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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

Walcheren 1809: the Scandalous Destruction of a British Army

Howard, Martin R. Walcheren 1809: the Scandalous Destruction of a British Army. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2012. 254 pages. ISBN# 9781848844681. Hardcover.  $40

Walcheren 1809

In July 1809, the largest British expeditionary force ever assembled sailed from Britain.  Its mission was not to reinforce the British army in Portugal, but to provide belated support Austria in its war against the French Empire and to capture or destroy a French fleet being assembled in Antwerp.  The British troops were the cream of the British Army, 70% of the units being up to strength 1st Battalions, with a sprinkling of 2nd Battalions.  They were faced by a divided French command that consisted mostly of second rate national guard and penal units.  Initially, with Napoleon being distracted by the campaign with Austria, the invasion went well. The British were able to capture the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland.  But soon the expedition bogged down because of poor planning, divided leadership, and conflicting goals— all exacerbated by little prior intelligence on the climate and topography of the area.  Five months later, after achieving little, the British abandoned the islands and withdrew. 

What makes this story so remarkable is that of the nearly 40,000 British soldiers involved in the campaign, over 4,000 died and another 11,000 became hospitalized – close to a forty percent casualty rate.  Of the 4,000 dead, only 106 (less than 3% of the total dead) were killed in action.  The rest died of disease.  Of the 11,000 who became incapacitated, many were so weakened they would never again be able to serve on active service.  Even those deemed well enough to be sent to the Iberian Peninsula to serve with Wellington, were often quickly sidelined due to an inability to withstand the rigors of campaigning.

Martin Howard draws heavily on a variety of primary sources to tell the story of this ill-fated campaign.  Although told primarily from the British perspective, he also draws heavily on French and Dutch sources to show the problems encountered on both sides.  In addition to writing a lively account of the military operations, he explores in depth the divided British national leadership and how the expedition was undertaken for political reasons rather than military necessity. He also examines how its failure ultimately affected the political situation in Great Britain.

I have only ever read one other book on the Walcheren Campaign – G.C. Bond’s  Grand Expedition, which was published in 1979.  Both books cover the campaign well, however, what makes Walcheren 1809 stand out is that it is written by a doctor.  Martin Howard approaches it from a medical perspective and examines in depth why the expeditionary force encountered the problems it did and why it was so quickly decimated by disease.  One of the mysteries for the modern reader is what exactly was the “Walcheren Fever” that destroyed the British army?  Contemporary accounts provide a variety of clues, but to today's reader none of them give a definitive answer.  The author of Walcheren 1809, Dr. Howard, looks at all the symptoms and other factors that were recorded and comes up with a very persuasive argument on what it was.  However I do not think it is fair to the author to reveal his conclusions.  If you want to know, you will have to buy the book!

Walcheren 1809 covers a huge gap in a little known campaign that had a major impact on the Peninsular War.  Because of its long-term implications for operations by the British in the Peninsular, it should be in every Napoleonic library, not just those specializing in the British Army.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham


Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2013


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