The British Armed Nation, 1793-1815

By J. E. Cookson | Go to book overview

2 The French Encirclement

BRITAIN'S strategic interest in the Low Countries is one of the forgotten chapters of the long Anglo-French conflict commencing in 1793. Something invariably mentioned in connection with the decision to intervene in the war against revolutionary France, its importance as a 'cause' of war has done little to secure its importance during the war itself. Yet easily the most important constant in the strategic situation from the defeat of the First Coalition until the Dutch revolt at the end of 1813 was the enemy's control of the coast north of the Channel. The generals understood immediately what it portended. As early as January 1795 Lord Adam Gordon wrote from his Scottish command, that 'since the French have got possession of Holland, [Britain] seems to me full as vulnerable as Ireland'.1 With possession of the Scheldt and the Zuider Zee, the French and their Dutch clients enjoyed safe naval havens and easy access to the North Sea by which they could threaten the whole of England's east coast, including the Thames estuary, Scotland, and northern and western Ireland.2 Occasionally this danger was magnified by the hostility of the Baltic powers, as happened with the League of Armed Neutrality in 1801 and the Franco-Russian rapprochement of 1807. The expedition against Copenhagen in 1807 has to be appreciated as an action not only to keep the naval balance in Britain's favour but also to reduce a potential threat to Ireland.3 Attack from northern Europe was an attack on the most exposed parts of the British Isles because throughout the eighteenth century the country was prepared for invasion along the southern coasts, the easiest striking point for French and Spanish fleets. All the great naval bases were in the south, and the navy was to find itself greatly stretched in throwing a defensive screen around the entire periphery.

In the Duke of York's words, Britain and France occupied 'a relative position unknown in any former contest'.4 Britain's vulnerability because of strategic

____________________
1
Lord Adam Gordon to Lord Amherst, 30 Jan. 1795, Chatham MSS, PR030/8/139, fos. 59-60. See also Lord Fitzwilliam to the Duke of Portland, 29 Jan. 1795, Fitzwilliam MSS, Sheffield Central Library, F5/30.
2
General Dundas, 'Considerations on the Invasion of Great Britain 1796, WO30/65, begins by making this point.
3
Canning to the Duke of Richmond, 16 Aug. 1807, Richmond MSS, NLI MS 59/149. Sir Edward Littlehales, the military secretary at Dublin, said of the expedition: 'It will, in my opinion, contribute more to the defence of Ireland than any measure that could possibly have been undertaken.' Littlehales to B. Wyatt, 5 Sept. 1807, SPOI CSO OP225/14/32.
4
York to Lord Hobart, 25 Aug. 1803, Melville MSS, SRO GD51/1/982/1.

-38-

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The British Armed Nation, 1793-1815
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Contents vii
  • List of Maps ix
  • Abbreviations x
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Addition of Mass 16
  • 2 - The French Encirclement 38
  • 3 - The Rise and Fall of the Volunteers 66
  • 4 - The Manpower Ceiling 95
  • 5 - Scotland's Fame 126
  • 6 - Ireland's Fate 153
  • 7 - The Problem of Order 182
  • 8 - Armed Nationalism 209
  • 9 - The Legacy of the Armed Nation 246
  • Bibliography 264
  • Index 281
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