The first phase, July-August 1809
The campaign was dogged by bad luck from the start. The troops started embarking in mid-June, but the fleet’s departure was delayed by unfavourable winds until the end of July. The element of surprise had been lost; and to make matters worse, news arrived on 23 July that Britain’s Austrian allies had been defeated by Napoleon at the Battle of Wagram on 5–6 July.
The expedition nevertheless sailed on the morning of 28 July, and arrived off Walcheren in the evening. The next day, however, a storm blew up. Two ships lost their masts, and one ship of the line was driven aground. To save the rest of the fleet, the Captain of the Fleet, Sir Home Popham, guided the remaining vessels into a sheltered passage on the north-east side of the island known as the Roompot. The fleet was now on the wrong side of the island. This made the plan to run the main portion of the force down to Sandvliet very difficult, particularly after the 2,000 men who had been meant to disable the French battery at Cadzand failed to make a landing. The British fleet was now unable to enter the West Scheldt in any significant numbers until Flushing had fallen.
The British nevertheless initially made swift progress. The military second-in-command, Sir Eyre Coote, landed at Bree Zand and immediately marched on Flushing in four columns. General Simon Mackenzie Fraser took the town of Veere and Fort Rammekens, opening the Sloe Passage between Walcheren and South Beveland. The Sloe allowed naval access to the West Scheldt, but the water was very shallow, which made navigation slow and difficult. Meanwhile, South Beveland rapidly fell to Sir John Hope; the French abandoned the main fort at Batz without a fight.
Bree Zand (site of the British landing)
The British now laid siege to Flushing and found their good luck had come to an end. Although the troops cut Flushing off on the landside, poor weather meant Sir Richard Strachan could not get his ships close enough to cut Flushing off from the sea. Hundreds of French reinforcements sailed into Flushing from Cadzand every day. This finally ended the plan to march on to Antwerp before Flushing had fallen, as Chatham was now forced to increase the number of besiegers from 12,000 to 20,000 – there were now too few men to proceed with the original plan.
Flushing harbour as it looks today
The Siege of Flushing, 1809, by Martin Brown
The siege proceeded far too slowly. The chief engineer, Colonel D’Arcy, was replaced on 8 August, but the weather now turned wet and stormy. Fortunately for the British, the French defended themselves minimally; there was only one sortie on 7 August, which allowed the British to move their lines a little closer to Flushing. On 10 August, however, the French flooded the country around the town, filling the British trenches with water and damaging some of the batteries.
On 13 August, at 1pm, the British batteries opened on Flushing. They fired all day and late into the night. Strachan had finally managed to bring a dozen ships of the line past Flushing on 11 August, but was prevented by adverse winds from participating in the bombardment until 14 August. The city surrendered at 3am on 15 August. Over 300 buildings were destroyed or badly damaged in the bombardment, and about 350 people killed.
Nineteenth century depiction of the bombardment of Flushing from J. Grant, British Battles on Land and Sea, vol. 3 (1873)
Despite knowing they could proceed without leaving a hostile city in their rear, the main British force did not reach Fort Batz (at the easternmost point of South Beveland) until 24 August. This was partly because the siege supplies for Antwerp had got stuck on naval transports in the Sloe, but Chatham also showed no particular urgency to proceed, suggesting he had already given up on advancing. The French were hurrying reinforcements to the Scheldt basin; there were a reported 35,500 men in the area, 11,000 in Antwerp alone.
An even more serious enemy than the French now appeared: sickness. According to official reports, very few soldiers fell ill before 20 August, when the first cases started on South Beveland. ‘Walcheren fever’ may have been a combination of several illnesses. Malaria (which takes three weeks to incubate) was extremely common on the islands, but typhoid, typhus, and dysentery probably also played a part.
By the time Chatham reached Fort Batz on 24 August, sickness was spreading with breath-taking speed. There were 3,000 men on the sick list by 25 August; by 1 September, there were 5,000; and by 5 September, that number had more than doubled to 10,948. Some units (such as the 23rd Welsh Fusiliers) were so badly affected they had to be taken off active duty. The army’s General Orders issued some advice about what not to do – drink water without boiling it first; eat unripe fruit; drink heated buttermilk; sit in the sun at midday or lie on damp ground – but the fever continued to spread.
One soldier who fell ill described the fever in a letter home:
The disease usually comes on with a cold shivering, so great that the patient feels no benefit from the clothes piled upon him in bed, but continues to shiver still, as if enclosed in ice, the teeth chattering and cheeks blanched. This lasts some time, and is followed by the opposite extremes of heat … The face is then flushed and eyes dilated, but with little thirst. It subsides, and then is succeeded by another paroxysm, or cold fit, and so on until the patient’s strength is quite reduced, and he sinks into the arms of death.
By now, Chatham and Strachan had also fallen out. Chatham did not care about the adverse winds affecting the fleet, and felt Strachan should have tried harder to assist in the siege of Flushing and bring the troops down the Scheldt. Strachan, for his part, thought Chatham should have moved more quickly after the fall of Flushing, and did not think sickness was a good enough reason to stop the British going on to Antwerp.
On 26 August, the naval and military commanders and highest-ranking officers met to discuss whether to proceed. On 27 August, the lieutenants-general of the army gave Chatham their verdict: the campaign should be suspended. Chatham immediately began evacuating South Beveland, and the troops returned to Walcheren.
Background image: 'Attaque de Flessingue' from France Militaire by A. Hugo (1837)