“Comedy Walcheren” 1809, part 2

Apologies for being a day late, but I couldn’t access the blog yesterday. So here is Part 2 of Comedy Walcheren 1809. (For disclaimer and further context, see Part 1.)

***

[After the fall of Flushing, August 1809]

flushing_after_bombardment

Flushing after the bombardment, from here

COOTE: Right. That went swimmingly. Shall we send in some commissioners to negotiate the surrender of the city? I thought, since the siege was my responsibility, we might send in two members of my staff.

 

CHATHAM: The Admiral’s going to have to send someone in too, isn’t he?

COOTE: I’m afraid it can’t be helped. He’s chosen Captain Cockburn.

CHATHAM: Well, we can’t let him get one over on us. We need a full colonel.

COOTE: …. but I haven’t got any full colonels on my staff.

CHATHAM: Then we’ll have to send in one of mine. Colonel Long will do.

Robert_Ballard_Long_(1771-1825)

Robert Ballard Long (wikipedia)

COOTE [staring at him]: But … but I was in charge.

CHATHAM: So we’re agreed, I’ll send in Colonel Long.

[Sound of running from a distance; gets closer and closer and closer, until…]

STRACHAN [breathless]: I’M HERE! Did I miss anything?

CHATHAM: Ah, Sir Richard. I trust your boat isn’t too damaged.

STRACHAN: Ship. And I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

CHATHAM: Of course you don’t. [BROWNRIGG looks meaningfully at CHATHAM] [Long pause] [CHATHAM looks like he’s struggling with himself, then says, through gritted teeth] You and your men did a splendid job.

STRACHAN [beaming]: Thanks, Johnboy.

CHATHAM: Now we’ve sent our commissioners, and we wait to find out what terms the French will accept to surrender.

COCKBURN: Admiral. My lord. The city has surrendered. Here are the terms.

CHATHAM: Excellent. The entire garrison is becoming prisoners of war; we can take possession of the city as soon as they have evacuated.

STRACHAN: And then do we press on to Antwerp?

CHATHAM: Have you got my men and ordnance supplies through the Sloe Passage yet?

STRACHAN: …………… Oh goodness, is that the time? I really must be off; appointment in Batz, don’t you know. [Runs off at full speed]

CHATHAM [calling after him]: I suppose not, then.

COOTE: Here are the orders of the day for tomorrow, when the French will march out of Flushing and pile their arms. [pause] After that, my lord … you are going to South Beveland, yes? And on to Antwerp?

south beveland

South Beveland

CHATHAM: Well, those are my orders.

COOTE [visibly excited now]: Oh, I can’t wait to lay siege to another city!

CHATHAM: You’re not going. You need to stay here and garrison Walcheren.

COOTE: But you said—

CHATHAM: You said you wanted to be in charge here, yes? Well, now’s your chance.

COOTE: If you say so, sir. [whispers as he retreats] Bastard.

STRACHAN [coming back in]: What’s his problem?

CHATHAM: Indigestion. Got your ship off that rock yet?

STRACHAN: You’re never letting me live that down, are you?

CHATHAM: No. So. Are my men through the Sloe?

STRACHAN: Wow. I really keep forgetting these meetings with Sir Home Popham. Really must get a better grip of my schedule. [zips off]

[Next day, outside Flushing]

COOTE: Men! Salute! [Men salute] [COOTE consults watch] Where is he? It’s eight o’clock already.

BROWNRIGG: Did you really expect him to be on time?

COOTE: I mean, the French are over there waiting. It’s getting hot.

BROWNRIGG: You did say seven in the morning, General.

[Men still salute; starting to look a little constipated now]

COOTE: Oh for goodness’ sake, at ease. I don’t think he’s coming any time soon. Are you sure he’s coming at all?

BROWNRIGG: Here he is now.

[CHATHAM and his suite turn up, crisp and fresh. Everyone else glares at them, dripping with sweat.]

CHATHAM: Well, where are the French? What are you waiting for?

COOTE: I can’t imagine.

CHATHAM: Let’s get them marching, then. We haven’t got all day.

[French march out. Rather ragged. They lay their arms at CHATHAM’s feet.]

COOTE: Well, that’s them gone. [hopefully, to CHATHAM] Are you going now, too?

CHATHAM: Yes, as soon as I—

COOTE: I’ve already packed your bags.

CHATHAM:—that’s kind.

COOTE: And loaded them up. In fact, I sent your baggage train out of Middelburg yesterday. It’s waiting for you at Arnemuiden.

CHATHAM: You really shouldn’t have bothered.

COOTE: No, no, I really, really wanted to help. Shall I have your horse saddled?

BROWNRIGG: Lord Chatham! I’m afraid you’ll have to postpone going to South Beveland for a day or so. A letter’s just come from the Treasury. They’re refusing to send us any more money to pay the troops.

[COOTE slopes off, cursing]

CHATHAM: What? Let me see that. [Snatches letter off BROWNRIGG] ‘Dear General Brownrigg, No, you can’t have any more money. We haven’t got any. Take it off the local population—you’ve conquered them, after all, and they should be expecting it. Now get on with it, I feel I’ll have grown a beard before Flushing finally falls. Yours sincerely, Huskisson.’ Argh, the fool! Fetch me my writing desk.

Im1894OurRail1-Huskisson

BROWNRIGG: Certainly, sir.

CHATHAM [writes]: ‘Dear Mr Huskisson, the island of Walcheren has surrendered to us, and we really shouldn’t set a bad example by taking all their gold, especially when they have to feed us and keep a roof over our heads. The men haven’t been paid for a week and are starting to get restless. Please send us some money before they mutiny, and furthermore you’re an idiot. Sincerely yours, Chatham.’

BROWNRIGG: Looks fine, sir. Well done.

CHATHAM: Right then, I’m off to South Beveland. Not that we can go far; the ordnance supplies are still stuck in the Sloe. What in the name of all that’s holy is the Admiral doing?

BROWNRIGG: …. I did hear a rumour—

CHATHAM: What?

BROWNRIGG: Nothing of significance. Only … only I heard someone say Strachan had asked Lord Rosslyn if he’d consider sending the troops on South Beveland under his command on to Antwerp…

CHATHAM: WHAT?!

BROWNRIGG: I know, he should have asked you first.

CHATHAM: THIS IS A BLATANT USURPATION OF MY PREROGATIVE AS COMMANDER OF THE FORCES!

BROWNRIGG: Yes, I know, but—

CHATHAM: I SHALL NEVER SPEAK TO THE MAN AGAIN!

BROWNRIGG: You might have to.

CHATHAM: WHY?

BROWNRIGG: Well, you’re engaged in a joint concern with him. He’s also standing right behind you.

STRACHAN: Hey, Johnboy, Sir Home Popham says we probably ought to move it before the 30,000 French reinforcements headed for the Scheldt basin make it here. Could you—

CHATHAM: HANDS OFF MY TROOPS!

STRACHAN: … I haven’t touched them?

CHATHAM: NOBODY IS GOING TO ANTWERP WITHOUT MY SAY-SO. NOT EVEN LORD ROSSLYN’S MEN.

STRACHAN: …. Ah. About that—[CHATHAM brushes past him, almost knocking him over] Bastard.

BROWNRIGG: Well, you did try to go over his head and press on to Antwerp without him. What did you expect?

STRACHAN: We could be here all year if I waited for him.

BROWNRIGG: He’s on his way. How are the transports in the Sloe?

STRACHAN: Dear God, I have another appointment. How do I manage to forget about so many of them? [Disappears]

COLONEL LONG: General Brownrigg, we have a problem.

BROWNRIGG: What, another one?

COLONEL LONG: Er, this one’s a biggie. Take a look at these sick returns. [Hands BROWNRIGG a paper]

BROWNRIGG: So what? We always have some sickness on campaigns. This weekly report suggests sickness is a little higher than usual, but nothing we can’t handle.

COLONEL LONG: That’s not a weekly sick return. That’s the sick since yesterday evening.

sick list

Johnny on the Sick List, Thomas Rowlandson (from here)

BROWNRIGG: Seriously?! [Looks at document] [Stares at it some more] [Long pause] Shit.

COLONEL LONG: That’s the same thing I said.

BROWNRIGG: Keep an eye on it. It may be nothing.

[Next day, on South Beveland]

CHATHAM: Well, this is nice.

BROWNRIGG: Here are Lord Rosslyn and Sir John Hope.

ROSSLYN: Welcome to South Beveland, Lord Chatham. Happy to report absolutely zero chance of our getting to Antwerp now. Thirty thousand Frenchmen between here and the city. To press on would be madness. Plus, we’re starting to get a lot of sick.

expedition birds eye view antwerp

CHATHAM: That many? Nobody’s sick on Walcheren.

BROWNRIGG: Um.

CHATHAM: You mean you knew about this? How long has this been going on for?

BROWNRIGG: A few days, I think.

CHATHAM: May I see your sick returns? [ROSSLYN hands them over] These aren’t so bad. I mean, 300 since the beginning of the campaign is—

ROSSLYN: Three hundred today, my lord.

CHATHAM: Today?!

ROSSLYN: Yes. We’ve had pretty much that many sick every day for the last week.

CHATHAM:

BROWNRIGG: Erm. And on Walcheren.

CHATHAM:

STRACHAN [dashing up, breathlessly]: Here I am! I heard you wanted to see me, Rosslyn, old boy? Are we going to Antwerp then? I—hello, what’s he doing here?

CHATHAM: My word, is somebody talking?

STRACHAN: He seems to have gone deaf. JOHNBOY CAN YOU HEAR ME

CHATHAM: I think it may be the wind.

STRACHAN: Must have been the bombardment. Has that effect on some people, loud noises. Bursts their eardrums. I THINK YOU SHOULD HAVE YOUR EARS CLEANED OUT

BROWNRIGG: Strachan, just leave it, he’ll be fine.

ROSSLYN: What is it, Admiral?

STRACHAN: Now he’s here [points at CHATHAM, who flinches], I guess we’re all going up to Antwerp now? Eh? Eh?

BROWNRIGG: And the ordnance supplies in the Sloe?

STRACHAN [proudly]: They’re all here. Look! They arrived this morning. I guess this means we’re ready, yes? [silence] [longer silence] [STRACHAN looks worried] Yes?

BROWNRIGG: Now here’s the thing. You know when we last spoke of taking Antwerp, before Flushing fell?

STRACHAN: Of course.

BROWNRIGG: When there weren’t nearly so many French in the Scheldt basin?

STRACHAN: Yes, but—

BROWNRIGG: Nor was sickness tearing through the army at an alarming rate?

walcheren_sick

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

STRACHAN: I heard rumours about that, but aren’t we—

CHATHAM: NO. No, we bloody well are not.

STRACHAN:

CHATHAM: Our men got stuck in the Sloe and we missed our chance. You bastard.

STRACHAN: Well, if you’d hurried up with the siege of Flushing—

CHATHAM: I bloody well would have done had you got your BLEEDING ships through the BLEEDING Deurloo and into the West Scheldt!

STRACHAN: Well, if Lord BLEEDING Chatham had taken adverse wind into account—

CHATHAM: I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ANY MORE ABOUT WIND!

BROWNRIGG [to ROSSLYN]: I rather preferred it when they weren’t talking.

STRACHAN:—what did you expect us to do, pull the boats down the river on a piece of string?

CHATHAM: I EXPECTED YOU TO GET ME TO SANDVLIET YOU FOOL

STRACHAN: WELL I CAN’T CONTROL THE WEATHER—CAN YOU?

CHATHAM: I’LL SHOW YOU WEATHER IF YOU COME ANY CLOSER

BROWNRIGG [hastily]: My lord, I think you should go and have a rest. Admiral, perhaps … a walk? In the fresh air? [The naval and army commander leave the room; BROWNRIGG looks at ROSSLYN] Jesus Christ.

ROSSLYN: I know. As though sickness wasn’t enough, eh?

[Later]

LONG: General Brownrigg, the latest Gazette has just come in.

gazette

BROWNRIGG: Oh splendid. I wonder what—BUGGER

LONG: What is it?

BROWNRIGG: Did you read Strachan’s letter?

LONG [reads]: ‘I wanted to keep going on to Antwerp, but the generals were all against. I had the fleet ready to take us there and the army said no.’ Oh my god.

BROWNRIGG: He’s trying to play the army off against the navy.

LONG: And pin the blame on Lord Chatham.

BROWNRIGG: Has His Lordship seen this?

LONG: Are you going to tell him?

BROWNRIGG: Maybe you should.

LONG: You’re QMG.

BROWNRIGG: You’re Adjutant General. You deal with the correspondence.

LONG: You usually do the letters home, though.

BROWNRIGG: I’m senior to you. I order you to tell him.

LONG: You bastard. [enters CHATHAM’s room] Your Lordship?

CHATHAM [writing; doesn’t look up]: Yes?

LONG: The Gazette has arrived.

CHATHAM: Mmhmm.

LONG: There’s a really nice bit in it reprinting your last dispatch. [pause; really fast] And Sir Richard Strachan’s written a letter blaming the failure of the campaign on the army and exonerating the navy from all responsibility. [more slowly] And some stuff about the fall of Flushing.

CHATHAM: Very good, I—hang on, what?

LONG: It’s not as bad as it sounds—

CHATHAM [reading]): No, it bloody is as bad as it sounds.

LONG: I’m sure he didn’t mean it. The Admiral—

CHATHAM: —is a dead man. BROWNRIGG! [BROWNRIGG hurries in] Have you seen this?

BROWNRIGG: It’s not as bad as it looks, my lord—I’m sure he didn’t mean it—

CHATHAM: Get the Admiral in at once! And get rid of the awful echo here!

BROWNRIGG: I had already thought to summon him, my lord, but nobody can find him. I got a letter from him saying he wasn’t feeling well and had gone off to get some fresh air. I hope he hasn’t got the prevailing fever.

CHATHAM: I really hope he has.

BROWNRIGG: And, er, sir, I—

CHATHAM: What now?

BROWNRIGG: These newspapers came from home too.

[CHATHAM reads in silence] [his face changes]

BROWNRIGG: They’re not very complimentary, are they?

CHATHAM: This one actually calls for my court martial.

BROWNRIGG: I’m sure you’ve had worse.

CHATHAM: This one calls me an indolent, effete idiot unfit for public business.

BROWNRIGG: My goodness, those journalists are scamps.

AN00079358_001_l

Just one example of a print showing a sailor (far left) complaining Chatham’s army directly caused the failure of the expedition (From here)

CHATHAM: If there’s any more bad news, tell me now, because I think I’m going to burst a blood vessel, so we might as well make my death a clean one.

BROWNRIGG: Well, there is … one thing. Apparently the Duke of Portland’s had a stroke.

CHATHAM: He’s resigned over ill health?

BROWNRIGG: No, he recovered. But then Canning found out the expedition was over and said Portland had promised to fire Castlereagh from the War Department if the campaign failed. Castlereagh found out. They both resigned. There was a duel.

CHATHAM: Please tell me one of them died. No. Better. Please tell me they both died.

BROWNRIGG: Castlereagh shot Canning in the—erm. The thigh?

CHATHAM: Not quite as good as if he’d killed him, but my day is looking up.

BROWNRIGG: Unfortunately they took the government down with them. Portland left office.

CHATHAM: Who replaced him?

BROWNRIGG: Spencer Perceval.

CHATHAM: Bugger. He hates me. [Pause] Please find me the Admiral. I need to shout at someone.

BROWNRIGG: I’m sorry, my lord, I really can’t—

CHATHAM: STRACHAN!

POPHAM [comes in]: I’m afraid he’s not here, my lord. He’s ill.

CHATHAM: How sad. Is it the wrong wind again?

POPHAM: No, he’s just ill.

CHATHAM: Conveniently so. Tell him if he wants a proper illness, I’ll gladly break both his legs for him.

POPHAM: I’ll be sure to pass on the message.

[CHATHAM exits]

STRACHAN [poking head out of a vase]: Is it safe to come out yet?

POPHAM: Soon. He sails tomorrow.

STRACHAN: Good, because it’s a bit cramped in here.

464487583

Yet another print showing Strachan (far left) blaming Chatham for the expedition’s failure

[Next day]

CHATHAM: Come Brownrigg, time to say farewell to this place. We have had good times here, have we not? Glory, victory, and memories to last a lifetime. Oh—who’m I kidding? The place is a disease-ridden dunghole. Sir Eyre Coote, have fun without me. [Runs up gangplank and disappears]

COOTE: Thanks for nothing. [Turns back] Now, all we have to do is survive until we get called home, and all will be well.

[Stares at troops. As he watches, several fall down on the spot]

COOTE [brightly]: Here’s the intrepid warrior, facing certain death from disease on a godforsaken island with 16,000 men, half of whom are already ill. What could possibly go wrong?

STRACHAN [distantly, from vase]: Is it safe to come out yet?

 

“Comedy Walcheren” 1809, part 1

Now before you yell at me at once, some context. Bear with me.

I wrote this after finishing The Late Lord. I felt like an emotional punch-bag; it turns out writing a biography and getting into someone’s head is an all-consuming thing, particularly when the story you’re telling is quite depressing in parts. ‘Comedy Walcheren’ was intended as a kind of exorcism to get rid of the demons I had invited into my head, effectively by laughing at them.

It’s not meant to be serious, and I hope I have been respectful of a topic that isn’t, frankly, very amusing. But it also seemed to me that the whole Walcheren debacle had elements of farce to it — and I really, really, really needed to laugh.

I’m told this has good bits, so I have decided to release it into the public domain (inspired by my good friend Lynn Bryant’s recent blog on the battle of Tenerife, which was very much written in the same spirit).

So here it is … enjoy. And please don’t kill me. (Further warning: mostly written in English, but also contains some … mild Anglo-Saxon)

***

COMEDY WALCHEREN: PART 1

[Scene: London, 1809]

external-content.duckduckgo.com

Lord Castlereagh

CASTLEREAGH: So lads at Horse Guards … if I were to suggest joining Austria in the Fifth Coalition by organising an expedition to the Scheldt—nothing fancy, let’s call it a coup de main—with the aim of taking Antwerp and destroying the French and Dutch fleet at Flushing, what would you say?

COLONEL GORDON: Frankly, I’d say you were nuts.

CASTLEREAGH: But do you think it’s impossible?

ALEXANDER HOPE: I wouldn’t say impossible, exactly, but—

CASTLEREAGH: Wonderful. I knew you’d love the plan. Commander-in-Chief, when can we have—oh, 20,000 men ready?

GENERAL DUNDAS: I thought you said it was ‘nothing fancy’?

CASTLEREAGH: That’s precisely what I said, yes. Better make it 30,000 to be sure.

GENERAL DUNDAS: You’ll need to move quickly, or the French will just pull all their ships upriver.

CASTLEREAGH: We’ll be a blur. I’ll expect my 40,000 men by June. [To LORD MULGRAVE] I say, I don’t suppose you can provide me with 600 ships, can you?

fortifications_antwerp

MULGRAVE: What in the name of all that’s holy are you going to do with 600 ships?

CASTLEREAGH: Take Antwerp. Do you have them?

MULGRAVE: You know Antwerp is up a very narrow river and heavily guarded by the French, don’t you?

CASTLEREAGH: Possibly heavily guarded by the French. We’re not too clear on that bit. So. Six hundred ships?

MULGRAVE: I’ll see what I can do. Who’s commanding the military bit?

CASTLEREAGH: Good question. [To LORD CHATHAM] You up, Chatham?

CHATHAM: Of course I’m up. What’s the matter? Need another 40,000 muskets we haven’t got to send to Portugal at short notice?

chathamturner

Lord Chatham, engraved by Charles Turner (1809)

CASTLEREAGH: Not this time. I was thinking … you know that expedition we’re planning? We need a commander for it. Nobody else wants to do it  I can’t find anyone else to do it Will you do it?

CHATHAM: Will I what?

CASTLEREAGH: Oh go on. It’ll be easy, maybe even fun.

CHATHAM:

CASTLEREAGH: Do I really have to remind you that you haven’t done a bally thing since the Helder Expedition in 1799? Tick tock tick tock, and all that.

CHATHAM: Oh all right. Dammit.

CASTLEREAGH: Good man. It’ll be fine. The defences of Antwerp are very weak. At least they were in 1794.

CHATHAM: Fifteen years ago?

CASTLEREAGH: Look, the French have been a bit busy elsewhere. I’ve heard they’ve done nothing to Antwerp since then.

CHATHAM: Who told you that?

CASTLEREAGH: Sir Home Popham. Here, let me introduce you. Popham, this is Lord Chatham. Tell him how easy it will be to get to Antwerp.

POPHAM: Hi! Oh, it’ll be easy. But you need to move quickly.

CASTLEREAGH: Oh, Chatham’ll move quickly. Won’t you, Chatham?

CHATHAM: Whatever.

Sir_Home_Riggs_Popham

Sir Home Popham

POPHAM: Excellent. I have a cunning plan. We take our 40,000 men and divide them into three forces. One goes to Cadzand and disables the batteries there. The other lands on Walcheren and masks Flushing from the land, while the navy completes the blockade by sea. The last lot go ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIP up the West Scheldt to Sandvliet. The navy follows them, covering them to Antwerp. It’ll take a week at most: the French’ll never know what hit them.

CHATHAM:

POPHAM: I know, it’s brilliant, isn’t it? I amaze myself sometimes.

CHATHAM: So who’s commanding the naval bit? Surely not Captain Fancy-Pants here?

POPHAM: Hey!

CASTLEREAGH: Good question. Hold on… [to MULGRAVE] Who’ve you picked?

MULGRAVE: Sir Richard Strachan.

CASTLEREAGH: OK…… although he’s never done anything like this, has he?

MULGRAVE: Doesn’t matter. He’s been off Holland for ages. Knows the waters really well. Er. The bits we’ve been able to get to, anyway. Plus he’s impulsive, and speed is of the essence. Who’ve you picked?

Henry Lord Mulgrave

Lord Mulgrave

CASTLEREAGH: Lord Chatham.

MULGRAVE: Lord Chatham?

CASTLEREAGH: Yes.

MULGRAVE: LORD CHATHAM?

CASTLEREAGH: Yes.

MULGRAVE: The guy’s never been on time to a cabinet once in 20 years and you want to send him on a pre-emptive raid to Antwerp?

CASTLEREAGH: It’s a foolproof plan.

MULGRAVE: It had better be.

[Later]

CASTLEREAGH: Chatham, this is Sir Richard Strachan. Strachan, Lord Chatham.

CHATHAM: Hello.

STRACHAN: Hi!

CASTLEREAGH: So the 40,000 men and 600 boats are ready. Are you ready?

464487583_detail

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

STRACHAN: Yeah!!!!! All ready to go!

CHATHAM: Whatever.

STRACHAN: Oh come on Johnboy, this is going to be SO MUCH FUN. Let’s go get ’em!

CHATHAM: Don’t call me Johnboy ever again. [To General BROWNRIGG] General Brownrigg?

BROWNRIGG: Yes?

CHATHAM: You’re my Chief of Staff, right?

BROWNRIGG: Sure am.

CHATHAM: Why have I got all this paperwork?

BROWNRIGG: Well, you’re—

CHATHAM: Deal with it please. I need a nap. No wait, hang on a moment. Here comes Sir Huge Plopham.

BROWNRIGG: Sir Home Popham.

CHATHAM: Whatever.

POPHAM: Hey guys! Are you ready to go? The wind has finally changed and Sir Eyre Coote has arrived from Portsmouth.

Illustrated Battles of the Nineteenth Century. [By Archibald Forbes, Major Arthur Griffiths, and others.]

Sir Eyre Coote, from Wikipedia

COOTE [out of breath]: I’m here!

STRACHAN: About bloody time. Are we going yet?

CHATHAM: Yes, we can go now.

CASTLEREAGH: Er guys….

CHATHAM: What?

CASTLEREAGH: I hate to say this, but… er… there’s been some bad news…

CHATHAM: What’s up?

CASTLEREAGH: The Austrians have been heavily defeated at Wagram. They’re out of the war.

CHATHAM: Bugger. Now what?

CASTLEREAGH: Keep going. Your victory will help keep Austria in the war, most probably.

[At sea]

STRACHAN: So we’re FINALLY underway. I can’t wait to engage the French on the open seas.

CHATHAM: What makes you think they’ll come out to find us?

STRACHAN: Of course they will. Why would they stay holed up behind Antwerp, where they’re safe?

CHATHAM: Why indeed?

STRACHAN: Exactly.

CHATHAM: This boat moves a lot.

STRACHAN: Ship. They do that.

stormatsea

Storm at sea, from here

POPHAM: Admiral, I’m afraid there’s a bit of a storm starting up… pesky south-westerly wind.

CHATHAM: Any way to stop this boat moving so much?

STRACHAN: Ship. And no. Didn’t you learn anything when you were First Lord of the Admiralty?

POPHAM: We can’t land at Domburg. I could try and get the fleet into the Roompot…

STRACHAN: Sounds like a fine plan. What’s the Roompot?

POPHAM: Oh, it’s a sheltered area to the north-east of the island.

STRACHAN: Fabulous. Let’s do it.

POPHAM: We’d have to get through the Veere Gat, though. It’s a pretty narrow channel but I think I can do it.

Annotation 2020-02-24 143205

Map of the 1809 Walcheren expedition drawn by Martin Brown

CHATHAM: Won’t we end up on the wrong side of the island? This is the East Scheldt. We’re supposed to go down the West Scheldt, remember?

STRACHAN: I’m sure we can get from the East Scheldt to the West Scheldt. Isn’t there a passage between them, Popham? Between Walcheren and South Beveland?

POPHAM: Yes, the Sloe. But—

STRACHAN: There you go then.

POPHAM: But the Sloe is very—

STRACHAN: Popham? Just do it.

[Some time later, on Walcheren]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

View towards Middelburg from the dyke above Zouteland Bay

COOTE: Here is the intrepid warrior, landing on the enemy shore, about to deal the French bastards a stinging blow round the—

CHATHAM: Hello.

COOTE: Aaargh! What the hell are you doing here?! You’re supposed to be sailing down the West Scheldt to Sandvliet!

CHATHAM: Change of plan. Where are the Frogs then?

COOTE: The enemy are falling back on Veere. We’ve taken Fort Den Haak.

CHATHAM: Jolly good. Reorganise the rest of the men into four columns.

COOTE: ………….. I’m meant to be in charge here.

CHATHAM: Fine. I’m just waiting till Strachan can get his ships into the West Scheldt. Don’t worry, I won’t get in the way. Carry on—I’m off to bed.

COOTE: Yes sir. [To BROWNRIGG] What the actual frick is he doing here?

BROWNRIGG: He told you. He’s waiting for Strachan to get his ships into the West Scheldt.

COOTE: How long will that bloody well take?! While he stays here on the island I’m outranked!

[Outside the town of Veere]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Veere, by the canal

GENERAL MACKENZIE FRASER: Popham! Bring your boats round, won’t you? We could do with some extra ammunition…

POPHAM: Righto!

[Huge explosions]

STRACHAN: Popham, what’re you doing?!

POPHAM: General Mackenzie Fraser asked me to—

STRACHAN: I don’t care what he asked you to do! Stop it at once!

POPHAM: But I—

STRACHAN: AT! ONCE!

POPHAM: Okay, okay, don’t burst a blood vessel.

STRACHAN: CHATHAM!

CHATHAM: Yes?

STRACHAN: MY GUNBOATS!

CHATHAM: What about them?

STRACHAN: YOU ORDERED THEM TO BOMBARD VEERE!

CHATHAM: Did I?

STRACHAN: STICK TO SOLDIERING AND LEAVE MY BOATS ALONE!

CHATHAM: Ships.

STRACHAN: THESE ONES ARE BOATS!

CHATHAM: Look, I’m sorry.

STRACHAN: DON’T DO IT AGAIN!

CHATHAM: Bastard.

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Middelburg Abbey

BROWNRIGG: Lord Chatham, the capital, Middelburg, has surrendered. Sir John Hope has taken South Beveland, and Fort Rammekens has fallen, opening the Sloe Passage. All Walcheren is ours except Flushing.

CHATHAM: Excellent. General Coote, start building six batteries around Flushing. [To BROWNRIGG] I think I’ll leave Coote to get on with it and stop here in Middelburg. It’s rather nice here.

BROWNRIGG: It’s still four miles from Flushing.

CHATHAM: Oh, don’t fret. Once Lord Huntly has landed on Cadzand and disabled the French batteries there, we don’t need to care about Flushing. Strachan will get his ships down the West Scheldt in no time.

[Off Cadzand]

HUNTLY: Bugger me, this wind is blowing rather strong!

OWEN: No way we can land in this wind, my lord!

HUNTLY: Fine. We can land my 2,000 men tomorrow.

OWEN: ……….. Two thousand men? You mean 600, no?!

huntly

Lord Huntly (wikipedia)

HUNTLY: What?

OWEN: I only have boats for 600.

HUNTLY: ………… Will Lord Gardner lend you some?

OWEN: Gardner!

GARDNER [distantly]: What?

OWEN: We need some boats!

GARDNER [distantly]: Bugger off! They’re mine!

OWEN [to HUNTLY]: How many men can you see on Cadzand?

[HUNTLY gazes through telescope.]

HUNTLY: I’d say about 1,800, and those are the ones I can see. [Short pause] Screw this. Let’s land on South Beveland instead.

[Back on Walcheren]

BROWNRIGG: Lord Chatham! Lord Huntly has failed to land on Cadzand.

CHATHAM: Damn. We won’t be able to get the ships down the West Scheldt now.

STRACHAN: Don’t fret. We’ll get them through the Sloe.

CHATHAM: Yes, about that—

STRACHAN: Never mind that now, here comes Sir Eyre Coote.

COOTE: The French are getting reinforcements into Flushing from Cadzand and the navy can’t stop them!

STRACHAN: Look, look, don’t worry. We’ll block the French reinforcements.

flushing_map

Map of the siege of Flushing, drawn by Martin Brown

COOTE: Now would be good!

STRACHAN: Can’t do now. Sorry. I’ll get round to it when the wind changes, okay?

COOTE: Look! More just came in!

STRACHAN: Calm down. It’s just a couple of thousand.

CHATHAM: Coote, you’re just going to have to get on with those batteries. It’s been nearly a week.

COOTE: YOU get the sodding engineers to get a move on!

CHATHAM: All right then. I will.

COOTE: ………… I’m going to go and sulk. [slinks off]

CHATHAM: Right then. Colonel Fyers is in charge of the engineers. Colonel Fyers. Report, please.

FYERS: We’re pretty much done, sir. So long as it doesn’t rain, we can open today in a couple of hou— [ENORMOUSLY LOUD THUNDERCLAP] [rain drums off the ground] —bugger.

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Vlissingen Harbour

COOTE: Lord Chatham, the rain’s washed away several of our batteries. I don’t think we can start till tomorrow now.

BROWNRIGG: Erm. My feet seem to be getting wet.

CHATHAM: Probably just the rain.

COOTE: Oh yes, I forgot to mention. The enemy’s cut the dykes. It’s OK, we can open the sluices at Middelburg. But you might want to wear tall boots for a while.

BROWNRIGG: A chair, your Lordship.

CHATHAM: Thank you. [climbs up]

STRACHAN [distantly]: Watch out—I’m coming through!

CHATHAM: What? [Loud cannonade] [cannonballs whistle through the air] [much shouting and chaos] What the hell was that?

BROWNRIGG: I think the Admiral just cut off the Flushing communications and has entered the West Scheldt, sir.

CHATHAM: About bloody time.

STRACHAN [rushes up]: Did you see that? The Frogs never saw that one coming!

CHATHAM: Neither did we.

STRACHAN: Never mind that. What’s happening? Flushing surrendered yet?

CHATHAM: The batteries open tomorrow.

STRACHAN: Tomorrow?! What have you landlubbers being doing all this time? Playing chess? Eating turtle? Having long naps?

COOTE: Actually, y—

Robert_Brownrigg

Sir Robert Brownrigg (wikipedia)

BROWNRIGG [swiftly cutting in]: Admiral, we really need Flushing to surrender quickly, so if you wouldn’t mind using your ships to aid the land batteries from the sea-side when we open fire…

CHATHAM: Strachan, get your boats ready. And tell Sir Home Poophead we will probably need his gunboats, too.

BROWNRIGG: Sir Home Popham.

CHATHAM: That’s what I said.

[Next day, off Flushing]

FYERS: Ready the batteries. Fire!

[Loud explosions]

CHATHAM [squinting through telescope]: I say, what a fine spectacle!

BROWNRIGG: I’m sorry, your lordship, what was that?

CHATHAM: I said it was a noble spectacle. Don’t you think?

[screams and explosions]

BROWNRIGG: Erm.

CHATHAM: Where are the ships? They don’t seem to be doing anything.

BROWNRIGG: I think it’s the wrong sort of wind again, sir.

CHATHAM: Ah. The wrong sort of wind. [Sighs; raises voice] Strachan!

STRACHAN [distantly]: Yes?

CHATHAM: Would you please do something?

STRACHAN [distantly]: Trying! Wind!

CHATHAM: Would you like a tablet for that?

COOTE: Here come the ships now.

CHATHAM: Ah, that’s better.

[Explosions get louder]

CHATHAM: Good heavens. I think they’re shouting ‘uncle’ now.

BROWNRIGG: There goes the church.

CHATHAM: Can’t be long now. What’s our friend the Admiral doing? [Trains telescope on sea]

bombardment_vlissingen_2

BROWNRIGG: The naval vessels are giving it full pelt.

CHATHAM: He is doing rather well, I admit. He’ll be insufferable tomorrow.

BROWNRIGG: He’d better be careful; his flagship is rather close to the shore. If he doesn’t steer clear, he’s going to run agr—

[Extremely loud crunching noise]

STRACHAN [distantly]: Bugger! Would someone mind giving me a push? Just a little one?

[CHATHAM says nothing but smiles, ever so slightly]

COOTE: Lord Chatham. The city has surrendered.

CHATHAM: Excellent! Call off the guns. And would someone mind throwing Sir Richard a rope?

[Part 2 can be read here]

Who wrote “Letters from Flushing”?

One of the most famous contemporary descriptions of the Walcheren campaign is a small volume entitled Letters from Flushing … an account of the expedition to Walcheren, Beveland, and the Mouth of the Scheldt, under the command of the Earl of Chatham (London: Richard Phillips, 1809). The book consists of 14 letters allegedly written home to friends by ‘an officer of the 81st Regiment’, covering the period from 27 July (just before the expedition sailed) to 8 September (just before half of the forces returned to Britain).

 

lettersfromflushing

This book has long been a puzzle to me. It’s a brilliant text – apart from anything else, the description of the bombardment of Flushing between 13-15 August is just fabulous – and some of the details given in it about life in Zeeland under the British occupation are wonderful. But there are several odd things about it. Why does the author of the letters return to England in mid-September, when the 81st remained on Walcheren until the final evacuation of the island in December? Why is he hardly ever with his regiment, when the movements of the 81st can be easily traced in the various diaries and official proceedings?

These mysteries, I feel, ought to be cleared up if the author can be identified. We know he was on the 81st; the fact that he is hardly ever with the 81st, and in fact finally leaves without it in mid-September, suggests he was on the staff. This is supported by his birds’ eye view of the campaign and his familiarity with the higher echelons of command, which is highly unusual for a junior officer attached to a particular regiment.

Who, then, was the author? He was educated although probably not classically so. He had his ear to the ground (there are frequent references to public affairs that could only be garnered by someone with an interest in them). He was unmarried, referring approvingly to ‘Sir John Moore’s maxim that a soldier should have nothing to do with a wife’ – but possibly attached, going on to say ‘And yet I think that some of these wives are too precious luxuries for us contentedly to give the monopoly of them to you non-military gentlemen’ (p. 19). He probably wasn’t at Corunna with the rest of the 81st, as he talks of opinions ‘which I have frequently heard from the officers who have served in Spain’ (p. 154), suggesting he did not do so himself. Otherwise, I had to guess.

The obvious place to start in my quest to identify this officer was to see if anyone had done it before me. (That would have been handy.) Were there any identifying marks on the various versions of Letters available on the internet, or recorded in any online catalogues? Alas, no.

My next port of call was the Army List (annual and monthly), although I’m not entirely sure what I was looking for here. I guess I was I was kind of hoping one of the names would leap out at me waving a sign reading ‘I wrote Letters from Flushing!’, but no such luck. Not only that, but most of the names from both battalions of the 81st were jumbled together, with only a few identified as belonging to one or the other (only the second battalion was at Walcheren).

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My eureka moment was provided by a visit to the National Archives, where I called up the muster book of the second battalion of the 81st [1] and the monthly returns of the officers attached to the Walcheren campaign [2]. This latter document contained a detailed list of the staff, including regimental affiliation.

Squeezed at the very bottom of the first page was the only officer attached to the 81st – Captain George Charles D’Aguilar, ADC to Colonel Thomas Mahon (a staff officer).

officersreturn_daguilar

D’Aguilar (1784-1855) is an interesting character of himself. Of Jewish extraction, he entered the Army as an ensign in the 86th Regt in 1799. He spent nearly his entire early career in India with his regiment, before transferring to a captaincy in the 81st and returning home in May 1809 – just in time for Walcheren. He went on to become Assistant Adjutant-General in Ireland and at Horse Guards, before participating in the Opium Wars and becoming Lieutenant Governor of Hong Kong.

George_Charles_D'Aguilar

G.C. D’Aguilar in later life, from here

Could D’Aguilar have written Letters? It’s certainly possible. He sailed on 29 July with Mahon, which corroborates information given in the second letter of Letters (which clearly shows the author to have sailed with the second part of the fleet). Excitingly, he also seems to have returned in mid-September. The Gentleman’s Magazine [3] states that he ‘returned to England with the cavalry’ under Mahon’s command, and he was certainly in Lancashire to propose to his future wife, Eliza Drinkwater, at the end of September.[4]

The fact D’Aguilar had left Walcheren by the end of September is confirmed by the officers’ return.[2] Although the return shows him as still being on Walcheren in October, this was an error, as shown by a pencilled ‘LA’ (Leave of Absence) next to his name.

officersreturn_LA

The next return confirms that he was given leave until the end of December.

officersreturn_absentI must admit that D’Aguilar’s authorship is a speculative, rather than a definite, identification. I can’t find any obvious connection between D’Aguilar and the printer of Letters, Richard Phillips, except that Phillips was a well-known publisher of other military works. Nor can I confirm that D’Aguilar stayed at Bedford Square, where the Advertisement at the beginning of Letters is signed. D’Aguilar did, however, go on to publish several other works in his lifetime, including The Officers; Manual (a translation of the Military Maxims of Napoleon).[5]

And yet, if I can’t confirm that D’Aguilar was the author, I can’t find anyone else in the 2nd battalion of the 81st who fits the bill. This is evident from comparing the information in the payroll [1] and the officers’ returns. [2]

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At the end of September, only a handful of 2nd battalion officers were not present on Walcheren. Apart from D’Aguilar (and a scattering of officers who were serving with the 1st battalion in Sicily), 18 officers were listed as absent:

  • Lt-Col James Kempt – serving in North America as QMG
  • Major Henry Milling – severely wounded at Corunna and not yet fit for duty
  • Capt J. Lutman – severely wounded at Corunna (effectively invalided for life)
  • Capt Ralph Crofton – guarding the battalion’s heavy baggage at Bletchington, Oxon. (the regimental depot)
  • Capt Caesar Colclough – recruiting in England since July
  • Capt William Dams – recruiting in England since July
  • Lt J.G. Hort – lost his right leg at Corunna
  • Lt Armstrong – recruiting in England since July
  • Lt Thomas Thomson – recruiting in England since July
  • Lt William Hyde – recruiting in England since July
  • Lt Thomas Manning – recruiting in England since July
  • Ens R.J. Marston – recruiting in England since July
  • Ens J.L. Serjeant – recruiting in England since July
  • Ensigns Anderson and Pringle – absent without leave, but last seen alive during the march to Corunna and ‘presumed dead’
  • Ens White – sick with fever since 12 Sept
  • Apothecary Chislett – sick with fever since 13 Sept

None of these people could possibly have written Letters – leaving D’Aguilar as the only possible person capable of compiling Letters as early as October 1809.

References

[1] WO 12/8953.

[2] WO 17/2479.

[3] Gentleman’s Magazine, vols 198-9 (1855), p. 94.

[4] D’Aguilar v Drinkwater, Francis Vesey and John Beames, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery during the time of Lord Chancellor Eldon, vol 2 (London: Reed and Hunter, 1814), p. 227.

[5] H. Stephens (2008) D’Aguilar, Sir George Charles (1784–1855), army officer. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 15 May 2019, from here.

 

“The Severest Censure of this House”: a government is repeatedly defeated in the House of Commons, 1810

Current events in Parliament are very interesting to me as a political historian, although I admit I’d prefer to be watching from the safer distance of, say, a couple of centuries. Since I am a historian, however, and a Napoleonic-era one at that, yesterday’s triple defeat of Theresa May’s government reminded me strongly of the situation of the Perceval government over the winter of 1809–1810. Perceval’s government wasn’t exactly found to be in “contempt of Parliament”, like May’s, but it might as well have been. Here’s why.

The Perceval Government

spencer_perceval

Spencer Perceval kissed hands as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer at the beginning of October 1809. He succeeded the Duke of Portland. At the beginning of September, it had been revealed that Foreign Secretary George Canning had been intriguing against the Secretary of State for War, Lord Castlereagh, for some months. Portland had actually agreed to force Castlereagh out and reshuffle the cabinet to accommodate Canning’s friend Lord Wellesley. The outcome of all this was that Canning and Castlereagh both resigned (and then fought a duel), while Portland – who had recently suffered a stroke and was in poor health – gave way to Perceval.

Perceval thus started out under the shadow of Canning and Castlereagh’s disgrace. His position was not improved by the fact that the Portland government’s big military campaign of the year – the Walcheren expedition, involving 40,000 troops and over 600 naval vessels – was in its final disastrous throes. The expedition’s commander, Lord Chatham, had failed to take Antwerp (his ultimate goal), and sickness was tearing through the troops. By mid-September, nearly 10,000 men were on the sick list. Most of the army was recalled, but a garrison of 16,000 men under Sir Eyre Coote remained on Walcheren, pending further orders.

Matters were made even worse by the fact that Lord Chatham, the expedition’s commander, had also been a member of Portland’s cabinet as Master-General of the Ordnance. This was a huge millstone around Perceval’s neck; indeed, many cartoons depicted Chatham at this time with a large millstone inscribed “WALCHEREN”.

AN00079358_001_l

(From here)

Perceval spent several weeks putting his government together. He approached the leaders of the opposition, Lord Grenville and Earl Grey; he approached former prime minister Lord Sidmouth, who had a reasonably sizeable political following. They all refused to join him. With Canning and Castlereagh both out of the question, Perceval found himself having to fall back largely on the same ministers who had served in the discredited Portland government. Even Chatham got to stay on at the Ordnance.

These attempts to shore up an already-tottering government took up most of Perceval’s attentions, and it was only in November that the cabinet finally got around to discussing what to do with Walcheren (meanwhile, half of Coote’s garrison there had fallen ill with fever). Walcheren was finally evacuated at the end of December.

Inquiry: political or military?

Perceval was aware he would face an immediate onslaught from the opposition in Parliament on Walcheren. He knew there was no way he would be able to avoid some sort of political scrutiny, particularly after the extremely influential London Common Council (representing London’s considerable mercantile interests) laid an Address before the King calling for an inquiry into the debacle. A year previously, the Portland government had managed to dodge a similar bullet over the dire military situation in the Peninsula by placing the responsible army commanders (including the future Duke of Wellington) before a military inquiry at Chelsea – despite calls from the City of London for a political investigation. Perceval knew he would not be so lucky now.

common-council-chamber-guildhall

Since an inquiry was inevitable, the only question was what form the inquiry should take. Perceval hoped he would be able to limit any damage to his government by restricting an inquiry to a select committee, which would only be obliged to publish its ultimate decision and not its full proceedings. Effectively, Perceval wanted to control the evidence that would be laid before Parliament (and the public).

Perceval managed to put the meeting of Parliament off over Christmas, but when Parliament met again on 23 January 1810, the opposition went straight to the attack. On 26 January, Lord Porchester led the opposition in its demand for a political inquiry – not a select committee, but a committee of the whole House of Commons (a format that had recently been used for assessing evidence that the Duke of York, as Commander in Chief, had been selling military commissions through his mistress, Mary-Anne Clarke).

mw64890

Lord Porchester

The opposition hoped this format would do two things – indict the government before the eyes of Parliament and the people, and force the government to produce and publish all the relevant paperwork, rather than cherry-picking their evidence. As Porchester argued, the nation at large had a right to know how the government was using its military resources:

I cannot consent to delegate the right of inquiry on this occasion to any select or secret Committee, by whom the course of investigation might be misdirected, or its bounds limited – before whom, possibly, garbled extracts, called documents, might be laid by ministers themselves, in order to produce a partial discussion … It is in a Committee of the whole House alone, we can have a fair case, because if necessary we can examine oral evidence at the Bar.[1]

In other words, Porchester and the opposition were putting the government on trial before the House of Commons – and, by extension, the people.

The government is defeated (repeatedly)

Perceval tried to deflect Porchester’s motion for an inquiry of the whole House by moving the previous question (effectively an attempt to dispose of the motion altogether), on the grounds that a select committee would be more suitable. He found himself deserted by a number of his supporters, including Lord Castlereagh, who (as former Secretary of State for War) welcomed an inquiry into the expedition he had planned, hoping it would clear him; and the Commons supporters of Lord Chatham, who hoped an inquiry would uncover the duplicity of his colleagues in sending him on the expedition with insufficient (and perhaps even false) information.

Perceval first tried to adjourn the debate until 5 February; he was defeated without a division. The previous question was then put, and the opposition carried the day 195 votes to 186. The government was now committed to a full inquiry of the sort they had been dreading. The inquiry began on 2 February 1810; all its proceedings were published, in the newspapers and in the official parliamentary debates (the future Hansard).

Despite the best hopes of the opposition, the government managed to weather the Walcheren storm and did not fall. After the government’s defeats on 26 January, nobody had really been expecting it to survive the inquiry. It nearly didn’t, particularly when it became clear that Lord Chatham had (apparently) submitted a private narrative defending his conduct at Walcheren to the King – an unconstitutional act.

At the end of February 1810, the government was again defeated in the lobbies and forced to produce more written evidence. On 23 February, oppositionist Samuel Whitbread moved that all papers in the Royal archives relating to Chatham’s narrative should be produced; his motion was narrowly passed by 178 to 171. Whitbread then moved two resolutions on 2 March censuring Chatham’s conduct. Perceval was once more unable to move the previous question and throw Whitbread’s censures out without a debate; he lost 221 to 188, with many supporters once again in the Noes lobby. Only an amendment by George Canning (then a backbencher) softened Whitbread’s language and passed without a division, but Perceval had been unable to protect a member of his own government. Only Chatham’s resignation from the cabinet on 7 March prevented the government falling with him.

George Canning

George Canning

The outcome

On 26 March, Lord Porchester moved eight resolutions censuring the ministers:

The expedition to the Scheldt was undertaken under circumstances which afforded no rational hope of adequate success. … The advisers of this ill-judged enterprise are, in the opinion of this House, deeply responsible for the heavy calamities with which its failure has been attended. … Such conduct of His Majesty’s advisers, deserves the severest censure of this House.[2]

The resolutions were discussed by the House of Commons over the course of four bitter days. The opposition had been expecting to force Perceval’s resignation; what actually happened was that Porchester’s resolutions were rejected 272 votes to 232 early in the morning of 31 March. The House of Commons then passed a resolution approving of the retention of Walcheren until December by 255 votes to 232.

What had gone wrong? Perceval’s most recent biographer, Denis Gray, thought Perceval’s unexpected triumph was evidence that his “courage and steadiness had pulled it [survival] off against the greatest imaginable difficulties and odds. After the Walcheren debates Pittites again new that they had a leader of resolution and character.”[3]

Historian Michael Roberts, however, gives a different answer: “The majority of independent members preferred to take the chance that Walcheren would be a salutary lesson to the Government, than to risk putting the country into the hands of a party that had neither policy, nor prospect of uniting upon one, nor ability to carry it out.” Later, Roberts reiterates the point: “The Walcheren vote was not so much in favour of the Tories as against the Whigs”.[4]

In other words, Perceval’s survival was due less to his own skill and more to the weakness of the opposition, which found it easier to criticise than to propose its own alternative agenda. Divided as it was over the issue of whether or not to commit more fully to the war in the Peninsula, and with nascent divisions between Lords Grenville and Grey, the opposition was, indeed, perhaps no more capable than the government to guide the war effort – as their brief stint in power in 1806–7 as the Ministry of All the Talents had shown.

Modern parallels?

Only time will tell of Theresa May’s government is able to hold its own, or whether Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition is capable of presenting a valid alternative political agenda. I suspect we will find out more about that over the coming week. But it struck me that the Walcheren inquiry does have some modern echoes. At any rate, it is certainly not the first time that a government has fought for its life in the face of public scrutiny.

References

[1] Parliamentary Debates volume XV (1812), col. 162

[2] Parliamentary Debates vol. XVI (1812), cols. 78–80

[3] Denis Gray, Spencer Perceval: The Evangelical Prime Minister (Manchester: University Press, 1963), p. 304

[4] Michael Roberts, The Whig Party, 1807–12 (London, 1939), pp. 147, 322–3)

Walcheren 1809: the mystery of the missing memorandum

walcheren_sick

The Walcheren Expedition of 1809, which Lord Chatham infamously commanded, was unquestionably a disaster. Although the British managed to take the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland, they failed to get to Antwerp, the ultimate objective, to destroy the fortifications there and the French and Dutch fleet.

Most seriously of all, the army was rendered completely useless by a violent illness known as “Walcheren Fever”, thought to be a combination of malaria, typhoid, typhus and dysentery. Of the 39,219 men sent to the Scheldt River basin, 11,296 were on the sick lists by the time the inquiry was underway. 3,960 were dead. The British Army suffered from the recurring effects of “Walcheren fever” until the end of the war.

Not long after the last soldier had been landed back in Britain in January 1810, the House of Commons formed itself into committee to inquire into whose bright idea it had been to send nearly 40,000 of Britain’s best (i.e., only) troops to a pestilential swamp at the height of the unhealthy season.

Careers were at stake, and nobody wanted to own up. Chatham, the military commander, was nevertheless pretty sure he knew who was most to blame for what had happened. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t him. Contrary to what nearly every historian of the campaign has tried to argue, however, it wasn’t his naval counterpart, Sir Richard Strachan, either.

Chatham wasn’t very successful at fighting accusations of his sloth and incompetence, and he eventually ended up with most of the blame for the campaign’s failure, even if the Walcheren inquiry technically cleared him of wrongdoing. In my opinion, however, one aspect of Chatham’s evidence has been overlooked: his indictment of the Board of Admiralty, under the First Lord, Earl Mulgrave.

Henry Lord Mulgrave

Lord Mulgrave

After the inquiry was over, Chatham wrote a series of memoranda defending his conduct on Walcheren and during the parliamentary proceedings that followed. These memoranda reveal Chatham’s conviction that Mulgrave had been trying to cover up the Admiralty’s role in planning the expedition for months.

By April 1810, when he probably wrote these memoranda, Chatham was as paranoid as it is possible for a man to be. Nor was he the least bit impartial in the matter. And yet there is some evidence that the Admiralty – a highly organised political body, and one with which Chatham (a former First Lord himself) was extremely familiar – did indeed try to conceal evidence from the inquiry.

One very important piece of information was only laid before the inquiry at all on 1 March 1810, and only because Chatham’s testimony had drawn public attention to it. This was a memorandum, written on 19 June 1809 at the Admiralty Office, entitled “Respecting the Practicability of effecting a Landing between Sandfleet [Sandvliet] and Fort Lillo”. (Sandfleet, or Sandvliet, being the place where the British Army was meant to land on the continent, nine miles from Antwerp; Lillo being one of the two forts straddling the point at which the Scheldt River narrowed before the dockyards.)

CaptureThe belatedly-published memorandum quoted two naval officers, Sir Home Popham (one of the planners of the expedition) and Captain Robert Plampin, both saying they had both been to Antwerp in the 1790s and thought there would be no problem in landing a large body of men between Lillo and Sandvliet. On that basis, the Opinion made the following statement:

The Board of Admiralty having made inquiry respecting the practicability of effecting a Landing between the point of Sandfleet and Fort Lillo … are prepared … to undertake that the troops shall be conveyed, when the Island of Beveland, including Bathz is in our possession, to the Dyke between Fort Lillo and Sandfleet, and landed, as far as the question of Landing depends on the nature of the place, with relation to the approach to the shore of boats and other vessels capable of receiving troops.[1]

Why was this so mysterious? Because Chatham remembered this memorandum rather differently from the form in which it was published for the inquiry.

According to Chatham, the Cabinet had only approved the expedition in the first place after the Admiralty Board had issued this Opinion as a guarantee that a large fleet could carry twenty thousand men up the West Scheldt and land them at Sandvliet. This was in response to doubts voiced by Chatham himself – doubts formed after discussions with military officers who had been to Sandvliet and told him an army could not be landed there. Since the whole plan hinged on landing at Sandvliet, Chatham rather reasonably told the Cabinet he would not undertake to sanction his own expedition unless the Admiralty could prove the military men wrong: “This last Point I considered as a sine qua non [which] … must be placed beyond all doubt, to warrant the undertaking the enterprize [sic].”[2] Mulgrave’s response was the 19 June memorandum, which circulated through the Cabinet the day after it was drawn up.

Chatham remembered it as being signed by the three professional Lords of the Admiralty. In 1809, these would have been Sir Richard Bickerton, William Domett, and Robert Moorsom.

Chatham’s assertions are to an extent backed up by official correspondence. Following the mid-June cabinet meeting, Castlereagh informed the King of the need to postpone preparing for the expedition until “the practicability of a Landing at Sandfleet [sic] can be assured”. Two days after the circulation of the 19 June Opinion, Castlereagh wrote: “Under the sanction of this opinion … Your Majesty’s confidential servants … feel it their duty humbly to recommend to Your Majesty that the operation should be undertaken”. Castlereagh edited out the line “should the Immediate object be abandon’d”, which suggests that the viability of a Sandvliet landing was indeed the make-or-break feature – to borrow Chatham’s words, the sine qua non – of the expedition going ahead.[3]

All this corroborates Chatham’s account completely, except for one detail. Three copies of the Opinion exist, one in the Castlereagh MSS at PRONI (D3030/3241-3) and two in the National Archives (ADM 3/168). None is signed. The copies of the Opinion that remain are therefore no more than that – an opinion. They were unofficial, and could not be claimed to form the basis of any Cabinet decision to undertake the expedition.

Did Chatham simply misremember the opinion? This is the opinion of Carl Christie, who deals with the 19 June Opinion thoroughly in his excellent thesis on the Walcheren expedition. “The suspicion is that his memory was playing tricks on him”, Christie writes, and concludes that he “misinterpreted the Admiralty opinion”.[4] But Chatham clearly wasn’t the only one who did so, as Castlereagh’s letters to the King show above.

The question, therefore, is whether a signed Opinion ever existed. We only have Chatham’s word for this; but it does seem unlikely that the Cabinet would have made the important decision to proceed with the expedition on the basis of the opinion of two subordinate naval officers. (Popham in particular had a track record of leading British troops into madcap schemes that often went wrong, as the Buenos Aires expedition of 1806 demonstrates).

Castlereagh later played down the importance of the opinion: at the inquiry, when questioned about it, he seemed confused as to which memorandum Chatham had intended to single out, and fudged the issue by saying there was a paper “which I may have seen in circulation, with the names of three [Admiralty] lords attached to it, but I rather imagine that it is the same paper as that which is dated the 9th of June”. But the Admiralty opinion of 9 June 1809 was on a completely different topic, and had also been drawn up prior to the Cabinet meeting to which Chatham referred.[5]

There is, however, one further possibility: that Chatham’s memory was not faulty at all, and that the opinion he saw was different from the printed version. The accusation that the Admiralty later cherry-picked the evidence laid before the Walcheren inquiry to play down its role in the planning, indeed, seems to form the thrust of Chatham’s memorandum. He did not come outright and say so, but he came close when he asserted:

An attempt was made in the course of the Enquiry, to question the existence of this Document, and they [the Admiralty] never would produce it, but they did not venture to call the Sea Lords [to give evidence], and with them the question whether they had not signed such a Paper and delivered to Lord Mulgrave, to be shewn to ye Cabinet.[6]

So where is the signed version of the Opinion the Admiralty failed to produce? Did it ever exist? Castlereagh’s evidence, vague as it was, certainly suggests that it did. Chatham was certainly convinced the Admiralty was covering its back at his expense. Was he right?

We will probably never know.

References

[1] Parliamentary Papers 1810 (89), “Respecting the Practicability of effecting a Landing between Sandfleet and Fort Lillo”

[2] Memorandum by Chatham, PRO 30/8/260 f. 100

[3] Castlereagh to the King, draft, 14 June 1809, PRONI Castlereagh MSS D3030/3137. The 15 June copy that was sent is printed in Aspinall V, 298

[4] Carl A. Christie, “The Walcheren Expedition of 1809” (PhD, University of Dundee, 1975), pp. 126, 131

[5] Testimony of Lord Castlereagh, 13 March 1810, Parliamentary Debates XV, Appendix 5xxii-iv

[6] Memorandum by Chatham, undated, National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/260 f 100

The Diary of Colonel Thomas Carey, 27 February 1810

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Image from here

And now for something (not entirely) completely different… I wrote this short fiction piece as a guest post for another blog a couple of years ago. I had hoped to put it up yesterday (27 February), as the anniversary of the event in question, but it took a little while to find the document.

Those of you who’ve read The Late Lord will know Thomas Carey was Lord Chatham’s military secretary at Walcheren. I’d much like to know more about him.

Oh, and I didn’t make any of this up.

***

Lord Chatham was called up again to appear before the Committee. He had been dreading it very much; certain members of the Committee had previously fastened upon His Lordship’s explanatory narrative of his conduct, which he had delivered to the King without submitting to the Secretary of State for War. This action the opposition to government supposed to be unconstitutional.

I saw His Lordship after breakfast. He had eaten nothing; I suppose he could not. “Will they mention it again, do you suppose?”

I had no doubt they would, but I said only, “I understand from Mr Huskisson the intention is to examine matters of strategy today.”

In the afternoon I accompanied His Lordship to the House. He was called almost immediately to the Bar, where a chair had been set up for him beneath the galleries, as before. The tiny chamber was full to bursting. The Chairman, Sir John Anstruther, settled his spectacles on his thin hooked nose and began.

I watched from the lobby. I could not see Lord Chatham’s face but I could tell from his stiff shoulders he was uncomfortable. Still, the questioning began well enough.

“At the start of the expedition, did Your Lordship believe Antwerp might be taken by a coup-de-main?”

“Might Antwerp have been taken by assault?”

“Did Your Lordship confer with your general officers on the adviseability of advancing on Antwerp?”

His Lordship answered all of them, rather curtly, but sensibly. And then the strange gentleman rose, on the left of the empty Speaker’s chair. He looked like he had slept in his clothes. I am fairly certain, from the slurring of his words, that he was drunk.

“I know Antwerp could have been taken by two men and a blunderbuss. Was Your Lordship not aware?”

A silence. My Lord looked across at the gentleman who had spoken. The Chairman coughed and said, “Are there any more questions?”

“Two men and a blunderbuss,” the man repeated, then added, “playing the penny whistle.”

Someone laughed. Lord Chatham shifted visibly in his chair. He took a sip from the wineglass he kept under his chair to wet his dry mouth during the questioning.

“Next question,” the Chairman said, firmly.

“Maybe three men, if one had a wooden leg.”

“Will you be quiet?” Sir John shouted.

I fear it was a mistake.

“God Damn me, sir,” the drunk man said, rising unsteadily to his feet and waving a finger, “I have as much right to be heard as any man who is paid for filling the place he holds.”

The silence was so deep I could hear my own heartbeat. Every man on the Treasury Bench looked as though they were wondering if they had heard aright. The opposition was blank-faced. One of the men standing next to me leaned forwards and muttered to himself, gleefully, “And I thought this would be dull.”

“I fear that language is unparliamentary,” Sir John Anstruther said at last. “Gentlemen, I think the Committee ought to interrupt its proceedings to allow the Speaker back to the chair. He will, no doubt, wish to name this gentleman.”

As I understand, naming a Member of Parliament involves entering their name into the Journals for to record poor behaviour. This gentleman, however, remained ufazed. “You need not be diffident, Sir. My name is Jack Fuller.”

Open laughter now. But when the Speaker returned and ordered the man to withdraw, he refused. The Serjeant at Arms came forward with two assistants to remove him; and then Jack Fuller threw a punch, missed his target, and struck the Member for Wool Downs in the back of the head, knocking him off the bench with a cry.

“Take this man into your custody, Serjeant,” the Speaker called.

Eventually Mr Fuller was carried from the chamber, calling back over his shoulder, “Two men I say! Did you hear me, my lord? Two!”

“Any further questions?” Sir John Anstruther said loudly, when the Speaker had retreated once more.

I hoped the questions would be kind, for I knew Lord Chatham’s nerves were under considerable strain as it was, but unfortunately the first person to stand was Mr Whitbread, from the opposition bench. “When you submitted your narrative to His Majesty, my lord, did you enter into any correspondence with him?”

I had hoped the subject would not come up. I closed my eyes. Lord Chatham replied, tensely, “Merely a cover letter. I have no copy.”

“Did you–” Mr Whitbread began, but he was interrupted. Someone pushed past me roughly, reeking of brandy. It was Mr Fuller. He rushed back into the Chamber, shouting, “You have no authority to take me away! Who do you think you are?”

For once Mr Fuller had perfect timing, and I was almost glad for Lord Chatham’s sake that the course of the questioning had been stalled. He stood and swayed, jabbing his finger at the empty Speaker’s chair. “Where is he? Where is that insignificant little fellow in the silly wig?”

“Serjeant!” Anstruther bellowed.

Before the Serjeant could appear Fuller put his head down and rushed at Sir John. Unfortunately Lord Chatham’s chair was in Fuller’s path. His Lordship had to dive out of the way in alarm; I would wager he would much rather have been fighting the French on Walcheren than facing this mad beast.

The Serjeant-at-Arms ran in with his assistants, and started to chase Jack Fuller round the chamber. Four Messengers followed. Mr Fuller picked up Lord Chatham’s vacant chair and waved it at them.

I do not know how long it took them to catch the man; he was surprisingly nimble for a man in his cups. With the assistance of several gentlemen of the House they eventually managed to draw him out. I could hear him shouting as they dragged him down the stairs to the Serjeant’s chamber: “I only wanted to ask a question!”

“Lord Chatham may withdraw,” Sir John Anstruther said, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. “The Committee will now adjourn.”

His Lordship found me in the Lobby. His face was white and I think, had he not had that glass of wine to support him, his legs may well have collapsed beneath him.

“I think that went well,” I said, aiming to encourage him.

He merely looked at me, and did not reply.

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