Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Siege of Flushing, August 1809

by Jacqueline Reiter

At 1 PM on the 13th of August 1809, about fifty British cannons and mortars of different sizes opened at once on the French territory of Flushing (Vlissingen) from five batteries. Several gunboats bombarded the town simultaneously from the Scheldt river. Early in the morning of the 14th a sixth battery opened fire, joined a little later by the deafening roar of six warships of the line giving their all. William Congreve's rockets added to the terror the town must have experienced, setting it on fire in several different places.

The Bombardment of Flushing (Wikimedia Commons)

A brief cease-fire between 4 pm and 9:30 pm on the 14th was all the respite the townspeople of Flushing received. When the bombardment resumed, it continued throughout the night until the French general in command of Flushing's garrison, Monnet, surrendered at 2:30 am on 15 August.

The siege of Flushing provided the main action of the Walcheren campaign of 1809, intended to provide a distraction for Britain's ally, Austria, which had been at war with France since April. (More about the background to the expedition can be found in a previous EHFA post on thesubject). The British were to capture the French harbour of Flushing on the island of Walcheren, destroy the French and Dutch fleet at Antwerp, and ruin the navigation of the Scheldt River. To achieve this 40,000 soldiers and more than 600 ships sailed on 28 July – even though Austria had been defeated at Wagram at the beginning of the month.

The military commander of the expedition was John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, the notoriously lazy elder brother of former prime minister William Pitt. The naval command was entrusted to Sir Richard Strachan, a brave but hot-blooded admiral who had contributed to the Trafalgar campaign. Neither was ideal for the task, but intelligence had been gathered for months that the French, distracted by war with Austria, had stripped the area around Antwerp of troops. Lord Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for War, described the campaign as a “coup de main”, a lightning action designed to take the French unawares before they had time to strengthen their defences.

Walcheren (1660) (Wikimedia Commons)

The expedition, divided into four parts, would secure the island of Walcheren by
investing Flushing and disabling the French batteries on the opposite coast at Cadsand, allowing the fleet access to the West Scheldt. Another division would land on the adjacent island of South Beveland and secure the approach to Antwerp. Once this was done, the main part of the army would land opposite Batz at the southernmost tip of South Beveland and march for fifteen miles to Antwerp. What would happen when they got to Antwerp remained something of a mystery, but ministers were confident that the town hadn't been strengthened in, oh, ages, or at least since the last source with which they provided Lord Chatham had been published (about 1794).

Unfortunately for the British politicians, things began to go wrong for the expedition before it even sailed. First came the news of Wagram, then adverse winds delayed the expedition's start. The newspapers had been gossiping loosely about the “grand expedition” for months, as a result of which the French, who could read just as well as the British, knew nearly as much about the expedition as the government did. Persistent adverse winds drove the fleet off course almost immediately, and the ships were nearly all forced to take shelter in a natural basin called the Roompot – which was, unfortunately, on the wrong side of Walcheren. Sir John Hope and his reserve force went through South Beveland like a knife through butter, but the Cadsand landing failed because of bad weather and poor communication.

The loss of Cadsand meant that the fleet could not get up the West Scheldt with the main force for Antwerp until Flushing fell. Flushing's commander, Monnet, apparently only had between two and three thousand motley troops of various nations and states of discipline, so taking Flushing should have been simplicity itself. Once again, however, the British were hampered by disastrous weather. Instead of landing somewhere sensible near Flushing, the soldiers landed at the opposite end of the island. Marching troops across land was bad enough, but dragging the ordnance and siege supplies across boggy land was an entirely different proposition.

More seriously, because Cadsand had not been taken, the French garrison there was able to throw as many reinforcements into Flushing as it liked. Obviously the British navy tried to stop them, but the weather pinned the British fleet too high or too low every time they tried to establish a blockade. The British could only watch as boat after boat of French soldiers crossed the Scheldt. By the time the fleet finally managed to complete the investment on the 7th of August, Flushing's garrison had nearly tripled, and Lord Chatham was forced to disembark one of the brigades intended for Antwerp to reinforce the besiegers at Flushing.

Chatham had hoped to get to Antwerp while Flushing was investing, but he now had too few men to proceed. Nor could the navy bring the siege equipment for Antwerp round South Beveland until Flushing fell. Strachan could not understand why Chatham did not want to embrace the “simple” solution of marching across South Beveland to get to Antwerp, disembarking, re-embarking, and re-disembarking thousands of troops and cavalry. Chatham, for his part, could not understand why Strachan wasn't able to sail up to Batz with the siege supplies, or – for that matter – stop the French getting over from Cadsand to Flushing. Meanwhile, Sir Eyre Coote, Chatham's second-in-command in charge of the Flushing operations, was convinced his superior was staying on Walcheren deliberately to spite him.

Once the siege artillery arrived at Flushing, tugged laboriously across the entire breadth of Walcheren, the batteries took days to construct. The army blamed the engineers, and the engineers blamed the weather, which was about as unfavourable as it was possible to get, with torrential all-night-long downpours that flooded the trenches and stopped work. Chatham was comfortably ensconced in a “palace” in Middelburg, with as much turtle soup as he could eat, but his men, up to their ankles, then knees, then hips in water – Monnet had cut the dykes in an attempt to flood out the besiegers – weren't happy.

The British in Middelburg, 1809 (Dutch print)

On the 7th there was a brief, confused sortie by the French, which resulted in the British gaining more ground towards the town, but the batteries were taking so long even Chatham was getting twitchy. He badgered Strachan about getting the ships to participate in the bombardment, but Strachan still hadn't managed to get the ships round yet. He finally did so on 11th August, but the batteries still weren't ready for another two days. When they did open, the ships of the line weren't able to get underway for a further twenty-four hours, again due to the weather.

By the time Flushing capitulated on the 15th, the campaign was effectively over. Reducing Flushing was meant to have made the march on Antwerp possible, but in fact it delayed further operations. Far from being Castlereagh's coup de main, more than two weeks had elapsed since the British sailed. The Flushing garrison did not march out till 18 August, and it took a further week for the fleet, beset by bad weather and navigational problems, to get the troops and siege supplies to Batz.

Chatham, meanwhile,
was also inching towards Batz. He seems to have given up on Antwerp the moment he set foot on South Beveland. He went through the motions of preparing to continue, but intelligence put enemy forces around Antwerp at 35,000 men, the town's defences had been strengthened, and the French fleet was well out of reach.

Most seriously of all, however, was the mysterious fever sweeping through the troops. “Zealand fever”, or “Walcheren fever” as it became known,
was probably a toxic combination of malaria, dysentery, typhoid, and typhus. It started virtually overnight in mid-August and raced through the army at a terrifying rate. Chatham's lieutenant-generals advised him to call off the campaign, and at the beginning of September the British fell back on Walcheren. In mid-September Chatham sailed with the bulk of his army, including thousands of sick, leaving Sir Eyre Coote with a holding garrison of sixteen thousand men. Within days even this was two-thirds out of action.

Cruikshank on "The Grand Expedition" (Wikimedia Commons)

The recriminations at home were terrible. Chatham and Strachan blamed each other for the disaster, and many doubted whether the expedition should ever have been sent in the first place. There was a lengthy parliamentary enquiry which cleared the government of incapacity, but Chatham was forced to resign his cabinet post as Master-General of the Ordnance.
Neither he nor Strachan were ever employed again.

The real victims, however, were the thousands of soldiers crippled or killed by “Walcheren fever”
, and the civilians of Flushing, ruthlessly bombarded in an attempt to cut short a siege and win an unwinnable campaign.

References

There are three major studies of the Walcheren campaign:
Gordon Bond, The Grand Expedition (Athens, GA, 1979)
Martin A. Howard, Walcheren 1809: the scandalous destruction of a British army (Barnsley, 2011)Carl A. Christie, “The Walcheren Expedition of 1809” (University of Dundee PhD thesis, 1975)
Sir John Fortescue also devotes fifty pages or so to it in his History of the British Army (volume 7). There is also a short treatment of the campaign from a Dutch perspective, particularly dwelling on the serious damage done to the town of Flushing: Tobias Gent, De Engelse invasie van Walcheren in 1809 (Nijmegen, 2009)

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Jacqueline Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She is currently working on the first ever biography of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, due to be released by Pen & Sword Books in September 2016. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at http://alwayswantedtobeareiter.wordpress.com/, and can be found on Twitter as https://twitter.com/latelordchatham.

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