Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Our second line of defences - Part 1

Part 2


NO. I.

Britannia needs no bulwarks,
No towers along the steep;
Her march is o’er the mountain wave,
Her home is on the deep.

So sang Thomas Campbell, just at the close of the last century, when men’s minds were full of the achievements of Howe, and Jervis, and Duncan, and Nelson, and so singing he merely embodied the national sentiment and expounded the national faith. Nor has the sentiment been altered or the faith been shaken from his days down to ours. The descendants of the old Sea Kings show still—as ever—the quality of the blood which runs in their veins, as clearly and unmistakeably as their nearest continental neighbours exhibit in their strange admixture of fierceness and levity their mixed derivation from the Frank and the Gaul.

And in one sense it is as true now as it was then, that England’s true defence is her fleet. In 1805 the presence of our fleet in the Channel effectually prevented the execution of that vast project of invasion for which Napoleon I. only asked for eight-and-forty hours of clear Channel; nor in the teeth of such a Channel fleet as we could now muster is it likely that any other Napoleon would be disposed to attempt a similar manœuvre. But in some other respects the times are changed.

In the first place, steam has revolutionised naval warfare altogether. Things which were not possible for sailing ships are every-day affairs with steam vessels. There can be no more blockades. Concentration on a given point at a given time may now be made almost matter of certainty. Any accidental circumstance which might draw off or disperse, for however short a time, a Channel fleet, would readily be seized upon by even a moderately skilful adversary as an opportunity for throwing a force on our shores, and, when once there, the “roaring guns” would be powerless to “teach them” any sort of useful lesson.

The enormous improvement in our artillery since the days of the old 32’s and the 24-pounder carronades, and the “long 18’s,” furnishes another serious element in the calculation; in short, it is not that our Channel fleet has ceased to be the national defence of our shores, but that it has become the first line only of those defences, and that it has become necessary to throw up a second line inside.

Of natural fortifications, in the shape of cliffs and rocks, we have plenty; and it might occur to a few innocent folks that the simplest process might be to fill up all interstices between these with a good substantial wall like that of China. The practibility of such a scheme may be deduced from the single fact, that in the 750 miles of coast between the Humber and Penzance, there is an aggregate of no less than 300 on which a landing can be effected by an enemy. In short, to fortify the whole coast round is of course out of the question, and it has been wisely enough, therefore, determined to confine the present operations to the effectual protection of vital points.

The first of these are obviously our dockyards and arsenals. They supply the sinews of our first line of defence, for the efficiency of which it is essential that it should be supported by a line of places where damaged ships can be repaired, and new ones fitted out. Moreover, no one can doubt that any invading enemy possessed of the average amount of brains would make first for our dockyards, in order by their destruction to cripple our first line of defence, as well as endeavour to impair our naval prestige. That these are already provided with certain defences, which have grown up around them in the course of years, is as true as that the same sort of improvements which have rendered a second efficient line of defence essential, have at the same time impaired the efficiency of the existing materials for that line. Many of the old works have been condemned as “obsolete,” and “in a state of decay.” We have heard of a fort not a hundred miles from the mouth of the Thames, from the guns of which it has long been dangerous to fire even a salute. Add the fact that competent authority has decided that practicable range for bombardment cannot now be estimated at less than 8000 yards[1] (more than four and a half miles), and here are sufficient reasons at once for a general rearrangement of our second line. We will add two other vital points.

The dockyard, arsenal, manufactories, and depôt at Woolwich, the sole depositary throughout the country for some of our most important matériel, stand in some respects in an attitude of marked isolation from all other similar establishments, and present features which we have no need here to discuss, except to remark that they are utterly undefended by any system of fortification whatever.

The metropolis naturally claims some attention, too, of a peculiar nature. A successful rush upon it, with the enormous consequent commercial loss, has been shown to be one of the greatest national disasters that could by possibility occur.

The readiest highway to Woolwich, Deptford, and London, is of course the Thames, whilst a road to Chatham, our greatest naval establishment in the eastern part of the country, is furnished by the Medway.

How these two great highways are protected against the inroad of an invading force at the present moment; how it is proposed to strengthen and complete the existing defences, we propose now to lay before our readers.

Coastal Defences 1860 (1).png
A. Sheerness B. Minster Heights; C. Isle of Grain works; D. Oakham Ness works; B. Chatham Lines; F F. New Chain of Forts; G. Tilbury Fort; H. Gravesend Fort; I I I. Coalhouse Point and Shornemead works; K. Slough

We should premise that the works now in progress have been undertaken in pursuance of the recommendations of a report presented to the last session of Parliament by the Commissioners appointed to consider the defences of the kingdom. In order to form an idea of the state of protection afforded to the Thames and Medway by their present defences, and of the nature of resistance which could be offered by them to an invading force, we must place ourselves on board some ship forming part of the attacking squadron. We must suppose our squadron to have succeeded in threading the intricate mazework of shoals lying eastward of the Nore, in spite of the removal of buoys (which would, of course, be one of the first steps taken by the Trinity House in case of a war), and to have with equal success run the gauntlet of a fleet of floating batteries, of small draught of water, navigating among those dangerous shoals under the guidance of officers well acquainted with their intricacies, and to have entered on the scene of our illustration abreast of the Nore Light. Let us pause a moment to consider our position. In front of us lie the two estuaries—of the Thames and Medway—divided from each other by a peninsula, the neck of which is about five miles in width, and which measures about twelve miles in length, being, moreover, extended towards us for all purposes of navigation at least a mile and a half further by the accumulation of sand and mud, which is always found at the confluence of rivers. On our right lies the Essex coast, the nearest point being Shoeburyness, famous for its artillery practice-ground along the sands, as well as for a substantial work which may be used either for practice or defence. On our left is the western half of the Isle of Sheppey, separated from the mainland by the Swale, with Minster heights (B), (so called from the remains of the noble old Minster which crown them), next a dead level of a mile or so in width, and then the town, fortifications, and dockyard of Sheerness (A), which stands at the extreme north-western point of the island.

The actual distance from shore to shore, measured from Garrison Point—the north-west corner of Sheerness—across to Shoeburyness, is five miles and a quarter. But here again, for all purposes of navigation, the Channel is wonderfully narrowed. With that into the Medway we shall deal presently. As for the entrance into the Thames, a number of shoals and sands, extending a mile from shore on the north, and as far as the Nore Sand on the south, reduce it to an extreme width of a mile and three quarters. The vessels shown in the illustration are taking the ordinary course for the Thames, which brings them within about three miles of the seaward batteries of Sheerness, and consequently rather more than two miles from any works at Shoeburyness. Now, it is true, that what our sailors of Nelson’s days used to speak of with supreme contempt as “playing at long balls,” has in our days been brought to a wonderful pitch of perfection—8000 yards, as we have already noticed, having been fixed for outside bombarding distance—and there can be no doubt that if the batteries at Sheerness and works on the opposite shore were all heavily armed with rifled-cannon, capable of pitching their projectiles to such a distance, an advancing fleet would be seriously harassed by their fire. As, however, the Commissioners do not appear to have thought this worth taking into calculation, but rather to have relied on the operations of the floating batteries at this point, we will continue our course up the river. Leaving one division of our squadron, to whose evolutions we shall presently return, to force their way into the Medway as they may, we proceed to enter the first grand sweep or bend of the River Thames, known as Sea Reach, passing in succession on our right Southend, with its mile and a quarter of pier, Canvey Island, famous for wild-fowl sport, and the terminus of the Thames Haven Railway, where Cockneys embark for Margate; and on the left the Isle of Grain, and a long marsh district, crowned by the high land white cliff and the beautiful old dilapidated church of Cliffe—or, as some will have it, Cloveshoe—of ancient ecclesiastical fame. So far we have been allowed to proceed quietly enough, uninterrupted by any of those massive towers of granite, with foundations under water, and tier upon tier of casemated guns, which barred even the eccentric Admiral Napier from Cronstadt and St. Petersburgh; and merely remembering that something of the sort, but done in iron, had been very largely recommended to the notice of the citizens of London by sundry marvellous prints hanging in the shop windows, and representing what looked like an enormous bell standing mouth downwards in the water somewhere about the Nore, and punched full of holes, out of which the muzzles of guns innumerable were dealing death and destruction all round among a hostile fleet of alarming dimensions. However, it is time to be serious, for we have now rounded into the next Reach of the river—the Lower Hope—and a round shot from that battery at the bottom of the Reach on the right has just struck the water ahead of us, sending up a column of spray twenty feet high, and is now ricochetting away past us finely. This is the Coalhouse Point Battery (I), and mounts seventeen guns; and, as we open the Reach more, a second on the opposite shore, about a mile further on, opens on us besides. This is the Shornemead Battery (I), and mounts thirteen guns, both raking us completely as we come up the Reach. The Commissioners, however, we find, though commending the admirable position of these works, do not consider them strong enough, and have recommended the strengthening of that on Coalhouse Point by the addition of a powerful battery in extension of the existing one, bringing the principal part of its fire to bear down the river and across the Channel, but having some guns also bearing up the river in the direction of Gravesend. The opposite battery is also to be subject to the same species of improvement, and considerably enlarged in connection with a line of works, of which more hereafter; whilst a third fort (I) is recommended nearly opposite Coalhouse Point—that is, about a mile and a quarter nearer to us than Shornemead Battery—and under the care of this formidable trilateral, which will, when completed, mount in all, as we gather, as many as 150 heavy guns, is to be placed one of those formidable booms, of the difficulty of dealing with which we have had some experience.

We will, however, suppose the prowess of our squadron to have burst this last obstacle, run the gauntlet of, or silenced the three sets of forts, and rounded the point. We are now in the third or Gravesend Reach, and are hardly clear of Shornemead Battery when we are opened on simultaneously by old Tilbury Fort, of famous memory (G), as well as by a fort nearly opposite at Gravesend (H), and the existence of which, (though tolerably well known to the yachtsmen who frequent Wates’s Hotel—it has another name now, we believe, but we love to stick to the old one), is hardly suspected by most of the thousands who every summer pay their regulation visit to the Paradise of Cockneys. Tilbury affords a fire of thirty-two heavy guns down and across the river, and the opposite fort of fifteen guns; and these are now to be so arranged for crossing fire with those guns of the two batteries we have last past, and which were spoken of as bearing up the river, that in passing up Gravesend Reach we have to run the gauntlet of a double cross fire, in shape like the letter X, as may be seen on reference to the illustration, placing our advancing squadron in almost as uncomfortable a situation as wicked Bishop Hatto’s, when the rats poured in on him

From the right and the left, from behind and before.

To complete all, a second boom is to extend—in war time only, of course, like the first, and then fitted with a moveable opening for the passage of friendly vessels—across the river from fort to fort, immediately under the guns of both.

So much for the defences of the Thames properly so called. With the defences, or rather no defences, of Woolwich, we have nothing to do in this paper; moreover, we have got to the limit of our engraving, and that settles the matter.

We now return to the division of our fleet, which we left approaching the entrance of the Medway.

It will of course be observed, both from our illustration and from any map, that Sheerness stands sentry over the entrance of this river. Not only do the shores contract as they approach the mouth, but the shoals before alluded to still further narrow the practicable channel to 730 yards at low water, whilst their position on the left or western bank of the river combines with that of others, further out to sea, in setting the navigable channel well over to the Sheppey; and we are thus driven to the unpleasant conclusion that, in endeavouring to carry our point, we shall be obliged first of all to steer past and nearly parallel with the whole seaward face of the defences at a distance of less than 600 yards, and then round Garrison Point, even nearer than that. However, it is clear we must manage to capture, destroy, or pass the sentry before we can hope to do anything towards attaining our end. There are other works, too, on the opposite shore, of which more anon.

To bombard the dockyard and arsenal not only would be a great point gained in the way of a heavy blow and great discouragement to the garrison, but would inflict a serious loss on the nation generally, as it seems to us; and it must be a great encouragement therefore to our, or any, invading force to find that the floating batteries once passed, there is no protection for Sheerness from bombardment. We are told it could not be protected by permanent fortifications, except at an expense in the shape of deep sea forts, after the fashion of Cronstadt, which it is impossible to recommend; but it is very frankly added that the dockyard and arsenal are not worth protection. Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle. How happy the Sheerness folks must feel in their exposed and remarkably attractive position!

Well, it appears we can bombard the place when we like.
Garrison Point.
We will therefore postpone the consideration of that business, and turn our attention to the fortifications. They look formidable enough. The north line shows something like half a mile of very serious looking batteries, terminating at Garrison Point in a still more ugly bastion mounting a double tier of guns. This, we are informed, is to be still further strengthened by a powerful casemated battery; whilst another, about half a mile further up the river, just where the land defences come down to the river bank, is to co-operate in commanding the anchorage. To complete the tour of the fortifications, we find the whole landward side enclosed by the usual arrangement of angular Chinese-puzzle-looking walls and ditches known among the initiated as “bastions” and “curtains,” through which you pass out into the country, whenever you want an excursion, by means of gates and roads placed sideways and edgeways, and any way but straight, and by ricketty wooden bridges with chains, over which it is hardly necessary to be requested “not to drive fast.”

On the opposite side of the river, standing in mud and in water alternately, according to the tide, is an isolated round tower, looking much as though it had strayed from the fortifications, lost its way, and got stuck in the mud; the three heavy guns mounted on its summit bear both down our channel of approach and on the anchorage which is just round Garrison Point. This tower, however, being no more considered sufficient for its duty than its bulkier neighbour over the way, is to be enclosed by another of these casemated batteries, supported by a second on shore close behind it, and whose guns will rake the channel of approach, the whole being again supported by a fort, perched on the only hill in a low straggling bit of ground forming the left or western shore of the mouth of the Medway, and known as the Isle of Grain, and which, in co-operation with another new fort placed on the first rising ground in the peninsula, and which will be by-and-by noticed more fully, is to warn off all intruders on this—to an enemy—most attractive isle.

Such, then, are the formidable materials of the apparatus intended to hinder our approach to the entrance of the Medway. Before, therefore, addressing ourselves to the attempt on so hazardous a pass, let us see if we cannot manage some assistance or diversion landward. It would be possible, it is true, to throw a force—if the floating batteries would allow us—on the shore eastward of the Sheerness batteries, just where the ground begins to rise, and just where the shore of Sheppey vanishes out of our engraving; but there is but little water except for a short period at high tide; and the landing of artillery, without which the attack would be useless, would be attended with much risk and difficulty: it would be better to pass round the east coast of the island, and use the Swale as a canal for bringing up at any rate the guns and other stores. From the two ferries there are good roads, one of which is shown in our illustration, and both uniting, pass round under the Minster heights, and find their way across the flat country to Sheerness. Here, however, both the Commissioners and Nature combine to baffle an advance; for the former recommend the erection of a strong fort and two auxiliary towers on the heights which command the road, whilst the level of the flat land in question is such, that on opening a sluice in command of the Sheerness garrison, the whole of the country, from the Medway to the Thames, can be inundated, and Sheerness isolated in a sheet of water.

Supposing, then, our advancing squadron to determine at all hazards to try and force the passage, it would be raked in front as it steered down the channel of approach by the guns of the tower in the mud and its surrounding covered battery, as well as by those of the battery on the shore of the Isle of Grain, the whole seaward face of the north line pouring in a tremendous flanking fire all the while. Supposing it to pass through this feu d’enfer, as it rounded the point, gun after gun of each tier of the bastioned work, as well as of the new fortification, would be brought to bear; and as the squadron reached the anchorage, the new battery at the angle of the landward fortifications, and the fort on the Isle of Grain, would add their quota and place it in the centre of five distinct points of fierce assault.

It is just possible, however, that so tremendous a pounding as this might be endured, and that the expedition might continue its course up the river. In the first, or Saltpan Reach, it would have a little breathing time; but as it turned into the second, known by the quaint name of Ket Hole Reach, it would be saluted with some unmistakeable symptoms of a further and most formidable opposition. The channel here narrows to little more than half a mile: the point of the isolated land projecting on the right in our illustration is called Oakham Ness (D). On this point and on the opposite shore two strong forts are to be erected, whose guns shall fire at once down and across the river, concentrating a heavy fire on the advancing squadron; and as soon as these two works shall have been connected by a boom, the Commissioners think that Chatham will be well protected from attack by the Medway.

Still, as in the case of Sheerness, there remains to be seen what opportunity an invading force has of combining a land attack with that by the river; in other words how Chatham, the bût of the Medway expedition, is protected landward. It seems admitted that, in this case, there really is something worth protection from bombardment. A building-yard for men-of-war, of very considerable importance, and under process of enlargement at this moment, whilst improvements also in hand in the navigation of the river will still further add to its importance; an arsenal with its usual concomitants, large military barracks and hospitals,—all these seem worth no little attention: so, it appears, thought our immediate ancestors for a century and a half back, as the present works date from 1710, and subsequently. We are informed, too, of another circumstance in connection with what may be called the landward view of the matter, for the same, or very similar, strategical reasons which induced Bishop Gundulph to build that massy Norman keep on the banks of the Medway at Rochester, which remains to this day like a huge tombstone to the memory of feudalism, still exist in all their force. Chatham and Rochester lie on the high road from the continent to London. An enemy who had landed near Deal, and was advancing on the metropolis, must attack Chatham before he could cross the river (as there is not another bridge but that at Rochester for miles higher up), or make a considerable detour by Maidstone, and leave so important a garrison in his rear. These military reasons for the importance of Chatham, we think, will be comprehensible; there are others connected with its position relatively to the great chain of chalk hills which strike through Kent and Surrey—that huge natural fortification against southern invasion—not so easily understanded of the people, and which shall therefore be let alone.

Chatham is a place much visited by sightseers; its “lines,”—even poor Tom Hood’s Mrs. Higginbottom saw them quite plainly, “with the clothes drying on them,”—are or were famous in guidebooks; and most people therefore are more or less aware that the dockyard—with its building-sheds, timber-yards, gun-wharf, stores, &c. &c.—lie along the east bank of the river for about a mile, and at the foot of a steep hill, on the sides of which are perched the barracks, hospital, military church, and other buildings of Brompton; and that it is along the crest of this hill that the “lines” run (E) dipping to the water on each side; and few who have passed into the lines from the Chatham side, will have forgotten that perilous drawbridge over the deep yawning fosse, and the unpleasant-looking guns pointing out of ominous embrasures, and ready to make a clean sweep of every or anything which might come within their range.

It will also be remembered that, just above the dockyard, the Medway begins writhing about in its course like an eel in convulsions, taking a sudden sweep to N.W., and then an equally sharp one, S.W., and again a third, S., and thus forming the peninsula on which Rochester stands; and some may go on so far as to recollect that the heights occupied by the lines sink very abruptly to the Dover Road, and rise with equal abruptness on the other side, leaving a chasm which is filled by the straggling dirty town of Chatham. A strong fort (Fort Pitt) overhangs this last town, and a chain of works in an unfinished condition stretches thence down to the river, south of Rochester, with the intention of isolating the peninsula on which that city stands.

Chatham lines proper are about a mile and a quarter in length; but a direct line drawn from the northern commencement of these lines to the western termination of those behind Rochester measures quite two miles and a half,—formidable lines one would think—but not, it appears, judged sufficient for the protection of Chatham dockyard in these days, and for the reasons to be mentioned immediately.

No mention has been made, by the way, of certain ancient and decrepit works lying a little further down the river than the dockyard, because they are formally condemned as “obsolete and in a state of decay,” and one of them only, Upnor Castle, possesses any interest, and that historical. It appears there are three directions in which an advance may be made on Chatham. The first from the east, by an enemy advancing from the direction of Dover, along the ridge on the left of our illustration, and on which Gillingham Church stands. On this side the celebrated lines are seen to be open to easy capture by escalade; a discovery which has not improbably been gradually forced on the attention of the authorities by the numerous sham attacks which have taken place here during the last few years. Nature, however, has on this side placed the site of the dockyard out of danger of bombardment, by hiding it behind the heights we have before alluded to. This seems reasonably comprehensible, for though a boy may throw one ball over a high wall—or a hundred for that matter—the chances are strong that not one in fifty hits what it is aimed at. Military engineers in like manner, it appears, never bombard what they cannot see, though it be a dockyard a mile long and a quarter wide, and the distance of which, from the mortar-batteries could be accurately measured on the maps—however, far be it from us civilians to quarrel with military wisdom. A little further on, through the chasm of which we spoke, as the bed of dirty Chatham, a clear view of the dockyard is obtained.

The second attack might be made from the opposite bank of the Medway, and would come from an enemy advancing from the direction of London or the south-coast. On this side the dockyard is completely open, with nothing but the river in front of it.

The third attack would be made by an enemy coming from the northward, who had contrived to land somewhere on the south-coast of the Thames, between the fortifications in Lower Hope and those on the Isle of Grain.

A bold system of defences has been devised for protection against the two first attacks,—it is nothing less than a fresh set of lines altogether,—we are speaking as civilians, and not using the word in its military acceptation.

It is shown in our engraving (FF, &c.), and will be observed to consist of a string of no less than ten new forts, to be connected, as we gather, by other works, beginning near Gillingham Church, a mile outside the Chatham lines, enclosing these as well as those behind Rochester, descending to the Medway half a mile higher up than the present lines, resuming on the opposite bank, and stretching right across the neck of the peninsula, between the Thames and Medway, until they join the works at Shornemead.

For defence against the northern attack, reliance is principally placed upon the natural difficulties of the spot referred to for the necessary landing. One scarcely ever meets with any one who has been there, and our engraving is inevitably on too small a scale to convey any idea of it beyond that it is a tract of very flat marshy country, with plenty of mud between its shore and the navigable channel of the Thames. A more dreary or difficult place for the landing of an army with siege-artillery can be hardly conceived. The engravings of the disastrous attack on the Peiho forts will furnish some notion of the acres upon acres of oozy slimy mud, bare, except for a short period of each tide, and intersected by a few streams and creeks, with contents like pea-soup, which form its natural boundary riverward. The river wall surmounted, a vast extent of perfectly flat marshy country is found intersected by a few dykes and a net-work of drains. Osier-beds and sluices;—here and there a shed for the cattle, which are seen roving about by thousands as on a prairie, are almost the only objects which relieve the monotony, with the exception perhaps of the coast guard station, which looks like a Cayenne for the transportation of refractory coast-guardsmen; or of an occasional farm-house, equally like a place of voluntary exile chosen by a man disgusted with life and strongly bent on justifiable suicide.

When it is added that the whole of this expanse can be laid under water at short notice, it is not surprising to find that a fort—a self-defensible one—perched on a species of hillock at Slough (K), where the land begins to rise out of the marsh, will be sufficient to allay all fears in this quarter. We should add, that it was to this Slough fort we alluded when speaking of the defences on the Isle of Grain; of course it will add the support of those fortifications to its natural duty of standing sentry over the acres of marsh and mud.

  1. As these lines are passing through the press, there come news of experiments made with the Lynall Thomas gun, which is reported to have pitched a 170lb. shot 10,000 yards (nearly five miles and two-thirds).