The Walcheren Expedition: 2016 (Part 2/3)

A few days ago I posted about my trip to Walcheren in the Netherlands, where my other half and I cycle-camped for several days last week. I wanted to do some on-the-spot research for my upcoming biography of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, who commanded the military part of the abortive British expedition to Walcheren in 1809.

For a brief historical overview of said campaign, and an account of my visit to Vlissingen (Flushing) and Middelburg, please see my previous post. Otherwise, read on for Part 2 of my Walcheren peregrinations…

Night 3 (30 March): Arnemuiden

We spent the night at a beautiful little farmhouse with the world’s most enormous barn, somewhere on the road between Middeburg and Arnemuiden. Thanks to land reclamation, Arnemuiden is no longer just off the Sloe Passage between Walcheren and the island of Suid-Beveland. In fact, as you can see by comparing the two maps at the top of this page, neither Walcheren nor Suid-Beveland is in fact an island any more at all. The Sloe, which caused so much tension between Chatham and Strachan, the naval commander, is no more, and Arnemuiden now looks out across acres of flat farmland studded with modern windmills. The whole 1809 expedition would have been much easier now than in 1809, when there were so many narrow watery bits and so many sandbanks to navigate between Walcheren and the “ultimate objective”, Antwerp. Now Chatham would just have been able to land and march.

In 1809, however, he did not have that luxury.* Arnemuiden was therefore an important place because the troops destined for Antwerp embarked here in the troop transports during the days after the fall of Flushing in August. Between 18 and 21 August, the 8000 reinforcements Chatham had landed on Walcheren to help cope with the increased French manpower in Flushing re-embarked under Generals Graham and Grosvenor. They spent the next four to six days stuck in the Sloe, twiddling their thumbs while the naval bods continually measured the depth of the channel and inched forwards (not helped by contrary wind and general poor weather).

A few days later Suid-Beveland was completely evacuated via Arnemuiden. A large proportion of the returning British were by this time very ill and the medical department, caught on the hop, had no resources to deal with them.


*Don’t even get me started on Strachan’s supposed suggestion of 1 August 1809 that Chatham land the men destined for Antwerp on Suid-Beveland and march them across the island to embark for Sandvliet, instead of sailing them through the Sloe Passage: “With him alone was there an option between a March of 36 hours, and a Voyage of an indefinite length”, etc etc (Strachan’s narrative, 5 March 1810, NA PRO 30/8/260 f 52). For more on that, see my book when it comes out.


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

One of Sir Eyre Coote’s ADCs reported: “We are not sufficiently supplied with Medical Officers or Medicines … [the sick in Flushing are] laying on the bare boards without Paillasses & many without Blankets. By an unfortunate mistake the Hospital Stores were shipped [from Suid-Beveland] with those of the Quarter Master General’s Department, and the Vessels being off Batz [Bath], no supplies can be received for the Habitants on this island”. The sick who arrived at Arnemuiden were “moved in Waggons” to Flushing, which (having been so recently bombarded) had very little accommodation that was not bomb-damaged in some way. (Journal of the Walcheren Campaign, University of Michigan Coote MSS Box 29/3) Here they continued to lie, two or three in a bed under hastily-erected tarpaulins to keep out the weather, while Chatham waited for instructions to send the rising numbers of sick back to England. These took so long in coming he eventually had to start sending the sick home without orders.

We didn’t spend much time in Arnemuiden, which we entered only to purchase some food to cook, but (fittingly) I was eaten alive by mosquitoes during the night. There were clouds of the blighters everywhere we went on the island, even in late March. I swatted a fair few of them, which did little in the practical sense but made me feel a bit better as a historian.

Day 4 (31 March): Arnemuiden – Veere – Grijpskerke – Breezand

We had had some thoughts about going down to Bath on Suid-Beveland, which was the closest Chatham and his men ever got to Antwerp (about nine miles away), but although we would have had time, we heard there was little to see there: the fort where Chatham stayed was gone, and land reclamation meant the territory had changed beyond recognition. We decided to stay on Walcheren instead, and see more of the “important stuff”.

Next day we were up bright and early and cycled the short distance along the canal to Veere. Veere was one of the more important towns that fell to the British on 1 August 1809: without possession of Veere, which defended the entrance to the Sloe Passage, the British ships could not proceed from the East to the West Scheldt. (The final link in the chain, Fort Rammekens, surrendered on 3 August.)

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Veere, by the canal

The centre of Veere probably hasn’t changed a great deal since 1809, although the town itself has got a lot bigger. The houses along the harbour’s edge are all 16th-17th century types, many probably older, and the place with its cobbled streets and CONSTANT bell-ringing from the Town Hall bell-tower has a lovely old-school feel to it.

Mind you, it probably wasn’t such a nice place to be on 1 August 1809, when General Fraser laid siege to it and bombarded it into submission. He was assisted by Home Popham, who brought several gunboats into play from the sea side. Assaulted by both army and navy, Veere surrendered within the day.

Popham’s unauthorised use of gunboats got him (and Chatham) into trouble. When Sir Richard Strachan found out that his boats were being brought close to the town walls, he gave orders for them to fall back. He immediately Chatham an extremely irritated letter, which must really have started things off between the two commanders on a great footing:

I cannot approve of the manner in which the Naval force has been applied this Morning to the great waste of Ammunition & Stores, without effecting one good purpose. I shall be most happy my Lord at all times to meet your wishes and to forward by every means in my power the operations of the rmy even if I did not feel that I was personally Concern’d in the Success of its operations, but I hope whenever your Lordship wishes to have the navy employ’d in a particular way that you would be pleased to signify your wishes to me. (NA PRO 30/8/369 f 70)

He may have had a point, as several gunboats sank during the bombardment.

Unlike Flushing, which shows no sign whatever of the British assault, a few of Veere’s houses on the canalfront have a few interesting architectural additions:

I’m fairly sure there has been a little “touching up” since 1809, but I am reliably informed these bad boys were launched either by Popham’s gunboats or Fraser’s batteries. There’s no fanfare about it, still less a plaque, but if you keep your eyes open you will see several houses with these interesting talking-points in various places.

Something else I found interesting in Veere was the Scottish connection. It seems one of the Lords of Veere in the 15th century married a daughter of the Scottish King. One of the clauses of the marriage contract was that Scots traders would have exclusive rights to trade from Veere, then a big commercial port (so long as they promised not to interfere with Dutch continental trade). In the 18th century, the Scots were still a big presence in Veere, and even had their own name for the place (“Cam Veere”). I had noticed one or two contemporary sources mentioning the Scots in Veere, but presumed they were talking about the 71st regiment, which I believe participated in besieging the place. It seems the reality was much more complicated.

Veere is no longer an atlantic trading station. It has been overtaken by bigger commercial centres, but the Veere Gat channel between Walcheren and Noord-Beveland has now been closed off by the Veere Dam, creating the Veere Sea. Had Home Popham attempted to sail the British fleet into the Veere Gat now, he’d have run into trouble fairly swiftly.

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On the Veere Dam, looking out towards the Veere Sea (and probaby standing right where Popham sailed the British fleet in 1809…)

We spent some time wandering the streets of Veere, visiting the museum, and being driven half-demented by the tinkling of the bells (I don’t think I have ever heard bells replicate a baroque trill before), before leaving for our accommodation at Breezand.

On our way up we passed through Grijpskerke, which was where Chatham established his second headquarters on Walcheren on the night of 31 July 1809. Chatham had never intended to set foot on Walcheren: according to the original plan (see my first post) he had meant to stay with the main part of the army sailing down the West Scheldt to Sandvliet and Antwerp. Due to the poor weather conditions that drove nearly the whole expedition into the Roompot, however, he ended up on the wrong side of the island, and decided instead to shadow Sir Eyre Coote’s siege of Flushing.

Coote wasn’t best pleased by the arrangement, particularly when Chatham and his staff kept stealing all the best accommodation everywhere they went: “The Commander of the Forces, with all his collateral Staff, arrived at Grypskerke at the same time as we did, and so crouded the place, that it was with difficulty, we could obtain a lodging”. (Journal of the Walcheren Campaign, University of Michigan Coote MSS Box 29/3)

I can see why, as Grijpskerke was, and still is, tiny tiny tiny. But it was very cute, and had a neat little Protestant church in the centre, which begged to be photographed.

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Church at Grijpskerke

We continued cycling to Breezand. I was looking forward to seeing the place where the British actually made their landing in the evening of 30 July 1809. Breezand was not the originally chosen landing place. The first landing place selected for the expedition, in July 1809, was the broad beaches at Zouteland, a couple of miles north of Flushing, but Strachan insisted on landing further away when the French brought their fleet out into the Flushing roads.

The plan was therefore changed in late July to land near Domburg, at the south-western tip of the island, further away from Flushing but still on the right side of the island. Due to the south-westerly gale on 29 July, however, Domburg became unsafe for landing. The only viable place was Breezand, sheltered by the Roompot and by nearby Noord-Beveland, where the French were in any case not expecting the Brits (… and why would they have been? Breezand was at the WRONG BLOODY END OF THE BLOODY ISLAND).

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Breezand, looking towards Veere Dam (formerly the Veere Gat)

The British landed in the evening of 30 July 1809, once the storm had calmed down a little bit. They encountered minimal resistance and swiftly beat back the French through the scrubland along the top of the dunes, taking Fort Den Haak in short order and chasing the fort’s garrison to the gates of Veere (where they were fired on and forced to retreat).

Fort Den Haak no longer stands (destroyed by the British before they left in December 1809), but there is a plaque. This was the only obvious recognition I saw anywhere on the peninsula acknowledging that the 1809 expedition had taken place. Poor Lt-Gen Fraser, though (the highest-ranking casualty of “Walcheren Fever”) gets saddled with responsibility for the whole expedition, just because he happened to command the taking of the fort. Not sure who’d be more annoyed about that, Fraser or Chatham!

Breezand is now a holiday resort, so we were spoiled for choice in terms of campsites. The one we chose had direct access to a private area of beach, only a half kilometre or so from Fort Den Haak. The beach was broad and very clean, fringed with shallow sandhills (they were not hard to climb) and topped with a tangle of prickly gorse and twisted birch.

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Road through the sandhills to Breezand

I visited there about 7pm on a beautiful evening. It was the last day of March, so not the end of July by any means, and of course the British landed after a storm when the sea was still very choppy, so the conditions were in no way alike. Still, I was almost entirely alone, and I felt there was very little but time separating me from the landing two hundred years previously.

I even saw some riders on the beach, and wondered whether it was an echo through the ages of Chatham and his staff riding to Fort Den Haak for the night.

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Horse riders on Breezand

Apparently the night following the landing was wet and cold. Ours was definitely cold, but beautifully clear. I saw a shooting star over Middelburg (which, in daylight, you could just make out on the horizon from the top of the dunes).

Part 3/3 follows shortly, taking us all the way round the island and back to Flushing…

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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)

The Helder Campaign, 1799: research visit to Noord-Holland, Part 2

About a year ago I did a considerable amount of research on the Anglo-Russian Helder expedition of 1799 (you can read more about that here). John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham had returned to his military career in 1798, and was appointed to the command of the 7th Brigade in the expedition. My novel follows him to Holland, and last week I finally got the opportunity to do some location research. My husband and I hired a tandem, took a train from Amsterdam to Den Helder, and cycled through the most important locations associated with the campaign.

What follows is Part 2 of the account of my research trip. Part 1 can be found here.

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 Day Two (conclusion): Alkmaar

We spent a little time exploring Alkmaar. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Alkmaar was the second headquarters of the Allied force. The Dutch General Daendels had previously used Alkmaar as his headquarters, but was forced to move out when the British advanced from Schagerbrug in the wake of the 2 October 1799 action. The Duke of York established himself in Daendels’ evacuated HQ.

Alkmaar must have been a pleasant change after the middle-of-nowhere that was Schagerbrug, although the British and Russians were only able to enjoy it for slightly less than a week. Now mainly known for its weekly cheese market, Alkmaar was without a doubt the most beautiful of the towns we visited. In 1799 the town was surrounded by “a thick wall, faced with brick, about three miles in circumference, and strengthened with bastions at regular intervals” (E. Walsh, Narrative of the Expedition to Holland … (London, 1800) p 70). Now only the moat survives, but the Old Town, with canals running through its main streets lined with warehouses, cannot have changed much in two hundred years.

Warehouses by the canal in Alkmaar

Warehouses by the canal in Alkmaar

In one of those odd twists of fate, I was just telling my husband that I did not know where exactly the Duke of York’s headquarters were when we came upon an elegant Rococo-style building with a plaque next to the front door. Between us my husband and I managed to make out enough of the plaque’s Dutch to gather that we had, quite coincidentally, located the building used by the Duke as his HQ.

The headquarters of the Duke of York at Alkmaar

The headquarters of the Duke of York at Alkmaar

Plaque marking the headquarters of the Duke of York at Alkmaar

Plaque marking the headquarters of the Duke of York at Alkmaar

This house was originally built for the mayor of Alkmaar and must have been the best house in the town. It was just opposite the town hall, which was itself an extremely impressive building.

Alkmaar's town hall

Alkmaar’s town hall

At one end of the main street was a church, the 15th century Sint-Laurenskerk. During the battle of 6 October 1799 the rain was so heavy and the visibility so bad that the Duke of York, who remained at Alkmaar throughout, sent one of his aides up the church tower to try his best to work out what was going on!

Sint Laurenskerk in Alkmaar. The Duke of York sent his aide-de-camp up this church tower to see what was going on during the 6 October action

Sint Laurenskerk in Alkmaar. The Duke of York sent his aide-de-camp up this church tower to see what was going on during the 6 October action

Day Three: Alkmaar – Egmond-aan-Zee – Castricum – Wijk-aan-Zee

We were up super early on Day 3 in order to benefit from the weather, which continued glorious. Our intention was to follow Lord Chatham’s steps on the 6 October 1799, during the Anglo-British assault on the towns of Castricum. The battle grew out of the Allied attempt to extend their line to the south in preparation for an attack on the new French/Dutch headquarters at Beverwijk, but turned into a full-on unexpected scrap when the French poured their entire resources into repulsing them. The French commander Brune himself charged the British at the head of his cavalry. The end result was a victory for the Allies, but a Pyrrhic one, and they subsequently retreated back to Schagerbrug and shortly after gave up the whole campaign for lost.

I also wanted to go back towards Egmond-aan-Zee, since I had made a discovery just before bed the night before. Chatham’s movements on 6 October were rather nebulous, since official reports of the battle were comparatively sketchy. His activity can be deduced only from the fact that his brigade (along with that of Lord Cavan) suffered the most casualties. I’m still not entirely sure where and how he was deployed, and nobody else seems to have worked it out either. The great Sir John Fortescue also failed to work it out, but came to the following, somewhat unprofessional, conclusion anyway:

The brigade that suffered most severely was Chatham’s, in which the three battalions of the Fourth lost nearly 150 officers and men killed and wounded, and over 500, including 13 officers, prisoners; while the 31st lost over 100 killed and wounded and 33 prisoners. In what part of the field these battalions were engaged I have been unable to discover, but under so incompetent a brigadier they were likely to come to misfortune in any position (Fortescue, History of the British Army IV (II) 697)

To which I of course say “Hey!”, since in my opinion this is a 20/20 hindsight conclusion to make, particularly as Fortescue admits he does not know where Chatham was to be found.

The large number of captured troops was due to the poor weather on the day of the battle. The Sun of 16 October 1799 contained the following account:

sun16oct1799chathamatcastricummencaptired

From looking over the Army Lists the captured units clearly belonged to Lieutenant Colonel Cholmondeley, who was captured along with a number of several of his officers. They were exchanged the following year.

I had spent the previous evening in our hotel reading through my 1799 campaign notes, and I thought I was beginning to work out what Chatham might have been doing on 6 October. My initial impression of the post-2 October campaign was that Chatham had remained with General Dundas and followed the same order of battle on the 6th as on the 2nd, but I found the following letter from Chatham to his mother quoted in my own notes:

Egmont: Oct 4 [1799]

My dear Mother,

I have but a moment to write to you a single line to say that I am perfectly well … We succeeded in a general attack on the enemy on Wednesday … and I moved in the course of yesterday before this place to reinforce Sir R[alph] Abercrombie [sic], but the enemy, on his approach, unmasked the place, and we have marched in this morning. (Quoted in Lord Ashbourne, Pitt: Some Chapters of his Life and Times (London, 1898), pp 168-9)

From this it seems clear that Chatham did not remain with the division of 2 October, but joined with Abercromby at Egmont, with whom he presumably remained for the action of 6 October.

So back to Egmont we went. Egmont is now a tiny, generic seaside resort town, and although there were a few old buildings left, most of them now converted to shops selling miscellaneous seaside-related tat. It was clearly nestled right in the middle of the dunes, however, and must have been in quite a commanding strategic position in 1799.

Dunes rising near Egmond-aan-Zee

Dunes rising near Egmond-aan-Zee

From Egmont we cycled back through the dunes towards Castricum, passing through Heiloo and Limmen on the way: two villages where the Russian force received a strong check from the French on 6 October, and where I originally thought Chatham’s men might have come unstuck. The dunes here strongly resembled the ones north of Egmont, rising up and down for miles between the sea and the flat polders of the interior. Once again, it was obvious that British infantry would have had a hard time marching up and down without being split up into divisions. The sand underfoot gave way easily, though it was largely kept in place by the omnipresent scrub and heather.

Scrubland on the dunes near Castricum

Scrubland on the dunes near Castricum

As I mentioned before, the weather on 6 October 1799 was awful in the extreme, with driving rain on and off from early afternoon until long into the night. In wet, misty conditions the visibility in the dunes cannot have been good. I do not know how Lt Col Cholmondeley’s division got separated from the rest of Chatham’s brigade, but one thing is for sure: this was not ideal terrain for the British troops.

After a lot of up-and-downing (who knew there were quite so many hills in Holland?!) the land flattened out towards Castricum. Like Egmont, today it is a nondescript seaside town, very modern.

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After lunch we cycled on towards Beverwijk. Once again we entered the dunes. Somewhere on this terrain Lord Chatham received a spent musket ball to the shoulder, which glanced off his epaulette but apparently forced off his coat and waistcoat on its path. Obviously I couldn’t tell exactly where, but it was odd to be on the spot I had read about so many times.

Dunes between Castricum and Beverwijk. If you squint you can juuuust see my husband

Dunes between Castricum and Beverwijk. If you squint you can juuuust see my husband

We did not manage to get into Beverwijk that day, but stopped at our hotel at Wijk-aan-Zee. In 1799 much fighting took place in this tiny village; now it’s a beach resort. Because it was such a lovely day we had to paddle, and I took an amazing shot of the sand dunes rising away to the north.

Beach at Wijk-aan-Zee looking down towards the bigger dunes in the north

Beach at Wijk-aan-Zee looking down towards the bigger dunes in the north

Day Four: Wijk-aan-Zee – Beverwijk – Amsterdam

Much like the British and Russians, the push to Beverwijk was our last effort. In 1799, the Allied forces fell back on a long, nightmarish march to Schagerbrug, where the decision was made on 14 October to abandon the campaign and return home. A convention was signed with General Brune on the 18th by which the British and Russians were to be permitted to re-embark unmolested in return for the release of eight thousand French prisoners of war.

We decided to pop into Beverwijk to see if we could see any trace of its 1799 past, but we might as well not have bothered. Like Castricum, Beverwijk is virtually 100% modern. We found the church, which was clearly very old, and one or two older-looking houses close to the shopping centre, but otherwise, since we were not there to spend money in a high street boutique, we high-tailed it.

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After getting snarled up in Beverwijk’s spaghetti-like network of motorway and dual carriageway junctions, we managed to find our way out and spent the next hour and a half or so cycling into Amsterdam, which we reached in time for lunch.

Following in the footsteps of the Helder campaign was quite an experience, and one I have been planning for nearly a year. I am very glad we managed to see the terrain. Needless to say the relevant chapters in my novel will be getting a significant rewrite!

The 1799 Helder Expedition

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(British forces landing at the Helder, 27 August 1799, by Dirk Lengendyck, from here)

The Helder Expedition was one of the campaigns that formed a part of the Second Coalition of allies against France. Its purpose was to open a second front in Holland to distract the French, who when the campaign was planned doing badly in the Rhineland and northern Italy fighting against Austrian and Russian troops.

Forty-five thousand British and Russian troops landed on the North Holland peninsula between the end of August and the middle of September 1799. Their objective was to march on Amsterdam, with the aim of flushing the French occupying forces out of the country and restoring the regime of the House of Orange.

Strong winds prevented the forces landing at all until the very end of August. The campaign initially went well, with the Dutch navy surrendering without a shot being fired on 30 August, but things quickly went downhill. At the beginning of September the bad weather re-established itself and did not let up for weeks. The allied commander-in-chief, the Duke of York, quickly discovered that he had not been adequately supplied for a lengthy campaign and that the Dutch inhabitants were either indifferent or hostile to the invading forces. The allied forces entrenched themselves behind the Zijpe Canal and waited for the weather to improve.

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(Map of the main locations involved in the Helder campaign, from here)

From the very first the British and Russian forces did not get along well. The two forces did not mix: the British considered the Russians to be little more than savages, “repulsive and ferocious” (Edward Walsh, A narrative of the expedition to Holland 1800, p 47). Matters did not improve when, on 19 September, the Duke of York ordered the troops to attack the French and Dutch lines and force them to retreat further south. Possibly due to poor communication the Russians began marching earlier than planned and soon over-extended their line. The Russian commander in chief, Hermann, and his deputy were captured in the ensuing fight in the town of Bergen. The British troops were forced to abandon their original objective in order to rescue the Russian forces from disaster.

It was not an auspicious beginning, and from that moment on the Russian command— now headed by General Ivan Essen— harboured a deep distrust of their British allies. Two weeks passed before the weather improved sufficiently for another attempt, and on 2 October the allies attempted to capture the towns of Egmont op Zee, Bergen and Alkmaar from the French.

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(Battle of Egmont, 2 October 1799)

On this occasion they were more successful, and by the end of a lengthy day of fighting on the beaches and sand dunes the French fell back. The allies suffered heavy casualties, however, in part due to the nature of the terrain.

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(17th century depiction of Egmont op Zee, showing the huge sand dunes)

The towns were surrounded by a network of enormous sand dunes, some as high as 80 or 100 feet, and criss-crossed with deep narrow valleys. This made it impossible to form up large units of men, and the British in particular found it heavy going. A private soldier from the 92nd regiment of Highlanders wrote afterwards:

“In one instance, one of our parties having climbed to the top of a sand ridge, found that a party of the enemy was just beneath, and instantly rushed down the ridge upon them; but the side of the ridge was so steep and soft, that the effort to keep themselves from falling prevented them from making regular use of their arms. They were involuntarily precipitated amongst the enemy, and the bottom of the ridge was so narrow, and the footing on all sides so soft, that neither party were [sic] able, for want of room, to make use of the bayonet; but they struck at each other with the butts of their firelocks, and some individuals were fighting with their fists.” (Narrative of a private soldier in His Majesty’s 92nd regiment of foot… 1820, p 75)

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(Photograph of the sand dunes around Schoorl, North Holland)

Following the battle of the 2nd October the allied forces were able to move out from behind the Zijpe and entrench themselves further south around Alkmaar. They were still several miles away from Amsterdam, however. A further attempt to push the lines further forward was made on 6 October in an assault on Beverwijk.

Once again, however, poor communication between the brigades led to near disaster. The weather was so poor that the troops could barely see each other, let alone the enemy. The Duke of York, who remained at Alkmaar, had no idea what was going on and sent one of his aides up a church spire with a telescope to check on his troops’ progress.

Reports of the battle are sketchy, but what seems to have happened was that the Russians became over-extended for a second time. They pushed on to Castricum and more British divisions had to be hastily sent out to reinforce them and extend their flank. The French commander, General Brune, charged at the head of his cavalry in person, but were turned back by a British cavalry charge through the sandhills which pretty much saved the day.

By evening the French and Dutch retreated but the allied forces were exhausted and had, once again, suffered heavy casualties. The rain had mired down the roads and cut off their precarious supply lines. They had no choice but to retreat, in some disorder— some British units confused the dykes that criss-crossed the country with the wet roads and fell in. The army retreated back to the Zijpe and the French and Dutch regained their lost territory.

It was status quo, and the weather continued dreadful. The supplies were running low, the men were beginning to fall victim to marsh fever, and there was no immediate prospect of success in a march on Amsterdam. More seriously, news came in of General Suvorov’s defeat in Switzerland at the hands of Massena: the allied force, originally meant to be a distraction for the French, was now in danger of becoming the whole French army’s main focus.

The commanders decided to cut their losses and make terms. These were signed on 18 October and permitted the allied forces to evacuate unmolested, provided 8000 French prisoners of war were released from Britain.

The end result of the campaign was several thousand casualties, mostly Russian, and extreme bad feeling between Britain and her ally. Shortly afterwards Russia dropped out of the coalition, although the Russian troops remained in the Channel Islands until the spring thaw allowed them to return home.