Invasion Scares in Britain, 1793-1815:
Responses to the Threat
In 1794, there were three main forces available to counter an invasion threat: the Royal Navy; the regular army; and the militia. By the end of the decade, there were other informal options, including the Volunteers.
The Navy grew from 130 total vessels of all classes in 1793 to 150 ships of the line alone in 1810. The Channel fleet was one of the most important branches of the naval force and was used to blockade the French ports along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts from which a French invasion would be launched.
Many were confident the Royal Navy would defeat an invasion force before the French were able to land. Lord St Vincent, First Lord of the Admiralty between 1803 and 1805, famously said, ‘I do not say they [the French] cannot come – I only say they cannot come by sea.’ Evidence nevertheless suggested that relying on the Navy to stop the French could backfire. The French did manage to come by sea, to Wales (1797) and to Ireland (1796 and 1798); they also managed to escape blockade at least seven times from Brest alone between 1794 and 1802.
The Regular Army
The other branch of the regular armed forces was the army, but Britain faced the difficulty of arranging her manpower resources in a way that would protect both the British Isles and her territories abroad. At the beginning of the war in 1793, the regular army had only been about 48,000 men strong. By 1813, that had grown to 320,000, but this included garrisons for Ireland and Britain’s colonies in North America, the East and West Indies, and Australia. The bulk of the rest of the force was needed for offensive operations; there was precious little left to defend Britain. The only solution was to rely on auxiliary (non-regular) forces, such as the militia.
The militia was a locally-based defensive force and, in 1798, was about 80,000 men strong. Each county was required to submit annual returns to the Privy Council of all men aged 18 to 45, whose names were eligible to be drawn by ballot to serve for a period of five years (although in practice any propertied men who were balloted usually paid a substitute to serve in their place).
The militiamen received uniforms, weapons, training, and a salary at government expense, but could not be sent outside Great Britain (even Ireland – with its own system – was normally out of bounds, although an exception was made in 1798). From 1796, a Supplementary Militia provided an additional 60,000 militiamen.
The problem with the militia was that it was a highly political body. It was officered by country gentlemen and was under the control of the county lord lieutenant. Militia officers often sat in Parliament and their opinions had to be taken into account by the government for fear of losing their votes. The militia was therefore not as flexible as the government would have liked; it thus had to rely on other manpower expedients.
Following the Volunteer Act of April 1794, the government supplemented the militia with volunteer regiments. Initially, these were made up of wealthy gentlemen who could clothe and arm themselves as a police force ‘to preserve internal tranquillity’. By 1797, there were 18,000 volunteers in Britain. In addition to this, there were a number of privately-owned military units known as ‘Fencibles’.
As time went by, however, the government became more aware of the potential of volunteers for national defence. In April 1798, a broad-ranging call for volunteers was issued by circular to the counties. By the end of the year, 116,000 people had volunteered. By 1801, when the volunteers were disbanded, numbers had dropped, but the government could still count on nearly 150,000. The force was not heavily regulated, however, and the units differed strongly, some preferring to continue their former policing duties and others preferring to operate on a more military basis. Most volunteers were only willing to serve up to 20 miles away.