Walcheren is an island in the estuary of the River Scheldt or Schelde which forms part of the former county and province of Zeeland in the Netherlands. During the Napoleonic Wars it was the scene of a major landing by British forces, in an attempt to challenge Napoleon Bonaparte's domination of continental Europe.
Initially the plan was to take the port of Flushing, where the French had six ships under construction, but the scope of the expedition was later enlarged to include the capture of Antwerp further up the Scheldt, largely with the intention of providing some assistance to Austria. As it happened, Napoleon had already defeated the Austrians at the battle of Wagram on the 5th and 6th July 1809, before the expedition even got under way, which in effect robbed it of much of its purpose. But such was the weight of expectation within Britain to take some action against the French emperor that it was decided to go ahead with the landings.
Thus on the 29th July 1809 some forty vessels of the line and a further thirty frigates appeared off the Dutch coast ready to escort the 700 or so transport-ships which arrived the next day, containing some 40,000 men. At the time, this was the largest British expeditionary force ever assembled, eclipsing even the British force then serving in Portugal.
The land forces were under the command of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, with Sir Eyre Coote as his second-in-command whilst Admiral Richard Strachan was in charge of the naval forces. The suitability of the Earl of Chatham to lead such a military enterprise might be doubted1; he was commonly known as the 'late earl' due to his inability to rise from his bed in the morning and he arrived at Walcheren complete with his pet turtles in hand, whilst Strachan was little better, being known as 'Mad Dick' thanks to his reckless nature.
Initially however everything went well from the British point of view. There was little French resistance as, despite the fact that it had been known for some months that the British intended landing at Walcheren, the French had been somewhat complacent regarding the threat and had made no effort to improve the island's defences. This was largely because Naploeon regarded Flushing as impregnable and was of the opinion that "Flushing cannot be taken, unless by the cowardice of the commandants"; in the belief that any besieging force could be defeated by simply cutting the dykes and flooding the whole island. As it happens General Louis-Claude Monnet, who commanded at Flushing, did just that, but with little effect on the British invaders thanks partly to the fact that the wind was blowing in the wrong direction.
The British force soon took control of most of Walcheren without much resistance. On the 13th August they began their attack on the port of Flushing, where they used rockets to great effect3. Having destroyed half the town and killed or wounded most of the garrison and population, Flushing duly surrendered on the 15th August 1809. The British then moved to attack Fort Batz at the junction of the two Scheldts, which was eventually taken by a division led by Lieutenant General John Hope.
In the event Vice-Admiral Edouard-Thomas de Burgues, Comte de Missiessy, had the presence of mind of to sail his squadron up river, thus blocking any naval attack on Antwerp, whilst the French had by now had been sufficiently alarmed by the fall of Flushing4 to put a great deal of effort into strengthening and increasing the fortifications around Antwerp and bringing in reinforcements, thus making any land based assault on the city a more hazardous enterprise. In any event the British forces had began to suffer from the effects of the dreaded Walcheren fever or Flushing sickness which by now had struck thousands of their troops.
These events caused the Earl of Chatham some uneasiness, and having held a council of war on the 26th August he decided to abandon any attempt on Antwerp. The British fell back to the island of Walcheren, and in September Chatham received orders to return to Britain with the bulk of his force, leaving behind some 17,000 men to garrison Walcheren and its strongholds. There they remained until the 25th December, by which time the occupying army had been so debilitated by disease that it was decided to evacuate the island, although not before the British had destroyed the port and fortifications of Flushing.
All in all, the Walcheren campaign turned out to be a disaster for Great Britain. The effects of the Walcheren fever effectively destroyed a force of some 39,000 men. It led to a quarrel between the Viscount Castlereagh the British Secretary for War and George Canning the Foreign Secretary, which resulted in the two men fighting a duel over the issue, whilst the lack lustre performance of the Dutch themselves led Napoleon to annex the entire kingdom of Holland by the Decree of Rambouillet on the 9th July 1810.
Back in Great Britain there was sufficient public concern expressed regarding the debacle to merit a parliamentary inquiry early in 1810, although its conclusions were somewhat tepid. Public opinion cast the blame on the timidity and indecision of the expedition's leadership, as evidenced in the popular verse which ran;
Great Chatham, with his sabre drawn,
Stood waiting for Sir Richard Strachan;
Sir Richard, longing to be at 'em,
Stood waiting for the Earl of Chatham
The parliamentary inquiry was however somewhat constrained in its ability to blame the Earl of Chatham considering that he was the Prime Minister's brother and the inquiry restricted itself to severely criticising the army's senior medical officers.
Walcheren remains largely a forgotten campaign as British military historians prefer to give more attention to the more successful Peninsular campaign. Almost a century and a half later the British were back, this time accompanied by Canadian troops, when they captured Walcheren once again in the autumn of 1944 as part of Operation Infatuate.
The Walcheren fever
It was well known, even at the time, that Walcheren was an unhealthy place to be. The French Admiral Missiessy had refused to station himself at Flushing for fear that his men would contract the Walcheren fever, whilst the British should really have remembered that their previous expedition to the region in 1747 had also been decimated by illness which had been comprehensively documented by the military surgeon John Pringle.
Although Walcheren seemed a pleasant enough place on first acquaintance it was in truth a rather unhealthy place to spend any time as the drainage dykes were little more than fetid ditches full of mosquitoes. Fresh water was always in short supply and was most certainly not present in sufficient quantities to supply a large occupying force and the British were forced to ship across some 800 casks of fresh water each and every day from the Downs. But despite the best efforts of the British Army men began falling ill within week or so of their arrival at Walcheren. At the beginning of August there were fewer than 700 men sick, but by the 3rd September over 8,000 of them had been struck down by fever.
The Recollections of Rifleman Harris describes the experience of one British soldier coming across "whole parties of our Riflemen in the street shaking with a sort of ague, to such a degree that they could hardly walk; strong and fine young men who had been but a short time in the service seemed suddenly reduced in strength to infants, unable to stand upright - so great a shaking had seized upon their whole bodies from head to heel", and further noted that "except myself and three or four others, the whole concern was completely floored". Another British combatant Captain John Kincaid noted that "I had all the extra valour shaken out of me by a horrible ague which commenced a campaign on my carcass and compelled me to retire upon Scotland for the aid of my native air."
Known to contemporaries as the 'Walcheren fever' or 'Flushing sickness', modern medical opinion has concluded that the affliction was not a single disease but rather a combination of different infectious diseases including malaria, typhoid, relapsing fever, and dysentery.
In the final analysis, four out of every ten men who served at Walcheren fell ill, and of those a total of 60 officers and 3,900 other ranks died, compared to the loss of only 7 officers and 99 men in actual combat. What is more, the effects of the fever continued even after the men's return to Britain. Over a month after finally quitting Walcheren, on the 1st February 1810, a total of 11,513 officers and men were still recorded as being sick, and many never entirely recovered their health as result. It was noted during the subsequent campaigning in the Peninsular war that the Walcheren regiments were always the first to fall ill, and the Duke of Wellington went so far as to request that no unit that served in the Walcheren Campaign be sent to him.
1 "Inexplicable" is how the naval historian NAM Rodgers describes the choice of the 2nd Earl of Chatham to head the expedition, who was of course, the son of William Pitt the Elder and 1st Earl of Chatham, and the elder brother of William Pitt, the Younger
2 From Napoleon's letter to Fouché on the 22nd August, written in ignorance of the fact that Flushing had already fallen,
"You say that the bombardment of Flushing makes you apprehensive of its surrender, you are wrong to have any such fear. Flushing is impregnable so long as there is bread in it, and they have enough for six months. Flushing is impregnable, because there is a moat full of water, which must be crossed; and finally, because by cutting the dykes they can inundate the whole island. Write and tell everywhere that Flushing cannot be taken, unless by the cowardice of the commandants; and also that I am certain of it, and that the English will go off without having it. The bombs are nothing--absolutely nothing; they will destroy a few houses, but that has no effect upon the surrender of a place."
3 The British rockets wrought such havoc that General Monnet made a formal protest to Lord Chatham against their use.
4 There were even concerns that if Antwerp fell, the British might well march on Paris.
- Robert Burnham, The British Expeditionary Force to Walcheren: 1809
- Martin R Howard, Walcheren 1809: a medical catastrophe - Doctors in Conflict, British Medical Journal, Dec 18, 1999
- Geert van Uythoven The French Garrison of Flushing, 1809
- M. Guizot and Madame Guizot De Witt, Worlds Best Histories - France Vol 7, from Project Gutenberg
- John Kincaid Adventures in the Rifle Brigade reproduced at http://napoleonic-literature.com/Book_21/001.htm