Expedition to Walcheren

The services of the brigade of Guards were again put into requisition, in the summer of 1809, to join in an expedition to the Island of Walcheren, and the two battalions of the First Regiment lately returned from Spain were ordered to hold themselves in immediate readiness. The following circumstances gave rise to the determination on the part of the British Government to send this force abroad:-

Since the Belgan provinces had been converted into part of the French empire, Napoleon had created a considerable arsenal at Antwerp; and being master of the Scheldt, he continually threatened England on its left flank. At the latter end of May the British Government determined to attempt the destruction of this standing menace, as well as to make a diversion an favour of Austria. Antwerp was at the time badly garrisoned, troops having been withdrawn to reinforce the grand army at Vienna, towards which Napoleon was hastening in his victorious career. The intentions of the British Government were to capture or destroy the enemy's ships, either building at Antwerp and Flushing, or afloat in the Scheldt; to destroy the arsenals and dockyards at Antwerp, Terneuse, and Flushing, reduce the Island of Walcheren, and if possible render the Scheldt no longer navigable for ships of war; and as soon as such service, or such part of it as might be attainable, was completed, the army was to return to England, leaving a garrison at Walcheren. The expedition was soon organised, the fleet being placed under the command of Admiral Sir Richard Strachan, the army under that of Lieutenant-General the Earl of Chatham.

The first brigade of Guards, viz,. first and third battalions of the First Regiment, now stationed at Chatham, and commanded by Major-General Disney, received orders to embark on the 23rd of July; and the flank companies of the three second battalions, forming the third brigade of Guards, were ordered to join the expedition. The following was the strength of the brigade thus formed:-

    Officers Non-com Officers Drummers R & F
1st Guards, 1st battalion, with
flank comp. 2nd battalion
 

54

96

26

1328

flank comp. 3rd battalion  

37

74

22

1093

2nd Guards, 2nd battalion
flank companies
 

9

18

  241
3rd Guards, 2nd battalion
flank companies
 

9

17

 

241

   

_______

_______

_____

____

   

109

205

48

2903

making a total of 109, officers and 3091 men. The two battalions of First Guards were under the command of Colonel Wm. Anson and Colonel George Cooke respectively, with lieutenant-Colonel Hon. Philip Cocks and Lieutenant-Colonel Kelly as seconds in command.

Many of the senior officers of the First Guards were at this time employed on the Staff :--

Sir Harry Burrard was commanding the Home District.

Major-General Arthur Whetham, 3rd major, Lt.-Gov. at Portsmouth.

Major-General Henry Warde, on the Staff in India.

Major-General W.H. Clinton, Dep. Quartermasterr-General. in Ireland.

The army, 21,000 strong, was organised in four divisions, under Lieutenant-General Sir John Hope, the Earl of Rosslyn, Lieutenant-General Grosovenor, and the Marques of Huntley.

Lord Chatham thought it necessary, as a preparatory measure previous to more extensive operations, to obtain possession of some commanding point on the north side of South Beveland, from which to advance and take the enemy's batteries in the rear, and thus force the French fleet, which was off Flushing, to move up the river, for fear of their retreat being cut off; by which means also the approach of the British fleet to Flushing would be facilitated; and for this purpose he selected Sir John Hope's division, which was the reserve of the army, and was thus composed;--

Brigade of Guards,-- Major-General Disney     3070  
1st and 2nd battalions 4th, 28th Regiment,-- Major-Gen.
Earl of Dalhousie
    2538  
20th, 92nd, 7th Vet. battalion,-- Major-Gen. Sir Wm. Erskine     1653  
      _____  
      7261

To Admiral Sir Richard Keats was assigned the charge of transporting this division, and as it was to precede the rest of the army, it sailed from the Downs on the 28th of July; the Earl of Chatham, with the other divisions, sailing on the 29th and 30th.

The grenadiers and first battalion of the First Guards, and the other regiments of Sir John Hope's division, who had been conveyed some distance up the river in boats, owing to the difficulty of navigation for larger vessels, landed without opposition on the morning of the 1st of August, on the north side of South Beveland, between Wilmenduye and Cattendyke, and as soon as a line was formed the grenadiers of the Guards, and a detachment of the 95th, moved forward to Cloeting, pushing on strong patrols to Goes, and leaving three companies of the 20th at Cattendyke. Goes capitulated, and was occupied by part of the 92nd Regiment, the enemy retiring towards Batz. The Guards remained that day at Capelle and Boulingen, and Erskine's brigade at Hexendenkinder and Goes. The third battalion of Guards did not land till the following day, the 2nd of August, when the division already on shore again advanced, the Guards to Vaarden, the 4th Regiment to Hanswardt; the grenadiers of the Guards then pushed on to Kruyningen, surprising seventy or eighty of the enemy and making them prisoners without loss to themselves. The Dutch evacuated Vaarden, and subsequently, on the 4th August, as the British continued their advance, abandoned the town and important fort of Batz, on the low ground opposite to and commanding the entrance of the Scheldt, leading direct to Antwerp, which lay about twenty miles south, whereupon the Guards took up a position between Cattendyke and Batz.

It was a surprise to Sir John Hope that this fort, considering its strength and position, should have been thus evacuated, for it was difficult to account for the officer in command, with 600 men, not making some resistance, though it is possible that the Dutch were already aware of the ally that must eventually come to their aid, in the unhealthy climate of the low country now occupied by the British army,

The communication by water was now entirely free for the fleet between Walcheren and South Beveland, and Sir John Hope at once urged the importance of the presence of the flotilla near the fort. Its absence was soon felt, for on 5th and 8th August the enemy commenced, though with little effect, to bombard the fort from twenty-five gunboats. It was on the occasion of this bombardment that a private soldier, a Grenadier of the First Guards, John Skinner by name, distinguished himself by an act of gallantry which would in these days have earned him the Victoria Cross. Twelve guns had been spiked and left by the French in Fort Batz when they retired. John Skinner, in the midst of the bombardment, offered to unspike them with tools made by himself, so that they might be turned upon the enemies flotilla of gunboats, and having received the sanction of his commanding officer, Colonel Rainsford, to make attempt, he carried it out successfully. In acknowledgment of this act, he was presented by the Duke of York and the officers of his regiment, on his return to England, with a medal purposely struck for the occasion. On one side of it he is represented on a cannon, with the following inscription :--"John Skinner.- Presented by the Duke of York and the officers of the First Regiment of Foot Guards for his soldier like conduct." On the obverse is the flotilla bombarding the fort. During these operations eighty guns and a quantity of ordnance stores had fallen into the possession of General Hope's division. On the 9th of August the Earl of Rosslyn's division landed on South Beveland, when, as senior officer, the earl assumed command.

While these operations were being successfully carried on against Fort Batz, the troops under the immediate command of Lord Chatham had landed, on the 30th of July, without opposition, at Veere, on the north-east shore of the island of Walcheren, after the fire from the mortar and gunboats had driven the enemy from their defences. The town of Camour was immediately cannonaded, and soon surrendered, and on the 4th of August Fort Rammekens succumbed to General Fraser. This was an important acquisition, as it enabled the flotilla to advance, and prevent succour being thrown into Flushing, which was at once invested, and after a bombardment, by which the town was set in flames, it capitulated on the 15th, the garrison marching out with all the honours of war on the 18th of August.

On the reduction of Flushing, Lord Chatham, with head quarters, moved to Goes, in South Beveland, and subsequently to Fort Batz, joining Sir John Hope's division with the brigade of Guards; but the most dangerous enemy to the British troops began now to make its appearance, for a low fever had already broken out, occasioned by the fatal miasma arising from the inundations.

The first part of the expedition having been successfully accomplished, the attack on Antwerp was the next object to carry out; but Louis Buonaparte had in the meantime arrived in the country with reinforcements, and Bernadotte had assumed the supreme command of the French troops thus augmented. The strength of the enemy in the citadel of Antwerp and its neighbourhood was now about 11,000 men; between Antwerp and Bergen-op-Zoom, 15,000; and in Bergen-op-Zoom, Breda and Tholen, and on the left bank of the Scheldt, 11,00 more, making a total of 37,000 men. The effective force of the British army was about 30,000 but of this number, in the event of the siege of Antwerp being undertaken, 6000 would be required to remain in Walcheren, and 2000 in South Beveland. It would also be necessary to mask Bergen-op-Zoom and Breda; 10,000 or 12,000 men would be required to cover the siege, leaving only 10,000 men for the siege itself. The Admiral Sir Richard Strachan had expressed his opinion that the fleet could not move higher up the Scheldt as long as the two forts of Lillo and Liefkenshoek, situated on opposite sides of the river, half way between Fort Batz and Antwerp, were in possession of the enemy; and though the navy would co-operate, yet their capture was a military measure, and in consequence of the advanced state of the season, and the shortness of the supply of water in the fleet, he asked for an immediate decision as to what the army could undertake.

A memorandum, on the above comparative strength of the hostile forces, was accordingly submitted for the opinion of the seven lieutenant-generals of the army. On the 27th of August they came to the decision that the siege of Antwerp was impracticable, and that no advantage would result from the reduction of the Fort of Lillo, or from any minor operations. In consequence of this decision the expedition was at an end; orders were given for the evacuation of South Beveland, and by the 4th of September no troops were left in the Scheldt, except a small garrison at Walcheren, under General Don. The first brigade of Guards landed in England at the beginning of September, and moved to their former quarters. They had suffered much from sickness, both officers and men bringing with them the seeds of disease from which many suffered to the latest hour of their lives; none had fallen in action, but many a grave was filled from the "Walcheren Fever" contracted in this fruitless campaign.

By a return made out five months later, at the beginning of February, 1810, it appears that, of the ninety-one officers of the First Guards, one died of fever on service, and two on their return, all of the first battalion; and that of the 2574 non-commissioned officers and men of that regiment, twenty-one died on service, and 208 on their return. In the whole army no less than sixty-seven officers and 4000 men died of the fever, and at the date of the report in February above 200 officers and 11,000 men were still in hospital.

Lieutenant-General Don, who was left in command at Walcheren for a time to prevent the enemy's fleet escaping from the river, having subsequently received orders to evacuate the island, destroyed the basin of the harbour with the naval defences on the 10th of December, and embarked for England.

Return to Martin Family Line

Copyright 2001 - A Martin

All Rights Reserved