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Could the French Sack London?

Frederick Engels

The report of the British National Defense Commission, which was recently published in London[a], states that if the Emperor of the French were disposed to send a hostile army to England, it would be impossible for "all the available vessels of the Royal Navy" to prevent it from landing at some point of the 2,147 miles of coast line of England and Wales, not to speak of that of Ireland. It having been also conceded, at various times before and since the publication of the famous de Joinville pamphlet[b], that a landing of 100,000 or more Frenchmen could be effected in the British Islands, under skillful management, the only important point to be considered is, what power of resistance Great Britain has at her command to meet such an invasion.

In compliance with an order of the House of Commons, the strength of the British land forces was reported in May last. It was as follows: Total regimental establishments, 144,148; effectives of all ranks on the 1st of May, 133,962; embodied militia, 19,333. When this statement was made public, an almost universal cry from all parts of the three Kingdoms was raised, as to the manner in which the $75,000,000 appropriated for the army estimates were spent, since an analysis of the 144,148 men, given as the available material of the line, "revealed the startling fact that scarcely 30,000 infantry could be mustered for offensive or defensive purposes, at a given place."

Mr. Sidney Herbert and his associates of the Horse Guards, immediately held a consultation, and the London Times endeavored to quiet the anxiety of the people. It said[c]:

"We took occasion to examine the figures by which these allegations were supported, and explained in some detail the actual position of affairs."

It tried to

"show that if by the term 'troops' it was intended to describe only infantry of the line, the state of the case had been pretty accurately given, but that in reality the force at home comprised strong divisions of other arms of the service, so that its aggregate strength was by no means so small as might have been imagined."

The result of this nervousness on the part of the public, and of the consultation at the Horse Guards, was a completely new table of statistics[d], putting down the military forces of Great Britain, at home, at 323,259; or 179,111 men more than the statement submitted two months previously. The discrepancy is not difficult of explanation. The first was issued with the intention to show the number of men that could, under favorable circumstances, and on receiving reasonable notice, be made available for immediate duty; the last to supply the sum total of every man and boy entered on the military pay-roll, and consequently receiving a share of the $75,000,000, beside including 227,179 volunteers and militia, of whom fully 200,000 have no existence as soldiers. Then there are 33,302 men accounted for, as belonging to "depots." Lest we may be charged with prejudice in describing what these "depots" are, we will cite the London Times as authority[e]:

"The troops in the depots really belong, not to the home, but the foreign establishments. They are portions of the battalions serving abroad, and there is nothing strange in their being comparatively ineffective for duty at home."

In short they are merely an ineffective body, composed of recruits not over three months in the service, who are shipped off quarterly, or oftener, when enlisted, to the regiments abroad, and old invalids who have been left at home as useless,

"so that, what with those who are exhausted and those who are untaught, the corps itself is never in the condition of a regular battalion."

So much for the depots. Now as to the volunteers and militia. It is only necessary to repeat that at least 200,000 exist at present, only on paper. Mr. Maguire recently proved in Parliament that nearly every regiment of militia had from 200 to 300 men more on the books of the Horse Guards than could ever be got together on parade. Mr. Sidney Herbert made a similar admission[f]. Of the Irish militia regiments, whose members are compelled, from hardship and poverty, to report themselves more punctually than their English neighbors, many now estimated at 800—the Waterford for instance—have only 400. The estimate giving the strength of militia and volunteers of England at 138,560 is probably as near the mark as it is possible for an impartial statistician to make it.

The force of the regular army at home, according to the recent report from the War-Office, is 68,778. The Household cavalry (1,317), Royal Engineers (2,089), the Army Hospital corps of discarded invalids, the military train, and other partially unavailable troops, are here included. To avoid trespassing on ' disputed grounds, we will admit that the entire 68,000 are available. This, supposing all militia and volunteers embodied, and under arms, would give a grand total of 206,560 men. We will even add the Irish police to the list, which will increase it to about 237,000. The nominal strength of the regular army and embodied militia, just now, is given at 100,000; about 16,000 in excess of the real figures; but we will take it as it stands. Conceding that 15,000 of the volunteers could be assembled at a given point, within three days of the landing of the French, England would still have at her disposal an army of 115,000. Of these, it must be borne in mind that fully 25,000 are novices in the use of arms. Now, all the navy yards, arsenals and Government strongholds, would require extra garrisons, for there are never more than 8,000 marines ashore at the naval ports. Ireland, without attaching any importance to the influence of the "national petition," in creating a friendly disposition to the soldiers of McMahon, will need an army. All volunteers or militia would not suffice to keep order in the Emerald Isle, with the prospect of a fight in view. Her Majesty's authorities should at least detail 10,000 regulars, and 25,000 irregulars for that country, beside the police. This would make about 55,000 in all, and would leave only 80,000 soldiers to England and Wales, to guard arsenals, armories, and navy yards. It is idle to suppose that less than 20,000 serviceable troops would be sufficient for this important duty, allowing even the worn-out or inexperienced men in the depots to be able to hold their own. So Napoleon's 100,000 Frenchmen, Zouaves, &c., would be opposed by 60,000 red coats, of whom little more than 45,000 would belong to the line. The probable result of a rencounter between the two forces, thus brought face to face, hardly admits of a doubt.

It will be objected that France could not equip and dispatch across the Channel 100,000 men, without its becoming known. It may be; but England would not know where the blow would fall, and would naturally tremble for the safety of her possessions bordering the Mediterranean, and try to reenforce her garrisons there lest the threatened attack on London might be intended to cover ulterior designs on Malta and Gibraltar. She would send over to those places, in a few vessels of the Channel fleet, 20,000 or 30,000 soldiers, who would not be "volunteers," thus throwing on the latter the weight of resisting the enemy at home. Some distinguished writers assert that even the sacking of London would eventually be less injurious to England, than her banishment from Malta and Gibraltar.

But it will be argued that the mere announcement of national danger would be sufficient to arouse every Briton in the land, from the Cheviot Hills to Cornwall, to hurl the intruder into the sea. This is plausible. But experience teaches us that no matter how intense the patriotism of the masses may be, the fact that they, as a general thing, have no arms, and do not know how to use them if they had, renders their disposition in an emergency of very little value. Cane-swords and pitchforks may be weapons exceedingly dangerous to human life in the Seven Dials[g], or in the Provinces, but it is not reasonable to assume that they would be irrepressible in repelling the Zouaves. It may also be seriously doubted whether the middle classes, who almost exclusively represent the volunteer force, would be so ready to answer muster, with the French on their native island, as they are when summoned to receive the congratulations of her Majesty. At all events, it is not more absurd to admit the possibility of the invading army numbering 150,000 than to suppose the volunteers can turn out 120,000; since a cordial invitation from Buckingham Palace cannot succeed in bringing, at the end of a twelve months' recruiting, more than 18,300.

Some doubts having been expressed as to the force actually reviewed at Hyde Park, we quote a paragraph from The Manchester Guardian, of the second day's parade. The "private correspondent" alluded to is Mr. Tom Taylor, an intimate and confidential friend of Col. McMurdo:

"Our private correspondent, as our readers may recollect, has stated the number at 18,300, on the official authority of Col. McMurdo, which is a little lower than the amount given by Sir. John Burgoyne's calculation. But the martial bearing of the Volunteers evidently struck Sir John more than their mere number."

In estimating the forces that could probably be concentrated to oppose invaders, we have purposely made the most liberal calculation in favor of Great Britain. Our statement of the regular army admits as efficient every man, sick and well, whose name is on the military books. The militia and volunteers have been considered as 115,000 strong, which those well informed on the matter may deem excessive. The acknowledged ability of French field officers, the excellence of French military discipline, the general superiority of French tactics; and, on the other hand, the well-established stupidity of many of the highest officers in the English army; the slovenly management of the regulars and volunteers (after five weeks' notice had been given one regiment of militia actually mustered, in May last, with 135 barefoot members); even the conceded inferiority of the ensemble of a British to a French fighting army—all these have not been considered, although they are most important elements in a discussion of the subject.

In view of these facts, it appears certain that if Napoleon landed to-morrow, at a judiciously selected port in England, with 150,000 or even 100,000 men, he could "sack London" and escape the "annihilation" which a London journal recently stated would be his inevitable fate "if he put a hostile foot on Saxon soil."

Written between July 26 and 28, 1860
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 6021, August 11, 1860 as a leading article


[a] Report of the Commissioners appointed to consider the Defences of the United Kingdom, London, 1860. See this volume, pp. 425-28.—Ed.

[b] François Ferdinand de Joinville's De l'État des forces navales de la France, Francfort s/M., 1844.—Ed.

[c] "London, Saturday, June 23, 1860", The Times, No. 23654, June 23, 1860.—Ed.

[d] ibid.—Ed.

[e] "London, Monday, June 4, 1860", The Times, No. 23637, June 4, 1860.—Ed.

[f] Sidney Herbert's speech in the House of Commons on June 26, 1860, The Times, No. 23657, June 27, 1860.—Ed.

[g] A working-class district in the centre of London.—Ed.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 17 (pp.434-438), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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