After the French had been expelled from Malta with British help in 1800, the island’s fate became unclear. According to the 1802 Treaty of Amiens, Malta was to be returned to the Order of St. John, but many locals were not keen on the idea and requested to remain under British protection.
Britain was naturally aware of Malta's strategic value as a military base, and eventually gained full sovereignty of the island through the 1814 Treaty of Paris. For the next century and a half, Malta was to become an island fortress, and while the Maltese were no strangers to foreign occupation, the British garrison was to be the largest ever.
With the British military base not closing down until 1979, it is no surprise that the legacy of the British Army is still evident around the Maltese Islands.
1. The Main Guard
If there is one building in Valletta that became synonymous with the British Army, it surely has to be the Main Guard. Originally built by the Knights of St. John in 1603, it served as a guardroom for the Guardia della Piazza - the Grand Master’s bodyguard. The British later added a neo-classical portico, crowned by a stone sculpture of the British Royal coat-of-arms, and a commemorative inscription.
The building was manned round-the-clock, with sentries pacing in front at regular intervals to provide security for the Governor’s Palace across the square. The Main Guard detail was provided by troops stationed at Floriana Barracks, from where they marched through Porta Reale and Kingsway, to St. George’s Square for the changing-of-the-guard ceremony.
The large upstairs hall also served as an Officers’ Mess. Over time, the walls of this room were covered with around 300 murals, consisting mainly of regimental badges, that were the result of long hours of boredom spent by successive captains-of-the-guard.
The Main Guard was to remain in use by the British Army until 1962, while the last changing-of-the-guard ceremony took place in 1971. That is, until 2010 when the ceremony was revived by the Armed Forces of Malta.
2. The Saluting Battery
The Main Guard was not the only place in Valletta used by the British Army for ceremonial purposes. High up on the St. Peter and St. Paul’s Bastion, overlooking the Grand Harbour, there has been since the time of the Knights a gun battery that was regularly used for ceremonial gunfire.
This function was retained by the British. The Saluting Battery would fire its guns to welcome dignitaries and naval ships; on feast days; to announce important naval and military victories, and also on the succession or death of a sovereign. Guns were also fired to signal sunrise, midday and sunset. This provided a convenient public service at a time when most people had no watches or clocks.
Although the guns at the battery fell silent for the duration of both World Wars, they were back in action soon after, until their role was transferred to Fort St. Elmo in 1954. Stripped of its armament, the battery became an extension of the Upper Barracca Gardens for many years, until 2004, when Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna restored the Saluting Battery to its former glory. Since then, thanks to a group of re-enactors, its guns once more resonate daily to herald the passage of mid-day.
3. Victorian Fortifications
Of course, the British Army’s role in Malta was not only ceremonial. The British were always sensitive to naval developments in the Mediterranean, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. By maintaining her supremacy in the region, Britain could protect the vital route to India, and therefore, Malta had to be defended at all costs.
The second half of the 19th century saw the introduction of ironclad warships and new powerful guns. The Italian navy had also emerged as a powerful potential threat to British interests in the region, and thus the British responded by constructing a series of coastal forts. This included a number of gun batteries in the Sliema area, and Forts St. Rocco and San Leonardo along the coast between Fort Ricasoli and Żonqor Point.
Marsaxlokk Bay also needed protection, and St. Lucian Tower, originally built by the Knights in 1610, was extended to form part of a ring of fortifications around it. This ring also included Fort Delimara, Fort Tas-Silġ, and Fort Bengħisa.
Most of these forts are today inaccessible to the public, with the exception of Fort Rinella in Kalkara, which following restoration by Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna is now a living museum. Together with Fort Cambridge at Tigné Point, it was specifically designed to mount a single Armstrong 100-ton gun, the world’s largest muzzle-loading cannon, to protect the approaches to the Grand Harbour. An ingenious hydraulic system was needed to traverse and load the massive gun, that could fire a 1-ton shell up to a distance of 8 miles every six minutes! Such was the rapid advancement of technology that the 100-ton guns were declared obsolete just 20 years after they entered service, but the gun at Fort Rinella is still there - minus its machinery.
Another major defensive project was started in 1875, designed to protect the harbour area from an invading force that could land in the north of Malta. The British intended to base this system along the length of the Great Fault, a natural geographical barrier that spans across the width of Malta.
Initially, the plan consisted of three independent forts, from West to East: Fort Binġemma, Fort Mosta, and Fort Madalena. Eventually, however, all three strongpoints were linked together with a continuous fortified wall that became known as the Victoria Lines, in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The lines, some 12 km long, stretch from Fomm ir-Riħ to Pembroke. In 1998, the Maltese Government submitted the Victoria Lines to UNESCO, for consideration as a World Heritage Site.
4. Sa Maison Garden
At a bend in the road that leads from Floriana to Pieta’ is the entrance to Sa Maison Garden, which served as a regimental garden for nearly half a century. The name Sa Maison recalls the surname of an early owner, who had a hunting lodge there.
The garden was given to the War Department by Lady Julia Lockwood in 1856. It offered the soldiers and their families, living in the cramped Floriana Barracks, a place where they could enjoy some free time in the fresh air, whilst savouring the fantastic views of the then unspoilt countryside beyond Gwardamanġa Hill.
Soldiers carved graffiti there, while the regiments left their badges. Some of them were carved directly into the rock face, others out of a block of stone and which was then inserted. Although the identity of the carvers is not known, they were probably done by the soldiers themselves.
The badges have since been eroded by the elements, and some have been removed by souvenir hunters. Nevertheless, it is still possible to identify a few. An outstanding memorial is the miniature Castle of Gibraltar, erected by the 2nd Battalion, The Essex Regiment in 1889.
Sa Maison was taken over by the civil government in 1903. Since then, countless visitors have enjoyed the tranquillity of this place, whilst picturing perhaps the soldiers and their families doing the same thing over a century ago.
5. Garrison Towns
Pembroke and Mtarfa are two towns that originated from the need to accommodate the British forces in Malta.
The British were instrumental in the development and fortification of Pembroke, by building a military base, complete with training grounds. The first barracks, completed in 1862, were named after England's patron saint - St. George. Other barracks were built later and named after the patron saints of Ireland and Scotland - St. Patrick and St. Andrew.
Pembroke Camp played a major humanitarian role during World War One as a military hospital complex, while during World War Two German prisoners-of-war were held there. Despite being targeted by enemy bombing, the camp remained active until being run down in 1977, two years before the last British soldiers left Malta. Although the land was relinquished to the Maltese Government, the military heritage of Pembroke is still evident, with several buildings from the British era surviving to this day.
In the late 1800s, the British Army selected the area of Mtarfa Ridge for the construction of a military base, which could provide accommodation for troops guarding the Victoria Lines. Military barracks were built in 1890, together with a military hospital, a cemetery, and a whole network of infrastructure. They also built the most famous landmark of Mtarfa - the clock tower.
The Royal Naval Hospital Mtarfa became the main hospital for British Forces in the eastern Mediterranean and was used during World War One to treat wounded Australian and New Zealand troops from the failed Gallipoli landings in 1915. It continued to serve the needs of British military personnel until its closure in 1978.
Of course, all these places are now just remnants of a bygone era; a time when Malta’s value lay in its strategic location, which made it such a valuable military base, not just for the British, but also for all who preceded them. Today, together with the extensive fortifications of the Knights of St. John, they form yet another layer of Malta’s rich military heritage.
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