Posted: 09.06.21 at 07:00 by Nick Spenceley
In February 1744, a French invasion force set off for Maldon. It never landed, and the citizens of Maldon (including our famous Edward Bright) were probably totally unaware how close they came to witnessing the white-clad troops of Louis XV marching through our streets.
Maldon and the Blackwater have known the threat of invasion for at least two millenia. The Romans built the fort of Othona at Bradwell in the Third Century - see previous feature here. The Saxons built the fortified Burh at the highest point of Maldon in 916 A.D., described here. The First World War saw a significant torpedo boat base built on Osea Island and an airfield at Stow Maries to repel aerial assault. World War 2 preparations included pillboxes, tank traps, and highly trained guerrilla fighters positioned alongside their more visible Home Guard colleagues - see features here. and here.
However, in the 18th Century there was very little preparation for invasion. Britain had a small professional army, much of it deployed in overseas possessions, and relied on its massive navy for defence. This certainly made large-scale invasions problematical, but didn’t deter the French from planning swift, smaller-scale raids, preferably in concert with local rebellions.
The 1744 plan followed France’s declaration of war on Britain in the War of Austrian Succession. They planned to knock Britain out of the war by installing James Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) on the throne. It was hoped (optimistically) that many Stuart sympathisers still existed in the British navy and army and (more realistically) that the Scots highlanders would rise in support.
Between 6,000 and 15,000 French troops were assembled at Dunkirk under the command of Marshal Saxe. The 47-year old Maurice de Saxe was the French’s biggest asset, as he was one of the most brilliant commanders in any country at this period. Flat-bottomed troop ships had been prepared, and a naval squadron was to sail from Brest to check that the Channel was clear of British ships.
British agents in France warned London of these preparations. The problem was that there were only 10,000 regular troops available in the whole of Britain, and the militia at this stage was virtually useless. 7,000 of the troops were positioned to cover London under the command of Field Marshall George Wade, 70 years old and past his prime as a commander. The troops must have been spread very thinly over such a wide area.
The two French fleets sailed at the end of January. The naval squadron blundered into the British fleet off Kent at The Downs (they had assumed they were in Portsmouth). The French were only saved by a storm. The separate transport fleet ran into the same storm, and twelve ships were sunk, seven with all hands. The rest limped back into Dunkirk, and the invasion was off.
As a postscript to this, the Highlanders did rise in the famous rebellion of 1745, and several French regiments were landed in Scotland, participating in the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
If Maldon really had seen the arrival of 10,000 troops under one of Europe’s finest generals, the course of history might have run very differently (a year later, Saxe defeated an allied army in Flanders under the Duke of Cumberland at Fontenoy).
In the end, the weather saved the day, not for the first or last time in our history. As the proverb goes, ‘Man proposes, God disposes’.