Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Twiss, William
TWISS, WILLIAM (1745–1827), general, colonel-commandant royal engineers, born in 1745, was appointed to the ordnance office at the Tower of London on 22 July 1760, and, leaving it on 21 May 1762, was appointed in July of that year to be overseer of the king's works at Gibraltar. On 19 Nov. 1763 he received a commission as practitioner engineer and ensign. He remained at Gibraltar until 1771, when, on promotion on 1 April to be sub-engineer and lieutenant, he returned to England and was employed on the defences of Portsmouth Dockyard. In 1776 he went with the army under Major-general John Burgoyne (1722–1792) [q. v.] to North America, arriving at Quebec early in June, and was appointed aide-de-camp to Major-general William Phillips [q. v.] He took part in the affair at the Three Rivers on 8 June, in the pursuit of the Americans up the St. Lawrence, and in the operations by which the enemy was driven out of Canada and compelled to take refuge in their fleet on Lake Champlain.
Twiss was next appointed by Sir Guy Carleton (afterwards first Lord Dorchester) [q. v.], the commander-in-chief in Canada, to be comptroller of works to superintend the construction of a fleet for Lake Champlain, with gunboats and batteaux to convey the army over the lake. The larger vessels had been sent from England, but it was found necessary to take them to pieces. It was also necessary to transport overland and drag up the rapid currents of St. Therese and St. John's a number of flat boats of great burden (one vessel weighing thirty tons), and over four hundred batteaux. With the assistance of Lieutenant (afterwards Admiral) John Schanck [q. v.] the arduous undertaking was completed in three months, and on 11 Oct. the British lake fleet partially engaged the enemy's fleet off the island of Valicour, and, following it the next day, gained a decisive victory. On the 15th Twiss disembarked with the army at Crown Point, the enemy evacuating it. He remained there until 3 Nov., reconnoitred Ticonderoga, and returned with the army to winter in Canada.
On Burgoyne's return from England with supreme command, in the spring of 1777, Twiss was appointed commanding engineer, and on 16 June left St. John's with the army which reoccupied Crown Point, and arrived before Ticonderoga on 2 July. He at once commenced siege-works, and having reconnoitred Sugar Hill, to the south-west of Ticonderoga fort, found that it entirely commanded the enemy's works, both of the fort itself and of Mount Independence, which had been very strongly fortified. On his advice a battery for heavy guns and eight-inch howitzers was constructed on the hill, and was ready to open fire, when the enemy, finding the place no longer tenable, decided to retreat before being completely invested, and Ticonderoga was evacuated on 5 July. Twiss took part in the action of Still Water, and in the various operations of the march to Saratoga in September and October, and was included in the convention of Saratoga on 16 Oct., becoming a prisoner of war, but was exchanged a few days later and returned to Ticonderoga.
In 1778 Twiss was sent by Major-general (Sir) Frederick Haldimand [q. v.] to Lake Ontario to form a naval establishment on the east side of the lake. On 18 Dec. of that year he was promoted to be engineer extraordinary and captain-lieutenant. In 1779 he designed new patterns of pickaxes and shovels for the use of the troops, and these were adopted by government in the following year. Twiss was employed in various parts of Canada as chief engineer until the peace in 1783, when he returned to England, and was again employed upon the Portsmouth defences. In 1785 he was appointed secretary to the board of land and sea officers ordered to report to the king upon the defences of the dockyards at Portsmouth and at Plymouth. On 24 March 1786 he was promoted to be captain in the royal engineers. He remained at Portsmouth for some years, constructing fortifications, particularly those of Fort Cumberland at the entrance of Langston Harbour.
In 1790 Twiss was given the command of the company of sappers and miners at Gosport. On 1 March 1794 he was promoted to be brevet major, and on 1 June of the same year to be lieutenant-colonel in the royal engineers. In this year he was a member of a committee on engineer field equipment, and expressed a preference for the stuffed gabion used at the siege of Valenciennes over other patterns of mantlets.
On 1 Jan. 1795 Twiss was appointed lieutenant-governor of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, in succession to Colonel Stehelin, and continued to hold the appointment for fifteen years. Its duties did not prevent his employment in other ways. He was commanding royal engineer of the southern military district, and between 1792 and 1803 reported upon and directed the reconstruction of the defences of the coasts of Kent and Sussex, and more particularly upon those at Dover, where Sir Thomas Hyde Page [q. v.] of the royal engineers carried out his instructions. In 1798 he was employed by government to report upon a project for a tunnel under the Thames at Gravesend, and so favourably was he impressed with the proposal that he joined the directorate of a company formed to carry it out. A shaft was sunk, and a good deal of money also, when the project was abandoned in 1802. In the spring of this year he was consulted as to the destruction of the sluice-gates and basin of the Bruges canal at Ostend; and his assistance in preparing the necessary instruments was warmly acknowledged by Major-general Eyre Coote in his despatch of 19 May 1798.
In September 1799, on the recommendation of the Marquis Cornwallis, Twiss went to Holland as commanding royal engineer of the Duke of York's army, and remained until the evacuation took place in November. On 1 Jan. 1800 Twiss was promoted to be colonel in the army.
In 1800 Twiss visited Jersey and Guernsey, and reported upon their defences. In 1802, in accordance with repeated representations made to the government by Cornwallis during his viceroyalty, that the advice of Twiss on the defence of Ireland would be of great benefit, Lord Chatham sent Twiss to make a tour through the country and report upon the subject. On 11 Feb. 1804 he was appointed a brigadier-general. In 1805 he was directed to carry into execution the system of detached forts and martello towers for the Kent and Sussex coasts, and a redoubt still existing on the coast near Dungeness was named, after him, Fort Twiss. He was further directed to report how far the same system of defence was applicable to the coasts of the eastern counties. These coast works were completed about 1809.
On 30 Oct. 1805 Twiss was promoted to be major-general. In this year he was a member of a committee which determined, by experiments conducted at Woolwich Warren, the best construction for traversing platforms for the heavy nature of ordnance. The form of platform recommended—with the centre of the traversing arc in the middle, front, or rear of the platform, as the situation might require—was approved and continued to be in principle the service pattern up to a comparatively recent date.
On 24 June 1809 Twiss became a colonel-commandant of the corps of royal engineers, and retired from active duty. In 1811 he was a member of a committee on the Chatham defences then in progress—Chatham Lines and Fort Pitt. Twiss was promoted to be lieutenant-general on 1 Jan. 1812, and general on 27 May 1825. He died at his residence, Harden Grange, Bingley, Yorkshire, on 14 March 1827.[Royal Engineers Records; Royal Military Calendar, vol. iii. 1820; War Office Records; Despatches; Annual Register, 1798; Correspondence of Charles, first Marquis Cornwallis, ed. Ross, 3 vols. 8vo, London, 1859; Cust's Annals of the Wars of the Eighteenth Century, vol. iii.; Stedman's History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, 2 vols. 4to, London, 1794; History of the Campaign of 1799 in Holland, translated from the French, 8vo, London, 1801; Carmichael Smyth's Chronological Epitome of the Wars in the Low Countries.]