Private Correspondence: Walcheren 1809

Private Correspondence: Walcheren 1809 is from a series of letters found in the papers of Captain Hugh Kelly RN and in the Van Daan collection. Experts on the period have often commented on how much correspondence appears to be missing from the well-known Peninsular War officer. It is known that General van Daan corresponded regularly with the Duke of Wellington over the years, but sadly few of these letters have been discovered and by a strange omission, none were included in the Duke’s edited correspondence.

In 1809,  Major van Daan was serving in Portugal and Spain with the first battalion of the 110th under Sir Arthur Wellesley while Captain Hugh Kelly RN commanded the Iris during the expedition to the Scheldt.

Extract of a letter from Captain Hugh Kelly, RN to Major Paul van Daan, August 1809

As if this expedition wasn’t bad enough, I seem to have lost young Durrell, who has been temporarily seconded to the flagship by the particular request of Captain Sir Home Riggs Popham. I am assured by Sir Richard Strachan that this is only temporary, but I’m worried about the lad, I don’t like the company he’s keeping.

Popham, by the way, is more insufferable than ever. I’ve not the least idea what his job actually is, although I’m reliably informed he was instrumental in the planning of this expedition, which might explain why nobody is going anywhere. He behaves as though he were Captain of the Fleet, but he isn’t; we don’t seem to have one of those. Whatever he is supposed to be doing, he is all over the place as usual, you’d be hard put to know if he’s army or navy, since he’s forever on shore. From Durrell’s letters, he’s an alarmingly regular visitor to headquarters, which cannot be easy for Durrell who would rather be nowhere near the place.

I hope things are going better for you.

Yours, with esteem

Captain Hugh Kelly, RN

An Unconventional OfficerExtract of letter from Major Paul van Daan to Captain Hugh Kelly, August 1809

I’ll be honest, Captain, you might still be having a better time than I’ve been this past month. I am about to embark upon a painful retreat back from Spain, made worse by a hole in my chest which I acquired at a place called Talavera. I’m told we won, which I’d no way of knowing as I was carried off the field half dead. Thankfully, I’m on the mend now, thanks to the efforts of a rather unusual young female who is married to an officer of the quartermasters’ department and who is our new and wholly unofficial surgeon’s assistant.

I hope your campaign is over quickly, that it’s less miserable than Copenhagen, and that you get through it without shooting that arsehole Popham. Sorry I can’t be there to do it for you. I hope the lad’s all right, he doesn’t need to be spending his time with that smug bastard.

By the way, why is Durrell dodging army headquarters? I thought he liked Lord Chatham.

I hope your reply will find me safe in Lisbon. Or anywhere but here, it’s a hell hole, we’re short of supplies and Sir Arthur Wellesley is in the foulest temper I’ve ever seen, made worse by the fact that I’ve been too ill for him to take it out on me.

Yours affectionately, Major Paul van Daan

Extract of a letter from Captain Hugh Kelly, RN to Major Paul van Daan, September 1809

I hope you’re still recovering well. Take a tip from an older man, Major, and duck next time.

Poor Durrell is trying to avoid his brother who has taken up some nameless and pointless post at headquarters. I’ve no idea what he’s doing there and I suspect Lord Chatham has even less idea, the poor man seems permanently surrounded by a pack of hangers-on and holiday-makers. They say that he seldom emerges from his bedroom before noon; if I had that lot, on top of this campaign, to contend with, I’d stay there all day.

Don’t even talk to me about bombarding a city. Flushing was a horror, I’m not likely to forget it in a hurry.

I’ve no idea how long we’ll be here; I don’t think we’ve a cat in hell’s chance of getting anywhere near Antwerp now, and on top of that, there are reports of sickness among the troops. I hope your second battalion isn’t affected, I’ve met one or two of them. Have you friends there?

Extract of a letter from Major Paul van Daan to Captain Hugh Kelly, September 1809

I’ve received a letter from a friend in the second battalion. Captain, what the hell is going on over there? Are you and your crew all right? Is it true the expedition is pulling out?

Is Durrell back with you? It doesn’t sound as though you’d want him on shore just now.

Headquarters has moved to Viseu and Wellington is planning how to stop another invasion, but it’s fairly quiet here. I’m hoping that the stories I’m hearing are exaggerated,  but get that boy back with you, if Popham is still strutting around the army lines and gets him killed with some bloody Dutch fever, I am going to catch up with that bastard and shoot him in the head. It’s high time somebody did it, I’d be doing the world a favour.

I really don’t like what I’m hearing about what’s happening on Walcheren. For God’s sake, write to me, sir, I want to know you’re both all right…

 

Evacuating the sick from South Beveland, 1809

 

This Blighted Expedition: a novel of the Walcheren Campaign of 1809 (Book Two in the Manxman series).  Due for publication on 31st October 2019.

Ramsgate, July 1809; an excerpt from This Blighted Expedition

JAN ANTHONIE LANGENDIJK (1780-1818) The Bombardment of Flushing, 13/14 Aug 1809. drawn 1809
Bombardment of Flushing

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.

Book One in the series, An Unwilling Alliance, is available on kindle and in paperback on Amazon.

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?”