Castlereagh’s pet scheme
Napoleon in conversation with Metternich, 22 January, 1808
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The taking of the island of Walcheren had been Castlereagh’s pet scheme at least since 1797, the time he first proposed it to 2 Almost ten years later, when Castlereagh joined the British cabinet in April 1807 as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, he re-proposed the scheme. The Napoleonic victories at Friedland and Tilsit in the summer of that year were to cause the idea to be shelved; but only briefly. Over the next two years, Castlereagh was to make numerous proposals for an attack on the Scheldt.3 By 1809, the Scheldt estuary had become the second largest French naval arsenal after Toulon. And since Tilsit, the navy had become a key part of Napoleon’s war to the death with Britain. “The continental war is over. Energies must be turned towards the navy”, he noted to Decrès on 4 July 1807.4 Nor was Castlereagh wrong. Napoleon was indeed attempting to turn Antwerp into his principal arsenal, a “point d’attaque mortel à l’ennemi” opposite the Thames estuary.5 And London took the threat seriously maintaining two squadrons permanently off the coast of the Netherlands, the first to meet a surprise attack and the second to prevent new ships passing to other ports. Napoleon for his part naturally expected a British coup de main in the area (perhaps he was even aware of Castlereagh’s intentions), because already in 1808 the French emperor was spending money fortifying the port of Antwerp against a possible British attack.6
Castlereagh’s temporarily shelved scheme was to be brought back onto the desk by events in early 1809. On 2 January, 1809, spies informed the British government that there were ten French ships in the port of Flushing (three under construction), that there were nine ships of the line under construction in Antwerp, and that ten unarmed French vessels had entered Flushing, The British minister leapt at the chance of finally of bringing his plan to fruition.7 On 25 March, 1809, Sir David Dundas, newly appointed chief of the British army, was summoned to a cabinet meeting asked to prepare an immediate attack on French positions in the Scheldt. Dundas pleaded that it could not be done (the wounded army had net yet recovered from the retreat from La Coruna), so Castlereagh went away to prepare his invasion for later that year, recontacting Dundas on 8 May, making inquiries regarding the state of the army and the fitness of troops. At the same time Castlereagh sent his plans for the expedition to certain high-placed military men for approval.8 They were all to agree on the general shape of the scheme, namely, that troops should be ferried up the Scheldt to perform a commando raid on Antwerp’s naval installations, having first neutralised the batteries on the island of Cadsand and having taken the neighbouring islands of Walcheren (with its important port of Flushing) and South Beveland (with the key fort of Batz). However the military consultants were also in agreement that the operation would be exceedingly hazardous and that the only chance for any success lay in the speed and energy of its execution. This guarded reaction predictably dampened government enthusiasms, and Castlereagh later noted that it was only the news of Austrian success at Aspern-Essling (which reached London in the first week of June) that finally expunged any cabinet doubts as to the scheme’s feasibility. Castlereagh’s spies had also given him key intelligence: that troops had been taken from the Low Countries to be sent south for the Austrian campaign, that the garrison at Flushing was poorly manned by untested Dutch, German, Irish and Spanish soldiers, and that most of the garrison at Antwerp had also been sent to Austria. Maximum estimates of French troop-strength in the area were of the order of 8,400 men. Encouraged by this news, Castlereagh set about choosing a leader for the expedition. The man selected was John Pitt, Earl of Chatham and elder brother of recently deceased ex-Prime Minister, William. Though he had served in the American War of Independence and also in the Russian/British expedition to the Helder in 1799, John Pitt had had a desk job for the preceding seven years and was notorious for his dilatoriness in his everyday life. Public complaints for his laziness had forced the Younger Pitt to remove his elder brother from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1794. Indeed so surprising was the choice that some historians have detected political manoeuvring behind the selection. It must be said however in his favour that he had the full support of Castlereagh and the King.
On 22 June Castlereagh requested (and received) the King’s permission for the expedition. On the same day, the Dundas communicated the total numbers of troops ready for embarkation – 35,000 infantrymen and 1,900 cavalry. As for 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.”9 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.10
A diversion for Austria?
It is occasionally thought that the Walcheren expedition was a diversion undertaken by Britain on behalf of Austria as part of the Wagram campaign.11 It is true that Austria had sent a request for financial support both in October 1808 and in April 1809.12 But Canning was not impressed with the first request. It was the largest ever demand for subsidies which Britain had ever received and he rejected it as “utterly beyond the power of this Country to furnish”.13 The second, brought by Austrian envoys Field marshal Graf Ludwig von Wallmoden and Lieutenant August Wagner in April) was a different scheme. It asked for less money14 but also requested a diversionary attack: either a landing in southern Italy (to help Archduke John), an expansion of British action in Spain or an expedition landing in northern Germany. British reaction to all this Austrian diplomacy had been cool to say the least. A British envoy was sent to Vienna, but he was only a neurasthenic junior diplomat (and distant relative of Earl Bathurst) and he did not arrive in Vienna before the end of April (having left before the second Austrian envoys had arrived and after the Austrian invasion of Bavaria had begun). Furthermore, Austria was not the only suitor. At the same time, a Prussian envoy, Ludwig von Kleist, was asking Canning to set up an arms depot in Heligoland in support of (secret) Prussian insurrection and for £50,000 in cash up front for immediate expenses.15 Canning’s reply to Austria (in early April) was to send £250,000 in silver to an Austrian port in the Adriatic and a war chest of £3/4m to £1m to be deposited on Malta for use by Austria should she go to war but to decline assistance as to the diversionary attack in Germany. As for the Prussian plan, the depot on Heligoland was agreed and von Kleist would receive £20,000 in a letter of credit. When the Austrian prince, Louis von Starhemberg, arrived in London in May to press these demands, putting special emphasis on the attack in Germany, Castlereagh’s plan had already been accepted by the cabinet, in fact Castlereagh had already chosen a leader for the expedition on 18 May, 1809. Afterwards, British politicians and diplomats later ‘sold’ the Scheldt expedition to Austria (and historians) as a diversion, its primary aim had been national security, aiming to knockout French naval developments there, as we shall see.
The Scheldt estuary
Walcheren is the first and most important island in the Scheldt river estuary. It possesses also the largest port, Flushing, and guards the main waterway access to the key naval installation at Antwerp. Not only was it important as a place for building ships, it was also important strategically (just as it was to be 1944) because of its position close to and directly opposite the Thames estuary. In this its western section, the Scheldt winds through sandbanks on its fifty-kilometre route to Antwerp past the island of Cadsand (to the south) and South Beveland (to the north); on these stood batteries (Breskens on the former and Batz on the latter). Either side of the Scheldt river as it continued inland beyond Batz stood further batteries, Lillo, La Croix and St Philippe on the west bank and Liefkenshoek, Isabelle, La Perle, St Marie and Tête de Flandre on the east. As a further defensive measure, a boom was raised across the channel not far from Sandvliet and protected by the batteries at Lillo and Liefkenshoek. Whilst these formidable defences might on the surface have looked intimidating, much of the hardware was out of date and poorly manned. Some of the gun carriages shattered on their first firing. And the boom would snap on the turn of the tide.
The expedition launched
The plan of the British commando raid was the following. After taking and occupying Walcheren and Flushing, the fleet would continue up the Scheldt to attack the naval installation at Antwerp. To perform this, a “Grand Division” (the left wing) would take Walcheren. The Reserve of the Army was to take control of South Beveland and the fort at Batz, whilst the Second Division of the army would deal with Cadsand. The “Grand Division” commanded by Sir Eyre Coote, comprised First Division led by Maj. Gen. Sir Thomas Graham, the Fourth Division, led by Lt. Gen. Mackenzie Fraser, and the Light Infantry, under Lt. Gen. Lord Paget, and totalled 12,668 officers and men. These men were ferried by thirty-seven ships of war under Admiral Amelius Lord Beauclerk. The reserve was led by Sir John Hope and the Second Division (of about 5,000 troops) was commanded by George Gordon, Marquis of Huntley. A further 9,000 men (comprising the Earl of Rosslyn’s light division and Lt. Gen. Thomas Grosvenor’s Third Division) as well as the cavalry, ordnance and store ships were to set sail in a second wave.
On the fleet’s arrival (27 July), the first disembarkation onto the island of Walcheren (on 30 July) was a great success – there had however been much hesitation to the south and the taking of Cadsand was abandoned after poor communication between British generals. The troops sent to repulse the landing were a mixed forced (three batallions of Irish, Colonials and Prussians, numbering about 1,200) under the second-in-command of the French forces on the island, General Pierre-Jacques Osten. British troops rolled up the opposition, quickly occupying all the major centres on the island and threatening Flushing by 1 August. Hope’s Reserve landed on South Beveland on 1 August, finding on 2 August that the Dutch forces there under Gen. Stewart Bruce, had spiked the guns and abandoned the strategically important fortress of Batz without a fight. Bruce was to be highly criticised for his less than vigorous action and was to be cashiered and sent to prison after trial (ordered by an outraged Napoleon) which took place on 8 July, 1810.16 Possession of Batz gave the British a good launching point for the coup de main on Antwerp. The French fleet (under Missiessy) however had already escaped towards Antwerp by that time and stood behind the boom set up between the forts at Lillo and Liefkenshoek.
It was this point however that the initial gains began to be wasted. News reached Paris on the British expedition on 30 July, and from that day on French forces were mobilised with great efficacy, coming from St Omer, Ecloo, Brussels, and Louvain, most of which to be stationed on Cadsand, the island which British forces had hesitated to take,17 but ideally placed at the mouth of the Scheldt to fire on passing ships and to provide Flushing with a link with the outside world should she be surrounded. Throughout the first week and a half of August, French troops poured into the area, so that by 11 August they numbered 15,399 on the right bank and 20,883 on the left. During these crucial ten days the British attackers lost the initiative, preferring to concentrate on besieging Flushing, itself the remaining obstacle to complete control of the mouth of the Scheldt.
Chatham and Strachan met to consider how to pursue the campaign on 6 August, but already it seemed that both were beginning to doubt whether final aim (a successful raid on Antwerp) would be possible. Strachan had already written on 5 August, news of French reinforcements, “I fear it will not be practicable to get to Antwerp”.18 A Memorandum from England (from Sir Home Popham to Chatham) noted that with huge reinforcements under Marshal Lefebvre at Antwerp, the British expedition could content itself simply with Flushing and forget about the more risky business at Antwerp. This advice appears to have been crucial to Chatham’s further pursuance of the campaign.
The investment of Flushing was to begin on 13 August and was to last until 15 when the commanding officer Monnet offered capitulation. Though the French commander had attempted to impeded the besiegers by cutting the dykes and flooding the land occupied by them, he had not resisted longer than thirty-eight hours of bombardment, much to Napoleon’s disgust (the emperor thought Flushing impregnable).19 However, during that time Monnet would appear to have lost (killed, captured, wounded or deserted) almost a third of his forces20 and the city had suffered terribly: on entering the city British forces were greatly struck by the extent of the destruction. Chatham then moved his headquarters to South Beveland with the aim of pursuing the original mission, Contemporaries noted that he was in no hurry to get there. “After three days lost in Walcheren with the ceremony of laying down arms”, noted Sir John Hope’s Quartermaster general, Frederick William Trench, “he arrived at Ter Goes […]. He came as far as Schore [i.e., five miles in the direction of Batz] … to consult with Sir John Hope [… and] returned to Ter Goes for dinner! Yesterday [i.e., 23 August], about 12 o’clock he got under way being preceded by a column of wagons in the first of which was a live turtle; he had a fresh horse at Schore, but did not attempt to go further than Crabbendyke [i.e., five miles from Schore] tho’ Batz was but 7 miles off. …This apathy is so extraordinary that I can account for it only on a supposition that he waits the return of orders from England”.21 He finally reached Batz (a further five miles) on the 24th. Given that General Graham’s troops were also present there at that time, the attack on Antwerp could then have been launched. On the days following, Bernadotte received intelligence that the British were about to launch their attack and so vigorously set about preparing defences and concentrating the defensive forces. The British however were not at all energetic. Initial reconnoitring was discussed at a meeting of Chatham and Strachan with Sir Richard Keats and the lieutenants general of the army, which concluded that in the face of so many dangers they should leap into action. They tabled another meeting the following day before sending dispatches to London stating that they would not be making an attempt on Antwerp.
Into this general context of lethargy and extreme caution came the problem disease. Already Walcheren was notorious for it insalubrity. Indeed Napoleon himself was well aware of the fact and he hoped that by waiting the attacking army would be decimated by it.22 Chatham had not taken proper precautions for troop encampments on swampy soil, and Monnet’s flooding of the area surrounding Flushing only served to worsen an already difficult situation. Already by 20 August men began to fall sick. And when Chatham was turning his attention to the Antwerp part of the expedition (27 August) the number of sick (suffering from malaria, typhus and typhoid fever) was 3,467 and rising by the hour. And the medical staff for the expedition (already shorthanded at the outset) were almost immediately overstretched. In the context of rising sickness levels, General Brownrigg on 27 August informed the commanders of the many difficulties facing the continuation of the expedition, not least the presence of 37,000 French and Dutch forces in and between Bergen-op-Zoom and Antwerp. After Brownrigg’s presentation the lieutenants general of the army came to the conclusion that “the siege of Antwerp [was] impracticable”. This decision marks the end of the expedition. Castelreagh informed and Chatham set about bringing the troops back from South Beveland to Walcheren. Relations between Chatham and Strachan broke down completely (Strachan still wanted to continue the expedition) and it was not before 31 August that Strachan finally abandoned all hope of aggressive action and devoted his full attention to the evacuation of the army to Walcheren (and then home). After consultation, the Cabinet allowed Chatham to return part of his forces to England. The evacuation to Walcheren and Flushing was complete by 6 September, and on 14 September and the two days following nearly 11,000 soldiers, sick and able-bodied, sailed for England. 16,766 were left under Sir Eyre Coote to garrison Flushing.23 By 18 September, almost half of this garrison in Flushing was ill and 309 had died the previous week. By the following week the disease had progressed to infect a further 1,500 men. Indeed, the sickness was increasing so fast that Coote wrote to Castlereagh they could not hope to hold Flushing. Of the 40,000 who embarked in July, only 4,500 were still fit for duty in October, and in February 1810, 11,500 were still sick in hospital and there had been 4,000 fatalities. The final evacuation, in the face of encroaching French forces held off by British vessels stationed to the north and south of Walcheren, took place on 23 December.
The Fall of Castlereagh and the parliamentary enquiry
Back home, in mid-August, it started to become clear that the expedition had run out of steam. The first article in the British Press to mention the dissention between the two leaders dates from 14 August, and this was to rise to a crescendo in early September when The Times called the expedition a national disaster and blaming Chatham for everything, especially the disastrous (and fatal) retreat. The press then turned to caricatures and lampoons. The story of Chatham and his turtle was picked up and a caricature published in the Ghent Journal du commerce showed the commander-in-chief driving a chariot pulled by two turtles and six snails, crying out “Not so fast!” But Chatham was not the only target for criticism. All those involved came under attack, particularly the medical board for not anticipating the epidemic in a zone known for its sickliness. Into this media maelstrom landed the bombshell that the cabinet was dissolved. Canning had been manoeuvring for Castlereagh’s removal from the cabinet since early April 1809. At that time he had visited Portland threatening to resign. In the ensuing discussion Canning had suggested a new improved cabinet, the key point s of which were Chatham as prime minister and Wellesley to replace Castlereagh at the War Department. Portland agreed but, as the year went on, hesitated to act. Gradually all the members of the cabinet (except Castlereagh himself) came to know of the impending removal. Matters were precipitated by Portland’s paralytic stroke on 11 August – after which the King asked Bathurst and Liverpool to begin looking for a new leader. Perceval suggested to Canning (on 28 August) that a figurehead peer be chosen, but since Canning himself saw himself as the only candidate to lead the new cabinet, this was rejected. Perceval thought that to place Canning at the head would bring the government down. And so, as the crescendo of criticism concerning Walcheren began to rise, and as Portland resigned on 6 September rather than to dismiss Castlereagh, the cabinet fell apart, with Canning resigning on 7 September and Castlereagh (only then realising the extent of the cabal against him) the next day. The famous duel between the two men took place on 19 September, during which Canning was wounded in the thigh. The new administration led by Perceval but which included Wellington’s arrogant elder brother, the Marquess of Wellesley24 was to be forced to face an inquiry into the failure of the Walcheren Expedition after a close voted in the House of Commons (195 against 186, Perceval and Canning urging strongly the vote against and Castlereagh voting for the motion. The enquiry (which was conducted by a committee at the House of Commons) took place during February and March. At first it looked like there would be no government casualties. Castlereagh spoke brilliantly. He defended the expedition on the ground that it offered the possibility of a brief operation, close to Britain, which offered a diversion for Austria and which significantly improved the security of the British Isles. He also did not support Chatham by noting that all the military provisions had been requested by Chatham himself – he disclaimed all responsibility for Chatham’s much-criticised inclusion of large numbers of cavalry and heavy ordnance on what was supposed to be a commando raid. But the Opposition found that Chatham had breached constitutional convention by submitting his report of the expedition privately to the King, and this nearly brought the new administration down. Only Chatham’s resignation (grudgingly offered after a violent harangue by Marquess Wellesley, Wellington’s elder brother) saved it. Though Castlereagh was also held as equally responsible for the debacle, he was already in disgrace so could not be punished more. The government survived the remaining votes without having to have recourse the Opposition. Given that in its series of votes on the Walcheren question Parliament had found that neither ministers, the navy nor the military commanders responsible for the failure, The Times was predictably bitter: “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?”, it wondered rhetorically.25
Chatham was no Wellington, Strachan no Nelson. Despite having destroyed the port at Flushing and having inflicted 50 million francs of damage,26 Britain had valiantly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, at the cost of 1 million pounds (25 millions francs of the period) and four thousand dead and twelve thousand men incapacitated indefinitely. A debacle indeed!
The final word…
A final word on all this should perhaps be left to the emperor himself: The following conversation on St Helena was noted by Napoleon’s Irish physician, Barry O’Meara:
“I [Dr O’Meara] asked if he thought that the expedition to Walcheren might, if it had been well conducted, have taken Antwerp? Napoleon replied: ‘I am of [the] opinion, that if you had landed a few thousand men at Williamstadt, and marched directly for Antwerp, that between consternation, want of preparation, and the uncertainty of the number of assailants, you might have taken it by a coup de main. But after the fleet had got up it was impossible; as the crews of the ships, united to the national guard, workmen, and others, amounted to upwards of fifteen thousand men. The ships would have been sunk, or taken into the docks, and the crews employed upon the batteries. Besides, Antwerp, though old, is strongly fortified. It is true that Lord Chatham did every possible to insure the failure of the object of the expedition; but after the delay of a few days, it would have been impossible for any man to have effected it. You had too many and too few men; too many for a coup de main, and too few for a regular siege. The inhabitants were all against you; as they saw clearly that your object was to get possession of the town, to burn and destroy every thing, and then go to your ships and get away. It was a very bad expedition for you. Your ministers were very badly informed about the country. You afterwards had the bêtise to remain in that pestilential place, until you lost some thousands of men. C’était le comble de la bêtise et de l’inhumanité…“27
O’Meara, A voice from St. Helena, vol. 1, 1822, p. 255-6.