Our Walcheren Expedition, day 1 was spent exploring the area by car. It’s always good to do that if possible, to get a sense of the place before planning the week. Given that the real purpose of this trip is to give me a sense of how Walcheren might have been in 1809 when This Blighted Expedition is set, there’s something very exciting for me in walking down streets and looking at views which my characters would have known.
Given that, we were very fortunate to find an apartment, through Airbnb, on Korendijk, which is directly on the canal and is where my Dutch heroine, Katja de Groot, was living with her three children when the British invaded in 1809. Much to my joy, the house turned out to have been built in 1722. Most of the buildings along the street are from the seventeenth and eighteenth century and all fit well with the tall houses that the merchants of Walcheren built to house their businesses and their families.
Our landlady, apparently recognising a history nut at forty paces, explained that this house was built by a wheat merchant, who also owned a mill and a bakery nearby. The beams have a very battered look, understandable because much to my joy, they were recycled from old ships from the local ports. In one part of the building, it’s possible to recognise part of the ship’s mast.
Chatham’s army landed at Bree Sands, to the north, and that is where we started our drive around Walcheren. The challenge of getting the location right in this particular book is that the landscape has changed dramatically. In 1809 Walcheren was an island, as were North and South Beveland. Land reclamation means that it is not possible, as it often is in Portugal and Spain, to look over the landscape and know that you are seeing pretty much the same land as your characters.
All the same, the wide beaches and strong winds definitely give a good sense of what Chatham’s men faced when they landed on Walcheren. We even managed to find the location of Fort Den Haak, where Lord Chatham set up headquarters on that first night, although whatever remains of the fort itself is currently inaccessible to the public. Interestingly, it is further inland than it would have been in 1809.
Following General Fraser’s trail, we drove to Veere, which is a beautiful little town which refused to surrender immediately to Lord Chatham’s army and was battered from both land and sea to persuade it to do so. There is a walk around the fortifications of Veere which we did, and it gives a good sense of the town defences, although most of what exists today was built from 1810 onwards when the French returned, including a fine selection of artillery from 1810 and 1811. We’ll be back to do the museums another day.
Later in the day we took a stroll around Middelburg to get our bearings and were impressed with Middelburg Abbey, where Lord Chatham set up his headquarters. Having seen Wellington’s various headquarters in the Peninsula over the past two years, it was clear that Lord Chatham was somewhat more set on luxury than Wellington, although now that I think about it, the Royal Palace in Madrid probably trumps Middelburg. Once again, we’ll be back to do the museums.
Already I’ve picked up an enormous amount of information for the book, but more importantly, I have a sense of the area and the countryside. One of the things that contemporary accounts frequently mention is that it is flat. They were not wrong about that, so I have decided that tomorrow I shall venture around the coastline on a slightly different mode of transport, and one that I seldom use…
Ramsgate, July 1809; an excerpt from This Blighted Expedition
Book Two of the Manxman series is due out later this year and follows the fortunes of Captain Hugh Kelly of the Iris during the Walcheren campaign of 1809. The Walcheren expedition was a joint operation and explains what the second battalion of the 110th infantry was up to while Major van Daan was fighting at Talavera.
In this excerpt both the navy and the army are becoming increasingly frustrated at how long it is taking to get the expedition underway.
It was another five days before the Iris sailed from Ramsgate. The expedition had seemed on the verge of launching several times, and was delayed each time. On the 20th Hugh had said a tender farewell to Roseen, watching her fight back tears and wondering if she knew that he was doing the same. On the following day, he sent a boat with a message requesting that she join him aboard, since it was clear that the expedition, once again, was going nowhere.
Lord Chatham’s arrival to take command of the forces was quickly overshadowed by the arrival of news from Europe. Two weeks earlier, the Austrian forces had been defeated by Bonaparte at Wagram, just north of Vienna. Hugh imagined there had been a huge in-drawing of breath among the leaders of the expedition. Lord Castlereagh and Lord Chatham, presumably after some discussion, let it be known that the expedition was not to be suspended. Although the original intention had been to use the attack as a distraction to assist the Austrians in their campaign, a successful attack on Antwerp might still act as an incentive to keep Austria in the war. Hugh sat in his cabin, writing a carefully worded letter to Major van Daan, fighting somewhere in Portugal or Spain, and wondered how much that had influenced the decision to proceed or whether the two men had stood looking out over the masts of the fleet, every ship crammed with weapons, supplies, horses and men, and decided that it would be too embarrassing or simply too difficult to call a halt to such an enormous and expensive campaign.
The delay on the 21st was caused by a change of wind, which meant that the other half of the expedition, with the forces led by Chatham’s second-in-command, Sir Eyre Coote, were unable to sail from Portsmouth as planned. Hugh received the tidings in his cabin and summoned Durrell to share the news.
Durrell read the orders in silence and looked up at Hugh. Hugh raised his eyebrows, inviting comment.
“At this rate, we’ll be lucky to sail before the end of the month, sir. And the weather is only going to get worse.”
Hugh nodded soberly and rose to bring wine. “I’ve sent for my wife,” he said. “You can call me a sentimental fool, Mr Durrell, but even a short time longer with her is worth it.”
“I wouldn’t be so impertinent, sir, I’d feel the same. But another delay?”
“Aye. What do you think?”
Durrell’s clear blue-green eyes were steady on his. “I think if we’re going to go, we should get a move on, sir.”
“Personally, I think if we were going to go, we should have already gone, Mr Durrell. But we can be very sure that nobody is going to be asking for our opinion about any of it. I wonder what the army makes of it all?”
Durrell gave one of his unexpected grins which made him look much younger. “Are you missing your source in the 110th, sir?”
“I think I am. Although I’ve a feeling that if Major van Daan were here, he’d have expired from sheer frustration by now. Never mind. I shall enjoy supper with my wife and try to remain calm, and well out of the politics of it all.”
Despite Hugh’s determination, it was impossible to ignore the politics. Over the next few days he received a stream of visitors including Admiral Keats, Captain Codrington, and to his exasperation, Captain Sir Home Riggs Popham. All of them had something to say about the progress, or lack of it, made by the expedition, and all of them seemed very clear where the blame should lie.
“Bloody Chatham,” Codrington said gloomily. “We’d have been on the way if it hadn’t been for him. Did you know that the French fleet have sailed out of Antwerp and are anchored off Flushing? Sir Richard Strachan is sure we could bring them to an engagement if we caught them.”
Hugh regarded him owlishly. “If we caught them?” he enquired. “Ned, have you been over-indulging? Take that glass away from him, Mr Durrell, he’s had too much. Can you explain to me, because I’m a greenhorn here, fella, and don’t know much about the navy and suchlike, exactly why the French are going to sit sunning themselves on the quarterdeck waiting for us to sail in and cut them off? Do they do that often in your experience, because if they do, I’ve missed it.”
Codrington flushed slightly and then drained his glass and held it out to Durrell. “I’ll have another, Mr Durrell, before your captain gets stingy with it. All right, Hugh, what is it exactly you think we ought to be doing?”
“Following the orders we’re given and not going off on a spree,” Hugh said firmly. “I’m not arguing that the army are bloody slow, it’s the size of the boots they’re clumping around in, but it’s not going to help if we go without them. Even if we could bring the French to battle, what use is that when half our ships are stuffed full of redcoats? We need to offload them at the very least.”
Admiral Keats was somewhat more circumspect. “A pity so much time has been lost,” he said, settling himself into Hugh’s day cabin. “This is very good wine, Captain Kelly, where did you get it from?”
“It was a gift,” Hugh said. The wine had arrived in two crates shortly before he had embarked, having been re-routed from Chatham dockyards. “I’ve a friend serving in Portugal with Wellesley.”
“In the army?” Keats said, sounding so revolted that Hugh laughed aloud.
“In the army, sir. Although if it makes you feel better, he served in the navy first.”
“One of the better ones then. I wish I had as much faith in our commander-in-chief.”
“He’s hardly had time to do anything yet, sir.”
“He’s hardly been out of bed before noon since he’s been here, Captain. And he’s insistent on awaiting the arrival of the ships from Portsmouth. Won’t sail without Coote. Strachan is furious.”
“Strachan has been furious ever since I first met him, sir.”
“Oh, come on, Captain, don’t tell me you’re happy about this.”
“I’m not,” Hugh admitted. “Although it does mean an extra few days with my wife.”
“Is she with you?” Keats said, brightening visibly. “Bring her over to dine today, man, I’m starved of feminine company and I am devoted to your wife; I never know what she’s going to say next.”
“Nor do I, sir,” Hugh admitted. “Thank you, we’d be delighted.”
Keats settled back into Hugh’s favourite armchair reminding Hugh of Molly, the ship’s cat when she found a particularly comfortable spot in the sun. “This is very pleasant,” he said. “It hasn’t escaped my notice, Captain, that you’ve not been seen on shore much this past week.”
“Or at all,” Hugh said placidly. “To be fair, sir, I’m in the navy, this is where I’m supposed to be.”
“Popham was searching high and low for you yesterday,” Keats said, and the tone of his voice when he spoke the name made Hugh grin. “Apparently there are three stray staff members needing a passage and he thought you might have space for them.”
“More staff members? Jesus, how many are there? I’ve already got six of them wedged into the officers’ day cabin, I don’t need any more.”
“The Earl of Chatham has a large staff,” Keats said neutrally. “I have counted at least seven ADCs and I may have missed a few. At any rate, you are safe from Popham, he caught up with Codrington and has sent them over to the Blake.”
“Serves Ned right for hanging around on shore too much. I find it interesting that Popham didn’t think to look for me aboard my own ship, it clearly didn’t occur to him that’s where a captain might be. Any more news of when we’re sailing?”
“As far as I’m aware, we’ll be off the moment the Portsmouth fleet arrives, but God knows when that will be, they’re pegged in by the wind at present.”
“Captain Codrington informs me that Sir Richard Strachan is unhappy,” Hugh said, and Keats spluttered with laughter, spilling wine on his sleeve. Brian hurried forward with a napkin to mop up the mess.
“Thank you, lad. Is that the word he used to describe it? Sir Richard is pacing the quarterdeck uttering oaths I can’t even work out the meaning of and threatening to turn his guns onto Lord Chatham’s lodgings if he doesn’t get his arse moving soon. I was privileged to be present when he received the Earl’s last letter, I thought we’d need to send for the surgeon.”
Hugh was laughing; it was so easy to visualise Strachan’s fury. “Ned seems to think that Sir Richard could have taken the French by surprise if we’d moved faster,” he said.
“They’d have known we were coming the second we set sail, they’ve their own informants watching us and a small boat can get across to Flushing a lot faster than we can. Strachan gets carried away by his own rhetoric sometimes and he can’t stand waiting. Chatham won’t leave without the Portsmouth fleet, his second-in-command is with them and he probably wants Coote to be there to do all the work he doesn’t want to have to do. But I doubt these few days will make that much difference; it’s the previous month of farting around doing nothing which will have done the damage.”
Hugh studied Keats thoughtfully. “May I ask you a question, sir?”
“By all means.”
“Why do I get the odd feeling that nobody is really happy about this expedition?”
Christmas in Viseu, Portugal, in 1809 must have been greeted with a sigh of relief. While Wellington’s engineers frantically worked on the Lines of Torres Vedras, Craufurd and his light division prowled the border and the rest of the army took a breath and recovered from the horror of Talavera. And in an Unconventional Officer, the first book of the Peninsular War Saga, Anne Carlyon is the toast of headquarters and the object of admiration from a number of officers, some of them more senior than others…
Paul watched as Anne Carlyon danced her way through the headquarters festivities over Christmas and the sight of her tried his resolve almost to breaking point. It was impossible to keep his distance. Her popularity with Lord Wellington made her a guaranteed guest at every party and he watched her laughing and flirting with an ache in his heart. Her husband trod behind her, his eyes following her around every room. Paul, who had come to loathe Carlyon, could almost pity him. He could remember the days when Robert had spent all his time and money at cards and had seemed indifferent to the whereabouts of his lovely young wife. Two years later, he seemed unable to take his eyes from her but was no more comfortable in her presence than he had ever been. His fellow officers spoke behind his back with open amusement about his obsession with her and her flirtatiousness with other men, and Paul was aware of a certain reserve in their comments around him which told him that gossip was linking his name to Anne’s.
Anne’s close friendship with Rowena made it impossible for him to avoid spending time around her even if he had wished to, but he did not. He tried hard not to make life difficult for her with her husband although he was aware of Carlyon’s simmering resentment. It threatened to spill over at the ball hosted by the Highlanders during Christmas. He had danced with Anne and they had remained beside each other when it ended, watching the Highlanders demonstrate a complicated reel. Paul was watching her laughing face, the long graceful line of neck and shoulders and the swell of her breasts above the silver gauze of her gown. At moments like this, despite all the complications of their relationship, he could not help feeling a surge of simple happiness that she was beside him, their arms touching. He had not noticed Carlyon’s presence until he spoke. “Move away from my wife, Major.” Paul turned, startled. He was not sure if Carlyon was drunk but he was looking belligerent. Anne had turned too. “I am just watching the dancing, Robert,” she said quietly and something in her voice told Paul that she spent a good deal of her time soothing her husband’s jealousy. “You may have been, but that’s not where Major van Daan was looking.” Paul felt an unexpected rush of anger. “Surprised you noticed from the card room, Mr Carlyon. Run through her monthly allowance yet, have you? Don’t worry, she can come and eat with us if she finds herself short again.” Anne was horrified. “Paul, for God’s sake!” “How he spends your money is not one of the best kept secrets of the army, Nan. But keep at it, Rob, we all know that’s what you married her for!” “It’s none of your bloody business, Major!” Robert said harshly. “Get away from him, Nan – now!” “Stay where you are, Nan,” Paul said softly, his eyes on Robert’s face. “I think he’s drunk, and I’d rather you weren’t around him in this state, not sure he’s in control of himself and I don’t want you hurt.” He placed his hand very deliberately on Anne’s shoulder. Carlyon’s face flushed scarlet. “Get away from my bloody wife, Major…” “That will do!” Anne turned with relief at the sound of Lord Wellington’s voice. People had begun to stare and she had no idea how to stop either of them. Wellington looked at Carlyon and then at Paul and the expression on his face was not encouraging. “I have no idea if either of you are drunk, but you will separate now and remain apart. Major van Daan, you have a wife. Kindly join her. Mr Carlyon, remove yourself and calm down. Ma’am, will you join me for a stroll?” Anne took his arm. “Gladly, sir,” she said, and allowed him to lead her away. Neither of them spoke as he drew her through the crowd, and out onto the broad terrace at the end. It was deserted and Wellington took her to the stone balustrade, which looked out over the town. “Take a moment, ma’am. I think you are upset.” Anne glanced at him. “Thank you for intervening, my lord. I suspect by now they are both feeling rather stupid.” “Certainly I imagine Major van Daan is. While his feelings are moderately obvious he usually manages to keep them under better control.” Wellington paused. “As for your husband, we are all aware that he finds it increasingly hard to control himself. I am sorry. It must be very difficult for you.” Anne turned to look at him, startled. “Does everybody at headquarters know, sir?” she asked. “Everybody speculates, ma’am. Your husband’s level of jealousy is unusual and attracts comment. As for Major van Daan, there is always gossip about him, much of it nonsense. But since you came to Portugal it has become very obvious that he has no interest in any other woman.” Anne shook her head. “Lord Wellington…” “Ma’am, I don’t judge you. You must be very lonely at times, I think,” he said quietly. “I am too. Neither of us is happy in our marriage. It cannot be a surprise to you when I tell you how very attractive I have always found you. And if circumstances were different, I think I would be suggesting rather more than a stroll on the terrace, so I can hardly pass judgement on Major van Daan.” “Sir…” “I am not going to embarrass you, my dear. Our situations are not the same. And while I do not think I would have any scruples about Mr Carlyon’s wife, I could not reconcile my conscience with trying to seduce Major van Daan’s mistress. I consider him a friend.” “I’m not his mistress, sir.” “No. But he would very much like you to be.” Anne smiled. “He cares too much about Rowena. And so do I.” “I know.” Wellington returned her smile. “I don’t always find it easy to make idle conversation, ma’am. But I find you very easy to talk to. I hope that nothing I have said this evening means that you…” “No.” Anne turned quickly to him. “Oh no. I am honestly flattered. And you are right. Sometimes I am lonely.” She smiled suddenly. “I can understand why Paul likes you so much.” Wellington laughed aloud. “I am honoured,” he said drily. “He often has little patience for his senior officers. We should go in, Mrs Carlyon; before somebody notices that either of us is missing. But before we do, would you be very offended…?” Anne met his eyes steadily. His unexpected understanding had touched a chord in her. “No,” she said, shocking herself. He came closer and placed one hand under her chin, tilting her head back. Gently his lips met hers. Anne closed her eyes and let him kiss her, and then she was conscious of his arm about her, drawing her closer. His body was hard and she reached up and placed her hand on the back of his neck. Very delicately he parted her lips and suddenly his kiss was no longer tentative and she was conscious of a surprising shiver of pleasure. He held her against him, and she was kissing him back without restraint. It lasted a long time. Almost Anne wanted it to continue. She was slightly shocked to realise that if it were not for Paul she would possibly have been interested in the commander-in-chief’s tentative offer. She had never felt this way with any man other than Paul and she was in love with him. But there was something attractively straightforward about Wellington’s kiss and she rather imagined he would demonstrate the same direct enjoyment in bed. Eventually she drew back, and looked up at him, smiling slightly. “I don’t think we had better do that again, my lord,” she said quietly. The hooded eyes were amused. “Neither do I,” he said. “I don’t know which of them would be more likely to murder me. But I am glad that I did. It suddenly makes the exasperating behaviour of two of my officers much easier to understand. I just hope they don’t end by killing each other.” “I’ll try to make sure that they don’t.” “Thank you, my dear. I feel obscurely flattered. Although I think I must allow you to go back inside without me. I am going to need a few moments alone, where it is dark.” Colour scorched her face, but she was laughing. “I am sorry, sir.” “Don’t be. I spend a good deal of my time doing things I don’t enjoy. It is very pleasant now and again to do something I do.” There was a movement at the door and Anne turned quickly. Paul van Daan came out onto the terrace and she felt herself blush again, thankful of the darkness. He came forward his eyes on her face, taking her hands in his. “Are you all right?” “Major van Daan, you are beginning to try my patience,” Wellington said sharply and Paul looked at him. “I just came to apologise, sir, to you and to Nan. I’m going to take Rowena home, she’s tired. I’ve apologised to Carlyon and he has accepted. Stupid of me. Perhaps I’ve drunk more than I realised.” “I doubt it, Major, but that is certainly the excuse we will be accepting,” Wellington said. He came forward and Anne looked up at him and saw her own amusement mirrored in his hooded blue eyes. “Your apology is accepted. Please don’t let it happen again.” Paul lifted her hand to his lips then released her. “I won’t, sir.” He turned to go. At the door he looked back. “Mind, I’m not sure he’ll be all that happy about you kissing her on the terrace either, sir,” he said, and met Anne’s eyes. She was momentarily appalled and then saw that he was laughing. “Paul…” “Christ, lass, I don’t blame you. Between the two of us I’m surprised you’re not driven mad. It would serve both of us right if you did find somebody else.” He glanced at his chief and smiled slightly. “But don’t make a habit of it, sir. I don’t know how he’d feel about it, but just at the moment I’d like to punch you. Good night.”
The Battle of Talavera was fought on this day in 1809 near the town of Talavera de la Reina in Spain. Sir Arthur Wellesley, fresh from his highly efficient victory at Oporto took 20,000 British troops into Spain to join General Cuesta’s 33,000 Spanish troops. They marched up the Tagus valley to meet a French army some 46,000 strong, officially commanded by Joseph Bonaparte but actually under the command of Marshal Victor and General Sebastiani.
Wellesley did not do well in his attempts to cooperate with Cuesta. Not for the first time, the British army found that their Spanish allies were unable to come up with the supplies and transport they had promised. It is not clear whether this was negligence, inefficiency or simply that the supplies were not available, but it left Wellesley’s army in a difficult position with food running out. In his negotiations with Cuesta, there was a language difficulty as Wellesley did not speak Spanish and Cuesta spoke little English and refused to speak French. It is possible there was also a simple clash of culture as Wellesley fumed at what he perceived as inactivity and poor planning on the part of the Spanish.
Nevertheless, some agreement was reached and after days of delay and misunderstanding there was a clash between the French and British armies on 27th July which led to 400 casualties in Donkin’s brigade. To add to Wellesley’s mistrust of his Spanish allies there was a farcical episode during the evening of the 27th when Cuesta’s men fired a volley without orders at some French dragoons. Little damage was done to the French but four Spanish battalions dropped their weapons and fled in panic. Afterwards Wellesley wrote:
“Nearly 2,000 ran off on the evening of the 27th…(not 100 yards from where I was standing) who were neither attacked, nor threatened with an attack, and who were frightened by the noise of their own fire; they left their arms and accoutrements on the ground, their officers went with them, and they… plundered the baggage of the British army which had been sent to the rear.”
Cuesta, deeply embarrassed, sent cavalry to bring the troops back but it did nothing to improve relations between the British and the Spanish.
During the night, Marshal Victor sent three regiments up the hill known as the Cerro de Medellin. Two of them got lost in the dark but the third managed to surprise a brigade of the King’s German Legion which had gone to sleep, apparently believing that they were the second line instead of the first. In a chaotic action in the darkness on the hilltop, General Rowland Hill sent in Stewart’s brigade from the second division to recapture the ground and the French retreated.
At dawn the French artillery began firing, and Wellesley was obliged to pull his men back into cover to avoid major casualties. Ruffin’s division attacked the Cerro de Medellin again in column but the British emerged from cover in line and the French were broken by musket volleys and ran.
After an informal truce when dead and wounded were removed and the French leaders consulted Joseph Bonaparte, a frontal attack was launched against the British 1st and 4th divisions, once again in column. They were routed by the Guards brigade but the Guards pursued too far and ran into the French second line, losing 500 men to artillery fire. Wellesley realised that his centre was broken and brought up the 48th foot to fill the gap in his lines. Mackenzie’s brigade joined them and the French attack was pushed back again, with Lapisse mortally wounded.
In the fictional version of the battle, described in An Unconventional Officer,Major Paul van Daan’s battalion of the 110th fought as part of Hill’s division and were involved in the night battle on the Cerro de Medellin and then in the centre battle. Several field hospitals were set up in and around the town of Talavera, some of them using convents and monasteries and it is in one of these that Anne Carlyon worked as a volunteer alongside Dr Adam Norris as the wounded were brought in.
With his main attack defeated, Victor sent Ruffin’s men into the valley between the Medellin and the Segurilla. Anson’s cavalry brigade was sent to push them back but an undisciplined charge by the 23rd light dragoons ended in disaster in a hidden ravine. The French had formed squares and fought off those cavalry which had managed to negotiate the hazard with considerable losses among the British and Germans.
It was the last French attack of the day. Joseph and Jourdan chose not to send in their reserve and during the night the French melted away leaving behind 7389 dead, wounded and captured soldiers. Allied losses were worse over the two days with the British losing 6268 dead and wounded and the Spanish 1200. Wellesley lost approximately 25% of his forces and in a final horror, wounded men from both sides burned to death when the dry grass of the battlefield caught fire.
Meanwhile, Marshal Soult was moving south, in an attempt to cut Wellesley off from Portugal. Wellesley initially believed that Soult’s had only 15,000 men and moved east to block it but Spanish guerrillas intercepted a message from Soult to Joseph confirming that Soult had 30,000 men. Fearing that his line of retreat was about to be cut by a larger French force, Wellesley sent the newly arrived Light Brigade on a mad dash for the bridge at Almaraz. Craufurd’s men arrived just ahead of Soult and Wellesley withdrew his army across the mountains and organised his defence of Portugal. His hard fought victory brought him the title of Viscount Wellington of Talavera.
Historians disagree about Wellesley’s problems with the Spanish. Some consider the campaign a failure despite the victory and cite the failure of the Spanish to supply Wellesley’s army as the reason. Wellesley certainly believed that the Spanish made promises which they failed to keep. However, the condition of Spain at that time may well have made it impossible to provide the necessary food and transport and the personal difficulties between Cuesta and Wellesley certainly did not help. There were also political rumblings, with suggestions that Wellesley might be given control of the Spanish army and Cuesta was undoubtedly upset by the idea although it does not seem that it originated from Wellesley himself. Wellesley was cautious from the start about his Spanish adventure, citing the fate of Sir John Moore’s army during the campaign of 1808 and his determination not to allow his route back to Portugal to be cut off made him wary.
On the whole, it was probably not the time for an all out invasion of French-controlled Spain. Wellesley’s original brief had been to defend Portugal but his army was not yet the formidable fighting force which he later led to victory at Salamanca and Vitoria. The severity of his losses made his retreat a sensible choice and the time he spent consolidating in Portugal put him in a far better position to resume the campaign.