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1805: Cuckfield's battlefield destruction averted

Inspection of French troops at Boulogne, 15 August 1804

Not many people are aware that Cuckfield could have been right at the centre of a defensive front line to resist Napoleon’s invasion force had it successfully landed in England.

The British Government had known for a long time that France had designs on invading England. The British War Office had been working on counter offensive plans for mooted invasions under France's Ancien Régime in 1744, 1759 and 1779.

But between 1803 and 1805 Napoleon’s troop barges were being been readied in France’s northern ports and were poised to go. Some 200,000 troops of the Armée d'Angleterre (Army of England) had assembled and had been training at camps at Boulogne, Bruges and Montreuil.

A specimen page from the Dumouriez manuscript

At the same time in England, detailed battle plans were being drawn up. This was done with the secret help of a French army general, Dumouriez, who had defected to Britain. Charles-François du Périer Dumouriez personally hand-drafted the military strategy - 397 pages long, taking account of detailed local topography, military supply needs and with the full knowledge of French tactics.

Dumouriez dismissed both Clayton Hill and Devil’s Dyke as defensive positions due to the local shortage of wood, water, food and provisions, and because of the difficulty of digging trenches.

In brief, his masterplan - should the coastal defences be breached - entailed a second line of resistance set up on the ridge that runs between Horsham, Cuckfield and Uckfield. This new front line would give a commanding view of the ‘amphitheatre’ that lay below along the east-west valley of Sussex. He explained:

‘Its central point, Cuckfield, constitutes a camp which may be made unstormable, and of which Cuckfield Cemetery is the outwork. On coming down into the Sussex valley by the Cuckfield road, there are three good positions to be found in a line, disputing the valley, Barcombe to the east on a height, St. John’s Common [Burgess Hill] in the centre, and Shermanbury to the west.’

Charles-François Dumouriez

With the inevitable opening gambit of a heavy artillery bombardment by the French, little of Cuckfield would have remained undamaged - and the beautiful church, so close to the action, inevitably would have been destroyed. A bloody Waterloo-style battle then would have ensued - but the French general was optimistic of the success of his defensive strategy:

‘… the ground falling from slope to slope admits of several good camps, where a very complicated and murderous guerrilla war could be waged against a hostile army that had got so far, after having stormed the second line of defence, because it would be cut off from the sea and harassed on both flanks by numerous army corps.’

The invasion plans were called off in 1805 - not as many believe - before the Battle of Trafalgar in 1815. And on Sunday 18 June 1815, the Duke of Wellington led a coalition army to victory in the Battle of Waterloo. The decisive military outcome saw an end to Napoleon’s grand expansionist ambitions.

On this side of the English Channel, Cuckfield inhabitants remained unaware of the potential destruction that might have been wrought on its market town had Napoleon succeeded. So Cuckfield can be especially appreciative of the Duke of Wellington’s military achievements.



Dumouriez and the Defence of England against Napoleon by Rose, J. Holland; Broadley, A. M.


Inspection of troops at Boulogne, 15 August 1804. Public Domain WikiMedia Commons licence.

A specimen page from Dumouriez manuscript, from book source above. The manuscript was rediscovered in 1904.

Charles-François Dumouriez, Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Army (1739-1823), by Jean Sébastien Rouillard, Paris 1834. Public Domain WikiMedia Commons licence.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.



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