British Defenses (July 1860)

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 24 July 1860


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Written about July 24, 1860
First published in the New York Daily Tribune, No. 6020, August 10, 1860 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1588, August 14, 1860
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 17 (pp.425-428), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Collection(s): New York Tribune

The subject of this and several other articles was suggested by Marx who wrote to Engels on June 25: "I would be grateful if by Friday or Saturday you could write an article for the Tribune either on the defences of England, or on Garibaldi, or on the Indian trade". On July 25 Marx informed Engels that he had received his article "British Defenses" and promised to send him the Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Consider the Defences of the United Kingdom; together with the Minutes of Evidence and Appendix, London, 1860. Concerning British defences Engels wrote one more article (end of July 1860) entitled "Could the French Sack London?".

The article "Garibaldi's Movements" was written by Engels on August 8.

As is evident from Engels' letter of July 26, 1860 an article on Indian commerce was not written. Marx devoted a few lines to this question in his article "British Commerce".

The plan for the National Defenses of England, just laid before Parliament[1], proposes to confine all the outlay to the fortification of the dockyards, together with some minor works, barely sufficient to protect the larger harbors of the country from insult by small hostile squadrons, and with the erection of strong and extensive forts at Dover and Portland, for the purpose of securing sheltered anchorage to fleets and detached vessels. The whole of the money is to be spent on the circumference of the country, on the coast-line accessible to an enemy's fleet; and as it is impossible to defend the whole length of coast, a few important points, especially the naval arsenals and dockyards, are selected. The interior of the country is to be left entirely to its own resources.

Now, when England once confesses that her wooden walls no longer protect her, and that she must have recourse to fortification as a means of national defense, it stands to reason that she should first shelter from attack her naval arsenals—the cradles of her fleet. That Portsmouth, Plymouth, Pembroke, Sheerness, and Woolwich (or whatever place may be selected in its stead), should be made so strong as to be able to beat off any attack by sea, and to hold out for a reasonable time against a regular siege by land, nobody will doubt. But it is perfectly ridiculous to call the providing for this danger a system of national defense. In fact, in order to elevate the scheme to this dignity, it appears to have been necessary to make it far more complicated and expensive than was required for the mere protection of the dockyards.

A country like France or Spain, which is exposed to invasion on its land frontier as much as to naval attacks and descents on its coast, is obliged to make its naval depots fortresses of the first rank. Toulon, Carthagena, Genoa, even Cherbourg, may be subjected to the combined attack which destroyed the arsenals and dockyards of Sevastopol[2]. They ought, therefore, to have a very strong land-front with detached forts to keep the dockyards out of range of a bombardment. But this does not apply to England. Supposing even that a naval defeat had for a moment placed in doubt England's maritime supremacy; even then an invading army, landed on British soil, could never depend upon the liberty of its communications, and must, therefore, act rapidly and decisively. This invading army would not be in a state to undertake a regular siege; and if it was, nobody in his senses would expect the invader to go and settle down quietly before Portsmouth and to waste his resources in a lengthened siege, instead of marching straight upon London, and at once provoking a decision on the main issue while his moral and material ascendency is at its hight. If it comes to that, that troops and material can be safely landed in England sufficient to attack London, and at the same time to besiege Portsmouth, then England is at the brink of ruin, and no land-forts around Portsmouth can save her. As with Portsmouth, so with the other naval arsenals. Let the sea-fronts be made as strong as they can; but on the land-fronts, everything is superfluous which goes beyond keeping off the enemy far enough to protect the dockyard from bombardment, and securing it against a fortnight's regular siege. But if we are to judge from the estimates, and from some plans respecting the proposed defenses of Portsmouth, which have got into the London Times, there is to be a great waste of brick and mortar, of ditch and parapet, of money and, in case of war, of men too. The engineering staff appear positively to revel in this luxury of planning fortifications which, to them, has so long been a forbidden joy. England is menaced with a vegetation of forts and batteries springing up as rapidly as mushrooms, and as rank as the creepers of a tropical forest. The Government seem to insist upon it that there must be something to show for the money; but that will be the principal use of all these splendid structures.

So long as the dockyards are not safe against a coup de main[3], so long invasions might be undertaken, with the sole aim of destroying one of them, and then retiring. Thus they serve, so to say, as safety-valves for London. But as soon as they are secured against an attack by main force, and even against a regular attack, for fourteen days and this is evidently necessary—there is no other object left for an invasion except London. All minor ends are secured; local invasions are no longer to any purpose; an invasion must go in for the chance of annihilating England or suffer annihilation in its turn. Thus, the very fact of the fortification of the dockyards weakens London. It compels the invading power to concentrate all its strength on the attempt at once upon London. London, we are told by Lord Palmerston, must be defended in the field. Suppose this to be so: the stronger the army, the safer London will be. But where is that strong army to come from, if Portsmouth, Plymouth, Chatham, and Sheerness, and, perhaps, Pembroke, are converted into first-rate fortresses of the size of Cherbourg, Genoa, Coblentz, or Cologne, requiring garrisons of from 15,000 to 20,000 men to defend them? Thus, the stronger you make the dockyards, the weaker you render Lon-don and the country. And this is what you call national defenses.

In any case, one lost battle would decide the fate of London; and, considering the immense commercial centralization of the country, and the dead lock to which the occupation of London would bring all the industrial and commercial machinery of England, there can be no doubt that one battle would decide the fate of the whole kingdom. And thus, while twelve millions are proposed to be spent on the security of the dockyards, the very heart of the country is to remain unprotected, and is left to hinge on the result of one battle!

There is no good in mincing the matter. Let the dockyards, by all means, be fortified in a rational manner, which could be done for less than half the money now proposed to be squandered upon them; but if you want national defenses, set at once about fortifying London. It is no use saying, as Palmerston does, that this is impossible. It is the same talk that was heard when Paris was to be fortified. The surface inclosed in the continuous rampart round Paris is not much less than that occupied by London; the line of forts encircling Paris has an extent of 27 miles, and a circle round London six miles from Charing Cross would give a periphery of 37 miles. This circle might very well represent the average distance of the forts from the center; and ten miles more will not render the line too long, if a proper system of radial and circular railway communication facilitates the rapid movements of the reserves. Of course, London cannot be defended in the off-hand way, proposed in the Cornhill Magazine, where six large forts are to do all; the number of forts must be twenty at least; but, on the other hand, London need not be fortified in the pedantic style of Paris, for it will never have to. stand a siege. To defend it against a coup de main, against the resources which an invading army can bring against it within a fortnight after landing, is all that is required. The continuous inclosure may be dispensed with; the villages and groups of houses on the outskirts may be made to serve in its stead quite effectually, if the plan of defense be properly prepared beforehand.

With London thus fortified, and the dockyards strengthened on the sea fronts and protected on the land fronts against a forcible, irregular attack, and even a slight siege, England might defy any invasion, and the whole might be done for something like fifteen millions sterling. The dockyards would not absorb, in all, more than 70,000 regulars and 15,000 volunteers; while the whole rest of the line, the militia, and the volunteers—say 80,000 line and militia, and 100,000 volunteers—would defend the intrenched camp around London, or accept battle in front of it; and while the whole country north of London would remain at full liberty to organize fresh bodies of volunteers and depots for the line and militia. The enemy would in all cases be compelled to act; he could not, even if he would, then escape the attraction of the great intrenched camp of London, and he would have only the choice either to attack it and be beaten, or to wait, and thereby increase every day the difficulties of his position.

Instead of this, the Government plan of national defenses would bring matters to this pass, that if the forces of England consisted of 90,000 line and militia and 115,000 volunteers, the garrisons would, at least, absorb 25,000 regulars and 35,000 volunteers, leaving for the field in which to defend London, 65,000 regulars and 80,000 volunteers, while 35,000 men who might be very badly wanted on the day of battle, would be sitting quietly and unmenaced behind stone walls which nobody had thought of attacking. But not only would this army be weakened by 35,000 men, it would be deprived of a fortified position out of which it could not be driven except by a regular siege; it would have to expose its 80,000 badly officered and inexperienced volunteers to a fight in the open field, and it would thus fight in circumstances very much less favorable than the army placed as above described.

  1. See Report of the Commissioners appointed to consider the Defences of the United Kingdom; together with the Minutes of Evidence and Appendix; also Correspondence relative to a Site for an internal Arsenal. Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty, London, 1860; on the debates see The Times, No. 23680, July 24, 1860.—Ed.
  2. During the Crimean War of 1853-56 Sevastopol was besieged by the British, French, Turkish and Sardinian troops. In the course of the fighting, Sevastopol was badly damaged.
  3. Sudden attack.—Ed.