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Doctors In Conflict

Walcheren 1809: a medical catastrophe

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 18 December 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1642
  1. Martin R Howard, consultant haematologist (
  1. Wilberfoss, York Y041 5NN

    In July 1809 the largest British expeditionary force ever assembled weighed anchor off the Kent coast and sailed for the island of Walcheren in the Scheldt estuary. 1 2 French naval activity at Antwerp had made the Dutch coast “a pistol held at the head of England,” and the government was keen to strike a decisive blow at Napoleon's ambitions. In the event, the preparation of the expedition was ponderous and its strategic aim was redundant before its execution. Napoleon had consolidated his grip on the continent by defeating the Austrians at Wagram earlier in the month.

    The potential success of the venture was also compromised by the appointment of senior military and naval staff who appear, almost 200 years later, like characters from a pantomime. The overall commander, Lord Chatham, was elder brother to the late Mr Pitt and was himself nicknamed “the late earl” because of his difficulty in rising from bed in the morning. He was accompanied to Walcheren by his pet turtles. Commodore Sir Home Popham was described by a fellow officer, perhaps unfairly, as being like a hippopotamus—“an amfiberous hanimal, wot cannot live on the land, and wot dies in the water.” His immediate naval superior, Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Strachan, was somewhat more competent but also out of his depth in the shallow waters of the Scheldt.3

    Summary points

    In July 1809 the largest British expeditionary force ever assembled departed for the island of Walcheren in the Scheldt estuary

    The military objectives were soon overshadowed by an epidemic of disease that largely destroyed the army

    Review of contemporary sources suggests that Walcheren fever was due to a lethal combination of malaria, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery

    The conduct of the army's senior medical officers was severely criticised in a parliamentary inquiry

    Whatever the military bungling, an account …

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