The Victoria Lines
Since 1530 the Maltese Islands had been governed by the Knights Hospitallers of St John, also known as the Knights of Malta. In 1798 the Knights were forced to leave by Napoleon Bonaparte who conquered Malta on his way to Egypt but French rule over Malta was to last for only two years. The Maltese rose against their French rulers who found shelter inside the bastions of Valletta and the Cottonera. At that point the Maltese insurgents sought the assistance of Britain to blockade the French into submission.
In 1800 the French surrendered and Britain found itself in de facto possession of the islands. British rule was officially sanctioned by the Treaty of Paris of 1814 and reaffirmed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
After only a brief initial period of hesitation, the British had quickly come to realize the strategic importance of Malta and soon the Royal Navy made its fine harbours the base for its Mediterranean fleet.
The strategic value of Malta was further enhanced after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 when it became a crucial staging post on the route to India. At the same time new amenities had been developed to service the Royal Navy warships and the dockyard facilities in Malta acquired a strategic value in their own right.
Valletta and other parts of the Grand Harbour were surrounded by many kilometers of massive bastions which had been built by the knights. During their first fifty years in Malta, the British were quite happy with the security which these extensive fortifications provided and only minimal modifications were made to them. The Valletta harbour area was considered secure enough when the Mediterranean fleet was in port, although it was thought that it could be vulnerable to an enemy attack when the Navy was out on manoeuvres or on extended patrols in distant parts of the Mediterranean.
The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed great technological developments and, in particular, significant changes in most matters concerning guns. The single most important development was the introduction of rifling which provided greater accuracy over considerably longer distances. At the same time, it was becoming possible to manufacture larger and heavier guns whilst concurrent developments in the characteristics of explosive shells increased their destructive potential. This transformed the very basis of artillery deployment and provided the principal impetus to the evolution of new concepts and designs in fortification. These significant developments in technology brought about the need to reconsider the adequacy of the existing defenses. A Royal Commission set up in 1859 to assess the defense of Britain against the threat of invasion had recommended the building of new and extensive permanent fortifications around the royal dockyards and other strategic harbours in Great Britain, such as at Portsmouth and Plymouth. These conclusions were extended to cover also the more important British naval bases throughout the world, including Malta. The first measure taken was to make a number of alterations to the existing fortifications to allow the deployment of the new, larger, rifled guns then coming into service. New casemates were built and other gun emplacements modified to protect the entrance to the two harbours flanking Valletta.
However, it was accepted that this was only a partial solution and, after 1870, new forts were built on both sides of the entrance to the two Valletta harbours to complement the new gun emplacements on the earlier fortifications built by the Knights. In the same time period, additional new forts were built on the south-east coast of Malta to protect the entrance to Marsaxlokk Bay and to defend the nearby bays of Marsascala and St Thomas. These new coastal forts were deemed necessary to counter the threat of enemy ships bombarding Valletta but they did not offer protection in the case of a land-based attack. The need was therefore acknowledged for a new defensive perimeter around Valletta which would keep an eventual enemy further away from the harbour area, at a safer distance from where the enemy’s guns could not inflict extensive damage.
It was concluded that the defence of the naval base in Malta ultimately required the construction of new fortifications at some distance from Valletta with the first suggestion being to build a semicircle of new forts as a girdle around Valletta and the harbour area. However, it soon became evident that this option was not feasible given the rapid development of new suburbs in this same area and also because such a solution would have been very expensive. Hence, an alternative strategy emerged.
THE NORTH-WEST FRONT
One of the most prominent geological features in Malta is the ‘Great Fault’ which cuts across the island from coast to coast, from Kunċizzjoni/Fomm ir-Riħ in the west to Madliena/Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq in the east. This natural feature inherently provided a physical barrier against a potential enemy who might try to land in one of the many beaches in the north of Malta and seek to advance towards the harbour area.
In 1872 it was decided to strengthen this natural defensive position further by building a number of detached forts along this fault line which thereafter was referred to as the ‘North-West Front’. It is interesting to note that some 150 years earlier the Knights had also sought to exploit the potential of the Great Fault as a defensive position by establishing infantry entrenchments at Ta’ Falka and San Pawl tat-Tarġa, Naxxar to mount guard over the two principal roads across the Great Fault. Given that the whole south-west coast of Malta is made up of high, steep cliffs, the establishment of the North-West Front effectively enveloped Valletta and its rapidly expanding suburbs within a large fortified perimeter.
By 1878, three detached forts had been built along the Great Fault namely (from west to east) at Binġemma (1874), Mosta (1878), and Madliena (1878). Also in 1878, another fort was built to the rear of Fort Madalena and called Fort Pembroke to plug the gap between the high ground at
Madliena and the accessible shoreline, in the direction of Valletta. All the forts were conceived as platforms for large guns with the area enclosed within their defensive perimeters being mainly devoted to gun emplacements and the ancillary facilities required to support them, such as ammunition stores. These forts were designed on the so-called ‘polygonal system of fortification’ where the at one-time ubiquitous bastioned trace had been replaced by very low-lying fortifications laid out in the form of straight ramparts behind narrow ditches. It soon became clear that the detached forts on their own were not sufficient to cover effectively the whole length of the Great Fault, particularly because not all sections of the fault line were equally steep. One area of particular concern was at Dwejra, between Ta’ Falka and Binġemma Gap where the ground sloped gently. Therefore in 1881 a decision was taken to fortify this plateau by building a kilometre-long entrenchment consisting of a series of long straight ramparts protected by a ditch with counterscarp galleries and caponiers. These defensive works were referred to as the Dwejra Lines.
THE VICTORIA LINES
The North-West Front was regularly inspected by visiting commissions who identified a number of weaknesses. Ultimately a decision was taken to construct a continuous infantry wall, some 12 kilometres in length, to join together all the forts and other defensive works along the whole length of the Great Fault, with a patrol path running alongside to facilitate the movement of troops. Work on this infantry wall and patrol path was commenced in 1895. In 1897 the whole set of defensive works, then still under construction but nearing completion, was named ‘The Victoria Lines’ to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, her 60th year on the British throne. A marble plaque can still be seen at Tarġa Gap commemorating this dedication. The trace of the Victoria Lines followed the configuration of the crest of the ridge along the Great Fault but was generally built just beneath it, to make it less visible from below. The long stretches of infantry line generally consisted of a simple masonry parapet, with an average height of 1.5 metres. The defensive wall may appear low but, being on high ground, it still overlooks anyone approaching from below. The infantry line was constructed primarily using stone quarried on site. Parts of the hillside, beneath the lines, were dug-up to make them steeper and, in some instances, the resulting rubble was dumped to form an additional obstacle. The nature of the infantry line varied along its length but in most places it consisted of a sandwich type construction with outer and inner retaining walls, with rubble-fill in between, and topped by a capstone. The outer shell was finished to a smooth surface to make it more difficult for an enemy soldier to scale the wall whereas the inner shell was often left rough. In a number of places, although not throughout its length, the wall was surmounted by a series of musketry loopholes. These consisted of horizontal slabs placed over a space between the two blocks supporting them through which the soldiers could fire their rifles. Unfortunately, almost all of these have since disappeared. The construction of other sections of the infantry line in those areas which were the least accessible from below tended to be more rudimentary. The infantry line is at its most spectacular where it crosses the valleys. These were bridged over by means of so-called stop-walls intended to facilitate access by the soldiers defending these positions from one side of the valley to the other, whilst providing them with adequate cover from behind which they could fire at the enemy. In some few places a road passed through the Victoria Lines, linking the area beneath the Great Fault with the area behind it, going in the direction of Valletta. These places were commonly referred to as ‘gaps’. These were (from west to east): Ta Santi; Binġemma; Ta’ Falka (now the main road to Mġarr); Tarġa; and Naxxar (at the spot known as T’Alla u Ommu). The name Tarġa Gap has endured to this day. Concurrently with the infantry wall, a number of batteries were built at various locations along the Great Fault, most of them intended to facilitate the deployment of field artillery. There were also two fortified searchlight emplacements, at Kunċizzjoni and overlooking Wied il-Faħam, limits of Għargħur, respectively. In addition, a high-angle battery was also built at Għargħur, some distance behind the other defensive works. At the same time, extensive new barracks were built at Mtarfa and Pembroke. The Mtarfa barracks served to accommodate troops on duty along the western half of the Lines while those at Pembroke housed the troops guarding the eastern end. According to the official record plan of the Victoria Lines, the infantry wall was declared as having been completed in 1899.
The Second World War
The Victoria Lines were never put to the ultimate test of an enemy invasion and their military significance began to fade even before the First World War. Before the Second World War the British defence strategy for Malta had shifted definitively towards impeding an enemy’s landing by defending directly the beaches where such an invasion could take place. Within this context, the Great Fault was seen as an important in-depth line of defence in the eventuality of a successful enemy landing in the north of the island which had overrun the beach defences. A number of concrete pill-boxes were therefore built in various places along or very close to the Victoria Lines, together with some anti-aircraft batteries and anti-aircraft searchlight positions.
The Victoria Lines Today
For many years the Victoria Lines have lain abandoned and time has taken its toll. Surprisingly perhaps, quite a few stretches are still in good condition but there are also places where parts of the wall have collapsed and there is even a tract which has disappeared altogether, eaten away by a quarry. Nevertheless, a walk along the accessible parts of the Victoria Lines is still a most rewarding experience. The Victoria Lines provide some of the best vantage points from where to discover the Maltese countryside and have themselves become a striking feature within the landscape on which they have at times a most dramatic effect. A walk along the Victoria Lines is a unique experience which reveals the stunning beauty of Malta’s natural landscapes, offering breath-taking views. Furthermore, the landscape traversed by the Victoria Lines is literally dotted with numerous archaeological and heritage sites spanning different historical periods. At the present time walking along various parts of the Victoria Lines is quite difficult because of overgrown vegetation and other obstacles which block the original patrol path and some sections are altogether inaccessible. This is a pity because the potential for a first-rate managed trail along the Victoria Lines is indeed substantial.
A Victoria Lines National Trail would:
• provide an exceptional pathway that cuts across Malta from coast to coast, from where the public can access and enjoy the Maltese countryside;
• offer a new and innovative tourism product serving to attract a new form of responsible, high-quality tourism;
• constitute Malta’s first linear attraction to complement the existing point-and-area attractions;
• put Malta on the European Ramblers’ map;
• ensure a greater level of protection for the cultural heritage and the landscape surrounding it from further encroachment and destruction. The reasons for seeking to promote a National Trail along the Victoria Lines are many.
• The Victoria Lines National Trail would traverse the whole island, from coast to coast, following the contour of the Great Fault, one of Malta’s most prominent geological features.
• The Victoria Lines themselves are an intrinsic part of Malta’s historical heritage and are scheduled Grade 1 buildings.
• The trail traverses various areas of high landscape value and areas of environmental importance, with a Natura 2000 site at both of its ends. It links together a variety of landscapes: coastal, rural, and urban and it is surrounded by a multitude of archaeological and historical sites representative of different historical periods.
The trail would basically follow the original military patrol path on land which has remained government property (i.e. it does not require the requisition of private property). • A trail along the Victoria Lines is already envisaged within the relevant Local Plans. The Lines themselves are scheduled and a buffer zone has been identified all along their length. Furthermore, the ‘Rural Policy and Design Guidelines 2014’ published by the Planning Authority specifically mention the Victoria Lines by name and identify the need to safeguard access along its original patrol path.
• The Victoria Lines National Trail has already been the subject of an in-depth academic study under the auspices of the Institute for Tourism, Travel, and Culture at the University of Malta. The Victoria Lines pass through most of the local councils which form the Reġjun Tramuntana although they have remained the responsibility of the central government. In many instances the Victoria Lines delineate the border between different councils but, within the Reġjun Tramuntana, rather than viewing them as something which divides, they have been seen as an opportunity for unity around a common element linking the different localities together. The relevance of the Victoria Lines as an intrinsic part of Malta’s heritage has been readily acknowledged by the Reġjun Tramuntana and hence also the need to provide for their protection and promotion. The decision by the Reġjun Tramuntana to include a chapter about the Victoria Lines within this publication is testimony to this. May this short chapter serve as a call for action so that the Victoria Lines National Trail may become a reality in the not too distant future.
Ray Cachia Zammit & Jane Caruana
The authors are the co-founders of the ’Friends of the Victoria Lines Trail’ which aims at increasing awareness of the Victoria Lines and their potential to be developed into Malta’s first National Trail. The immediate objective must be to secure unimpeded and safe access along the whole length of the Victoria Lines with the ultimate goal of establishing a properly managed trail within the necessary framework to sustain it on an ongoing basis.