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Invasion Scares in Britain, 1793-1815:

Trafalgar and the End of the Invasion Scares


Thomas Rowlandson, "The End of the Farce of Invasion", from the New York Metropolitan Museum, from here

Lord Nelson’s defeat of the Franco–Spanish fleet in October 1805 meant Napoleon could no longer hope to cover the landing of the 150,000 men he meant to bring onto British soil. By the time Trafalgar was fought, however, the immediate threat had already passed. Napoleon had begun withdrawing the Armée d’Angleterre from the camp at Boulogne to meet the attack from Austria and Russia as part of the War of the Third Coalition.


Moreover, although Trafalgar did mean Napoleon could not try another invasion until he had rebuilt his navy, fear of invasion continued. Continental conditions after Trafalgar were unfavourable: the Third Coalition collapsed soon after the naval battle, leaving Britain once again without allies, and contemporaries feared Napoleon would make another attempt to invade some part of the British Isles all the way into 1806.

The possibility that Napoleon might use the fleet that belonged to Denmark (a neutral power) to invade Ireland was a major reason behind the assault on Copenhagen in the autumn of 1807. One of the reasons for the 1809 Walcheren expedition was to capture the French fleet at Flushing and to destroy the shipbuilding facilities at Antwerp.


In 1811, with Britain still isolated on the continent and Holland and northern Germany entirely in French hands, Napoleon sparked another serious scare by announcing that he would soon have a fleet of 150 ships of the line. A British government paper on the subject of a likely invasion summed up the situation in a line that could have been written at almost any time during the entire war: ‘Until an invasion is attempted he [Napoleon] will never rest.’


In This Section

  • Responses to the Threat

Despite this prediction, Napoleon never did try to invade. Three things helped end the periodic invasion scares in 1812–13. First was Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, which destroyed Napoleon’s army for the foreseeable future. Second, the Peninsular War began to pick up momentum at last. Wellington’s victories over 1812 and 1813 raised morale at home and reinforced the conviction that Britons could beat Frenchmen after all. Third, by 1813 Britain was no longer continentally isolated, joining the Sixth Coalition with Russia, Austria, Prussia, and several other powers. In the end it was Britain that invaded France when Wellington advanced across the Pyrenees over the winter of 1813/14.


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

Considering the extent of the defence measures enacted to counter the invasion threat, and the vast numbers of men enlisted in the various bodies raised to counter the French on home soil, the invasion threat had a surprisingly weak long-term impact. Despite there being 400,000 volunteers at the height of the invasion scares, their numbers declined rapidly once the immediate threat went away and the government lost interest. Nor was there much social impact: Jane Austen’s novels, for example, do not give the impression that ordinary people were much concerned about the war.


There were some obvious impacts, however. The most obvious was in changes in the coastal landscape. Along the south-eastern and eastern coasts in particular, and in Ireland, vast sums of money were invested on fortifications. A network of Martello towers was built from Kent to Essex; the Royal Military Canal was built in Romney Marsh; and various ambitious works from the Chatham Lines to the Western Heights at Dover were constructed. Vast ordnance depots were erected at Warley, Sittingbourne, Sevenoaks, and Weedon Bec (the furthest point inland and therefore considered safest from invasion). The Scottish and Irish coasts were similarly fortified. The appearance of the country had changed.


Most significantly, although the volunteer spirit disappeared for a while, it did not completely go away. A generation later, when Napoleon III again threatened invasion, the reaction of the country was very similar to 1803–05. Addington’s 1803 call for volunteers was renewed on very similar terms, and the militia was again called out. There were differences, but the template had been laid down by the ‘great invasion scare’ at the turn of the century.

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

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