Invasion Scares in Britain, 1793-1815:
On 27 January 1794 the Times reported ‘very great preparations at Havre de Grace, for a descent in this country’. Fifty thousand men were rumoured to be taking part in this expedition, which marked the beginning of a series of invasion scares that dominated the majority of the rest of the decade.
The threat of invasion was strongly connected with Britain’s lack of military prospects on the continent. In 1794 Britain was an active participant in the First Coalition and had allies in Austria, Russia, Holland, and Prussia, but she suffered defeats in Flanders, Holland, and in Toulon.
There were some costly successes in the colonies, particularly the West Indies, India, and Egypt, and the Royal Navy gained some credit from the Glorious First of June in 1794, the Battle of St Vincent in 1797, and the Battle of the Nile in 1798; as Britain’s allies dropped away, however, and after Holland became the French-controlled Batavian Republic in 1795, the prospect of an invasion of Britain became even more likely.
The situation worsened in December 1796, when a French squadron of 17 vessels broke out of blockade at Brest and made for Ireland. Only bad weather prevented a landing in Bantry Bay. A report that the French fleet was subsequently sighted off Beachy Head turned out to be a signalling error, but on 27 February 1797 1,400 enemy troops managed to land at Fishguard in Wales. They were quickly rounded up by the militia, but the invasion was followed by a run on the banks and the suspension of cash payments.
The months that followed were filled with alarm as the First Coalition fell apart on the continent, peace attempts failed, and potential invasion forces were sighted everywhere. France began gathering 200,000 men on the opposite coast. In May 1798 Ireland exploded into rebellion (exacerbated by another small French invasion), adding to Britain’s woes.