Ever since I first discovered Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe 30 years ago, I have had a fascination for all-things Napoleonic – the Peninsular War in particular (I even wrote my university dissertation on it!). The Walcheren expedition of 1809 was an extension of this conflict, and a rather disastrous one. Author Lynn Bryant is currently writing a fiction series, The Manxman Series, based on the events of the Walcheren Campaign. Book 2, This Blighted Expedition, is out this week. Today Lynn visits us to talk about the research behind the book.
This Blighted Expedition: a novel of the Walcheren Campaign of 1809 (Book 2 in the Manxman series)
This Blighted Expedition is my eleventh published historical novel, and the second in the Manxman series, which follows the fortunes of the fictional Captain Hugh Kelly of HMS Iris, his wife Roseen and his young first lieutenant Alfred Durrell. This book takes them to the Walcheren campaign of 1809 where a huge joint operation between the army and the navy went disastrously wrong, and led to an ignominious retreat, the deaths of over 4000 men from the deadly Walcheren fever and a Parliamentary inquiry.
Researching Walcheren has been very different to researching the better known campaigns of the wars for my Peninsular War Saga. There is a huge amount of published contemporary material in the form of letters and journals about the Peninsular War. Officers, and in a few cases, their enlisted men, wrote endlessly to their family and friends about their experiences in the war, and modern historians have done a remarkable job of discovering, editing and publishing these accounts. When researching the doings of my fictional regiment at the siege of Badajoz, the problem was having time to sift through all the material and also of knowing when to stop. Writing fiction, as opposed to history, there comes a point when you have to decide how you’re going to write it and then stop researching. You are not trying to give a perfect account of events, you’re trying to give a credible account of events from the point of view of your characters. There’s a big difference.
With Walcheren, I was unusually lucky to have a great deal of help with the sources, in the person of Dr Jacqueline Reiter, who is something of an expert on the campaign. Jacqueline has done an enormous amount of research on Walcheren, and has written an excellent biography of John Pitt, second Earl of Chatham, who commanded the army during the campaign. She is currently working on a biography of Sir Home Popham, the controversial navy officer who played such a large part in the planning and execution of the joint operation at Walcheren. Not only did Jacqueline point me in the direction of the few books written on the subject, but she also generously shared her own notes and sources from many years of research.
With a joint operation, I needed to follow both the army and the navy. As always, my starting point was to read any books on the subject to get a general overview, and I’ve listed them in full below. There aren’t many, but I read Jacqueline’s book on Chatham, and the books by Martin R Howard and Gordon Bond on the campaign. There is a brief account of the campaign in Andrew Limm’s Walcheren to Waterloo and a frustratingly short mention of it in Hugh Popham’s biography of Sir Home Riggs Popham. I was also very grateful to Carl Christie, for sharing his excellent thesis on the campaign with me as well as his list of sources.
There are some accounts by both army and navy officers. Many are very brief, and included in volumes describing their more glorious achievements in later campaigns. One of the most useful sources for the navy was the letters and journals of Edward Codrington, which are available online. I owe the story of the wreck of the Venerable to him and to Dr McGrigor, who was aboard the ship and described it vividly in his autobiography. Jacqueline Reiter generously shared her research notes on the log of the Venerable, which confirmed McGrigor’s account of the army wives aboard the vessel.
Some of my old favourite army writers include an account of Walcheren, including Private Harris and Private Wheeler and it is from them that I have taken my account of the fever, along with several medical men who wrote about it. The Proceedings of the Army give daily accounts of the progress of the siege works, once again shared by Dr Reiter, and offer a marvellous impression of the mind-numbing tedium of the digging of trenches and building of batteries.
I am indebted to Gareth Glover for sending me the account of the campaign by Joseph Barrallier of the 71st who told the story of Pack’s abortive attack on Veere really well. Excerpts of diaries by Captain Bowlby of the 4th foot and General Trench are very short, but give marvellous small details which help to bring a novel to life, such as Trench’s mention of the order of 24th July stating that plundering would be punished by ‘instant death’. Trench is also scathing about Chatham’s abilities as a commander, and writes that: “yesterday about 12 o’clock he got under way being preceded by a column of 8 waggons in the first of which was a life turtle, he had a fresh horse at Schore but did not attempt to go further than Crabbendyke, tho’ Batz was but 7 miles off.” Evidently Chatham’s indolence and slow progress was a source of frustration in his army.
The rather unusual aspect of the Walcheren campaign was the large number of civilians who accompanied the army, including a number of journalists, most of them invited by that relentless self-publicist, Sir Home Popham. Once again, I am indebted to Jacqui Reiter for a lot of information about them, including the diary and letters of young Lord Lowther. Lowther was a gift wrapped in silver paper for a historical novelist, and almost everything I have written about him was true.
In addition to sources which are directly relevant to the campaign, I spent a great deal of time reading online accounts of the Parliamentary inquiry into Walcheren, since I decided that the story of one of my characters, needed to end with his appearance before the House of Commons. This turned out to be one of those impulsive decisions a writer makes, without really thinking about the amount of work involved. I did the same thing at the end of the first book in the series, by choosing to end the novel with a general Court Martial which took hours of research into procedure and rules of evidence. It turns out that a Parliamentary inquiry takes even longer although as a set piece to end the novel, it was very effective.
While most of my research is done sitting at my desk, I was lucky enough to be able to go to Walcheren earlier this year, to visit many of the sites I’ve been writing about. The apartment we stayed in was in one of the many old houses on Korendijk in Middelburg, which would have been there at the time Katja de Groot was living there and I was ridiculously excited when our hostess explained that the old beams in the house are so scarred and in some places burned, because they were all re-used from broken up ships in the Vlissingen and Antwerp dockyards. That kind of on the ground research is priceless and I feel as though I know Katja’s lovely Middelburg home personally.
This Blighted Expedition is available on Kindle and will be available in paperback in a few weeks. In the end, it is always my aim, as a novelist to engage the reader with my characters, both fictional and real. The research is a framework, on which to build a story, and by the end of the book it often feels as though I’ve been playing a game of Jenga with the research, carefully removing as much of it as I can to enable the story to stand up but not taking out so much that the whole thing comes crashing down. I hope I’ve achieved it and that readers enjoy the end result.
As this is a blog post, not a thesis, I’ve provided a short book list but if readers have any further questions about online sources, please contact me on my website, on Facebook or on Twitter and I’ll do my best to answer them.
Bond, Gordon, The Grand Expedition: the British invasion of Holland in 1809 (University of Georgia Press, 1979); Christie, Carl A, The Walcheren Expedition of 1809 (PhD, University of Dundee, 1975); Howard, Martin R, Walcheren 1809: the scandalous destruction of a British army; Limm, Andrew, Walcheren to Waterloo: the British Army in the Low Countries during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (Pen and Sword, 2018); Popham, Hugh, A Damned Cunning Fellow: the eventful life of Rear-Admiral Sir Home Popham (The Old Ferry Press, 1991); Reiter, Jacqueline, The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (Pen and Sword 2017).
About the author:
Lynn Bryant was born and raised in London’s East End. She studied History at University and had dreams of being a writer from a young age. Since this was clearly not something a working class girl made good could aspire to, she had a variety of careers including a librarian, NHS administrator, relationship counsellor and manager of an art gallery before realising that most of these were just as unlikely as being a writer and took the step of publishing her first book.
She now lives in the Isle of Man and is married to a man who understands technology, which saves her a job, and has two grown up children and two Labradors. History is still a passion, with a particular enthusiasm for the Napoleonic era and the sixteenth century. When not writing she waits on the Labradors, reads anything that’s put in front of her and makes periodic and unsuccessful attempts to keep a tidy house.
This Blighted Expedition is available on Amazon kindle here and will be out in paperback by the end of November. To celebrate publication, the first book, An Unwilling Alliance is available from 1st to 5th November 2019 FREE on Amazon here.
In the meantime, I am about to embark on book six of the Peninsular War Saga. It’s called An Unrelenting Enmity and to give myself a kick start with the writing process, I am attempting NaNaWriMo for the first time ever. To follow my progress why not join me on my blog over at Writing with Labradors, or on Facebook or Twitter?
From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon UK, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.
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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly