A Blupete Biography Page

Jean-Francois de Verville (c.1680-1729)

Jean-Francois de Verville was a French military engineer who was in charge of the building of the fortifications for Ile Royale during the years 1717-25. Joining the engineering corps in 1704, Verville was to see action during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13) in Flanders. Thus it was, due to this considerable continental military experience, that Verville was to become a respected and honoured1 French military person. He had been wounded during the siege of Landau in 1713; and, it is likely that during his convalescence that the topic of the importance of shoring up the French presence in America was brought up by his superiors. What was needed was a strong eastern anchor to the French possessions in North America. The French were prepared to make a substantial investment (and, indeed, did so) to fortify an acceptable location on one of the islands (Cape Breton, to then be dubbed Ile Royale) by the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht.2 Verville was offered the job to build Louisbourg, and; he took it.

Verville arrived at Louisbourg in 1716 to carry out reconnaissance and in the next year, on July 3rd, 1717, the work on Louisbourg was begun. It is reported that Verville had differences, "frequent and varied," with his fellow officers, but, as an "expert," his views usual prevailed. He "reputedly was quick tempered, [and] condoned no interference with his direction of the construction (which he considered his private preserve) ..."3 Verville supervised the work until 1724 at which time he was transferred back to France.

Verville had two resident engineering officers who reported to him: Pierre-Jereme Boucher and Jean-Baptiste de Couagne. Boucher came out with Verville in 1717 and was to be at Louisbourg, except for the 1745 intermission, until its final downfall in 1758. (If Boucher were alive to tell his story, he could tell us more about the 32 year history of Louisbourg, first hand, than anyone else I can think of.) Couagne come down from Montreal and arrived at Ile Royale earlier than both Verville or Boucher, for we see that in August, 1715, he was busy at Port Toulouse (St. Peters, see map) helping in the building of its fortifications. These on-site supervising engineers, Boucher and Couagne, during the construction season (May to December) were usually out in the open working with their men; during the winter they went inside the stone interior of Louisbourg and worked as draftsmen. As for their boss Verville, like as well Verrier, Verville's successor, and like so many of the upper-crust of New France, he returned to the mild climate of France, and thus to avoid the long cold Canadian winters and enjoy the comforts of the chateau and family.

Verville was likely as good a stone fort builder as one might find in that age.4 The difficulty was that Verville was using techniques that were more appropriate to the mild European climate. Repeated thaws after long frozen winters wreaked havoc on stone work. Further stone fortresses were things of the past, they never would hold up long with the blasted cannon balls of the 18th century. The work could have been done less expensively and it might have been just as effective against the besieging English both in the years of 1745 and 1758.

"Permanent fortifications, not necessarily on the European scale, were to be built in proportion to the relatively small garrison provided. Hindsight allows us to criticize Verville for not building, at low cost, well-revetted earthworks on the landward side, combined with masonry batteries for seaward defence. Such a system might well have proved effective. His enceinte, based on the first and simplest of the three systems of fortification developed by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban [1633-1707], the director-general of fortifications in the armies of Louis XIV, proved extremely costly because of the climate and the need to transport suitable materials, labour, and beasts of burden from France. Winter frosts and thaws hindered the setting of the mortar. Verville anticipated events [the place proved unassailable directly from the sea] in giving priority to the land ward defences and in designing an excellent battery at the entrance to the harbour, but there is evidence to suggest that structural faults in the Chateau Saint-Louis and the Royal Battery were attributable in part to his design."5


[1] He was made a knight of the order of Saint-Louis.

[2] The French had lost a great deal by this treaty and it would appear they were not about to give up any more territory in North America. To the British went Gibraltar, Minorca, St. Kitts and Acadia.

[3] DCB.

[4] A good builder, maybe, a bad record keeper certainly. Verville's failed to provide the annual detailed accounts which he was required to do under the regulations. These detailed accounts were necessary so that the payments to the French contractors could be properly monitored. Verville's successor, Verrier, had a heavy burden when he was required to clean up the paper work which his predecessor had failed to do. This inability of Verville to keep accounts was to cause considerable difficulty for the prime contractor and his estate as they attempted to get paid for the work done.

[5] DCB.


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Peter Landry
1998 (2014)