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Background to the campaign

During the first half of 1809, British intelligence reports suggested the French were building a fleet at Flushing and Antwerp. The area was said to be poorly defended, its forts in a state of disrepair. Conveniently, the British also happened to have a large military force to hand, as the troops that had been evacuated from Corunna in January were now considered ready to be sent abroad again.


At around the same time, and following a series of anti-French uprisings in Germany, Austria approached Britain with the offer of a new alliance. After some discussion, Britain agreed to provide Austria with £2 million and a further £400,000 a month in subsidies. In return, Austria would fight the French in Central Europe.


As part of the coalition agreement, Britain agreed to assist Austria with a military diversion. The Austrians probably hoped Britain would fight in North Germany, but this was considered too expensive. Another possibility was to reinforce the 30,000-man strong army under Sir Arthur Wellesley in Portugal, but the government was reluctant to commit too many troops there after Corunna. Antwerp, therefore, was the ideal compromise. 


The Walcheren Expedition, 1809, by Martin Brown

Despite lukewarm support from Army Heaquarters at Horse Guards, the Secretary of State for War, Lord Castlereagh, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Mulgrave, readied nearly 40,000 troops and 616 naval vessels (including 264 warships). By mid-June, the forces were being collected at Portsmouth and the Downs.


The army was placed under the command of Lieutenant General John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham. Chatham had only once before been on active service; he was best known as a cabinet minister as Master-General of the Ordnance and as the brother of former prime minister William Pitt the Younger.


The naval force was commanded by Rear-Admiral of the White Sir Richard Strachan. Strachan had risen to fame during the Trafalgar campaign, but he had no experience of working with the army.


John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (V. Green, after J. Hoppner)

The plan was to divide the armed forces into three main parts. A large force of 12,000 men would land on Walcheren to besiege Flushing, while the navy blocked the town from the sea; 2,000 more men would land on Cadzand to secure the battery there. About 10,000 men would land on South Beveland and act as a reserve. All this would open up the West Scheldt for the remaining 16,000 men to sail to Sandvliet, on the mainland. From Sandvliet, they would march to Antwerp.

The object, as described in Chatham’s instructions, was ‘the capture and destruction of the enemy’s ships, either building at Antwerp and Flushing, or afloat in the Scheldt; the destruction of the arsenals and dockyards at Antwerp, Terneuse, and Flushing; and the reduction of the island of Walcheren, and the rendering if possible the Scheldt no longer navigable for ships of war.’ Speed was essential, as the French were meant to be unprepared for an attack. Excellent communication between the naval and military parts of the expedition would be required, as the navy would have to carry the army through the Scheldt and then cover their advance inland.

Plan of Antwerp, from T.W. Knox, Decisive Battles Since Waterloo

Background image: 'Attaque de Flessingue' from France Militaire by A. Hugo (1837)

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