Meeting the French threat

Threat of invasion

For much of the war with France in the late 18th and early 19th century, Britain faced the threat of imminent invasion from across the Channel.  The magnitude of the threat, and the real possibility of its success, was unprecedented in modern times. 

With much of Britain’s army heavily committed on the continent and elsewhere, the government drew up wide-ranging plans in 1798 for putting the nation on an effective defence footing.  

Raising volunteers: the Militia

The proposals were embodied in the Defence of the Realm Act of 1798 and a series of subsequent measures which created a nationwide force of local armed volunteers – known as fencibles.  

The Act anticipated and planned for a people’s war against a possible French invasion.   Mobilisation of the civilian population on this scale was inspired by the existing militia forces which had been successfully revived - having fallen into disuse by the late 17th century - after Parliament passed the Militia Act in 1757.  

The militia was essentially a collection of part-time county defence forces, trained annually in basic military skills, and put to active service when military need arose.  In 1798, there were 118,000 volunteers but, faced with the possibility of a French invasion of southern England, William Pitt’s government aimed to expand this number substantially.  

More volunteers

Parliament passed another Defence Act in 1803 which enrolled more men in response to the massing of Napoleon’s Grand Army across the Channel.  

Further legislation followed in which Parliament dealt with the detailed arrangements for home defence.   Peers and MPs were ideally placed to perfect these measures as many were themselves officers in the militia and the various volunteer corps. 

Raising national morale

In 1804, at the height of the invasion scare, 176,000 men were already serving in Britain, either in the regular army, the militia, or in the volunteers.  

A further 480,000 men had indicated their willingness to take up arms if invasion came, and many were in active training.   As events turned out, it was only ever necessary to deal with false alarms, but the scale of civilian involvement in home defence was a much needed demonstration of  the state of national morale.