Monday, July 29, 2013

Regency Redundancy: The Walcheren Expedition

by Regina Jeffers


In engineering terms, "redundancy" refers to the duplication of critical components of functions of a system with the intention of increasing reliability of the system, usually in the case of a backup or fail safe. In linguistics, "redundancy" refers to the construction of a phrase that presents some idea using more information, often via multiple means, than is necessary for one to be able to understand the idea. In military operations, "redundancy" could easily refer to the British expedition known as the Walcheren Expedition.

During the War of the Fifth Coalition (fought between Britain and the Austrian Empire and France and Bavaria in 1809), Britain sent an expedition, consisting of 40,000 soldiers, 15,000 horses, two siege trains, and field artillery, across the North Sea to open another front in support of Austria's struggle against France. The campaign was meant to destroy the French fleet thought to be in Flushing, whilst providing a diversion for the hard-pressed Austrians. Unfortunately, it was an effort in futility. Napoleon had already defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Wagram only a month prior, on the 5th and 6th of July.

Viscount Castlereagh had first proposed the scheme to take the island of Walcheren to Prime Minister William Pitt in 1797. Castlereagh saw the island as the key to controlling the Scheldt and the port of Flushing, a potential launching point for an attack on England. He reopened discussions on the scheme when he joined the British cabinet in April 1807 as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies.

By 1809, the Scheldt estuary had become the second largest French naval arsenal after Toulon. Castlereagh had the right of it: Napoleon meant to Antwerp into an arsenal, opposite the Thames estuary. Two squadrons were kept off the coast of the Netherlands. One was to prevent a surprise attack, while the second was to keep new ships passing to other ports. From as early as 1808, Napoleon had spent a small fortune fortifying the port of Antwerp.

In early 1809, spies informed the British that there were 10 French ships in the port of Flushing and 9 ships of line under construction in Antwerp. Originally Sir David Dundas, newly appointed chief of the British army, was summoned to appear before Castlereagh on 9 March 1809, but Dundas pleaded he could not muster the required army because of the recent retreat from Corunna in Spain.

Dundas was summoned again in May, but the military consultants dampened Castlereagh's plans with reports of the difficulty of the operation, saying speed of execution would determine success or failure. Finally, the news of Austrian success at Aspern-Essling eliminated any governmental doubts. Spies also reported that the garrison at Flushing was poorly manned by untested Dutch, German, Irish, and Spanish soldiers. It was estimated at the time that only about 8,500 French troops remained in the area. On 22 June, Castlereagh received permission from George III for the expedition.

From the beginning, the expedition was doomed. The senior military and naval staff were less than effective. The Commander in Chief of the operations was General Lord Chatham (John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, the eldest son of William Pitt the Elder and an elder brother of William Pitt the Younger), who was nicknamed "the late earl" because of his love of sleeping in, and while more competent than Chatham, Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Strachan knew little success in the shallow waters of the Scheldt.

Chatham had served in both the American War of Independence and the Russian/British expedition to the Helder in 1799, but he was very much a "desk jockey," having spent the previous 7 years in such a position. In 1794, the Younger Pitt had removed his elder brother from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty because of complaints regarding his laziness.

From Napoleon.org, we find:   "On the same day [22 June 1809], Dundas communicated the total numbers of troops ready for embarkation - 35,000 infantrymen and 1,900 cavalry. As for the direction of the naval side of the affair, this had been given to Rear Adm. Sir Richard Strachan. He was appointed on 9 June, and he was the exact opposite in temperament to Chatham, 'an irregular and impetuous fellow, possessing [...] an uncommon share of sagacity and strong sense.' Strachan was also affectionately known to his men as 'Mad Dick' because he would occasionally lose his temper and swear fiercely. And so these two completely incompatible leaders were to lead the largest ever British expeditionary force to leave the British isles, numbering 618 vessels in total, comprising 352 transports and 266 ships of war."

Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte commanded the French forces. Bernadotte had been stripped of his command for disobeying orders at the Battle of Wagram. He had returned to Paris in shame after being dismissed from Napoleon's Grande Armée, but was sent to defend the Netherlands by the Council of Ministers. Bernadotte lost Flushing to the British, but he competently ordered the French fleet to Antwerp and heavily fortified the city, leaving the British's main objective out of reach.

Even if Chatham and Strachan had had been more strategically minded, their eventual downfall had nothing to do with the French forces and everything to do with the onset of malaria. Over 4,000 British troops perished between 30 July and 9 December 1809, but only 106 died in combat.

Initially, success was known. The British army met little French resistance and quickly set up encampments on the neighboring islands of Walcheren and South Beveland, both in present-day the Netherlands. The British had stifled the attempts of the French to flood the islands by breaching the dykes, but by late August (according to several accounts of the soldiers involved) an epidemic had overtaken the encampments.

From the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, we find the following descriptions of Walcheren: "When the troops first landed, they saw a 'flat fen turned into a garden.' William Keep of the 77th Regiment wrote home, 'The more I see of this country the better I am pleased with it.... Here we frequently spread our table under the shade of luxuriant fruit trees, and enjoy all the pleasures of rustic life.' Another officer thought the capital, Middleburg, one of the most delightful towns he had ever seen. However, a British expedition to the region in 1747 had been largely destroyed by an illness well described by the respected military surgeon John Pringle."

Early August had reports of 700 men suffering from what was termed "Walcheren Fever." By 3 September, 8000 were hospitalized. Even those who were evacuated to England could find little relief. The English hospitals were unable to handle the large influx of patients. Even six months after the campaign ended in February 1810, 11,513 officers and men remained upon the sick lists. Less than two years later, many of these troops were still so weakened by the disease, Wellington requested that no unit which had served in the Walcheren Campaign be sent to him.

"This disease comes on with a cold shivering, so great that the patient feels no benefit from the clothes piled upon him in bed, but continues to shiver still, as if enclosed in ice, the teeth chattering and cheeks blanched. This lasts some time, and is followed by the opposite extremes of heat, so that the pulse rises to 100 in a small space. The face is then flushed and eyes dilated, but with little thirst. It subsides, and then is succeeded by another paroxysm, and so on until the patient's strength is quite reduced, and he sinks into the arms of death."

Obviously, malaria was one of the sources of "Walcheren Fever," as the soldiers described the large number of mosquitoes upon the island and the numerous bites they suffered. Dysentery was also a likely culprit.

Needless to say, this debacle received little attention, with British historians focusing more on the successes of Wellington's armies in the Peninsular Wars and at the Battle of Waterloo. However, in early 1810, Charles Philip Yorke insisted on the exclusion of strangers from the House of Commons during the debates on the Walcheren expedition. That debate resulted in the arrest of the radical orator, John Gale Jones, which resulted in the arrest of Sir Franis Burdett, 5th Baronet, who questioned the House of Commons' authority to arrest Jones. Burdett issued a revised edition of his plea to have Jones. William Cobbett in the Weekly Register published Burdett's speech, which caused the House to vote this action a breach of privileges and to issue a warrant for Burdett's arrest. (Oh, what a tangled web we weave...).

The Times called the expedition a national disaster and blamed Chatham's incompetence for the debacle. Caricatures and lampoons peppered the press, with the most popular one being a caricature published in the Ghent Journal du commerce, which showed Chatham driving a chariot pulled by two turtles and six snails and shouting "Not so fast!"

The medical board and the Cabinet also heard the "voices" of dissent. At the time, Foreign Secretary George Canning had been maneuvering for Castlereagh's removal from the Cabinet. In the midst the chaos surrounding the debate and Portland's  paralytic stroke on 11 August and his resignation on 6 September, Canning (who reportedly wanted Chatham as prime minister and Wellesley to replace Castlereagh) resigned on 7 September, with Castlereagh following on 8 September.

"The famous duel between the two men [Canning and Castlereagh] took place on 19 September, during which Canning was wounded in the thigh. The new administration led by [Spencer] Perceval, but which included Wellington's arrogant elder brother, the Marquess of Wellesley, was to be forced to face an inquiry into the failure of the Walcheren Expedition after a close vote in the House of Commons (195 against 186)."

During the February-March 1810 enquiry, Castlereagh defended the plan's necessity and disclaimed all responsibility for Chatham's incompetence. Chatham was found to have breached constitutional convention by submitting his report on Walcheren directly to the King. Chatham was forced by the Marquess of Wellesley to resign. Castlereagh was no longer a member of the government but was taking his seat on the back benches and therefore received no further censure. Parliament did not find any of those involved in the fiasco as responsible for the failure.

In response, The Times said, "If the Walcheren expedition is to pass unmarked by the general censure, then can no calamity happen on which the British nation will deserve to be heard?"

Again according to the NCBI:  "Remarkably, the army medical department had not been informed of the expedition's destination before its departure.... The medical arrangements were complacent. There were too few doctors, inadequate hospital provision, not enough transport for the sick, and a shortage of vital drugs and supplies. Peruvian bark, one of the few drugs with real efficacy, had to be commandeered from a passing American vessel. The physician general, Sir Lucas Pepys, seemed as much a caricature as his military peers. When asked why he had not attended the sick in Walcheren, he arrogantly replied that he had no personal experience of military medicine. The surgeon general, Thomas Keate, was quick to point out that he was not the appropriate person to visit Walcheren as the matter was 'entirely medical.' The old army medical board had proved itself incompetent, divided, and overly preoccupied with private practice. Its demise and replacement by an improved 'new medical board' was predictable after the disaster of Walcheren...."

The British did destroy the port of Flushing, costing 50 million francs in damage, but it spent some 8 million pounds to know defeat.

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Regina Jeffers loves all things Austen and is the author of several novels, including Darcy’s Temptation, Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion, The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy and Second Chances: The Courtship Wars .
Her website is: www.rjeffers.com



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