“A Second St Domingo”: Sickness during the Walcheren Expedition of 1809

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Terrain of the Walcheren campaign, from France Militaire: histoire des Armees Francaises de terre de mer de 1792 a 1833…by A. Hugo, 1837.

In 1809, the British government sent an amphibious force of 40,000 men and 600 naval vessels to the Scheldt to destroy the French fleet and dockyards at Antwerp and Flushing. It was Britain’s biggest expeditionary undertaking since the beginning of the wars with France in 1793, part of the War of the Fifth Coalition and a diversion to assist the Austrians against Napoleon in central Europe.

The expedition, under the military command of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was a complete failure. The Austrian allies were defeated before the expedition left; although the British captured the island of Walcheren, they advanced too slowly across the neighbouring island of South Beveland, allowing the French to reinforce Antwerp. The expedition was finally withdrawn after a catastrophic outbreak of ‘Walcheren fever’, a combination of several diseases, including malaria.

The impact of this sickness can best be gauged through dry statistics. Of the 39,219 rank and file sent to Walcheren, 11,296 of them were on the sick lists by February 1810. By this time 3,960 were dead. A further 106 had died in battle, but those numbers were swallowed up in the sheer scale of the tragedy.

‘Walcheren fever’ struck the troops suddenly and savagely. One source, the anonymous Letters from Flushing, recorded fatalities from sickness as early as 12 August 1809, but on 8 August the British Chief of Staff reported ‘We have as yet no sick,’ and on 11 August the commander-in-chief Lord Chatham thought ‘the Troops upon ye whole continue healthy.’[1]

By 20 August, however, things had changed. The official Proceedings of the Army recorded on 22 August: ‘Sickness began to show itself among the Troops in South Beveland. On the 20th the number of Sick was 1564, and within the two following days it increased very considerably.’ The next day, the 23rd, the Proceedings recorded ‘Sickness increased very much within the last 24 hours.’ By the 24th the sickness had spread to Walcheren.[2]

At first the officers were not too worried. One of the aides-de-camp to Sir Eyre Coote (Chatham’s second-in-command) recorded in his diary on 24 August: ‘5000 French Troops are said to have fallen a victim to the climate last year, but I consider this as a very exaggerated statement, and at any rate, the constitutions of our men & their habits of life, are much better adapted to this moist atmosphere.’[3]

But by the 27th there were 3467 sick. The following day the officer compiling the official returns could not restrain his concern: ‘The sickness increased to an alarming Proportion, some of the General, and many other Officers were seized with fever, and the Number of Men on the Sick List was nearly 4000.’[4]

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The evacuation of South Beveland, August 1809

The sickness was described by Lieutenant William Keep of the 81st:

The disease comes on with a cold shivering, so great that the patient feels no benefit from the clothes piled upon him in bed, but continues to shiver still, as if enclosed in ice, the teeth chattering and cheeks blanched. This lasts some time and is followed by the opposite extremes of heat, so that the pulse rises to 100 in a small space. The face is then flushed and eyes dilated, but with little thirst. It subsides and then is succeeded by another paroxysm, and so on until the patient’s strength is quite reduced and he sinks into the arms of death.[5]

The British army had been sent to Walcheren with medical supplies for only 30,000 men. It was caught completely off-guard by the scale of the sickness. Things were not helped by the fact that the British had bombarded one of Walcheren’s largest merchant towns, Vlissingen (Flushing), in mid-August, which restricted the accommodation available to the British troops. By 30 August there were nearly 900 sick in Flushing alone, ‘all of them laying [sic] on the bare boards without Paillasses & many without Blankets.’ Two days later Coote’s aide concluded in despair: ‘This island is a mere Hospital and an Inspector of Hospitals will shortly be a more useful officer than the General Commanding.’[6]

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Flushing Harbour. Photograph by Jacqueline Reiter

All these circumstances contributed to an atmosphere of near-panic. Nobody knew who would be next, and no rank was exempt. ‘A considerable degree of apprehension of Climate and Disease has prevail’d too generally, and there has been much anxiety shewn to get away from this Island as if it had been a second St Domingo,’ the Chief of Staff reported disapprovingly, but by this time several generals (including General Mackenzie-Fraser, who later died) were dropping like flies.[7] By mid-September the Adjutant-General of the army was sending in daily (rather than weekly) sick reports, and Chatham decided to start sending the sick home ahead of official orders from the War Office.

According to one account, one doctor ‘and his assistant [had] nearly five hundred patients prostrate at the same moment … the whole concern was completely floored’. [8] By 23 September the army had almost completely run out of bark (now quinine, used to treat malaria) and the medical corps were of course also losing staff to sickness. Sir Eyre Coote (who took over from Chatham, who was recalled) reported to the Secretary of State for War: ‘I can assure Your Lordship, without any Fear of Exaggeration … that the Situation of the Troops in this Island is deplorable … The Sick are so crowded, as to lay Two in one Bed in several Places, and have no Circulation of Air.’ In Flushing, by contrast, many of these places had rather too much air circulation, owing to ‘the damaged State of the Roofs, never repaired since the Siege.’[9]

Totally overburdened, the medical corps became desperate in their attempts to stem the disease. They had no idea what was causing it: they knew it wasn’t contagious, but thought it was due to ‘local or endemic Causes, viz. the Miasmata or Exhalations from the Soil.’ They did, however, notice that the sailors on board the British ships remained healthy, with the exception of the ones who had gone ashore to help with the siege of Flushing (naturally, as mosquitoes do not breed around salt water). One proposed treatment therefore was to pack the British sick into ships and sail them around the islands, in the hope that the sea air and a change of scene would restore them to health. Unsurprisingly, this did not work.[10]

The impact of Walcheren fever on the British army was significant and long-lasting. The soldiers who had served on the campaign continued to relapse periodically for years after. In March 1812 Lord Wellington, in the midst of fighting in the Spanish Peninsula, lamented the fact that his troops had been ‘so much shaken by Walcheren.’ [11] The careers of the commander-in-chief of the Army, Lord Chatham, and the naval commander, Sir Richard Strachan, were destroyed by the disaster.

The British government that had planned the expedition under the Duke of Portland fell, and its successor nearly foundered during the ensuing parliamentary inquiry into the debacle. Two government ministers, Lord Castlereagh and George Canning, ended up fighting a duel. None of this, of course, was especially comforting to the four thousand men who had died from ‘Walcheren fever’.

References
[1] Letters from Flushing … by an Officer of the Eighty-First Regiment (London, 1809), p. 120; Sir Robert Brownrigg to Colonel Gordon, 8 August 1809, BL Add MSS 49505, f. 9; Chatham to Castlereagh, 11 August 1809, PRONI D3030/3220; John Webb to the Surgeon General, 27 August 1809, A Collection of Papers relating to the Expedition to the Scheldt (London, 1809), pp. 588-90.
[2] The National Archives WO 190, 22-4 August 1809.
[3] University of Michigan Coote MSS, Box 29/3, Diary of the Walcheren Expedition, 24 August 1809.
[4] The National Archives WO 190, 27-8 August 1809.
[5] Quoted by Martin Howard, Walcheren 1809, Barnsley, 2011, p. 161.
[6] University of Michigan Coote MSS, Box 29/3, Diary of the Walcheren Expedition, 30 August, 1 September 1809.
[7] Sir Robert Brownrigg to Colonel Gordon, 8 September 1809, BL Add MSS 49505 f. 69.
[8] Rifleman Harris, quoted by Howard, Walcheren 1809, p. 172.
[9] Sir Eyre Coote to Castlereagh, 17 September 1809, A Collection of Papers, pp. 137-40.
[10] Memorandum dated 25 September 1809, A Collection of Papers, pp. 623-5; Sir Eyre Coote to Lord Liverpool, 23 October 1809, A Collection of Papers, pp.177-8.
[11] Howard, Walcheren 1809. p. 215.

Further reading
Gordon Bond, The Grand Expedition (Athens, GA, 1971)
Martin R. Howard, Walcheren 1809 (Barnsley, 2011)
John Lynch, ‘The Lessons of Walcheren Fever, 1809’, Military Medicine 174(3) 2009, pp. 315-19
T.H. McGuffie, ‘The Walcheren Expedition and the Walcheren Fever’, English Historical Review jacquelinereiter_bookcover62(243) 1947, pp. 191-202

Jacqueline Reiter 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. She blogs at www.thelatelord.com and you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Her first book, The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017.

10 Welsh Castles to Celebrate St. David’s Day

Today is the feast day of Saint David, the patron Saint of Wales. It is a public holiday in Wales not unlike Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland, and is celebrated with parades, festivals, and other cultural events. It is a day to celebrate Wales and Welsh culture around the world, so I thought I would share some of what I love about Wales with you today.

I was lucky enough to go to Swansea University for both of my degrees and I lived in Wales for seven years. There are so many things I love about Wales that it would be difficult to summarize in a single blog post, so I’m going to focus on one of my favorite things: the castles! 

As I’m a historical romance author with a degree in Medieval History, it might not surprise you to hear that I love castles. If you like castles, too, you should know that Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country on earth, and they’re all beautiful with dramatic locations and fascinating history. I got to visit many castles and other historical tourism attractions around Wales as a freelance journalist, so I have built up quite a collection of photos and Cadw brochures. Although I haven’t seen every castle in Wales yet, I do have my favorites, and I thought I would share those with you today. 

In honor of St. David’s Day, here are ten of my favorite castles of southern Wales:

10. Hay


Hay Castle in Hay-on-Wye is one of the last surviving castles of the Welsh marches. Built for defense by William de Braose in the late twelfth century, it was sacked by the last Prince of Wales, Llewelyn II in 1233. It was rebuilt by Henry III, and in 1660, the Jacobean mansion Castle House was built alongside it. Although it has been damaged by fire twice in the last hundred years, there’s still much to see, and parts of the 18th century formal gardens can still be seen. Today, the castle is owned by the Hay Castle Trust, an organization devoted to the conservation of this historic monument. Preserving Hay Castle will take a lot of work, and the Trust has a vision to make the a center for education and culture. You can learn more about them here

It’s well worth a visit, and not only for the history: Hay-on-Wye has a yearly festival of arts and literature visited by hundreds of thousands with lots of great guest authors. The town itself is the National Book Town of Wales and has more than two dozen bookstores, many specializing in used and rare books. 

9. Oystermouth


The first castle on this site was built in 1106 by William de Londres after Gower was captured by the Normans. Ten years later, it was burned by the Welsh of Deheubarth when they retook the Gower peninsula, and again in 1137 after it had been rebuilt. Henry III expelled the Welsh from the Gower in 1220 and gave it to John de Braose who at last built it in stone. Edward I even visited in 1284. The chapel was later improved by Aline de Mowbray, and much of it still stands today (see one of the fourteenth century windows, above). Oystermouth is located just outside of Mumbles, overlooking Swansea Bay, and has recently undergone a massive refurbishment by the National Assembly for Wales. Updates include a thirty-foot high glass viewing platform and bridge through the chapel to the windows on the other side. 


8. Weobley


Weobley Castle is a fortified manor house overlooking the Llanrhidian Marsh built more for comfort than defense by the de la Bere family in the twelfth century. While the walls are not what they once were (I climbed them) perhaps due to Owain Glyndwr’s attack in 1403, the castle was built with many comforts, including private rooms, fireplaces, decorative windows, and multiple indoor toilets! 

7. Margam


Margam Castle is really a Victorian country house built between 1830 and 1840 during the Gothic Revival for Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot. It was designed by Thomas Hopper and Edward Haycock Snr. David Evans-Bevan bought it in 1941, but found it too large to live in, so the castle fell into disrepair. Restoration began after it was damaged by a fire in 1977. Today, the castle hosts ghost tours and is a popular setting for ghost hunter TV shows. Episodes of Doctor Who have also been filmed here. 

6. Laugharne


Now little more than a beautiful shell, Laugharne has a long and complicated history. The first castle on this site was built in 1116 by Robert Courtemain and served as the place where Henry II and Rhys as Gruffudd agreed to a treaty of peace in 1171. Rhys ap Gruffudd later burned it down in 1189 when the castle was retaken by the Welsh of Deheubarth after the death of Henry II. Rebuilt in 1215 by the Normans, Laugharne was promptly captured by Llewelyn the Great and destroyed in 1257 by Llewelyn ap Gruffudd. Although Sir John Perrot converted it into a Tudor mansion in the late sixteenth century, it suffered further damage by cannon fire in a week long siege during the Civil War, after which it was left as a romantic ruin. 

In more recent years, the castle has served as a place of inspiration for artists and writers. Here Richard Hughes wrote Hazard, and Dylan Thomas wrote his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. The nearby boathouse was home to Dylan Thomas and his family from 1949-1953 and still has much of original furniture. Well worth a visit! 

5. Carew


Carew Castle stands on a limestone bluff that has been used for military purposes for at least 2,000 years. The first stone keep was built on this site in 1100 by Gerald de Windsor. The castle was expanded almost continuously until the Carew family fell on hard times during the Black Death and it was mortgaged. Rhys ap Thomas expanded the castle again with luxurious Tudor apartments. Carew reverted to the crown in 1531 when Rhys’ grandson was executed for treason by Henry VIII. Like Laugharne, it was acquired by Sir John Perrot and completed. The castle was repurchased by the Carew family in 1592 after Sir John Perrot died out of favor in the Tower of London. Although it was refortified by the Royalists during the Civil War, much of it was pulled down by the local Parliamentarians it was abandoned during the late seventeenth century. There’s still plenty to see, though, and the grounds also contain Wales’ only intact Tidal Mill built in the early nineteenth century. 

Oh, and it’s haunted by a monkey.

4. Pembroke


Begun in 1093 by Arnulf de Montgomery, Pembroke has withstood sieges and survived the Civil War. Henry VII was born there in 1457. Enormous and wonderfully intact, Pembroke Castle is like a full-sized playground for adults. There are enough rooms, halls, and staircases in wonderful condition to keep you busy for hours, including the massive drum tower built in by none other than William Marshal (sigh!). You can climb the stairs and even sit on the top if you’re brave, or try not to look down if you’re not! There are few places where so much history is so accessible. It is without a doubt one of the best preserved castles in Wales. 

3. Cardiff 

Although parts of Cardiff Castle are medieval or even Roman, much of what you see today is the result of a nostalgic fever-dream that Bute had in the 19th century and built with the help of mad genius William Burges. This idea we have of the middle ages being particularly romantic is a result of hundreds of years of rose-tinted propaganda dating back to the early Arthurian Romances, and it hit a high point when the Industrial Revolution set people yearning for simpler times.

One of the best things to come out of this was the Arts & Crafts movement, and Cardiff Castle has some truly spectacular examples of art and art-architecture from it. I’ve been several times, and have never had the same tour twice. Here’s a bonus picture of the library:


2. Caerphilly


Caerphilly Castle is the second largest castle in Britain. The only one bigger is Windsor! Built in the thirteenth century by Gilbert de Clare, it introduced concentric castle defenses to Wales and boasts “the most elaborate water defenses in all of Britain.” Situated on an island surrounded by artificial lakes with fortified dams, Caerphilly withstood several attacks throughout the fourteenth century and eventually fell into disrepair until it was restored by the Bute family in the eighteenth century. Beautiful as it is well-designed, Caerphilly is a wonderful day out and can even be rented for weddings and other parties. Several episodes of Doctor Who have been filmed here, too! 

Some of Caerphilly’s defenses:


And the hall:


1. Raglan

Of all the castles I’ve seen, Raglan may be my favorite. A fifteenth century castle in the Welsh Marches, Raglan is a newer castle than many in Wales, but is no less stunning for it. Sir William ap Thomas started it in 1432 and building continued under his son, William Herbert, the first Welshman to be made an earl. Expansions were made through the 17th century until the civil war. It resisted Cromwell’s army during a thirteen-week siege before it was surrendered and dismantled by parliament.

Enough of it remains that it’s well worth a visit. The hillside setting is beautiful in the summer, and swallows dart around the moat catching insects. As lovely as it is now, you can tell that it was stunning when it was still in use. If you have ever have the chance, be sure to see it. At only thirteen miles away from Tintern Abbey, you can’t beat it for location.

Bizarrely, the land Raglan was built on had previously belonged the Earls of Hereford following the Norman Invasion. I find this a particularly strange coincidence not because of the location (come on, Hereford is right there), but because there is an Earl of Hereford in my novels. By the time I’m writing in the 1670s, the title had gone extinct.

Happy St. David’s Day!