Walcheren 1809: the mystery of the missing memorandum

walcheren_sick

The Walcheren Expedition of 1809, which Lord Chatham infamously commanded, was unquestionably a disaster. Although the British managed to take the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland, they failed to get to Antwerp, the ultimate objective, to destroy the fortifications there and the French and Dutch fleet.

Most seriously of all, the army was rendered completely useless by a violent illness known as “Walcheren Fever”, thought to be a combination of malaria, typhoid, typhus and dysentery. Of the 39,219 men sent to the Scheldt River basin, 11,296 were on the sick lists by the time the inquiry was underway. 3,960 were dead. The British Army suffered from the recurring effects of “Walcheren fever” until the end of the war.

Not long after the last soldier had been landed back in Britain in January 1810, the House of Commons formed itself into committee to inquire into whose bright idea it had been to send nearly 40,000 of Britain’s best (i.e., only) troops to a pestilential swamp at the height of the unhealthy season.

Careers were at stake, and nobody wanted to own up. Chatham, the military commander, was nevertheless pretty sure he knew who was most to blame for what had happened. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t him. Contrary to what nearly every historian of the campaign has tried to argue, however, it wasn’t his naval counterpart, Sir Richard Strachan, either.

Chatham wasn’t very successful at fighting accusations of his sloth and incompetence, and he eventually ended up with most of the blame for the campaign’s failure, even if the Walcheren inquiry technically cleared him of wrongdoing. In my opinion, however, one aspect of Chatham’s evidence has been overlooked: his indictment of the Board of Admiralty, under the First Lord, Earl Mulgrave.

Henry Lord Mulgrave

Lord Mulgrave

After the inquiry was over, Chatham wrote a series of memoranda defending his conduct on Walcheren and during the parliamentary proceedings that followed. These memoranda reveal Chatham’s conviction that Mulgrave had been trying to cover up the Admiralty’s role in planning the expedition for months.

By April 1810, when he probably wrote these memoranda, Chatham was as paranoid as it is possible for a man to be. Nor was he the least bit impartial in the matter. And yet there is some evidence that the Admiralty – a highly organised political body, and one with which Chatham (a former First Lord himself) was extremely familiar – did indeed try to conceal evidence from the inquiry.

One very important piece of information was only laid before the inquiry at all on 1 March 1810, and only because Chatham’s testimony had drawn public attention to it. This was a memorandum, written on 19 June 1809 at the Admiralty Office, entitled “Respecting the Practicability of effecting a Landing between Sandfleet [Sandvliet] and Fort Lillo”. (Sandfleet, or Sandvliet, being the place where the British Army was meant to land on the continent, nine miles from Antwerp; Lillo being one of the two forts straddling the point at which the Scheldt River narrowed before the dockyards.)

CaptureThe belatedly-published memorandum quoted two naval officers, Sir Home Popham (one of the planners of the expedition) and Captain Robert Plampin, both saying they had both been to Antwerp in the 1790s and thought there would be no problem in landing a large body of men between Lillo and Sandvliet. On that basis, the Opinion made the following statement:

The Board of Admiralty having made inquiry respecting the practicability of effecting a Landing between the point of Sandfleet and Fort Lillo … are prepared … to undertake that the troops shall be conveyed, when the Island of Beveland, including Bathz is in our possession, to the Dyke between Fort Lillo and Sandfleet, and landed, as far as the question of Landing depends on the nature of the place, with relation to the approach to the shore of boats and other vessels capable of receiving troops.[1]

Why was this so mysterious? Because Chatham remembered this memorandum rather differently from the form in which it was published for the inquiry.

According to Chatham, the Cabinet had only approved the expedition in the first place after the Admiralty Board had issued this Opinion as a guarantee that a large fleet could carry twenty thousand men up the West Scheldt and land them at Sandvliet. This was in response to doubts voiced by Chatham himself – doubts formed after discussions with military officers who had been to Sandvliet and told him an army could not be landed there. Since the whole plan hinged on landing at Sandvliet, Chatham rather reasonably told the Cabinet he would not undertake to sanction his own expedition unless the Admiralty could prove the military men wrong: “This last Point I considered as a sine qua non [which] … must be placed beyond all doubt, to warrant the undertaking the enterprize [sic].”[2] Mulgrave’s response was the 19 June memorandum, which circulated through the Cabinet the day after it was drawn up.

Chatham remembered it as being signed by the three professional Lords of the Admiralty. In 1809, these would have been Sir Richard Bickerton, William Domett, and Robert Moorsom.

Chatham’s assertions are to an extent backed up by official correspondence. Following the mid-June cabinet meeting, Castlereagh informed the King of the need to postpone preparing for the expedition until “the practicability of a Landing at Sandfleet [sic] can be assured”. Two days after the circulation of the 19 June Opinion, Castlereagh wrote: “Under the sanction of this opinion … Your Majesty’s confidential servants … feel it their duty humbly to recommend to Your Majesty that the operation should be undertaken”. Castlereagh edited out the line “should the Immediate object be abandon’d”, which suggests that the viability of a Sandvliet landing was indeed the make-or-break feature – to borrow Chatham’s words, the sine qua non – of the expedition going ahead.[3]

All this corroborates Chatham’s account completely, except for one detail. Three copies of the Opinion exist, one in the Castlereagh MSS at PRONI (D3030/3241-3) and two in the National Archives (ADM 3/168). None is signed. The copies of the Opinion that remain are therefore no more than that – an opinion. They were unofficial, and could not be claimed to form the basis of any Cabinet decision to undertake the expedition.

Did Chatham simply misremember the opinion? This is the opinion of Carl Christie, who deals with the 19 June Opinion thoroughly in his excellent thesis on the Walcheren expedition. “The suspicion is that his memory was playing tricks on him”, Christie writes, and concludes that he “misinterpreted the Admiralty opinion”.[4] But Chatham clearly wasn’t the only one who did so, as Castlereagh’s letters to the King show above.

The question, therefore, is whether a signed Opinion ever existed. We only have Chatham’s word for this; but it does seem unlikely that the Cabinet would have made the important decision to proceed with the expedition on the basis of the opinion of two subordinate naval officers. (Popham in particular had a track record of leading British troops into madcap schemes that often went wrong, as the Buenos Aires expedition of 1806 demonstrates).

Castlereagh later played down the importance of the opinion: at the inquiry, when questioned about it, he seemed confused as to which memorandum Chatham had intended to single out, and fudged the issue by saying there was a paper “which I may have seen in circulation, with the names of three [Admiralty] lords attached to it, but I rather imagine that it is the same paper as that which is dated the 9th of June”. But the Admiralty opinion of 9 June 1809 was on a completely different topic, and had also been drawn up prior to the Cabinet meeting to which Chatham referred.[5]

There is, however, one further possibility: that Chatham’s memory was not faulty at all, and that the opinion he saw was different from the printed version. The accusation that the Admiralty later cherry-picked the evidence laid before the Walcheren inquiry to play down its role in the planning, indeed, seems to form the thrust of Chatham’s memorandum. He did not come outright and say so, but he came close when he asserted:

An attempt was made in the course of the Enquiry, to question the existence of this Document, and they [the Admiralty] never would produce it, but they did not venture to call the Sea Lords [to give evidence], and with them the question whether they had not signed such a Paper and delivered to Lord Mulgrave, to be shewn to ye Cabinet.[6]

So where is the signed version of the Opinion the Admiralty failed to produce? Did it ever exist? Castlereagh’s evidence, vague as it was, certainly suggests that it did. Chatham was certainly convinced the Admiralty was covering its back at his expense. Was he right?

We will probably never know.

References

[1] Parliamentary Papers 1810 (89), “Respecting the Practicability of effecting a Landing between Sandfleet and Fort Lillo”

[2] Memorandum by Chatham, PRO 30/8/260 f. 100

[3] Castlereagh to the King, draft, 14 June 1809, PRONI Castlereagh MSS D3030/3137. The 15 June copy that was sent is printed in Aspinall V, 298

[4] Carl A. Christie, “The Walcheren Expedition of 1809” (PhD, University of Dundee, 1975), pp. 126, 131

[5] Testimony of Lord Castlereagh, 13 March 1810, Parliamentary Debates XV, Appendix 5xxii-iv

[6] Memorandum by Chatham, undated, National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/260 f 100

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“The shadow of inquiry”: Robert Waithman, the City of London and the Address to the Crown, December 1809

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Right now I’m (painstakingly) working on a paper I will be giving in January at the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference in Oxford. Entitled ‘Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me: the Walcheren Inquiry, Lord Chatham’s Narrative, and the politics of blame’, the paper will investigate just how Chatham’s infamous narrative explaining his conduct during the Walcheren Expedition nearly caused a massive constitutional crisis, threatened the stability of Spencer Perceval’s ministry and led directly to the end of Chatham’s political career. The Walcheren Inquiry is therefore much on my mind, and it ocurred to me that today — 5 December — is the anniversary of a very important factor in the lead-up to the parliamentary investigation.

On 5 December 1809, Alderman Robert Waithman moved an Address to the King in the City of London’s Court of Common Council. Waithman is an interesting figure in his own right.

waithman

He had a trade background (he was a linen draper): rising to become a City of London liveryman, he made his reputation as a supporter of radical political reform and a violent opponent of the war with France. True to his political track record, he had already led the City in petitioning the King for an inquiry into the Convention of Cintra in 1808, which had thrown away the advantages gained in Portugal by Sir Arthur Wellesley’s victory at Vimeiro by allowing the surrendering French to evacuate in British ships with their spoils of war. Now, following the abject failure of the Walcheren expedition, he decided to do the same thing again.

Waithman pulled no punches with his language. “The armament,” he informed the Court, “was, he believed, the greatest ever sent out from this country.” Its failure had been proportionate to its size: “This disgraceful and calamitous expedition had already cost this ill-used country not less than £8 millions of money, and six thousand of our men, without reckoning those who are suffering, or dying of the diseases to which they have been thus improvidently subjected. Could the people of England patiently bear this wasteful and profligate expenditure of their treasure and loss of their blood?”

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The Court of Common Council in Session, from here

Waithman, like the good radical he was, thought the City had a duty to speak up because Parliament would not. Recalling his experience with Cintra, Waithman said “he was sorry indeed that he could not look with hope to Parliament for such an inquiry, for what had he seen … that could lead him to expect such an inquiry from the votes of the majority in Parliament? On all occasions such inquiries were negatived by overwhelming majorities.”[1]

The proposal was controversial, and the Court did not automatically accept Waithman’s suggestion. When the Address was put to the vote, however, it squeaked through by 68 votes to 67. A subsequent vote on the text passed by five votes. On the 13th some pro-government members of the Council tried to have the original text amended on the pretext that many of the members had been absent due to the lateness of the hour at which it was passed, and they managed to get some of the more offensive paragraphs struck out. The end result, nevertheless, struck a disapproving note:

Most Gracious Sovereign

… We have witnessed with deep regret the disastrous failure of the late Expedition, as the magnitude of its equipment had raised the just hopes and expectations of the Country to some permanent benefit.

… Your Majesty’s faithful Citizens, actuated by loyal attachment to your Sacred Person and Illustrious House, and solicitous for the honour of your Majesty’s arms and the dignity and solidity of your Majesty’s Councils, are deeply impressed with the necessity of an early and strict Inquiry into the causes of the failure of the late Expedition, therefore, pray your Majesty will direct Inquiry to be forthwith instituted, in order to ascertain the causes which have occasioned it.[2]

Notably, there was nothing here to suggest the need for a parliamentary inquiry. In fact the form of the inquiry was left pretty much open to the King (and, through him, his ministers) to decide. The official Answer to the Address, however (which was delivered on 20 December 1809), pretty much fixed the parliamentary tone of the inquiry:

The recent Expedition to the Scheldt was directed to several objects of great importance to the interests of my Allies, and to the security of my dominions. I regret, that of these objects a part only has been accomplished. I have not judged it to be necessary to direct any Military Inquiry into the Conduct of my Commanders by Sea or Land in this conjoint Service. It will be for my Parliament, in their wisdom, to ask for such information, or to take such measures upon this subject as they shall judge most conducive to the public good.[3]

Unsurprisingly, this was not what Chatham had hoped to hear. He was too proud to ask “for an enquiry before a Military Tribunal”, which he thought would show he felt his conduct required justification, but he recognised that “some opportunity of my conduct being inquired into” would come sooner or later, probably around the time Parliament was due to convene in January.[4] Nevertheless, “a Court Martial … was what, under all circumstances, I felt wou’d be most advantageous for me,” and given the precedent of the military inquiry into the Conventi0n of Cintra, Chatham had good reason to expect this was the form an inquiry would take.[5]

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The King’s Answer to the Address put that out of the question. Chatham immediately spotted that the King’s Answer had expressly rejected that option and on the contrary “directly pointed to a Proceeding in Parliament”.[6]

This was perhaps the point at which Chatham realised it was actually going to happen. Richard Ryder, the Home Secretary, heard that “he says that he had disregarded former charges till the Address of the City — that then the charge appeared to wear a more serious appearance and to require some recorded testimony on his part of his desire to meet enquiry”.[7]

Chatham’s course of action, indeed the only one he could well take under the circumstances, was to write to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Liverpool, to put his willingness to face an inquiry — any inquiry — down in the official record. There was some toing and froing over the exact wording, particularly Chatham’s original phrase of being “most earnestly and anxiously desirous” for an inquiry, but the end result was as follows:

My Lord,

Having perused the Address of the City of London … together with the answer with His Majesty’s Answer thereto, I see it my duty to represent to Your Lordship, as one of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, in order to its being laid before His Majesty, that I am most entirely ready to submit every Part of my Conduct to such Military Investigation as His Majesty may be pleased to direct, and that I shall not be less so, whenever Parliament may assemble, to meet any Enquiry, which in their Wisdom they may judge it fit to institute into my Conduct, being perfectly conscious of having discharged with zeal and with fidelity, the important trust which His Majesty was graciously pleased to confide to me.[8]

The die was cast. Parliament met on 23 January 1810. Three days later, the oppositionist Lord Porchester moved for the inevitable inquiry. Its final form — a committee of the whole House of Commons — cannot have been foreseen by Chatham (or anyone else) at the time of Waithman’s Common Council motion on 5 December. Had Waithman not tried to seize the Commons’ initiative, however, perhaps Chatham might have got his military tribunal after all.

 

References

[1] Speech by Waithman, recorded in the Times, 6 December 1809

[2] Cobbett’s Political Register, vol. XVI, July-December 1809, cols. 983-4

[3] Ibid.

[4] Chatham to Charles Yorke, 27 October 1809, BL Add MSS 45042 f. 57

[5] Undated memorandum by Chatham, NA PRO 30/8/260 f. 112

[6] Chatham to Lord Liverpool, 31 December 1809, NA PRO 30/8/364 f. 32

[7] Ryder to Lord Harrowby, 5 January 1810, quoted in A. Aspinall, The Later Correspondence of George III, vol. 5, p. 480 n. 1

[8] Chatham to Lord Liverpool, 22 December 1809, A Collection of Papers relating to the Expedition to the Scheldt, presented to Parliament in 1810 (London, 1811), pp. 126-7