Royal Naval Museum



Battle of Trafalgar Conference

Held at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Friday 14th – Saturday 15th October 2005

Beyond the Wooden Walls: The British Defences against Invasion 1803-1805 - Professor Clive Emsley, Open University

In nineteenth century Britain, and up until 1914, the conflict against the French Revolution and Napoleonic France was commonly described as ‘the Great War’. While a latecomer into the war against revolutionary France, Britain became France’s most persistent enemy for almost a quarter of a century of fighting (1793-1815). Britain’s effort in the wars was colossal. While her population was much smaller than that of France – especially a France swollen by military conquest – she played a similar role similar to that of the United States in the Second World War as a key combatant but also the lynchpin and financier of a succession of continental coalitions. During the first dozen years of the war the British government was seriously concerned about a French invasion attempt. These concerns reached their peak in the years 1803 to 1805, following the rupture of the short Peace of Amiens and up until the moment that Napoleon swung his army eastwards to confront the land armies of the Third Coalition. 

This lecture addresses the organisation of the planned British defences in the years 1803 to 1805, focusing on three main topics:

• The different kinds of military personnel recruited to meet the invasion threat and to prosecute the war; this will concentrate particularly on the regular army, the militia and volunteers with only passing reference to the Royal Navy.

• The methods of recruitment and their impact on civilian society; the British resisted conscription, introduced in Revolutionary France and developed by Napoleon yet succeeded in getting a very high percentage of its manpower under arms in the county militia regiments (raised by ballot and periodically pressurised into becoming a pool for the regulars) or in the shape of volunteer infantry and yeomanry cavalry. The recruitment policies were not always well considered, sometimes acting against each other. The recruiting and equipping of a such large numbers of troops on the coasts was not always popular with the local communities.

• The physical defences commenced on the coast to impede any French landing and the plans to drive the country. These saw improvements to existing fortifications (e.g. Dover Castle) and the construction of some that had been mooted for many years (e.g. the Royal Military Canal and Martello Towers), though by no means all of these were completed by the time that Napoleon turned his attention away from he invasion project.

The lecture will conclude with some suggestions about what the organisation for invasion meant in the long-term for British Society.

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