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Invasion Scares in Britain, 1793-1815:

The 1800s


"Review of the London Volunteer Cavalry in Hyde Park", ca. 1804, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, from here

The ‘Great Invasion Scare’ of 1803–05


The militia and volunteers remained available until the Peace of Amiens, when the militia was disembodied and the volunteers disbanded. Immediately following the outbreak of war in May 1803, however, Napoleon announced his intention to invade Britain and ostentatiously set up a camp at Boulogne of about 200,000 men.


There was no reason to believe he was not serious in his intentions. Napoleon certainly had the troops and the funds, having sold Louisiana to the United States for 50 million francs. The question was not whether he would invade, but when, and where.


The government under prime minister Henry Addington responded robustly to the threat. The regular army had not shrunk much in peacetime, and stood at just over 100,000 men, about twice as strong as it had been on the outbreak of war in 1793. Given Britain’s continuing global obligations, however, this was not nearly enough. Like his predecessor Pitt, Addington therefore relied on auxiliaries.


In This Section

  • Responses to the Threat

The Militia


The militia had already been called out in March 1803. The 1802 Militia Act had changed the complexion of this force, providing for a total of 75,000 men – 50,000 on the traditional county-based model, and 25,000 ‘supplementary’ men for emergencies. In 1803, it was 65,000 men strong; by 1805, that number had grown to nearly 90,000, boosted by the emergency of the invasion scare.


Although the militia was still forbidden from enlisting into the regulars or serving abroad, in 1799 militiamen had been allowed by Act of Parliament to ‘draft’ into the regular army, and this expedient was repeated several times: in 1805 (and in 1806 in Ireland), and then almost annually from 1807 until 1813. It can therefore be argued that the militia had lost its local complexion and, from the government’s point of view at least, become little more than a recruiting ground for the regulars.


"The Washing-Tub Expedition", 1803, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection, from here

The Volunteers


Addington immediately renewed the call that had been made in 1798 for volunteers, issuing a circular in June 1803 summoning all able-bodied men. The new Volunteers, however, were very different from their predecessors, whose duties had largely been restricted to policing. The new Volunteers were much more military in character, and the government took a much more direct interest in the way they were raised, clothed, paid, and deployed. The Volunteer Consolidation Act of 1804 placed the force explicitly under the authority of the Home Secretary.


As a consequence of being armed, clothed, and paid by the government, the Volunteers were also no longer exclusively wealthy, propertied men. Many were drawn from the lower classes and the manufacturing towns, which were notorious for breeding radicalism. Many politicians viewed them with a jaundiced eye: William Windham, for example, who became Secretary of State for War in 1806, fulminated against ‘bodies of armed men, subject to no regular authority, governed by committees and sub-committees, and having more the character of debating societies than schools of military discipline’. His opinion was not shared by the Addington government, or by Pitt, who described the country’s ‘zeal and patriotism’ in December 1803 as ‘the grand source of domestic security’.


The government was slightly worried about the scale of the movement. The government had not tried to limit numbers, but the promise of pay (and exemption from the militia ballot) worked its magic. By the end of the year, there were 335,000 volunteers, all of whom had to be clothed and armed, and the government could not keep up. By March 1804, the government had only managed to arm about 213,000 Volunteers with muskets (the others were issued with pikes).


"Consular games - the game of brag - the game of hazard", 1804, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection, from here

The Army of Reserve


In July 1803, the Addington government passed the Army of Reserve Act, which created another balloted force of 50,000 men from the United Kingdom. Like the militia, all men aged 18 to 45 were eligible to serve for five years, and could offer a substitute to serve instead. Unlike the militia, however, the Army of Reserve was encouraged to enlist into the regular army.


This was an attempt to solve a problem that had been growing more and more obvious over the years – the fact that the militia and Volunteers took men who might otherwise have volunteered into the regulars. The Army of Reserve was intended to accustom men to military service and then tempt them to recruit into the army in return for a bounty. It was, however, only reasonably successful: by May 1804 the Act had only produced 37,000 effectives, and was suspended.


The Levy en Masse


This Act might have been very powerful, placing the entire human resources of the country at the government’s fingertips. It relied on the ancient prerogative of the King to call on the military service of all his male subjects in the case of emergency. County lords lieutenants were instructed to produce lists of all men aged 17 to 55, divided into four classes depending on marital status, number of children, and age. The first three classes were to be trained to arms for two hours a week between March and December, using depots of arms to be placed in all parishes. Unfortunately, the Act included a clause by which it was automatically suspended if enough Volunteers came forward to make it unnecessary, and it was never put into operation.

The Additional Force and its Successors


Addington’s defence policy was criticised by his political opponents as being too unfocused. When Pitt returned to power, therefore, one of the first things he did was to propose his own defence-related measure. The Additional Force was Pitt’s answer to Addington’s Army of Reserve. Like the Reserve, the Additional Force was encouraged to volunteer into local battalions affiliated to regular army units. The expedient failed, however, because it imposed a quota on each county of men to be raised on pain of a £20 fine, and most parishes simply preferred to pay the fine. By 1805, the Act had not even managed to raise 10,000 men.


The Additional Force was repealed in 1806 by the Training Act, proposed by Secretary of State for War William Windham in 1806. This Act ended all government support of the Volunteers (thus killing the movement) and divided the nation’s able-bodied men into three classes, providing for the balloting of 200,000 men to be trained over a three-year period. The Act was never fully implemented and was in turn repealed by the Local Militia Act of 1808, proposed by Lord Castlereagh, who succeeded Windham as Secretary of State for War. This was separate from the militia proper and proposed another force of 200,000 men balloted locally to serve for four years, a proportion of whom would be encouraged to recruit into the regulars in return for a bounty. By 1812 the Local Militia consisted of 240,000 men. Although the main threat of invasion had passed, drafting from the Local Militia and the militia proper provided Wellington’s army in the Peninsula with enough recruits to continue fighting to victory.

Background image: J.M.W. Turner, "Martello Towers near Bexhill, Sussex", 1811, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from here

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