The public reaction to the campaign was one of outrage. The newspapers were unrestrained in their attack on Chatham and the government that had sent him. ‘Nothing will do but a Court Martial and a fair Trial,’ thundered the opposition Morning Chronicle. ‘The best blood of England has been shed; the Treasury has been drained; the character of the Nation committed; and the spirit of both Navy and Army half broken … Let the Commander in Chief be tried.’ On 6 December, the Common Council of the influential City of London narrowly passed a petition to the King for an official inquiry into the disaster.
On 26 January 1810, Lord Porchester, an opposition MP, successfully passed a motion by 195 votes to 186 for the House of Commons to investigate the expedition. The inquiry opened on 2 February and closed on 16 March. All the most important naval and military officers involved were questioned, including Chatham and Strachan.
Print by Charles Williams, 1810 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC, USA)
The inquiry revealed the lack of communication between the military and naval branches of the expedition, the faulty intelligence relied on by the War Department, and the woefully inadequate medical arrangements for troops being sent to a notoriously unhealthy place at the worst possible time of year. Matters were not improved when it was revealed that Chatham had submitted a narrative to the King defending himself and blaming Strachan for all delays during the campaign:
Lord Chatham, with his sword outdrawn,
Stood waiting for Sir Richard Strachan;
Sir Richard, waiting to be at ’em,
Was waiting for the Earl of Chatham.
Chatham was forced to resign from the cabinet on 7 March. His resignation effectively saved the government, which threw out Lord Porchester’s motion of censure by 272 votes to 232 on 31 March. The House of Commons then approved the retention of Walcheren until December by 255 votes to 232.
Walcheren had a serious long-term effect on the British Army. An official report of 1 February 1810 listed 3,960 deaths from Walcheren fever, but in fact the number was probably closer to 8,000 – almost exactly one in five of the men sent out.
Of the soldiers who recovered, many were sent out to serve under Wellington in the Peninsula, where they suffered frequent relapses of ‘Walcheren fever’. As late as 1812, Wellington wrote home to complain that these men were ‘so much shaken by Walcheren’ he could barely use them on campaign. The ‘Grand Expedition’ turned out to have a very long shadow.
Gordon C. Bond, The Grand Expedition: the British Invasion of Holland in 1809 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1979)
James Davey, In Nelson’s Wake: the Navy and the Napoleonic Wars (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015)
Martin R. Howard, Walcheren 1809: the Scandalous Destruction of a British Army (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 2011)
Jacqueline Reiter, The Late Lord: the Life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 2017)
Background image: 'Attaque de Flessingue' from France Militaire by A. Hugo (1837)