The weird arms race between Napoleon and England
If you were a higher-up in the British Empire in the late 1790s, you were probably a little freaked out, and understandably so. You’d just said goodbye to the American colonies and watched the French populace rise up in bloody revolution against their monarchic government—and now French general Napoleon Bonaparte was seizing territory all over Europe and even beyond. You wouldn’t be crazy to think that the general had his eye on the British Isles next. But exactly how you expected the French armies to land on British shores… let’s just say the Brits let their imaginations run away with them a little bit.
For your viewing pleasure, we’ve collected a series of slightly bonkers popular engravings of imaginary invasion methods dating between 1798 and 1805, when the Napoleon’s troops seemed to be looming on the horizon.
Napoleon’s moving castle
This slightly histrionic plan from 1798 shows perhaps the most visually striking paranoid fantasy to come out of the period. In it, a massive windmill-propelled barge carries not only 60,000 men but also an entire castle across the English Channel.
Similarly relying on windmills for power, this illustration of an invasion raft described by a French prisoner of war (who we assume got a kick out of the credulous Brits) somehow makes even less sense than the barge above. It’s basically a fortress on a floating island. Not the most hydrodynamic contraption—and what happens if the water is choppy?
This… thing, part 2
Also from 1798 is this intricate engraving of the imaginary “Raft St. Malo,” which was likely based on the same false information as the last raft. It allegedly “was 600 feet long by 300 broad, mounts 500 pieces of cannon, 36 and 48-pounders, and is to convey 15,000 troops for the invasion of England. In the midst is a bomb-proof, metal-sheathed citadel.”
Oh look, a real boat
Dating to 1803, when hostilities broke out again after a hiatus, this print showing “A Correct VIEW of the FRENCH FLAT-BOTTOM BOATS intended to convey their TROOPS for the INVASION of ENGLAND” is a little more realistic. As the National Maritime Museum explains,
Unlike the earlier prints… with their monstrous and bizarre ‘rafts’ for transporting huge numbers of troops, this shows much more feasible vessels and appears to be based on much better founded information.
“My ass in a band box”
Not all Brits bought into the technological hype, however. The cartoon above shows a small-statured Napoleon on a donkey, sailing over to the British Isles in a decidedly non-threatening box labeled “Invasion.”
Balloons, ships, and a tunnel
Perhaps the craziest idea came from Napoleon himself, who imagined a three-pronged approach to invading Britain using hot air balloons, ships, and foot soldiers via a tunnel dug under the English Channel, as illustrated in this 1803 French engraving.
So what actually happened? None of the above. Urged on by fears of French innovation, the British government invested heavily in defense measures, including a number of forts and a massive naval blockade of the Channel. Napoleon’s attempt to piece together a big enough flotilla to break through the blockade ended up being a major flop.