Martello Towers

L.W. Cowie describes how, early in 1805, a series of strong points were built along the British coast-line, to defend against Napoleon’s army, then arrayed across the Channel.

Over the centuries, since prehistoric times, round stone towers were built on the Mediterranean coasts, usually on prominent capes or headlands, to give news of the approach of the Barbary coast pirates and other dreaded raiders. Warning to the local people was usually given by lighting a fire on the flat roof of the tower; but on the western Italian shores the alarm was commonly sounded by striking a bell with a hammer (martello), and the towers became known as ‘touri di martello’.

During the year 1793 the British government received an appeal from General Pasquale de Paoli, the leader of the Corsican insurgents who were fighting against the French troops concentrated in the north of the island. Three British ships-of-the-line and two frigates were sent there in September.

The only secure anchorage in the Gulf of San Fiorenzo was commanded by one of these stone towers on Cape Mortella, so-called after the wild myrtle, known in Italian as ‘mortella’, which grew thickly all around; and the British decided to begin operations by capturing this tower, on which the French had mounted a 24-pounder and a pair of 18-pounders. After two hours’ bombardment by the frigate Lowestoft, it was evacuated by its small garrison and was captured by a naval landing party. A Corsican garrison was then installed; but it was soon retaken by the French.

So far nothing had occurred to bring the tower fame. In February 1794, however, the British again tried to assist the insurgents; and the Fortitude (74 guns) and Juno (32 guns) bombarded it for two-and-a-half hours, but then had to haul off. The Fortitude had been set alight by gunfire; both ships were damaged and, between them, had suffered a total loss of six men killed and sixty-two wounded. It was, therefore, decided to leave the capture of the tower to the troops, 1400 of whom had been landed further along the coast.

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