Source: The Guinness Book of Military Blunders. Geoffrey Regan

(Websters and Encyclopaedia Britanica only give it as an island off Holland)

The Expedition to Walcheren (1809)

The expedition Britain sent to the Netherlands in 1809 was on of the largest combined operations ever seen up to that time. It consisted of seventy thousand soldiers and sailors in 616 ships, 352 of which were transports and 264 warships. This prodigious military effort was intended to serve two purposes: to destroy French navel power in the Scheldt River, and to form a diversion to help the Austrians, engaged at that moment in a desperate struggle with Napoleon on the Danube. If the aims were worthy, the execution was less so. A contemporary newspaper printed a jingle which summed up popular reactions to both the military commander, Lord Chatham, and his naval equivalent, Sir Richard Strachan:

Lord Chatham with his sword undrawn, Kept waiting for Sir Richard Strachan;

Sir Richard, eager to be at 'em, Kept waiting too - for whom? Lord Chatham!

In fact, there was a lot of truth in this rhyme. The British commanders were an ill-assorted pair; Chatham too cautious by half and Strachan too stormy. Chatham, elder brother of the late prime minister, William Pitt, and a personal friend of the king, was a cabinet minister himself and his was clearly a political appointment. His reputation for extreme caution, which had earned him the nickname 'the late' Lord Chatham, made him a peculiar choice for an operation needing quick thinking and instant execution. It also made him the most unsuitable companion for Sir Richard Strachan, known in the navy as 'Mad Dick' because of his wild temper and tempestuous ways. Strachan was described at the time as 'extremely brave and full of zeal and ardour.... an irregular, impetuous fellow'.

Nevertheless, the twin arms of the expedition had much to recommend them. The Scheldt contained a great concentration of French naval power, second only to Toulon, and was described by Napoleon as 'a cocked pistol pointed at the head of England'. It was taken so seriously by the Admiralty that two separate naval squadrons patrolled the Dutch coast at all times. Certainly a surprise attack and the burning of French ships and installations would be a major setback for French plans to invade England.

The expedition's second aim - to help the Austrians fighting Napoleon on the Danube - was more difficult to achieve. It depended on the Austrians staying in the fight long enough for the British presence in the Scheldt to have an effect on French troop allocations. When news of the Archduke Charles's victory over Napoleon at Aspern-Essling reached England it was greeted with great joy and seemed in itself to justify the Scheldt expedition. However, before the fleet could sail, news was received of Napoleon's war-winning victory at Wargram. With Austria negotiating a new peace, one of the expeditions aims was lost already. Was the destruction of the french fleet worth the risk and expense of the expedition? The decision to proceed was a hard one, but it might have been justified if Antwerp had been captured. After all, now he had defeated Austria, Napoleon would have more time to give to his proposed invasion of England.

What followed was an extraordinary saga of muddle and confusion. Chatham's failure to advance and capture Antwerp seems less important now than the fact that the authorities sent the best part of the nation's military forces to campaign in one of the unhealthiest parts of Europe without making adequate medical provision. Napoleon need not have worried. Disease was to win this campaign for him without the assistance of the French army.

The island of Walcheren, which was captured by the British in1809, was renowned for its insalubrious climate. A few years before a French commander had lost 80 per cent of his men to the dreaded local fever. The British authorities were quite aware that in this low-lying land, reclaimed from the sea only by a system of dykes, there were many swampy areas with stagnant pools in which mosquitoes bred in their millions. The inhabitants of Walcheren were known to be 'pale and listless, suffering much from scrofula, the children rickety and all much deformed'. Heavy floods the previous year had made the conditions ideal for mosquitoes and by the summer of 1809 the situation was ripe for a disaster.

British troops had encountered a similar fever in the Low Countries on a previous occasion. As early as 1747 Sir John Pringle had written about a fever that struck British troops at Antwerp.

'The sickness never begins till the heats have continued long enough to give time for the putrefaction and evaporation of the water. The epidemics of this country may therefore be generally dated from the end of July or the beginning of August...... their decline, about the first fall of leaf; and their end, when the frost begins'.

And yet the expedition went ahead in spite of the likelihood, almost certainty, that the troops would be struck by the fever. Indeed everything seemed stacked against the British soldiers once they landed on Walcheren. The weather in August 1809 was very hot and steamy, with frequent thunderstorms. Thick mist rose above the swamps and mosquitoes plagued the British soldiers as they laboured on defensive positions. Nothing, it seemed, could keep off the mosquitoes, and the men became listless and careless, yawning a lot and finally collapsing. When the fever developed, the men suffered from a burning thirst and high temperatures - the classic symptoms of malaria.

While the commanders quarrelled the men died, their enemies not the French soldiers assembled on the other side of the Scheldt River, but the insignificant, unconsidered insects. (It was believed at that time that malaria was caused by mist or bad air - hence the name of the sickness.) Between 6 August and 3 September, the number of cases increased from 688 to 8,134. The antiquated medical services of the British army were quite incapable of coping. Doctors fought the epidemic with quinine, but their supplies of tree bark were hopelessly inadequate. In many cases they too succumbed.

The Medical Board back in England had not even been consulted when the campaign was planned, and the number of doctors sent on so large an expedition was ridiculously low. There were no facilities to cope with so many casualties at one time and men were forced to lie on the beaches in their own filth. The men suffering from fever needed to be returned to England, away from the insalubrious climate of Walcheren, yet the position was little better once they got back home. Hospitals were simply deluged with cases of Scheldt fever. By October, 1809, only 5,616 men on Walcheren were fit for duty, out of an original force of 40,000 soldiers. Just 106 men had died in combat, while over 4,000 died from fever. The French had to do nothing but wait; they had never had so easy a victory.

The Walcheren expedition was a tragedy. The force sent under Chatham and Strachan contained a galaxy of junior officers who were later to earn fame with Wellington in Spain. Yet they had no chance to show their skills. Even with a massive naval force, the British achieved only limited success in harming French shipping and installations. Although Napoleon later admitted to suffering losses of 2,000,000, the expedition had cost five times that much. And the losses in men were irreplaceable; 4,000 dead and 12,000 so badly affected by the fever that they would never serve again.


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