Too many historians of the Napoleonic Wars make two false assumptions. The first is that Trafalgar ended the threat of an invasion of Britain and any challenge to the Royal Navy’s domination of the seas. The second is that the Peninsular Campaign was the government’s sole focus on land. In fact, the powerful expeditions to the Dutch coast in the summer of 1809 constituted Britain’s main effort, designed to reinforce Nelson’s success in 1805 and, at the same time, strike at the heart of Napoleon’s strategy in Central Europe.
After the repulse of the Corunna expedition in 1808, followed by a bold start to further operations in Portugal in May 1809, decisions had to be made about where the next major thrust would be.
Fewer than 20,000 troops were keeping the French off-balance in distant Iberia, and Sicily was holding its own. But new enemy ships were being built with worrying speed in the Scheldt and troops appeared to be massing again for an invasion, allowing Napoleon to brag that his fleets in Flushing and Antwerp were ‘holding a pistol to the head of England’.
Additionally, Austria was pleading for pressure to be taken off. If French forces could be drawn away from the Danube and the Elbe, she would have more room to manoeuvre.
Accordingly, over 40,000 men and about 250 ships were earmarked for a venture that is usually called the Walcheren Expedition but was, in fact, aimed at much more than just that small island. A little like Gallipoli, it was an amphibious operation that ended in ignominious failure and is now derided; but both were ambitious, strategically bold concepts that should have worked.
The East Norfolks in the Napoleonic Wars
The 2nd Earl of Chatham was chosen to lead the troops. The brother of Pitt the Younger, he had been an active politician since his last command in 1799, which, interestingly, had been a little further up the Dutch coast at Den Helder and which should have given him a good feel for the country. But he was famously cautious.Nonetheless, he was paired with Sir Richard ‘Mad Dick’ Strachan, a dashing, impetuous naval commander who was his very antithesis.
The pair might have been good foils for each other, but neither displayed any empathy for the other’s profession and friction quickly developed.
Into this saucepan were thrown 1st Battalion, 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment, whose doings over the previous decade look like a newsreel of the Napoleonic Wars. Expanded to three battalions before the Den Helder expedition, they were reduced to only one after the Peace of Amiens in 1802, before expanding to two again in 1804. And then the 1st Battalion’s adventures began in earnest.
In 1805, they were sent to Hanover to expel the French, then to Portugal in 1808 to fight at Roliça and Vimeiro, the opening battles of the Peninsular War, before taking part in the initially daring but ultimately futile Corunna campaign.
They buried Sir John Moore – their commander – there, and were the last regiment to leave Spanish soil, but, by the time they reached England on 22 January 1809, they were just a shell of a battalion.
They remained around Kent and south-east England, receiving drafts of recruits, training themselves, and preparing for whatever lay ahead. Sergeant James Hale tells us,
So, by having… volunteers from the militia, and a few more old hands that joined from different hospitals, our regiment mustered nearly 1,000 strong, well clothed, and in good health; in consequence of which, we were soon summoned to hold ourselves in readiness for foreign service again.
This makes fascinating reading, for within six months of returning from a disaster, the battalion was fully topped up and ready to go again. It begs the question, where did these recruits come from and in such numbers? Certainly, some sick and wounded men would have rejoined, but the majority came from Britain’s reserve army, the Militia.
Based on English and Welsh counties, and under the direct control of the Lords Lieutenant rather than the Crown, recruits were required to join the Militia after they had been ‘balloted’ (conscripted). However, they were under no obligation to serve abroad, and only when generous bounties were offered to re-muster into the Regular Army would numerous volunteers come forward.
Sergeant Hale had himself begun his service in the Royal North Gloucester Militia, before volunteering for the 9th, so he can have been no stranger to these drafts of partially trained men still wearing the coats of their parent regiments. There was work to be done bringing them to the standards required by an experienced and battle-hardened battalion, but the arrival of plenty of fit and enthusiastic youngsters must have been very welcome. He continues,
On the 17 July 1809, at five o’clock in the morning, we assembled in the barrack yard, in marching order, to march to Deal, as the expedition was to assemble in the Downs… but instead of being put into quarters for that night, as we expected to be, we were marched down to the place of embarkation, and put on board immediately: eight companies on board two transport ships, and the grenadier and light company on board the Thalia frigate, accompanied with the band and the staff of the regiment.
An ambitious plan
Chatham and Strachan’s mission was:
The capture or destruction of the enemy’s ships either building at Antwerp and Flushing or afloat in the Scheldt, the destruction of the arsenals and dockyards at Antwerp, Terneuse, and Flushing, the reduction of the island of Walcheren, and rendering, if possible, the Scheldt no longer navigable for ships of war.
There was an intention to hold Walcheren permanently – rather like St-Marcouf off Normandy – but taking it, along with South Beveland and Kadzand, were only intended to be the opening moves. The ultimate objective was the capture of the fortress and fleet at Antwerp. Clearly, this was a significant prize, and that is why such extravagant resources were dedicated to it.
In what followed, the parallels with other British amphibious operations – not only Gallipoli, but also Anzio – are notable. Walcheren was another example of a campaign in which troops were successfully landed on a hostile shore only then to flounder.
Sergeant Hale experienced this lack of planning:
The 9th Regiment and several others were ordered to proceed towards the mainland, in order to make an attack there; at the same time, the other part of the army was to make an attack on the Island of Walcheren; but we had not got many yards towards the shore, when a signal was made for our regiment and all the others that were steering for the mainland, to re-embark until further orders.
Chatham and Strachan had, fatally, lost their aim: the islands were not the objective, nor was there meant to be any intention of biting off lesser targets as they headed for the critical dockyards in Antwerp. This great collection of men and ships was meant to strike at several points at once, heading for the prize while securing the sea routes to and from it. Yet, for Sergeant Hale, all this amounted to was getting into and out of small boats!
Stranded on an island
With the mission immediately compromised, the landings on Walcheren continued. The men of the 9th watched as
the enemy made a strong opposition, having several batteries close to the seaside. Nevertheless, in a short time the batteries were in our possession… According to the English fashion, as soon as we could form up into line, we gave them a volley, and then three cheers and a charge, which put them into such confusion, that they began to run towards the town of Flushing, something like a flock of sheep driven by a shepherd’s dog. As they would not accept of the bayonet, we obliged them to accept of a few pills, by which many of them fell asleep. Our loss, in making our landing good, was but trifling.
The three columns marched with little opposition towards Flushing and, on 3 August, began siege operations.
Meanwhile, on 1 August, Hope’s and then Rosslyn’s Divisions (the 9th belonged to the latter) landed unopposed on South Beveland and pushed towards the crucial town of Batz. From here, the direct approaches to Antwerp could be dominated. While the fortress was taken without opposition, a number of French brigs and ships of the line sailed away unmolested into Antwerp. Serenely unaware of the opportunity that had been lost, Sergeant Hale tells us,
The inhabitants showed us every mark of friendship… this island is generally covered with water in the wet season. In consequence of there being so many ditches, we were ordered out most days, in order to practise jumping these ditches; that if the enemy should make an attack on the island, we should not be unacquainted with jumping.
From Batz, the British could see across the flooded land towards the masts of the French ships snug in Antwerp, about 20 miles away. Very quickly, batteries were erected here to fire on to the French redoubts on the mainland.
Seeing this approach to the Scheldt effectively blocked, the French rushed men and guns to Flushing and Kadzand, the island opposite, in order to keep their only remaining strait open.
Sergeant Hale was only too aware of the growing power of the siege:
The only way was to batter it down by heavy cannonading, or setting fire to it; both of which were done, but not without the loss of a great number of brave British soldiers; for the whole time that our works were being carried on, the enemy kept up continual fire, with shot and shell, day and night; and sometimes destroyed as much of our work in one day, as we could repair in a whole night.
The fall of Flushing
The Navy’s ships kept up a steady bombardment, while from landward, as Hale recounts,
a quantity of Congreve rockets were thrown into the town, which would burn with such a fury that the water engines were totally useless. In consequence of this, the enemy was obliged to surrender; for the town was so guarded by our shipping, that there was no possibility of making their escape.
The fall of Flushing on 14 August was to be Chatham’s only real success. He and Strachan had failed to cooperate properly and only now, after three weeks, was the key objective – Antwerp – going to be approached. Most of the force was moved to South Beveland in readiness, but once there, Chatham realised that he had reached his culminating point.
The French had reinforced Antwerp heavily and improved its defences; all supply and logistics had to be found by the Navy, as South Beveland had been stripped by the French; the weather was deteriorating; and a numerous garrison had to be left on Walcheren. On top of that, a strange respiratory sickness was running rife among troops and sailors, reducing manpower.
A combined force which just a few weeks before had seemed so formidable was now barely capable of holding its meagre gains. Sick, damp, demoralised, and with a leader at its head who seemed devoid of military qualities, the Army now had to depend on the Navy to evacuate them just as the seas became really stormy.
The comparisons with the dithering and poor leadership at both Gallipoli and Anzio are almost too obvious.
The East Norfolks had distinguished themselves, but, as Sergeant Hale concludes,
On 17 September 1809, we disembarked at Deal. In a short time our hospital was crowded with men sick with fever. In about one month, nearly half our regiment was on the sick list, by which a great many were summoned to their last homes. Several times, three or four in a day were carried to the burial ground.
For the second time in under a year, the 9th had returned from campaign completely ruined. It is a huge tribute to their officers and cadre of experienced men, therefore, that they reformed so quickly and effectively that they were able to fight in the Peninsula just a few months later, adding further honours to their already crowded colours.
Regimental history The 9th were given the title ‘East Norfolk’ after their return from the Americas in 1782, but had been raised in 1685 to help quell the Monmouth Rebellion. Service in Ireland at the Boyne and the bloodbath of Aughrim followed, then distinction in the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1761, the 9th won their first battle honour at Belle Île during the Seven Years War. But it was in the Americas that the regiment excelled, foremost at the Siege of Fort Ticonderoga and the Battle of Fort Anne. They were compelled to surrender at Saratoga in 1777 – an event that spawned Robert Graves’s wonderful novel, Sergeant Lamb of the 9th, in the 1940s. Against the French Revolution and Napoleon, the regiment was bloodily busy, however, first in the West Indies, then Holland in 1799, and afterwards the Ferrol Expedition of 1800. Next came the early battles of the Peninsula, Corunna, and the Walcheren debacle, before a return to Iberia for the glory of Salamanca, the indignity of Burgos, and the triumphs of 1813. Then there was a brief sojourn in Canada to counter the Americans, before a tour in France as part of the Army of Occupation. Hard service in the Sikh Wars, the Crimea, Japan, and the Second Afghan War saw more bloodletting by the 9th. In 1881, when they shed their number and adopted the title ‘The Norfolk Regiment’, its Regular and Militia battalions more than deserved to wear their unique Britannia cap-badge with enormous pride.
Patrick Mercer is a former soldier, journalist, and MP. He is interested in any action of the British Army or Royal Navy, but has made special studies of the Peninsular War,the Crimean War, and the Italian Campaignof the Second World War.