French Invasion Threat & Martello Towers

In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte massed the armies of revolutionary France at Boulogne,  together with about 1,700 purposely built ‘bateaux plats’ – flat-bottomed barges capable of transporting troops, horses and artillery across the channel. He was annoyed that the Treaty of Amiens, signed on 25th March 1802, finally failed.

The British had not been happy with the Treaty as they would have had to have given up most of their islands in the West Indies, Egypt and Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), and Malta while it brought most of Europe under Napoleon’s control. The Treaty became, merely, a truce, a breathing space, a halt in the hostilities, which resumed in May 1803.

Britain, now, realised that it faced a serious threat of invasion so preparations for coastal defence in Sussex began in 1803. Coastal gun batteries were prepared between Eastbourne and Hastings, mainly covering low lying marshland areas. Plans were made to flood the Levels, in case of an enemy approaching the shore in force.

In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte massed the armies of revolutionary France at Boulogne,  together with about 1,700 purposely built ‘bateaux plats’ – flat-bottomed barges capable of transporting troops, horses and artillery across the channel. He was annoyed that the Treaty of Amiens, signed on 25th March 1802, finally failed.

The British had not been happy with the Treaty as they would have had to have given up most of their islands in the West Indies, Egypt and Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), and Malta while it brought most of Europe under Napoleon’s control. The Treaty became, merely, a truce, a breathing space, a halt in the hostilities, which resumed in May 1803.

Britain, now, realised that it faced a serious threat of invasion so preparations for coastal defence in Sussex began in 1803. Coastal gun batteries were prepared between Eastbourne and Hastings, mainly covering low lying marshland areas. Plans were made to flood the Levels, in case of an enemy approaching the shore in force.

Martello Towers

During the first Napoleonic war (before the Treaty of Amiens), on 8th February, 1794, two British ships, “Fortitude” (74 guns) and “Juno” (32 guns) arrived at the entrance of the Bay of Fiorenzo, Corsica. To the west of the Bay, on Cape Mortella, stood a large, circular tower armed with just two guns and a garrison of two Grenadiers and twenty seamen.

The two ships attacked the tower but, after two and a half hours, they had to withdraw because of the spirited defence by so few men. The ships were severely damaged and had suffered six dead and fifty six wounded. The tower was, finally, taken by an attack on the land-side.

This remarkable defence by such a small number of men was remembered and the design was copied when, in May 1804, William Pitt decided to strengthen the coastal defence of Kent and Sussex.  Additional barracks were to be constructed and a string of these ‘Martello Towers’ (corrupted from “Mortella) established. The building of the towers began in 1805. Local brickworks were established, each tower needing roughly 500,000 bricks.

The towers were about 40 feet (12 m) high, with walls about 8 feet (2.4 m) thick. In some towers, where any attack was considered to be only from the sea, the rooms were not built in the centre, but more to th landside, leaving the walls thicker on sea-ward side.martello-1

As seen in the drawing to the right, the interior comprised two floors and a basement.

To provide extra protection from landward attackers, a ladder, from ground level to a door positioned about 10 feet (3.0 m) from the base. was the only means of entry. On the floor above, a slotted platform gave the defenders the ability to fire down on any attackers.

At the top, the flat roof had a high parapet and a raised platform in the centre with a pivot enabling a cannon to traverse 360 degrees. On the ground floor, the ammunition, water, and stores and provisions were kept.

The garrison of 15- 24 men and one officer lived, on the first floor, in a room divided into several rooms with fireplaces built into the walls for cooking and heating. The officer and men lived in separate rooms of almost equal size. The walls had openings in them, from which weapons could be fired.

A well or cistern within the fort supplied the garrison with water. An internal drainage system linked to the roof enabled rainwater to refill the cistern.

Between 1805 and 1812, a total of 103 towers were built, each roughly 13 foot/4metres thick on the seaward side. They were built to a height of, between 30 and 40 feet/9 and 12 metres and were equipped with cannons on the flat roof of the tower. Along the coast of Sussex and Kent, from Seaford to Folkestone, 74 were built; the rest, 29, were built along the coasts of Essex and Suffolk.

Forty-five towers still remain, today, mainly in ruins or converted but only nine have survived in their original condition.

In May 1804, William Pitt decided to strengthen the coastal defence of Kent and Sussex.  Additional barracks were to be constructed and a string of ‘Martello Towers’ established. The building of the towers began in 1805. Local brickworks were established, each tower needing roughly 500,000 bricks.

Between 1805 and 1812, a total of 103 towers were built, each roughly 13 foot/4metres thick on the seaward side. They were built to a height of, roughly, 30 foot/9 metres and were equipped with cannons on the flat roof of the tower. Along the coast of Sussex and Kent, from Seaford to Folkestone, 74 were built; the rest, 29, were built along the coasts of Essex and Suffolk.

Forty-five towers still remain, today, mainly in ruins or converted but only nine have survived in their original condition.

In 1804, in Bexhill, the construction began of the additional barracks, occupying 38 acres. In total, about 5,000 troops could be accommodated on the slopes of Belle Hill, in the Old Town.

Late in 1804 Napoleon gave up his original aim of invading Britain. One contributing factor was that while the flat bottom boats would have been ideal as landing craft on the flat Sussex beaches, it was decided that they were not suitable for crossing the channel, loaded with troops. Instead, his army marched south to Austria – but the coastal defences continued to be built.

The Navy, under Admiral Lord Nelson, destroyed the French fleet, in October 1805, at the Battle of Trafalgar and, that, put an end to Napoleon’s ambitions of conquering Britain.

 

In this section:

Scroll to Top