Sometime before the debates over how to deal with illegal immigrants (well, about 200 years), a different debate was being held about how to deal with Napoleon – specifically how to keep him out of England. Following a short discussion about waiting until the internet was invented and destroying his reputation via Twitter, it was decided time was of the essence and a more concrete – or maybe brick – solution was called for.
With uncharacteristic modesty the British Navy looked to their recent failures for inspiration, and noted that they had pummelled a small stone tower at Martella Point in Corsica (two guns) with two ships (106 guns between them) for two and a half hours… “without making the least impression”. Once they worked out the guns couldn’t be turned inland, they landed, made a cup of tea and walked in with a ladder and some gung-ho. Having appropriated the guns to mount on their ship, they left the tower to the French, who made a lovely meal with some garlic and herbs, and blew it up. But for the British, the lesson was learned and with all too characteristic lack of appreciation for any language other than English they nicked the idea and mis-spelt ‘Martella’. And so was born the Martello Tower.
Some 103 towers were built in East Anglia between 1805 and 1812 to defend against Napoleon’s expected invasion. The outside walls were 13 feet thick and the roof was home to a canon. 17 remain, of which 10 are unused (though two of these were once water towers and one was used as a coastguard lookout), 4 were converted to houses, one is a museum (St Osyth near Clacton), one is used as an arts venue (Jaywick, also near Clacton), and one is available as a pretty amazing holiday let via the Landmark Trust.
As for Napoleon, being quite observant he spotted the dozens of 30-foot brick towers and sensibly decided to go round to the back door (much as the British did at Corsica) and invade via Ireland. He sent his Toulon fleet to Martinique, which is about the same distance to Venezuela as France is to Ireland. The idea was to rendezvous with the rest there before the grand invasion force went back across the Atlantic. Unfortunately no-one told the rest of the fleet of this plan, so the Toulon chaps under Pierre-Charles Villeneuve hung around for a bit then went back to France to ask if they’d got the date wrong, only to be ambushed by the Brits. Both sides claimed victory, so nobody won. Villeneuve, perhaps a little peeved to have discovered that Napoleon had popped off to Antigua anyway, decided to ignore the war and headed to Cadiz for a break, where Napoleon soon joined him to ask what had gone wrong.
Ultimately Villeneuve was captured by the Brits and allowed to stay in a pub in Hampshire with 200 of his closest friends in nearby houses, until eventually returning home where he allegedly committed suicide by stabbing himself 7 times – not remotely suspicious. Napoleon ended his days banished to St Helena with no close friends.
Still, they gave us the Martello Towers.