Inaction and Fever: Britain, Napoleon, and the Walcheren Expedition of 1809

Matthew Groves

West Midlands
Notice Period:
Regular (more than one month's notice)
Paid: £50 plus travel expenses
17th September 2019
1800S | Army | British History | Napoleonic Wars

On 27th July 1809, an army of just under 40,000 men, the largest force Britain had ever deployed on an expedition, set sail for Zeeland in the Netherlands. They were carried by the largest fleet Britain had ever mustered together up to that point. It included thirty-nine ships of the line, twenty-two frigates, thirty-three sloops of war, five bomb-vessels, and eighty-two gun-boats. The expedition was launched with the secondary consideration of draining French manpower away from Napoleon’s campaign against the Austrians. The primary goal however, was to destroy Napoleon’s naval installations in Antwerp and its environs via a coup de main, it was part of Britain’s defensive strategy against Napoleon’s sea power, which had taken a hard blow at Trafalgar but was not destroyed whilst the Emperor had the installations to build more ships.

Three weeks after arriving on the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland, the expedition ground to a halt as a fever spread throughout the whole army at an alarming rate. On Sunday 27th August there were 3,467 men in the rank and file sick, a week later the number increased to 8,194. Furthermore, the siege of Flushing and poor coordination between the army and navy had allowed the French to rapidly mobilise its forces to reinforce Antwerp. On 27th August, the lieutenant generals of Chatham’s army unanimously declared that Antwerp was no longer a practical target. A week later, the King approved his Cabinet’s recommendation the expedition be recalled.

Walcheren was a turning point not just for British strategy in the war against Napoleonic France, but also for Napoleon’s Empire. Napoleon had repeatedly said that Holland did not deserve independence if she could not defend herself. For him, the Walcheren Expedition was a test, one which he knew his brother would fail.

From the French perspective of military history, Walcheren reveals the rapidity with which Napoleon’s empire could raise troops in the form of National Guards. Within a couple of weeks of news of the expedition, National Guard units from French departments were already raised and reinforcing Holland. Studying Napoleon’s correspondence allows us to analyse Napoleon’s handling of the situation, his attempts to control military affairs from afar, like the Peninsular, were ineffective.

This talk will examine the planning and execution of the Walcheren expedition and explain how it triggered a political crisis in Britain, encouraged future governments to focus the war effort on the Peninsula, and evaluate how it’s importance to the future of Napoleon’s satellite Kingdom of Holland.

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About Matthew Groves

I am a graduate of the University of Kent with an array of talks on multiple stimulating topics, with more coming in the near future! My period of focus mostly centres on the British and European history during the long 18th century. I have a particular interest in the Napoleonic Wars and the Napoleonic Empire. I hold a Upper Second Class Honours degree in History from the University of Kent.

My talks are include powerpoint presentations with illustrations and visual aids. Equipment I need for my talks therefore are a projector, screen, and a table.

For each talk I typically charge a fee of £50 (I may charge more for groups of over 40 and also for travel expenses depending on the distance), and I aim for them to last around an hour. I am normally able to be very flexible with my time, so if you'd like me to give a talk either in the day or the evening then I am sure I can accommodate!

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