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The Defense of Great Britain: 1798

The Defense of Great Britain: 1798

By: Tom Holmberg


The Directory created the Army of England in Oct. 1797 with Napoleon as commander.  “Our government must destroy the British monarchy,” Napoleon wrote, “or it will have only to wait for its own destruction by the corruption and intrigue of these insular plotters.  The present moment offers a good opportunity.  Let us concentrate all our attention on the navy and destroy England.  That done, Europe is at our feet.” 

Napoleon proposed using, in addition to the troops already stationed in the West, 36,000 troops from the Army of Italy.  “For an expedition against England we require,” Napoleon informed the Directory, “1st, good naval officers; 2nd, a great army, well commanded; 3rd, an intelligent and determined admiral—I think Truguet the best; 4th, thirty million francs in ready money.”

The Directory ordered the archives searched for previous plans for a descent on England.  Thirty-four ships were ordered to make ready.  Napoleon ordered additional ships from Toulon and Corfu.  He ordered troop-carrying gunboats to be constructed. An English spy reported, ” On the road to Lisle every useful tree cut down, and sawyers at work, cutting plank and other scantling, and carts transporting it to the coast in great numbers.” The army proposed for the expedition was set at 42,000 troops and 4,600 cavalry.  He collected artillery in the same calibers as British field-pieces. 

Napoleon concluded that the time was not ripe for an invasion of England.  “With all our efforts, we shall not for many years obtain command of the seas, ” Napoleon reported.  “An invasion of England is a most difficult and perilous undertaking….Our fleet is today as little prepared for battle as it was four months ago, when the Army of England was projected…” Napoleon referred to the Army of the East as “one of the wings of the Army of England.” Gen. Kilmaine replaced Napoleon as commander of the Army of England, but when Napoleon sailed for Egypt the cross-channel invasion force in May of 1798 still had more than 30 vessels and 50,000 troops.

Years later Napoleon was to muse, “If, instead of the expedition to Egypt, I had made that of Ireland…What would England have been today?  and the Continent? and the political world?”

The first detailed plans for the defense of Britain were drawn up in Aug. 1796 by Sir David Dundas, the Quartermaster-General.  The plans called for a rigorous “scorched-earth” policy, known as “driving the country”—desolating and emptying a district of population (esp. the aged and infirmed) food-stuffs, livestock and vehicles of all kinds.  Bridges were to be wrecked, roads torn up, etc.

In January 1798 England disposed of 31,824 regulars to oppose and invasion.  To this was added 45,000 militia troops, 13,104 fencible cavalry and 11,042 fencible infantry, 15,120 yeomanry cavalry, 51,360 volunteers, and a supplemental militia of 60,000; 227,450 men in all, plus 117 companies of artillery.  Armed associations were formed to carry on partisan warfare. Plans were drawn up to arm the populace despite fears of putting arms in the hands of the disaffected. A series of beacon-masts, watch-houses and semaphore telegraphs were completed to speed communications in the event of a landing.  A telegraph station was erected on one of the towers of Westminster Abbey, another was set up at the Admiralty. 

 The Defense Act of 1798 extended the powers of the Lords-Lieutenant in a time of national defense. Plans from the time of the Spanish Armada were resurrected.  An Alien Bill was passed and Habeas Corpus suspended. By 1803 or 1804 the government had eased back on its “scorched-earth” policies for a more limited removal of horses, draft-cattle and wheeled carriages. 

Documents on the Defense of Britain: 1798Circular Letter from Mr. Dundas to the Lords Lieutenants of CountiesA Pan for Driving the Live Stock OffA Plan for the Association of the Nobility, Gentry, and Yeomanry to Supply His Majesty’s ForcesA Plan for Insuring a Regular Supply of Bread for his Majesty’s ForcesGeneral Orders Issued by Sir Charles GreyLetters addressed from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Rochester


Wheeler, H. F. B.  Napoleon and the Invasion of England: The Story of the Great Terror  London: John Lane, 1907.