Guernsey’s Victorian Fortifications…

It is a little remiss of me when writing about Fortress Guernsey and all of the terrific work undertaken by this historical initiative in the late ’90s under the leadership of my good friend and former boss at the Guernsey Tourist Board, Deputy Director Major Evan Ozanne, not to have ever touched on the earlier Victorian Fortifications of the 7 islands making up the Bailiwick of Guernsey…

For almost as important in the engrossing history of these sun-soaked islands as the German Occupation is the story of the earlier fortification building programme that took place in the late 1700s to combat the ever-present threat of an earlier invasion, this time by the French, (our on-off friend & enemy down the years), as these attractive of Anglo-French islands were literally right in the firing line between our two countries.

Though a greater part of my responsibility as Media Consultant to Fortress Guernsey, (often working alongside leading Alderney-based fortifications expert Colin Partridge), was to write, report & broadcast on the German Occupation side of the story and indeed to bring over as many documentary-film makers, fellow broadcasters and travel journalists as possible to show off this unique aspect of Guernsey’s formidable & fascinating history, so too the incredible Victorian Fortifications were a major part of our combined endeavours when promoting the military historical background of Fortress Guernsey to an intrigued outside world.

For almost 2,000 years in fact Guernsey and its 6 satellite islands of the Bailiwick  possessed considerable strategic importance in the defence of Britain and by virtue of its special relationship to mainland Britain as a Crown Dependent territory, Guernsey was to eventually find itself covered with myriad fascinating earthworks, forts, Martello towers, gun-batteries, arsenals & watch-houses, all built principally to resist the threat of invasion… and obviously long before the rise of the Third Reich and Hitler’s lustful eyes on these stunning islands, (though interestingly enough all those years later many of the subsequent German fortifications were actually built upon, or added to, these previously early constructed and very sturdy Victorian fortifications.)

The catalyst for the earlier defensive positions can be traced back to the American War of Independence in 1775 as 3 years later in 1778, France declared its support for the American colonists in their struggle against the British Crown..and the Channel Islands, despite the presence of a powerful Royal Navy, lay very close to an increasingly aggressive France.Indeed in May 1778 the Governor of the neighbouring island of Jersey wrote to the British Secretary of State in London recommending that a programme of  coastal defence building should begin in the two larger Channel Islands (i.e. Jersey & Guernsey).

So it was that in August 1778, approval was given for the construction of 15 fortified towers and with the importation of a large force of labour, (later echoed in the 1940s when the Germans brought in slave labour for their building programme), by March 1779 all 15 were complete and ready for action. The French had actually drawn up plans for the full invasion of the Channel Islands, though mercifully this did not materialise, nevertheless it was decreed that Guernsey’s defences be further strengthened. So it was that from 1803 onwards three large Martello Towers were built at Rocquaine Castle, Fort Sausmarez and at Houmet Point, all of which were to have additional German fortifications added to, (or on and indeed over), during the 1940-45 Occupation of the Bailiwick.

However, of the original 15 Victorian Loophole Towers built in 1778-79, just 12 now remain in Guernsey, one of the most important of these being Rousse Tower in the north of the island overlooking Grand Havre. Designed primarily to prevent the landing of enemy troops on nearby beaches and, on stretches of coastline where more than one tower was erected, Rousse and the other towers were positioned to provide overlapping fields of fire from their light 1-pounder cannons.

Musket-fire could also be directed down on invading forces through the loop holes whilst from a position on the roof the later addition of a 12-pound cannonade could fire grapeshot. Heavier guns on these batteries were subsequently added and this allowed the towers to actually engage enemy ships up to a range of some 3000 yards.

Rousse was actually constructed in 1804 on the site of a former small battery already sited on this ‘achingly beautiful’ headland and by 1816 it boasted three 24- pounder cannons and two smaller 9-pounder cannons and, on a base of Portland stone imported over from Dorset, the larger guns were mounted on inclined platforms to help with the force of the cannon’s recoil, whilst the smaller cannons were sited on the flat so they could be easily manoeuvred to fire on the advancing enemy through the embrasure openings on the rear wall if required.

Although the British Government maintained a permanent military garrison in the islands, there were actually insufficient troops to guard all of Guernsey’s wide-open sandy beaches, so this task was delegated to the Guernsey Militia. Recruited at the age of 16 and transferred into the Reserve at 45, they remained on standby by for call-up right up to the age of 60, and though there were weekly drills & parades, they were not paid… and even had to provide their own Militia uniforms until the British Government began furnishing them from 1782 onwards.

With a force of some 2,500 to 3,000 men in the Militia, Rousse Tower was manned by a Sergeant and 20 men under the command of a Captain, who was also responsible for 3 other identical batteries sited across the headland

Men allocated to this duty also had to continue their normal day-job as farmer, fisherman or quarryman, however they were allowed to appoint ‘substitutes’ for when the day job was more pressing and at these times it was not unusual for the soldier’s wives or their children to stand in. But eventually this led to abuse and many derelictions of duty when men supposedly on duty… but were anything but!

As a part of Fortress Guernsey’s remit, Rousse Tower was given a superb make-over and in addition to the construction of life-size models then placed inside the tower to illustrate life within in the late 1700s/early 1800s, after a great deal of effort a number of original cannons were sourced and, after proofing in Chatham Docks in England, were sited on accurately reproduced carriages. Now these are proudly on display at this beautifully restored Victorian site.

On my recent trip back over to Guernsey I was delighted to once again pop up to Rousse and happily note that the Tower, (seemingly falling yet again into a state of some disrepair on a previous visit, despite all the work that Fortress Guernsey had originally invested on it), was now looking really ‘ship-shape & Bristol fashion’.. a real sight for sore eyes in fact!

It was a real delight to spend some time here once again, this time with my dad, taking in the magnificence of this Loophole Tower, now some 230 years old, fully restored to its former glory as it is a truly wonderful testament to the Victorian art of military fortification; and something that the German military designers & engineers either consciously or subconsciously copied some 160 years later when it was their turn to further fortify the Bailiwick from 1941 onwards, (after their invasion the previous year), and the island’s unique German gunnery range-finding towers began to rise at their coastal locations…

Now following Major Ozanne’s earlier lead & persistence in the late 1990s, Rousse Tower is deservedly back on Guernsey’s list of States-maintained historical sites and with further island investment and continued work on the site in 2006, this important landmark attraction can rightly said to be of the finest restored Loophole Towers anywhere in the Channel Islands. So to all involved…well done and bravo!

Finally, whilst just finishing off this latest Blog, a number of readers kindly contacted me to say that they had been enjoying my piece entitled ‘A Soldier’s Grave’ concerning ‘Douglas’ Small’s final resting place in my local village churchyard and my musings as to whether the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had learned of my periodic maintenance of his grave and added it to their official cleaning list as a result?

Well I am delighted to say that a fellow villager, Reg, came forward to say that he and his wife had seen a van in the churchyard when out on one of their regular rambles that bore the legend ‘Commonwealth War Graves Commission’ on the outside and when they approached the team, they were told that the CWGC now comes to our churchyard every two years to give the soldier’s headstones a make-over…

Back then Reg was unaware of my tie to Douglas’ grave so wouldn’t have been able to ask the cleaners if it was indeed them that had given his headstone a thorough make-over, but as his is now a clear white marble, (as opposed to the ‘grey concrete’ when I started to clean it in 1999), I feel I can conclude that the CWGC have indeed added ‘Douglas’ to their list. A very happy outcome for me as we approach this Sunday’s November 11th Remembrance ceremonies and then, next year, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and the subsequent opening of the Hazeley Down Army Pre-Embarkation Camp here in my beautiful village of Twyford on the River Itchen.

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

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