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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 17

The Halifax Citadel, 1825-60: A Narrative and Structural History

by John Joseph Greenough



In the summer of 1860, a modest proposal for the rearmament of the Citadel and several other works in the Nova Scotia command was put forward by Colonel Nelson and Colonel Benn, the CRA.1 It was rejected by Major General Trollope, who maintained that the existing armament was perfectly sufficient and that any alteration would be a waste of money.2

Not everyone would have agreed with him. That same summer the Citadel received its first distinguished visitor, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. Among the people accompanying him was an English journalist who left this impression:

I was told that [the Citadel] was a very strong place and, as a patriotic Englishman, I am willing to believe that all English Citadels must be strong places. It seemed to me, however, that as a rule the calibre of its ordnance was very much lighter than it should be to keep pace with the recent advances made in the use of heavy guns. It is curious to contrast how the Admiralty arm our vessels of war with the heaviest ordnance (often too heavy for the men to handle), while in many of our forts and citadels the guns are, for the age, ridiculously light. This is all the more strange when we remember that a great weight of metal is often a serious drawback in a ship; it can be none in a fortress.3

"The recent advances made in the use of heavy guns" — this was one instance of a civilian displaying more military acumen than a general. The whole technology of armament was indeed changing, and it would not be long before such developments affected the future of the Citadel.


During the first half of the 19th century, before the Crimean War, British military technology made no noticeable advances. Fortifications theory as taught to British engineering students had not changed appreciably since the early 18th century; young engineers were still learning Vauban's principles of construction. They were rarely taught to evaluate — or even to keep up with — European developments in design. The stagnation shows up most clearly in the publications of the Corps of Royal Engineers. The essays on military engineering in the Professional Papers tend to be of two sorts: systems of fortifications, usually dreamed up by junior officers, and discussions of new works being built in Europe. The contrast between the two is striking. The systems of fortifications outlined in the Professional Papers are elaborate, cumbersome and completely impractical compared to the modern European ones which are discussed (usually uncritically and with no great military judgement) in the same pages. The new theory featured polygonal works with simplified traces and extensive subterranean casemating. But British engineers continued to work from the old principles and to decline to learn from the new, and in so doing, stagnated.

Three factors were responsible for a change in this state of affairs. First, the disasters of the Crimean War had undermined the prestige of the British army; no longer was the threat of war much of a deterrent to European powers. Second, the advent of ironclads in the late 1850s made Britain more vulnerable to invasion, and as a result, forced the British to look for the first time since 1805 to the state of their permanent fortifications. (On 20 August 1859, a royal commission was established to examine the defences of the United Kingdom. It reported in the following February, recommending the construction of an extensive system of seaward defences at the major ports.4) Third, gunnery had been transformed.

Guns had been getting heavier for some time. At the beginning of the 19th century, the heaviest gun in normal use was the long 32-pounder; by 1856, 68-pounders were common.5 By 1860, moreover, the impact of a qualitative change was beginning to make itself felt. The British had used rifled guns with satisfactory results at the siege of Sevastopol,6 and thereafter the techniques of rifling improved rapidly, with marked results for the defensibility of the Halifax Citadel.

In 1860, the very year in which Trollope pronounced himself satisfied with the ordnance in his command, a new note was sounded in the pages of the Professional Papers. An essay entitled "Remarks on Fortification, with especial Reference to Rifled Weapons" by Captain Henry Whatley Tyler, RE, recorded the first attempt (in print, at any rate) by a British engineer to come to terms with the new developments.7 Tyler was uncertain about the extent to which rifled weapons would affect the efficiency of fortifications, but of one thing he was certain: a change in design was inevitable. His own designs, contained in the article, were cleaner and simpler than most, although they were still too complicated to be really practical. His basic premise, that "systems of fortification" must give way to "principles of construction; and . . . systems of defence [emphasis his]" was prophetic. He had correctly divined the future of fortifications.

The same volume of the Professional Papers also contained an article by Burgoyne's assistant, Major William Francis Drummond Jervois, an eminent engineer, concerning the defence of naval ports.8 Although he hardly mentioned rifled ordnance, Jervois did refer several times to Tyler's article, and his proposed system of fortification resembled Tyler's, Jervois's detached forts, narrow ditches and casemated guns all were suited to resist rifled artillery.

In the following year (1861) Burgoyne himself entered the discussion with an article in the Professional Papers on the breaching power of rifled ordnance.9 Burgoyne's arguments were based on the results of a test conducted with rifled guns on an obsolete Martello tower. His conclusions were conservative. He admitted the superior range and accuracy of the new guns but doubted their usefulness except against "works that have always been considered avowedly defective," those which were "subject to being breached at all, at any influential parts, from a distance." He concluded that any well-protected work (that is, one with fully covered escarps) would suffer no more damage from rifled guns than from smoothbores.

The drawings accompanying Burgoyne's article, however, must have been enough to give any engineer pause. They showed the Martello tower in successive stages of breaching. After only 40 rounds fired from a distance of more than 1,000 yards, one side of the tower was virtually demolished. A second article in the same volume of the Professional Papers confirmed the evidence of the drawings and cast doubt on Burgoyne's conclusions. Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Ross, RE, had been present as an observer when the Prussian army used rifled ordnance to destroy the obsolete fortress of Juliers in September 1860. Ross's article in the Professional Papers examined the results of the Prussian experiment.10 In one sense, his conclusions supported Burgoyne's: smoothbores, with their high initial velocity, were indeed more effective against fortifications at short range. On the other hand, rifled artillery succeeded in breaching an unseen escarp at a distance of 640 yards. A table accompanying the article made the point dramatically clear. Smooth bore artillery, firing at a wall from 500 yards, needed 660,100 pounds of projectiles in order to effect a 100-foot breach. Rifled artillery, firing from 640 yards, needed only 3,504 pounds to effect a 32-foot breach. Even allowing for the difference in walls — the first was stronger — the conclusion was inescapable.


After the debut of rifled ordnance, the Citadel and its armament had to be seen in a different light. The fortress was not designed or constructed to stand up to rifled artillery and was therefore incapable of fulfilling its original role as a landward defence. Because it had always had a secondary role, as a support to the harbour defences, it came to be regarded as an adjunct to the new, powerful work being built on Georges Island. Even the adaptation of the Citadel to its new function, by rebuilding the harbour faces to provide crossfire with the island, was almost immaterial; the various plans for rebuilding were held up so the available money could be used for other works. The change in emphasis was, in fact, a tacit admission on the part of the engineers concerned that the Citadel was outdated.

The British government was to spend even more money in the years to come on rearming, repairing and maintaining the fortress until 1907, when it was finally handed over to a bemused and uninterested government of Canada. Whatever the Royal Engineers might have thought of it, in the popular imagination the Citadel was the bulwark of Canada's Atlantic defences, the great fortress of Halifax, the very apogee of fortifications, rivalled only by the defences of Esquimalt on Vancouver Island. Colonel Nicolls had been right in a sense; his work was a monument to flag-waving. It was also a memorial for the Board of Ordnance.

But in the 1860s, it began to dawn on the engineers that flag-waving was the fortress's only raison d'Ítre. The Citadel had cost more than a quarter of a million pounds; it had taken 25 years and more to build, and had strained the abilities and intelligence (and, one suspects, the sanity) of a generation of engineers. Nevertheless, when armies discovered the military benefits of rifling and the whole world of armaments experienced the consequent revolution in gunnery, one fact emerged. In spite of the money and labour which went into its building. the Citadel was completely and permanently obsolete.

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