Walcheren 1809: the mystery of the missing memorandum


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.


[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

The “Late” Lord Chatham at the Admiralty, 1794

It’s no secret that John was— how shall I put it— not the most punctual of people, and he quite liked the easy life. I certainly haven’t found much to dispute this, although I have found numerous occasions on which he attended public events before eleven o’clock in the morning, so clearly he wasn’t utterly incapable of it. 😉 But John was NOT a morning person, and… well… his nickname of the “Late” Lord Chatham was not entirely undeserved.

This nickname was first applied, I believe, after he was demoted from the Admiralty in December 1794. Sir Nathaniel Wraxall in his Memoirs (obviously completely accurate, of course………) recalled (in the late 1830s) that he was referred to as “the late First Lord of the Admiralty” (Posthumous Memoirs III, 130). It stuck even more after Walcheren, although I admit I have not seen any contemporary references to it before then.

But by the end of 1793 John’s public reputation was in tatters. Perhaps as a result of the failure of the allied coalition expedition to Dunkirk, for which John was partially blamed, nobody seemed to think he was able to do his job properly. Sir Gilbert Elliot (Life and Letters II, 160) reported on 11 September 1793, “The opinion of Lord Chatham’s insufficiency in his office is quite universal; although I know how totally inconclusive even the most general rumours are, yet I can hardly disbelieve all I hear on that point.” I have blogged elsewhere about how Michael Duffy in his article on the Dunkirk campaign considered Chatham less to blame than has been thought, but by December 1794 John was effectively dead weight. George Canning wrote regarding his dismissal in early 1795: “There was much discussion [in the House of Commons] … upon Lord Chatham’s conduct as first Lord of the Admiralty— from which discussion his character and conduct appeared to come out more clear and even praiseworthy than I, though a friend of Government, could have hoped or imagined. It is however a good thing after all that he is gone— for the voice of the publick was against him, and that is reason enough” (Jupp, Letter Journal of George Canning, 7 January 1795, p 182)

There were certainly plenty of rumours about John’s general conduct. Rumour whispered that he never got up until noon, or later (although Sir Joseph Farington, in his journal, heard from John’s colleague and neighbour Admiral Gardner that John was generally at work by half past eleven: Farington I, 64, 19 July 1794). He was supposedly addicted to partying and (again according to Elliot, quoted in Ehrman’s Younger Pitt volume 2, 379) “said to get drunk every evening”.

When I was at the National Archives on Saturday, one thing I desperately wanted to do was check out John’s attendance record as First Lord of the Admiralty on the Admiralty Board. I’d read in Duffy’s article that it wasn’t as bad as reported, being somewhere above 50% in the summer of 1793 when Dunkirk was at its height. I only managed to get hold of the records for 1794, and had to skip the second half of April and all of May because I was kicked out at the end of the day, but I carefully noted down all occasions John attended the Admiralty Board from 2 January until his last appearance after his sacking on 15 December.

The end result pretty much bears out Duffy’s conclusions. John turned up to 54.5% of all Admiralty Board meetings between Monday 2 January and Monday 15 December, 145 days out of a possible total of 266. He attended several Sundays, and attended several special Boards held at Portsmouth during the King and Queen’s visit there to commemorate the battle of the Glorious First of June. He had a big chunk out in August and September— he did not attend at all between 26 August and 29 September— but I’m guessing that was his annual “Let’s torture small birds and furry animals” holiday, and in any case I have found evidence he was quite ill for some of the time. (He also regularly sent letters in as he is still mentioned in the minutes, even though absent.)

My conclusion? Well, he could have spent most of these meetings with his feet on the table staring at the gorgeous wooden Board Room ceiling, but he still managed to pull his weight. The only person who seems to have attended more was Sir Charles Middleton, who was at every single sodding board meeting from May onwards (was the man never ill?!). There was also one Admiral (Affleck) who somehow managed to attend both the London and the Portsmouth board meetings during the King and Queen’s Portsmouth visit. But John was definitely visible. To judge from the minutes he pitched in occasionally (usually to communicate messages from the King, or Secretary of State).

So not a constant attender, but making a good effort. As a cabinet minister he had other duties, and as a courtier he would also have been required to attend official functions, which may account for some of the absences. But apart from the big September absence there are no huge acres of time off. He did have holidays, but he took them in smallish bites.

I guess this sort of thing only tells you so much … but it’s food for thought.