“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

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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”.

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(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).

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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)

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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

Civilian observers at Walcheren

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. William Lowther, Lord Lowther

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

William_Lowther,_2nd_Earl_of_Lonsdale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Sir William Curtis

Sir-William-Curtis

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

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

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

3. Peter Finnerty

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

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

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

casepeterfinner00bencgoog

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Annual Register 51 (1809), 223

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

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

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

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

The Walcheren Expedition: 2016 (Part 3/3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Domburg Beach

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

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

Dutch person: The 1944 one?

Me: No. No, not that one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cargo vessel with pilot outside Flushing

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

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

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

The Walcheren Expedition: 2016 (Part 2/3)

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

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

Night 3 (30 March): Arnemuiden

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Veere, by the canal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Church at Grijpskerke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Road through the sandhills to Breezand

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

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

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Horse riders on Breezand

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

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

The Walcheren Expedition: 2016 (Part 1/3)

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In the new year I suggested to my husband that I would like to visit Walcheren before finishing my book. He looked interested, but not that interested, so I decided to up the ante.

Me: We could cycle it.

Husband (perking up): What, you mean the whole way?

Me: Why not?

Husband: And camp?

Me: ………. All right.

Husband: You’re on.

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How we travelled

And so we planned an Easter trip (because, you know, Russian roulette with the weather is all part of the fun). Arrangements were made for the kids to go to their grandparents; I made a suggested itinerary, compiled a long list of likely campsites, booked train tickets and ferries, and we packed. As lightly as possible, as we would be cycling 450 km (280 miles) on a tandem.

Our whole trip, including trains between Oxford and West Folkestone (with some cycling in London between stations) and the ferries across the Channel, looked something like this:

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Map data ©2016 Google

A (brief) historical note

For those of you who are not au fait with the Walcheren Expedition of 1809, this, in a rather rotten nutshell, is what happened.

walcheren map from flickr

Map from Fortescue, History of the British Army VII (supplement). Image from here

The Walcheren expedition was Britain’s contribution to the Fifth Coalition with Austria. Austria would conduct the main continental campaign against Napoleon while Britain engaged in a diversionary attack in an area of her own choosing. Britain chose a “coup de main” against Antwerp, which was a huge French dockyard and commercial centre. Destroying Antwerp would be a cheap way for Britain to neutralise the danger of French invasion, pierce Napoleon’s Continental System which was damaging British trade, and draw Napoleon’s attention away from Austrian action inland. Unfortunately the Battle of Wagram put Austria out of the war before the Walcheren expedition even started, but the campaign continued anyway in the hope that victory would keep Austria in the war.

Lord Chatham was appointed to command the military part of the biggest expeditionary force fielded by Britain so far during the war: about 40,000 soldiers and over 600 vessels, more than 200 of which were warships. Sir Richard Strachan commanded the naval part of the expedition.

The expedition consisted of four parts. The smallest, under Lord Huntly, would land on the Cadzand shore and neutralise the French battery at Breskens, allowing the main part of the fleet to enter the West Scheldt. Meanwhile, 12,000 men under Chatham’s second-in-command, Sir Eyre Coote, would lay siege to Vlissingen (Flushing). The reserve under Sir John Hope would take control of the neighbouring island of Suid-Beveland, allowing the remaining 20,000 men under Chatham himself to sail all the way to Sandvliet, reduce the largest forts protecting the narrow part of the Scheldt (Lillo and Liefkenshoek), and march on to destroy the dockyards of Antwerp.

Things went wrong almost immediately. The expedition sailed (late) at the end of July, and ran into a storm. Home Popham, the unofficial Captain of the Fleet, saved the expedition by sailing it into the sheltered Roompot and through the Veere Gat at the furthest point of Walcheren, but this meant most of the expedition (except for Huntly) were now in the East rather than the West Scheldt. Meanwhile, Lord Huntly failed to land at Cadzand, which meant the Breskens battery remained active and continued to reinforce Flushing by boat. This meant the British ships could only enter the West Scheldt through the sandbank-filled Sloe Passage separating Walcheren and Suid-Beveland. Understandably, it took time and effort to get hundreds of troop and supply transports through to the West Scheldt.

Chatham and Coote landed on Walcheren on 30 July 1809 at Breezand and initially made swift progress. By 3 August, all Walcheren except Flushing and all Suid Beveland were in British hands. At this stage the campaign stalled. The British fleet could not get into position to complete the siege of Flushing because of unfavourable winds, and the French continued reinforcing the town until 7 or 8 August. Because of this Chatham was forced to reinforce Coote from the men destined for Antwerp, putting that part of the plan on hold until Flushing fell. With no time for a slow siege, bombardment was the only option, but the British batteries were slow to build due to poor weather and did not open until 13 August. After two days of intensive bombardment Flushing fell, and after a short delay Chatham moved onto Suid-Beveland to continue to Antwerp.

By this time, however, the French had managed to bring 35,000 men to the area, removed their fleet further upriver, and repaired their fortifications. At about this time, sickness also broke out among the British troops. By the end of August a quarter of the army was out of action with a crippling combination of malaria, dysentery, typhus, and typhoid. Chatham called off the expedition on 27 August, and returned to England in mid-September with the bulk of the army.  The politicians had hoped to retain the valuable commercial base of Walcheren, and 16,000 men remained there with that in mind, but by December it was clear possessing the island was not worth the cost of defending it and it was evacuated.

Thankfully, our expedition was rather more successful, although we didn’t get to Antwerp either………..

The Walcheren Expedition of 1809 2016: Days 1-2

The first two days were, essentially, spent just getting there. We left Oxford at 3:00 am on 28 March, caught the train to West Folkestone, and cycled the remaining distance across the cliffs to Dover (grrrmbllr engineering works grrmmbbllr). The beginning of our journey was considerably enlivened by Storm Katie, which decided to break the night before we left. We had one cancelled train because of a tree on the line, and some delays, but apart from that Katie did little but give us a very rough ferry journey and then a tailwind on the other side (wheeeeeeeeeee).

We spent the first night in De Panne (Belgium), and on the second day reached Cadzand.

From here on, here’s a more detailed map of our Walcheren cycling:

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Map data ©2016 Google

Day 3 (30 March): Cadzand – Breskens – Vlissingen – Middelburg – Arnemuiden

We hit the coast pretty quickly after leaving Cadzand, and pretty much immediately we had our first sight of Walcheren:

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First sight of Walcheren!

If you consult the map at the top of this page, you can see we were approaching Vlissingen (Flushing) along the Wielingen Channel, which forms the opening to the West Scheldt. This was where Lord Huntly failed to land and disable the Breskens battery, which continued reinforcing Flushing for most of the siege. Flushing, incidentally, is the town on the right with the tall buildings.

We proceeded to Breskens, where we caught the ferry across to Flushing. I thought about the French reinforcements for Flushing making the same journey in 1809 under the nose of the British ships, rendered completely inactive by the contrary winds. I wonder if they indulged in a few rounds of “Your mother was a hamster, &c” as they went. I imagine they probably did.

 

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Once in Flushing, I was expecting to find the place looking very new and shiny with very few pre-1809 buildings surviving. The devastation of Chatham’s August 1809 bombardment was, by all accounts, pretty extensive.

 

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Flushing Town Hall during the bombardment, from here

I was agreeably surprised to find the town full of 16th and 17th century buildings. I daresay most of them lost their roof in 1809, and probably again in 1944, when the British returned to flatten Flushing a second time (this time by RAF bombing). There is quite a lot about the role of Walcheren in WWII on the island: several plaques, statues, monuments, museums, etc etc etc. There is virtually no sign of the 1809 expedition, however, which goes to show that victories are much more likely to be remembered than failures, particularly when said victories occurred within living memory.

Some of the fortifications were 16th century, although most dated from 1812, when the damage the British made to the harbour on leaving in 1809 was repaired. There was a windmill from 1699 on the seafront though, which appears in many prints of the bombardment of Flushing.

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British assault on Flushing from “France Militaire”, showing the 1699 windmill

After leaving Flushing, we made our way to Middelburg. Middelburg was where Chatham established his main headquarters, from 1 August 1809 until he moved to Suid-Beveland on 21 August. He returned there at the beginning of September.

Middelburg is still the capital of Zeeland, and a mighty pretty place it is too. The anonymous author of Letters from Flushing (London, 1809, pp. 109, 145, 207) described it as “an Amsterdam in miniature”, a fortified town with eight gates and twelve basions “with large and deep ditches filled with water”. Another source (Journal of the Walcheren Campaign, University of Michigan Coote MSS Box 29/3) wrote:

Middelburg, the Capital of Dutch Zealand, is a very handsome opulent town, well paved & lighted. The streets are pretty regular, and the houses very well built. … The appearance of the Town denotes a great degree of ease & opulence. … The Town is surrounded with a wide wet ditch of regular Bastions, but there are no Guns mounted on the Ramparts & the environs are so covered wth habitations & Plantations, that It could make no defence, so long as they were suffered to exist. The Groote Kercke, or principal church has a handsome steeple & very melodious chimes, which are for ever in play.

I can testify to the church chimes being “very melodious” and “for ever in play”. I could imagine Chatham being kept awake by them at *cough* ten o’clock in the morning *cough*.

He stayed in the Abbey while in Middelburg. The “Lange Jan” (“Long John”) church tower is attached to this. It is now the Zeeuws Museum, and therefore accessible to the public, although it was gutted during WWII. Some of the fixtures seem to be original, though:

Yes, I probably spent more time looking at the fixtures than at the museum exhibits (those were interesting too).

The Abbey itself (it closed in 1574) is a magnificent building, and I can totally understand why Chatham spent so much time there.

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Middelburg Abbey

We wandered about Middelburg for a couple of happy hours.  I should mention that at this stage of the trip I had not yet fully realised where we were yet and so the full import of our location had not yet penetrated. I suppose on some level I was kind of aware I was in the place I had been reading about for so long, but I think it was only when we reached Veere, the next day, that I truly realised WE WERE ON WALCHEREN.

But that is for Part 2

(And, as it turns out, because I’m utterly incapable of concision, Part 3)

“As honorable to the Commander, as advantageous to the Country”: the Walcheren command

In mid-May 1809, the British government was pretty sure it was going to be sending a sizeable expedition to the Scheldt basin to reduce the island of Walcheren and destroy the dockyards of Antwerp. Horseguards was busily preparing a force of thirty thousand men (the number would later rise to nearly 40,000); the Admiralty was putting together a flotilla of over six hundred vessels, from the 80-gun HMS Caesar to a vast fleet of transports and flatboats. At this point, however, the military and naval commanders had not yet been appointed.

Lord Castlereagh, by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Lord Castlereagh, by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Lord Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for War, had been thinking about an expedition to the Scheldt for months. When he had first considered it, he had intended the command to go to Sir John Moore, but Moore had been killed at Coruña in January. For a while there was a rumour that Sir John Hope would take the command, as he was one of the more senior generals attached to the expedition, and there were other rumours that Sir Harry Burrard and even the Duke of York were considered,[1] In fact the job went to John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, then a cabinet member as Master-General of the Ordnance.

Lord Chatham, engraved by Charles Turner, after  John Hoppner

Lord Chatham, engraved by Charles Turner, after John Hoppner

Why Chatham was chosen mystified contemporaries, and historians since. Chatham had joined the army in 1773, but, although a reasonably senior Lieutenant-General by 1809, had not served abroad since 1799. He had in fact not been militarily active at all between 1784 and 1798. There were the usual conspiracy theories – the King had nominated him; George Canning wanted Chatham to succeed so he could prop him up as a figurehead Prime Minister; Chatham needed the cash – and of course after the whole deal went wrong everyone at Horseguards and the War Office was busily accusing everyone else for the appointment.

From the evidence that wasn’t drawn from gossip, however, Chatham seems to have been Castlereagh’s own choice. Maybe Castlereagh remembered how Chatham had been leapfrogged for the Peninsular command the previous year. Maybe Castlereagh thought that, since the expedition was sure to succeed, a Cabinet member in command could only reflect glory on the rest of the government. Who knows? But on 18 May 1809 Castlereagh wrote the following letter to Chatham, who was ill at the time:

“Private & Confidential

Downing Street

18 May 1809

My Dear Lord

I am anxious to have the great Question on which we conversed yesterday put in a course of proper Investigation. The Admiralty are naturally pressing upon it, and Commodore Owen is come to Town for the purpose of giving his Assistance.

I do not conceive, that any Effectual progress can be made, till we have come to a decision, Who is to be Entrusted with the Execution of the Operation, if it should be determin’d on, nor indeed till this is fixed, can any of the Departamental [sic] Arrangements be satisfactorily proceded [sic] on.

Under these Impressions, and in the hope that the result may prove as honorable to the Commander, as advantageous to the Country, allow me to propose it for your acceptance. In Expressing my own wishes, that it may be confided to you, I am authorized to add the Duke of Portland’s, and I have no doubt those of all our Colleagues.

Until I am possess’d of your Sentiments, I shall not feel myself authoriz’d to mention the Subject to His Majesty, nor indeed can I well take any measures at the Horseguards in furtherance of our purpose.

Believe me my Dear Lord

Very Truly Yours

Castlereagh”[2]

Chatham’s response to Castlereagh’s offer didn’t exactly burn with enthusiasm:

“Private

Hill Street

May 18 1809

My Dear Lord,

I received your letter of this morning, and feel sensibly the kind manner, in which you have proposed to me, the command of the Expedition, now under consideration, and I am much gratified by the concurrence in your sentiments, expressed by the Duke of Portland. Of course, I shou’d be at all times, ready when called upon to obey His Majesty’s Commands, but considering this proposal, as an Option given to me, confidentially on your part, I can only say, that I shou’d be very anxious to have some further conversation with you on this subject, before I venture to give any decided answer to it. I am better, but still confined. I shou’d therefore be happy if you wou’d have the goodness to call here at any time most convenient to you.

Believe me,

My Dear Lord,

Yours Most Truly

Chatham”

Perhaps Chatham already had a premonition of what was to come. If so, I imagine both he and Castlereagh had reason to rue the day he overcame his reluctance and accepted the command of the Walcheren expedition.

References

[1] Henry Brougham to Lord Grey, 30 June 1809, from The Life and Times of Henry, Lord Brougham I, 439-40 (London, 1872)

[2] National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/366 ff 58-9

[3] PRONI, Castlereagh MSS D3030/3087