Defence against Invasion

Defence against Invasion

The last two chapters have emphasised how its situation, on London’s door­step, has been one of the major influences in the history of Kent. Much of the 19th- and 20th-century urbanisation resulted from nearness to the capital. Another important factor throughout the county’s history, both in peace and in war, has been its proximity, on the other side, to the Continent,

a soil that doth advance

Her haughty brow against the coast of France

as Wordsworth described the county in the sonnet which he addressed to the men of Kent, ‘vanguard of liberty’, when the fear of a French invasion was at its height in 1803. Threat of invasion has repeatedly given the county anxious and stirring times, some of which have left their permanent memento in the form of defence works. It was the risk of a French invasion that caused the fortification of Chatham Lines, begun in 1758, and when Britain was again at war with France from 1778 until 1783 Fort Amherst was built as an additional protection to the dockyard and Chatham Barracks were erected to house the garrison.

There was a far more real danger of invasion 20 years later, when Bonaparte boasted that ‘with three days east wind I could repeat the exploit of William the Conqueror’. Kent made preparations for defence. In 1794 volunteer troops of horse were raised in several different parts of the county. The French army was known to march on its stomach, and therefore plans were elaborated for removing cattle and foodstuffs from the eastern, the more vulnerable side of the county, so as to deny the enemy provisions if he succeeded in making a landing. Even on paper the plans were incomplete, and whether it would have been possible for a mere handful of Volunteers to drive the cattle from East Kent into the depots which were to be arranged at Cobham and elsewhere in West Kent was a question which fortunately never had to be put to the test; the chaos that would have resulted from driving some thousands of cattle over old Rochester Bridge can be imagined, and how the livestock were to be removed from the Isle of Sheppey, whether by rafts or by a temporary bridge, seems never to have been settled. As part of the defence preparations parishes were required in 1798 to make a return of men between the ages of 15 and 60 who could help in the defence of their county; of infirm and elderly people who would not be able, without assistance, to remove themselves in time of invasion; and of waggons, horses, cattle, foodstuffs, etc. At Folkestone, of a total population of about 3,200, between 1,200 and 1,400 were unable to remove themselves from the district without help, 215 men were already serving as sailors, soldiers or privateers, and another 140 expressed themselves as ready to volunteer, nine as horsemen and the rest as foot-soldiers, the great majority as pikemen, not more than ten venturing to serve with firelocks. The returns for the other coastal towns, if they were available, would probably show a similar state of affairs.

More conspicuous signs of the preparations to resist the threatened invasion were the Martello towers and the Hythe Military Canal. From Copt Point, just east of Folkestone, where the high chalk cliffs come to an end, right round the more vulnerable parts of the coasts of Kent and Sussex, was built a series of small forts of the same design as the tower at Cape Martella in Corsica, which the British Navy had been given cause to respect. Many of the Martello towers still exist. They are brick-built, the walls 5 to 8 ft. thick, the diameter about 22 ft. at the top, and the height about 30 feet. Each tower was designed to house, in considerable discomfort, a garrison of 20 to 30 soldiers, and to mount a 24-pounder gun. Having, in the basement, a reservoir of water and stores of food and ammunition, a Martello tower could, so it was thought, withstand a siege. Contemporary critics disputed the effectiveness of these fortifications, but as to their costliness there could be no dispute.The main purpose of the Military Canal, which was dug along the landward side of Romney Marsh from Hythe to Rye, was to hold up the enemy if he succeeded in making a landing on the Marsh. Every quarter of a mile or so there is a break in the line of the Canal, and at each bend an embrasure was constructed for heavy cannon. This defence work also came under criticism, and men asked scorn­fully whether Napoleon, who had thrown armies across most of the major rivers of Europe, was likely to be held up by this glorified ditch.

At Chatham, the defences were further strengthened by the building of Fort Delce, Fort Clarence and Fort Pitt, although the latter was not completed until some years after the war had come to an end. Whilst the risk of invasion still existed, large military camps were established at Chatham, Coxheath, Barham Downs, Brabourne Lees, Dover and Shorncliffe. On the coast vigilant watch was kept for the enemy; when the wind was fair for a crossing from France the guard was trebled and the Folke­stone records show that the streets were patrolled all night.

A problem which confronted the defenders, before the day of the electric telegraph, was how to send messages from the coast to London. The old-fashioned beacon system merely enabled some sort of warning to be given, but it could not be used for transmitting anything but the simplest messages. It was to meet this need that, in 1796, a line of semaphore stations was constructed from London to the coast, the distance between the stations being six or eight miles, so that a message spelled out at one could be read by the neighbouring station and relayed along the line. A brief message, it was said, could be sent from the coast to the station at the Admiralty in London in two minutes. The line of stations in Kent was Shooter’s Hill, Swanscombe, Gad’s Hill, Beacon Hill (with a branch wa Tonge and Furzebill to Sheerness), Shottenden Hill, Barham Downs, Betteshanger and Deal. Industrialisation had not yet overtaken West Kent and the Medway towns, and the atmosphere was clean enough for a system of visual messages to be feasible; today, industrial haze and smoke would too often reduce visibility to make such a system reliable.

With the Battle of Trafalgar the danger of a French invasion receded, and with the Battle of Waterloo it was removed altogether. Apart from fears which were entertained for a brief period in 1858 about the intentions of Napoleon III (it was about this time that a Martello tower was built to defend Sheerness Dockyard) the people of Britain could turn their attention for the rest of the century to the business of making money and prospering. To that era of peace and prosperity the 1914-18 war put an abrupt end. For the first time for a hundred years a British army was fighting in western Europe and Kent was on the main line of communication with the front in Flanders. Soldiers in their hundreds of thousands sailed from Folkestone Harbour, and war material was shipped across the Channel from the hurriedly constructed, and now derelict, port of Richborough. Dover, where the Admiralty Harbour had recently been completed, was the base from which the Dover Patrol operated with such dash and brilliance that its exploits have become legendary. German bombs were dropped on Kentish soil, Thanet towns were shelled by German men-of-war, and even as far inland as Maidstone the ominous and continued rumble of gunfire could be heard from the battlefields of France.

These disturbances were small compared with those of the 1939-45 war, when Kent was not on the line of communication, but was itself for years in the front line. In 1940 the danger of invasion was as acute as it had been in 1803. Along all the beaches steel scaffolding and barbed wire were put up to discourage enemy landings, guns were mounted at commanding points round the coast, anti-tank ditches were dug around the key towns, part of the civilian population was evacuated, and at strategic points pill-boxes were built which will presumably remain as a lasting reminder of Hitler’s War as the Martello towers are of Napoleon’s War. In the autumn of 1940 the aerial Battle of Britain was fought out largely over Kent and the Thames Estuary. There were fighter stations from Biggin Hill in the west to Manston in the east, and anti-aircraft batteries were established everywhere, even on stilt-like forts which were con­structed off the north coast, out in the mouth of the river. Four years later Kent proved a convenient depository for flying bombs, destined for London, but prematurely brought down by fighter aircraft, by gunfire, or by balloon barage. In a new fashion the county was playing once again its accustomed part of vanguard, in the defence of England. Happily, when hostilities were over it could still repeat, with truth, its proud motto, Invicta.

Whether it can make the same claim in the more subtle warfare against uglification and Subtopianism is more doubtful. In the long run the face of the county has suffered more from invasion from the west than from the east. Much of the urban sprawl is inevitable, industrialisation has brought prosperity, and public authorities do their best to plan and control development; but need the 20th century be quite so careless of appearances? Wordsworth! it is thou that shouldst be living at this hour; we have need of thee, to urge the Men of Kent and Kentish Men of today to fresh vigilance in the face of another and less civilised enemy than the Frenchmen who vainly waited in the Channel ports nearly two hundred years ago. Only if we are vigilant whilst there is yet time, will our descendants be able to say with Michael Drayton, writing in 1613:

Fair Kent

What countrie bath this isle that may compare with thee?