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Invasion Scares in Britain, 1793-1815

Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library, "A chart of the English Channel with the adjacent coasts of England and France", from here

Britain was threatened with a French invasion for much of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1793 and 1815. The threat was particularly acute from 1794–98 and 1800–01, and during the so-called ‘Great Invasion Scare’ from 1803–05 –periods when Britain had no significant allies on the continent to distract French attention.

 

These were not simply ‘scares’. Three unsuccessful invasion attempts did take place: at Bantry Bay in Ireland in 1796; at Fishguard in Wales in 1797; and a landing timed to coincide with the Irish rebellion of 1798. Although Napoleon did not attempt to invade between 1803 and 1805, he had 200,000 men waiting orders to cross the Channel.

 

The immediate threat ended in October 1805 when Lord Nelson defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar, destroying Napoleon’s navy, but fear of invasion lingered, returning at intervals until the tide turned decisively against Napoleon in 1812.

For many Britons, the threat of invasion was the most significant aspect of a war that was mostly fought distantly and which they did not otherwise directly experience. Locally-raised defence bodies were raised as early as 1794 to supplement the militia as a defence force. In 1798, the government stepped in to call for widespread volunteering.

 

Between 1803 and 1805, the government again called on the nation to take to arms. At its peak the volunteer movement comprised of 450,000 men. Taking the volunteer movement along with the many other bodies raised for defence purposes during the wars against France, historians have estimated that as many as one in four Britons may have performed some form of military service between 1793 and 1815.

Further Reading

  • J.E. Cookson, The British Armed Nation, 1793–1815 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997)

  • James Davey, In Nelson’s Wake: The Navy and the Napoleonic Wars (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015)

  • Kevin Linch, Britain and Wellington’s Army: Recruitment, Society and Tradition, 1807–15 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

  • H.F.B. Wheeler and A.M. Broadley, Napoleon and the Invasion of England, 2 vols. (London: Bodley Head, 1908)

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

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