Brittany Coastal Defences
Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.
England and the Netherlands were France's main enemies at sea during the 17th and 18th centuries. Instead of fighting them at sea France decided to defend the coastline in order to prevent them from invading and raiding the mainland.
As a consequence Brittany, being situated close to both countries, was frequently under attack. Local trade and coastal navigation were frustrated by piracy, resulting in economic damage, and occasionally enemy troops made landings to attack the coast.
However, it was impossible to defend the whole coastline with forts and towers similar to those at Brest and St Malo. It would have been too expensive and the soldiers that would have had to defend them were needed to fight on the other fronts.
A cheaper solution was needed to secure the coast against these attacks. So small guardhouses and batteries were constructed at strategic points along the coastline (river mouths, islands, bays and capes), defended by local militias called the Milices Gardes-Cotes.
Examples of this are the batteries on island Batz, and the small fort on the nearby island Sieck. Their role was to protect the anchorages there, the waterways to Morlaix and Roscoff, and of course the islands themselves.
Other examples are the batteries built on the Pointe de Roselier and La Guette to protect the St Brieuc bay and harbour, or the batteries on the Cap d’Erquy to protect this town and its bay. The system of militias dates from the middle ages when the Normans pillaged the French coasts.
Local men would guard the coastline and in case of danger they would warn the regular troops stationed more inland. This system gained a more official and bureaucratic character during the 17th century.
All men aged between 16 and 40 from the parishes along the coast were registered. They were obliged to buy a musket, bullets and gunpowder. Their duty was to patrol the coast in wartime and warn the troops in case of an emergency.
In times of peace they had to present themselves once a year for registration. The commanders were retired army officers. This first system did not work very well; the militias were untrained, badly armed and unmotivated. The officers were lazy and sometimes corrupt.
During the 18th century the whole system was revised. The militias took on a more professional character. By a lottery 80 men were drawn from the local population. They were given a uniform and musket and received training every Sunday.
These militias replaced the regular troops stationed along the coast. Although more professional than the earlier militias, these troops were still not regular soldiers, all of them had a job so every patrol and training event meant a loss of income for them.
The militias prevented several enemy landings by sheer determination, but because of their lack of training and motivation they never formed a structural threat to the enemy. After the Revolution the militias were replaced by the professional Douaniers.
Besides guarding the coast in order to prevent piracy and invasion, their duty was to prevent smuggling.
The early guardhouses were often made of wood and the first batteries were made of earth. Later guardhouses were made of stone and some of the batteries were equipped with furnaces for heating cannonballs (a red-hot cannonball could set a ship on fire).
Visiting the Brittany Coastal Defences
A lot of these defence works made of stone still exist. They all date from around 1795. Some of them are in ruins but many form an important part of the local historical heritage. You can find lots of information about them in books about the local cultural heritage, at tourist information offices and on the internet. Of course you can also find them just wandering along the footpaths along the coast. We visited the following defence works:
Pointe de Dourven near Lannion. This 18th century guardhouse was made to protect the mouth of the Lequer river that leads to Lannion. It also overlooks the bay and the nearby Pointe de Sehar. The guardhouse is located in the beautiful public park around a local villa.
La Guette near Le Val Andre. This 18th century guardhouse was made to protect the entrance to the Dahouet harbour and the St Brieuc bay. In front of the guardhouse you can still see the trace of the earth battery which used to hold two cannon.
The 1794 century shot furnace on the Pointe du Roselier. On this cape there was a small fort with barracks for 50 soldiers. It was equiped with two cannon. From here you can overlook the St Brieuc bay. There is an information board explaining the furnace's function.
Once again the high cliffs form a spectacular landscape worth the visit alone. On the nearby Point de Pordic you can find the foundations of a guardhouse.
The small 18th century watchtower and 19th century powder magazine'along the Sentier des Douaniers at Ploumanac'h situated close to the Ile aux Moines. The powder magazine used to serve the cannon from the nearby battery.
Their fire crossed with the cannon of the fort on the Ile aux Moines, thus closing the waterway. The spectacular landscape of strangely eroded granite rocks alone is worth the visit to this town. Near Perros Guirec on the Point du Chateau you can find a similar watchtower overlooking the local harbour and the coast to the east.
The 18th century guardhouse and furnace for cannonballs on the Cap d'Erquy. This furnace dates from the end of 1796 and is of the same standard model as the one at Pointe du Roselier. An interesting detail is that the gutter in which the cannonball rolled after it had been heated.
This gutter is part of a local Christian cross demolished during the Revolution. This furnace was under construction during a battle between a French ship called L’Etourdie and several British ships in 1796, but it was never used in battle. The guardhouse looks out over the Erquy bay and harbour.
In Meneham, a tiny village along the coast near Kerlouan, you can find a guardhouse built between two large rocks. It was built in 1755 but for some reason it has been attributed to Vauban for a long time. Behind the guardhouse there is a row of houses.
These were the houses (the second row of houses in the image below) of the six douaniers who lived here with their families from the late 18th century until about 1860. The rest of the buildings were used by local fishermen and farmers who continued to live there after the douaniers left. The site has recently been restored. Once again the environment is splendid.
The guardhouse of the Pointe des Daules is located along the coast near the small village of Le Verger, between St Malo and Cancale. The British made a number of attempted landings on the coast between these two towns during the 18th century. This explains the relative density of small fortifications along the coast in this area. What makes this guardhouse different from the others is the small watchtower attached to it. It is in very good condition and is sometimes used as a sleeping place for hikers.
The Pointe du Hock, located in Cancale, overlooks the Mont St Michel bay. It can be reached via a small footpath leading along the top of the cliffs. The guardhouse, visible from the road, is located in the garden of one of the villas. Not the most spectacular guardhouse but the views of the bay, the Chausey islands and the Mont St Michel are worth the journey, the guardhouse is a bonus. On the nearby island of Rimains there is a fort, but it cannot be visited.
Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.