The invasion that wasn’t
Paul Randall recounts the stirring events of spring 1804 in South Dorset
Published in January ’07
England has been under threat of invasion countless times, ranging from the Romans to Hitler’s Germans, but with a marked lack of success, at least since 1066. Four hundred years ago, the Armada sailed up the South Coast but was destroyed by our ships and some terrible weather. During my lifetime, I stood by expecting the Germans any day but nothing materialised and Hitler, like Napoleon, attacked Russia instead. We have been very fortunate, since on most occasions our defence has been somewhat haphazard. However, the civilian population has always been prepared to rally to the flag.
In 1804, our Government decided that a French invasion was imminent. Napoleon had overrun the whole of Europe and now only Great Britain opposed him. Martello Towers and the Hythe Military Canal were our only defences in Kent and Sussex. These were the nearest to the army of 200,000 men which the Emperor had gathered around his headquarters at Wimereux, near Boulogne. His 2000 flat-bottomed barges would have an easy crossing on a calm day. On the other hand, Hampshire and Dorset were a possibility as they were poorly defended and a spring tide would favour a landing. King George III was sure it would be Dorset.
Action was necessary and the Government, besides increasing the regular army and the Yeomanry, was given authority for the raising of thousands of volunteers from the civilian population in the South. They would parade weekly on Sundays for a shilling a day and be prepared to die for their King and Country. Posters were placed on each church door, stating:
‘You will find your best recompense in having done your duty to King and Country by driving back or destroying your old implacable enemy envious of your Freedom and Happiness, and therefore seeking to destroy them and in having protected your Wives and Children from Death or worse than death, which would follow the success of your Inveterate Foes.’
From the Kent coast, the ‘Grande Armée’ could be seen through a telescope and a gentleman who sailed near to Boulogne swore that he had seen Napoleon on his white charger. In our county we feared French spies and, although the Weld family of Lulworth Castle were fiercely loyal, their castle was searched just because they were Roman Catholics.
There was the story, recounted in Thomas Hardy’s Tradition of 1804, that Napoleon actually landed at Lulworth Cove. Hardy’s version is that a couple of locals saw him land at the Cove, look at the prospects of a landing, and sail away. Some years ago, the Misses Loder, well-known residents of the village, said that they knew an old lady who was certain of this. She spoke French and knew exactly what the Emperor looked like. She was worried about her husband one night as he was out smuggling. She saw the French party leave their ship and row to the shore. She was well-hidden but quite near them and swore that she heard Napoleon say ‘Impossible’ before being rowed away. She was a well-known farmer’s wife who lived to be 104, so the two ladies heard it from her own lips.
The preparations to counter the invasion figure in at least three of Hardy’s works, mainly in The Trumpet Major. Hardy’s grandfather was a participant in the events as a member of the Puddletown Volunteers and an amateur soldier. This fine body of men was immensely keen and one of the more hilarious episodes in The Trumpet Major, is the effort of their drill sergeant: ‘“Attention, men. Now I hope you will have a little patience,” said the sergeant, standing in the centre of an arc, “and pay attention strict to the word of command, exactly as I gave it to you, and if I go wrong, I shall be much obliged if any friend who’ll put me right again for I have only been in the army myself three weeks and we are all liable to make mistakes. Attention, poise firelocks.”
‘“Please, what must we do if we haven’t got no firelocks?” said the lower end of the line in a hopeless voice. Now was there ever such a question.
‘“Why, you must do nothing at all. Just think how you would poise them if you had ‘em. You middle men that are armed with hurdle staves and cabbage stumps just to make believe, must of course use them as if they were the real thing. Now then, cock firelocks, present, fire (pretend to, I mean and at the same time throw your imagination into the field of battle).”’ It is all rather reminiscent of our gallant Home Guard in 1940.
Every year, King George insisted on bringing his large family to Weymouth. He delighted in the seaside, the Dorset scenery, the country mansions and, above all, the frequent army exercises and parades. Fanny Burney tells how His Majesty plunged regularly from his bathing cabin into the sea, whilst in the adjoining cabin, musicians played ‘God Save the King’.
However, in May 1804 the normal large body of troops had not yet arrived and the King was protected by 500 troopers of the King’s German Legion and the Dorset Yeomanry, who were always on hand at this time; they were proud of their turnout and preened themselves in gold-bedecked uniforms and on splendid horses whenever possible. Then there was the 3rd battalion of Dorset Volunteers. They could be turned out by order of the Lord Lieutenant and were paid a shilling a day to don their green and red uniforms. They were mostly local fishermen and farmhands, officered by the local gentry.
It was deemed that the weather was ripe for invasion, with frequent Channel mists and spring tides. England’s Navy was occupied in the blockade of the French ports and as this was completely successful, Napoleon decided to rely on a murky night to launch his fleet of flat-bottomed barges. So it was that on 1 May 1804, Dorset was put to the test. Peering through the fog, the Portland Coastguards spied a vast fleet approaching. It was actually the French fishing fleet, which normally scurried home at dawn, but it had found a fine shoal of fish and so dallied. The Portlanders were sure that the invasion was imminent and Weymouth the target. The enterprising Captain Daniel offered to ride there, since conditions made the lighting of the beacons useless. The tide had risen, so he had to bridge the gap in the causeway by plunging into the sea to arrive at Weymouth Barracks hatless and soaked to the skin.
Daniel gasped out the news to Captain Ingram, who reported it to Colonel Pleydell, who turned out the local regular troops and arranged for the support of the Yeomanry and the Volunteers. He then sent an urgent message to General Garth at Puddletown, who commanded all regular troops in Dorset. The General pondered over the news at breakfast and decided to take no action but to await further news – masterly inactivity.
In the meantime, the call to arms spread all over Weymouth, Portland and the surrounding countryside. Once it was decided that the French were about to land, the hastily summoned troops prepared to sell their lives dearly. The volunteers were called out from their towns and villages and marched towards the coast, seizing their ancient firelocks and scanty supply of ammunition. The pikemen took up their weapons from the usual place, the church porch. The roads were full of marching men.
Women and children left Weymouth in carts and carriages, when these were available They carried their small household goods and valuables and drove towards Bere Regis. Prayers were read in the churches. In Hardy’s The Dynasts we read, ‘Numerous Companies of Volunteers are moving eastwards, as are irregular bodies of pikemen without uniforms, whilst on the upper slopes of the downs towards the shore are the Regular troops with Cavalry and Artillery, all passing towards the coast.’ Dorset was ready for the French.
In The Return of the Native, Grandfather Cantle says: ‘In the year four, ’twas said there wasn’t a finer figure in all South Wessex than I looked, when dashing past the shop winders with the rest of the volunteer Company when we thought Boney had landed.’ William Barnes also wrote years later about the complete panic in Dorchester and in Lulworth. Fishermen prepared to block the entrance to the Cove with their boats. In the Red Lion, the landlord, Matthew Randall (the author’s great-great-grandfather), opened the taps on all the beer casks to frustrate the vile French.
Amidst all this turmoil, a message came from Portland that the phantom fleet had disappeared in the mist. There was a great sense of anti-climax coupled with relief as the troops stood down. Some, like Yeomanry Officer Festus Derriman in The Trumpet Major, deplored that he could not fight for his country. He was a braggart and buffoon who was soon shown up as such. As the church bells rang, the thirsty soldiery filled the inns. The imperturbable King thanked his troops and set out as usual for a night’s entertainment at the Theatre Royal. Like General Garth, he was not easily flustered.
The day’s dramatic events were reported in the Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury but not in the national press, although there was a brief reference in the House of Commons to ‘panic-stricken bumpkins’. This is rather unkind and does not reflect the patriotism of the day – we ‘bumpkins’ should honour our ancestors, who were prepared to die for King and Country. It was English character at its best.
Matthew Randall trudged back to Lulworth and sadly surveyed his cellar awash with best ‘October Ale’. How he loathed the French!
From ‘The Alarm’ by Thomas Hardy
This long poem, from which the final stanzas are quoted here, was composed ‘in memory of one of the writer’s family who was a volunteer during the war with Napoleon’. It is not one of Hardy’s greatest works, but it tells the story of the poet’s grandfather making his way to the coast in response to the call to arms in 1804.
Then on he panted
By grim Mai-Don, and slanted
Up the steep Ridge-way, hearkening between whiles;
Till nearing coast and harbour he beheld the shore-line planted
With Foot and Horse for miles.
Mistrusting not the omen,
He gained the beach, where Yeomen
Militia, Fencibles and Pikesmen bold,
With Regulars in thousands, were enmassed to meet the Foemen,
Whose fleet had not yet shoaled.
But Buonoparte still tarried:
His project had miscarried;
At the last hour, equipped for victory,
The fleet had paused; his subtle combinations had been parried
By British strategy.
Anon, no beacons burning,
No alarms, the Volunteers, in modest bliss,
Te Deum sang with wife and friends: “We praise Thee, Lord, discerning
That Thou hast helped in this!”