Despite the growing professionalism of the British Army, indicated by event in the Peninsula in 1809, it could still be involved in disastrous operations. The most dramatic of these occurred in the summer of 1809, when the government ordered an attack on the island of Walcheren, at the south-western tip of the archipelago protecting the Scheldt estuary in Holland.
A force of 44,000 men, commanded by General Sir John Pitt, second Earl of Chatham (William Pitt’s elder brother), was assembled and, supported by an immense fleet under Admiral Sir Richard Strachan, was put ashore on 30 July. At first all went well (the town of Flushing was taken on 15 August) but Chatham refused to exploit his advantage by advancing on Antwerp. The French and Dutch effectively sealed off Walcheren, leaving the British to suffer the ravages of ‘Walcheren fever’ (a form of malaria) as they struggled to survive in the low-lyinh-polder-land.
In September Chatham was ordered to return to Britain with the bulk of his force, although nearly 17,000 soldiers remained behind as a garrison until they too were evacuated in December. By then, over 4,000 men had died of disease.