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We Are The Guns - A Look At The Past

Rick Haynes Writing As The Artful Scribbler

I recently visited the Royal Armouries overlooking Portsmouth Harbour. As I walked through the main doors my eyes opened wide as I read the words from a huge sign above my head.

How frightening is that?

I wandered around looking at the guns that my father fired in WW2 and tried to imagine what it would be like to feel a shadow of death closing in whenever you went into battle. I failed miserably. These deadly weapons were made for one thing only and that meant death. In any artillery dual the sound of the shells flying overhead was deafening and the casualties were enormous, yet men of all nationalities did their duty for their country.

Taking my time enabled me to view all types of cannon and gun. Different they were; some were ornate, some simply functional, yet all were built to kill. I viewed old guns with highly ornate barrels, the super gun supposedly built for Saddam Hussein but never finished, and a host of guns going back centuries. It was a step back in time, interesting, but the poem haunted me as I moved. It felt as if the guns themselves were talking to me, telling me that no one was safe when the shells flew and the screaming began.

Here are a few pictures.

My local Royal Armouries is sited at Fort Nelson which overlooks Portsmouth Harbour and the Solent.

They have a long history, dating back to the Middle Ages. Their celebrated core collection originated in the nation’s working arsenal, which was assembled over many centuries at the Tower of London.

Since 2005, they have also managed the national collection of firearms, started in 1631 by Charles I and assembled by the British Army, now housed at the National Firearms Centre.

Over 2 million visitors visit their 3 sites but I'm concentrating on Fort Nelson.

As their collection continued to expand the Tower of London became too small to house it all properly, and as a result in 1988 the Royal Armouries took a lease on Fort Nelson, a large 19th-century artillery fort near Portsmouth.

Fort Nelson was built in the 1860s, as part of a chain of fortifications protecting the great naval harbour of Portsmouth in Hampshire and its Royal Dockyard from a feared French invasion.

They opened in 1995 as home to the national collection of artillery, with over 350 big guns and historic cannon on display. Covering nearly 19 acres and now fully restored, Fort Nelson sits majestically on top of Portsdown Hill, with amazing views of the Solent and the Meon Valley. It stands today as a monument to the skills and ingenuity of Victorian engineering and architecture.

Fort Nelson was named for the neighbouring column and bust of Horatio, Lord Nelson, a monument which marked England’s greatest naval victory at Trafalgar in 1805, and the death of its greatest admiral.

In Britain, the end of the Crimean War marked the beginning of a century of military anxieties. France under Napoleon III was building up her military and naval strength. ‘Gloire’, the first of a new kind of armoured steam-powered warship, raised doubts as to Britain’s ability to repel an invasion.

These doubts caused Lord Palmerston to set up a Royal Commission to report on the defences of the United Kingdom, with Portsmouth and its Royal Dockyard as the priority. Supported by Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, the result was the building of the greatest works of fortification yet undertaken in this country in peacetime.

A start on modernizing the Royal Navy was made with the launch of HMS Warrior, the British answer to Gloire, and Britain’s traditional wooden walls began to be replaced with ironclads. HMS Warrior is permanently berthed in Portsmouth Dockyard and is open for visitors.

The third element in strengthening Britain’s defences was to augment the small standing army by the raising of a new volunteer corps. Artillery volunteers were especially important and without them the extensive Portsmouth fortress could never have been garrisoned. Fort Nelson, along with the other land works in this huge ring fortress around Portsmouth, was substantially complete by the late 1860s.

The huge armament demands for the Royal Commission forts were never fully met. The threat of invasion evaporated, and Fort Nelson and its neighbours were never put to the test: such was the pace of change both in technology and international relations. By the time they were nearly finished, France had been invaded and defeated by Prussia.

Because the forts were not used to repel an invasion, and perhaps because it seemed as though the forts pointed the wrong way (their guns aim inland), they soon became known locally as ‘Palmerston’s Follies’.

It could hardly be admitted officially that these forts were obsolete almost as soon as they were completed. They were therefore maintained, and formed monumental props in the large-scale manoeuvres of both regulars and volunteers during the later 19th century; spectacles which the townsfolk flocked to watch, bringing picnics once the tea rooms were demolished.

Fort Nelson is part of a massive ring of brick, masonry and earth forts, built to provide the fire power to deter an enemy attack on Portsmouth from inland.

Portsmouth was Britain’s premier naval dockyard, building and maintaining warships that were vital to the defence of Britain and her growing empire.

Fort Nelson and the other Portsdown forts had cost a fortune to build. They were one of the biggest defences ever built in Britain.

Don't delay. Go along and take a peek. You can choose from the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, the White Tower in the Tower of London, and Fort Nelson, Fareham near Portsmouth.

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