The Westminster Magazine covered the events at one such camp held at Coxheath, near Maidstone, Kent, during the summers of 1778 and 1779. By all accounts, this camp was on a massive scale involving 17,000 troops as well as civilians, many representing the 700 retailers who had come from London to service the soldiers. The paper quoted a letter from an officer of militia in August 1778 to his friend: “We are frequently marched out in considerable bodies to the heaths or commons adjacent, escorted by the Artillery, where we go through the various movements, maneuvers and firings of a field of battles. In these expeditions, let me assure you, there is much fatigue, and no little danger…the most grand and beautiful imitations of action are daily presented to us; and, believe me, the army in general are becoming enamored of war, from the specimens they have seen of it.”
France had joined America as an ally in the war against Britain in 1778, still feeling humiliated by the loss of territories after the Seven Years’ War. With this opportunity to avenge their defeat and adjust the balance of power within Europe, the old plans for an invasion of Britain were revised. Although the last war had drained the resources of both countries, in France there had been a determined effort to improve the armed forces, especially the navy. This was not the case in Britain, and by the time the two countries were at war once more, many ships in the Royal Navy were facing repair or replacement. Even so, the French navy was not strong enough to send ships to help the Americans, defend French overseas territories and provide protection for an invasion of Britain. What France also needed was the Spanish navy.
Both France and Spain agreed on the idea of an invasion of Britain, yet it took months to settle the details. France thought that Britain’s strength lay in its control of the English Channel, the anchorage at Spithead and the nearby naval base at Portsmouth, and so wanted to seize those key places. Spain, perhaps more realistically, believed that any invasion of southern England would force Britain to relinquish Gibraltar in return for a withdrawal of the invading forces. In the final version of the invasion plan, it was decided that the French and Spanish fleets would meet up no later than mid-May 1779 off the port of Corunna in north-west Spain. Together, they would head for the English Channel, and, with the protection of this combined fleet, a French invasion force would cross the Channel from France and capture the Isle of Wight, Gosport and Portsmouth. Various alternative targets, such as Plymouth and the Channel Islands, were also chosen in case of unforeseen events.
Without a common language or signalling system, there was plenty of scope for confusion, while a string of last-minute changes added to the problems of the two navies working together. From the outset, delays occurred because the Spaniards insisted on a formal statement of their grievances with Britain and a declaration of war, which they would only undertake after the French fleet had left the port of Brest in north-west France and was heading for the rendezvous. Under this additional pressure, the French commander Admiral d’Orvilliers set sail in early June, already a month late, with insufficient food, water and medicine, no lemons to combat scurvy and unsuitable recruits as sailors and soldiers. A week later, the rendezvous was reached, and a vessel went into Corunna to inform the Spanish fleet.
The British government was well aware of events in France and Spain, including the preparations of the invasion fleet, because it assembled intelligence from a variety of sources, such as captains of naval and merchant ships, smugglers, friends of Britain in neutral countries, British residents still living in France and, of course, spies. Most nations had their own intelligence network, and those of Britain and France were particularly active. In every major port, spies were observing the movements of shipping, and in Britain there was a constant watch for potential spies and saboteurs. The General Post Office had a specific department dedicated to the interception and copying of dispatches and correspondence to and from foreign countries, which often operated similar systems themselves. To combat this, letters were sent in code, and the Post Office had a cipher department that decoded letters for government and official bodies before passing them on, as well as attempting to decipher foreign letters written in code. Another source of information was the network of consuls and ambassadors in neutral countries, which had included Spain until the official declaration of war.
Detailed intelligence about the preparations of the Franco-Spanish fleet had already found its way to Britain. When part of the Spanish fleet was being fitted out in the port of Cadiz, the British consul there, Josiah Hardy, was well placed to pass on reports. On 25 May he wrote in code to Lord Grantham, who was the British ambassador at Madrid: ‘Orders came yesterday to get the whole fleet now here completely equipt for sea on the first of next month, the ships are to come down into the bay in order to be ready for sailing. They are to be formed into three divisions, one of which is to sail immediately under the command of Vice Admiral [Don Antonio] Ulloa and will be eight ships of the line & two frigates.’ The actual coded passage began ‘kwnbwr. mlyb. dbrxbwnld. ak. &bx. azb. ezkso. gsbbx.’, representing the words ‘Orders came yesterday to get the whole fleet’. This is a substitution code, where k = o, w = r, d = n, e = b, r = s, and so on, but such codes are relatively simple and easy to break. Hardy’s letters are unusual in this respect, because most letters were written in a numerical code, constructed from a table where each word was represented by a specific group of numbers. Surviving letters to and from Eliott on Gibraltar used a stronger, numerical code, not a simple substitution code like Hardy’s.
As a result of all the intelligence flowing back to London, preparations were being made for a defence against invasion. The biggest problem was a shortage of men for both the army and navy. They were all – technically – volunteers, but countless rank-and-file volunteers (‘privates’) were lured into the army by dubious recruiting methods, while the navy frequently resorted to forcible recruitment by press-gangs. The army units assigned to the defence of Britain were greatly under strength, but were bolstered by the militia and fencibles. The militia was the army reserve, raised locally by ballot and, despite any training, largely inexperienced. Coxheath Camp near Maidstone in Kent became the biggest camp for training completely raw militia conscripts from all over the country, forming a strategically placed reserve against invasion. The fencibles were similar forces, but their service was strictly limited in duration and confined to a particular area. Taken together, the army, militia and fencibles appeared to be a strong defensive force, but the quality of these troops varied enormously, and many were barely fit for any military service.
Units of fencibles were being hastily recruited and trained all over Britain, and John Macdonald, an unmarried teacher of about twenty-six years of age, was one of many who joined a regiment in Scotland, enlisting in the North Fencibles during the summer of 1778. A few months later at Inverness, he was persuaded to join the second battalion of the 73rd Highland Regiment by its colonel, George Mackenzie, who had heard him play the Highland bagpipes. The 73rd was originally raised for the war in America, mostly from the remote Scottish Highlands of Ross-shire and Cromarty, but the first battalion would be sent to Africa and India and this second battalion to Gibraltar. Being too late to travel on board the transports, Macdonald made his own way to Portsmouth, the first time he had ever left the Highlands, and in June 1779 he sailed with the rest of the troops to the naval base of Plymouth.
After almost a month, on 24 July, Macdonald said that they ‘received an order to remove from Dock Barracks and encamp a little beyond Maker Church, on Lord Edgecomb’s estate in Cornwall. The troops which composed this camp were the 1st battalion of the Royal Scots on the right, the Leicester and North Hampshire militia regiments in the centre, and the 2nd battalion of the 73rd regiment on the left.’6 Although soldiers like him may have been unaware of why they were shifting position, regiments were being strategically placed in vulnerable areas, and in their case it was to strengthen the defences of Plymouth in the light of the intelligence about the invasion fleet. The Edgecumbe estate, where Macdonald was camped, was on the west side of Plymouth Sound, separated from the town of Plymouth and the naval base by a narrow stretch of water. Troops were stationed here to prevent any invaders from coming ashore and bombarding the town and dockyard.
Although the French fleet arrived off Corunna by 10 June, six weeks passed while Don Antonio d’Arce, the admiral in charge of the Spanish fleet, stalled and wasted time until finally ordered by his government to sail. By now, Spain had officially declared war on Britain and the siege of Gibraltar had begun. After all this waiting, the French fleet found that their inadequate supplies were rapidly dwindling, and sickness had also taken hold, with seamen falling ill with smallpox and fevers. It was not until the end of July that the combined fleet finally set sail for Britain and was almost immediately caught by adverse winds that delayed them reaching the English Channel. It was not an auspicious start to the invasion.
In mid-August, close to Falmouth in Cornwall, the 74-gun battleship HMS Marlborough, accompanied by the Ramillies, Isis and Cormorant sloop, came across the invasion fleet. Believing the ships to be British, they only just avoided capture. For speed, the Marlborough’s first lieutenant, Sir Jacob Wheate, travelled in the Cormorant to Plymouth, from where he used a relay of horses to rush to London with the news that a huge French and Spanish fleet of over sixty warships had arrived. Before long, it was spotted from the Cornish coast, creating sheer panic, as newspapers reported:
Extract of a letter from Falmouth … On the 15th inst. about twelve at noon, we were much alarmed by seeing a great fleet. On their near approach they appeared to be the French and Spanish fleets, consisting to the best of our knowledge of 62 sail of the line, and about 40 inferior sail. They remained here till three this afternoon, and then steered to the eastward. Most of the inhabitants on their approach sent their families and effects away to different parts. We have about eight companies of militia, and a great number of miners [mainly tin miners], who paraded the town and harbours all night and day. This place is in confusion, everything is at a stand. We illuminated all our windows, and no person was in bed the whole night.
While Lieutenant Wheate headed for London, the Hampshire Chronicle related that the invasion fleet was next seen off Plymouth: ‘Monday, August 16. This morning at break of day the Cormorant arrived and put on shore Sir J. Wheate, with intelligence of the combined fleet having entered the channel … At one o’clock the flags were hoisted on the Maker [church tower], being the signal for seeing the enemy’s fleet. The garrison was immediately put under arms, the avenues into the town and dock secured, and the troops sent for from the adjacent camps.’ By now, the 73rd Regiment had been in their camp near Maker church for three weeks, and Macdonald recalled their initial sighting of the enemy fleet:
During our stay in this camp, the French fleet, which was so much dreaded, appeared off the Ram-head [south-west end of Plymouth Sound]; some of them sailed close by the Sound and had a fair view of the garrison of Plymouth, the shipping, &c. The formidable appearance of this fleet, and the nearness of their approach, struck such terror into the breasts of the inhabitants of that coast, that the most part of them left their houses and fled to the interior of the country, taking their cash and most valuable effects with them.
According to the Hampshire Chronicle, vessels were immediately sent from Falmouth and Plymouth to alert Sir Charles Hardy, Vice-Admiral of the Channel Fleet, ‘and the vessel was promised a reward of one hundred guineas, that first reached Sir Charles with this intelligence’. Previously governor of Greenwich Hospital, Hardy had earlier in the year been put in charge of the Channel Fleet, in what was a political rather than a military appointment. He was sixty-four years old, in poor health (he would die the following year) and had not served at sea for twenty years. The Channel Fleet was seriously undermanned, and many seamen were suffering from infectious diseases such as typhus, largely due to press-gangs being used to augment the crews. These gangs took anyone they could find, including those already ill, and when disease spread through the crews, depleting their numbers, the press-gangs were forced to supply even more men. Hardy had struggled to get his ships and crews fit for sea and take on sufficient stores. Repeatedly criticised for tardiness, he was now on his appointed station, west of the Scilly Isles, trapped by contrary winds that made it impossible to sail eastwards to engage the invasion fleet.