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Wars with France


Between 1793 and 1815 Britain was at War with the French Republic. After his campaigns in Italy, Egypt and Syria, Napoleon Bonaparte began extensive preparations to invade England. To counter the threatened invasion, the English built a chain of 103 Martello gun-towers between 1805 and 1812 along the shores of Kent, East Sussex, Essex and Suffolk.

The Peace of Amiens, signed in March 1802, had ended nine years of war with Revolutionary France, but Napoleon's territorial ambitions in Europe and elsewhere were to ensure that peace was short-lived. On 18 May 1803, faced with clear evidence of France's expansionist aims and unwilling to tolerate Napoleon's control of Holland, England declared war.

Napoleon Bonaparte

"The Channel is but a ditch and anyone may cross it who has the courage to try"

Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French from 1804, is best remembered for his role in the wars led against France by a series of coalitions, the so-called Napoleonic Wars. Due to his success in these wars, often against numerically superior enemies, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time, and his campaigns are studied at military academies worldwide.

At the end of the 18th century, the revolution in France had turned all of Europe into turmoil and Britain had become embroiled in war against France. After Napoleon had invaded the Low Countries in 1793, Britain feared we would be next, with Napoleon waging war against Britain from 1803 to 1815, when he was defeated by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo.

Given this fear of an invasion, large scale construction projects were undertaken to provide defence to the vulnerable coastline and Britain began planning a number of defensive measures across the south and east coasts to counter Napoleon's threat. These measures included the building of the Royal Military Canal, the Martello Towers and a number of gun Batteries/Forts on the coast of Kent.

“All my thoughts are directed towards England.
I want only for a favorable wind to plant the Imperial Eagle on the Tower of London.”

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), also known as Napoleon I, was a French military leader and emperor who conquered much of Europe in the early 19th century. Born on the island of Corsica, Napoleon rapidly rose through the ranks of the military during the French Revolution (1789-1799). After seizing political power in France in a 1799 coup d’état, he crowned himself emperor in 1804. Shrewd, ambitious and a skilled military strategist, Napoleon successfully waged war against various coalitions of European nations and expanded his empire. 

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

However, after a disastrous French invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon abdicated the throne two years later and was exiled to the island of Elba. In 1815, he briefly returned to power in his Hundred Days campaign. After a crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, he abdicated once again and was exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena, where he died at 51.

Napoleon Bonaparte is regarded as one of the greatest commanders in history, his wars and campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. 

Invasion Coast

For the first two years of the war, Napoleon's main aim was the invasion and subjugation of Great Britain. To that end, three army corps, all seasoned veterans of earlier campaigns, were ordered to the Pas de Calais and encamped on the coast between Calais and Étaples. 

To transport this Grand Army to England, Napoleon ordered the construction of an armada of flat-bottomed barges, to be supplemented by fishing boats and other small craft. Ambleteuse, Wimereux, Boulogne and Étaples were the principal construction and assembly ports for this vast fleet, but Calais, Dunkirk and Ostend played important supporting roles. 

Two years after the renewal of war, Napoleon had invasion shipping for almost 168,000 troops and equipment. `Let us be masters of the Straits for six hours' he had said in July 1804, adding modestly `and we shall be masters of the world'.

On land, Great Britain could not hope to match Napoleon's experienced professional troops. In 1803 the regular army stationed in England numbered only some 60,000 men; to this were added 50,000 militia and in 1804 about another 30,000 men forming the Army of Reserve. In addition, some 300,000 men flocked on the outbreak of the war to form the Volunteers, a part-time force of infantry and cavalry. The Volunteers were ill-equipped and lacked training and experience, but such deficiencies were counter-balanced to a certain extent by patriotic enthusiasm. Indeed, the very existence of the Volunteers is witness both to the unity of the country in 1803 and to a widespread feeling that a French invasion was all too probable.

The deployment of these troops called for careful judgement by the Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of York. London and the main naval arsenals - Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth - were obvious centres for defence, the naval towns fortunately comparatively well protected by permanent fortifications. However, it was realised that the best hope of stopping a French invasion was either to annihilate the invasion fleet at sea or to defeat the army at its beach head, preferably while it was still struggling ashore, but certainly before it could land its equipment and secure a port for artillery, reinforcements and supplies.

Napoleon's obvious invasion route was the shortest sea crossing. The transports being built and assembled were nor suitable for a voyage of more than about 24 hours, while the shorter the passage the less the troops were likely to he debilitated by sea-sickness. There was moreover, one over-riding and decisive factor favouring a quick crossing. French armies might be supreme in Europe but at sea it was the Royal Navy that exercised power. Almost alone, the Admiralty remained largely unperturbed by fears of invasion: in the House of Lords, St Vincent, First Lord of the Admiralty, sought to calm his fellow peers. `I do not say, my Lords,' he observed, `that the French will not come. I only say that they will not come by sea.'

St Vincent had reasonable cause for confidence. At the outbreak of war, the Royal Navy had around 640 fighting ships, including 177 of the larger ships-of-the-line; by January 1805, the total had risen to around 820. Supporting these were some of the best-equipped dockyards in Europe, the main ones recently modernised. Even so, there was no cause for complacency when there was a likelihood of most of the other fleets of Europe falling under French control, and while the French themselves were embarking on an ambitious ship-building programme. The numbers, however, were just adequate to allow the Royal Navy to mount a close blockade on enemy harbours.

The Channel fleet, under Admiral Cornwallis, patrolled the western approaches and kept guard on French warships in Brest and Rochefort, while Admiral Lord Keith exercised a similar command east from Selsey Bill round into the grey waters of the North Sea. The Grand Army overlooking the Channel from its cliff-tops outside Boulogne, the shipwrights hard at work on the invasion flotillas from Ostend to Etaples and the French Army staff were all well aware of the weather beaten cruising squadrons patrolling off-shore and of the power they represented. This disciplined use of maritime strength, exercised in all weathers, may have given much repair work to the English dockyards, but it ensured that the Royal Navy's training and seamanship were unrivalled.

But, despite the good British seamanship, there was always the possibility of a powerful French fleet escaping from Brest unnoticed, sailing up the Channel and securing the Straits just long enough to allow the French army to cross to England. Such an eventuality was outlined in a report from Lord Keith to the Duke of York, Commander-in-Chief of the army, in October 1803. Indeed, Lord Keith's assessment bore considerable similarities to Napoleon's later orders to Admiral Villeneuve in the Spring of 1805. By then, Napoleon had probably repented of his boast that France needed to secure the Straits for only six hours, for an army the size of his invasion force would have needed a minimum of three days just to embark and put to sea. None the less this risk of the French securing temporary mastery of the Straights led to increasing demands in England for better invasion defences.

Although British army planners could not be certain of Napoleon's exact choice of invasion beach, they could make reasonable deductions, knowing the geographic and estimating the logistic limitations within which the French general staff would have to work. An invasion fleet needed to land on shallow beaches adjacent to low ground; once ashore, the troops would have to capture a port to bring in heavy supplies such as an artillery train and would require access to rich countryside capable of feeding an army. Within the necessary short sailing-time from France, the low-lying beaches between Sandgate and Eastbourne seemed the most probable targets for an invasion, followed by a French encirclement of Dover and the capture of its vital harbour. Further to the north, the coasts of Essex and Suffolk, although suitable for an army intent on London, were felt to be less vulnerable if only because of their greater distance from France.

England Heritage Guide to Martello Tower No.24