—

STRACHAN: There you go then.

POPHAM: But the Sloe is very—

STRACHAN: Popham? Just do it.

[Some time later, on Walcheren]

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View towards Middelburg from the dyke above Zouteland Bay

COOTE: Here is the intrepid warrior, landing on the enemy shore, about to deal the French bastards a stinging blow round the—

CHATHAM: Hello.

COOTE: Aaargh! What the hell are you doing here?! You’re supposed to be sailing down the West Scheldt to Sandvliet!

CHATHAM: Change of plan. Where are the Frogs then?

COOTE: The enemy are falling back on Veere. We’ve taken Fort Den Haak.

CHATHAM: Jolly good. Reorganise the rest of the men into four columns.

COOTE: ………….. I’m meant to be in charge here.

CHATHAM: Fine. I’m just waiting till Strachan can get his ships into the West Scheldt. Don’t worry, I won’t get in the way. Carry on—I’m off to bed.

COOTE: Yes sir. [To BROWNRIGG] What the actual frick is he doing here?

BROWNRIGG: He told you. He’s waiting for Strachan to get his ships into the West Scheldt.

COOTE: How long will that bloody well take?! While he stays here on the island I’m outranked!

[Outside the town of Veere]

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Veere, by the canal

GENERAL MACKENZIE FRASER: Popham! Bring your boats round, won’t you? We could do with some extra ammunition…

POPHAM: Righto!

[Huge explosions]

STRACHAN: Popham, what’re you doing?!

POPHAM: General Mackenzie Fraser asked me to—

STRACHAN: I don’t care what he asked you to do! Stop it at once!

POPHAM: But I—

STRACHAN: AT! ONCE!

POPHAM: Okay, okay, don’t burst a blood vessel.

STRACHAN: CHATHAM!

CHATHAM: Yes?

STRACHAN: MY GUNBOATS!

CHATHAM: What about them?

STRACHAN: YOU ORDERED THEM TO BOMBARD VEERE!

CHATHAM: Did I?

STRACHAN: STICK TO SOLDIERING AND LEAVE MY BOATS ALONE!

CHATHAM: Ships.

STRACHAN: THESE ONES ARE BOATS!

CHATHAM: Look, I’m sorry.

STRACHAN: DON’T DO IT AGAIN!

CHATHAM: Bastard.

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Middelburg Abbey

BROWNRIGG: Lord Chatham, the capital, Middelburg, has surrendered. Sir John Hope has taken South Beveland, and Fort Rammekens has fallen, opening the Sloe Passage. All Walcheren is ours except Flushing.

CHATHAM: Excellent. General Coote, start building six batteries around Flushing. [To BROWNRIGG] I think I’ll leave Coote to get on with it and stop here in Middelburg. It’s rather nice here.

BROWNRIGG: It’s still four miles from Flushing.

CHATHAM: Oh, don’t fret. Once Lord Huntly has landed on Cadzand and disabled the French batteries there, we don’t need to care about Flushing. Strachan will get his ships down the West Scheldt in no time.

[Off Cadzand]

HUNTLY: Bugger me, this wind is blowing rather strong!

OWEN: No way we can land in this wind, my lord!

HUNTLY: Fine. We can land my 2,000 men tomorrow.

OWEN: ……….. Two thousand men? You mean 600, no?!

huntly

Lord Huntly (wikipedia)

HUNTLY: What?

OWEN: I only have boats for 600.

HUNTLY: ………… Will Lord Gardner lend you some?

OWEN: Gardner!

GARDNER [distantly]: What?

OWEN: We need some boats!

GARDNER [distantly]: Bugger off! They’re mine!

OWEN [to HUNTLY]: How many men can you see on Cadzand?

[HUNTLY gazes through telescope.]

HUNTLY: I’d say about 1,800, and those are the ones I can see. [Short pause] Screw this. Let’s land on South Beveland instead.

[Back on Walcheren]

BROWNRIGG: Lord Chatham! Lord Huntly has failed to land on Cadzand.

CHATHAM: Damn. We won’t be able to get the ships down the West Scheldt now.

STRACHAN: Don’t fret. We’ll get them through the Sloe.

CHATHAM: Yes, about that—

STRACHAN: Never mind that now, here comes Sir Eyre Coote.

COOTE: The French are getting reinforcements into Flushing from Cadzand and the navy can’t stop them!

STRACHAN: Look, look, don’t worry. We’ll block the French reinforcements.

flushing_map

Map of the siege of Flushing, drawn by Martin Brown

COOTE: Now would be good!

STRACHAN: Can’t do now. Sorry. I’ll get round to it when the wind changes, okay?

COOTE: Look! More just came in!

STRACHAN: Calm down. It’s just a couple of thousand.

CHATHAM: Coote, you’re just going to have to get on with those batteries. It’s been nearly a week.

COOTE: YOU get the sodding engineers to get a move on!

CHATHAM: All right then. I will.

COOTE: ………… I’m going to go and sulk. [slinks off]

CHATHAM: Right then. Colonel Fyers is in charge of the engineers. Colonel Fyers. Report, please.

FYERS: We’re pretty much done, sir. So long as it doesn’t rain, we can open today in a couple of hou— [ENORMOUSLY LOUD THUNDERCLAP] [rain drums off the ground] —bugger.

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Vlissingen Harbour

COOTE: Lord Chatham, the rain’s washed away several of our batteries. I don’t think we can start till tomorrow now.

BROWNRIGG: Erm. My feet seem to be getting wet.

CHATHAM: Probably just the rain.

COOTE: Oh yes, I forgot to mention. The enemy’s cut the dykes. It’s OK, we can open the sluices at Middelburg. But you might want to wear tall boots for a while.

BROWNRIGG: A chair, your Lordship.

CHATHAM: Thank you. [climbs up]

STRACHAN [distantly]: Watch out—I’m coming through!

CHATHAM: What? [Loud cannonade] [cannonballs whistle through the air] [much shouting and chaos] What the hell was that?

BROWNRIGG: I think the Admiral just cut off the Flushing communications and has entered the West Scheldt, sir.

CHATHAM: About bloody time.

STRACHAN [rushes up]: Did you see that? The Frogs never saw that one coming!

CHATHAM: Neither did we.

STRACHAN: Never mind that. What’s happening? Flushing surrendered yet?

CHATHAM: The batteries open tomorrow.

STRACHAN: Tomorrow?! What have you landlubbers being doing all this time? Playing chess? Eating turtle? Having long naps?

COOTE: Actually, y—

Robert_Brownrigg

Sir Robert Brownrigg (wikipedia)

BROWNRIGG [swiftly cutting in]: Admiral, we really need Flushing to surrender quickly, so if you wouldn’t mind using your ships to aid the land batteries from the sea-side when we open fire…

CHATHAM: Strachan, get your boats ready. And tell Sir Home Poophead we will probably need his gunboats, too.

BROWNRIGG: Sir Home Popham.

CHATHAM: That’s what I said.

[Next day, off Flushing]

FYERS: Ready the batteries. Fire!

[Loud explosions]

CHATHAM [squinting through telescope]: I say, what a fine spectacle!

BROWNRIGG: I’m sorry, your lordship, what was that?

CHATHAM: I said it was a noble spectacle. Don’t you think?

[screams and explosions]

BROWNRIGG: Erm.

CHATHAM: Where are the ships? They don’t seem to be doing anything.

BROWNRIGG: I think it’s the wrong sort of wind again, sir.

CHATHAM: Ah. The wrong sort of wind. [Sighs; raises voice] Strachan!

STRACHAN [distantly]: Yes?

CHATHAM: Would you please do something?

STRACHAN [distantly]: Trying! Wind!

CHATHAM: Would you like a tablet for that?

COOTE: Here come the ships now.

CHATHAM: Ah, that’s better.

[Explosions get louder]

CHATHAM: Good heavens. I think they’re shouting ‘uncle’ now.

BROWNRIGG: There goes the church.

CHATHAM: Can’t be long now. What’s our friend the Admiral doing? [Trains telescope on sea]

bombardment_vlissingen_2

BROWNRIGG: The naval vessels are giving it full pelt.

CHATHAM: He is doing rather well, I admit. He’ll be insufferable tomorrow.

BROWNRIGG: He’d better be careful; his flagship is rather close to the shore. If he doesn’t steer clear, he’s going to run agr—

[Extremely loud crunching noise]

STRACHAN [distantly]: Bugger! Would someone mind giving me a push? Just a little one?

[CHATHAM says nothing but smiles, ever so slightly]

COOTE: Lord Chatham. The city has surrendered.

CHATHAM: Excellent! Call off the guns. And would someone mind throwing Sir Richard a rope?

[Part 2 can be read here]