Rye’s Military History

Rye: Defender of the Southeast Coast

Rye has been involved in the defence of the coast and English Channel throughout its history. This has generally been in response to a particular event or crisis and it usually involved naval activities and ferrying soldiers to various theatres of war.

The town began to be seriously defended from the C12th onwards. The tower now known as the Ypres Tower was built in the mid C13th. It was at this time that the English crown and the dukedom of Normandy–which had been one and the same–began to separate.

16th century

In 1542 Camber Castle began to be built by order of Henry VIII. It had already been arranged that it would be armed with the necessary artillery and a captain.

Later, between 1557 and 1559, Rye bought guns and overhauled the town’s ordnance.
In 1588 a Watch was appointed in Rye in order to forestall the Armada and again the town was well stocked with munitions. In 1657 foot soldiers were quartered in Rye. They were men of Colonel Robert Gibbons Regiment.

Wars with France

August 1779 saw the creation of a local armed force in response to the wars with France and Spain, and a member of the Lamb family received a commission and money from the Council to raise company for Rye.

The troops were billeted firstly at the Strand and later in a camp at the top of Rye Hill, where the Memorial Care Centre now stands. The picture is a copy of a 1779 pen and ink sketch of the camp which housed Commander General Stopes’ 13th Regiment. This company was disbanded in 1783.

With the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars with France in October 1794, William Pitt, as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, decided to strengthen the defenses along this coast. This included creating; the Cinque Ports Fencible Cavalry, which lasted until 1814; Rye’s First Volunteer Infantry Company 1794 – 1802; and the Troop of Gentlemen and Yeomanry Corps.

The first phase of the wars with France ended with the Peace of Amiens in 1802. But the war with France started again in May 1803 and the era of the Napoleonic Wars began. By now William Pitt (the Younger) had resigned as Prime Minister but was still the Lord Warden.

He raised three Infantry Battalions, Rye being  in the Third Battalion and forming the first, second and third of its ten companies.

The Third Battalion Cinque Ports Volunteer Corps was re-formed in 1803 and lasted until 1806.

A Rye Battery of Artillery was also raised by Pitt in 1804 and probably lasted until 1814. The Third Battalion Cinque Ports Volunteers did not like being disbanded in 1806 and within three months re-formed themselves and lasted until 1808.

There were two barracks on Rye Hill and two batteries, one in the Gungarden (South East Battery ) and one on West Cliff or Green ( South West Battery ). Amongst the Regiments stationed at Rye were the 43rd Regiment of Foot and the East Kent Militia.

The Military Canal was constructed at this time, linking Pett Level and Hythe, and the Martello Towers built along the coast.  (See the separate posts on these topics.)

Defenses in Victorian Times

In 1859 there was another scare , this time from Napoleon III, although there was no real substance to it. A Volunteer Rye Corps was formed in May 1859 to be called the Rye District Company. This became a joint company with Tenterden in December 1859, but was disbanded in 1860. In the following year the government reorganised the 35th (Cinque Ports) Regiment of Rifle Volunteers into two battalions and the Rye subdivision became the Third Hastings Company in the First Cinque Ports Administrative Battalion.

This later became the Ninth Rifles and lasted until 1876.

The Fourth Cinque Ports (Hastings & Rye ) Volunteer Artillery were formed in 1861. They called  themselves the Rye Marine Cinque Ports Volunteer Artillery and lasted until 1877, yet they continued to meet in Hastings with only two Rye members until 1891. In 1885 E Company First Cinque Ports Rifle Volunteers ( Brookfield’s Greys ) was commissioned and some of these men served in the Boer War ( 1899 – 1902 ).

In 1909 the existing companies were re-organised as the Territorials and served in the First World War.

World War I

In 1901 the Sussex Imperial Yeomanry was formed and a Troop was raised in Rye and district. It maintained very close connections with Rye until 1904 and some men saw service in the First World War. It then became the Surrey Yeomanry and was converted to the Field Artillery and served in the Second World War.

In early 1911 the Veteran Reserve was created, later to be known as the National Reserve. A Rye Company was established and forty men served in the First World War.

The drawing shows  a Drill Hall and Armoury which  opened near the Windmill iin 1912.

When war broke out in 1914, 300 had volunteered out of a population of 4,000; conscription was introduced in 1916.

 The upper floor of the Monastery was turned into a hospital in 1915.

On April 17th 1917, three bombs were dropped from a Zeppelin but little damage was done.  The Rye War Memorial records 144 names of Ryers who died in this war.

World War II

In 1940, during the Second World War, a Local Defence Volunteers was formed and it lasted unitl 1945. It was part of the 22nd Sussex Home Guard. Pill boxes, tank traps, and artillery batteries were set up around Rye. During the war 88 bombs and 200 incendiaries were dropped. Many buildings were destroyed and enemy action drastically changed the face of Rye, especially around the Ypres Tower and the Strand.

You will find related articles under Invasion Coast and Maritime History.

First posted in Rye Town History on 10th May 2009
Last updated: 29th November 2012
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