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
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 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.
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
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
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
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
in his yacht, through the very same storm.