Caponier Unearthed in Birgu Ditch

A forgotten, burried stretch of eighteenth-century outerwork defences has recently been brought to light

in the ditch of the land front fortifications of the fortified maritime city of Birgu (Vittoriosa).


The considerable remains of an eighteenth-century caponier and tenaille were unearthed by a team from the Restoration Directorate in the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs.in the course of trial archaeological investigations which are being undertaken prior to the commencement of restoration interventions along the Birgu land front.

These newly unearthed fortifications originally formed part of the outerworks of Birgu that were designed and built by the French resident military engineer Charles Francois de Mondion as part of the Order of St John’s widespread remodelling of the Birgu fortifications in the early decades of the eighteenth century.  Brought to completion around 1728, the caponier represents the last phase of development of Hospitaller Birgu and was intended to provide the defenders with the ability to sally-out of the fortress and reach the outer positions on the far side of the ditch in relative safety, protected from enemy musketry fire and ricocheting cannon balls.

Caponiers of communication

By the middle of the eighteenth century, most of the ditches of the Hospitaller knights’ major forts and fortresses had been fitted with such caponiers of communication, following the French pattern. Unfortunately, however, only a handful of these interesting devices have survived.  The only known caponiers prior to this latest discovery were three rock-hewn examples found at Fort Manoel, and another two at Fort Ricasoli (the latter, however, were roofed over by the British military, fitted with musketry loopholes and significantly altered in the process).

The caponier discovered in the Birgu ditch is a built-up structure and more extensive in scale. It consists of two sets of stepped masonry banquettes, separated from one another by a sunken passageway. Each arm of the caponier is served by a two-stepped masonry banquette, about two metres wide, built solidly enough to allow the Knights to deploy small grenade-throwing mortars.  A very similar arrangement and layout used to exist in the Mdina landfront ditch, between Greeks Gate and the De Redin Bastion. A continuous culvert at the foot of the parapet all along the length of the banquettes also shows that the Birgu caponier was designed to be fitted with wooden palisades, as shown in the graphic reconstruction below.

Above, pen drawing by Dr Stephen C Spiteri showing the manner of construction of the built-up caponier discovered in the Birgu ditch.  The caponier was reached from sally-ports situated in the flanks of the two neighbouring bastions and was designed to cross the ditch and communicate with the pas-de-souris leading up to the covertway. The tunnel entrance shown in the drawing at the farther end of the caponier was intended to lead into a countermine gallery but the tunnel itself, although begun, was never completed.

Above, view of the right arm, or wing, of the tenaille with its stepped banquette designed to protect the passage out from the sally-port situated in the left flank of St John Bastion, all the way to the caponier in the centre of the ditch.

Section through the trial trench showing the volume of earth and debris which had been dumped on the caponier during the British period in the early 1900.

Above, detail of the culvert designed to hold the wooden ‘ palisate’.

It was the military practice in the eighteenth century to provide added protection to a fortress’ outerworks by fitting wooden palisades, a kind of continuous fence made of pointed stakes joined together by timber cross-pieces  -  the eighteenth-century equivalent of modern barbed wire fencing.  These palisades, built in modules, were generally planted into the ground in prepared slots around 12-inches distant from the foot of the parapet.

Diagram showing palisade and stepped banquette.(Image source: Stephen C Spiteri).

Since wooden palisades were costly and liable to decay, much care was taken to ensure their longevity. As the Order’s records show, the ‘palisate’ were only set up and deployed around a fortress in the event of an emergency, for in times of relative peace, they were usually kept safely stored inside dry and damp-free magazines.


ERDF Restoration Project

The caponier, which was thought to have been demolished in the British period, was found beneath a thick covering of soil. It was last recorded in 1903, when the ditch was being converted into a public garden and planted over with  olive trees.  MilitaryArchitecture.com is informed that the newly discovered remains will now be restored and incorporated as a central feature in the rehabilitation of the ditch, revised plans for which are now being drawn up by the Restoration Directorate.

The unearthing of the caponier and the rehabilitation of the Birgu ditch form part of the restoration interventions on the Birgu fortifications, a project which is headed by the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs and scheduled to be completed by 2013 at an estimated cost of around 7.2 million Euros.  These restoration works have been made possible by the financial assistance offered by the European Union and form part of a larger project involving the restoration of Valletta, Mdina, and the Gozo Citadel. The project is being part-financed through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF 0039) under Operation Programme I ‘Investing in Competitiveness for a Better Quality of Life’ for Cohesion Policy 2007-2013, with a co-financing rate of 85% EU Funds and 15% National Funds. The total cost of these projected interventions is around 36 million Euros and, altogether, the four sites will involve the restoration and consolidation of some 135,000m2 of rampart elevations over a combined perimeter length of around 6 km of fortification walls.


Author: MilitaryArchitecture.com

Keywords: Caponier, Birgu, malta, Hospitaller, News



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