Day 5 – NaNoWriMo with Labradors

Quill pen

Although this post is entitled Day 5 – NaNoWriMo with Labradors, my more observant readers will notice that this is in fact the first day of posting. That probably tells you how I’ve been getting on.

For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo,  is an annual Internet-based writing project that takes place during  November. Participants try to write a 50,000 word manuscript between November 1 and November 30 with online encouragement from well-known authors and from fellow participants.

I’ve been tempted to do this before, but the time has never been right. Once, I did actually do a chapter of a possible historical romance before realising that a) I didn’t have time and b) I hated what I was writing. This year, however, it seemed that the timing was perfect.

My latest book, This Blighted Expedition, was published on 31st October. It took me a long time to write this one; generally I manage two books a year but there was a lot of research and it was a challenging storyline which I rewrote several times before I was happy with it. I really wanted to get on with my next project, which will be book six of the Peninsular War Saga, as soon as possible, knowing that a lot of readers are really waiting for that one.

For the past couple of books, I’ve given myself a month off before starting the next one. That month inevitably drifts into two and possibly even three, and I was determined not to do that this time. I already knew the basic storyline of An Unrelenting Enmity and I know my characters and background very well. Why not use NaNoWriMo to kickstart me into getting on with book six? It sounded very simple.

Needless to say it was not. What made me think that I could leap straight into a new book on the day after the last one was published, I have no idea. There were things to do, publicity, blog posts, a mini blog tour and a last minute scramble over the paperback formatting. The first of November came and went and I hadn’t even logged in to the site.

I was determined to do it this year though, and so yesterday I finally sat down, logged in, and updated my pitifully small word count so far. To my amazement, it really worked. Seeing the chart cheerfully predicting that at this rate I wouldn’t reach my 50000 word goal until the eighteenth of December was surprisingly motivating, and I sat down and got on with it. I really like using the timer, to see how long I’ve worked, and the word count is already back on target, after only two days.

I’m generally a very fast writer, and having good touch typing skills helps with that. It’s research, planning and displacement activities like social media and housework that slow down my writing process. Or writing blog posts, maybe…

It’s early days yet, but I’m hoping that by the end of the month I’ll have achieved my goal, which will be about half a book for me. That won’t give me anything like a finished product, and there will still be days when I have to take time out to research and plan and to simply live my life. Oscar isn’t going to walk himself, after all…

Still, I’m excited about this month and will continue to post updates and perhaps an occasional snippet as I go along. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the second book of the Manxman series, but it is so lovely to be back in the Peninsula with Paul, Anne, Johnny and of course Lord Wellington. I cannot describe how much I’ve missed Lord Wellington. I’ll leave you with this short excerpt from today, bearing in mind that this is a first draft and not everything that I post will make it into the final book. This one might, though…

“I have no time to celebrate Christmas, Colonel, as you well know. I am setting out for Cadiz tomorrow. Really, I should be back at my desk now, there are some final orders…”

“Stop it,” Paul said. He saw the blue eyes widen in surprise, he was seldom so abrupt with his chief, but he was suddenly exasperated. “I know you need to go to Cadiz, sir, and I know why. I think you’re bloody mad to travel in this weather, you’ll be forever on the road and my sympathy lies with every single one of the men travelling with you, you will be horrible. And I am grateful that you didn’t insist on me going with you. But my wife has organised this very early Christmas dinner so that you at least have one day to eat a decent meal, have a drink with some of your officers and mend some bridges after that appalling memorandum you sent out last month. She’s put a lot of work into this, and I am not having you grumbling over the roast mutton because there is one more rude letter to some hapless Portuguese administrator that you forgot to write. Are we clear?”

There was a long and pointed silence and Paul tried not to look as though he was holding his breath. Eventually, Lord Wellington took a long drink of wine.

“There is still time for me to insist that you come with me,” he said, and Paul laughed.

“Having me with you while you insert one of Congreve’s rockets up the arse of the Spanish government sounds like a really bad idea, sir, they do not need two of us.”

Wellington snorted. “That is why I am leaving you behind to do the same to every senior officer in my army who fails to follow my instructions on the drills and training to be conducted during winter quarters this year,” he said. “By the time we are ready to march, which I hope will be no later than April, I want every man of my army to know what he is doing. That is your job, Colonel.”

“And a lovely Christmas gift it was too, sir. I’m already having to take a bodyguard out with me when I visit the other divisions, I have been doing this for two weeks, and they hate me.”

“Not in the light division.”

“No. They’ve no need of me there, General Alten is doing a very fine job. And here he is.” Paul shot his chief a sideways glance. “Come and be social, sir. Just for today.”

Wellington studied him for a moment, then gave one of his rare genuine smiles. “This is very good wine,” he said, as though the preceding conversation had not taken place. “Where is it from, Colonel?”

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyFor anybody new to the Peninsular War Saga, they’re available on Amazon kindle here and will be available in paperback before Christmas.

I’ll be posting daily updates on my NaNoWriMo journey over on Facebook and Twitter from now on.

Walcheren 1809 A Blighted Expedition

Today on Blogging with Labradors, I am delighted to welcome back  Jacqueline Reiter with a guest post on the Walcheren campaign of 1809. Jacqueline is a historian and the author of a biography entitled The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham and also a novel called Earl of Shadows which covers Chatham’s life up to the death of his brother, William Pitt, in 1806.

Jacqueline is currently researching the life of Sir Home Riggs Popham, the controversial navy officer who plays a key role in both An Unwilling Alliance and This Blighted Expedition.

This Blighted Expedition  follows the story of the navy, the army and the local population during the Walcheren campaign of 1809 and in this post, Jacqueline explains the background to one of Britain’s greatest military disasters.

Walcheren 1809: A ‘Blighted Expedition’

The British leaving Walcheren

The expedition to Walcheren in 1809 overshadowed all Britain’s prior wartime preparations, including those for the Peninsula. Consisting of 40,000 men and over 600 ships, ‘it was incomparably the greatest armament that had ever left the shores of England’. [1] It was also one of Britain’s greatest military disasters. Within six weeks of leaving the shores of Great Britain, more than one in four soldiers were ill. At least one in ten died.

 

 

Why Walcheren?

The campaign represented Britain’s commitment to an alliance with Austria as part of the War of the Fifth Coalition. Austria received £2 million and a subsidy of £400,000 a month to fight Napoleon in central Europe, and the British government pledged to provide a military diversion in a sphere of their own choosing.

The plan was to capture the island of Walcheren in the Kingdom of Holland – currently a French satellite state ruled by Napoleon’s brother Louis – and destroy the French fleet and dockyards at Flushing and Antwerp. Antwerp was the second largest French naval base after Toulon, and the British had been receiving reports for some time that the French had a fleet of men of war fitting out there. One of Britain’s worst nightmares was that Napoleon would rebuild the fleet he had lost after the battle of Trafalgar and invade Britain (or worse, Ireland).

The dockyards at Antwerp

The attack on Walcheren and Antwerp was not intended to lead to any long-term continental military commitment. It was effectively a raid – in the words of Lord Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for War, ‘a Coup de Main.’ [2] Speed and near-perfect military and naval cooperation would be crucial to get an enormous army and huge numbers of ships down the complicated navigation of the Scheldt River (and bring them back again)

John Pitt, 2ndEarl of Chatham, studio of John Hoppner (1799, courtesy of the Commando Forces Officers’ Mess, Royal Marines Barracks, Plymouth)

An unfortunate choice of commanders

For the military command, Lord Castlereagh chose Lieutenant General John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham. Chatham was more a politician than a soldier; there were rumours that he had only been appointed because he was close to King George III. This was probably untrue, but Chatham was almost totally inexperienced and notoriously lazy. His nickname was ‘the late Lord Chatham’, because he nearly always was.

 

 

 

The naval command went to Rear Admiral Sir Richard Strachan. Strachan’s most famous exploit was off Cape Ortegal when he captured several French vessels that had escaped after Trafalgar, but he had never participated in an amphibious operation. ‘Mad Dick’, as he was known, was impatient, impulsive, and difficult to work with.

The expedition sails (… eventually)

The plan had been for the expedition to leave before the end of June, but preparations were not complete until mid-July, and contrary winds delayed the departure still further. At this point, bad news arrived: on 6 July, Napoleon had defeated the Austrians at Wagram. This tremendous blow removed one of the main strategic reasons for the expedition, but it was not called off on the grounds that victory might keep Britain’s only ally in the war.

The expedition finally sailed on 28 July and immediately ran into trouble. The fleet reached the Stone Deep off Walcheren as intended, but a gale blew up, dismasting two ships and running a third aground. This led to a significant change of plan.

The Walcheren Expedition, 1809 (map drawn by Martin Brown)

The Scheldt River basin was divided into the East and West Scheldt by Walcheren and the nearby island of South Beveland. Only half the fleet should have entered the East Scheldt to land 12,000 men on Walcheren and 8,000 men on South Beveland. The other half of the fleet should have waited for the narrow channel into the West Scheldt to be secured, then carried the remaining 20,000 men directly to the designated landing place at Sandvliet.

The 29 July storm, however, forced almost all the fleet to enter the East Scheldt and shelter in a protected anchorage known as the Roompot. This meant the army now had to wait for the fleet to dash past Flushing into the West Scheldt, or funnel the siege resources for Antwerp through the Sloe Passage (the narrow channel between Walcheren and South Beveland). Both options would be difficult and potentially time-consuming.

Breezand, Walcheren (photo by Jacqueline Reiter)

Keep calm and carry on

For now, the British landed at Breezand on Walcheren and Welmedinge on South Beveland and initially made rapid progress. By 3 August, South Beveland and almost all Walcheren was in British hands, and the army laid siege to Flushing.

 

At this point, however, the expedition became bogged down. An intended landing to disable the French battery at Cadzand failed. With both Cadzand and Flushing in French hands, the fleet could not easily enter the West Scheldt to carry Chatham’s army and siege equipment to Sandvliet. Worse, Strachan was struggling against contrary winds and could not blockade Flushing from the sea until 8 August. The same winds helped hundreds of French troops sail into Flushing every day.

The bombardment of Flushing

Flushing now had to fall, and fast, so the British decided to attack Flushing the same way they had assaulted Copenhagen in 1807: by bombardment. But constructing the batteries was delayed by the dreadful weather, by lack of leadership among the engineers, and by the enemy, who cut the dykes on 10 August to flood the British lines.

The batteries finally opened on 13 August at 1 pm. Five of the six British batteries (the sixth was not fully ready until the following day) poured fire on the town from 52 pieces of ordnance. The bombardment was supported by several gunboats from the sea and, on 14 August, by seven ships of the line that Strachan had daringly brought through the channel between Flushing and Cadzand.

The bombardment of Flushing, from British Battles on Land and Sea(vol. 3), by James Grant, 1873.

The bombardment went on almost continuously for 36 hours. By 2:30 am on the 15th, however, the French could clearly resist no longer. They surrendered unconditionally, and at 3:30 am the land batteries and men of war fell silent.

 

 

 

Flushing’s garrison of 5,000–6,000 men went to Britain as prisoners of war, and the British finally entered the ruined town. Even seasoned campaigners were horrified at the destruction that had taken place: ‘I beheld the most deplorable picture that can be conceived. Scarcely one single house in it, that has not received some shots, but the greater part of them … altogether destroyed. Many houses are burnt to the ground, and among them is the handsome stadthuis, and one large church. A more complete ruin cannot be fancied. [3]

On to Antwerp! (… or maybe not)

The first stage of British operations was now complete. The second stage – Antwerp – was still to come. Chatham, however, took his time. He did not set out until 21 August on a stately three-day journey to Fort Batz, the southernmost point on South Beveland, preceded ‘by a column of eight waggons, in the first of which was a live turtle.’ [4] (Chatham’s fondness for turtle soup, combined with his habit of sleeping in till past noon, earned him the sobriquet ‘Turtle Chatham’.)

Chatham’s lack of hurry also mystified the French, who nicknamed him ‘MilordJ’Attends’ (‘My Lord I-Am-Waiting’), [5] but Chatham probably considered Antwerp out of reach: 30,000 French troops were in the area, 11,000 in Antwerp alone, under the command of Marshal Bernadotte.

In any case, Chatham had other things on his mind. ‘Walcheren fever’ – probably a combination of malaria, typhoid, typhus, and dysentery – had struck.

Walcheren fever

The fever was sudden, sharp, and devastating, and by the time Chatham reached Fort Batz, it was spreading at a terrifying rate. Of 37,727 men, 2,702 were in hospital, and 14 had already died. By 3 September, only 11 days after first records of the epidemic, 8,194 men were sick – nearly a quarter of the whole army. [6]

On 26 August, Chatham called a meeting of his lieutenants general to discuss proceeding to Antwerp. The next day, the generals submitted their unanimous recommendation: with so many sick and so many French reinforcements round Antwerp, the only viable option was to suspend the campaign.

The evacuation of Walcheren (public domain)

The British now began a hellish retreat to Walcheren. Sick men were left lying on the ground without shelter for as long as two hours because the available spaces on the transports were soon outstripped by the spread of disease. The doctors themselves were also falling ill, and medical supplies – particularly bark (quinine) – were running low.

By 4 September, the British had fully evacuated South Beveland. The next day, the French took possession of the island again.

Things fall apart

On 7 September, Chatham was recalled – but ordered to hold onto Walcheren at all costs, as the government hoped to use the island as a military base. By now there were nearly 11,000 sick, close to a third of the entire army. Chatham sailed home on 14 September, leaving a garrison of 16,000 men under Lieutenant General Sir Eyre Coote.

Sir Eyre Coote (public domain)

Coote was (to put it mildly) not happy. On 23 September, with more than 9,000 men in hospital and 300 new cases of sickness a day, Coote wrote home: ‘The alarming progress hourly made by this fatal disease, is such that if it should continue in the same proportion for three weeks longer … our possession of this island must become very precarious … [as] it is scarcely to be supposed that he [Napoleon] will lose so favourable an opportunity of attacking.’ [7]

 

Miraculously, the French held back, but the British government was in no state to make quick decisions. The Walcheren failure had blown the cabinet spectacularly apart; Lord Castlereagh even fought a duel with Foreign Secretary George Canning. When the government finally turned its thoughts to the Scheldt at the end of October, it decided nothing more could be done and sent Lieutenant General George Don to evacuate what was left of the army.

After destroying the dockyards at Flushing, the last British troops left Walcheren on 23 December. Four days later the island was again in French hands.

Satire on Lord Chatham’s disgrace by George Cruickshank

Walcheren’s long shadow

The campaign left a bitter legacy. Parliament held an inquiry into the disaster in 1810. Chatham did not help his cause by submitting a narrative to the King exculpating himself and blaming all delays on Strachan and the navy; his reputation was destroyed and he was forced to resign his government post. Strachan got off more lightly, but neither he nor Chatham was actively employed again.

Despite this, the inquiry was something of a whitewash. The government’s decision to keep Walcheren until December was even approved by a parliamentary majority.

The real victims were the sick. By February 1810, nearly 4,000 men were already dead of Walcheren fever. The final number of dead was probably closer to 8,000. [8] Of the survivors, many never fully recovered. In 1812, Wellington complained that many units under his command in the Peninsula had been ‘so much shaken by Walcheren’ that they were near-useless. [9] As late as 1824, a doctor commented on a regiment that had served at Walcheren: ‘So many years afterwards, the disease is even at this period occasioned by relapses.’ [10]

Further Reading

Gordon Bond, The Grand Expedition (Athens, GA, 1971)

Martin R. Howard, Walcheren 1809 (Barnsley, 2011)

Jacqueline Reiter, The Late Lord: The Life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (Barnsley, 2017)

Notes

[1] Sir John Fortescue, History of the British Army (London, 1899–1930), vol. VII, p. 56.

[2] Lord Castlereagh to Lord Chatham, July 1809, Correspondence, despatches, and other papers of Viscount Castlereagh… (London: William Shoberl, 1851), vol. 6, p. 292.

[3] Jacqueline Reiter, ‘“Day after day adds to our miseries”: the private diary of a staff officer on the Walcheren Expedition, 1809, Part 2’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 96 (2019), pp. 231–250, p. 239.

[4] Diary of Sir Frederick Trench, National Army Museum 1968-07-261, ff. 65–66.

[5] Théo Fleischman, L’Éxpédition Anglaise sur le continent en 1809 (Mouscron, 1973), p. 70 n. 7.

[6] Journal of the Proceedings of the Army under the Command of Lieutenant General the Earl of Chatham, The National Archives, WO 190.

[7] Sir Eyre Coote to Lord Castlereagh, 23 September 1809, A Collection of Papers relating to the expedition to the Scheldt presented to Parliament in 1810 (London, 1811), pp. 147–149.

[8] Martin R. Howard, Walcheren 1809 (Barnsley, 2011), p. 201.

[9 ]Quoted in Howard, Walcheren 1809, p. 215.

[10] House of Commons, Report from the Select Committee on the Penitentiary at Milbank (London, 1824), p. 74.

This Blighted Expedition (The Manxman Book 2)  is due to be published on 31st October 2019 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

An Unwilling Alliance (The Manxman Book 1) has been shortlisted for the Society for Army Historical Research Fiction Prize and is available on Kindle and paperback from Amazon.

 

John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham: ‘the Late Lord’

Today on Blogging with Labradors, I am delighted to welcome Jacqueline Reiter with a guest post on John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham: ‘the Late Lord’. Jacqueline is a historian and an expert on Chatham. She has written a biography entitled The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham and also a novel called Earl of Shadows which covers Chatham’s life up to the death of his brother, William Pitt, in 1806. Both are meticulously researched and very readable and I highly recommend them.

Jacqueline is currently researching the life of Sir Home Riggs Popham, the controversial navy officer who plays a key role in both An Unwilling Alliance and This Blighted Expedition, evidence that she doesn’t shy away from a challenge…

Chatham was the commander of the Walcheren campaign in 1809 and an important secondary character in This Blighted Expedition. Jacqueline has given me an enormous amount of help and advice while I have been researching this book for which I am very grateful. It’s a privilege to host her today, talking about a relatively unknown but highly complex historical figure.

‘The Late Lord Chatham’: John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (1756-1835)

John Pitt, 2ndEarl of Chatham, studio of John Hoppner (1799, courtesy of the Commando Forces Officers’ Mess, Royal Marines Barracks, Plymouth]

John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham was the eldest son of William Pitt the Elder (created 1st Earl of Chatham in 1766), one of Britain’s most famous prime ministers who had helped turn the tide in Britain’s favour during the Seven Years’ War. He was also the elder brother of William Pitt the Younger (born 1759). John’s family and political connections were thus impeccable, and he benefited from them throughout his life, although he never really managed to emerge from the shadows cast by his father and younger brother.

 

 

 

Childhood and Early Life

John was born on 9 October 1756 at Hayes Place in Kent and was educated at home. This ‘singular’ arrangement may have contributed to John’s shy, reserved nature – he ‘had a very private Education, & has some Timidity in Consequence of it’ – but his upbringing was a happy one. (1) He was a bright child but needed constant encouragement, and he suffered from the painfully obvious fact that his younger brother William was his father’s favourite: ‘Being the first-born of their illustrious father … as too often happens with persons in similar circumstances, his understanding and talents had not been as assiduously cultivated.’ (2)

In 1774 John entered the Army as an ensign in the 47th Regiment and went to Canada as aide-de-camp to the governor of Quebec, Guy Carleton. He was still in Quebec in 1775 when hostilities broke out between Britain and the American colonies. John’s father was well known as an American sympathiser; John was thus prudently sent home with dispatches and shortly after resigned his commission in protest against the war.

The death of the Earl of Chatham engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi, after John Singleton Copley (1788, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

When France and Spain declared war against Britain in 1778 John returned to military service, first as a gentleman volunteer and then as a lieutenant in the 39th Foot. He was about to go out to Gibraltar when his father had a seizure in the House of Lords and died shortly after. The new Earl of Chatham stayed a year in Gibraltar and transferred in 1780 to a captaincy in the 86th Foot. He served briefly with his new regiment in the Leeward Isles before transferring to the 3rd Foot Guards, a prestigious London-based regiment.

In 1783 Chatham married Mary Elizabeth Townshend, daughter of Lord Sydney. They were childhood sweethearts: the Pitt and Townshend children had grown up together, and Chatham’s name had been paired with Mary Townshend’s for four years before they finally wed. The marriage was happy but childless.

First Lord of the Admiralty

William Pitt the Younger, studio of Thomas Gainsborough (1787-9, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

Shortly after Chatham’s marriage, his brother William was asked by the King to form a government aged only 24 (thus becoming Britain’s youngest prime minister). Although nobody really expected William Pitt’s minority government to survive, he triumphed over the odds and romped home with a huge majority in the 1784 General Election

Chatham’s support for his brother at this time paid off. It took Pitt four years to find a suitable opening, but in 1788 Chatham joined the cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty, responsible for the maintenance and deployment of Britain’s considerable naval power.

The First Lord of the Admiralty was one of the most powerful men in the government, and Pitt fully expected his brother to put in the work. Unfortunately Chatham had always favoured the path of least resistance, and it was soon clear he wasn’t going to change: ‘An intimate friend of Lord Chatham has spoken to him on the inconvenience attending his laying in bed till the day is advanced, as officers etc. were kept waiting. Lord Chatham said it did not signify, it was an indulgence he could not give up.’ (3) Because of his late rising and lackadaisical approach he quickly earned the nickname ‘the late Lord Chatham’.

Demotion from the Admiralty

When war broke out with France in 1793 Chatham did his best, but his reputation for laziness was by now well established and when things started to go wrong it was far too easy for his department to attract most of the blame. As tensions mounted, Chatham – whose pride and stubbornness could equal his laziness – quarrelled with colleagues over strategic priorities.

The Admiralty

As a result of these enmities, but also because of the navy’s failure to strike a decisive blow against France, Chatham was removed from the Admiralty in December 1794. Pitt kept him in the cabinet as Lord Privy Seal, but the episode destroyed what was left of Chatham’s public reputation and his relationship with Pitt never recovered. ‘The mischief done me is irreparable,’ he complained, ‘and though my brother, whenever he gives himself time to reflect, must … regret the step into which he was surprised, he can never make it right.’ (4)

In 1796 Pitt promoted Chatham to Lord President of the Privy Council, but his political career was going nowhere; nor was his military career, which resumed in 1798 after a 12-year hiatus. Although Chatham commanded a brigade during the Helder expedition in 1799 under the Duke of York, this failed, and Chatham was not allowed to serve abroad again for fear he would die and propel Pitt (who stood to inherit the title) into the Lords.

But in 1801 Chatham finally got a chance to step out of his brother’s shadow. Pitt resigned over a dispute regarding whether to extend the rights of Catholics (legally barred from voting or holding high office). Chatham stood by the King, George III – who opposed Pitt’s Catholic policy – and stayed on as Lord President of the Council under the new prime minister. This earned Chatham the King’s gratitude and underlined how far he and his brother had grown.

Mortar bearing Chatham’s cypher as Master-General of the Ordnance, Tower of London

Master-General of the Ordnance

 In autumn 1801 Chatham became Master-General of the Ordnance, responsible for overseeing the country’s firepower and fortifications while acting as military adviser in the cabinet. He remained in this post when Pitt returned to office in 1804. In January 1806, however, Pitt became seriously ill. Relations between the brothers were still not good, but when Pitt died on 23 January, Chatham was grief-stricken. For the first time since 1788 he was also out of office, although only until March 1807 when he returned as Master-General of the Ordnance in a new Pittite ministry headed by the Duke of Portland.

Over the next two years Chatham played a minor political role, even though his name came up repeatedly as a possible successor to the old and ailing Portland. He spent much of his time away from London as military commander of the Eastern District and turned down several opportunities to serve abroad. Partly this was because Chatham’s wife, Mary, was seriously ill from 1807 to 1809 with a mental disorder. In May 1809, however, the Secretary of State for War, Lord Castlereagh, offered Chatham the military command of an amphibious expedition to destroy the French fleet and dockyards in the Scheldt River.

Walcheren

Chatham clearly thought about declining the proposal: ‘I can only say that I should be very anxious to have some further conversation with you on the subject before I venture to give any decided answer to it.’ (5) He had, however, turned down too many opportunities already. His dual role as cabinet member and expedition commander became highly embarrassing over the next few months.

Map of the Walcheren campaign from France Militaire: histoire des armées Françaises de terre et de mer … by A. Hugo (1837)

The Walcheren expedition set sail at the end of July 1809 and struggled against adverse winds, lack of leadership, and phenomenally poor luck for the next six weeks. Chatham commanded 40,000 troops; his naval counterpart was Sir Richard Strachan with over 600 vessels. Chatham was especially ill-suited for a swift dash up the Scheldt to take the Dutch island of Walcheren and destroy the ships and defences at Antwerp. He had no imagination to formulate alternatives when things went wrong; he spent much of his time at headquarters rather than going out among the men, which did nothing for morale; and he was not decisive enough to take advantage of any openings that did occur. Nor did he make any change to his habits: he rose ‘between twelve and one, not receiving officers till two o’clock’, a lack of urgency that did not bode well for a swift advance. (6)

More seriously, he rapidly fell out with Strachan, and by the end of the campaign the two men were barely speaking. The army advanced far too slowly, the navy could not cooperate properly because of adverse winds, and the French managed to rush 35,000 reinforcements to Antwerp before the British could even get close. By the end of August, also, sickness was tearing through the army – ‘Walcheren fever’. With over a quarter of his army on the sick list, Chatham called off the assault on Antwerp and retreated to Walcheren.

A Reputation Ruined

Chatham was recalled to England to account for his actions. The Portland government had imploded as a result of the disaster, and the new prime minister, Spencer Perceval, was not on Chatham’s side. When the King requested a narrative explaining what had happened on Walcheren, therefore, Chatham jumped at the chance to secure a favourable hearing, blaming Strachan and the navy for everything: ‘Why the Army was not brought up sooner to the destination from whence its ulterior operations were to commence is purely a naval consideration, and … the delay did in no shape rest with me, or depend upon any arrangements in which the Army was concerned.’ (7)

Cover page for Lord Chatham’s narrative of his proceedings during the Walcheren expedition, 1809

This was a mistake. The House of Commons held an inquiry into Walcheren in 1810, and Chatham’s narrative ignited a constitutional crisis. The government disclaimed all knowledge of the document, which made it look as though Chatham had gone secretly to the King and abused his trust as a privy counsellor to slander Strachan. This was not entirely the truth, but it gave the Perceval government an excuse to get rid of Chatham without appearing to scapegoat him for Walcheren. Chatham was forced to resign as Master-General of the Ordnance in March 1810; he never held political office again.

 

‘Secret Influence, or a Peep Behind the Screen’ by Charles Williams (1810, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Walcheren

After a brief attempt to set the record straight over his narrative, Chatham seems to have decided to grit his teeth and bear the shame. He remained Commander of the Eastern District until 1815, following which he disappeared almost entirely from public life. His wife’s mental illness returned in 1818, and until her death in 1821 he was mostly concerned with nursing her.

Gibraltar in 1849 by Charles Dyce (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

In 1820 he was offered the Governorship of Gibraltar by King George IV. Chatham accepted this public sign of the King’s support on the understanding that he would not actually have to go out. Unfortunately, awkward questions were immediately asked in Parliament and the government ordered Chatham to take up his governorship.

Chatham went to Gibraltar a few months after his wife’s death and remained there four years. He coped well with the crises that cropped up (mostly to do with the unsettled political situation in Spain), but he spent most of his time depressed and homesick – in his words ‘chained to the Rock instead … of being among my friends.’ He left at the first opportunity, arguing that his health had suffered considerably from the climate. As he was now nearly 70, he was not forced to return.

He spent his last 10 years as an invalid, dividing his time between London and Brighton. By the time of his death from a stroke on 24 September 1835, two weeks off his 79th birthday, he had mostly been forgotten. When he was noticed, it was as a minor celebrity who represented a last living connection with the grand politics of the mid- to late-18th century.

Laziness and Loyalty

Chatham spent his life being compared to his brilliant father and brother: as one source observed, it was his ‘ill fate … to be the son of the great Lord [Chatham] and the brother of the great Mr [Pitt], which lays him open to observations, trite but true, of all kinds and in all languages, to his disadvantage.’ (8) Chatham has slipped into obscurity despite occupying such a central political position for 22 years. His reputation for sloth was deserved, and he did not shine militarily on either of the occasions he served abroad.

He was, however, capable of inspiring profound loyalty. Thomas Carey, who served Chatham in the Eastern District for eight years and was his military secretary at Walcheren, undertook a pretty much one-man campaign to clear his superior’s name after Chatham’s disgrace in 1810. He wrote: ‘I have now lived on terms of the closest friendship with him for the last six years of my life, and the more I see of him, the more I am convinced that in understanding few equal him, and in honour or integrity he cannot be excelled.’ (9)

This, with Chatham at the nadir of his personal and political fortunes, is especially remarkable. It is a sign that Chatham is worth examining more closely, and that he was far more than a two-dimensional caricature of sloth and failure.

Notes

(1) Lord Grantham to Anne Robinson, 2 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/17/4/245a.

(2) Horace Twiss, Life of Lord Eldon(London, 1844), vol. 2, pp. 559-60.

(3) James Greig (ed.), The Farington Diary(London, 1922), vol. 1, p. 54.

(4) Chatham to Lord Camden, 7 August 1796, Kent Archives, U840/C254/4.

(5) Chatham to Lord Castlereagh, 18 May 1809, PRONI D3030/3087.

(6) Greig, Farington Diary, vol. 5, p. 224.

(7) Chatham’s Narrative, 15 October 1809, TNA PRO 30/8/260, f. 20.

(8) ‘Thomas Brown the Elder’, Bath: A Satirical Novel(London, 1818), vol. 3, p. 51.

(9) Carey to William Huskisson, 3 May 1810, BL Add MS 38738, f. 26.

This Blighted Expedition is the second book in The Manxman series, featuring Captain Hugh Kelly and Lieutenant Alfred Durrell during the Walcheren Campaign of 1809. It is currently available for pre-order on Amazon kindle and will be released on October 31st 2019.

 

 

 

 

The first book in the series, An Unwilling Alliance, set during the Copenhagen Campaign of 1807 has recently been shortlisted for the Society for Army Historical Research fiction prize.

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.

Our Walcheren Expedition Day 3

Our Walcheren Expedition Day 3 was dedicated to museums. This turned out to be a good thing because it rained all morning.

I was woken at around 2am by a spectacular thunderstorm. I’m not scared of storms, but I do find it difficult to sleep through them, so while the man I married snoozed on happily, I sat by the long windows in the living room and watched the sky light up, thinking about the reported thunderstorms in the days leading up to the bombardment of Vlissingen in 1809.

The storm rumbled on until about nine, but the rain continued. We hovered, unable to decide, and then got bored with waiting and set off for Middelburg Abbey. It’s about ten minutes walk and the rain had stopped by the time we got there. Nothing was going to stop our Walcheren Expedition day 3.

Middelburg Abbey originated in the twelfth century. Monks from Antwerp established a large religious foundation with two churches and extensive lands on Walcheren and in other parts of Zeeland. Many of the surviving buildings from the monastic period  are Medieval Gothic, and date from the late sixteenth century.

Monastic life came to an end in 1574 when the Spanish surrendered to the Protestant Dutch separatists at the end of the two year Siege of Middelburg. William of Orange had given guarantees that the clergy would be left alone, but both the abbey and Roman Catholicism in Middelburg were nevertheless forcibly terminated.

The abbey was taken over for use in the secular administration of the province. Initially it was used as the seat of the district assembly and for other administrative functions including the admiralty, a mint, and a court chamber. Following reforms during the Napoleonic occupation, in 1812 the former abbey complex became known as the Province Building.

The abbey church was badly damaged in May 1940 by German aerial bombers targeting Middelburg in order to persuade the Dutch army not to hold out against German invasion and rebuilding was not completed till 1965. Other abbey buildings continued to accommodate government activities till the end of the twentieth century, such as the land registry and state archive.  Part of the complex now houses the Zeeuws Museum and the Roosevelt Study Centre.

The two Protestant churches are still referred to as Abbey Churches, reflecting their monastic origins. The Choir church or Koorkerk was built around 1300 and comprises a tall chancel of seven arches in length, with a five sided apse to the east of the choir stalls  with elaborate roof vaulting. On the south side is the church tower known as Lange Jan.

The New church  features a double nave and dates from the rebuilding that followed the fire of 1558. It replaced an earlier church built around 1300 which also featured a twin nave. The eastern wall of the New church is also the western wall of the Choir church, and the two interiors were originally connected through an arch, but this was subsequently blocked up. After 1833 the New church became the only parish church for the central walled area of Middelburg.

Both churches are beautiful, although in the middle of the tourist season it was hard to get the sense of peace that I love about old churches. I found this in the old Abbey cloisters, cool and dim, with sunlight peeping through and a gloriously tangled herb garden in the centre; my favourite part of the Abbey.

There is a big, open square in the middle of the Abbey buildings, with trees and seats and a couple of cannon which look rather as though they had been carelessly abandoned by some negligent commissary officer. There is also the entrance to the museum and cafe.

This part of the building has been thoroughly modernised inside, giving little sense of the original abbey. The museum has exhibitions over a number of floors. It is very well designed and put together with very modern themes, but I will be honest and admit that I was a little disappointed. While I wasn’t expecting to find anything about the campaign of 1809 which was not especially significant in Dutch history, apart from the people who died in Vlissingen and Veere, I was very much hoping for some information about the history of Middelburg and Walcheren and that was very much lacking. The one exhibition which dealt with history, was an amazing selection of tapestries telling the story of the rebellion against Spain. I loved that section. Much of the rest of the museum was beautifully put together but gave very little actual information about the town or its history. Given that there is no other museum in Middelburg to do that job, I thought it a shame, although I did pick up some useful information about historic costume.

We climbed Lange Jan to see the fabulous views over the town, following in the footsteps of my fictional Lieutenant Durrell who found it a quiet haven away from the chaos of the campaign in 1809. After coffee and cake outside a local cafe, dodging another rain shower, we went back to Veere to the two museums there. The Veere Museums consist of the City Hall and the Scottish Houses on the quay, both fabulous historic buildings.

There is a unique collection of 16th century statues which once adorned the façade of the City Hall and are on display in the ‘Statue hall’. The ‘Scottish attic’ tells the story of the long lasting trade relationship between Scotland and the city of Veere. Veere was once the centre of the profitable wool trade between Scotland and the Low Countries; the town won staple-rights on Scottish wool in 1541, meaning that the goods had to be made available for purchase there for a set time before being allowed to go on sale elsewhere. This important and profitable trade right encouraged Scottish merchants to establish themselves in Veere permanently and for a period of time, the small Scottish community was ruled by Scottish law and their own leader within the Dutch town.

The museums in Veere were far more interesting in terms of history, although I have to say that there was still more art than history in both of them. I really enjoy art, and I loved the story of the English family who set up an artists’ community in Veere before the second world war. I still felt a slight sense of frustration, however. These towns have so much history and I came away knowing very little about the people, the development of the town, their economy and agriculture and what shaped them. Perhaps there’s a museum somewhere else in this area that I’ve not found which offers that.

Having said that, I had a fabulous day. The museums were great at what they did, even if it wasn’t what I wanted, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I also found, in a rather more modern painting of a woman in traditional Dutch costume, my perfect Katja de Groot. Honestly, I couldn’t stop staring at her. Isn’t she beautiful?

Tomorrow is Vlissingen, and the nautical museum. I really like this part of the world; it’s very relaxed and we’re having a great week. Even if my husband dreams of hills he could cycle up…

Our Walcheren Expedition day 2

Our Walcheren Expedition, day 2, could be sub-titled “What I learned about cycling.”

One of the things well known to our friends and family is that Richard cycles, and I don’t. That sounds like a simple fact of life, but it’s a lot more extreme than it sounds. Richard’s cycling involves owning about six bikes and more gadgets than you would believe. His gadgets measure everything. An entire community of online cyclists share information from these gadgets and congratulate each other on their prowess. Also there is lycra. A lot of lycra.

I did not own a bike as a child and was at university when I first learned to ride one. My mother had lost a cousin of some kind who was run over while cycling in London and refused to budge on the bike issue. Both my sister and I learned as young adults, but while she took to it, I didn’t. Travelling on two wheels seemed to make no sense to me. I did it, from time to time, but remained wobbly and uncomfortable.

Over the past 25 years, I have made fairly regular attempts to improve. There were rides round the Hertfordshire countryside and cycling weekends where I wondered if divorce was a rational option. Eventually, we moved to the Isle of Man which is basically a large hill and I pretty much gave up. I cycled around Lake Kielder on the Scottish borders with the kids about seven years ago, falling off all the way. Two years ago I chickened out of a cycle tour of Berlin. My cycling career was officially over.

I don’t know what made me decide that on Walcheren, I wanted to try again. Perhaps it was just because I knew it was incredibly flat. I’ve also been looking for exercises to help with my hip arthritis and have been told that cycling could be good. Whatever the reason, a couple of months ago I hauled my daughter’s old mountain bike out of retirement and took it down to the prom, probably the only flat area nearby, and wobbled up and down. By the time we arrived in Middelburg, I felt confident enough to give it a try. So on our Walcheren Expedition day 2, we rented bikes and set off into the unknown.

Things I learned about cycling…

  1. You never forget how to swim or how to ride a bike. Only one of those is true for me.
  2. In the Netherlands, the bike is king and road users take care not to endanger them. Tell that to the b*****d in the black van who forced me onto the pavement.
  3. Cycling is easier than walking. No. It’s really not.
  4. Every other cyclist on the road / cycle path is better than I am. Including the four year olds. Especially the four year olds.
  5. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on you” means “I will cycle off into the distance painfully slowly to make a point and not even glance behind me at your yell of pain.”
  6. Cycling on cobble stones is an experience.
  7. Nobody wears a cycle helmet in the Netherlands. This is WAY much more fun.
  8. Hardly anybody wears lycra to cycle. Also, much better. I feel normal.
  9. You can get to most places on cycle paths. This is AMAZING.
  10. I can cycle 28.3 kilometres in a day and still walk / go out to dinner / drink wine. I’m fitter than I thought.
  11. Cycling doesn’t hurt my arthritic hips at all.
  12. My shoulders would hurt less if I didn’t grip the bike in sheer terror.
  13. Renting a city bike from Cycle Hub in Middelburg is a great leveller and my super-cyclist husband was in more pain than I was at the end of the day because the bike was the wrong shape / height / age / type / colour.
  14. Nobody cares that I’m a clumsy oik on a bike here. Because cycling is just normal.
  15. I want to do more of this.

Perhaps it’s time to venture off the prom and try a few gentle hills at home…

Our Walcheren Expedition, day 1

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…

 

Our Walcheren Expedition: Preview

Our Walcheren Expedition: Preview took us to Naarden. We travelled to Walcheren via Amsterdam, which gave us the opportunity to spend a couple of days visiting some friends who live in Naarden. I’d not been there before, and given that most of this trip is about Me Me Me, I had already decided to let everybody else plan these few days. It says a lot about my friends that day one was spent exploring the seventeenth century star fortress and day two was spent at the National Military Museum…

The town of Naarden dates back to the tenth century when it was actually situated about 2.5 km to the north-east. The town was destroyed during the wars of the fourteenth century and rebuilt in 1350  on a high sand ridge on the eastern route to Amsterdam. Because of it strategic position, Naarden became one of the most important fortified towns in The Netherlands.

The current star shape of Naarden dates back to the 17th Century, when the fortifications were improved after the siege of 1673. Naarden was part of the New Dutch Waterline, a defensive line through the Netherlands which I’d never heard of before. I would love to do a tour of these forts, they look stunning, but that will have to be another visit.

Naarden is beautiful, with not only the military buildings and fortifications and the Dutch Fortress Museum, but also a fantastic variety of shops and restaurants within the fort. It deserved far longer than the short visit we were able to manage

The National Military Museum is definitely a full day out. It is situated on the former air base at Soesterberg and apparently combines the collections of the former Military Aviation Museum in Soesterberg and Army Museum in Delft.

The museum depicts the history of the Netherlands armed forces in a collection of huge and very interactive displays. Vast halls display tanks, planes, armoured vehicles and helicopters. There are sections on the various wars the Dutch have been involved with over the centuries and how their armed forces developed and changed. While not directly relevant to my favourite period (although there were some interesting bits about Waterloo) I did learn a lot about the history of the Netherlands which provides context to the story I’m currently telling in “This Blighted Expedition”.

For anybody interested in military history, or even who just likes tanks, planes and helicopters, this was a fabulous day out, especially with children, there is so much for them to do there.

It wouldn’t feel right to end this first section of our trip without mentioning our evening out at the Red Sun at Blaricum, Japanese fine dining with great company. We had the tasting menu, seven courses, which is an event as much as a meal out and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thanks so much to our friends, Patrick and Serena, for being excellent hosts and guides. We had a great time. Next step, Walcheren…

The Grand Expedition

On this day in 1809 the Walcheren Expedition finally got underway, after many delays and I thought I’d celebrate the event by sharing my own interpretation of the days leading up to the departure of “The Grand Expedition” from my forthcoming book, This Blighted Expedition.

The Grand Expedition turned into something of a debacle, but even from the beginning there is a sense of things going slowly and steadily wrong…

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. Without hesitation he sent Brian with the boat to collect his wife, seeing no reason why he should not enjoy even a little extra time with her, 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 was visited by a number of fellow officers, 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 he probably has a point, not wanting to leave without half his army. 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?”

Keats returned Hugh’s scrutiny steadily. “Oh, I don’t think you’re the only person to have that feeling, Captain.”

“Then what the hell are we doing?” Hugh said quietly.

“Following orders.” Keats said.

There was a silence in the cabin for a while and then Hugh sipped his wine. “Well, let’s hope we get some soon, then,” he said.

This Blighted Expedition is due to be published this autumn in Kindle and paperback formats. The title is taken from several contemporary sources describing the campaign as The Grand Expedition. It must have seemed a fitting description at the time, given the enormous scale of the undertaking. By the end of 1809, the Grand Expedition had turned into a disaster and the public was demanding an enquiry.

This Blighted Expedition

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

This Blighted Expedition: Book 2 in the Manxman series, coming this autumn…

It is 1809. Austria is back in the war and London has committed to a new campaign in Europe in support. A force of 40,000 men and 600 ships gathers along the south coast of England. Their destination is Walcheren; a lightning strike against the French dockyards on the Scheldt.

Captain Hugh Kelly RN finds an old adversary at the centre of the campaign and realises that Sir Home Popham never forgets a perceived slight. Meanwhile his wife, Roseen, waits in England, but news of victory at Flushing is quickly clouded by more sinister reports and as the troops begin to arrive home, it is clear that something has gone badly wrong with Lord Chatham’s Grand Expedition.

Lieutenant Alfred Durrell finds himself on a temporary secondment as Popham’s aide, a posting which places him at the heart of the campaign as relations between the army and navy begin to deteriorate.

Lieutenant Giles Fenwick is broke and tired of serving under the worst captain in the 110th infantry and longs for a chance to prove himself. As the campaign drags on, Giles faces a stark choice between regimental loyalty and personal integrity with a potentially heavy price to pay.

Captain Ross Mackenzie is newly promoted as captain of the light company and tries hard to fit in, but finds himself pitted against a fellow officer whose personal problems could bring disaster down on the second battalion.

Katja de Groot runs the business she inherited from her husband and is raising three children when the British invasion takes over her home and threatens her livelihood. Katja finds unexpected happiness in her growing friendship with the captain of the light company, but can it survive the horror of war?

As the campaign begins to crumble under bad weather, poor planning and divided leadership, it seems that retreat may be the only option. But in the damp, mosquito-ridden dykes and canals of Walcheren, the British army faces an enemy more deadly than the French…

An excerpt from This Blighted Expedition

When the work was done, Hugh stood on the quarterdeck looking out over Ter Veere. He was feeling slightly sick and he wondered how his other officers were feeling. He could not confess his discomfort to anybody other than Durrell. Durrell had been with him at Copenhagen and knew how Hugh had felt watching the bombardment and burning of the city. Hugh had been relieved at the time that he had not been called upon to participate; most of the work had been done by land batteries on that occasion. This time, Lord Chatham’s army had not had time to land all their guns and Fraser’s division had only five 9-pounders and a howitzer. Reducing Ter Veere would be the job of the navy.

The Iris was the largest of the ships called into action; most of the others were small gunboats. Hugh wondered about that. With fire coming from the town, the Iris was going to present the best target. He knew that Chatham rather than Strachan had given the order for the gunboats to engage and he was not sure that the Earl knew one ship from another, but Sir Home Popham was Chatham’s constant companion and Hugh suspected the list of ships had come from him. Hugh found it hard to believe that Popham would deliberately risk a ship of the line to settle an old grudge, but he had also always suspected that Popham could hold a grudge for a long time.

Hugh had tried to minimise the risk to the Iris by positioning her at an angle where the guns could still direct accurate fire but would be less vulnerable. It was the best he could do. In a skirmish at sea he was an expert at manoeuvring his ship out of danger but there was no way to do so when bombarding a target on land.

General Fraser, having given plenty of time for a message of surrender, gave the order and Hugh relayed it to his crew. He stood at the ship’s rail watching as the first of the guns boomed out. There was some movement among the gunboats to find the best range and the town walls were hit. Almost immediately, the town guns returned fire and a deafening cannonade drowned out everything else. Hugh gave no orders to move the Iris. He had the range and his guns were doing damage to the town walls. Some of the smaller boats were moving in closer to fire barrages over into the town itself, but Hugh kept his position. He was following his orders to the letter and could truthfully answer any questions about his actions but he had no intention of risking his ship for the glory of slaughtering innocent citizens.

The noise was deafening. Firing a naval cannon was a complicated process which required endless practice to ensure a quick turnaround, and Hugh’s men had practiced until they were expert. Some of the youngest boys were employed as powder boys, running gunpowder up from the magazine below to keep the guns supplied. The number of men in each gun crew depended on the size of the gun with the largest manned by twelve men. It was hot work and the crews worked stripped to the waist, labouring to haul the enormous guns back after each recoil. 

Listening to the guns, Hugh thought his men were firing more slowly than usual. In battle they could usually manage a shot every two minutes, but this was a more steady pounding. Some of the gunboats were firing more quickly. Hugh thought about sending a midshipman below with orders to speed up and then changed his mind. He remained in place, his eyes fixed on the town walls which were being reduced to rubble and silently prayed for a signal of surrender.

It was becoming more difficult to see now, as clouds of black smoke rolled across the water. Hugh could smell it, felt it in his throat and his nose and instinctively changed his breathing to accommodate it. Below his feet the deck shuddered as another broadside crashed out. Hugh felt it as well as heard it, the whizzing sound as the heavy shot flew through the air and hit the target. At one end of the town wall a small tower had been tilting over for some time and suddenly it collapsed as if it were made from a child’s building blocks, folding in on itself and disappearing in a cloud of brick dust.

None of the return fire had touched the Iris, but not all of the gunboats remained unscathed. Two had already retired out of range with damage to masts and rigging. Through the morning the wind had increased and Hugh kept a wary eye on the weather. He did not know the tides in this water at all but it was clear that some of the smaller vessels were beginning to struggle and he watched for a signal, hoping that the barrage would be called off.

One of the gunboats on the starboard side of the Iris appeared to be in some trouble. Hugh had been looking out towards the town, which was more visible now that the wind was blowing away the black clouds of smoke which had hovered above the waves for the past few hours. Lieutenant Greene’s voice made him turn.

“She’s in trouble, sir.”

Hugh went to join him. The gunboat had lost its mast and given its lurching progress on the tide, Hugh suspected its wheel as well. Gunboats were generally small un-decked vessels which carried between one and three cannon depending on size. This was one of the smaller versions, a single-masted boat with one cannon and a swivel gun mounted on the railing. It was listing badly and Hugh could see a dozen crewmen frantically manning the oars, trying to bring the little boat under control. She was drifting wildly, tossed on the increasingly choppy sea, and two men trying hard to bail out were fighting a losing battle.

“Launch boats,” Hugh said. “Let’s get them out of there, she’s going down.”

Greene spun around, shouting the order and Hugh’s men raced towards the ship’s boats. As with all the ship’s routines they were well practiced. Hugh stood on the quarter-deck watching the progress of the stricken gun-boat.

The first of the Iris’s boats had barely touched the water when an enormous crash made Hugh stagger and almost fall. He turned back to the town just as a second shot hit, smashing into the port railing. A seaman staggered out of a cloud of black smoke clutching his upper arm which was soaked in blood. An enormous splinter protruded just above the elbow and he looked stunned.

“Get him down to the surgeon,” Hugh yelled furiously. “Are the boats launched?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get those men off the gun-boat. Mr Perry, check for casualties. Mr Greene, bring her about, we’re a sitting target here, let’s make it hard for them to aim.”

As the Iris moved smoothly into her new position, Hugh stood watching his boats. It was difficult to row with the gusting wind and against a strong tide and progress was slow. Beyond them, he could see the gunboat low in the water. Suddenly she tilted and the single cannon began to roll.

The crew abandoned all attempt to salvage her and jumped to safety. Several of them began to swim strongly towards Hugh’s boats. The gun-boat upended with her bow pointing towards the sky and then she was gone, a black shadow visible for a while through the slate grey water until she vanished from sight.

Another barrage from Ter Veere crashed out and one fell just short of the Iris, sinking harmlessly into the waves. Hugh thought he was out of range now, but was taking no chances. He was trying to balance the safety of his ship but at the same time remain within reach of the returning boats. They had reached the first of the stricken crew now and were hauling them up into the first boat while the second rowed on into the litter of smashed wood which was all that could be seen of the gun-boat. Several crew members clung to pieces of wreckage and Hugh realised he was holding his breath. He was out of range of the guns but his boats were not and a lucky shot would send them instantly to the bottom with all hands lost.

“Sir, signal to retire,” Greene called, and Hugh took a long breath and then another. He had been waiting for it; the wind and tides were making it impossible to continue the bombardment from sea.

“Get them aboard, Mr Greene and get us out of here,” he said.

This Blighted Expedition is the second book in the Manxman series, featuring Captain Hugh Kelly RN and Lieutenant Alfred Durrell. Have you read the first book yet? An Unwilling Alliance is also book 1.5 in the Peninsular War Saga and forms a bridge between the two series.

Readers of the Light Division romances may also be interested to know that Giles Fenwick, hero of The Reluctant Debutante, is one of the main characters in This Blighted Expedition. Giles also features briefly in A Regrettable Reputation and is the hero of my ghost story, An Exploring Officer which is free to read here. Giles also features in several books of the Peninsular War saga and might very well have a starring role in book six, An Unrelenting Enmity which is due out at the end of this year or early next year.

An Unwilling Alliance (Book 1 of the Manxman series)

It is 1806.

Captain Hugh Kelly RN returns to the Isle of Mann after fifteen years with a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money to find himself a sensible Manx wife.

Roseen Crellin is determined to resist her father’s efforts to find her a husband. Still dreaming of the young English soldier who sailed away and broke her heart, she has no intention of encouraging Captain Kelly’s courtship and certainly no intention of developing feelings for the man.

Major Paul van Daan is newly promoted and just back from Ireland, sailing with his battalion to Copenhagen under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley.  Paul’s courage and talent are unquestioned but his diplomatic skills need some work and in a joint operation with the navy there are many ways for a man of Paul’s temperament to get things wrong.

As Britain hovers on the brink of war with neutral Denmark and the diplomats and politicians negotiate to keep the Danish fleet out of Bonaparte’s hands, a more personal drama plays out on the decks of the Royal Navy and in the lines of Lord Cathcart’s army which could change the lives of Hugh, Roseen and Paul forever.

An Unwilling Alliance is available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.