Walcheren 1809: the mystery of the missing memorandum

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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

“The shadow of inquiry”: Robert Waithman, the City of London and the Address to the Crown, December 1809

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Right now I’m (painstakingly) working on a paper I will be giving in January at the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference in Oxford. Entitled ‘Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me: the Walcheren Inquiry, Lord Chatham’s Narrative, and the politics of blame’, the paper will investigate just how Chatham’s infamous narrative explaining his conduct during the Walcheren Expedition nearly caused a massive constitutional crisis, threatened the stability of Spencer Perceval’s ministry and led directly to the end of Chatham’s political career. The Walcheren Inquiry is therefore much on my mind, and it ocurred to me that today — 5 December — is the anniversary of a very important factor in the lead-up to the parliamentary investigation.

On 5 December 1809, Alderman Robert Waithman moved an Address to the King in the City of London’s Court of Common Council. Waithman is an interesting figure in his own right.

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He had a trade background (he was a linen draper): rising to become a City of London liveryman, he made his reputation as a supporter of radical political reform and a violent opponent of the war with France. True to his political track record, he had already led the City in petitioning the King for an inquiry into the Convention of Cintra in 1808, which had thrown away the advantages gained in Portugal by Sir Arthur Wellesley’s victory at Vimeiro by allowing the surrendering French to evacuate in British ships with their spoils of war. Now, following the abject failure of the Walcheren expedition, he decided to do the same thing again.

Waithman pulled no punches with his language. “The armament,” he informed the Court, “was, he believed, the greatest ever sent out from this country.” Its failure had been proportionate to its size: “This disgraceful and calamitous expedition had already cost this ill-used country not less than £8 millions of money, and six thousand of our men, without reckoning those who are suffering, or dying of the diseases to which they have been thus improvidently subjected. Could the people of England patiently bear this wasteful and profligate expenditure of their treasure and loss of their blood?”

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The Court of Common Council in Session, from here

Waithman, like the good radical he was, thought the City had a duty to speak up because Parliament would not. Recalling his experience with Cintra, Waithman said “he was sorry indeed that he could not look with hope to Parliament for such an inquiry, for what had he seen … that could lead him to expect such an inquiry from the votes of the majority in Parliament? On all occasions such inquiries were negatived by overwhelming majorities.”[1]

The proposal was controversial, and the Court did not automatically accept Waithman’s suggestion. When the Address was put to the vote, however, it squeaked through by 68 votes to 67. A subsequent vote on the text passed by five votes. On the 13th some pro-government members of the Council tried to have the original text amended on the pretext that many of the members had been absent due to the lateness of the hour at which it was passed, and they managed to get some of the more offensive paragraphs struck out. The end result, nevertheless, struck a disapproving note:

Most Gracious Sovereign

… We have witnessed with deep regret the disastrous failure of the late Expedition, as the magnitude of its equipment had raised the just hopes and expectations of the Country to some permanent benefit.

… Your Majesty’s faithful Citizens, actuated by loyal attachment to your Sacred Person and Illustrious House, and solicitous for the honour of your Majesty’s arms and the dignity and solidity of your Majesty’s Councils, are deeply impressed with the necessity of an early and strict Inquiry into the causes of the failure of the late Expedition, therefore, pray your Majesty will direct Inquiry to be forthwith instituted, in order to ascertain the causes which have occasioned it.[2]

Notably, there was nothing here to suggest the need for a parliamentary inquiry. In fact the form of the inquiry was left pretty much open to the King (and, through him, his ministers) to decide. The official Answer to the Address, however (which was delivered on 20 December 1809), pretty much fixed the parliamentary tone of the inquiry:

The recent Expedition to the Scheldt was directed to several objects of great importance to the interests of my Allies, and to the security of my dominions. I regret, that of these objects a part only has been accomplished. I have not judged it to be necessary to direct any Military Inquiry into the Conduct of my Commanders by Sea or Land in this conjoint Service. It will be for my Parliament, in their wisdom, to ask for such information, or to take such measures upon this subject as they shall judge most conducive to the public good.[3]

Unsurprisingly, this was not what Chatham had hoped to hear. He was too proud to ask “for an enquiry before a Military Tribunal”, which he thought would show he felt his conduct required justification, but he recognised that “some opportunity of my conduct being inquired into” would come sooner or later, probably around the time Parliament was due to convene in January.[4] Nevertheless, “a Court Martial … was what, under all circumstances, I felt wou’d be most advantageous for me,” and given the precedent of the military inquiry into the Conventi0n of Cintra, Chatham had good reason to expect this was the form an inquiry would take.[5]

proceedingsonenq00dalr

The King’s Answer to the Address put that out of the question. Chatham immediately spotted that the King’s Answer had expressly rejected that option and on the contrary “directly pointed to a Proceeding in Parliament”.[6]

This was perhaps the point at which Chatham realised it was actually going to happen. Richard Ryder, the Home Secretary, heard that “he says that he had disregarded former charges till the Address of the City — that then the charge appeared to wear a more serious appearance and to require some recorded testimony on his part of his desire to meet enquiry”.[7]

Chatham’s course of action, indeed the only one he could well take under the circumstances, was to write to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Liverpool, to put his willingness to face an inquiry — any inquiry — down in the official record. There was some toing and froing over the exact wording, particularly Chatham’s original phrase of being “most earnestly and anxiously desirous” for an inquiry, but the end result was as follows:

My Lord,

Having perused the Address of the City of London … together with the answer with His Majesty’s Answer thereto, I see 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 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 His Majesty was graciously pleased to confide to me.[8]

The die was cast. Parliament met on 23 January 1810. Three days later, the oppositionist Lord Porchester moved for the inevitable inquiry. Its final form — a committee of the whole House of Commons — cannot have been foreseen by Chatham (or anyone else) at the time of Waithman’s Common Council motion on 5 December. Had Waithman not tried to seize the Commons’ initiative, however, perhaps Chatham might have got his military tribunal after all.

 

References

[1] Speech by Waithman, recorded in the Times, 6 December 1809

[2] Cobbett’s Political Register, vol. XVI, July-December 1809, cols. 983-4

[3] Ibid.

[4] Chatham to Charles Yorke, 27 October 1809, BL Add MSS 45042 f. 57

[5] Undated memorandum by Chatham, NA PRO 30/8/260 f. 112

[6] Chatham to Lord Liverpool, 31 December 1809, NA PRO 30/8/364 f. 32

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

[8] Chatham to Lord Liverpool, 22 December 1809, A Collection of Papers relating to the Expedition to the Scheldt, presented to Parliament in 1810 (London, 1811), pp. 126-7

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

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

 

chathamturner

Lord Chatham, engraved by Charles Turner (1809)

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

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

464487583_detail

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

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

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

769px-captain_sir_andrew_snape_hamond_-_m-_colnaghi-_1830

Sir Andrew Snape Hamond

Hamond’s letter to Chatham is as follows:

Fitzroy Square, Sunday

28th Jany. 1810

Dear Lord Chatham

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

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

Yr Lordship’s most faithful

& sincerely attached

Friend

A.S. Hammond [4]

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

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

Chatham replied to Hamond:

Private: Hill Street, Jan. 28th 1810

My Dear Sir

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

Believe me

My Dear Sir

Always Most Truly Yours

Chatham [5]

*Chatham initially wrote “abuse”.

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Chatham’s “unfortunate Narrative”

AN00078897_001_l

“Secret Influence, or a Peep Behind the Screen” (Charles Williams, March 1810) (from here)

In July 1809 nearly 40,000 troops and 200 sail were sent out under the joint commands of Lieutenant-General the Earl of Chatham and Admiral Sir Richard Strachan. Their ultimate object was to destroy the French navy and dockyards at Antwerp, but first they had to secure the entrance to the Scheldt River. For this purpose the British forces occupied the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland, but this process took nearly a month, by which time the French had brought in considerable reinforcements, strengthened the defences of Antwerp, and withdrawn their fleet upriver. Meanwhile, the British Army had begun succumbing to an illness that swept through the ranks at an alarming, and thoroughly devastating, pace. On 27 August 1809 Chatham, in accordance with his lieutenant-generals, agreed to call off the campaign.

Fast-forward six months to Friday, 16 February 1810. The House of Commons was in the midst of a full House Committee appointed to look into the planning, execution and outcome of the Walcheren expedition. Admiral Sir Richard Strachan had been called up the previous day to give his evidence to the Committee, and George Tierney moved to call Lord Chatham to the Bar on Thursday the 22nd. When Tierney sat down, General William Loftus rose to move: “That an humble Address be presented to HM, that he be graciously pleased to order to be laid before the House a Copy of the Memorial presented to HM by Earl Chatham, explaining the proceedings of the late Expedition to the Scheldt”.

This innocuous motion, which was not even significant enough to warrant a mention in the official Parliamentary Debates, sparked off a massive political and constitutional controversy which came perilously close to bringing down Spencer Perceval’s new and tottering ministry. For there were several very irregular features to Chatham’s Narrative. The contents were bad enough: Chatham laid the blame for the delays in undertaking the expedition squarely at Strachan’s door. But this assault on the nation’s darling, the Royal Navy, paled before the way in which the Narrative had found its way to the public. Written on 15 October 1809, Chatham had not submitted it until 14 February: and instead of submitting his explanatory narrative to the Secretary of State for War, Chatham had submitted it directly to the King, without communicating it either to the Cabinet or to Sir Richard Strachan himself.

The opposition, already scenting Perceval’s blood, fell on Chatham’s memorandum with glee. Lord Folkestone led the attack on the 19th February. The Narrative “was such a document as that House ought not to receive or allow to remain on the table”: it was a potentially unconstitutional document, since it purported to be an official document submitted without the seal of ministerial responsibility. Within minutes the word “impeachment” was being flung about the House with much enthusiasm. Folkestone spoke of the Narrative as though it were something dirty that needed to be pushed out of the Commons on the end of a stick: “He really did not know how the House should proceed to get rid of such a paper; but it seemed highly desirable that it should do so”.[1]

Worse was to come. When Chatham was cross-examined on the 22nd, the Narrative inevitably came up. Chatham was asked if he had drawn it up on 15 October, which he confirmed: in answering the question of why he had not submitted the paper prior to the 14 February, however, Chatham — who was ill the day of his examination — let slip with “I thought it was better to presere the date at which it was in fact drawn up; there were after that time none but verbal or critical alterations”.[2]

“Is this the only Narrative or Memorial, or paper of any description, which has been delivered to His Majesty by your lordship on the subject of the Expedition?” was the obvious immediate response, which Chatham refused to answer — five times. When pressed as to whether he refused on the grounds of being a Privy Counsellor, he replied brusquely, “I refuse generally. I decline answering the question.”[3]

The fuss that greeted Chatham’s paper was immense. The Times (an oppositionist paper) considered that the Narrative “will be read, under all its circumstances, with more astonishment and suspicion than any thing that we ever recollect to have come before the public as an authentic document”.[4] According to the Morning Chronicle, the Narrative gave “rise to reflections by no means favourable to his Lordship”.[5] Even the Morning Post, a government paper, believed that “certainly nothing could be more irregular or improper” than the way in which Chatham had submitted his Narrative. “His Lordship cannot otherwise be considered than as standing convicted of a serious constitutional offence”.[6]

Clearly Chatham had had no idea what reaction his paper would provoke when he had requested Loftus to submit it to the Commons. These newspaper snippets, however, particularly that from the government paper, would have given him a good idea of the way the wind was blowing. The sequel was inevitable. On 23 February Samuel Whitbread — ominously, the man who had led the campaign to impeach Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, the First Lord of the Admiralty, in 1805 — passed a motion requesting the King to lay before the House “copies of all reports, memoranda, narratives or papers submitted at any time to his Majesty by the Earl of Chatham, relative to the late Expedition”. There followed what was probably the most awkward cabinet meeting ever, in which Chatham (who was, after all, still Master General of the Ordnance) was pressed by his disgruntled colleagues to explain himself.

Chatham’s reasoning was that he had in fact submitted the same memorandum to the King prior to 14 February, on 15 January: he had then requested it to be returned on the 10th, to remove a few passages, and had resubmitted it on the 14th. The King corroborated this fact, and Perceval was able to use it to stave off an immediate assault on 2 March by Whitbread, who moved two Resolutions, one of which stated

that the Earl of Chatham … did unconstitutionally abuse the privilege of access to his Sovereign, and thereby afford an example most pernicious in its tendency to his Majesty’s service, and to the general service of the State.[7]

Perceval had given Chatham the weekend to resign and save his colleagues. There are a number of reasons why Chatham did not do so, which I will discuss at greater length in the biography, but on Sunday 4th March Perceval wrote a long, cold letter to Chatham pretty much informing him that if he did not resign, the government would likely fall with him.He finished on an ominous note, in which he made it quite clear that as far as the Narrative was concerned, Chatham was on his own: “I cannot conclude this note without assuring you how deeply I lament all the untoward circumstances which this unfortunate narrative has brought upon us all, and more particularly upon you.”[8]

Chatham ignored the letter. The next day, 5th March, George Canning saved the situation by proposing an amendment to Whitbread’s original motion, removing any imputation of unconstitutionality and dropping the buck squarely into Chatham’s lap as opposed to that of his colleagues:

That the House saw, with regret, that any such communication as the Narrative of lord Chatham should have been made to His Majesty, without any knowledge of the other ministers; that such conduct is highly reprehensible, and deserves the censure of this House.[9]

One by one Chatham’s colleagues got up to disassociate themselves from him. They had not known of the memorandum; they considered it a grave error; they could not defend him.  The ministry could not make its disinclination to defend Chatham any clearer. Chatham had been a liability to the government ever since he had returned from Walcheren: his colleagues were not prepared to defend him now he had attracted even more criticism. With the Walcheren inquiry still proceeding, Chatham had no choice but to resign. He did so at the King’s levee on 7 March.

Perceval wrote to him immediately:

I do most sincerely regret that any Circumstances should have occurred, what should have rendered this Step expedient either with a view to Yourself or to His Majesty’s Service … I am sensible that his Maj[esty]’s Service will experience great loss by your retirement; but in the temper of the House, upon the Subject of the late discussions, nothing could be well more embarrassing than the repeated revival of them with which we should unquestionably have been harassed.[10]

Chatham was not deceived by Perceval’s expressions of regret, which, after all the peremptory letters that had been written over the past fortnight designed to force Chatham to resign, did not ring true.

So ended the affair of Chatham’s Narrative. Obviously Chatham had had no idea it would cause such a stink or he would never have made it public. Why did he do it? Why did he draw up the memorandum in the first place? Both seem such a crassly stupid decisions for Chatham to have made, and contemporaries were shocked. “I confess, of all men alive, I shoud not have suspected Lord C of such a treacherous conduct,” the Duke of Northumberland wrote.[11]

Chatham did, of course, have his reasons for acting the way he did. Certainly there was a healthy dose of panic and short-sightedness in the way he submitted his Memorandum, and human nature needs to be factored into the equation. Still, Chatham had a justification to make for his actions. What that justification was, and why it was never made more public, will be examined in my forthcoming biography. For now, it’s perhaps enough to note how easily Perceval’s government was nearly overturned by what was, essentially, a question of formal cabinet procedure.

References

[1] Parliamentary Debates XV,482, 485

[2] Parliamentary Debates XV, Appendix, ccclxvii

[3] Parliamentary Debates XV, Appendix, ccclxxiii

[4] Times, 21 February 1810

[5] Morning Chronicle, 22 February 1810

[6] Morning Post, 6 March 1810, 8 March 1810

[7] Parliamentary Debates XVI, 7*

[8] Spencer Perceval to Lord Chatham, 4 March 1810, National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/368 f 145

[9] Parliamentary Debates XVI, 16

[10] Spencer Perceval to Lord Chatham, 7 March 1810, National Archives Hoare MSS PRO 30/70/283

[11] Duke of Northumberland to Colonel McMahon, 26 February 1810, quoted in A. Aspinall (ed), Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales, 1770-1812 (London, 1970), VII, 13-4