Louisbourg was a fortress town on the northeastern coast of Cape Breton Island (or ‘Ile Royale’ as it was known by the French) in the eighteenth century. With its own excellent harbour, capable of holding an entire fleet of men-of-war, it served to protect French interests in the vital cod industry, as well as the gateway to the St. Lawrence River, and the heart of New France at Quebec. Built at a cost of over thirty million livres, it was deemed to be impregnable.
The following deals with the siege of 1758, during The Seven Years War, which is the time that my novel, “Josiah Stubb,” takes place. I’ll try to keep it brief.
Two very important factors that lead to the death of Louisbourg happened many months before the invasion armada was ever seen from its ramparts. The first was the coming to power of William Pitt, whose global strategy was to offer only a token force on the European continent, along with subsidies to finance the armies of Britain’s allies, while using the bulk of her own army and navy to wage war on the colonies of her ancient enemy, bringing her economy to ruin, and ultimately forcing her to sue for peace.
The second factor made the first all the more viable – the Royal Navy’s victory at the Battle of Cartagena, leading to the remainder of the French navy being bottled up in their harbours. A previous attempt had been made on Louisbourg in 1757, but the presence of a sizeable enemy fleet, and an untimely hurricane, assured its failure. This time, with the French unable to venture out from their ports, there would be no major naval force in attendance, and very little in the way of reinforcements. New France was on its own.
Another important contributing factor that I forgot to mention earlier, is Pitt’s habit of promoting officers based on competence and their willingness to fight, while throwing the older custom of patronage and seniority in the dustbin. Thus it is that James Wolfe, a shiny new brigadier, makes his appearance on the stage.
A British armada of forty warships, and a hundred and fifty transports, arrived off the coast of Ile Royale in early June, 1758. In the holds were 14,000 regular line troops, along with a few companies of Rangers, formed from the southern colonies. Wild and relatively undisciplined, the Rangers were new. Considered Light Infantry, each man was picked for his marksmanship and knowledge in bush-fighting. Their roll would be to take on the Indians and Canadians, who had caused so much havoc with Braddock at the Monongahela River three years earlier. In the oncoming weeks, they would prove to be very effective.
After waiting several days for the waters to calm sufficiently, the British attempted a landing on the eighth of June, about five miles below the fortress, on the Gabarus Bay littoral. The windswept shores of Cape Breton are rocky and inhospitable at the best of times, with possible landing sites few and far between, so the options of the naval officers had dwindled to the meager four hundred yards of beach at Fresh Water Cove. Of course the French were well aware of this, and had troops and artillery in abundance, well dug in, to oppose any attempt at a landing.
They very nearly succeeded.
The French held their fire until the leading wave of boats were within pistol-shot. Then they let loose with a barrage so savage that the British were stunned, helpless on the water, sitting ducks for following salvos.
What followed was pure luck.
In an effort to avoid the withering fire, three boats of the 35th regiment veered off course until they had rounded a small headland on the extreme right of the cove, scarcely noticeable, but just enough of a promontory to put them beyond the line of fire. Here they were also beyond the gentle sand of the beach, and as they were unable to land, seemed out of the fight. However, a closer inspection of the shore revealed clefts in the rock just wide enough to allow one or two boats to close at a time, and this they were allowed to do, out of sight and unhindered. So landed the first few dozen; most taking cover in a small copse of trees, while others frantically signaled for the rest of the boats to follow.
This happened piecemeal, for Wolfe, commanding the attack, and unaware that any of his men had reached the shore, had ordered a retreat. But of course this order was rescinded when more and more realized the good fortune of their comrades.
Gradually, very gradually, this precarious toehold was reinforced as more and more boats came in. Soon the landing was packed, each boat impatiently awaiting their turn to disembark. Feeling the sense of urgency, some did not wait to reach the cleft, but jumped overboard and attempted to wade to the shore. Some made it, many were drowned in the heavy seas. Other boats, venturing too close, were picked up by the waves and smashed against the rocks, their occupants sent tumbling senseless into the water. In fact, it was at this point that the British suffered their greatest casualties of the entire battle, and not to the murderous salvos of the enemy.
Eventually perceiving this new threat, the French attempted to contain it with a small detachment of irregulars. Had they mounted a more determined effort, they would undoubtedly have forced the British back into the sea with very little trouble, but instead, unsure of the numbers they faced, they were content to exchange musket fire until reinforcements became available, but that moment never arrived.
It was the British who gradually gained superiority in numbers, and when Wolfe was finally able to land, they advanced, sweeping away the irregulars, and continuing without pause, rolled the enemy from their entrenchments when they found themselves being attacked from the rear.
The advance continued without pause, chasing the French all the way back to the fortress. The victory had been so complete, and the French retreat so precipitate, that their cannon were captured before they could be spiked, and most of their provisions still in the trenches. This was fortunate for the British, as the seas grew rough again the next day, and continued so for several days thereafter, making it impossible to land their own supplies.
Once having affected a landing, the odds of a British victory increased immensely, although it was still far from a foregone conclusion. Louisbourg, her walls bristling with defenders, and her harbour with a squadron of men-of-war, still remained defiant, and not without reason. If the siege could be drawn out until the onset of winter, the British would have little choice but to withdraw. Therefore time was of the utmost importance.
Within days of the victory at Fresh Water Cove, and with the seas still too rough to allow the landing of either provisions or siege guns, on the twelfth of June the Commander in Chief, General Amherst, ordered Wolfe to circumnavigate the harbour with twelve hundred picked men, and seize the high ground at Lighthouse Point, across the harbour’s mouth. The route took the British to well within the range of the fortress’ guns, but owing to heavy fog, the position was taken without suffering any casualties. The redcoats arrived only to find that the French had abandoned it, and tumbled their heavy guns off the cliffs into the sea.
Five days later, the weather grew calm, and the British preparations continued much more rapidly. On the nineteenth of June, a battery of five guns was in place, and began to engage the Island Battery guarding the mouth of the harbour, and the five French men-of-war inside.
Meanwhile, more and more cannon and provisions continued to land, and while the senior brigadiers, Lawrence and Whitmore, began the arduous process of approaching the walls via parallels dug into the boggy, rock-ridden ground for the main attack, Wolfe raced with impetuous speed, installing more and more batteries around the periphery of the harbour, drawing ever closer to the fortress.
The Island Battery was silenced on the twenty-fifth of June, and the French men-of-war, fearful of the British heated shot, retreated so close to the fortress walls that they were left aground at low tide.
As more and more guns became available, Wolfe continued his advance until he reached the abandoned Royal Battery, midway to the fortress. On the first of July the French attempted a sortie to destroy this position, but were driven back, and even more high ground was taken to the northeast. A further battery was duly installed here, and commenced fire on July fifth, soon causing considerable damage to the walls and the town.
On the ninth of July the French sent a night sortie of over seven hundred men against the parallel being dug for the main attack under Lawrence and Whitmore, capturing men and entrenching tools. They were driven back with loss during the confusing melee that followed. However, this foray was a waste of both time and lives, as this ‘main attack’ was never brought to fruition.
By now Wolfe had completed a line of batteries on the heights, from the Royal Battery to the Barachois Inlet, opposite the Dauphin Bastion, the northernmost bastion of the fortress.
Then, on the sixteenth of July, in a move that best displays his sheer audacity more than any other single act, Wolfe leads a night attack to capture Gallows Hill, a mere three hundred meters from the Dauphin Bastion! The French respond with a furious barrage, but morning finds the British in strength on the hill, already dug in.
Now Amherst is forced to change his strategy. The main attack, favoured by his chief engineer, as well as his most senior generals, is largely abandoned without yet having fired a shot in anger. This new position on Gallows Hill is reinforced with men and another battery, and a new parallel is begun. By the twenty-first of July it has reached to within two hundred meters of the fortress.
Also on that day, a red-hot shot from the battery at Lighthouse Point strikes the French warship, Célébre, setting her ablaze. The French men-of-war are so crowded together under the fortress’ walls that soon the fire spreads to the Capricieux and L’Entreprenant. At 2:00 A.M. L’Entreprenant explodes. By morning the other two ships have burned to the waterline, leaving the French with only two ships to defend the harbour from the eighteen hundred guns of the British fleet.
By the twenty-fourth of July, after enduring almost a month of a merciless barrage, a breach in the fortress wall is close to being practicable. By now the French can reply with only four guns of their own.
The coupe de gras comes on the night of the twenty-fifth, when, with the army staging a feint to the north, the navy sends, not their ships of the line, but sixty small boats, carrying six hundred men, into the harbour to attack the remaining two French men-of-war, now manned only with skeleton crews. The Prudent is burned, and the Bienfaisant captured, leaving the harbour defenceless.
On July twenty-sixth a flag of truce is seen hoisted over what is left of the Dauphin Bastion. The French accept the British demand of unconditional surrender later that same day.
About the Author
CW Lovatt, is the award-winning author of numerous short stories, as well as the best-selling novel, “The Adventures of Charlie Smithers.” He lives in Canada, and is the self-appointed Writer-in-Residence of Carroll, Manitoba (population +/- 20.)
Josiah Stubb: The Siege of Louisbourg is available to buy now from Amazon UK, and on Amazon US in paperback and on Kindle.
Written content of this post copyright © CW Lovatt 2014