A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #1: Acadia. TOC
Part 6, 1755: TOC
Ch.01 -- "The Setting."

In 1744, England and France had gone to war. It was known as The War of the Austrian Succession. Immediately the French governor at Louisbourg got word of this -- and, I dare say before the English were to know of it -- he sent off 400 armed men to capture Canso; this was in May of 1744. Then, at Annapolis Royal (see map), on September 7th, 1744, Fort Anne was invested. Troops and supplies from Massachusetts were hustled into place and the French forces from Louisbourg were obliged with the coming of winter to retreat to the warmth and comfort of Louisbourg. This French activity of 1744 only served to raise the ire and scorn of the New Englanders. Close on to 4,000 men were raised to go on the attack. Together with a strong fleet of English men-of-war, Louisbourg was put under siege in 1745 -- and, much to everyone's surprise this mighty French fortress, one which could not be equaled in all of North America: capitulated. The taking of Louisbourg was a huge blow to French prestige. In 1746, one of the largest amphibious forces ever, was assembled in France. This amphibious attack force, under Duc d'Anville, was, however, attended by calamity after calamity; and, as a consequence, it was to never get a shot off at any of its intended targets: the English at Louisbourg, at Annapolis Royal and at Boston: it proved to be the most disastrous naval expedition, ever.

With increasing war debts, matched with increasing difficulties to raise more funds, both the English and the French courts saw the advantages of putting an end to the war. In March of 1748 the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle was opened and discussions began. The internal examinations carried out by both parties, necessary for such discussions, were to bring to light to the respective policy makers, like never before, the territorial situations as existed in North America. Thus, the peace making process, paradoxically, while ending one war (as one so often sees in the history of wars) was to plant the seed for the next.

One of the consequences of the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, the intended one, was that a peace treaty was signed on October 18th, 1748. Generally, there was to be a return to the state of affairs as existed before the war, status quo ante. (Thus we saw in 1749, the return of Louisbourg to the French.) In order to get signatures on paper (as is so often done, and, almost as often with dire consequences) certain terms -- in this case the territorial boundaries in America -- are left vague. It was hoped, that with the striking of a boundary commission composed of statesmen from both England and France, that, discussion would ensue which would result in a resolution, particularly as to the boundaries of "Ancient Acadia": boundaries which the English sought to expand and the French sought to limit. No resolution was to come about by these discussions; it was, as we will see, to come about only through the force of arms.1

France and England, at this point, 1755, differed widely in their military and naval strengths. France had only half the navy of England's, on the other hand, France had ten times the number of men under arms; the superiority of numbers of men would not, however, be of much help to them in a war across a sea which was covered with British naval guns. Leadership was lacking in both countries.2 In all of this, it is to be kept in mind, that at this time, England was not, in comparison to France, Spain or Germany, a big European power. She was "a small state, which had obtained abnormal influence only by commercial and mercantile alertness, by a well-ordered financial system, and by means of a well-equipped fleet."3 The population levels of France and Britain (including Scotland and Ireland) stood out in stark contrast: Britain, nine million; France, 21 million. Each year with her climate and soil, France renewed her riches; England had to make do with what she had, and agriculturally it was much, much less. Louis XIV proved to be England's greatest ally as he went about draining France of her resources in order to support his corrupt court.

In North America: the English speaking settlers had an overwhelming superiority in terms of numbers4; but because of the decentralized political state of the New Englanders, and the resulting difficulty in getting a sufficient number of people to agree on any one point, the French, given its political structure (feudalism), and notwithstanding its significantly smaller population, continued to hold a superior military position.

The American territorial claims as were made by both the English and the French were rooted deep along the St. Lawrence (the French) and along the American seaboard (the English). The real race was for the lands to the west of the Appalachians and south of the Great Lakes as is first represented by the Ohio valley. In July of 1754, this competition for the interior of North America was to erupt beyond the main ridge of the Alleghenies, at a spot known to history as the Great Meadows. It was there that an English scouting group headed up by a young Virginian by the name of George Washington was to get itself involved in a shootout between it and a French military detachment which was then roaming the same territory. Though Washington and his forces put up a brave fight, they were decisively thrown out of the land which the French claimed for themselves.5 It was, as historians seem to agree, this obscure skirmish in Ohio, which was the first in a series of events that led to a declaration of war in 1756. An analysis of the proximate causes of The Seven Years War is not within the scope of my work; but, sufficient for our purposes to say, that: it had mostly to do with European politics. Agreements were entered into between Austria and England in a common defence against Prussia and France. England was primarily concerned with the protection of the King of England's old home and regular summer retreat, the German state of Hanover; it was in danger of being marched over by Prussian troops.6 This house of cards was to come tumbling down when France, in June of 1756, peremptorily took an island in the Mediterranean for itself, the Island of Minorca. As for the events as did unfold in Nova Scotia, in 1755: they were triggered by the French asserting they owned all of the land north of the Isthmus of Chignecto. This fact, that the French laid claim to the upper half of Acadia, together with the even more galling assertion that they owned the vast interior of North America, so to limited England to a strip of land on the eastern seaboard, -- were facts which revolted the leadership in England.7 If, in 1755, England could not, as a practical matter, get their troops over to America to defeat these French claims; then, they could, considering England's superior power at sea, limit, at least, the ability of France to get their troops over.


The Taking of the Alcide and the Lys (June, 1755):

By the first of April, the English cabinet authorized the sending of a naval squadron to America with instructions to "fall upon any French ships of war that shall be attempting to land troops in Nova Scotia or to go to Cape Breton or through the St. Lawrence to Quebec."8 The intelligence was that the French were going to build up their military presence in America. The aim was to catch the French fleet in a net of British war ships. Admiral Boscawen was put in charge, and, having received his orders, got his fleet of fourteen ships underway, reasonably promptly.9 After the fleet left, the English admiralty determined to boost Boscawen's American bound naval force, even further. About three weeks after the departure of the main fleet, Admiral Holburne was sent out with seven more ships. Thus there was, by the end of May, 1755, a British war fleet cruising between the southern coast of Newfoundland and the northern coast of Cape Breton. Such a large British war fleet10, up to this point in time, had been rarely seen to be operating in American waters; it foreshadowed the English policy which was to be struck by Pitt when it came time to fight The Seven Years War (1756-1763), viz., to fight it, not on the ancient battle fields of Europe, but in America.

After a considerable delay the French fleet left Brest on May 3rd, 1755. Aboard were six battalions of French soldiers: La Reine, Bourgogne, Languedoc, Guienne, Artois, and Bearn; 3,000 men in all. The French troops were under the command of a German veteran by the name of Baron Dieskau (1701-1767). Admiral de la Motte was in charge of the fleet. De la Motte had been dispatched with provisions for the French colonies in North America, its first call being Louisbourg.

On June 15th, 1755, just a day before the French were to surrender Beausejour, the subject of our next following chapters, Boscawen fell in with four, French, sail of the line, which, in a gale of wind, had parted from the French fleet of 43. After a chase which lasted 48 hours the British ran three of the stragglers down: the Alcide (64 gun, Captain Hocquart11), the Lys (64 gun) and the Dauphin.12 When the British ship Dunkirk (64 gun, Captain Richard Howe) came alongside the Alcide, the French captain called out through his hailing trumpet enquiring if France and England were at war: they were not, but the reply was as if they were. Whatever it was that the British captain uttered in reply, it was drowned by a fire belching, metal hurling, broadside of British cannon in unison.13 The scene on the open deck of the Alcide was immediately changed from dozens of gawking whole soldiers into bloody parts mixed with smashed and splintered wood; the whole being under and surrounded with a smokey pall, with crying and moaning sounds, and echoes and reechoes coming through the fog that blended sea and air together.14


[NEXT: Pt. 6, Ch. 2 - "Disputed Territory & Fort Beausejour."]

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