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Monday, November 1, 2010



"The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men.
He marched them up the hill,
and then
He marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up.
And when they were down, they were down.
And when they were only halfway up, 
They were neither up nor down."

John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham

The Walcheren campaign was an unsuccessful British military expedition to the Netherlands in 1809, intended to capture the port of Vlissingen and destroy the French ships, arsenals and dockyards at Antwerp, during the Napoleonic Wars. Recently, I conducted my own expedition to explore the area and take some photographs. On July 22, 2010, I traveled to South Holland and Zeeland with my friend and fellow lover of the arts, the Dutch photographer Bert Algra. We began our trip at Bert’s home in Sassenheim, headed south towards the port of Rotterdam and crossed the big rivers, the Oude Maas (Old Maas) and the Nieuwe Maas (New Maas), and had some breakfast in Brielle. From Brielle we took the Dammerweg across the Hollands Diep, to head south-west towards the islands of Zeeland, and in the direction of the port of Vlissingen. We traveled across the island of Voorne-Putten, where Brielle is located, to the island of Goeree-Overflakkee, which, like Voorne-Putten, is still in South Holland, and then across the Brouwersdam to the islands of Schouwen-Duiveland, Noord Beveland and Zuid Beveland in Zeeland. All day long, our intention was to end our trip in Antwerp and have dinner there, but we never actually crossed the border into Belgium. The closest we came was Vlissingen, on the estuary of the Scheldt River, from whence we could get an idea of Belgium, though the coast we saw on the other side of the Scheldt was still The Netherlands.


Brielle is a small harbor on the island of Voorne-Putten, located on the Nieuwe Maas, one of the two great branches of the river Meuse, (Maas) that winds its way through Belgium, through the city of Liege, and pours out into the North Sea. The importance of Brielle is based on the role of the little town during the Dutch revolt against the Spanish Hapsburgs, and the subsequent eighty years war against Spain. On April 1, 1572, the Protestant "pirates" known as Watergeuzen (Sea Beggars) captured the town in their flat-bottomed boats, thus securing a free port through which the islands of the province of Zeeland could be supplied from the North Sea. As the Protestants throughout the provinces of Holland and Zeeland realized the strategic nature of this victory, they began openly to support William of Orange and his rebel armies against the Spanish Duke of Alba, and the nature of the conflict changed, beginning to favor the rebels. The Dutch still celebrate this event every year on April 1st., and during the night before, known as "Kalknacht (chalk night)," deface the city with white chalk, and the students sing the famous rhyme: "Op 1 april verloor Alva zijn bril" which means, "On April 1st, Alva (Alvarez de Toledo, Third Duke of Alba) lost his glasses ('bril' means eye-glasses in Dutch)."

Duke of Alba

We took several photographs there. Most interesting are the battlements around the town, built onto the canals and the tributaries of the river, for the defense of the port. It was a pleasure to watch Bert photographing, with an almost patriotic fervor, the defense works of the old city, the living testimony of the glorious Dutch Revolt of the sixteenth century.

Bert Algra photographing the defenses of the port of Brielle

The old cathedral of St. Catherine is also a fascinating treasure of memorabilia from the glorious days of the Protestant Revolt. In the church is buried the only member of the Sea Beggars that lost his life in the initial seizure of the town, Hans Onversaecht, and the stained-glass windows are a running commentary on the epic event of the town’s capture from the Spanish. From the tower of the church it is possible to see the port of Rotterdam and the green expanse of Zeeland to the west and south, and it was from the top of this tower that Charlotte van Bourbon waived good bye to her husband, William of Orange, whom she would never see again, as he would shortly be assassinated in Delft.

The tower of St. Catherine’s Church in Brielle

Tomb of Hans Onversaecht, Sea Beggar

Bert’s photo of Brielle from the tower of St. Catherine’s

Views of Brielle from the tower of St. Catherine’s Church.

Stained glass window shows the Sea Beggars on the water.

“In the Name of Orange!” This stained glass window at the Church of St. Catherine’s in Brielle depicts the battle of the Sea Beggars against the Spanish army in 1572.

William of Orange and his wife Charlotte van Bourbon

A street in Brielle

The Delta Works

From Brielle we headed south-west across the island of Voorne-Putten and towards the famous water works along the North Sea coast. The Delta Works are a series of constructions built between 1950 and 1997 along the Zeeland coast to protect a large area of land around the Rhine-Maas-Scheldt delta from the sea. The works consist of dams, sluices, locks, dikes levies and storm surge barriers, designed to shorten the Dutch coastline, thus reducing the overall number of necessary dikes. The Works have been declared one of the seven wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The map below, with the principal dams marked in blue, gives an idea of the dimensions of the project:

Map of the islands of Zeeland and the Delta Works

The Oosterscheldekering in the Delta Works

Bert’s photo of the Oosterscheldekering in 1950’s postcard coloring

The coast of Zeeland on the North Sea, very beautiful, tranquil and melancholic.

The new windmills of the Netherlands

After crossing the Oosterschelderkering, we were on the Beveland islands. The western-most part of the island of Zuid Beveland was always known as Walcheren, and on it are the two great cities of Middelburg and Vlissingen. South Beveland and Walcheren are one island now, and they were joined to the mainland by a railway embankment in 1903, as North Beveland was joined to South Beveland by the Delta Works. In short order, we had crossed Middelburg and proceeded to the old port of Vlissingen, known by the British as Flushing: the object of the Walcheren campaign of 1809.

The Walcheren Campaign

The Walcheren Campaign was an unsuccessful British expedition to the Netherlands in 1809, intended to open another front in the Austrian Empire’s struggle against France during the war of the Fifth Coalition against Napoleon. This "formidable expedition," as it was described at the time, consisted of 40,000 men, 15,000 horses together with field artillery and two siege trains, 39 ships of the line, 36 frigates, gunboats, ‘bomb-vessels’ and other craft, which crossed the North Sea and landed at Walcheren on July 30, 1809. The objective was to first take Flushing and then destroy the French ships, arsenals and dockyards at Antwerp. It was the largest British expedition of that year, larger than the army serving in the Peninsular War in Portugal. The Walcheren Campaign involved little fighting, but heavy losses were sustained from the sickness popularly dubbed "Walcheren Fever," which is a form of malaria. Over 4,000 British troops died (only 106 in combat) and the rest withdrew on 9 December 1809.

The object of the expedition was to destroy the French fleet, which the Allies thought to be moored at the port of Flushing, and then proceed to Antwerp. It was also meant to be a diversion for the Austrians who were directly under attack by Napoleon’s armies. However, before the Walcheren expedition had gotten under way the Austrians had already been badly defeated at the battle of Wagram. Nevertheless the campaign proceeded, hoping to capture Flushing and at least neutralize Antwerp. The British army was commanded by the elder brother of the Prime Minister, John Pitt, second Earl of Chatham, and the navy by Sir Richard Strahan. In order to surround the port of Flushing, the army landed on Walcheren and marched inland. 18.000 British troops were unloaded in Flushing harbor on July 31. But no sooner had the British seized the two islands of Walcheren and South Beveland, marshy and swampy territory infested with mosquitoes, an epidemic of malaria broke out among the troops. Within a month of seizing the island there were over eight thousand cases.

By August 15, 1809, the British had captured the port of Vlissingen (Flushing) and the city of Middelburg, as well as the surrounding country. But this success had the effect of pushing the French army under Bernadotte south to Antwerp, which was reinforced and made impregnable. Thus, with its main goal out of reach, the British expedition was called off early in September. Around 12,000 troops stayed on Walcheren, but by October only 5,500 remained fit for duty. The British had spent almost £8 million on the campaign. Along with the 4,066 men that died during the campaign, 11,513 officers and men were still ill by February 1810 and many others remained permanently weakened. In London, the expedition was compared to that of the Duke of York in Flanders, ten years earlier and equally unsuccessful, which was pilloried by the famous rhyme:

The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men.He marched them up the hill, and thenHe marched them down again.And when they were up, they were up.And when they were down, they were down.
And when they were only halfway up,They were neither up nor down.

Benjamin Harris one of the soldiers with a Rifle Brigade in the British lines, sailed to South Beveland and wrote of his experiences (from Recollections of Rifleman Harris 1848):

“...A fair wind soon carried us off Flushing, where one part of the expedition disembarked; the other made for South Beveland, among which latter I myself was. The five companies of Rifles immediately occupied a very pretty village, with rows of trees on either side of its principal streets, where we had plenty of leisure to listen to the cannonading going on amongst the companies we had left at Flushing. The appearance of the country (such as it was) was extremely pleasant, and for a few days the men enjoyed themselves much.

But at the expiration of (I think) less time than a week, an awful visitation came suddenly upon us. The first I observed of it was one day as I sat in my billet, when I beheld whole parties of our Riflemen in the street shaking with a sort of ague, to such a degree that they could hardly walk; strong and fine young men who had been but a short time in the service seemed suddenly reduced in strength to infants, unable to stand upright—so great a shaking had seized upon their whole bodies from head to heel. The company I belonged to was quartered in a barn, and I quickly perceived that hardly a man there had stomach for the bread that was served out to him, or even to taste his grog, although each man had an allowance of half-a-pint of gin per day. In fact I should say that about three weeks from the day we landed, I and two others were the only individuals who could stand upon our legs. They lay groaning in rows in the barn, amongst the heaps of lumpy black bread they were unable to eat.

This awful spectacle considerably alarmed the officers, who were also many of them attacked. The naval doctors came on shore to assist the regimental surgeons, who, indeed, had more upon their hands than they could manage; Dr. Ridgeway of the Rifles, and his assistant, having nearly five hundred patients prostrate at the same moment. In short, except myself and three or four others, the whole concern was completely floored.”

Oxfordshire Light Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, present at Walcheren


We arrived at Vlissingen at noon. The Dutch character of the port-city is not much in evidence initially, as the town was bombed during the Second World War, and much of it has been rebuilt in modern styles. At the port, there is a monument to the great Dutch naval hero of the eighteenth century, Admiral De Ruyter, who was born in Vlissingen in 1607. There are a few older structures and gables in the old part of town. We did not linger there, however.

Monument to Admiral De Ruyter (1607-1676) in Vlissingen

Battle Council on the Zeven Provinziën, June 10, 1666, presided by Admiral De Ruyter
, during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67) Wilhelm van de Velde (1666)


Middelburg was our last stop, after which we made our way back to Sassenheim. The city of Middelburg still has the character of an old medieval Flemish town. It was during the Middle Ages that it acquired its wealth, as a center of trade between England and the cities of Flanders. It then became a headquarters for the Dutch East India Company during the Golden of Age of the Dutch Empire. On May 17, 1940, the city was heavily damaged by German bombardment, which forced the surrender of the Dutch armies in Zeeland. The city was re-built after the war, including the vast Gothic Abbey and the Town Hall (Stadhuis).

The Abbey of Our Lady is a vast complex of Late Gothic buildings, arranged around vast courtyards and with smaller cloister gardens surrounded by arched windows and graceful steeples. Onze Lieve Vrouwe Abdij, the Abbey of Our Lady complex, was built by the Counts of Flanders between 1509 and 1512, and it attests to the great wealth of the region before the period of the religious wars.

Three views of the great complex of the Abbey of Our Lady in Middelburg

The most interesting structure in the city, however, is the Stadhuis (Town Hall). It is one of the most beautiful Gothic secular buildings in Europe, built between 1452 and 1458 by members of a local wealthy merchant family, the Keldermans, before Flanders fell in the hands of the Habsburgs. The building is a wealth of Gothic decoration and detail. Additions in neo-classical style were made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

During the war, the Town Hall was very badly damaged (left), but it was completely rebuilt after the war in the original style. On the façade are the figures of the Counts and Countesses of Zeeland and Holland under canopies surmounted by fabulous animals.

Three views of the Middelburg Town Hall

Flemish aristocrats, Counts and Countesses of Holland and Zeeland, along the façade of the Town Hall in Middelburg

Gargoyle on the façade of the Middelburg Town Hall

A vast square in front of the Town House was busy with people heading home from work or stopping off to drink some beer or have mussels and chips in the many restaurants and cafes that line the streets. There is an air of Belgium to this city, reminiscent of the Grote Markt in Brussels or the squares of Bruges and Antwerp, nearby to the south. The most beautiful women, the waitresses in their peasant outfits, the liveliness, the laughter, all rather removed and remote from the character of the Protestant north, from the grim austerity of Haarlem, for example. At about seven in the evening, still in clear daylight, we departed from Middleburg and put an end to our successful expedition.

Seven o’clock p.m., on the tower of the Middelburg Town Hall, July 22, 2010.

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