Short Story: The Arabian

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Grey desert arabian, from  here

The Late Lord was published exactly a year ago today (11 January). To commemorate the occasion, I am putting up a blog post (gasp!) to publish a short story I wrote six months or so before the book was published, for my own enjoyment. The Arabian is based on an episode that occurred during Lord Chatham’s governorship of Gibraltar, in September 1822; it’s mentioned briefly on p. 188, but it’s the sort of thing that I felt needed a longer treatment — hence this short story.

I must apologise for any horse-related errors — a friend read it through and picked me up on several idiocies, which I have corrected, but, while I am very definitely a Chatham person, I am not a horsey person at all.

Enjoy!

***

The Arabian

 

The morning gun woke Stokes just before five. The report shook the glass in the windows of his tiny room, then rolled away into a silence broken only by the crying of seagulls and the sound of the sea. From the nearby Governor’s quarters came three distant words, uttered in clipped, aristocratic annoyance:

‘That bloody gun.’

Silence re-established itself. Stokes knew from experience he would not hear that voice again for at least another six hours. He rolled out of his narrow cot, slipped Sophia’s miniature over his head, then went into the small adjoining room where his batman waited with hot water and a razor.

Stokes was at his desk at seven, the reports from the garrison neatly stacked by the inkstand. Beside them were the latest communications from the Town Major and the Captain of the Port. Laid out on the centre of the table was the leather-bound Orderly Book, already opened to the first crisp, empty page. Stokes consulted the hastily-scribbled notes his clerk had left for him, dipped his pen in ink, and began to write.

Head Quarters, Gibraltar, 2d. September 1822

General Order No. 1. The 26th Regiment will be prepared to evacuate the Cooperage Barrack immediately on the arrival of the 43rd Regiment, when four companies of the 64th will move from their present Quarters into that Barracks…

While Stokes opened letter after letter, copied their contents into the ledger books and composed formulaic responses, the Governor’s Cottage began to wake up around him. Footsteps creaked up and down the stairs, and a hum of voices intruded on Stokes’s awareness. Outside, drums beat the tattoo as the night guard at Europa Point was relieved, and a regimental band launched into a rendition of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’. A ship coming into the Bay fired its gun to warn the garrison of its approach, followed a few moments later by the deeper reverberation of Europa Point’s battery in acknowledgement.

The door opened, and Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson came for the Governor’s correspondence. Stokes barely looked up from reaching for the pounce pot. ‘Lord Chatham is awake?’

‘Awake, dressed, and ready for his letters.’ The aide-de-camp held his hand out for them; Stokes obliged. Wilson flicked through them swiftly.

‘No dispatches from the Colonial Office,’ Stokes said helpfully. ‘One communication from Tangiers, and I’ve left it at the top.’

‘His Lordship will be grateful for that.’

‘If it will save him the trouble of reading the rest, I daresay,’ Stokes remarked, and immediately regretted the words. Wilson raised an eyebrow and changed the subject.

‘His Lordship wished me to ask if the American horse had been brought ashore yet.’

‘You mean the Arabian.’ Stokes kept his voice neutral. The Arabian had been purchased in Tunis by an American captain, whose ship was re-provisioning in Gibraltar on its way back to New York. Lord Chatham had insisted on having the horse brought ashore to see it race, but then Chatham, in Stokes’s opinion, never gave a thought for the inconvenience of others. ‘Mr Sweetland said he would be landed tomorrow.’

‘His Lordship wishes someone to report back when he is ashore. I believe you are carrying dispatches to the Lieutenant Governor. Will you go?’

‘Of course.’

‘Excellent. Lord Chatham will see you this afternoon as usual.’

The next few hours passed swiftly. The sun rose higher in the cloudless sky. Stokes loosened his stock and opened the window. The Rock shimmered in the heat. Stokes pulled out the locket that hung round his neck and opened it. Sophia’s cream skin and golden hair gazed at him, her mouth curved into the faintest smile as though to say: I am waiting for you. But Sophia was on the other side of the sea, and Stokes was in Gibraltar, chained to five isolated square miles of jagged Rock. He tucked the locket away, stared for a few moments at the tiny British flag hanging limp from the flagpole at O’Hara’s Battery, then returned to his desk to sharpen yet another pen.

At three he stood outside the Governor’s drawing-room, the day’s out-letters in one hand. Despite being perfectly on time, he could tell from the absence of orderlies that His Lordship was not yet returned from his morning ride. Stokes had only been Military Secretary three months, but those three months had been sufficient to see that everything here – the morning and evening guns; the inspections; the parades; the arrival and departure of the packet boats – worked like a military metronome. Everything, that is, save for the Governor. Lord Chatham’s habits had not changed in the twelve years since he had become notorious for commanding the disastrous Walcheren campaign, when his inactivity had contributed to the destruction of his army from disease. He drifted in and out of Gibraltar’s military and civil routine at his own pace, always good-natured but remarkably disengaged.

It was half past the hour before the sound of the guard presenting arms alerted Stokes to Lord Chatham’s return. Stokes stepped away from the map depicting the Great Siege just as Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson and Captain Taylor came upstairs followed by two Spanish servants carrying trays of wine and water. The aides barely gave Stokes more than a nod as they passed. A few minutes later the Governor himself appeared, wiping his hands on a towel. His long face was sheened with sweat and reddened from the sun, but, despite the exercise, His Lordship still gave the impression he would much rather be anywhere but here. Looking at Chatham’s melancholy, rather bored expression, Stokes fought a swell of contempt. He wished he could know, even for a moment, a fragment of the thoughts passing through the Governor’s mind. If he were able to at least respect the man, he suspected his exile from home, and from Sophia, would be less difficult.

‘Stokes,’ Chatham said, in response to the secretary’s bow. ‘What have you for me today?’

‘Nothing out of the ordinary, my lord.’

‘Well then, let us get to work.’ Chatham handed his towel to Captain Taylor, folded his tall frame into the chair by the desk, and passed a hand across his forehead with a groan. ‘Dear God, it’s hot.’

And so it went. The first time Stokes had waited on Lord Chatham he had been so tense he had forgotten to eat breakfast. Now he barely needed to think about what he did, because every day was the same. First came the dispatches for the local consuls, which Chatham read before signing next to Stokes’s pencilled cross. Then came the court martial reports, and the general orders to the various regiments for the day. Chatham worked in silence; Stokes had quickly discovered His Lordship was not over-fond of small talk. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked away, punctuated by the sound of marching and drumbeats from outside. Stokes shifted his feet and wondered whether he would have time for a walk before dinner.

‘A fair few visitors from Morocco,’ Chatham observed. The sound of his deep, cultured voice shook Stokes out of his reverie.

‘They have all been through quarantine.’

‘Good.’ Chatham signed a few more papers and lapsed back into silence. Stokes returned to thinking wistfully of his next meal.

After leaving Lord Chatham, Stokes went for his walk along the cliffs. Behind him the batteries remained a sign of Gibraltar’s military status as the guardian of the Straits, but before him was the broad, glittering expanse of the sea. A faint breeze disturbed the turgid air and brought a salty scent to his nose. The low and stately Atlas mountains of Africa pierced the haze across the Straits. The sight distracted him, and the strange golden hills made him think less of home. Less of Sophia. What was she doing now? Was she thinking of him too?

He came back to the Governor’s Cottage just as the heat began to draw off into the coolness of evening, when the shadows lengthened and the Rock glowed red in the setting sun. Stokes heard his name as he entered his office, bracing himself to receive the evening dispatches and finish work while the light persisted. He turned to face Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson.

‘Mr Stokes,’ Wilson said. ‘His Lordship would like to see yesterday’s return from the Captain of the Port a second time.’

‘Certainly.’ The aide waited while Stokes rooted through the papers until he found the list of vessels that had successfully completed their period of quarantine. He handed it to Wilson. ‘His Lordship is working late.’

‘Does that surprise you?’

In fact it did – Stokes had formed the impression Chatham stopped thinking about his official concerns after dinner – but he said, ‘I am in no hurry for the papers to be returned.’

Wilson was on his way out. At Stokes’s words he turned and closed the door behind him. ‘You do not like His Lordship, do you, Stokes?’

‘He has never been anything but kind to me,’ Stokes stammered. It occurred to him that, though most of the garrison spoke jokingly of His Lordship, he had never seen Chatham’s aides-de-camp behave with anything but respect and even affection. Wilson looked down his nose.

‘Were you at Walcheren?’ the aide said at last. Before Stokes could answer, Wilson corrected himself. ‘No, of course not. You’re far too young for that.’

‘I am a secretary,’ Stokes said, with as much dignity as he could manage. ‘My duties do not take me on active service.’

Wilson’s duties, however, clearly had. Stokes’s eyes lingered on the man’s weather-beaten face and the jagged white scar running from chin to cheek. On parade days Stokes had seen the Waterloo medal on Wilson’s chest. He had never understood how men like Wilson could lower themselves to serve men like Lord Chatham, but even as the thought registered he felt a swell of shame, as though his disrespect for Chatham somehow reflected on Wilson, too.

‘In that case,’ Wilson said in clipped tones, as though he had read Stokes’s mind, ‘I suggest you pay more attention to your duties and less to garrison gossip.’

Stokes’s cheeks flamed. ‘I am sorry. I meant nothing by what I said. I only noticed His Lordship seemed out of sorts today.’

Wilson gave him a strange look. ‘Do you not know the date?’

‘Of course I do.’ Stokes had only written it out several dozen times at the head of all the letters and orders he had drafted on Chatham’s behalf. ‘It is the second of September.’

‘Today would have been Lady Chatham’s sixtieth birthday.’

‘Lady Chatham has been dead for over a year,’ Stokes said, in genuine confusion.

‘Is it any wonder, then, that Lord Chatham should miss her this day more than any other?’

Stokes blinked. The idea that the Governor might be missing his wife had never even occurred to him. He knew Chatham’s coming out to Gibraltar had been delayed by Lady Chatham’s illness and death; he knew His Lordship had still been in full mourning when he had finally arrived. But Stokes had never felt the Governor longed for anything other than to return to England, or to be left alone. Chatham had never once spoken of his wife in the three months Stokes had known him. Stokes, who never stopped thinking about his Sophia, had always found that significant. ‘I see.’

‘I am not certain you do,’ Wilson said, and turned his back before Stokes could respond.

 

*

 

The next day Stokes again stood by the Governor’s desk as Chatham signed the day’s orders, and tried not to stare in too obvious a fashion. Did His Lordship seem more melancholy than usual? Was Lord Chatham thinking about his wife at that very moment, and did it bring him pain? Was that why he remained permanently detached from the garrison, as though he were not fully present – as though a part of him remained at his wife’s graveside in London? Lord Chatham’s heavy-lidded blue eyes flicked up and Stokes hastily looked away.

When business was over Chatham said, ‘I thank you for sending me the Captain of the Port’s account last night. It seems the Arabian is to come ashore today.’

Stokes had almost forgotten about the racehorse. How typical of Chatham to fasten on that, amidst the accounts of plague on the Barbary Coast and political unrest in Spain. ‘Yes, my lord.’

‘You will accompany me with the rest of the staff to the race tomorrow,’ Chatham said. It was not a request. Stokes bowed.

‘Of course.’

Chatham dismissed him with a wave, visibly suppressing a yawn. Stokes felt a burst of irritation. At least it will be a holiday, he thought as he mounted his horse to ride into town.

A heat haze rose off the grey brick fortifications as Stokes crossed the drawbridge and entered the fortress. The guards posted to the southern gate saluted him as he passed. As a civilian he had found this odd the first time he had experienced it, but now he barely registered the sound of hands slapping against wood and metal as the men smoothly presented their arms. Gibraltar’s cobbled streets, lined with colourful houses packed between the looming Rock and the bastions fringing the Bay, were full of people going about their business. Europeans in sober woollen coats rubbed shoulders with Spanish women in bright red cloaks. Stokes had to concentrate to guide his horse through the throng of dark-faced Moroccans, Jews with caps and long curls, and red-coated soldiers marching to their duties. Stokes often wondered what Sophia, who had never been anywhere more alien than Covent Garden Market, would make of it all. The air was heavy with the scent of sea salt and spices, and reverberated with the sound of street cries, drumbeats and all the languages of Babel.

The Convent stood empty, its tiny windows tightly shuttered against the heat, waiting for the cooler weather and the Governor’s return to the garrison. Closer to the waterside, the heat was more bearable. Evening was drawing in by the time Stokes accompanied Lieutenant-Governor Don’s aide-de-camp, Captain Waller, to the New Mole. The Bay bristled with the masts of ships at anchor, enormous warships casting shadows over tiny, patched boats from the Barbary Coast. The first evening gun fired from the signal bastion as Stokes stood on the narrow quay stretching out towards the Spanish lines and watched a flatboat approaching from the American frigate moored a mile or so offshore, away from the treacherous rocks close to the harbour. As the boat approached, Stokes could hear a high-pitched neighing that suggested the approaching horse was not entirely happy with its predicament.

‘Oh dear,’ Captain Waller murmured as the boat approached the Mole.

It took time to bring the Arabian ashore. The horse sidled and ducked as the sailors and grooms in the flatboat tried to fasten him into the sling, and squealed in fright as he was winched back onto solid ground. Stokes had no idea how long the horse must have been cooped up aboard ship, but he was certainly making up for it now, skittering from side to side. Stokes watched as the grooms calmed him down until he quieted and stopped swinging his hindquarters about in an effort to break free.

Even to Stokes’s untrained eye he was a fine horse. He was small, but built almost entirely of lean, trembling muscle, his sinews standing out like cords. Pale grey in colour, he had a handsome dark mane and legs and a proud, offended look in his intelligent eyes as he pawed at the ground, raised his head and pulled half-heartedly at the bridle. The thought popped into Stokes’s mind, unbidden: You don’t want to be here anymore than I do.

‘Where are we to take him?’ one of the grooms asked in a pronounced American drawl. Stokes stopped staring at the horse.

‘His Lordship has made a stall in his own stables available for the Arabian. It is behind the Convent in Secretary Lane.’

‘He’ll be glad of a rest,’ the other groom said, stroking the Arabian’s nose fondly. ‘It’s been a long journey.’

Stokes returned to the Governor’s Cottage just as the last evening gun heralded the curfew. The sun was low on the horizon and a breeze shifted the turgid air from the direction of the sea. As Stokes dismounted he saw Lord Chatham’s junior aide, young Captain Taylor, coming towards him. ‘Mr Stokes. Is the Arabian safely ashore?’

‘You may tell His Lordship it is.’

‘He will be grateful for the news,’ Taylor said. Stokes did not know the man well; he had kept his distance, knowing Taylor to be Lord Chatham’s great-nephew, and indeed there was a faint family resemblance in the shape of the face and the proud set of the nose. The young man added, with naked curiosity, ‘Was it a handsome horse?’

‘Very much so.’

‘His Lordship has chosen a horse to run against him. He is very much looking forward to tomorrow’s race.’

Stokes had no doubt Chatham was looking forward to the leisure time. He felt immediately ashamed of himself at the thought, and the memory of his previous day’s conversation with Wilson rose in his mind. The question formed itself in an instant, and before he could stop himself he had blurted it out. ‘What happened to Lady Chatham? Why does Lord Chatham never speak of her?’ The aide stared in astonishment. Stokes felt himself blush. ‘I am sorry. That was out of order.’

‘No,’ Taylor said, at length. ‘Those of us who work closely with His Lordship have a right to know.’ He went silent, as though picking his words.

‘I know she was ill for many years,’ Stokes prompted.

‘Yes, she was. But…’ Taylor looked Stokes in the eye. ‘Not physically.’

It took a moment for that to sink in. Then Stokes’s eyes widened. ‘Oh.’ Embarrassment vied with curiosity; curiosity won. ‘How did she die? Did … did she…?’

‘No, she did not,’ the aide said curtly. ‘In some ways it was worse. She was recovering; it was a miracle, because nobody had expected her to.’ Taylor paused; he seemed suddenly older than his twenty-three years. ‘Until her maid put too much laudanum in her barley-water.’

‘My God,’ Stokes said, hollowly. He could think of nothing else to say. ‘I am sorry.’

‘We all were,’ Taylor said. ‘We all were.’

 

*

 

The race day dawned with the morning gun. The glowing purple sky heralded a continuation of the same hot, cloudless weather Gibraltar had been enjoying for some time. Stokes worked quickly through his routine tasks, aware he would not have time to devote to them later. At one the Governor’s staff were all ready and assembled on horseback in the courtyard behind the Cottage. Somewhat to Stokes’s surprise, the Governor himself was only a few minutes late, wearing a handsome scarlet dress uniform coat with elaborate gold frogging. His steel grey hair was pulled back into an elegant queue, and the eagerness on his face made him seem younger, and happier, than Stokes had ever seen him. He mounted his horse from the block unaided, with the litheness of a man half his age, and called across to his aides,

‘Let us enjoy the pleasure of the turf, even though we are so far from home.’

After an hour’s riding they arrived at the racetrack in the Neutral Ground, a mile-long gravelled track cut from one side of the narrow peninsula to the other. Stokes had been mildly surprised to find horse-racing was not unknown here, as the terrain seemed so unfavourable to it, but the British had some time ago informally expanded into the flat band of unclaimed land between the Rock and the Spanish lines at La Linea. Here were the temporary wooden huts and shelters occupied by many of the people of the town during the hottest months of the year, when the fear of contagious disease was at its highest. Behind them, the Rock rose up from the plain with silent, monumental grace.

News of the race had travelled. There were English-born merchants in top hats and tails, Spanish gentlemen in embroidered coats, and Gibraltar’s usual mix of Europeans, Jews, and Moors, each easily distinguishable by the clothes they wore. Ladies promenaded on their husbands’ arms, sheltering under parasols or, in the case of the Spanish women, hiding behind lace veils. The regimental bands played jaunty tunes. Stokes picked out ‘British Grenadiers’, ‘Heart of Oak’ and, after a group of local women promenaded past, a spirited version of ‘Spanish Ladies’.

The moment the Governor appeared the band struck up ‘God Save the King’, and all the soldiers on duty lining the track presented arms with perfect precision. Waiting for Lord Chatham at the finishing line were Lieutenant Governor Don and a group of American naval officers. They turned, gold braid glistening in the afternoon sun. Chatham dismounted and the rest of his staff, including Stokes, followed suit. General Don made the introductions. ‘Captain Jacob Jones, your lordship. The Arabian is his.’

Jones, a spare, grizzled man with a weather-beaten face, removed his hat and bowed. ‘Your excellency. I am glad of this opportunity to see my horse run.’

‘As am I,’ Chatham said, removing his own extravagantly-feathered hat. Stokes was accustomed to seeing the Governor going through the motions on parade as though he would rather be elsewhere: he was surprised to see the enthusiasm in the cold, distant blue eyes. ‘My Weathercock has not been out for many years. I am certain your young Arabian will give him a good race, and may the best horse win.’

The horses arrived, walked over at a gentle trot by their grooms. Lord Chatham’s was a large chestnut, his sleek flanks quivering in the afternoon sun. He towered over the Arabian, who was clearly not pleased with the competition. He held his grey head up proudly as though to make himself seem larger, flicked his tail and pulled at his bridle impatiently as though to say: I want to run now. I can win.

‘A magnificent beast,’ Chatham observed to Captain Jones as the horses rode past the cheering spectators. ‘Eighteen months old, you say?’

‘Just so.’

‘He has presence for a colt of his age.’

The horses took some time to arrive at the starting line, about a mile away. Stokes could see them, distantly. He could not so much make out the horses themselves as he could the movements at the end of the track through the shimmering haze: the milling of the crowds, the clouds of dust and the glare of sunlight off metal fastenings. By the edge of the track Stokes saw Chatham call over Taylor. The aide handed the Governor a telescope; Chatham opened it and trained it on the start line.

The sun shone down relentlessly, with not a single cloud to impede it. Heat from above warred against the cool rising from the sea, and the sound of waves beating the shore travelled sluggishly through the heavy, humid air. Sea salt mingled with earthy dust coated the back of Stokes’s throat; he discreetly wiped a thread of sweat off his brow and gladly accepted a glass proffered by one of the Governor’s servants. To his astonishment, the Governor – who regularly complained about the heat, and who often took days to recover from the exhaustion of public parades – looked as sprightly as though he were by the track at Newmarket. Stokes saw him laughing at a comment from one of the American officers. The sight of it made him realise he had never seen the Governor laugh before.

‘His Lordship is in good spirits,’ Stokes remarked to Taylor, as the aide passed by. Taylor shrugged.

‘Of course he is.’

Stokes did not see why it was so obvious, but he had to admit he was fascinated by the transformation in the Governor. The habitually bored expression on Chatham’s face had completely dropped away, and when pistol shot from the other end of the track signalled the start of the race, the glint in Chatham’s eye as he traced his telescope on the start line was full of intensity. The Governor’s enthusiasm was infectious. Even though he had never been fond of racing, Stokes felt his heart pounding as he fixed his gaze on the horses and raised a hand to shield his eyes.

The Governor’s narrow shoulders were rigid, his gloved hands perfectly steady as he held the telescope. His cheeks were red in a way that owed nothing to the heat of the sun.

‘Weathercock in the lead,’ he observed to Captain Jones, who also held a telescope. ‘By at least half a length.’

Stokes could now clearly hear the thunder of hooves. The cheers were getting closer. He could see the shape of the horses, the grooms perched high on their backs. After a few moments Stokes could distinguish one horse from the other: the Arabian’s small, lithe frame moving with sinuous grace, its little legs beating the ground at a tremendous rate, alongside the much larger Weathercock. Chatham gave a cry.

‘He’s catching up.’

‘Look at him run,’ Captain Jones exclaimed. The Arabian, having spent so long aboard ship, had more work to keep up with the bigger horse, but there was something so determined about the way he moved, black tail streaming behind, that Stokes would have been completely won over even if he had not already been championing him. He felt slightly ashamed for not backing the British horse, yet one glance told him the Governor, too, was more interested in the Arabian than in the progress of his own animal.

Chatham lowered his telescope, his face bright. ‘Remarkable,’ he said. ‘Truly remarkable.’

The horses were nearly alongside now, so close to each other their legs were a confused blur of activity. Their hooves shook the ground and the scent of competition filled the air. Around Stokes everyone began to cheer. The Governor pulled off his hat and waved it, huzzaying loudly with no thought for the audience around him. Not that anyone was watching; all eyes were on the two horses, heads stretched out, nostrils flared, long tails flying behind them.

And then it was over. The horses crossed the finishing line, Weathercock a head in the lead. The grooms reined them in as best they could. The Arabian squealed when his groom yanked on the bridle, more out of frustration, Stokes thought, than pain or exhaustion. A hundred or so more yards and the Arabian would have pulled past, Stokes was certain of it.

‘Remarkable!’ Chatham shouted again. He turned to Captain Jones and pumped him by the hand. ‘I have never seen anything like it!’

The horses stood by the edge of the racetrack, quivering flanks streaked with sweat. Soldiers hurried forth carrying buckets of water to wash the horses down. Chatham led Captain Jones over, Stokes following close behind with the rest of the staff. Having expended all its energy in the run, the Arabian’s head hung down with exhaustion, but at their approach he looked up and began to fidget. Weathercock turned his head towards Chatham and gave a soft whinny of welcome. The Governor reached up and stroked his nose fondly; the horse snorted and nuzzled his coat.

‘Congratulations, your excellency,’ Captain Jones said. ‘It appears your English horses are still capable of holding their own against Arabian stock.’

‘Weathercock did well, I admit,’ Chatham observed, rubbing the horse’s forehead. His gaze, however, was on the other animal. ‘But he is six years old, and has not spent the last few months on a ship.’ The Governor turned to the Arabian. The horse was perfectly still, its black eyes on Chatham. When the Governor came closer and reached out a hand the Arabian whinnied loudly and pulled its head away, twitching its ears.

‘Hush,’ Chatham said. ‘Hush.’ The Arabian continued to pull at his reins, but the Governor moved gently closer, whistling through his teeth, pulling off his gloves and edging forwards with exquisite patience. To Stokes’s amazement, the Arabian did not move as Chatham’s hand made contact with his neck.

‘Easy,’ Chatham murmured, running his hand along the horse’s sweat-streaked flanks. The appreciation on his face as he moved around the horse was obvious; he stroked the Arabian’s nose for a moment, then bent over and ran his hands delicately down the horse’s forelegs. Stokes expected the horse to protest, but to his surprise he just stood there. It was as though the Arabian knew Chatham was impressed, and was flattered by the attention.

Stokes glanced across at Wilson and Taylor, but the two aides looked as though they had expected nothing less. This behaviour from the Governor, though entirely new to Stokes, was clearly something they were familiar with, and had seen many times before. He turned back to Chatham with new respect.

‘Splendid forequarters,’ Chatham observed, straightening slowly and whistling again as the Arabian started back in alarm. ‘The shoulder is particularly fine. He will bring you much credit, once he has matured.’

‘Weathercock is no less admirable,’ Captain Jones said. Chatham smiled and turned back to the English horse, which nickered and nibbled at his golden sash as though in protest at having been ignored.

‘My Weathercock is the pride of my stables. He was a gift from Lady Chatham; she chose him for me herself, when he was barely older than your Arabian.’ It was the first time Stokes had ever heard Lord Chatham speak his wife’s name. An expression of sadness came over his face, as though the memories had taken the shine off his enjoyment. ‘How she would have loved to have seen him run today.’

As though he sensed his master’s melancholy, Weathercock nuzzled at his lapel. Chatham lowered his head; his hand on Weathercock’s mane stilled. He said nothing, but for the first time Stokes understood exactly what the Governor was thinking about.

 

*

 

The next afternoon Stokes waited on the Governor as usual with the dispatches. Chatham had just come in from his morning ride and was still mopping his face with a handkerchief. He stopped when Stokes came in and held out a well-manicured hand for the papers.

Stokes watched the Governor as he worked. Chatham wore the same closed, distant expression he always did, but this time Stokes fancied he saw signs of the emotion the impassive mask was meant to hide. Little wonder Chatham felt the need for such a façade, with everything he had experienced over the last few years and the way in which nearly everyone – including Stokes – held him in contempt. He was like the Arabian, forced away from home to perform endless repetitive duties on foreign soil, against his desire and inclinations. No wonder he cultivated a sense of detachment; no wonder his aides were protective of him. Stokes began to feel ashamed of his own preconceptions.

‘Did you see the race, Stokes?’ Chatham asked, after a time.

‘Yes, my lord. It was most diverting.’

‘The Arabian did well,’ Chatham said. ‘I have rarely seen a horse run with so much energy. I was quite captivated.’

‘Your horse performed admirably too, sir,’ Stokes said. Remembering Chatham’s words the previous day, he added, on a whim, ‘I believe Lady Chatham would have been proud of him.’

Chatham’s pen stilled. He glanced up sharply and for a moment Stokes thought he had overstepped the mark. Disappointment welled up and he braced himself for the reprimand, but the muscles in the Governor’s jaw relaxed. ‘I believe you are right.’

He returned to the papers. Stokes decided it was high time he stopped talking. To his surprise the Governor looked up after a handful of documents and peered at Stokes as though trying to remember something. ‘You came out in the spring to relieve Major Marshall, did you not?’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘You are to be married upon your return to England?’

A strange tingle raced up Stokes’s spine, as it always did when Sophia came into his thoughts. ‘I am. To Miss Blake.’

Chatham looked at him for a moment, an unfathomable expression in his eyes. Then he smiled, and Stokes realised how rarely he had seen the Governor bestow genuine smiles on anyone. ‘It cannot be easy coming so far when you have someone waiting at home.’

Sophia’s portrait around Stokes’s neck was warm against his chest. He put his hand to where it lay, resting his fingers lightly against the lapel of his plain civilian coat. Then he saw something he had never noticed before. On the wall behind Chatham’s desk, swallowed up among the many engravings of the Bay, was a miniature of a woman with the powdered hair and enormous hat of the previous generation. She gazed out of the gilded frame with a mysterious smile, her blue eyes bright with youth and love. Stokes did not need to ask who it was; the pang of pity that lanced through him took him by surprise. Like Chatham, he wanted nothing more than to climb aboard the first available ship and leave Gibraltar for good. But he had Sophia eagerly awaiting his return, whereas Chatham would never see his wife again.

There suddenly seemed to be an extra presence in the room, bending over Chatham as he sat at his desk, arms resting lightly on his shoulders. The impression was so strong Stokes could feel the power of Chatham’s loss surging through him like electricity. He saw the pain behind Chatham’s detachment, indelibly etched into the older man’s features, and wondered how he could have missed the fact that Chatham longed for his lost love as much as Stokes did himself.

‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘but serving here brings its own reward.’ And he meant it.

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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

Lord Chatham returns to Gibraltar!

And he’s not entirely happy about it (although I reckon he looks quite resigned to his fate!).

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As I explain in The Late Lord, Chatham wasn’t hugely fond of Gibraltar. He was Governor from 1820 till his death, but served there in person between 1821 and 1825, and couldn’t wait to leave the place. See pp. 186-7:

The much-vaunted beauties of Gibraltar could not outweigh his conviction that he was ‘chained to ye Rock, instead … of being among my friends.’ … Chatham never forgot he was the master of a godforsaken rock half-sunk into the sea, about five square miles in size. His private letters home reeked of claustrophobia and intense homesickness, coloured with the depression he had not managed to shake off since his wife’s death.

Suit yourself, Lord C… I loved Gibraltar when I went there on my research trip.

Photo by a friend of mine, who is actually on the spot (lucky thing).

“Your Lordship does not consider me as a Friend”: Lord Chatham and Sir Richard Strachan, January 1810

One of the most infamous aspects of the Walcheren Campaign, apart of course from the spectacular scale of the sickness that swept through the British Army and helped hasten the campaign’s end, was the complete breakdown of working relations between the military and naval commanders. Walcheren had been designed as an amphibious, or “combined”, operation. Close cooperation between Lord Chatham, the military Commander of the Forces, and Sir Richard Strachan, the naval commander, was vital for success. The Secretary of State for War, Castlereagh, had sent Chatham off with the hope “that the utmost Spirit of Concert and Harmony will prevail … between the respective Services”.[1]

 

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Lord Chatham, engraved by Charles Turner (1809)

This harmony was already in jeopardy before the expedition had even sailed, and on 27 July Chatham was already having to “assure” his worried cabinet colleagues “that I have had on all occasions the most unreserved and confidential intercourse with Sir Richard Strachan, who is a man I particularly like, and as far, as I can judge, I should say that we are upon ye most friendly and cordial footing possible”.[2] The troubled course of the campaign, during which military requirements and naval realities clashed repeatedly, did nothing to reconcile the two men. By the time the campaign was suspended on 27 August 1809, Chatham and Strachan were barely speaking.

Strachan and Chatham were polar opposites in terms of character. Much has been made of Strachan’s famed impulsiveness (he was known as “Mad Dick”) and Chatham’s notorious lethargy, and that didn’t help, but a lot of the problems between the two men stemmed to the difficulties they had in communicating. Chatham was tight-lipped and taciturn; he preferred not to put important things down on paper, and was most comfortable in a face-to-face situation. Strachan, to judge from his confused, repetitive letters, was simply incapable of getting his thoughts and ideas across in a coherent manner. The problem was the necessities of the campaign kept the two men separate, and Strachan was often very difficult to track down. Miscommunication gave rise to friction, and this eventually became outright dislike.

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

The last straw came on 27 August 1809, the day Chatham decided to suspend the campaign. Strachan wrote a letter to the Admiralty which he claimed should have remained private, but which was published (in extract) in the London Gazette on 3 September. In the letter he appeared to claim that he had urged not to suspend the campaign in the face of Chatham’s stubborn refusal to listen. The letter had an undeniable impact on public opinion in Britain, and from the moment Chatham heard about the existence of this letter, he and Strachan found themselves “in a state of Hostility”.[3]

This is why I was so surprised to find the following letter in the Chatham Papers at the National Archives. It was written by Andrew Snape Hamond, an old colleague and friend from Chatham’s days as First Lord of the Admiralty. On 26 January 1810 the Commons had voted to form a committee of the whole House to inquiry into the planning and conduct of the Walcheren Expedition. Both Chatham and Strachan were likely to come out badly from such an inquiry, and Strachan clearly made one last attempt to patch things up and make common cause, using Hamond as an intermediary.

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Sir Andrew Snape Hamond

Hamond’s letter to Chatham is as follows:

Fitzroy Square, Sunday

28th Jany. 1810

Dear Lord Chatham

I wish very much to see you, to communicate what has passed between Sir Richard Strachan & myself. In short he has an apprehension that your Lordship does not consider him as a Friend, but has authorized me to assure you that he is perfectly so, and that he will most readyly [sic] wait upon you whenever you send to him. He lives at Blakes Hotel Jermyn St.

Any time tomorrow that it might be convenient for your Lordship to see me, I will wait upon you, in the mean time I beg leave to assure that I ever am

Yr Lordship’s most faithful

& sincerely attached

Friend

A.S. Hammond [4]

The letter shows a great deal about Strachan’s character. He was clearly very brave, expressing himself ready to meet face to face with Chatham and make his explanations. He must also have been generous and open-hearted: few people would have made such a move under the same circumstances. But he was also obviously not the brightest spark, or he would have realised that the time for explanations were long past.

At any rate, he had completely misread Chatham’s own character. Chatham was stinging from the buffeting he had received over the last four months from the newspapers. A common theme of these newspaper articles was to compare Chatham’s attitude to the suspension of the Walcheren campaign with that of Strachan’s as put across in the 27 August extract. By the end of January 1810, Chatham was under no illusions: his reputation and career were at stake, and Strachan had been strongly instrumental in undermining him.

Chatham replied to Hamond:

Private: Hill Street, Jan. 28th 1810

My Dear Sir

I shall be extremely happy to see you to morrow, a little after twelve o’clock, if that hour is perfectly convenient to you. I shall be particularly glad to know what may have passed between you and Sir Richard Strachan, as I can not disguise from you, that I have certainly considered him (tho’ utterly at a loss to guess the reason) as very unfriendly to me. His publick letter from Batz [of 27 August 1809], which to this moment remains unexplained, and which, as you know, has been the foundation of all the clamour* raised against me in ye Country, as well as the language he has been reported to me to have held since is return has led me, to form this opinion. As to the latter part he may perhaps have been misrepresented and I shou’d have great pleasure in finding it so. You and I, as old Friends can talk this business over, but what I assure you  I am most anxious about is the apprehension that any difference on the present occasion between myself and the Admiral, may lead to any unpleasant feelings between [the] two Services, to both of which, you well know my sincere attachment.

Believe me

My Dear Sir

Always Most Truly Yours

Chatham [5]

*Chatham initially wrote “abuse”.

Chatham’s response to Hamond could not have been clearer had he written “No, sod off” across the page in three-inch-tall red letters. Chatham certainly never made any attempt to meet with Strachan, and the course of the inquiry — and Chatham’s attempts to defend himself — showed Strachan had been right to suspect the Earl did “not consider him as a Friend”.

References

[1] Lord Castlereagh to Chatham, 16 July 1809, PRONI D3030/3175

[2] Chatham to Lord Camden, 27 July 1809, Kent Heritage Centre U840 C86/5/1

[3] Sir Robert Brownrigg to Colonel J.W. Gordon, 8 September 1809, BL Add MSS 49505 f 69

[4] A.S. Hamond to Chatham, 28 January 1810, TNA PRO 30/8/367 f 1

[5] Chatham to A.S. Hamond, 28 January 1810, TNA PRO 30/8/364 f 16

The Walcheren Expedition: 2016 (Part 1/3)

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In the new year I suggested to my husband that I would like to visit Walcheren before finishing my book. He looked interested, but not that interested, so I decided to up the ante.

Me: We could cycle it.

Husband (perking up): What, you mean the whole way?

Me: Why not?

Husband: And camp?

Me: ………. All right.

Husband: You’re on.

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How we travelled

And so we planned an Easter trip (because, you know, Russian roulette with the weather is all part of the fun). Arrangements were made for the kids to go to their grandparents; I made a suggested itinerary, compiled a long list of likely campsites, booked train tickets and ferries, and we packed. As lightly as possible, as we would be cycling 450 km (280 miles) on a tandem.

Our whole trip, including trains between Oxford and West Folkestone (with some cycling in London between stations) and the ferries across the Channel, looked something like this:

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Map data ©2016 Google

A (brief) historical note

For those of you who are not au fait with the Walcheren Expedition of 1809, this, in a rather rotten nutshell, is what happened.

walcheren map from flickr

Map from Fortescue, History of the British Army VII (supplement). Image from here

The Walcheren expedition was Britain’s contribution to the Fifth Coalition with Austria. Austria would conduct the main continental campaign against Napoleon while Britain engaged in a diversionary attack in an area of her own choosing. Britain chose a “coup de main” against Antwerp, which was a huge French dockyard and commercial centre. Destroying Antwerp would be a cheap way for Britain to neutralise the danger of French invasion, pierce Napoleon’s Continental System which was damaging British trade, and draw Napoleon’s attention away from Austrian action inland. Unfortunately the Battle of Wagram put Austria out of the war before the Walcheren expedition even started, but the campaign continued anyway in the hope that victory would keep Austria in the war.

Lord Chatham was appointed to command the military part of the biggest expeditionary force fielded by Britain so far during the war: about 40,000 soldiers and over 600 vessels, more than 200 of which were warships. Sir Richard Strachan commanded the naval part of the expedition.

The expedition consisted of four parts. The smallest, under Lord Huntly, would land on the Cadzand shore and neutralise the French battery at Breskens, allowing the main part of the fleet to enter the West Scheldt. Meanwhile, 12,000 men under Chatham’s second-in-command, Sir Eyre Coote, would lay siege to Vlissingen (Flushing). The reserve under Sir John Hope would take control of the neighbouring island of Suid-Beveland, allowing the remaining 20,000 men under Chatham himself to sail all the way to Sandvliet, reduce the largest forts protecting the narrow part of the Scheldt (Lillo and Liefkenshoek), and march on to destroy the dockyards of Antwerp.

Things went wrong almost immediately. The expedition sailed (late) at the end of July, and ran into a storm. Home Popham, the unofficial Captain of the Fleet, saved the expedition by sailing it into the sheltered Roompot and through the Veere Gat at the furthest point of Walcheren, but this meant most of the expedition (except for Huntly) were now in the East rather than the West Scheldt. Meanwhile, Lord Huntly failed to land at Cadzand, which meant the Breskens battery remained active and continued to reinforce Flushing by boat. This meant the British ships could only enter the West Scheldt through the sandbank-filled Sloe Passage separating Walcheren and Suid-Beveland. Understandably, it took time and effort to get hundreds of troop and supply transports through to the West Scheldt.

Chatham and Coote landed on Walcheren on 30 July 1809 at Breezand and initially made swift progress. By 3 August, all Walcheren except Flushing and all Suid Beveland were in British hands. At this stage the campaign stalled. The British fleet could not get into position to complete the siege of Flushing because of unfavourable winds, and the French continued reinforcing the town until 7 or 8 August. Because of this Chatham was forced to reinforce Coote from the men destined for Antwerp, putting that part of the plan on hold until Flushing fell. With no time for a slow siege, bombardment was the only option, but the British batteries were slow to build due to poor weather and did not open until 13 August. After two days of intensive bombardment Flushing fell, and after a short delay Chatham moved onto Suid-Beveland to continue to Antwerp.

By this time, however, the French had managed to bring 35,000 men to the area, removed their fleet further upriver, and repaired their fortifications. At about this time, sickness also broke out among the British troops. By the end of August a quarter of the army was out of action with a crippling combination of malaria, dysentery, typhus, and typhoid. Chatham called off the expedition on 27 August, and returned to England in mid-September with the bulk of the army.  The politicians had hoped to retain the valuable commercial base of Walcheren, and 16,000 men remained there with that in mind, but by December it was clear possessing the island was not worth the cost of defending it and it was evacuated.

Thankfully, our expedition was rather more successful, although we didn’t get to Antwerp either………..

The Walcheren Expedition of 1809 2016: Days 1-2

The first two days were, essentially, spent just getting there. We left Oxford at 3:00 am on 28 March, caught the train to West Folkestone, and cycled the remaining distance across the cliffs to Dover (grrrmbllr engineering works grrmmbbllr). The beginning of our journey was considerably enlivened by Storm Katie, which decided to break the night before we left. We had one cancelled train because of a tree on the line, and some delays, but apart from that Katie did little but give us a very rough ferry journey and then a tailwind on the other side (wheeeeeeeeeee).

We spent the first night in De Panne (Belgium), and on the second day reached Cadzand.

From here on, here’s a more detailed map of our Walcheren cycling:

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Map data ©2016 Google

Day 3 (30 March): Cadzand – Breskens – Vlissingen – Middelburg – Arnemuiden

We hit the coast pretty quickly after leaving Cadzand, and pretty much immediately we had our first sight of Walcheren:

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First sight of Walcheren!

If you consult the map at the top of this page, you can see we were approaching Vlissingen (Flushing) along the Wielingen Channel, which forms the opening to the West Scheldt. This was where Lord Huntly failed to land and disable the Breskens battery, which continued reinforcing Flushing for most of the siege. Flushing, incidentally, is the town on the right with the tall buildings.

We proceeded to Breskens, where we caught the ferry across to Flushing. I thought about the French reinforcements for Flushing making the same journey in 1809 under the nose of the British ships, rendered completely inactive by the contrary winds. I wonder if they indulged in a few rounds of “Your mother was a hamster, &c” as they went. I imagine they probably did.

 

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Once in Flushing, I was expecting to find the place looking very new and shiny with very few pre-1809 buildings surviving. The devastation of Chatham’s August 1809 bombardment was, by all accounts, pretty extensive.

 

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Flushing Town Hall during the bombardment, from here

I was agreeably surprised to find the town full of 16th and 17th century buildings. I daresay most of them lost their roof in 1809, and probably again in 1944, when the British returned to flatten Flushing a second time (this time by RAF bombing). There is quite a lot about the role of Walcheren in WWII on the island: several plaques, statues, monuments, museums, etc etc etc. There is virtually no sign of the 1809 expedition, however, which goes to show that victories are much more likely to be remembered than failures, particularly when said victories occurred within living memory.

Some of the fortifications were 16th century, although most dated from 1812, when the damage the British made to the harbour on leaving in 1809 was repaired. There was a windmill from 1699 on the seafront though, which appears in many prints of the bombardment of Flushing.

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British assault on Flushing from “France Militaire”, showing the 1699 windmill

After leaving Flushing, we made our way to Middelburg. Middelburg was where Chatham established his main headquarters, from 1 August 1809 until he moved to Suid-Beveland on 21 August. He returned there at the beginning of September.

Middelburg is still the capital of Zeeland, and a mighty pretty place it is too. The anonymous author of Letters from Flushing (London, 1809, pp. 109, 145, 207) described it as “an Amsterdam in miniature”, a fortified town with eight gates and twelve basions “with large and deep ditches filled with water”. Another source (Journal of the Walcheren Campaign, University of Michigan Coote MSS Box 29/3) wrote:

Middelburg, the Capital of Dutch Zealand, is a very handsome opulent town, well paved & lighted. The streets are pretty regular, and the houses very well built. … The appearance of the Town denotes a great degree of ease & opulence. … The Town is surrounded with a wide wet ditch of regular Bastions, but there are no Guns mounted on the Ramparts & the environs are so covered wth habitations & Plantations, that It could make no defence, so long as they were suffered to exist. The Groote Kercke, or principal church has a handsome steeple & very melodious chimes, which are for ever in play.

I can testify to the church chimes being “very melodious” and “for ever in play”. I could imagine Chatham being kept awake by them at *cough* ten o’clock in the morning *cough*.

He stayed in the Abbey while in Middelburg. The “Lange Jan” (“Long John”) church tower is attached to this. It is now the Zeeuws Museum, and therefore accessible to the public, although it was gutted during WWII. Some of the fixtures seem to be original, though:

Yes, I probably spent more time looking at the fixtures than at the museum exhibits (those were interesting too).

The Abbey itself (it closed in 1574) is a magnificent building, and I can totally understand why Chatham spent so much time there.

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Middelburg Abbey

We wandered about Middelburg for a couple of happy hours.  I should mention that at this stage of the trip I had not yet fully realised where we were yet and so the full import of our location had not yet penetrated. I suppose on some level I was kind of aware I was in the place I had been reading about for so long, but I think it was only when we reached Veere, the next day, that I truly realised WE WERE ON WALCHEREN.

But that is for Part 2

(And, as it turns out, because I’m utterly incapable of concision, Part 3)

John Hoppner’s portrait of the 2nd Earl of Chatham

The 2nd Earl of Chatham was painted a few times during his long lifetime. Not all of them still exist, of course. He was painted by an unknown silhouettist in Bath in 1777, and goodness knows what has happened to that. Two years later, in 1779, the Duke of Rutland commissioned a full-length portrait of his friend by Reynolds, but this perished in the Belvoir Castle fire of 1816 (and yes, I still cry about it). The silhouettist Charles Rosenberg also painted Chatham in 1800: I have seen a picture of this, but have no idea who now owns it. Apart from these instances, I know of five other extant portraits of Chatham:

  • By John Singleton Copley in “The Death of the Earl of Chatham”, ca 1779-1780
  • By George Romney in 1783
  • By Martin Archer Shee in ca 1794-5 (I call this one “Bad Hair Day John”)
  • By the studio of John Hoppner, ca 1799
  • By George Hayter in “The Trial of Queen Caroline”, ca 1821

I had the good fortune to see the “studio of Hoppner” painting last week. As a former First Lord of the Admiralty, Chatham’s portrait is currently in the possession of the Royal Marines, and hangs in the Commando Forces Officers’ Mess at Stonehouse Barracks in Plymouth. The Marines very kindly invited me down to see it, and to photograph it to appear in my forthcoming biography.

They also very kindly got it down from the wall for me, so I even got to help carry it (a somewhat terrifying experience).

Here it is, in all its glory:

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John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (studio of John Hoppner) (Courtesy of the Royal Marines Commando Forces, Stonehouse Barracks)

This is, of course, the portrait that was engraved by Valentine Green in 1799 and by Charles Turner in 1809.

The “studio of Hoppner” portrait (as it is described in both Ehrman’s “The Younger Pitt: the reluctant transition” and Robin Reilly’s “Pitt the Younger”) is something of a mystery. Nobody quite knows how long it has been in the possession of the Marines, although their records show it being in their collection as early as 1964 and there is a (probably early twentieth century) RM museum label on the back of the frame. But then their records also have it as a painting by Lemuel Abbott, which I’m pretty confident it is not.

Where it came from is also unknown. Online catalogues of Hoppner’s paintings describe the “original” as having been in the possession of Sir William Bellingham, whose descendant, Sir Henry, displayed it in 1902-3 at the Royal Hibernian Academy. Sir William Bellingham was certainly a vey close friend of Chatham’s, so the provenance for that portrait is sound. It is, however, described as:

hoppner_snapshot

Uhm. Star of an order? Sash yes, but no Garter star. However, there *is* the following portrait (from here), which claimed to be the “original” Hoppner exhibited by Sir Henry Bellingham:

johnhoppner_poorcopy

I have no idea of the provenance, but (apart from the fact Chatham is wearing the Garter in this painting) I’d say it’s a poor copy of the one the Marines have. The Marines’ painting may not be the “proper” Hoppner original, but in my opinion it is much more likely to be a Hoppner than the above.

My feeling is that the “original” Hoppner with the Star (belonging to the Bellingham family) is still out there somewhere. Where? I don’t know. But it is worth noting that the copy of the portrait owned by the Marines is subtly different from the black and white (poor quality) photos reproduced in Ehrman and Reilly. Clearly several copies of this portrait were made and handed out to friends and family.

For those who are curious, incidentally, Lord Chatham is wearing a Windsor uniform in this painting (not “naval uniform”, as the Artnet site claims *eyeroll*).

And in my opinion……………. it’s a very fine portrait 😀

_______

References

  • H.P.K. Skipton, John Hoppner (London, 1905)
  • William McKay and W. Roberts, John Hoppner, R.A. (London, 1909)

Many thanks to the Royal Marines Commandos of Stonehouse Barracks, Plymouth, for permission to reproduce the photographs of the portrait of the 2nd Earl of Chatham.

“The favourite child of Fortune”: more on Henry Hollis Bradford

Research often relies on serendipity, and I experienced that powerfully yesterday. I was in the National Library of Scotland, plugging a few research gaps, and called up a letter from 1817 written by John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, in the Walter Scott Papers. As far as I know, Chatham had no direct contact with Sir Walter Scott, although his wife’s sister (the Duchess of Buccleuch) was Scott’s patroness. I was curious to see what the letter was about.

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In fact it was one of several letters on the subject of the death of Sir Henry Hollis Bradford, who (if you will cast your minds back to a recent post of mine) had been one of Chatham’s aides-de-camp for many years. Bradford had served Chatham since about 1807 in the Eastern District, and followed him to Walcheren. Thereafter he pursued a distinguished career under Wellington in the Peninsula, and was seriously wounded during the Battle of Waterloo. Bradford died on 17 December 1816 in France at the age of 35.

I did a little digging on Bradford when I wrote my earlier blog post, but yesterday I learned a whole lot more about him and the circumstances of his Waterloo wound and death. It seems he was a friend of Sir Walter Scott, which is how all this correspondence survived in the first place, because his brother, General Sir Thomas Bradford, suggested Scott might want to compose the epitaph on Bradford’s tomb.[1]

I do not know the exact circumstances of Henry Bradford’s death, but it looks as though there was a bit of an attempt to connect it directly with his wound at Waterloo. Lieutenant-Colonel James Hunter Blair, Bradford’s friend, certainly thought so:

It is a consoling circumstance that … he [Bradford] lost his Life in the service of his Country & on an occasion when his Services were most distinguished. After having gone thro’ all the dangers of the 16th June, it became his duty as Q[uarter] M[aster] General to the Division of Guards, to direct & superintend the defences of Hugoumont [sic] which were so essential to the sucess of the eventful 18th … He was wounded towards the close of the Day on the 18th, at the moment of the general charge which repulsed the Imperial Guard.[2]

Sir Everard Home, from Wikimedia Commons

Sir Everard Home, from Wikimedia Commons

The surgeon Sir Everard Home, although he did not have a chance of inspecting the body, gave his opinion for the benefit of Bradford’s family:

[The ball] must have struck upon the side of the Vertebrae and recoiled upon the Spine of the Os Ilium where it was extracted on the 18th of June 1815 … An abcess took place on the Liver which came to the Skin[,] was opened[,] and healed.

These are all the intermediate circumstances. A fever came on yielding to no mode of treatment[.] Great despondency[,] irritability, wasting ensue[d], and the Patient die[d]. … My opinion is that all the most distressing Symptoms, the despondency, depression[,] emaciation[,] and the death which was the consequence of these Symptoms took place in consequence of the wound, by means of which the Spinal Marrow had been much irritated (although … no paralytic symptoms followed) that the brain and nervous System were disturbed beyond their bearing … Every thing possible was done, and … nothing could have saved him.[3]

It is of course possible that the wound had gone septic and killed him slowly over the course of several months; reading between the lines of the correspondence, however, Bradford seems not to have suffered overmuch physically from long-term effects, but was certainly strongly scarred mentally. Not, of course, an unnatural thing to happen, particularly as he seems to have had some damage to his spine.

Whatever the precise medical cause of death, Lieutenant-Colonel Blair was probably right that the cause of death was the Waterloo wound, one way or another, anyway. But the circumstances of the death were undeniably tragic, for Bradford had still been a comparatively young man. “Until his unexpected death he seemed the favourite child of Fortune,” Blair wrote. “… She had lavished on him every kind of favor, & he was not less remarkable on account of personal advantages[,] fascinating and best bred manners, than for a mind of dispositions which did him the highest honor & were an honor to the human race.”[2]

As for Chatham, he had remained close to his former aide long after their professional paths had diverged in the wake of Walcheren. Bradford had kept him regularly posted about his activities, and Chatham followed all his aides’ career paths with great interest. Lieutenant-Colonel Blair lost no time in informing Chatham of his former aide’s death, and Chatham wrote a letter of condolence that struck Blair was being of “a degree of regret & feeling most flattering to his memory”. He enclosed it for Sir Walter Scott’s reference, assuming Scott agreed to write Bradford’s epitaph:

Abington Hall, December 22 1816 [4]

Dear Sir,

Your Letter reached me this morning and I have in the first place to offer you my thanks for the kind and considerate manner in which you have executed the painful task imposed on you by Sir Thomas Bradford who has indeed done justice to my feelings towards his poor Brother, in thinking how severe an affliction the fatal event you had to communicate must prove to me.

In poor Bradford I have lost a most valuable and intimate Friend, for whom I had the sincerest affection, and whose progress through life I had followed with the most anxious interest, and it was ever a source to me of the truest gratification to find, how much both as a man and an Officer he was admired, esteemed and loved by all who knew him. Most sincerely indeed do I condole with all his family on this sad occasion, and on whom I fear this most heavy blow must have come rather unexpectedly.

I will not break in upon Sir Thomas Bradford in his present scene of distress with any Letter but as I shall be really anxious to know how he and all his Family are, I should be very much obliged to you to give me one line to say how you left them. I regret extremely that being absent from Town, I shall be deprived of the pleasure of seeing you, when you were so good to call in Hill Street, and I should have derived a melancholy satisfaction, in hearing from you every particular you could give me respecting the fate of my poor departed friend.

I remain my dear Sir

Your very faithful humble Servant,

Chatham [5]

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I do not know whether Scott composed the epitaph for Bradford or not, but since the correspondence is preserved among his papers, I gather he probably did. The epitaph reads:

To the memory of Sir Henry Hollis Bradford, Knight Commander of the most honorable Military Order of the Bath, and Lieutenant Colonel of the First of Grenadier Regiment of Foot Guards, This Monument is erected by his companions in arms, the witnesses of his valor, and sharers of his social hours. He died at La Vacherie, near Lilliers in France, on the 17th of December 1816, in the 36th year of his age; and was buried in this Church-Yard.

It isn’t much, but it is eloquent in its simplicity. I’d like to think Scott wrote it, and that Chatham’s regret helped shape the sentiments of it.

References

[1] Sir Thomas Bradford to James Hunter Blair, 28 February 1817, National Library of Scotland Scott MSS Ms 3888 f 32

[2] James Hunter Blair to [?], [February] 1817, National Library of Scotland Scott MSS Ms 3888 f 35

[3] Sir Everard Home’s opinion, 18 February 1817, National Library of Scotland Scott MSS Ms 3888 f 29

[4] The copy of the letter reads 1817, but since the correspondence dates from February 1817 that cannot be correct

[5] Lord Chatham to Lieutenant-Colonel Blair, 22 December 1816, National Library of Scotland Scott MSS Ms 3888 f 31