Hands up who REALLY wants an inquiry?

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Robert Waithman’s City of London Address to the King calling for an inquiry into the failure of the Walcheren Expedition. At the end of the post, I quoted Richard Ryder’s letter to his brother Lord Harrowby explaining that the City Address marked the moment when Walcheren’s military commander, Lord Chatham, realised an inquiry of some sort into his conduct was more or less guaranteed.[1]

Chatham knew many people thought his inactivity and incompetence were mostly to blame for the failure of the expedition. He also suspected there was a conspiracy among his cabinet colleagues — he was still Master-General of the Ordnance — to make sure he ended up carrying the can for everyone. He wanted to make it entirely clear he had nothing to hide. The result, two days after the City of London presented their Address to the Throne, was the following defiant and completely unsolicited letter to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Liverpool:

22 December 1809

My Lord,

Having perused the Address of the City of London, presented to His Majesty on Wednesday last, together with the answer which His Majesty was advised to return thereto, I feel it my duty to represent to Your Lordship, as One of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, in order to its being laid before His Majesty, that I am as perfectly ready to submit every part of my Conduct to any Military Investigation which His Majesty may be pleased to order, as I am, and ever have professed myself to be, most earnestly and anxiously desirous, that, whenever Parliament shall assemble, … the whole of my Conduct and of the Expedition to ye Scheld [sic], shou’d undergo the fullest and strictest enquiry, being perfectly conscious of having discharged with zeal and fidelity, the trust which His Majesty was graciously pleased to confide to me, and feeling that all that is necessary to vindicate my conduct from ye secret Attacks which have been with so much industry made upon it, is that it shou’d be fully known and fairly understood. I have the honor to be, etc etc.

Chatham.[2]

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Lord Liverpool

Liverpool duly passed the letter on to the King on the 23rd, as Chatham had requested, and on the 24th received the King’s permission to lay Chatham’s letter before the rest of the cabinet.[3] It was at this point that someone actually read Chatham’s letter, whereupon the proverbial excrement hit the proverbial fan.

Possibly what happened was this:

Liverpool: And here’s the letter Lord Chatham wrote to me expressing his willingness to lay his conduct before an inquiry, which I forwarded on to the King.

Perceval:

Liverpool: What?

Perceval: Have you even read this?

Liverpool: Yes, why?

Perceval: The answer His Majesty was advised to return? “Secret attacks” on his conduct? HE’S EARNESTLY AND ANXIOUSLY DESIROUS FOR AN INQUIRY?

Liverpool: ….. Ah.

Obviously this letter, whether submitted to the King or not, could not possibly be allowed to go down in the record as Chatham’s official sentiments. Not only did he imply his distrust in his own colleagues and their motives, but he was also expressing pretty openly his desire for an inquiry, something the King had just informed the City of London would be a matter for Parliament to decide.

Chatham was well within his rights expressing his wish for an inquiry, and he was right that putting that wish down in an official document was the only thing to do at this stage of the game. But prime minister Perceval couldn’t let this document into the public eye, or there would be some very uncomfortable questions to answer. Liverpool, therefore, was sent away with strict instructions to get more information out of Chatham.

On 30 December, Liverpool wrote, somewhat circuitously:

My Lord,

According to Your Lordship’s Desire, I have laid your Letter of the 22d Inst before the King, and I have since communicated it with His Majesty’s Permission, to those of HM’s Confidential Servants, who were in Town.

After having made this Communication, I am desirous, in answering your Letter, to say, that if Your Lordship means, that in the Event of an Enquiry either Military, or Parliamentary, being judged expedient, respecting the Expedition to the Scheldt, on Publick Grounds, you were anxious that no Consideration of a Nature, Personal to yourself, should enduce His Majesty’s Govt to resist it, but that in such case you were ready to submit your Conduct, to the fullest, and strictest Investigation, It is nothing more than what we have always understood to be Your Lordship’s Feelings, and indeed what We might be assured, must, under all the Circumstances, have been that feeling.

But if Your Lordship’s Meaning is, (whether on Publick or Private Considerations) that it would be the Duty of His Majesty’s Government to assent to any Motion, which may be made in Parliament for enquiry, or that you would feel it your own Duty, to express by yourself in the House of Lords, or through some Person authorised for that Purpose in the House of Commons, your Desire that such Enquiry should take place, I am confident Your Lordship will see, how important it is, that His Majesty’s Government should not be acting, under any Uncertainty or Misapprehension, of Your Lordship’s views, and Intentions upon this Subject.

… I have the honor to be etc etc

Liverpool.[4]

On receiving this Chatham clearly thought “Eh?” His reply, dated 31 December, can be summarised as “Unless you are replying on the King’s behalf, you can drop off the edge of a cliff”, but in its fullest form it made it quite clear that he felt it his duty to speak up on the subject of an inquiry. He began with an entirely Chatham-typical swipe at Liverpool’s lapse in official form, replying as an individual rather than as Secretary of State for War:

You must excuse me, if I can not admit, any letter from you as an Official answer to mine, unless written by the King’s Command. I certainly did not expect to receive any, unless it shou’d have been His Majesty’s Pleasure, that a Military Investigation shou’d take place into my conduct.

Chatham’s response clearly showed his idea of how an inquiry should be handled differed markedly from the prime minister’s, which was not surprising, as up till now Perceval had been putting off the idea of an inquiry rather than facing it head-on:

You will I think … agree with me, that as the King’s Answer did not confine itself to the Enquiry asked for by ye Address of the City of London, but went further and directly pointed to a Proceeding in Parliament, it was not unnatural, that I shou’d not be wholly silent on that Point. With regard to the line which it may be proper for His Majesty’s Government to take in Parliament on the subject of the Expedition to the Scheld [sic], it must as I conceive, somewhat depend on circumstances, but whenever that question is brought under the consideration of the King’s Servants, I shall be happy to discuss it with my Colleagues at the Cabinet, or individually with any of them who may be so disposed.[5]

Liverpool was aghast. He promptly showed the letter to his cabinet colleagues, who were equally horrified. The meeting of Parliament was only three weeks away: what with the difficulties the government was under already, it was a very bad time for the Master-General of the Ordnance to go off half-cocked. “It seems to me to make it necessary to have a Cabinet soon to take this most important point into consideration, and to learn his real sentiments,” Richard Ryder wrote to Lord Harrowby.[6] Chatham, meanwhile, continued being intractable. When Liverpool wrote to him suggesting a cabinet meeting to discuss the matter further, Chatham bluntly informed him “for the sake of correctness on a point which seems to require it … that when the purport of my letter and the caracter [sic] in which I addressed you are considered, any answer to me … must have been to signify to me, not what you term the determination of Government, but His Majesty’s Pleasure”.[7]

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Spencer Perceval

Perceval now stepped in, conscious that this was about to become really silly. A cabinet was called on 5 January to discuss the matter, but Chatham claimed he was too ill to attend. Guessing that he probably didn’t want to discuss his grievances in full before colleagues whose good opinion he suspected, Perceval and Liverpool agreed to meet him privately. The meeting was inconclusive: Chatham agreed his words had been too strong, but did not agree to write another.[8]

The problem was that Chatham and Perceval both wanted different things. Chatham wanted an inquiry that would clear him: Perceval wanted an inquiry he could control, and had no intention of helping Chatham clear his name until he was sure doing so would not backfire. On 9 January Perceval and Chatham met again, this time one on one. Chatham at last agreed to rewrite his letter, but still clung to the phrase “anxiously desirous”.

Perceval knew he had to be firm and stop Chatham committing the government to a course it did not want to pursue. He wrote back on the 10th, gently but firmly trying to persuade Chatham that he hadn’t actually meant what he had really said:

I enter fully into all your feelings upon this occasion, and it is with great reluctance that I lean against any expression by which you would prefer to convey these feelings.

But I think the expression ‘anxiously desirous’ would compel you & your Friends, in consistency with that Expression to urge & press for Enquiry; not to talk of it as of a proceeding which you were ready to meet, if others on any ground thought it necessary or expedient, but as one which you thought the occasion required, either with a view to the protection of your own Character, or for the satisfaction of the Public. It is because I think that Expression conveys or at least implies such an Opinion on your part that I wish you to avoid it. … There are no words which I should object to, however strong, if they only express your readiness, to meet enquiry, when stirred by others, provided they do not express or imply a desire to stir it yourself, or an opinion, that it should be instituted.[9]

To Perceval’s relief, Chatham caved in. The offensive phrases were all dropped, and the final version printed in the official Papers laid before the Walcheren Inquiry was as follows. The edited bits are in bold:

Having perused the Address of the City of London, presented to His Majesty on Wednesday last, together with His Majesty’s Answer thereto, I feel it my duty to represent to Your Lordship, as One of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, in order to its being laid before His Majesty, that I am most entirely ready to submit every Part of my Conduct to any such Military Investigation as His Majesty may be pleased to direct, and that I shall not be less so, whenever Parliament may assemble, to meet any Enquiry, which in their wisdom they may judge it fit to institute into my Conduct, being perfectly conscious of having discharged with zeal and with fidelity the important trust which HM was graciously pleased to confide to me.[10]

Which was a lot of paper to produce one tiny — but significant — paragraph.

 

References

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

[2] Chatham to Lord Liverpool (draft), 22 December 1809, PRO 30/8/364 f. 30

[3] Liverpool to the King, 23 December 1809; the King to Liverpool, 24 December 1809, quoted in Aspinall V, pp. 477-8

[4] Liverpool to Chatham, 30 December 1809, PRO 30/8/368 f. 7

[5] Chatham to Liverpool (draft), 31 December 1809, PRO 30/8/364 f. 32

[6] Ryder to Lord Harrowby, 1 January 1810, quoted in Aspinall V, pp. 478-9 n. 1

[7] Liverpool to Chatham, 2 January 1810, PRO 30/8/368 f. 9; Chatham to Liverpool (draft), 2 January 1810, PRO 30/8/364 f. 34

[8] This is inferred from letters from Richard Ryder to Lord Harrowby, 4-5 January 1810, quoted in Aspinall V, p. 480 n. 1

[9] Chatham to Perceval, [9 January 1810], Cambridge University Library Add.8713/VII/B/5; Perceval to Chatham, 10 January 1810, PRO 30/8/368 f. 125

[10] A Collection of papers relating to the expedition to the Scheldt, presented to Parliament in 1810 (London, 1811), pp. 126-7

Civilian observers at Walcheren

One thing that amazed me about the Walcheren campaign (1809) was the sheer number of civilian observers who accompanied it. Was this normal? I don’t know. It’s interesting, though.

Probably one of the reasons so many civilians were allowed to accompany the expedition is that so many of the planners thought it would be a walkover. 40,000 men and 600 vessels could not possibly fail to succeed against an enemy which, according to (fairly inaccurate) intelligence accounts, was probably no larger than 18,000 ill-equipped men in total, scattered across the wide area of the Scheldt river basin. Napoleon had probably taken all the best troops inland to deal with the Austrians, who had recently reopened the continental campaign and were initially doing quite well. Walcheren was supposed to be utterly undefended, and Antwerp (the ultimate objective) was believed to have crumbling, badly-maintained defences. How could the campaign fail?

And so privileged tourists were not discouraged from tagging along. No, “not discouraged” is too tame: they were invited. Mostly, it seems, by Sir Home Popham, the controversial naval officer who was the mastermind behind the campaign’s planning.

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I can only imagine what Lord Chatham’s reaction must have been when someone told him what Popham had done.

But Popham had his agenda. Some of the people he invited had specific roles to play in spreading word of the campaign. Some of them were high-profile aristocrats with political connections. Some of them were, frankly, just hangers-on. Essentially, they were all meant to bring home a uniform message: the campaign was going well, and Britain’s military in action was an impressive thing.

Of course the campaign did not go well, and Britain’s military simply twiddled its thumbs, sank knee-deep in water, then keeled over impressively with malaria. And Popham’s “guests” turned out to be liabilities in more ways than one. He probably regretted inviting most of them.

  1. William Lowther, Lord Lowther

Several noblemen accompanied the expedition. Lord Yarmouth volunteered his private yacht to the fleet, and came with it. One of Lord Dormer’s brothers also attended, “to see The Fun“. A gentleman named Richard Neville also came with Yarmouth “in hopes of finding a passage on board a seventy-four”. [1] The observer who seems to have left the most sizeable paper trail behind him, however, was William Lowther, Lord Lonsdale.

William_Lowther,_2nd_Earl_of_Lonsdale

Lord Lowther was the eldest son and heir of the Earl of Lonsdale. Lonsdale was a prominent government supporter with family connections to Lord Mulgrave, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Lowther was twenty-two and had recently been elected to Parliament. He was also something at a loose end, and fancied seeing Antwerp. Popham no doubt thought he might have a quiet word at the Admiralty on his behalf and invited him along.

Lowther kept a journal recording his experiences, and wrote frequently to his father. His intelligence can best be gauged by the fact he kept sending his letters home by merchant cutters, full of information about plans and strategies Popham had told him. “I yesterday persuaded the Master of a Deal vessel coming to England to carry a letter for me which I hope you received,” Lowther wrote to his father on 2 August 1809, “as it would probably bring you the first intelligence of our securing a safe Landing place, as no letters are yet allowed to be sent off to England.”[2] (No letter dated 1 August exists in the collection, so presumably the French, not Lonsdale, were the ones to receive first intelligence.)

Lowther’s journal is nevertheless an amazing historical resource. He was clearly very much in the way, following Lord Chatham (the commander in chief) everywhere, all the while loudly complaining about his incapacity. He continued sending accounts of British movements home — Chatham’s plans to continue to Antwerp, the movement of troops to South Beveland, naval dispositions — all while spending much of his spare time searching unsuccessfully for Middelburg’s “bawdy houses” to make a “Dutch peace“.[3]

Finally, on 11 August, Lowther sprained his arm falling off his horse and eventually went home after the bombardment of Flushing, utterly disgusted with what he had seen and convinced that, “if at any time there was any chance of reaching Antwerp, it was entirely thrown away by the inactivity of Ld Chatham”.[4]

Upon returning home, Lowther preceded Chatham’s own return in mid-September by fulminating loudly about him to everyone he met. His stories barely seem to accord with what actually happened:

He said Strachan had urged [Chatham], by every consideration, to mask Flushing with 10,000 men and the flotilla, and that he would engage to get round the island, either by the West or East Scheldt, and land the rest of the army, 25,000 strong, near Antwerp; but Ld. Chatham said drawlingly, we had better wait two or three days to see what would come of this first. Those two or three days were decisive of the whole business.[5]

Unsurprisingly, when Lowther was offered a place as a junior Admiralty minister under Spencer Perceval, he hesitated, certain Chatham (a member of the cabinet) would block his appointment out of spite. He was wrong. “I can only say,” Chatham wrote to Perceval, “that as far as I am concerned, I have not the least wish, that any opinions he may have taken up … shou’d interfere, with any general advantage to be derived to Government, by his accepting Office”.[6] Lowther’s friends admitted it was “a handsome letter, and, it must be owned, what was not expected”.[7] But Lowther had completely misjudged Chatham, who, though perfectly capable of holding a grudge when personally threatened, had no reason to act peevishly towards small fry like Lowther.

2. Sir William Curtis

Sir-William-Curtis

Another, less youthful civilian observer was Sir William Curtis, a London alderman, who brought a vessel, “beautifully painted, adorned with a Streamer bearing devices prognosticating victory and glory, and carrying delicate refreshments of all kinds to the military and naval commanders, and the principal officers”.[8]

Curtis, a friend of Castlereagh and Chatham, became more into a figure of ridicule than anything. Having once plied the military commanders with turtle soup, he was shown in caricature after caricature provisioning high command with the turtles which became so representative of the slow-moving expedition.

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Curtis’ involvement had probably been welcomed by the politicians as a sign that the expedition had the City behind it. Now he became a liability, and his highly recognisable figure helped pile the ridicule on the government.

3. Peter Finnerty

Like Lowther, Finnerty was invited to join in with the expedition by Sir Home Popham. He was an Irish-born journalist working for the Morning Chronicle, and Popham (who had plenty of connections with newspapers) persuaded him to come with the expedition to report home on it. His role would nowadays be described as “war correspondent”. Although the Chronicle was an opposition paper, Popham probably hoped Finnerty would report neutrally.[9]

Finnerty’s background was colourful. He had been tried and imprisoned for seditious libel in Ireland in the 1790s, and he had met Popham while taking down the shorthand transcription of Popham’s court martial in 1806. He was not the kind of man the government wanted anywhere near Walcheren, and efforts were made to stop him going out. Finnerty somehow managed to sneak through, and landed with Popham at the end of July 1809. He spent most of his time in Veere, but had contacts in Flushing, Middelburg and other places, including Colonel D’Arcy, the engineer in charge of the siege of Flushing until 8 August.[10]

Eventually, of course, he was tracked down. In mid-August the naval Commander in Chief, Sir Richard Strachan, personally informed Finnerty that Lord Castlereagh had issued strict orders that the journalist should be found and ejected from the island. Finnerty was duly returned home “in a Revenue cutter … to please Lord Castlereagh … at the public expense”.[11]

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A few months after he returned home, Finnerty got his own back by publishing a long article in the Chronicle in which he lambasted Castlereagh and accused him of personal malice and cruelty during his time as Chief Secretary in Ireland in the 1790s. The result was that Castlereagh had Finnerty arrested for libel, and Finnerty spent a further eighteen months in prison. If he needed any more coverage after this, Shelley wrote a poem in his defence.[12]

Finnerty was not the only “war correspondent” on Walcheren, but his reputation and libel trial made him easily the most notorious. It would be fascinating to trace his colleagues.

References

[1] Lord Lowther to Lord Lonsdale, [July 1809], Cumbria Record Office Lonsdale MSS DLONS/L1/2/70

[2] Lord Lowther to Lord Lonsdale, 2 August 1809, Cumbria Record Office Lonsdale MSS DLONS/L1/2/70

[3] Lowther’s diary, 8, 9 August 1809, Cumbria Record Office Lonsdale MSS DLONS/L2/12

[4] Lord Lowther to Lord Lonsdale, 10 November 1809, Cumbria Record Office Lonsdale MSS DLONS/L1/2/70

[5] Memoirs of the political and literary life of Robert Plumer Ward I, 276

[6] Chatham to Spencer Perceval, 6 November 1809, Cambridge University Library Perceval MSS Add.8713/VII/B/4

[7] Memoirs of the political and literary life of Robert Plumer Ward I, 293

[8] Annual Register 51 (1809), 223

[9] Ivon Asquith, “James Perry and the Morning Chronicle, 1790-1821″ (PhD, University of London, 1973) p. 241 n 3

[10] Elias Duran de Porras, “Peter Finnerty, an ancestor of modern war correspondents” Textual and Visual Media 7 (2014) 41-62, 46, 53

[11] “Lord Castlereagh and Mr Finnerty”, Morning Chronicle 23 January 1810

[12] http://poeticalessay.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

The Walcheren Expedition: 2016 (Part 3/3)

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 the campaign, and an account of my visit to Vlissingen (Flushing) and Middelburg, please see Part 1. See Part 2 for my account of Arnemuiden, Grijpskerke, and Breezand. Otherwise, read on for Part 3 of my Walcheren peregrinations…

Day 5 (1 April): Breezand – Domburg – Zouteland – Vlissingen

This was our most beautiful day yet: about 20ºC and SUNNY. We left Breezand to cycle along the coast back to Vlissingen.

Our intention was to take in the two beaches where the British ought to have landed: Zouteland Bay (abandoned at the end of July at Strachan’s request) and Domburg (abandoned because of the weather).

We did not spend much time at Domburg, but I stopped to climb to the top of the tall seaward dyke to take a photograph of the beach.

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Domburg Beach

We then proceeded with all dispatch to Oostkapelle. Here we stopped for lunch, just outside the 1944 museum. There were a number of WWII museums on Walcheren. Obvious reasons for this, but I did find myself having the following conversation more than once:

Me: I’m here because I’m reasearching the Walcheren expedition.

Dutch person: The 1944 one?

Me: No. No, not that one.

Next stop was Zouteland Bay. By this time the sun was shining enthusiastically, and other half and I were both beginning to look a little pink about the ears. We decided to pause only briefly to take a photo or two of the beaches where the British really ought to have landed, had they not kept changing their landing plans every five seconds. Other half remained with the tandem, while I climbed to the top of the pretty high sandhills.

Minutes later I came down and fetched him, because the view was stunning.

I could see the whole island (OK, peninsula now) from the top of that dyke. On the distant horizon I could see the windmills along the Veere Dam, near Breezand. Further along were the steeples of Domburg and Grijpskerke churches. Veere was just about visible directly across. The Lange Jan at Middelburg could clearly be seen, as could the tall buildings at Vlissingen.

It was a salutary reminder of how small Walcheren actually is (we could have easily cycled round the whole thing in a day, had we not stopped to do the tourist thing). I imagine that when Chatham’s army had landed at Breezand and were marching in four columns through the interior, the various columns would have remained in sight of each other most of the time (barring more greenery on trees, and decreased visibility due to rain and mist, of course).

The beach was pretty, too. But, as my husband observed: “Thank goodness they didn’t land here, because they would have had a hard time fighting up their way up these sandhills.” They were the tallest sandhills we encountered on the whole island. In 1809 they were probably different, but I imagine not that much different, and topped with very prickly gorse. The French would probably have given a much stiffer resistance here, particularly as Zouteland is so much closer to Flushing.

As we discovered, since it took us only half an hour to cycle into Flushing after stopping for these photos. We stopped at De Nolle campsite, chosen by me mainly because it was clearly located somewhere between two of the British batteries erected outside Flushing during the bombardment (the Nolle and Vijgeter batteries).

In the postwar era, this area of Flushing has been completely levelled and rebuilt, so there is no real way of knowing exactly where the British batteries were (and in any case I had to leave all my books at home, since we were travelling light, so had no 1809 maps with me). But it was still pretty thrilling to be camping very close to where the British established their lines in 1809. It was a surprisingly long way from the old town itself, but then we were probably a little further out than the actual Nolle.

Day 6 (2 April): Vlissingen – Breskens – De Haan (Belgium)

The time had come to say goodbye to Walcheren. We packed up our tent and cycled to the Breskens ferry.

This was our last view on Flushing as we crossed over to the mainland:

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We were surprised to see dozens of enormous, heavily-laden cargo vessels sailing through the Flushing roads. Some of them actually crossed the path of our ferry, although I suspect their passage was well-timed to avoid any accidents!

The navigation of the West Scheldt was much better-known to the British than that of the East in 1809, hence the decision to attempt sailing down the West rather than the East Scheldt to reach Antwerp. The river is evidently much deeper here in parts, as the cargo boats showed. However, the navigation is clearly still very tricky. In 1809, during the bombardment of Flushing, Strachan’s flagship and that of one of his subordinates, Lord Gardner, ran aground on sandbanks. Even now every cargo vessel received the aid of a tiny pilot vessel (there were half a dozen of them sheltering in Flushing harbour at all times, zooming constantly in and out):

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Cargo vessel with pilot outside Flushing

By lunchtime we were back on the Cadzand shore. We cycled like the blazes and got across the border into Belgium in no time (uneventful, except for my husband dropping the tandem at one point as we came to a stop… ouch!).

We spent the next two days cycling back to Dunkerque. The return crossing was much less rough and we returned to Oxford at half past ten PM in the evening of Monday 4 April, having covered just over 450 km.

We had so much fun. I’d do it again in a heartbeat — particularly as there is so much we did not see!

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…

Lord Chatham’s aides-de-camp at Walcheren, 1809

I’ve been reading the Monthly Army Lists recently. I know, I know… as a friend already told me, “Who reads the Army Lists, other than officers keen on getting promoted?” The answer is, “Historians who want to find out what district their subject was attached to during the Napoleonic Wars, and who their staff were”.

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I will give out no prizes for anyone who guesses which army officer I’ve been tracking through the army lists. In the 1790s Britain and Ireland were partitioned up into military districts, and each appointed a commander-in-chief with his own staff. Lord Chatham (YES! you guessed it!) spent most of his time attached to the Southern District, where he served under Sir David Dundas, before being promoted in 1806 to the command of the Eastern District.

His aides-de-camp have awfully familiar names:

  • Captain Bradford (October 1806 – December 1808)
  • Captain Hon. W. Gardner (as of June 1807)
  • Captain Hadden (as of January 1809)
  • Captain Falla (as of January 1809)

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Another familiar name that crops up is that of Lt. Col. Cary, who appears for the first time as Assistant Adjutant General in June 1807.

Why do I say “familiar”? Because check out this list, printed in The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany (71), 623, of Chatham’s aides-de-camp at Walcheren:

  • Major Bradford (11th Foot)
  • Hon. Captain Gardner, RA
  • Captain Haddon [sic], 6th Dragoons
  • Major Linsingen, 1st Light Dragoons, KGL
  • Captain Felix, 36th Foot
  • Major Lord Charles Manners and Captain Lord Robert Manners, extra ADCs
  • Lt-Col. Carey, 3rd Foot Guards, Military Secretary

“Captain Felix” of the 36th is something of a mystery, not appearing in the Monthly Army List for 1809 or 1810 in that regiment. But note that the Tradesman, or Commercial Magazine (vol 3, 1809), 168 leaves Felix out and in his place is a certain “Capt. Falla, 25th Foot”.

Leaving out Major Linsingen, and the Manners brothers (both of them sons of Charles, 4th Duke of Rutland, Chatham’s old buddy), who were these men? Chatham would have known them well from the Eastern District, and was obviously inclined to trust them. Conversely, they would have known Chatham well and, presumably, been accustomed to his way of doing business (by which I mean his habit of getting up about 12 o’clock noon).

Below is some of the information I’ve managed to find on Chatham’s chosen men. They were not, after all, merely names in the Army Gazette, but real men with their own lives and stories to tell.

1. Sir Henry Hollis Bradford (1781-1816)

Bradford (with the 11th Foot in 1809) was the youngest son of Thomas Bradford of Ashdown Park, Sussex. He was born on 25 June 1781. He was Chatham’s longest-serving ADC in the Eastern District, although also the first to leave him, at the end of 1808, when he was sent out with Sir John Moore to Corunna. He had already previously served at Copenhagen in 1807.

He survived the retreat, and Chatham remembered him fondly enough to appoint him First Aide-de-Camp at Walcheren. Bradford was tasked with bringing home Chatham’s official dispatch reporting the fall of Flushing in August 1809, and received a reward of £500 for the job. After Walcheren he went back to the Peninsula, where he saw action as Assistant Adjutant-General at Salamanca and Vittoria, and Nivelles and Toulouse, among others. As a result he was created a Knight of the Bath in January 1815.

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Monument to Sir Henry Hollis Bradford, from here

He fought at Waterloo, but was badly wounded during the course of the battle. Unfortunately he never recovered, and died on 17 December 1816 at Lilliers, in France, as a result of the wound he had received over a year earlier. He reached the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.[1]

2. Hon. William Henry Gardner (1774 – 1856)

Gardner was the son of Admiral Alan, Lord Gardner, who had been Lord Chatham’s friend and colleague on the Board of Admiralty during Chatham’s tenure as First Lord. William Henry was thus also the brother of Alan Hyde, Lord Gardner, who commanded one of the naval divisions during the expedition to Walcheren. His connections to the Walcheren high command did not end there: in 1805 he had married Elizabeth Lydia Fyers, the daughter of William Fyers, who had served as Chief Engineer during the expedition.

He was born on 6 October 1774 and died 15 December 1856. He reached the rank of General.[2]

3. William Frederick Hadden (1789 – 1821)

Hadden was the son of James Murray Hadden, Chatham’s Surveyor-General of the Ordnance (and close friend). Hadden was in the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons in 1809, as a Captain: interestingly, he appears in May 1814 as a Lieutenant in the 4th.

One reason for this demotion may have been his odd behaviour. According to anecdote, he was drummed out of the army for asking Queen Adelaide to dance without an introduction, but this doesn’t match up with his lifespan and I have not found any evidence of it. According to a website on the history of Harpenden in Hertfordshire, where his family had a house, Hadden threatened to muder his friend the Dean of Liverpool as a result of a vision and was subsequently locked away in a lunatic asylum. Whether the story is true or not is unclear, but like Bradford he certainly died young.[3]

4. Daniel Falla (1778 – 1851)

Falla came from an established Jersey family. His brother, Thomas, was also in the army, but killed at the siege of Seringapatam in 1799. He was in Egypt in 1801 before joining Chatham’s staff, and would follow Chatham to Gibraltar, where Chatham had him appointed Town Major in 1822.

Falla remained Town Major for twenty-five years: he retired in 1847, twelve years after Chatham himself had died. Falla then returned to his native Jersey, where he died at St Helier, on 14 March 1851. He reached the rank of Colonel.[4]

5. Thomas Carey (1778 – 1825)

Like Falla, Carey was a native of the Channel Islands — of Guernsey, to be precise. He was by far the most active of all the aides, and thus the easiest one to track in the records. He was the sixth son of a local magnate, and entered the army as an ensign in the 3rd Foot Guards (Chatham’s old regiment) in January 1794. He participated in the disastrous Flanders campaign of 1794-5. He was at the Helder in 1799, where he served as Adjutant for his regiment. Carey earned himself a reputation for hard work: a Horseguards official said, “Carey is one of the most zealous and efficient adjutants I ever knew: there is no nonsense about him; however irksome may be the orders he receives, he sets to work, and executes them on the instant with cheerfulness and alacrity, never starting or thinking of a difficulty”.

He was in Egypt in 1801, where he contracted the eye disease opthalmia and nearly lost his sight. Following his recovery, he accompanied the abortive British expedition to North Germany in 1805 as assistant adjutant general to the forces. He was also at Copenhagen in 1807.

Like Bradford, he served in the Peninsula in 1808 and 1809, and was present at both Vimeiro (where he was wounded) and Corunna. Although he joined Chatham’s staff on the Eastern District officially in 1807, he claimed to have been familiar with him since 1804, although in what capacity I have not been able to identify. By 1809, however, when Carey went with Chatham to Walcheren, the two men were close: as a short biography of Carey in the History of Guernsey put it, he and Chatham “enjoyed the most intimate and lasting friendship”. Carey was certainly devoted to Chatham: “The more I see of him, the more I am convinced that in understanding few equal him, & in Honor or Integrity He cannot be excelled”.[5]

Carey was militant in the defence of his commander after the end of the Walcheren campaign. He interceded on Chatham’s behalf with various political and military figures, but to no avail. Carey remained, apparently by choice, with Chatham in the Eastern District until 1814, when he was promoted to the rank of Major-General. Unfortunately at this time an old illness recurred (malaria, perhaps, from Walcheren?) and he was forced to leave the army. He was not, therefore, able to participate in the Waterloo campaign.

His health gradually failed until he died in London on 9 November 1825. I would very much like to know what Chatham’s reaction was to his death, for of all his aides Carey had been the most faithful.[6]

References

[1] Henry Hollis Bradford: London Gazette, 4 January 1815; Journals of the House of Commons LXV, 558; www.geni.com page on H.H. Bradford; Burke and Burke, The Knightage of Great Britain and Ireland (London 1841), 217; The New Monthly Magazine, VII (1817), 69; http://glosters.tripod.com/WInf.htm

[2] William Henry Gardner: J. Burke, A General and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire (London, 1832), I, 505-6; geni.com page on William Henry Gardner; genealogical page on the Gardner family

[3] William Frederick Hadden: article on the Haddens of Harpenden

[4] Daniel Falla: Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1851, 328; page on the Falla family monument; Annual Register (1851), 271

[5] Thomas Carey to William Huskisson, 3 May 1810, British Library Huskisson MSS BL Add MSS 38738 f 26

[6] Thomas Carey: Gentleman’s Magazine, vol XIX (July 1824), 563; Jonathan Duncan, The History of Guernsey, with occasional notices of Jersey, Alderney, and Sark (London, 1841), pp. 613-15

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 Helder Campaign, 1799: research visit to Noord-Holland, Part 1

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.

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Day One: Amsterdam – Den Helder – Callantsoog – Schagerbrug – Schagen

 The train up to Den Helder was instructive. We sat with a friendly and chatty local who was interested to hear the purpose of our visit and helpfully pointed out a number of towns from the train window as we travelled up. My impression was of comparatively small, tight towns interspersed by long stretches of flat countryside. We passed through Castricum, Alkmaar and Schagen before finally arriving at Den Helder, in 1799 Holland’s northernmost point ….. about at the same time as the thunder.

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My husband with our hired tandem at Den Helder station

 

We set off as swiftly as we could, getting briefly lost in town while I got used to our map. At last we found the coastal cycle path, cycling up a steep incline to reach the top of the dyke surrounding the seaward-side of the town. From here we paused to take in the beautiful view towards the island of Texel: a significant strategic point for the navy in the 18th century.

 

Looking out to Texel from Den Helder

Looking out to Texel from Den Helder

 

Shortly after I took the above photograph, the heavens opened with an almighty peal of thunder. I was at first quite glad about this — the 1799 Helder expedition was plagued by bad weather, and I had hoped to have the “full Helder experience” for at least a little while — but there was a strong south-easterly wind and, after a few minutes, we had to stop cycling because neither of us could see. Honestly I never knew rain could actually be painful. Even standing still it felt like being repeatedly whipped in the face by a wet pincushion. (At least it was warm!)

Eventually the rain died down, but did not completely stop all afternoon. Still, at least we were able to cycle on, passing Kirkdijn Fort (1811, I believe) and turning southwards down the side of the coast towards Callantsoog.

I did not take too many photographs at this point, because any attempt to stop made us cold as well as wet. Luckily the tandem we had hired was a complete tank, built for city use rather than up-and-down coastal paths, complete with a dicky first gear which (after getting stuck in it a few times) we avoided using unless utterly necessary.

 

Dunes around Den Helder

Dunes around Den Helder

 

By this time we were entering the dunes. These run down the majority of the Helder peninsula coast, separating the flat mainland from the turbulent sea. Most of the 1799 Helder fighting took place in this terrain, so I was very interested to see it. Now it is a nature reserve, but I doubt it has changed a great deal in 200 years. The sand was quite dense and held together with scrub. Cows and sheep roamed everywhere. Whenever we joined the roads we saw little draining canals everywhere, criss-crossing the countryside in all directions.

What with the rainfall making the roads slick with water I could see why some British soldiers, retreating at the end of the campaign in torrential rain, occasionally mistook the canals for roads and fell in.

In mid afternoon we reached Keeten near Callantsoog, where the British made their first landing on Dutch soil on 27 August 1799. They were immediately challenged by the Dutch General Daendels, whom they beat back on a narrow strip of beach only wide enough for one battalion to face front at a time. It was the first pitched battle of the campaign and set the tone for the rest: short, sharp and bloody. The sand was very difficult to walk on, soft and giving way underfoot. I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for the British, who had to wade up through the surf to the beach, probably still feeling seasick, then fight their way inland.

 

Keeten Beach, where the first battle of the Helder campaign took place

Keeten Beach, where the first battle of the Helder campaign took place

 

By now we were sopping, so we hastened to our destination for the night: Schagen. On the way we passed through Schagerbrug, a tiny hamlet which (as the name suggests) consisted mostly of a bridge over the North Holland Canal, a church, and … er … that’s about it. For some reason Schaberbrug was the Duke of York’s first headquarters as Commander in Chief of the Allied British and Russian army. No clue where he stayed but I did not have time to hang around and search as the weather was so awful. I have no idea why York chose Schagerbrug as his HQ when Schagen, a much larger market town, was only just down the road (can anyone enlighten me?) but I paused only to take a photograph or two.

 

Schagerbrug Church

Schagerbrug Church

 

We arrived at Schagen shortly afterwards. Schagen is a much bigger place than Schagerbrug, a collection of traditional Dutch brick houses with the stereotypical step-faced fronts clustered around a beautiful church. We stayed in the Castle, which it turns out was used as a barracks for British soldiers in 1799. Unfortunately the Brits trashed the joint and the castle was largely demolished in 1819.

This was, incidentally, the only place where I saw a plaque commemorating the 1799 Helder campaign.

 

Schagen Castle looking out to market square and church

Schagen Castle looking out to market square and church

Plaque commemorating the 1799 Helder expedition in Schagen

Plaque commemorating the 1799 Helder expedition in Schagen

 

Day Two: Schagen – Schoorl – Alkmaar

The next day was dry! Hallelujah! We were glad about this, as we had both had enough of the complete 1799 experience and our shoes were still wet. We set off about eleven across the flatlands back towards the coast, cycling largely along the top of dykes and alongside the canals veining the flat “polders” landscape.

We were making for Schoorl at the base of the dunes. Our objective was to follow, as much as possible, the route John, Lord Chatham would have taken with his brigade on 2 October 1799 during the battle for Bergen (alas we ran out of time and were not able to visit Bergen itself, but I do not think John set foot there either). Chatham was attached to General Dundas’s brigade and tasked with acting as a reserve force for the Russians. The Russian force did most of its fighting in the towns of Schoorldam and Schoorl, but, once they had cleared Schoorl of French, refused to proceed to take Bergen. British General Coote said the Russians lay down on the ground and refused to get up when he ordered them to march.

Chatham’s brigade then marched into the sand dunes to assist General Dundas, whose battalions had become scattered in the terrain. Chatham’s men helped form a stronger line and, under strong fire from French artillery in the trees on top of the sand dunes, cleared the field of enemy.

We cycled in the direction I guessed John would have taken his men. The countryside was, as before, perfectly flat, but before long the dunes loomed ahead of us on the horizon.

 

Road to Schoorl, looking towards sand dunes

Road to Schoorl, looking towards sand dunes

 

The terrain here is quite different from northern Helder: heavily wooded, with the most enormous, steep, impressive dunes. The ones at Schoorl were the biggest of all, between 150-200 feet high. Forget everything you’ve ever known about dunes: these were BIG, like small mountains with a couple of kilometres worth of undulating landscape on top covered with trees. I immediately began to appreciate why all eyewitness accounts of the campaign laid such stress on the “intricate” nature of the landscape.

 

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On top of the dunes, the trees were very dense. I got the impression many of them had been planted since 1799 — they were predominantly pine, and I seem to recall contemporary accounts described mainly beech and birch — but I could easily see how the French could launch ambushes from the trees on attacking troops, and there were so many tree-roots criss-crossing the ground it must have been extremely difficult to march up the sandy ground.

 

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The terrain flattened out a bit here, but remained undulating for several kilometres towards Bergen. I immediately realised how easy it would be to lose whole brigades in such terrain. The fact that the British seemed to have completely lost sight of whole branches of their force no longer surprised me.

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We knew there had been forest fires in the Schoorl area within the past five years, and there were unfortunately still signs that the landscape is recovering. It appears the fires were started by arsonists. Many trees were blackened stumps and a lot of the terrain still smelled strongly of ash.

 

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The second half of our journey through the dunes took us past Egmond-aan-Zee, in 1799 known as Egmont-op-Zee. The worst of the fighting on 2 October took place in the dunes around Egmont, where Sir Ralph Abercromby came to grips with the bulk of the French and Dutch armies defending Bergen. The dunes here are less tall than near Schoorl, but much denser. Eyewitness reports suggest it was very difficult for the British to form up in their traditional lines, and the fighting got very bloodthirsty:

We marched forward … to a place where … the sand rose pretty high, in the form of a semicircle; into this opening we wheeled, and were instantly exposed to a fire upon both our flanks and front … We continued to stand still and fire for a few seconds, and then began to move forward, firing as we advanced; the other two divisions had wheeled into various openings in the sandhills in our rear …

In some instances, parties of our troops came suddenly ipon parties of the enemy. In one instance, one of our parties haveing climbed to the top of a sand ridge, found that a party of the enemy was just benearth, 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 … (London, 1820) pp 46-7)

This part of the trip was quite amazing. Some of the landscape was truly astounding. For some reason I seem to have lost the photos I took though, so you’ll have to extrapolate based on the shots I took above, and this short video I took while cycling through the landscape:

We arrived in Alkmaar early in the evening, and went straight to our hotel. Alkmaar was the Duke of York’s second headquarters after the successful push on Bergen on 2 October, when the British line moved forwards closer to Amsterdam. I will, however, cover that in greater depth in my next post, when I will conclude the account of our trip to Den Helder.