This Blighted Expedition
This Blighted Expedition picks up the story of Captain Hugh Kelly RN and his wife Roseen, whom we last met in An Unwilling Alliance. Two years on from the Copenhagen campaign, Hugh and Roseen are reunited along with their young son after an eight month separation. A new campaign is looming…
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…
Settings from the Book
We visited Walcheren in August of 2019 in order to get a feel for the place. It’s a bit of an odd location to research, because the actual landscape has changed, due to land reclamation, more than any other place I’ve written about. In one or two places it is really easy to visualise the land as it was. In others, it’s honestly easier to look at a map.
On this old map of Walcheren, which is from a photograph we took in the museum in Vlissingen, it is possible to see that Walcheren was an island, completely separated from South Beveland and the various other small islands. This made navigation a challenge, especially when there were dangerous tides, sandbanks and very possibly a French battery firing from the opposite shore. An up to date map of the Walcheren area, looks rather like this; as you can see it’s a big difference.
The British landings took place on the sandy beaches of Bree Sand. It is easy to imagine the scene from contemporary descriptions, with French and Dutch troops taking cover behind the sand dunes. The landings were opposed from Fort Den Haak. This is one of the places that no longer exists, sadly. The site is further inland due to reclamation, and is currently being redeveloped, so it wasn’t possible to see it, but an information board shows its location.
The next action in the book takes place at Veere, a pretty little town today, which was the scene of an abortive night attack led by Colonel Denis Pack. The following day the town was subjected to a naval bombardment and surrendered after some damage to the fortifications and the town and the deaths of a number of citizens. Veere is gorgeous, with two excellent museums telling the history of the town and a very good circular walking trail around the old fortifications. After the British left, Napoleon ordered the town defences to be rebuilt and most of the current walls and ditches as well as the guns, date from 1810-1811.
One of my favourite discoveries of the week was a portrait in the Veere museum of an unnamed Dutch woman in traditional costume. When I create a fictional character, I always have a picture in my mind of what they might look like, but I was astonished to see Katja, my Dutch heroine, looking down at me from the wall. She’s completely perfect.
A lot of the action of the book takes place in the lovely town of Middelburg, where Lord Chatham, the commander of the forces, established his headquarters in Middelburg Abbey. The Earl rode out to the siege works each day, but it is easy to see how his troops became disgruntled that he was living in comfort while they were up to their knees in muddy water. The Abbey is a fabulous collection of buildings, with two churches, one of which has the tower known as Lange Jan, where Lieutenant Durrell spends a peaceful couple of hours one sunny afternoon.
The bombardment of Vlissingen, or Flushing as the British called it, was a brutal affair. Most of the buildings in the town suffered some damage and many, including the Stadthouse, were completely destroyed. The nautical museum is one of the surviving early buildings and gives an excellent account of the history of Vlissingen, including a small display on the bombardment itself. Walking along the front, it is still possible to imagine, despite the many changes to the town and the coastline, the sheer horror of facing bombardment from six land batteries and seven men o’war from the sea.
Katja de Groot has a textile business in Vlissingen but lives in Middelburg, and we stayed in a beautiful little apartment on Korendijk on the canal, where almost every house dated from the eighteenth century, some even older. I situated Katja’s house on the same street, since the house we stayed in was perfect. Most of the houses had the big double cellar doors on the outside which are described in the scene at Katja’s dyeshop after the bombardment of Vlissingen, the house above is one of my favourite examples and you can see the cellar to the left of the main door.
The other centre of action in the book is aboard HMS Iris where Captain Hugh Kelly is missing his first officer and fuming at the chaos of the campaign. The Iris is a fictional ship, but a good example of a 74 gun ship of the same kind would be the Bellaphron, pictured here.
Readers of the Peninsular War Saga will know that I do like to introduce animals into the story where possible. From Paul’s overweight mare Luna in An Unwilling Alliance to Anne’s huge shaggy dog, Craufurd in An Untrustworthy Army, my characters horses and pets have their own personalities. There are two additions in This Blighted Expedition. Jannie, is Katja’s blue budgie, a species only just being introduced into Europe, and the idea came from the portrait in the Veere museum. Meanwhile Durrell tells the story of Molly, the laziest ship’s cat in the fleet, who spends her time dozing on Captain Kelly’s bunk and snaffling the midshipmen’s rations. I am indebted to Erin for allowing me to use her gorgeous Manx cat, Molly, as my model. Naturally, my Manx sea captain would have a Manx cat…
An Excerpt from This Blighted Expedition
When the work was done, Hugh stood on the quarterdeck looking out over 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 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?”
“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.