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.


walcheren_sick

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…

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!