The war against Napoleon may have been won at the Battle of Waterloo, but it could all too easily have been lost in the fields of Essex.

Two hundred years ago this week, confirmation of the final defeat of Napoleon was announced by the Lord Lieutenant of Essex. The dispatch was read from the balcony of Shire Hall in Chelmsford, the county town.

After that, criers spread the news from town to town across Essex.

For the people of Essex, the lifting of the shadowof Napoleon must have come as a vast relief. Not for the last time, the county had found itself in harm’s way. Between the years of 1803 and 1805, it formed one of the most likely fronts for a French invasion.

In 1803, Napoleon was already master over much of the European mainland. Nowhe announced his determination to invade Britain.

“France must destroy England, or expect itself to be destroyed by these intriguing and enterprising islanders,” he declared. “Let us therefore concentrate all our efforts on the annihilation of England.

That done, Europe is at our feet.”

Napoleon sold the state of Louisiana to the US government, and used the money to assemble an army of 200,000 men and a flotilla of barges at Boulogne. The barges were to be spearheaded by a fleet of hot-air balloons carrying crack assault troops.

Down below, French engineers began plans for a Channel tunnel to keep the invading force supplied with ammunition and decent French cheese.

If Napoleon’s invasion plans were on le plus grande scale, so was the response from the Brits.

Within three weeks of Napoleon’s speech, 280,000 men had volunteered to join local regiments. Defences of every shape and size were constructed, ready to repel the French. Many of them have survived intact in Essex.

The best-known of these are the Martello towers, the distinctively-shaped buildings, like turrets nicked from some neighbouring castle, which run along the east coast from Seaford in Sussex to Aldeburgh in Suffolk.

The towers were built in the round to provide resistance against cannonballs. Large artillery pieces could be mounted on the roof, and given a 360 degree trajectory.

Martello towers remained a key part of coastal defences long after the Napoleonic era, until high-explosive naval guns made them obsolete. Theywere then abandoned. The sea and erosion claimed many. Others, like the towers on the Dengie peninsula, were used by the Navy for target practice. But two survive in Essex, at Jaywick (nowan art gallery) and Clacton.

The county also contains one of the most impressive relics of the Napoleonic invasion scare, the Redoubt at Harwich.

Essentially a giant version of a Martello tower, it was built as a central barracks and supply depot for the Essex and Suffolk line of towers. Ironically, the Martello towers took their name, and their core design, from a structure at Martello Point, in Corfu – Napoleon’s birthplace.

Once Napoleon had overwhelmed these defences, and landed successfully on the east coast, it was easy to guess his next move. He would have headed for London, along the line of the Great East Road (now the A12). With this in mind, the reserve line of defence was centred around Chelmsford. By late 1804, the county town had been turned into a giant barracks. Defences were constructed around all roads that led from the east and north. Some of these defences can still be seen, in the shape of ditches and earthworks, straddling the Margaretting Road at Galleywood.

Avast, purpose-built barracks was also constructed, at Warley. It remained in use throughout the 19th century as a staging post for military units en route to India, and then for units bound for the Western Front in the First WorldWar.

The site is nowoccupied by the headquarters of the Ford Motor Company, but a couple of the original Napoleonic era buildings remain intact to the rear.

Communication remained central, as always, and Essex played host to what was then the hi-tech signals technology of the day. This was the semaphore station. Before the age of the telegraph and telephone, the stations provided amethod of relaying urgent messages across hundreds of miles of land in the space of a fewminutes.

Crews would operate a series of hinged wooden beams at different angles to spell out messages. These would be picked up by the next station in line.

Purpose-built semaphore towers were constructed between the Admiralty in London and naval headquarters in Portsmouth. In Essex, by contrast, use wasmade of high buildings already in situ.

Among them were the abandoned St Peter’s chapel at Bradwell, and the tower at Saffron Walden castle. Linnetts Cottage, built into the seawall at Bradwell, was used to house the semaphore crew.

The sea approaches to London were guarded by the Nore fleet, anchored in the Estuary about two and a half miles off the site of modern-day Thorpe Bay. Earlier in the war, the Nore had bornwitness to the most extensive mutiny in the Royal Navy’s history, when seamen rebelled against the low pay, brutal conditions and bad food aboard their ships.

Most of the story of the Nore mutiny, and its final, brutal suppression, took place at sea.

But a lonely inn on the Essex foreshore played a role as the setting for a number of negotiations between the Admiralty and the mutineers.

Today, the Britannia is little changed, except that it is now surrounded by houses and traffic, rather than sand dunes. Indirectly, the Napoleonic Wars proved to be the making of Southend. While England braced itself for invasion, a certain Lady Hamilton was enjoying herself at “NewSouth End”, the rowof speculative villas nowknown as the Royal Terrace.

Anything that Emma Hamilton did become instantly fashionable. Where she went, the smart world followed.

Emma was one of the most beautiful and captivating women in Europe, with an additional cachet. The whole world knew she was the mistress of Admiral Nelson, already Britain’s national hero.

Nelson himself was at sea throughout the three seasons Emma spent in Southend, but her presence was enough to bring much of the rest of London society flocking to the estuary clifftops.

Then came the Battle of Trafalgar, and the death of Nelson. LadyHamilton’s role as leader of London society was eclipsed overnight, but sowere the plans of an even more imposing figure.

Trafalgar gave Britain complete mastery of the seas, scotching any hopes of a seaborne invasion.

Napoleon moved his gaze away from the Essex coast, and turned elsewhere – to the road that would lead eventually to Waterloo.

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