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Walcheren:

The second phase, September-December 1809

Chatham was recalled home in mid-September. He left 16,000 men behind him under the command of Sir Eyre Coote, who had instructions not to evacuate Walcheren until the government had decided whether or not to keep the island.

 

Unfortunately, the political situation in Britain did not favour a swift decision. The government collapsed in early September, weakened by the failure of the campaign and cut through by internal rivalries. The new ministry, under prime minister Spencer Perceval, spent much of October trying to strengthen itself. As a result, the decision to abandon Walcheren was not taken until the end of October.

Sir Eyre Coote, by A. Cardon (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

By this time, over half of the garrison on Walcheren was in hospital. Sick were regularly sent home, with no prospect of being replaced. Coote wrote to the Secretary of State for War on 23 October:

 

We shall soon be left destitute of soldiers – although I agree it is preferable to have none, than to have them here unfit for service and unlikely to recover.

On 29 October, Lieutenant-General George Don took over from Coote and received orders to evacuate the island, destroy the harbour at Flushing, and level all fortifications. Don’s first act was to send over 5,500 sick men home:

 

Much do I lament to report there is not a chance of a single man now in the hospital or convalescent ever recovering sufficiently to undergo the duties of a soldier in the field, unless he be removed from this island in a short time.

 

The French still had nearly 30,000 men in the area, and Don feared what might happen if they attacked.

Miraculously, they did not. The last sick were sent home at the end of November; at the beginning of December, the engineers began to destroy Flushing’s fortifications. This was completed by 11 December. The remaining troops were prevented from leaving until 23 December, when they sailed for home. The last naval squadron sailed on 26 December, bringing the unfortunate expedition to an end.

Bust of George Don, Gibraltar (photo by Bj.schoenmakers; public domain, from here)

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

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