Sunday, December 13, 2015

The mysterious "Mr Anderson": a hilarious (but questionable) account of the 1809 Walcheren Campaign


by Jacqueline Reiter

A few months ago I was in Belfast, working through the papers of early 19th century British politician Lord Castlereagh at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. I wanted particularly to see his papers on the infamous Walcheren expedition of 1809, which he helped plan in his capacity as War Minister.

Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) (Wikimedia Commons)

Just before I had to leave to catch my plane I found a long 30-page document among Castlereagh's official correspondence. On closer inspection it appeared to be a first-hand account of the Walcheren campaign. I wasn't sure how useful it would be, but it looked like it could be interesting, so I arranged to have it copied and carried it away with me unread.

I consulted my copies on the plane that night, fully expecting them to be yawn-worthy and utterly useless. By the end of the second page I was having trouble suppressing snorts of laughter. After about the fifth, I was actually laughing out loud. (I apologise to those sitting next to me on the plane, but I couldn't help it.)

What I think I had found was an account by one of the Kent coast smugglers who were employed by the planners of the Walcheren Expedition to assist with intelligence and information gathering. Smugglers were employed because they were reasonably familiar with the difficult navigation of the Walcheren islands, and often also had useful contacts in every port, particularly enemy ones. The most famous smuggler employed at Walcheren was Captain Thomas Johnson (or Johnstone), who had helped the British during the bombardment of Boulogne in 1805 and had previously been imprisoned in Flushing.[1]

Captain Thomas Johnson in the 1830s (Wikimedia Commons)

This account was probably the one referred to by Sir John Fortescue in his account of Walcheren in his History of the British Army.[2] Fortescue described “an anonymous paper in the Londonderry [Castlereagh] MSS, described in the index of the MSS as by Anderson, a captious amateur soldier so far as I can gather from his writings”.

The document is not attributed to anyone in the index any longer, but it matches Fortescue's description in a number of respects. The author's bombastic and self-aggrandizing account, however, casts doubt over the validity of what he says. He appears to have been everywhere, and the purpose of the document seems to be to inform Castlereagh that he is due more money because he single-handedly stopped the campaign spilling into disaster long before it actually did.

And so I doubt much of what he writes actually occurred, at least in the way he writes about it. Yet this man was clearly on the spot, and familiar with the upper echelons of command. I've also managed to find confirmation of at least one of the events he describes. During the protracted siege of Flushing, “Anderson” talks of an attempt by Captain Johnson the smuggler to blow up the harbour with the aid of “a certain floating Machine back'd on the land side by 500 or 600 Men”. 

The Siege of Flushing, 1809 (BL Flickr Open Source collection)

Anderson goes on to explain how Johnson “embark'd with the Machine at Midnight towing it by himself in to the Harbour … swimming & conducting the Machine” in himself. This is seconded by the Morning Chronicle, which gives an account on 22 August 1809 of how Johnson swam “up to the very ramparts of Flushing” to tie the machine to the harbour pier. Johnson was a personal friend of Robert Fulton, whose torpedoes very much interested the British government at the turn of the 19th century. “The use of certain machines invented by Mr Fulton” was explicitly permitted by Castlereagh for use during the expedition: and so the pieces of the puzzle match up.[3] Unfortunately, Fulton's torpedo did not go off.

Robert Fulton (Wikimedia Commons)

Some examples of what made me laugh? I'll give some of the most snort-worthy below. Should anyone wish to read the whole MSS for themselves, it can be found in Belfast at PRONI in the Castlereagh MSS, D3030/3260.

  • Anderson” teaches the Commander in Chief his job:
On the 30th July as we landed I took the liberty to caution the Commander in Chief to keep the Army sober, to be on his guard against French intrigue … & as a matter of great importance to stop the passage of Brascons [Breskens, the channel between Flushing on Walcheren and the mainland]”.
I imagine Lord Chatham loved that lecture!
  • Anderson” carries news of the surrender of Walcheren's capital, Middelburg, to Sir Eyre Coote, the second in command of the army:
Being oblig'd to pass the Quarters of Sir Eyre Coote [I] found him before a large Fire wrapped in Blankets fast asleep. Judging from my own feelings that the Deputies [surrendering Middelburg] would be most welcomed by him, in my zeal I rous'd him with 3 Cheers. When acquainted with the occasion of disturbing his repose he surlily remarked 'Let them stop till day light'. This happened about 1 or two O'clock in the morning”.
Well, wouldn't you be “surly” if someone shouted “HUZZA! HUZZA! HUZZA!” in your ear at about half past one in the morning?
  • Anderson” does the job of Chatham's aides-de-camp for him, and they get their revenge:
I provided a Waggon for his Lordship's baggage, & advis'd an immediate approach to Middleburgh [sic] in order to secure the Troops, Treasure &c … I was overruled by my Lord's Aide de Camps, particularly by Coll. Carey [in fact Chatham's Military Secretary], & was order'd a triangular instead of a direct road which occasion'd a serious dispute between Captain Gardner Aid du Camp & Myself”.
"Anderson" has several run-ins with Chatham's secretary and aides throughout the document, ending with Colonel Carey completely losing his temper (see below).
  • Anderson” dismisses the abilities of the commanding Admiral, Sir Richard Strachan, and Captain of the Fleet Sir Home Popham:
The Fleet was inactive & allowed the passage to remain free between Flushing & Brascons [Breskens] … [but] Sir Richard Strachan … with Sir Home Popham were cruising Arm in Arm on shore enjoying Grape Shot at a Tavern”.
Very possibly my favourite line of the whole piece.
  •  “Anderson” declares that Walcheren failed because Colonel Carey blocked his letters to Lord Chatham:
I have every reason to believe that the Commander in Chief's advisers particularly his Secretary Colonel Carey conceal'd the true state of things from him, & that several Letters never reach'd him. It is well known & acknowledged by several respectable Officers & experienced Soldiers that had my plans been attended to the course of the Expedition wou'd have accomplish'd even more than the Country expected”.
  •  Anderson chastises the Adjutant General of the Army for drunkenness:
We were follow'd from Traguse [Goes, on South Beveland island] by several Spies, one especially … I therefore took him Prisoner & waited on Col. Long [the Adjutant General] who was busy at his Wine. All he said that I could understand was that he could not attend to it. … finding the Prisoner's case less attracting than the Wine. I told him I would call again”.
  • Wherein Colonel Carey finally loses patience with “Anderson” and threatens him with the nearest blunt instrument to hand:
I … requested Colonel Carey to grant me a Warrant [to pay the men he had employed to help him] … Colonel Carey flying into a passion desir'd me to withdraw & threaten'd to knock me down with a Chair; not accustomed to threats of this Kind I told him I should resist any violence, with such weapons & call'd him a Coward”.
Yeah, I'm sure that helped.

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References

[1] Roy and Lesley Adkins, The War for All the Oceans (NY, 2006) p 138

[2] SIr John Fortescue, History of the British Army, vol VII (London, 1912), p 69

[3] Huge thanks to Lisa Chaplin for her help in identifying Fulton's “machine” referred to here. Castlereagh to Chatham, 12 July 1809, National Archives War Office MSS WO 6/143; Morning Chronicle, 22 August 1809


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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.

4 comments:

  1. Great post, Jacqueline. And what a find that 30 page document was! These kind of first hand accounts really make the history come alive.

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  2. What absolute joy to encounter such a manuscript!

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  3. Oh, to get every document tucked away in libraries transcribed and on the internet ... while we can still read cursive!!!

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  4. I think this should be subtitled "Politicians Who Think They Know Everything (It Ain't Just Donald Trump, Baby)" :-D.

    Tam

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