In early 1895 the British India Office received increasingly frequent reports of Russian troop mobilisation and movements to the north of Afghanistan. After many years of playing the Great Game it became apparent that the Tsar may seriously be considering a significant military operation. The level of public concern about Russian intentions meant that the government acted quickly. Emergency drafts of experienced troops were taken from most British home Regiments and despatched to India along with a number of modern vessels from the Mediterranean squadron.
With many of the best soldiers of the British Empire safely East of Suez, the military might of Imperial Russia was ready to strike. At first light on Sunday 5th May the Tsar’s grand fleet appeared out of the mist alongside Leith. Following a rapid bombardment with little effective response from the obsolete defences, the Russian forces landed in strength in the port and marched swiftly on the centre of Edinburgh. At 8:30 am on Sunday morning the Russian Ambassador arrived at the Foreign Office in London and handed in a declaration of war. By that time Cossack raiders had already stormed the undefended gates of Edinburgh castle.
On Monday 6th May the new occupiers of Edinburgh castle announced their support of Rupprecht of Bavaria as the legitimate King of Scotland, Ireland and England – the sole surviving heir of the House of Stuart. The Legitimate Jacobite League of Great Britain and Ireland emerged from the shadows and called for a general uprising against the forces of Queen Victoria. The regular Highland and Lowland regiments appeared to stay loyal but many volunteer forces and civilians flocked to the new King.
Panic ensued in London, rumours spread of Russian invaders flooding south. Tales of Cossacks disembarking from trains with snow still on their boots were heard from York to Bristol. Riots ensued in major cities inflamed by anarchists and – unknown to most – German agents.
Despite calls for his resignation, Lord Salisbury refused to bow to pressure. An immediate mobilisation was declared. The plan formed was for four Army Corps to be formed. The 1st Corps with the bulk of the – now depleted – regular forces to march North to York and thence to confront the Tsarist invaders. The 2nd Corps – primarily volunteer battalions with a cadre of regulars – to prepare a second line of defence from London to Birmingham. The 3rd Corps made up of the regiments deployed in Ireland to defend against insurrection. The 4th Corps was a makeshift structure to encompass the regular units stranded in Scotland – who were instructed to form around Fort William and take action as necessary against the rebellion until relieved.
The mobilisation was chaotic and disorganised highlighting the lack of preparation but by 15 May the First Army Corps marched North to defeat the Russian aggressors.
As the British Army moved towards York the second phase of the invaders’ plan swung into action. Fully completed in 1889 the Channel Tunnel had never been opened due to the security fears of both British and French governments. On the night of 18 May the never-used Shakespeare Cliff terminus was seized by French Zouaves who had secretly navigated the tunnel. With the rail halt in French hands two trains packed with more Zouaves and Chasseurs disembarked and utilising complete surprise had within hours swiftly occupied Dover and its imposing castle defences. With the Castle artillery positions in enemy hands it became painfully clear the Royal Navy’s Channel Squadron would be unable to move either to prevent a French invasion or repel the Russian one.
As the French bridgehead at Dover was strengthened, Prime Minister Salisbury succumbed to the inevitable and tendered his resignation. On May 20th, William Gladstone was invited by the Queen to form a government of National Emergency. The fate of Albion and the Empire hung in the balance…..