Napoleon Threatens Sussex

Report by Stephen Webbe of Helen Poole’s talk at our February 2018 meeting

We all know that Napoleon didn’t land in Sussex. But until he was trounced at Waterloo the people of Sussex lived with the terrifying possibility that his all-conquering troops might storm ashore somewhere on the county’s long, empty coastline. Unaware of the obstacles facing a French invasion, nobody in the county in the early 19th Century felt safe from Boney and his legions. That was the point Helen Poole made in her talk entitled “Sussex and the Napoleonic Wars.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Napoleon seems to us a rather short, comical figure in an absurd hat. But the people of Sussex regarded him as the devil incarnate and thought he might arrive at any hour. As a result, defences went up at vulnerable points on the Sussex coast and troops from across the country, including local militia and volunteer forces, were deployed to resist a French invasion.

Helen Poole, curator of Crawley Museum and a noted Sussex historian, described the defensive preparations. As she outlined the various measures, she set them against the backdrop of both the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars which lasted from 1793-1815.

With a French invasion looming, the roads and lanes of Sussex appear to have been full of marching infantry and clip-clopping cavalry, often accompanied by horse-drawn wagons piled high with stores and ammunition. The troops needed housing and, as Poole explained, barracks quickly went up at Brighton, Blatchington, Southwick, Steyning, Shoreham, Worthing, Ringmer, Eastbourne and Seaford.

One of the best known were Brighton’s Preston Barracks on the Lewes Road. Built in a fetching Regency style in 1793, they housed artillery and cavalry units and included stables for up to 1,000 horses.Equally well known were Chichester Barracks, built between 1795 and 1813 and designed to accommodate 1,500 men and prisoners from the Peninsular War. As Poole noted, they would later be closely associated with the Royal Sussex Regiment whose forbears in the 35th Regiment of Foot covered themselves in glory at the Battle of Maida in 1806 when they helped crush a French army outside the town of the same name on the Calabrian toe of Italy.

In Lewes, as Poole observed, troops were billeted in pubs before barracks housing 1,000 men went up in 1796. She told her audience that there was a barracks at Bexhill that housed a large force of the King’s German Legion, raised in George III’s Hanoverian possessions and that services in German in local churches met their religious needs.The barracks in Steyning which were built in 1804 were sufficient to house up to 1,000 troops at any one time. Apparently, over thirty-four regiments were stationed in the village during the Napoleonic Wars.

But fortifications would be needed if Napoleon wasn’t to strike deep into Britain and display the tactical brilliance that was to make him the greatest military commander of all time. The best known were the famous Martello towers, 74 of which were built from Folkestone to Seaford between 1805 to 1808.

As Poole explained, the word “Martello” derives from a dumpy fort in northern Corsica called Torra di Mortella. Its guns gave HMS Fortitude and HMS Juno such a bloody nose in 1794 that, when Napoleon threatened the English coast, a farsighted captain of Royal Engineers – one William Ford – suggested building a chain of them to keep him out.
The Martello towers particularly impressed General Sir John Moore whose death at Corunna in 1809 would be immortalised in a much-loved poem by Charles Wolfe. Moore arrived to supervise the defence of the coast from Dover to Dungeness, including most of Romney Marsh, in 1803. By one account it was on Moore’s initiative that the towers were built.

By 1829, eight years after Napoleon had died on St. Helena, 103 Martello towers would stretch from Aldeburgh in Suffolk to Seaford in east Sussex. Each Martello tower was 30-foot high with 13-feet thick walls. Manned by one officer and 24 men and sited roughly 600 yards apart, they covered likely landing beaches with a roof-mounted 24-pounder cannon. Although never tested, they would undoubtedly have taken a heavy toll of any French troops attempting a landing.

As Poole explained, by far the largest fortification erected in Sussex during the Napoleonic Wars was the Eastbourne Redoubt. Built in 1805, it now houses the museum of the Royal Sussex Regiment. The part played by the 35th Foot’s 1st Battalion in the Battle of Maida on July 4th 1806 is not forgotten. The British victory was one of the most complete of the Napoleonic Wars and is commemorated today in London’s Maida Vale.

Brighton had a battery at the bottom of East Street but, as Poole explained, it collapsed after being badly damaged in a storm in 1786. Seven years later it was replaced by the West Battery and the East Cliffe Battery which, between them, bristled with twelve 36-pounders.

Another major feat of Georgian military engineering, as Poole told her audience, was the Royal Military Canal designed to stop Napoleon in his tracks should he invade over the flat, wide beaches of Romney Marsh. Stretching for 28 miles and running from Shorncliffe in Kent to the River Rother in Rye (and later on to the cliff defences at Hastings), it was the brainchild of Lieutenant-Colonel John Brown, the Commandant of the Royal Staff Corps. The canal was only part of it. There was a tow path on its southern edge and an earthen rampart and military road on its northern side.

Defenders braced for the French onslaught from behind the rampart while reinforcements, stores and ammunition reached them along the military road and canal. Started in 1804, the Royal Military Canal was finished in 1809.Interestingly, General Moore seems to have been as supportive of the Royal Military Canal as he was of the Martello towers.

As Poole noted, all these defences were backed up by a militia of local seafarers known as “Sea Fencibles” who were raised in 1803 to protect the coast from Selsey Bill to Beachy Head. Besides crewing various small armed boats they manned watch towers, signal towers and coastal batteries. There were 300 Fencibles and 45 boats at Brighton and smaller detachments at Newhaven, Seaford, Shoreham, Worthing and Selsey. (Interestingly, Jane Austen’s brother, Captain Francis Austen, raised a corps of Fencibles at Ramsgate to defend a section of Kentish coast.

Napoleon planned to invade Britain in the winter of 1803-4 and he assembled an army of some 200,000 men in Boulogne who were to be shipped across the Channel in some 1,500 small craft. According to Poole, Boney once dismissed the English Channel as “but a ditch” which “anyone can cross who has the courage” and declared: “Let us be masters of the Straits for six hours and we shall be masters of the world.” But the invasion flotilla proved to be next to useless when it was tested and there were many drownings. Napoleon’s batty plan to use troop-carrying balloons, which Poole mentioned with a hilarious illustration, came to nothing.
It’s been said that had the French invaded between late 1802 and 1805, they wouldn’t have encountered either the Martello towers or the Royal Military Canal. But, as Poole emphasised, Napoleon was never able to wrest command of the Channel from an all-powerful Royal Navy. Consequently the conquest of Britain was always a distant dream.

Admiral Earl St. Vincent well understood how the navy’s wooden walls protected Britain from Napoleon’s lust for conquest and glory. Poole recalled, that when the distinguished commander was First Lord of the Admiralty he told the Board of Admiralty: “I do not say, My Lords, the French will not come; I only say they will not come by sea.”

Had Napoleon risked an invasion, Ferring would have been ready. We know from the ‘Defence Returns’ of 1801 that there were 54 men and boys in the village armed with flintlocks and pikes ready to do their duty. If sorely pressed, one imagines they would have fallen back on Highdown Hill, and, in a last glorious stand on its summit, sold their lives dearly.