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Coastal Defences of the British Empire in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras

Coastal Defences of the British Empire in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras

Coastal Defences of the British Empire in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras

Daniel MacCannell

Pen and Sword Military (2021), hardback

ISBN: 9781526753458

Pages: 240

Illustrations: 70 colour

In this book the author looks at the various methods Britain used to defend itself and its empire. It covers of course the Martello Towers, not just in Britain but other parts of the empire, other fortifications, the armaments that were placed in these structures, the militia and volunteer forces, and amphibious operations against potential invasion embarkation hotspots such as Flushing (Walcheren) and Boulogne.

Books on Martello Towers have, of course been produced before – W. H. Clement’s Towers of Strength for example. Also, books have been produced on the great invasion scare for example – Peter Lloyd’s The French are coming!  Where this book is especially important is the narrative which the author tells.

First, he sees the trials and tribulations during the American Revolutionary War as being fundamental to an understanding of a change in the British approach to defence issues. The port of Whitehaven had been raided in 1778, in 1779 a Franco-Spanish fleet entered the Channel, in 1781 the French landed in Jersey in 1781 and of course there was the great siege of Gibraltar. As early as 1778-9 General Henry Conway, the Governor of Jersey, began erecting defensive towers. In the 1780s the new prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, not someone who is normally classed as a successful war leader, instead of slashing the naval budget actually increased it during peacetime. A provincial marine was first assigned a distinct base on the Canadian Great Lakes in 1785. Thomas Blomefield, the first Inspector of Artillery, from 1783 ensured better proofing of ordinance, made major improvements in field-artillery carriages, and surveyed the strength and condition of coastal artillery. Specialist small craft were commissioned for inshore defensive fighting and port defences were strengthened in the West Indies. Uniforms were redesigned to consider different climates and Dundas began drafting his first drill manual. The result was that Britain was unusually well prepared for war when it came in 1793.

Secondly the author is at pains to stress that these invasion prospects were real and were perceived as so by contemporaries and this concern was not extinguished as a result of Trafalgar. The landing of the ‘Black Legion’ which ended ignominiously at Fishguard in 1797 was intended to destroy Bristol and then extort payment from other west coast ports such as Liverpool to prevent the same thing happening to them. In the same year Hoche again planned to land French troops in southern or western Ireland whilst Dutch troops were to be landed in the north of Ireland. The opportunity was lost by Hoche’s death and Duncan’s defeat of the Dutch fleet at Camperdown. During the great invasion scare of 1803-5 plans were formed to move the contents of the Woolwich arsenal to Weedon Bec in Northamptonshire and the Bank of England’s gold supply to Worcester. Further invasion scares led to more Martello towers being built on the eastern as well as the southern coasts (and elsewhere in the Empire) and the disastrous Walcheren expedition.

One may query the author’s claim that ‘the two to four years immediately after Trafalgar were the period of the acutest danger to Britain during the whole of the 18th and 19th century’. After all, as he points out, there was an absence of an army ready to invade and indeed the psychological superiority of the Royal Navy given by Trafalgar, and reemphasised by its blockading tactics, and the victory at Basque Roads would have dealt with any attempt very easily. Nevertheless, the fears of another invasion attempt perhaps helped by Russian ships after the accord between Napoleon and the Tsar after Tilsit and the expansion of the port of Antwerp caused great concern to contemporaries and are often forgotten.

The book also contains useful chapters on powder and shot development, invasion, and counter-invasion craft of the 1790s, the militia and volunteer movements and, of course, the Martello towers.

The book is well produced, and lavishly illustrated, with some of the illustrations not having been seen by readers before. I would have liked to have seen maps showing fortifications throughout Britain’s possessions and a bibliography which is strangely missing. But these are small points, and this book should be part of every enthusiast’s library.

John Morewood

June 2021