Thursday, February 12, 2015

Defending Britain Against Invasion, 1793 - 1815

by Jacqui Reiter

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 punctuating the course of Britain's war effort against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France from 1794 to 1812.[1]

Many more invasion scares followed over the years. An unsuccessful attempt was made on Ireland in 1796, followed by an only slightly more successful invasion of Wales in 1797 and a further landing in Ireland in 1798. The most serious invasion scare, however, occurred between 1803 and 1805. Napoleon encamped his “Armée d'Angleterre” along the Channel coast, and the British government expected 145,000 men to arrive at any moment from Flushing, Boulogne, Brest, and Le Havre.[2] 

View of the Armée d'Angleterre at Boulogne, with the British blockade (Wikimedia Commons)

What force could Britain rely upon to defend her shores? The regular army was too often occupied with other concerns. In 1793, at the beginning of the wars with France, the army was about 48,000 strong. By 1814 this number had swollen to 320,000 scattered all over the globe, but this large force was, by then, mostly used for defending Britain's colonies and offensive operations against the French in Europe.

The navy had similarly grown from 130 total vessels of all classes in 1793 to over 150 ships of the line alone in 1810: British ships blockaded most of the French ports for much of the war to prevent any enemy ships escaping, but this strategy was unreliable. The French managed to escape at least seven times from Brest alone between 1794 and 1802, which led the Times to remark ironically in 1798 upon "so many repeated instances of the good luck of the French in escaping the vigilance of our squadrons".[3]

The Militia
The government had no alternative but to rely on auxiliary forces. In 1793 that meant the militia. Each county submitted annual returns to the Privy Council of all men aged 18 to 45, and the militia was raised by ballot from these lists to serve for five years. 

Thomas Rowlandson: review of the Northamptonshire Militia at Brackley (Wikimedia Commons)

They received uniforms, weapons, training, and a salary at government expense, but were not to be sent outside Great Britain (even Ireland was out of bounds, although exceptions were made in 1798 due to the rebellion). At the peak of the invasion scares the militia was nearly 90,000 men strong.

The militia's original raison d'etre had been to articulate the propertied citizen's right to bear arms, but the rich were able to buy themselves out of service by purchasing a substitute to serve in their place. Even so, the militia were a politically-charged body, and governments tampered with it at their peril. 

The country gentlemen, who traditionally supported government, were liable to kick up a fuss if they thought the militia principle was being challenged. "The word 'Militia' in its operations on Lord-Lieutenants & Country Gentlemen is like the fabulous effect of music on persons stung by the Tarentula [sic]," Lord Auckland remarked wryly.[4] Prime Minister Pitt was careful to meet with lords lieutenant, magistrates, mayors, and militia officers to discuss legislation that had the potential to affect the constitution of the militia. The militia officers in Parliament were well aware of their power, and not afraid to use it.

The Volunteers

In addition to the militia, the government called upon ordinary men to volunteer to defend their country. The Volunteers were originally called forth by a government circular in 1794 and were, at first, composed primarily of wealthy gentlemen who could clothe and arm themselves as a police force in times of unrest. By 1797, there were 18,000 Volunteers in Britain.

A second more broad-ranging call for Volunteers was made in 1798, and a third in 1803, when the government funded uniforms, provided weapons, and provided the Volunteers with a salary while on “permanent duty” (in other words, whenever called out to defend the country). A vast number of men flocked to serve: in 1804, at their peak, there were 450,000 Volunteers. 

Review of the London Volunteer Cavalry (1804) (Wikimedia Commons)

Women were, of course, barred from joining the Volunteers, but the women of one town, Neath, petitioned the Prime Minister to allow them to be armed with pikes to protect their children and homes from invasion.[5]

The Volunteers of 1803 were very different from their predecessors. They were much more explicitly military in character: their policing duties were largely left to the Yeomanry, who retained much of the character of the Volunteers as they had originally been intended in the 1790s. Most significantly, the Volunteers were no longer exclusively propertied, and the government now took a direct interest in the way they were raised, clothed, paid, and deployed. A series of confusing and often contradictory decrees governing their behaviour was succeeded in March 1804 by the Volunteer Consolidation Act, which definitively laid down the rules for the force and placed them squarely under the authority of the Home Secretary.

The Volunteers had many political champions, chief among them the prime ministers of the time, Pitt and Addington, both of whom commanded local corps. Others, however, doubted the Volunteers' ability to make any difference. Many felt they could not be relied on because they had offered their services out of momentary enthusiasm, and might withdraw them at any time. “I am no ways afraid of the general bugbear of arming too many people,” Henry Dundas, the Secretary of State for War, boasted in 1796. “I am much more afraid of their inertness & want of military feeling the moment the pressure of danger is past.”[6] 

As the prospect of long-term threat from invasion became increasingly likely, the political pendulum swung more firmly against the volunteers and in favour of a more permanent professional force. In 1806 William Windham, Secretary of State for War, removed government funding for the Volunteers, which effectively killed them off.


By 1806, of course, the immediate danger of invasion had ebbed, although this is more obvious with hindsight than it was at the time. The battle of Trafalgar effectively destroyed Napoleon's means of mounting a significant invasion of Britain, although there was always the danger that the French would build another fleet and try again. By the start of the 1810s attention was turning back towards the Continent, where Wellesley's Peninsular army was making progress against the French in Portugal and Spain. 

"The Washing-Tub Expedition": Isaac Cruickshank's take on Napoleon's threat of invasion (Wikimedia Commons)

By this time, however, Britain had been at war for nearly twenty years with only a short break in 1802-3. Perhaps a quarter of the male population had served militarily in some way, either as a soldier, militiaman, or volunteer. The social (and political) consequences of the “British Armed Nation”, as J.E. Cookson has called it, were long-ranging.



[1] Times, 27 January 1794

[2] Memorandum as to Defence, 15 July 1804, Kent RO Camden MSS U840/O211/2

[3] Times, 24 September 1798; Memorandum on Instances of the escapes of the French from Brest during the Blockade, National Maritime Museum Melville MSS MEL/3

[4] Auckland to Dundas, 15 September 1799, Scottish National Library Melville MSS 9370 ff 36-7

[5] Petition from the women of Neath, 19 September 1803, Devon Record Office Sidmouth MSS 152M/C1803/OZ/94

[6] Dundas to the Duke of Montrose, 15 November 1795, Scottish National Archives Melville MSS GD51/876/2


Governments and Acts

The politics of national defence in the 18th century was rather confusing. The following list of governments, and the major defence acts passed under them, might help:

William Pitt, 1783 - 1801
  • April 1794: Volunteer Circular calling for volunteers under local control
  • 1796: Supplementary Militia Act providing for 60,000 extra militia
  • July 1797: Scottish Militia Act introduces militia ballot to Scotland
  • April 1798: Defence Act and Circular calling for more volunteers  
Henry Addington, 1801 - 1804
  •  June 1802: Militia Act restructuring the militia (75,000 total)
  • June 1803: Circular calling for more volunteers
  • June 1803: General Defence Act preparing nation for invasion
  • July 1803: Army of Reserve Act establishing 50,000 additional auxiliary force
  • July 1803: Levy en Masse Act to train all able-bodied men aged 17-55
  • March 1804: Volunteer Consolidation Act consolidating all legislation affecting the volunteers
William Pitt, 1804 - 1806
  •  June 1804: Additional Force Act combining Army of Reserve and Supplementary Militia into 80,000 strong force raised by ballot
Lord Grenville (Ministry of All the Talents), 1806 - 1807
  •  July 1806: Training Act provides for balloting 200,000 strong force (never implemented)
Duke of Portland, 1807 - 1809
  •  June 1808: Local Militia Act: force fo 320,000 in Britain, 70,000 in Ireland, separate from the Militia and encouraged to enlist in regulars
Spencer Perceval, 1809 - 1812
Lord Liverpool, 1812 - 1827


Further Reading

The most important studies of defence politics during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars are as follows:


Colley, Linda, ‘The Reach of the State, the Appeal of the Nation: Mass Arming and Political Culture in the Napoleonic Wars’, in Otto Dunn and John Dinwiddy (eds), Nationalism in the Age of the French Revolution (London, 1988), pp. 165-84

Cookson, J.E., ‘The English Volunteer Movement of the French Wars, 1793-1815: Some Contexts’, Historical Journal, 32, 4 (1989) 867-91

Haythornthwaite, Philip J., ‘The Volunteer Force, 1803-4’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Studies, 64, 260 (1986) 193-204

Western, J.R., ‘The Volunteer Movement as an anti-Revolutionary Force, 1793-1801’, English Historical Review, 71 (1956) 603-14


Colley, Linda, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (Yale, 1992)

Cookson, J.E., The British Armed Nation, 1793-1815 (Oxford, 1997)

Gee, Austin, The British Volunteer Movement, 1794-1814 (Oxford, 2003)

Glover, Richard, Britain at Bay: Defence against Bonaparte, 1803-14 (London, 1973)

Longmate, Norman, Island Fortress: The Defence of Great Britain, 1603-1945 (London, 1991)

Western, J.R., The English Militia in the 18th Century (London, 1965)

Wheeler, H.F.B and Broadley, A.M., Napoleon and the Invasion of England (2 v. London, 1908)


About the Author
Jacqui Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She believes she is the world expert on the life of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, and is writing a novel about his relationship with his brother Pitt the Younger. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at

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