The One Who Watched at Walcheren: A Civilian Observer During the Napoleonic Wars

Jacqueline Reiter

Today’s guest is Jacqueline Reiter. Jacqueline has a PhD in late 18th century political history from the University of Cambridge. A professional librarian, she lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children. Jacqueline also researches and writes about the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham.

Here is her guest post for today related to Walcheren:

In the summer of 1809, the British government sent 40,000 men and over 600 ships on an amphibious mission to Holland. The expedition was tasked with capturing the island of Walcheren and the prosperous mercantile town of Vlissingen (Flushing), before going further down the Scheldt River to destroy the French fleet and defences at Antwerp. The “Grand Expedition”, as it was known, was a miserable failure. The venture set sail too late and progressed too slowly, allowing the French to rush reinforcements to the area; the military and naval commanders fell out spectacularly; and “Walcheren fever” – a combination of diseases, including malaria – placed more than a quarter of the army on the sick list.

Evacuation of Walcheren, 30 August 1809, by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The sailing of Britain’s best forces to the Scheldt was the biggest concerted military effort the country had made during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars so far. Although the government tried its best to keep the expedition and its aims secret, nearly everyone (including the French) knew where it was going and what its aims were a month before it left Britain’s shores. Spectators flocked to the Kent coast to watch the troops embark in the enormous fleet of vessels gathering in the Downs. Many newspapers sent what would now be termed “war correspondents”, who reported back regularly from the front lines (at least until they were rounded up by high command and sent back home). And a bunch of well-connected young men went in for a bit of military tourism, tagging along with the expedition “to see The Fun”.[1]

One of these young men was William, Lord Lowther, heir to the Earl of Lonsdale. Lowther’s father was a government supporter with considerable political clout (he controlled several House of Commons boroughs). Daddy pulled some strings and, with the help of Sir Home Popham, an equally well-connected naval captain, Lowther secured a front-row seat as a civilian observer. Lowther’s main purpose was to visit the town of Antwerp, which after all would have been out of bounds pretty much his whole life (it had been in French hands since the early 1790s).

William, Lord Lowther, by Engraver William Ward, after James Ward [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What the military commander, the Earl of Chatham, thought of this arrangement is not recorded. No doubt he did plenty of eye-rolling, particularly when he was ordered to allow Lowther to tag along with his military staff. Nevertheless, he agreed. He must have regretted that.

Lowther kept a diary during his travels.[2] He sent frequent letters back to his father, which he often entrusted to unprotected merchant vessels (even though he was forbidden from sending any letters at all), in which he gave detailed information about the deployment of Chatham’s army. “Sir Home has shown me the whole plan of attack & all the operations,” Lowther told his father (dear God, Sir Home…!).[3] Many of these letters reached their destination, but presumably a few were intercepted and contributed to Lord Chatham’s considerable military intelligence difficulties: not that Lowther seems to have cared. He was out to enjoy himself, and viewed the whole experience as on par with an extremely dangerous hunting party.  His growing boredom is palpable as the plans of the British rapidly went wrong and the army became bogged down – something he seems to have taken as a personal affront: “I begin to grow very impatient to quit this Island as having seen every thing in it & nothing now going on, time hangs very heavy upon our hands”.[4]

Lowther was hardly the soul of discretion, and had no doubt the whole affair went wrong because Lord Chatham was lazy and incompetent. He was hardly alone in this assessment, although his repeated assertions that the expedition ought to have been a cakewalk, and his confident prognostications of military success, make uncomfortable reading (this was a man who had absolutely zero military training apart from a short stint as Lieutenant-Colonel of the Whitehaven Militia, which hardly made him Wellington). He was happy to bad-mouth Chatham, loudly accusing him of incompetence and “incapacity” all the way to his front door, breaking off only to have dinner with the very same Lord Chatham before resuming his public character assassination on the way home.[5]

The siege of Flushing, from France Militaire: histoire des Armées Françaises de terre et de mer … (A. Hugo, 1837)

Three weeks after landing on Walcheren, Chatham’s army had managed to take the town of Flushing but made little further progress towards Antwerp. At about this time, Lowther got drunk and fell from his horse, badly spraining his arm. To everyone’s relief, he decided it was time to go home. He stayed long enough to witness the surrender of Flushing’s garrison, then hired a place aboard a merchant cutter and sailed to England, where he talked loudly about Lord Chatham’s incompetence to anyone willing to listen: “If at any time there was any chance of reaching Antwerp, it was entirely thrown away by the inactivity of Ld Chatham … [whom he] regarded as the object of the failure of the expedition”.[6]

This indiscretion nearly got him into trouble. When Spencer Perceval became prime minister in October 1809, he offered Lowther a post at the Admiralty. This would make Lowther colleagues with the Master-General of the Ordnance – the very same Lord Chatham whom Lowther had spent so much time abusing. Lowther was convinced Chatham would block his appointment out of spite, but he overrated his own importance. Chatham was absolutely the kind of man to hold a grudge, but Lowther was vastly below his notice. When Perceval delicately asked Chatham if he objected bringing the young man to government, Chatham replied, “I can only say, that as far as I am concerned, I have not the least wish, that any opinions he may have taken up … shou’d interfere, with any general advantage to be derived to Government, by his accepting office”.[7]

In any case the two men were not colleagues very long. Chatham lost his cabinet seat in March 1810 as a result of the furore surrounding the failure of his expedition – perhaps partly because of Lowther’s indiscretions.

As for Lowther, he served in various government offices throughout his life and eventually reached cabinet level. Perhaps he eventually grew up.

References:

  • [1] Lord Lowther to his father, [24 July 1809], Cumbria Record Office DLONS L1/2/70
  • [2] Cumbria Record Office DLONS/L2/12
  • [3] Lord Lowther to his father, [20 July 1809], DLONS L1/2/70
  • [4] Lord Lowther to his father, 11 August 1809, DLONS L1/2/70
  • [5] Diary, 5 August 1809
  • [6] Lord Lowther to his father, 10 November 1809, DLONS/L1/2/70
  • [7] Chatham to Spencer Perceval, 6 November 1809, Cambridge University Library Perceval MSS Add.8713/VII/B/4

Jacqueline’s first book, The Late Lord: The Life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017. Here is a short summary of the book:

John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham is one of the most enigmatic and overlooked figures of early nineteenth century British history. The elder brother of Pitt the Younger, he has long been consigned to history as ‘the late Lord Chatham’, the lazy commander-in-chief of the 1809 Walcheren expedition, whose inactivity and incompetence turned what should have been an easy victory into a disaster.

Chatham’s poor reputation obscures a fascinating and complex man. During a twenty-year career at the heart of government, he served in several important cabinet posts such as First Lord of the Admiralty and Master-General of the Ordnance. Yet despite his closeness to the Prime Minister and friendship with the Royal Family, political rivalries and private tragedy hampered his ascendance. Paradoxically for a man of widely admired diplomatic skills, his downfall owed as much to his personal insecurities and penchant for making enemies as it did to military failure.

Using a variety of manuscript sources to tease Chatham from the records, this biography peels away the myths and places him for the first time in proper familial, political, and military context. It breathes life into a much-maligned member of one of Britain’s greatest political dynasties, revealing a deeply flawed man trapped in the shadow of his illustrious relatives.

If you are interested in reading more, here is a link to Kindle version from Amazon, click here.

For a hard copy from Pen and Sword, click here.

If you would like to connect with Jacqueline, you can find her by clicking on the appropriate link below:

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