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Profile - Defending London, 1858-1870

Since the seventeenth century, the permanently fortified city has been largely unknown in the English-speaking world.  Only Portsmouth and Plymouth in England, the principal bases of the Royal Navy, were fully fortified, with permanent seaward and landward defenses in peacetime.  Of course, cities sometimes were given extensive improvised defenses in wartime, as, for example, London during the English Civil War or Washington during the American Civil War, and many others were provided with permanent seaward defenses, such as New York or Singapore or San Francisco.

This is not surprising, given that all the English-speaking countries have for many centuries been defended primarily by the "wooden -- and later steel -- walls" of their fleets.  The permanent defenses of Plymouth and Portsmouth were necessary because these ports had for centuries been the principal bases of the Royal Navy, and, being an easy sail from France, possibly vulnerable to a surprise descent against their landward sides. 

The introduction of the ironclad warship in the mid-nineteenth century, however, led to "The Great Anglo-French Ironclad Race."  Britain won the race to build the largest ironclad fleet, but not before some people feared that her primacy at sea had been lost forever, and, worse, that a French invasion might be imminent, for, as one pundit put it, Napoleon III, ". . . would never embarrass his finances to create an enormous navy merely as a yacht fleet."  Something had to be done.

Naturally, there were immediate calls for strengthening the Royal Navy, as well as the army and the militia, to which Parliament, sensitive to public opinion, readily assented.  But these measures would require time to bear fruit, and for some people they were not enough.  So a few Britons proposed that in the emergency nothing less than the fortification of London and other places would satisfy them.  Many people not only suggested that Britain commence fortifying its cities and ports, but some even provided detailed proposals for fortification schemes.

One of the most creative plans was advanced by Col. Robert Alexander Shafto Adair,  Second Baronet Waveney, a militiaman and aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria.  During the height of the "invasion scare" of 1858-1861, Shafto Adair wrote extensively on the problem of the defense of Britain, with his work appearing in the influential Journal of the Royal United Service Institute

Shafto Adair's first essay appeared in 1858, and advanced a very innovative proposal to turn London into an entrenched camp by using the rail lines that circled the city as the basis for a vast system of earthworks.  Relatively little work had to be done, since most of the rail lines were on berms, or in cuts, which could be extended to provide parapets and battery pits as needed, while leaving the tracks and roadbeds intact so that trains could move heavy guns, troops, and supplies around the perimeter to supplement the fixed defenses.  This proposal would have resulted in a fortified camp with a circumference of some 70 miles, leaving virtually the entire city immune from artillery bombardment.  As part of this plan, Shafto Adair also proposed increasing the London militia from less than 20,000 to over 100,000 men to garrison the works.  Not only would this provide for the defense of London, but any invader attempting to bypass and screen the city rather than besiege it would be vulnerable to an attack by the garrison.

Although this plan was an improvisation, it received extensive public support, with numerous letters to The Times and other journals, many adding suggestions to strengthen the defense.  Since Shafto Adair viewed his plan as a temporary measure, he supported other suggestions. 

Retired Field Marshal John F. Burgoyne picked up Shafto Adair's ideas, and in 1860 came up with a plan for a permanent defensive ring around London.  Burgoyne proposed 28 forts and batteries covering the area from Kensington and Harrow to Woolwich and Barking, to mount 1,050 guns and be manned by a permanent garrison of some 17,000 regulars, supplemented in time of war by 120,000 militia.  The whole system, without the cost of the land, was to run slightly over a million pounds, an enormous sum in those days.   Shafto Adair read Burgoyne's proposals, and was soon championing them in print.  But as he defended Burgoyne's plan, Shafto Adair came up with a new one of his own, in 1862.

Shafto Adair's 1862 project proposed that London be provided with a roughly octagonal trace slightly over 55 miles in circumference, consisting of 71 forts, fortified bridgeheads, hornworks, batteries, and fortified arsenals mounting a total of 2,192 guns and requiring 22,000 artillerymen, 4,500 cavalrymen, and 160,000 militia built around a cadre of 20,000 volunteers to man in time of war.  In addition, specially trained fire brigades were to be located throughout the entrenched camp.  The total cost of this grand plan was to amount to some £4.15 million pounds, including the cost of buying the 14,921 acres of land needed to construct the works (His estimate was certainly much too low; the French were just then refortifying Paris at a cost of £6.24 million pounds, exclusive of the price of the land).  Shafto Adair's new proposal generated considerable discussion.  But it was less fevered and more thoughtful, for the strategic situation was changing, and cooler counsels were beginning to be heard.

Although theoretically a French invasion was real possibility, the "window of opportunity" for such was quite narrow, even assuming Louis Napoleon wanted to complicate his already difficult international situation by taking on Britain.  To be sure, things were not all right with the defense of Britain, but the "threat" existed less in reality than in the minds of some Englishmen.  By 1862 the naval balance of power was shifting back in favor of Britain, if indeed it had ever been otherwise.  And by 1865 the Royal Navy was clearly superior again, whilst the French ironclad construction program was lagging badly. 

Despite this, some concerns about the security of London persisted.  In 1870 Alexander B. Tulloch proposed, not a full defensive enceinte for London, but a "shield" to protect the city from a surprise landing by a large force on the East Coast of England, by fortifying a range of hills that runs north from the Thames at Tillbury, some 10 miles east of the capitol, and just east of the city building a ten mile defensive system, while also providing defenses for Woolwich.  Tulloch argued that even if lightly held by trained militia and volunteers, these lines would impede the advance of a hostile force of as many as 150,000 men long enough to permit the British Army to concentrate against it, while the Royal Navy severed its lines of communication.  The Tulloch plan generated very little interest, for by 1870 it was clear than an invasion was very unlikely, but his plans do resemble temporary defenses erected east of London during the First World War.

Genealogical Notes:

1. Robert Alexander Shafto Adair (1811-1886) was the grandfather of Major General Sir Allan Henry Shafto Adair (1897-1988), the Sixth (and last) Baronet Waveney, who commanded the Guards Armoured Division, from 1942 until the end of World War II.

2. Field Marshal John F. Burgoyne (1782-1871) was the illegitimate son of General John Burgoyne (1722-1792), who did so much to insure American victory by losing the two Battles of Saratoga in 1777, and the opera singer Susan Caulfield. 

3. Field Marshal Burgoyne was, in turn, the father of Capt. Hugh Talbot Burgoyne (1833-1870), of the Royal Navy, who earned a V.C. in the Crimean War, but perished when his ship capsized in a gale off the French coast, on which see "H.M.S. Captain Goes Down, and With Her a Bit of History"   

4. Curiously, on the very same night Hugh Burgoyne perished, his cousin, Sir John Montagu Burgoyne (1832-1921), the 10th Baronet Burgoyne and an officer in the Grenadier Guards, transported the just-deposed Empress Eugenie and the Prince Imperial from France to England in his yacht, through the very same storm.

 

 


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