La Crete Fort - 'A respectable little work'

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This article by Martin Brice was first published in the 1993 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1793-1815, the Channel Islands served as bases for operations against French shores and shipping and as advanced posts against possible invasion of England. However, their very location meant that the Islands were themselves very vulnerable to assault from France.

Nowhere was this more appreciated than in Jersey. Not only is this Island the farthest from England and only 15 miles from France but the people of Jersey had memories of 1781. In that year, during the previous conflict, the War of American Independence, the French had landed on the east coast and advanced a considerable distance before being halted. Even after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte's main battlefleets off Trafalgar in 1805 there was still the danger of 'commando'-style raids on Jersey - perhaps even a full-scale invasion trying to occupy and hold Jersey as a bargaining counter at some future peace conference. However the British Government had worldwide defence commitments - and defence is expensive.

A plan of La Crete Fort

Defence agreement

On 30 October 1807, the British Government in England and the States of Jersey came to an agreement regarding the costs of coastal defence. The main nationally significant fortifications in Jersey, both inland and coastal, such as Fort Regent and the coastal towers, plus barracks and stores accommodation for strategically-based troops, would remain the responsibility of the British Government. So, too, would all the lesser posts and fortlets along the eastern and southern shores, which were nearest to France. Meanwhile the States of Jersey would assume financial responsibility for the construction and maintenance of lesser works along the northern and western coastlines - less accessible to the enemy, but still important for local defence.

Reference was made to this document whenever there was debate over who paid for what; for, in spite of this agreement, the peculiarities of the system still afforded ample opportunity for administrative confusion. The States of Jersey may have owned certain fortifications, but their location was determined by the Board of Ordnance in Pall Mall, London, and their design was undertaken by the Royal Engineers, while their armament was recommended by the Royal Artillery and issued by the Board of Ordnance. In fact, all the cannon, mountings, ammunition and associated equipment remained the property of the Board of Ordnance, stamped with the British Government's broad arrow (as seen on old-fashioned convicts' uniforms).

The senior Royal Artillery and Royal Engineer officers in Jersey thus had the difficult duty of reporting both to the Lieut-Governor of the Island and to the Master-General of the Ordnance in London. In addition, there was an Inspector-General of Fortifications, Barrack-Masters and other Army and Navy officers, government officials, elected representatives and influential pressure-groups, all of whom had valid and legitimate reasons for asking questions, issuing instructions, requesting reports, offering advice and making suggestions. That the system worked at all is a tribute to the personalities involved; only occasionally does the correspondence betray irritation at some other department's interference.

La Crete Point (Crest Point) lies between Bonne Nuit Bay and Giffard Bay. The latter was known as Le Havre Giffard when the headland was fortified by the States of Jersey in 1813. Indeed, the work at La Crete was entitled orginally Havre Giffard Battery. It mounted two French iron 18-pounder guns served by a magazine, a store and a guard house. Bonne Nuit Bay itself was further defended by an Upper (Hurvase), and Lower Battery, each with two French iron 12-pounder guns, a magazine and a store. There was also a guard house at Hurvase-Upper Battery, the whole Bonne Nuit double-battery complex being paid for, like La Crete, by the States.

In those days the Admiralty was not in charge of arming and ammunitioning its own ships; that was the preserve of the Board of Ordnance. So, when the Royal Navy captured an enemy warship, it was the Board of Ordnance which arranged for the vessel to be rearmed with British weapons for standardisation of supply. The surplus foreign cannon were either melted down or, if sufficient shot had also been captured, issued to certain land fortifications. Thus, in 1814, La Crete and Bonne Nuit Batteries were armed with French naval guns - and manned by officers and men of the Jersey Militia.

Militia

In England, each county had its own Militia, the mounted troops being known as yeomanry, under the command of the Lord-Lieutenant of the county. Most able-bodied men were expectd to serve in the Militia - or else make some contribution in money or kind. For example, farmers had to provide horses, elderly men cleaned equipment and fishermen joined the Sea Fencibles. Training and occasional duties were part-time, undertaken in addition to full-time civilian employment. There was a certain amount of reimbursement in the form of expenses, subsistence allowances and occasional wages. However, proper wages were paid in an emergency, when officers and men might be required to spend several days away from their regular employment. Indeed, some Militia units became so proficient at the military life that they became fully-embodied components of the Army, their only difference being that they did not serve outside the British Isles. These full-time Militia regiments guarded gunpowder factories, warehouses and prisoner-of-war camps, provided guides for regular regiments marching through their area and escorts for deserters being returned to their units and patrolled stretches of coastline where there was danger of hit¬and-run raids by the enemy. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Militia was an efficient, knowledgeable and enthusiastic home defence army and armed police force - even the part-time Militia units had their cadre of full-time officers and NCOs.

Besides the La Crete-Bonne Nuit Batteries, there was a barracks on the road running round the bay. This belonged to the Board of Ordnance to accommodate regular troops stationed there as a mobile reserve and reinforcement for the nearby batteries, plus the States-owned fortifications at Fremont Point, Poucles, Vicard Point and Les Huvets. Centralised control was provided by a signal post on Mont Mado. Another Ordnance installation, this comprised a guard house with a single 12-pounder cannon.

All this equipment and organisation remained in place until the departure of Napoleon Bonaparte for Saint Helena, and the apparently definitive pacification of Europe. Once this had been achieved, recommendations were made for the reduction of the armaments in Jersey. In the unlikely event of an invasion ever being attempted again, Fort Regent would be the centre of the Island's defences - a citadel capable of holding out until relieving troops could arrive from England. The coastal fortifications would merely delay the enemy's approach to Fort Regent.

Being now of minor significance, they could be reduced in number, those retained being so selected that one fortlet overlooked two possible landing sites. It was recommended, therefore, that the twin Bonne Nuit Batteries be reduced from a total of four to two 12-pounder guns, while La Crete retained both its 18-pounder cannon. The structural condition of both works was described as "good'. The Mont Mado signal post was one of the installations to be abandoned altogether. The Bonne Nuit Barracks were not mentioned in this May 1816 report, but it does not seem likely that they were ever used again for military purposes - not with the regular troops in the Island being concentrated in and around Fort Regent.

The Board of Ordnance received this report on 29 July 1816. Just over a week later, they ordered its recommendations to be implemented, which is very quick for such a decision. Even so, the Jersey Office of Ordnance was already beginning to organise the "Drivers, Horses, Carts for dismantling" in advance of London's official authorisation. By 26 September 1816, the two 12-pounders at Bonne Nuit Hurvase-Upper Battery had been dismounted and left lying on the stone platform, the mountings being placed in store. Meanwhile, Bonne Nuit Lower and Le Havre Giffard (La Crete) Batteries still mounted their two 12-pounders and two 18-pounders respectively - and continued to do so on through the 1820s.

Track to La Crete

Threat from France

By the Spring of 1831, France was recovering her power in Europe and was again being regarded as a threat to the Channel Islands. There was, also, the danger of bombardment and landing from steamships, which, being independent of wind and current, could now approach waters which hitherto had been too hazardous for sailing vessels. Many remote bays might now suffer assault in the event of war. Accordingly Major-General Thornton, Lieut-Governor of Jersey, called for a report on those Island defences paid for by the States. Lt-Colonel Lewis, the Commanding Royal Engineer, reported that many fortifications were now in ruins, having been neglected during 15 years of peace. If new ones were to be built, they should be even better sited so as to provide concentrated fire at strategic locations, instead of being scattered all along the coast. They should be screened also from attack from the rear.

Regarding the sweep of Bonne Nuit Bay itself, Lt-Colonel Lewis suggested placing two guns en barbette (firing from behind and over a protective sloping apron of stone and earth) in front of the barracks. Meanwhile La Crete Battery should be rebuilt to take six guns on traversing platforms (similar to those on top of 'Martello' towers), enclosed in the rear by a defensible guard house. This fort would dominate simultaneously Le Havre Giffard and Bonne Nuit Bay and the approaches to both.

The Lieut-Governor approved all these suggestions, and told Lt-Colonel Lewis to prepare plans and estimates - which he did, submitting them on 18 October 1831. However, the idea for a Bonne Nuit Barracks Battery seems to have been dropped; evidently it was felt that a new Fort La Crete would be sufficiently effective to deal unaided with an enemy assault on the bays each side of the headland. The total cost of reconstructing La Crete was estimated at £804. The whole plan for the refurbishment of the defences owned by the States of Jersey, costing in total £8,118 3s 3d, now had to be approved by the Board of Ordnance and the Secretary of State for War in London, further copies of plans being necessary for supply to the various contractors.

The States of Jersey also had to debate and approve the spending of the appropriate sums, their deliberations taking place during the seances of 15 November 1831, 31 December 1831 and 19 January 1832, when the decision to go ahead was made. The States also agreed to pay £2,000 a year towards construction, maintenance and repairs until £7,571 19s 3d had been used. It is not clear how they arrived at this last figure, but then most of the States' and citizens' attention was concentrated on coping with the cholera epidemic which broke out early in 1832.

Tenders for the construction of fortifications were advertised from 30 March 1832 onwards. On that date, too, Lt-Colonel Lewis sent the whole detailed scheme to the Inspector-General of fortifications, Major-General Sir Alexander Bryce. Three days later Bryce forwarded it to the Master-General of the Ordnance. Arguments regarding who paid for which costs then occupied the rest of the year. There was also frequent reference to the danger from steamboats - and a suggestion from the Lieut-Governor of Jersey that, to counter enemy steam warships and transports, the Royal Navy should have its own steam squadron stationed in Jersey waters.

Not only would it be ready to repel an invasion, the British ships could themselves capture Chausey Island as soon as war was declared, using it as an advance base against French coastwise traffic. The proponents of the idea of a strong Royal Navy being a much better defence against invasion than any fixed shore defences were known as 'The Bluewater School'. Usually the Admiralty was a strong advocate of such a policy - naturally - but, in this instance, they do not seem to have welcomed such a suggestion from a non-naval source. The idea was rejected; Jersey must pay for its own local defence installations now. The Navy would do what it thought best if and when there was a future war.

Looking down on the fort in 1939

Work starts

This exchange of correspondence in the middle of 1833 seems to have been the final considerations before the programme of work began. La Crete Fort was rebuilt in 1834 at a cost of £971, the contractor being a Mr Slater. When complet, there was accommodation for one officer and 30 other ranks, a water tank held 540 gallons and 40 barrels of gunpowder could be stored in the magazine. That was for the planned armament of two 18-pounders and four 12-pounders. However, on 28 October 1835 these guns had still not arrived for mounting and it seems as though they never did. Meanwhile the old foreign cannon were rendered unusable by having a trunnion knocked off (so that the guns could never again be fitted into a mounting), and were then offered for sale for scrap. That was in the summer of 1836; by 19 September of that year, they had all gone.

By 1837, there was a new Lieut-Governor, Major-General Campbell. He wanted to know how well the improvements decreed by his predecessor had been achieved. Accordingly, the new commanding Royal Engineer, Lt-Colonel T Oldfield, delivered a very full report on the condition of all the defences owned and maintained by the States of Jersey. Dated 9 March 1837, it covered not only the new and updated works but also the earlier buildings ignored by Lt-Colonel Lewis. When he came to Bonne Nuit Bay and its vicinity, Lt-Colonel Oldfield referred to Fremont Watch House as "a good building in good order - should be retained as a Guard House, to be occupied in war time".

There were remains of batteries at Hurvase and Old La Crete. "At the former they are very trifling and scarcely worthy of notice. At the latter it may be well to secure the buildings from further dilapidation; the expence would probably be £1 lOs". The walls of the Watch House above Bonne Nuit, where had been the old signal post on Le Mont Mado, were "in tolerable order; the expence of £1 lOs would secure them from further dilapidation".

The principal work in the area was New La Crete Fort, "a respectable post". It required no work done to it, apart from inclusion in a list of buildings needing routine "repairs to roofs (damaged by storm), easing doors, windows and shutters, painting outside iron work, weeding batteries, cleaning drains, etc". All the buildings in the area had to have the boundaries of the States property marked. In addition there was provision in the estimates for paying the "travelling expenses of Clerks and Foreman of Works".

La Crete Fort and the other States defence works were still expected to be manned by part-time members of the Militia, now the Royal Jersey Militia, regular troops being concentrated on Fort Regent. Bonne Nuit Barracks had thus become totally surplus to requirements. However, the Board of Ordnance did not wish to relinquish ownership entirely, just in case it was needed in some future emergency. Accordingly they let it to a Colonel John Carr, retired from the Royal Irish Artillery. The rent was £20 per year, beginning Michaelmas, 29 September 1837.

Colonel Carr seems to have been a farmer, probably raising cattle, and using the empty barracks to accommodate livestock. By March 1839 he was applying to make alterations to the property, principally the construction of a cesspool and new drains. The Board of Ordnance was not happy about his proposals for a covered drain under what had been the Barrack Square. The Barracks might one day revert to military use and the Army preferred open sewers because they were easier - and cheaper - to clear out if they became clogged. This opinion, expressed just seven years after the Jersey cholera epidemic, reflects the arguments going on in public health regarding the spread of water-borne diseases.

It would seem from some items of correspondence in the Board of Ordnance files, that the growing danger from France overshadowed all other considerations. On both the local and the international stage, French influence seemed to be expanding. By 1840 there were plans for the remains of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to be brought back from Saint Helena to Paris; and the name of another Napoleon, Louis, was being heard in the land. And then there was the improving efficiency and reliability of steam power, so that French warships stood a chance of gaining temporary command of the Channel. When that happened the troops waiting at Saint Malo would embark to "attack and plunder" Jersey and the other Channel Islands. Obviously Britain's answer must be an unchallengeable Navy, but just in case something happened, Jersey's fortifications must always be ready and manned. And what of the Militia who were to man those defences?

Ever since 1815 the reputation of England's Militia had been declining. After 25 years of peace, many county units had become little more than social clubs, their most active employment being police duties: cutting down rioters, strikers, trade unionists and farm labourers; horse-riding gentry using their superior weaponry to defend the unequal privileges of their own landowning class - or so alleged the propagandists of such events as the Peterloo Massacre.

Well-organised Militia

Fortunately for Jersey, perhaps because of its proximity to the traditional foreign enemy, the Royal Jersey Militia had retained its military function. An 1840 report stated that "The defence of this Island very materially depends upon the fine, loyal, spirited and well organised militia. This body notwithstanding the long period of peace, are still most efficient". However, most of their muskets were old and unserviceable. They had 24 6-pounder guns "which make splendid practice" but were worn out. Lt-Colonel English, the Commanding Royal Engineer, recommended rearming the RoyalJersey Militia with 9-pounders, which not only fired heavier shot but also had longer range.

This, however, was field artillery. Regarding fixed works, Lt-Colonel English made a number of comments about Bonne Nuit Bay and its vicinity. The remains of the Guard House at Fremont Point could be repaired to serve as a blockhouse for 18 men. The Bonne Nuit Barracks, officially accommodating three officers and 86 men, no mention being made of Colonel Carr's livestock, was too exposed to fire from warships in the Bay. It should, therefore, be screened by an earth parapet, the buildings themselves being connected by a loopholed wall, 12 feet high.

La Crete Fort was in good order and ready to receive its guns - which still had not been issued. When they did arrive, two would be mounted on traversing equipment, while four would fire through embrasures (or holes in the wall). These cannon would dominate the coast from Fremont to La Belle Hougue. Some alterations were necessary to inhibit accessibility from an attacker's point of view, but its chief disadvantage was that it was vulnerable to fire from the high ground in the rear.

As the decade wore on, Jerseymen continued to voice fears of French invasion. The expansion of Metropolitan France into Algeria in 1845 meant that the French had 17 powerful steamships in the Mediterranean to transport 1,000 men at a time to repeat the surprise landings on the east coast of Jersey in 1781. The new French railways under construction meant that forces could be brought secretly from any distance for the attack on Jersey. Well may the French at Saint Malo and Granville confidently exclaim that Jersey is to be taken on a declaration of war. Jersey must defend itself by strengthening the coastal fortifications, building a coastal railway to link them up and by arming the population. So argued Col John Le Couteur, commanding the 5th Regiment of the Royal Jersey Militia.

Guns received

By 1848, the Year of Revolutions in Europe, it seems that such lobbying had taken effect. La Crete had received its guns at last - all 32-pounders. Two of 56-cwt were already installed on iron garrison carriages, themselves mounted on iron traversing platforms, but four of 32-cwt were stored at La Crete separately from, but ready for mounting on, wooden garrison carriages. The report of Lt-Colonel A Streatfeild, the Commanding Royal Engineer, dated 30 September 1848, recommended that all the guns should be mounted. "In the event of war, situated as the Island of Jersey is, no time probably would be given for preparation by an active enemy close at hand. This would also give the Militia practice in exercising with the guns which they would use in time of war".

To ensure that nothing happened to this weaponry in these remote places, it was proposed that Military Pensioners be employed as security guards at 6d per day. This last idea provoked the following comment from the authorities: "One does not see why there should now be occasion for these men when these have hitherto been without them". It was in a similar report of 10 December 1852, that La Crete Fort received its highest commendation - "a respectable little work".

However, it was not many years before the development of warships, modern fortresses and magazine-loading rifles vindicated the arguments of all protagonists. Iron-clad battleships like HMS Warrior, the strengthening and re-arming (or fresh construction) of a few massive 19th century citadels, such as Palmerston's Follies outside Portsmouth, and the rise of the Rifle Volunteer movement was the Victorian epitome of Britain's traditional strategy of 'Fleet-Forts-Field Army'. From Jersey's point of view, this meant that the Militia and Volunteers would defend the shore forts, including La Crete, delaying an invader's approach to Fort Regent, itself holding out until relief arrived from England - relief depending on the Royal Navy's control of the sea.

If ever that were lost, then no local defences - not even Fort Regent - could hold the Island indefinitely. Not that such an event seemed likely - or even thinkable - as the 19th century merged into the 20th with France now an ally against a distant Germany.

The events of 1940 showed that the Channel Islands were indeed very vulnerable, especially when control of the sea and of the air passed to the enemy. Having occupied the Channel Islands, the Germans proceeded to fortify them, believing that any government would give top priority to reclaiming the sacred soil of the homeland. The north coast of Jersey, in particular, was likely to be attacked from England. Accordingly, Resistance Point La Crete was armed with one 3.7 cm PAK 35/36 anti-tank gun and one MG 34S 7.92 mm heavy machine gun.

Illumination was provided by a 30cm diameter searchlight, while the troops manning the fort not only had their personal weapons, but could also deploy two MG 13 7.92 mm light machine guns and an 8.2 cm GrW(r) mortar. This last was of Russian manufacture and was brought, apparently, by the 17 Russian soldiers who had been captured and transferred to the Wehrmacht. One wonders if their three German NCOs experienced the same difficulties with their Russian associates as did the British Board of Ordnance when their Russian allies were stationed in Jersey back in 1799-1800.

Thus La Crete Fort passes from war to leisure. It may not have withstood violent sieges or witnessed other dramatic events, but its history has been a microcosm of military architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries, reflecting changing dangers and ideas and technologies, the currents of international politics and national economies over almost 200 years.

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