The Walcheren Expedition, 1809
In July 1809, an amphibious British force of 40,000 men and over 600 naval vessels was sent to the Scheldt River in the French-controlled Kingdom of Holland. The ‘Grand Expedition’, as it was known (initially seriously, though later ironically), was up to that point Britain’s biggest campaign during the wars with France – bigger even than the army in the Peninsula. Part of the War of the Fifth Coalition, it was intended to divert attention from the Austrians, who were fighting Napoleon in central Europe.
'Attaque de Flessingue' from France Militaire by A. Hugo (1837)
The campaign had two main aims. The first was to gain control of the Scheldt River by capturing the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland, as well as Cadzand on the mainland. The second was to attack and destroy the French fleet and dockyards at Antwerp.
The expedition failed completely. Britain’s Austrian allies were defeated at Wagram before the British force even sailed; although the British managed to take Flushing, the army advanced too slowly, allowing the French to reinforce Antwerp; and there was poor communication between the British military and naval commanders. The campaign was suspended at the end of August after a catastrophic outbreak of ‘Walcheren fever’ struck down a quarter of the entire army within three weeks.
The British kept a garrison of 16,000 men on Walcheren until December, when it was finally evacuated. A parliamentary inquiry held in early 1810 revealed the shortcomings in planning and executing the campaign, particularly the poor medical provision, but the government escaped censure. The final death toll from Walcheren fever may have been as high as 8,000, and the soldiers who had served there were affected by relapses for years.
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Background image: 'Attaque de Flessingue' from France Militaire by A. Hugo (1837)