When Malaria Sided With Napoleon: The Doomed British Walcheren Expedition That Cost 4,000 Lives



The British expedition sent to Walcheren in the Netherlands in 1809 was one of the boldest moves of the Napoleonic wars. Unfortunately for the soldiers involved, it was also a colossal failure.

A Daring Combined Operation


The Walcheren expedition had two aims:

Firstly, it was meant to break the mass of French naval resources then occupying the Scheldt River. This concentration of ships was what Napoleon referred to as “a cocked pistol pointed at the head of England”. Dealing with it would not only deplete French resources but also free up the two British naval squadrons that were on constant patrol along the Dutch coast, keeping an eye out for the Scheldt ships.

The second aim was to provide a distraction for Britain’s allies. The Austrians were caught up in a struggle with the French on the Danube River. If the Walcheren expedition could draw off French troops then it would take pressure off the Austrians, giving them a better chance for victory.

The expedition was a combined army and navy operation of almost unprecedented scale, consisting of:

  • 70,000 soldiers and sailors
  • 264 warships
  • 352 transport ships.

Its success could potentially change the face of the war.

Clashing Commanders

The expedition was cursed from the beginning by a mismatched pair of leaders.

Commanding the army part of the expedition was Lord Chatham. The elder brother of the recently deceased William Pitt the Younger, who had been a Prime Minister of near legendary status, he was also the son of another Prime Minister and noted statesman, William Pitt the Elder. A politician in his own right, Chatham was a member of the British cabinet, and one with a lot to live up to.

He was friends with the King, and his place in the expedition was a political appointment, rather than being based on his military merit. Known for his caution, he was a poor choice for an expedition that would need fast action under pressure.

Sir Richard Statham, the naval commander, was the polar opposite of Chatham. Known as “Mad Dick”, he was famed for his courage, his wild temper, and his irregular behaviour. He was capable of reacting quickly when circumstances demanded, but less suited to providing a steady hand at the tiller.

A poorer pair of personalities could hardly be chosen to cooperate on a critical mission.

Lost Cause

Even before the forces set sail, news arrived that one of the expedition’s goals had been lost. Napoleon had inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Austrians at the Battle of Wagram on 5-6 July. The Austrians were suing for peace, a political necessity that would destroy the Fifth Coalition then at war with France.

The question now arose – was this expedition worth the risk and expense if its sole goal was to destroy the Scheldt fleet?

It was a tough decision, but any sufficiently large plan gains a momentum all of its own. It was decided that, if the British could take Antwerp as well as destroying the fleet, then it would all be worthwhile.

The fleet sailed.

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