Two centuries ago, in a campaign designed to help the Austrians fight the French, over 4,000 British troops died, either in the Netherlands where the campaign was being fought on the island of Walcheren, or soon after returning home. They died not from fighting but from an illness dubbed ‘Walcheren Fever’. And exactly 200 years ago on this day, Maria, the wife of George Nugent, then a lieutenant-general in the British Army, was writing in her diary about how the Archbishop of Canterbury was about to consecrate a burying-ground ‘to receive those, who, alas ! have no chance of recovery, the fever being of so malignant a nature’.
Maria was born in New Jersey, when it still belonged to Britain. Her father, a brigadier-general, fought for the British during the American Revolution, and then, when peace was declared, took his family to England. In 1797, Maria married George Nugent, and went with him to Jamaica when he was made governor of the British territory in 1801. They stayed there until 1806, before returning to England where Nugent was promoted to the rank of colonel and then lieutenant-colonel. He was also elected to Parliament and made a baronet. In 1811, he was appointed commander-in-chief in India.
Maria wrote a diary for much of her life, mostly for her children and for own amusement. There is some more information about Lady Nugent and her diary at The Diary Junction; also on the web pages of the Jamaican journal, The Gleaner; and at ChickenBones which describes itself as ‘A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes’. The diary was edited by Frank Cundall and published in 1907 by The Institute of Jamaica as Lady Nugent’s Journal. Although it is considered an important and primary source of information on the history of Jamaica (and the process of creolisation), the diary is considered less significant when it comes to Lady Nugent’s writing in England.
However, the diary does have its point of interest in the years after the Nugents’ return to England. In July 1809, for example, Lady Nugent and her husband were in Kent cheering British soldiers as they embarked for the Netherlands on a mission to help Austria in its fight against France during the War of the Fifth Coalition. And she was there a couple of months later, watching as the ill returned in their masses and as her husband tried to find them accommodation. She still had time for parties, though, and a bit of fun.
In fact, the Walcheren campaign was a disaster (see Wikipedia for more). Around 40,000 soldiers, 15,000 horses together with field artillery and two siege trains crossed the North Sea and landed on the swampy Dutch island of Walcheren on 30 July - the largest British expedition of that year. The troops hardly saw any fighting but soon began to suffer from malaria. Over 4,000 troops died of what became known as Walcheren Fever (probably some combination of several diseases/illnesses - malaria, typhus, typhoid and dysentery). By February 1810, some 12,000 soldiers were still ill and many others remained permanently weakened.
Here are some entries from Lady Nugent’s diary, including one from exactly 200 years ago today, when the Archbishop of Canterbury was expected to consecrate some new ground to ensure room for the dying soldiers to be buried.
21 July 1809
‘Went to Broadstairs, Kingsgate, &c. and then set off, in the evening, for Deal. Met Lady Wellesley, &c. there, and had a nice walk on the beach. The Downs full of ships, and the sight altogether magnificent. The poor fellows cheering as they embarked, and I don’t know why, but I could scarcely refrain from shedding tears at their joy; it seemed, indeed, so thoughtless when they were so soon to meet an enemy, &c. But soldiers, I believe, never think, and perhaps it is fortunate for them that they do not.’
15 September 1809
‘Saturday, the Admiral’s dinner, at Deal. - Sir Charles Paget, a judge of lace. - Am much amused with the gentleman’s bargains, made at Walcheren, for their wives, &c.’
20 September 1809
‘My Dear N. much harassed by the accounts from Walcheren. There is a dreadful fever among the troops, and the sufferers are beginning to come over, for a change of climate and medical care, &c. - All the morning, he has been on horseback along the coast, and giving orders, for every possible accommodation, &c. for the sick. - Unfortunately, we had another large party at dinner . . .’
21 September 1809
‘The accounts from Walcheren very bad, and General N. was off early for Deal, &c. We followed, a large party, in the middle of the day, and all dined at Ramsgate . . . My dear N’s mind more at ease, having to-day completed many arrangements, and given out his orders, for the accommodation and comfort of the poor invalids as they arrive, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is coming to consecrate a burying-ground, to receive those, who, alas ! have no chance of recovery, the fever being of so malignant a nature.’
22 September 1809
‘. . . In short, we had a great deal of fun, and came back to Ramsgate very merry, in spite of all the anxieties of the morning, respecting the poor sick soldiers &c.’
1 October 1809
‘My dear N.’s mind is most cruelly harassed, by the idea of the numberless sick, coming almost every moment from Walcheren, and almost the impossibility of making them at all comfortable.’