Waiting for Napoleon: Wormleighton's 'Dad's Army' of 1803

One of the schedules of volunteers willing to serve with arms, support and equipment.
Warwickshire County Record Office reference DR291/42/1-3

In August 1803 James Arnold, the Superintendent (i.e. Parish Constable) of Wormleighton compiled schedules of men willing to offer their services as volunteers when the imminently expected French invasion commenced.

Wormleighton’s volunteers

After Britain’s fragile peace with France broke down in May 1803 it was clear that the country’s regular army and its territorial-based infantry, the Militia, would not be sufficient to resist Napoleon’s planned invasion. In July the army’s Commander-in-Chief Prince Frederick, Duke of York (‘the grand old Duke of York’ of the famous nursery rhyme) unveiled plans for raising a volunteer force. The response was overwhelming and by the time James Arnold drew up his list of Wormleighton’s volunteers 280,000 men had already come forward. Indeed, the Prime Minister Henry Addington described the volunteer movement as ‘an insurrection of loyalty’.

As can be seen from Wormleighton’s surviving schedules1, the volunteers fell into two distinct groups. The first schedule lists men of the parish ‘between the ages of fifteen and sixty willing to serve with arms’. The second records men between the same ages ‘willing to act as pioneers or labourers’ in support of the troops. A third schedule gives those members of the yeomanry prepared to supply wagons, carts, horses and drivers in the event of an invasion.

As London would be the goal of the invaders, the Government planned for these volunteer units to be summoned to the capital as soon as Napoleon’s forces landed. There, they would either be sent to aid the army against the French or set to building and then manning the city’s defences in preparation for a siege.

French preparations

When Arnold drew up his schedules in the summer of 1803 Britain was in a state of panic. Napoleon was preparing an awesome invasion force which would dwarf all previous armadas against Britain. The French dictator had ordered the construction of two flotillas, one of 1,000 armed vessels, the other of 600 transports. These were to carry across the Channel an expeditionary force of 115,000 men (the so-called Army of England), together with horses, artillery and supplies. British agents were sending home reports of frantic activity in shipyards stretching from the Dutch to the Spanish border. Meanwhile troops were being gathered and trained at Boulogne, Bruges and Montreuil.

The end of the crisis

The invasion seemed inevitable until August 1805, when Napoleon was forced to move his troops away from the Channel against the Austrians, who had declared war on France. The danger finally passed in October when Admiral Nelson destroyed the combined French-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar. It would not be until 1940 that Britain would again face the prospect of a foreign invasion.

1 Warwickshire County Record Office reference DR 291/42/1-3

This article was Document of the Month for the Warwickshire County Record Office in August 2011. Further articles can be found on their website.

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