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Hourly threat

By the end of 1803 Bonaparte had amassed on the cliffs around Calais an Army of England 130,000 strong and a flotilla of 2,000 crafts to carry the host across the Channel. The presence of the army put huge pressure on the British Government to come to terms with Bonaparte who, in May 1804, had his position strengthened still further by getting the French senate to confer upon him the title of Emperor Napoleon I.

Napoleon realised that with invasion, as with most things, time was of the essence.

Napoleon realised that with invasion, as with most things, time was of the essence. If he could get his men ashore, getting them moving and to London before the British could fully mobilise or deploy their forces then victory would be his. The British also realised that timing was all important and knew that the job of its land-based defences - both coastal fortifications and volunteer regiments - was to delay and disrupt enemy forces until British regular forces could be gathered and a counter-attack launched. In the dark days of 1803 and 1804 - when a French invasion was expected on an almost hourly basis - Britain started to construct a vast network of coastal defences as well as relying on the skill and resilience of the Royal Navy. As Admiral Earl St Vincent said at the time: 'I do not say the French can't come, I only say they can't come by sea.'

The British reckoned the French would almost certainly choose the shortest invasion route and that they would aim to land at, or near, a port which, if captured, could be used for the rapid reinforcement and re-supply of its army. This pointed to three prime invasion targets: Dover and the beaches around it, Chatham and the River Medway (which the Dutch has successfully raided in 1667) and the flat, wide beaches of the Romney Marsh adjoining the small port at Rye. So Prime Minister William Pitt, a firm believer in the benefits of fixed fortifications, followed the advice of a number of military engineers, notably General Twiss, and approved plans to strengthen the defences of these prime targets.

The lines defending Chatham from land attack were strengthened by additions to Fort Amherst and by the construction of Fort Clarence. The greatest weakness of Dover was vulnerability to land attack. The ancient castle - despite being greatly strengthened during the 1790s - was also vulnerable to attack from land, especially from the neighbouring Western Heights from which modern artillery could rapidly reduce the castle to ruins.

The answer hit upon by the military was to transform the Western Heights from the weak link in Dover's defence into its greatest strength. From 1804 until 1814 was turned into one of the great artillery fortresses of Europe. It housed batteries firing out to sea and inland, and barracks for a large garrison of troops that was given rapid access to the sea by means of the spectacular Great Shaft, a 140 foot deep cylinder containing three staircase designed to allow troops to move to and from the Western Heights and the harbour with maximum speed. The Western Heights was also provided with an impressive strong point - a place of great defensive and offensive power - called the Drop Redoubt. This fortress with its massive, brick-clad earth walls, deep ditch, well sited gun embrasures and vastly strong casemates and magazine remains one of the wonders of British post-medieval military design.

The greatest weakness of Dover was vulnerability to land attack.

The defence of the Romney Marches was a trickier problem. Flooding was one possibility but this would have destroyed many homes and much productive land. In late 1804 a Royal Engineer colonel John Brown came up with a better idea: dig a 62-foot wide canal along the north edge of the march; keep its water level high with the use of sluices; and build a military road and rampart along its north bank so that it would function as a defended moat in case of French attack. The idea was approved immediately by Prime Minister William Pitt and the Royal Military Canal was completed by 1809. Its construction was a colossally expensive exercise - £234,310 - and was subsequently much mocked as an act of absurd military folly. William Cobbett's reaction in 1823, in his Rural Rides, was typical; 'Here is a canal ... made for the length of thirty miles ... to keep out the French: for those armies that had so often crossed the Rhine and the Danube were to be kept back by a canal.' Cobbett had a point but he missed the main one: the canal was only a part of a co-ordinated system of defence intended to wrong-foot the French invader, not to stop him.


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    Hourly threat By the end of 1803 Bonaparte had amassed on the cliffs around Calais an Army of England 130,000 strong and a flotilla of 2,000 crafts to carry the host across the Channel. The presence of the army put huge pressure on the British Government to come to terms with Bonaparte who, in May 1804, had his position strengthened still further by getting the French senate to confer upon him the title of Emperor Napoleon I. Napoleon realised that with invasion, as with most things,... [читать подробенее]