By Thomas Cooper
War can be complicated; planning attacks are crucial to their success.
But what happens if they all go wrong? How do you defend against an enemy looking to claim a decisive victory?
Forts such as the ones found at Berry Head and ports such as Torbay were central to plans to defend Britain from a French invasion in the early 19th century. Berry Head provided the perfect natural protection for Torbay. All it needed was some heavy artillery and all threats to Torbay could be easily thwarted.
Berry Head was not purely about defence though. It could be used as a base to launch counterattacks or to look over ships in Torbay on their way to do battle in Europe. On land it provided a space to train soldiers who were soon to be fighting abroad. Britain could simply not have fought a war against Napoleon without bases such as Berry Head and the security they provided.
A little insight into the types of action Berry Head saw can be gained from reading articles from The Times between 1803 and 1815. With the Napoleonic wars being fought frequently at sea, the newspapers were keen to update the public on the action.
In a section entitled Ship News, updates on ships stationed in Torbay and the sites offshore that Berry Head witnessed. Two articles that appeared in The Times in October 1804 detailed the actions of Admiral Cornwallis. He had sailed from Torbay destined for Brest but was forced to return due to unfavourable winds. Cornwallis then set sail again two days letter to take up his station at Brest. At this time, the Navy were blockading Brest and preventing materials intended for new French ships from entering.
This is one key example of a how a defensive fort such as Berry Head can aid Britain’s offence in Europe.
A Ship News entry in The Times on July 25 1812 also suggests another type of incident Berry Head may have witnessed.
At 8pm on July 22nd 1812, a ship called HMS Sea Lark sailed past Berry Head with a French privateer lugger that it had captured. Luggers and Schooners were small ships so any conflict would have been on a small scale but it does suggest that life at Berry Head may not have been entirely without action.
Privateering was another weapon that countries used to boost their war efforts. Privateers were private warships commissioned by their governments to attack the merchant ships of the enemy. It was an effective but dangerous way to get rich. Harbours such as Torbay would no doubt have been a hotspot for privateer attacks. Forts such as Berry Head would have been so important to keep watch for possible enemy privateers.
One of the most famous events to occur off Berry Head took place in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
Napoleon had been captured and was being held on HMS Bellerophon. The events on board the Bellerophon and the actions of Napoleon in captivity are well known thanks to an account written by Captain Maitland who was on board.
Maitland talks of Napoleon being complimentary about the scenery of Torbay and also sheds light on some more astonishing claims Napoleon made. Maitland states in his book Narrative of the Surrender of Buonaparte (1826) that Napoleon claimed local English fisherman:
'were generally smugglers as well as fishermen; at one time a great many of them were in my pay, for the purpose of obtaining intelligence, bringing money over to France, and assisting prisoners of war to escape.'
Napoleon’s punishment was not yet decided although it was being reported by the newspapers that he was to be exiled to St Helena.
Possibly to prevent news of his punishment, but also to stop any of Napoleons allies from mounting a last gasp rescue attempt, Maitland was also under pressure to ensure that no one boarded the ship other than the crew.
It proved impossible to hide the fact that Napoleon was on board and soon there were large numbers of boats with people on board trying to catch a glimpse of him. The view from Berry Head would no doubt have been spectacular as a great number of people crowded around HMS Bellerophon.
Unfortunately, this would have increased any risk of ships colliding, as was the case on August 8th 1815 when a small ship carrying 8 people was crushed by a Navy cutter. Sadly, two ladies on board lost their lives despite the best efforts of a Navy lieutenant to save them.
As for the fort built at Berry Head, the purpose it served changed dramatically overtime.
Originally it was built with defence in mind but as the Napoleonic war progressed, defence was less of a worry as Britain gained the upper hand. Berry Head continued to be a useful defensive fort and a fantastic place to keep watch if required, but also proved its use as training base for soldiers.
Training the British Army became much more of a concern towards the end of the 18th century with the first training manual being published in the 1790s. Once this was in place, the army utilised spaces such as Berry Head. A secure area where regiments could be stationed together to train
In the early stages of the 19th century, it was not unusual for a soldier’s family to accompany them to their barracks. Overcrowding proved to be a huge problem for the regiments stationed at Berry Head.
Phillip Armitage has recently undertaken extensive research into Berry Head as an infantry barracks during the Napoleonic wars. Armitage delves into what the living conditions were like which were poor at best.
There was no separate accommodation for families or toilet and washing facilities leading to severe overcrowding in one small space.
Conditions were perfect for disease and illness and Armitage demonstrates many children died from infections they picked up as a result although this was not reflected within the adults lodging at Berry Head.
Despite these horrible issues, there can be no doubt that Berry Head showed great versatility during the Napoleonic Wars and played a central role bringing security to Torbay and providing an invaluable base for army and Navy alike.
References and Further Reading
Anon, Buonaparte, Article in The Times on August 11th 1815.
Anon, Admiral Cornwallisput to sea from Torbay on Saturday last. He had cleared the Berry Head, Article in The Times on October 16th 1804.
Anon, Admiral Cornwallis, with ten sail of the Line, was compelled to return to Torbay on, Article in The Times on October 18th 1804.
Anon, Ship News, Article in The Times on July 15th 1812.
Narrative of the Surrender of Buonaparte and his residence on board HMS Bellerophon, by Captain Maitland.
Oxford History of the British Army, ‘The Transformation of the Army 1783-1815’, by David Gates.
Summary of an investigation into the Napoleonic infantry barracks at Berry Head, by Phillip Armitage.
The Command of the Ocean, by N.A.M Rodger.
Was Privateering plunder efficient?, by Peter Leeson and Alex Nowrasteh.