22nd February 1797. Defence of the Realm.
All of the invasion threats since 1066 have been as the Romans would say: ‘vox et praeterea nihil’- the threats weren’t carried out.
Britain down the ages has built defences against the French, but the real threat came from Napoleon, which in a minor way was seen Today in the incursion at Fishguard in Wales in 1797.
It came from 1200 French convicts under the command of the American Colonel Tate. However they fled when they saw the Welsh women in their tall hats mistaking them for soldiers.
After the failure of the Peace of Amiens in 1803, a serious threat of invasion resulted in the Defence of the Realm Act whereby Counties had to report on all able bodies between 15 and 60 classifying them into Volunteer Regiments willing to serve, drive wagons, act as guides and details of wagons, boats, cattle, food and fodder available.
It also resulted in the building of an enormous ordnance depot at Weedon Bec, Northants situated at the centre of the canal network.
The south coast was especially vulnerable which was met by a complete system of fortification which included the dog-legged Royal Military Canal a 28 mile arc from the Cinque Port of Hythe to Rye near Hastings.
Nicknamed Pitt’s Ditch it took from 1804 to 1806 to build and so designed that field guns could rake stretches of it. The north bank had a 35 ft soil parapet for the protection of troops backed by a military road.(1)
Writer William Cobbett wasn’t impressed: ‘Here is a canal to keep out the French; for those armies who had often crossed the Rhine and the Danube were to be kept back by a canal’.
Dozens of ovoid Martello Towers were built on the Kent and Sussex coasts (2)
The 19thc until Prussia defeated the French in 1870 saw a ‘cold-war’ between Britain and France as new leaders came and went in the latter, and not helped by its machinations in the unification of Italy.
As a result of a Royal Commission 1859 the Martello Towers were now replaced by more extensive fortifications known ‘Palmerston’s Follies’, built off-shore in the Solent such as that at Spitbank Fort with walls 15ft thick with 15 guns.(3)
Further giant complexes were built to protect the naval bases at Portsmouth and Plymouth.
Many Martello Towers and Palmerston’s contributions to the defence of the realm we see today are a testimony not just due to the strength of their construction, but to the animosity felt down the centuries between two countries separated by 22 miles.
(1) From Mortella in Corsica which had resisted coastal bombardment from the British in 1794. They were designed by Captain Ford and Colonel Twiss.
(2) After William Pitt the Prime Minister.
(3) Named after Palmerston the PM.