A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #1: Acadia. TOC
Part 7,
The Second Siege of Louisbourg: 1758:
Ch.08 -- "The Landing."

It would be well now to have a musical background. I think the choice might be the intermezzo from "Karelia" by the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). We might, too, position ourselves atop the southwestern ramparts of Louisbourg; and then to look out to the sea horizon. If this were the early morning of June the 2nd, 1758: it's hazy; the atmosphere foreboding; and, Oh! So softly, the invasion fleet hoves into view, over the line between sea and sky. A bare horizon at first, then a few white flecks turn into more, and more, and more, with the white flecks becoming larger, and larger, so to become billowing white sails of all sorts and sizes, carrying along underneath them, strung on sticks, vessels of equal variety, 159 of them of all dimensions and sizes, bristling with guns and men, each ready to bring a share of ruin to Louisbourg.1

By June the 3rd, most of the transports had arrived and had their anchors set into the bottom of Gabarus Bay. The principal officers including Amherst2 were immediately out and into small launches coming as close to the shore as they dared3; standing with glasses to their eyes; pointing and making observations to one another. After soundings had been made certain of the frigates came in close and started pounding the French positions with broadsides; the French returned the fire from their shore batteries and scored hits on the ships, such that some of the British sailors were killed. On the 4th, nothing could be attempted as there was "a great surf and the wind blew so." The British felt there was little they could do but wait for the weather to clear, though launches were sent out further down the bay to see if conditions were any better. On the 5th, things were socked in by fog, and while the winds dropped down there were still large sea swells.4 Officers were regularly slung over the sides of the great war ships to board the waiting reconnaissance launches by their sides; and came back in short order with the same reports: the surf on the shore was bad and that a landing was not possible. On the 6th, at daybreak, the conditions were still bad; but as the morning wore on things improved, such that, it was thought that a landing might be made.5

One needs to go to these shores to appreciate what the British were up against. There will then be no doubt that there is but only one place the troops could come ashore. It is the sandy beach at Kennington Cove. For the British it was a matter of doing it when sea conditions were tolerable.6 As for the French, it might be said, they had a long shore line to cover7 and they decided not to fully discount the possibility, as remote as it was, that a landing could take place somewhere along the coast other than at "the fresh water cove beach." The beach was reasonably well fortified, but a chink, as we will see, was discovered, probably through serendipity.8

With the breaking weather on the morning of the 6th, the signal was given and the troops were ordered into the boats. Amherst wrote in his journal9: "Very bad weather at day break; after it blew up fair and we hoped to land. ... All the frigates were hauled towards the shore. It rained hard, then cleared a little. We remained in the boats 'till eleven o'clock ..."10 It was then that one of Boscawen's captains, who presumably was doing a little reconnoitering close to shore, reported that "the Swell running and breaking so very strong upon the Shore, there was no possibility of coming near with the boats."11 The signal was passed and the troops climbed back aboard their mother ships; it would not appear that they had even left their sides. At noon hour Amherst was back aboard Boscawen's flag ship, the 90 gun man-of-war, Namur. Days had now passed: the troops were cooped up in their swaying transports; and, the North Atlantic continued nonstop to swell up around them, and, swept beyond them in great angry heaps, to throw itself against the hard rock shores of Louisbourg. The situation was such that Boscawan, in whose hands the landing operation fully laid, was now becoming highly doubtful that the operation could be pulled off. By the 6th, he had a mind to call a "Council of War" an event which usually proceeded retreat, when an "old seaofficer, Ferguson by name, advised the commander to assume full responsibility, to call no Council of War, but to begin the enterprize at any cost." Boscawen was to take his advice.

The troops bobbed in their transports and the British officers were gathered together on the Namur. What to do? One can only imagine the scene as skirted military men huddle under swaying lanterns casting a dim flickering light over the group and their papers. There, in the tight quarters of the stern cabin of the Namur12. Picture the scene: Amherst, Boscawen, Wolfe, Whitmore, and Lawrence; plus their attendants peeking over their shoulders. Would this work? How about this? Wait? No! Let me check. Yes! But only if; and if. A break would be called as Wolfe, the army man, requests to have a small boat at his disposal so he can take, yet another look at the forbidden coast. "Wait," Boscawen, the navy man would have said, "I'll have Durrell go with you."13 And there we see in the foggy haze lit by an early morning light too braided men being rowed along by obedient sailors, quietly conferring and pointing. The muffled rowboat comes back to the looming man-o-war all hands out to prevent unnecessary noise. Back to the cabin and both the cloaked officers are in agreement, "Impossible!" "We have no choice, the only landing place is the sandy beach, no matter its defences, anywhere else and it will be death by drowning. It's a front-on attack for us: No Choice. We can pretend to come in on one side or the other, but it will have to be front-on, when we land." Heads are scratched, chins are rubbed and tight crouches are adjusted. "No Choice." "Yes, No Choice." "One thing is for certain we got to get the men off the transports and onto that God forsaken shore, else, we make sail for another place; time cannot help; we must make our move, or get out of here!" The plan is set and the details are worked out and recapped by Amherst. Whitmore will row "to our right by the White Point as if intending to force a landing there." Lawrence is to head into the 'fresh water cove' and Wolfe with his hand picked men14 will seemingly linger in behind ready to go in where an opening appears; and, the rest, at the last moment, will swing in behind Wolfe so to open up the breach.

June 8th, 1758:

At midnight the task of loading the troops into the boats got under way. The plan had come down to this: a strong frontal attack with mere feints on the flanks. A further feint would be made well off to the east of Louisbourg. While most all of the troops in their transports were to get into Gabarus Bay in good time, there was one regiment, Bragg's (the 28th), that got in late. Rather than realign the divisions that had been set up to go in, it was determined to hold the 28th in reserve and at the same time perform, during the landing, a valuable service, viz., to sail under convoy to the east towards Grand Lorembec, deliberately showing itself as it passed the town in an attempt to confuse the French as to where the forthcoming assault landing was to unfold.15 In addition, Boscawen was to unleash his naval cannon. Certain of the naval vessels moved in closer to shore with the view to firing broadsides16 into the shore emplacements. The Kennington and the Halifax were off Fresh Water Cove; Gramont, Diana and Shannon off Flat Point; and the Squirrel and the Sutherland near White Point.17 (See map.) At 4 a.m., the naval guns opened up creating a deafening din which echoed and re-echoed off the shore and back to sea. The naval bombardment was intense for about fifteen minutes when through the gun smoke and the sea fog with the rising sun to the backs of the thousands of occupants came hundreds of launches: the British were coming in.18

The men in these boats knew how to handle themselves, as, rehearsals for this event had been carried out at Halifax. In this respect, on May 21st, Admiral Boscawen19 had issued his orders:

"The boats of the ordnance ships, as well as the rest, will be employed in landing the first body of men, except such as are requisite to carry on shore the light six-pounders. The boats of the hospital-ships are solely to be employed for the use and assistance of any who may be wounded; and a place of rendezvous will be appointed for the boats, when the landing is fixed upon. The seamen, who row the transport boats, are not to have fire-arms.
When the troops are ordered to land. Officers are to go into the boats, in proportion to the number of men, without crowding, particularly if there is any swell or surf.
The Admiral will order some light boats, to save any men that may go into the sea by any accident.
The first body in Gabarus Bay must carry nothing in the boats but their arms and ammunition, with bread and cheese in their pockets for two days. ... [Blankets and three days worth of provisions will be sent ashore once the soldiers have landed and have beaten the enemy.]
An Officer commanding a boat shall be answerable that no man fires from out of that boat.
[No bayonets either as they may be] fixed in a moment after the men are landed.
As fast as the men get out of the boats, they must form, and march directly forward to clear the beach, and charge whatever is before them. They are not to pursue far, but will be ordered to take post, so as effectually to secure the rest of the army. The Commanders of the grenadiers, and all the Field Officers, employed in the first landing, are to disembark in light rowing-boats, that they may land their respective corps, and give their orders readily."
How many light rowing-boats came toward the shores: there had to be hundreds. Closer and closer they rowed. The firing frigates, that had put up such a racket, had fallen silent. The men were quiet. All that could be heard would have been the lapping water and the oars as they creaked in their locks; and the waves which met the shore in rhythmic fashion. All those in the boats had their eyes fixed on the shore: there was no sounds and little movement: they couldn't be seen from the sea, but the French were there, quiet and still.21 The boats at the centre of this mass of small craft, pushed into the cove and kept coming to their objective. The arms of the cove started to embrace them, to their left and to their right. The British kept rowing, and, still nothing, the French held their fire.

John Stewart McLennan described L'Anse à la Coromandière (Fresh Water Cove):

"The distance between its headlands is about 660 yards, but on neither of these points did it seem possible to land. Midway on the arc of its shore is a rocky point, and on either side of it a beautiful sandy beach, from which the cliff rises abruptly about 15 or 20 feet from high water. ... A little brook runs into the sea close to the eastern point of the cove. This point is a shoulder of land [Cap Rouge] high enough to hide from the shores of the cove all the coast and sea to the eastward. This disadvantage of the position had been foreseen in the defences made in 1757. A nid de pie or watch tower had been erected on or near this ridge, from which could be seen the whole range of the shore towards the town, say about four miles; and during the time in 1757 that a descent by the English was possible had been occupied by a detachment. It was now left unoccupied."22
The French were prepared for a landing at the beach. It was there, especially on the overlooking bluffs, that trenches were dug in and cannon were placed. The shore was thickly covered with trees which the French had chopped and dragged there, their branches lying towards the sea.23 At some distance looking from the sea these felled trees looked like an inviting green belt outlining the seashore. In fact, however, these trees were meant to entangle the British troops and exposed them to such a fire from the enemy that "the bare attempt of possessing these Lines, would have been like that of traveling towards them through a wild Forest, from the interwoven Branches of one Tree to those of another with incredible Fatigue and endless labour."24

The British in their small craft kept coming, then, it seemed it was even more quiet. Likely there wasn't quite as many creaking oars in the chorus, as, certain of the key officers would have called for a halt so that they might peer out to see where they were and where the best point might be to which to make their final dash. The waves on the shore could be heard more clearly now as the waters swept up against the beach in waves and retreated back rhythmically, the beach pebbles rattling over themselves. It was too quiet. The pace of the small landing boats picked up again. Then, then -- the air was split with a deafening roar and there poured from the shore all around deadly fire.25 The French had set up 10 cannon at strategic points just in this cove: three swivels, two six pounders, one twenty pounder and two six pounders. (See map.) Hundreds of French soldiers were in their trenches and had been peering down their long barreled muskets, each having a spare one, loaded and by their side. It seemed as if the small boats reared up like so many frightened horses. The blast from the French worked. Instinctively many of the boats that hadn't been holed were turning, their occupants desperate for cover. The thought that struck them all, was -- landing was impossible. Wolfe who was in behind this front line, no doubt, had the same thought -- this was going to be a disastrous failure. Notwithstanding the eagerness and the courage of these men, the British water borne advance was decisively checked. There then occurred an event which Von Ruville, in his biography on Pitt, was to describe as "the critical moment to which one can almost point as marking a change in the whole colonial war."26

Wolfe gave the signal to retreat and the boats which had not already done so turned to the open water. In Amherst's general orders, the officers in charge were cautioned to "avoid huddling together and running into a lump."27 Three boats on the right of Wolfe's force drifted or rowed towards the east and there (see "A" on map) found themselves sheltered by the ridge from the French fire. Just at its foot (it may be seen there, today) is a little space running up into a large split rock, a perfect docking bay for a rowboat, maybe two inline; a place parapeted to the left and to the right with granite rock. This small group of soldiers, led by Lieutenants Hopkins & Brown and Ensign Grant of the 35th Regiment, who sought the place out for shelter, were soon to realize that they had a perfect footing on the shore.28 They cautiously looked up and beyond the boulders that sheltered them expecting that any moment the French would be on to them. They had come ashore to the east of Cap Rouge to which we have previously referred. There they could see on this bluff the watch tower (nid de pie) which the French had erected the year before and which this time had failed to use: it was unoccupied. Heads popped up again. This was unbelievable: this small group of English soldiers were ashore, and, it would appear, the French did not know that they had arrived. Just beyond the brow of Cap Rouge, to the west of it (see "F" on map) there was a French emplacement of "One Twenty Pounder & Two Six Pounders" stuffed with grape-shot and aimed to cover the beach which was to the south west, the serving soldiers intent on what they were up to, and, oblivious as to what had happened in behind and below them. This first group which had landed unopposed scrambled from the landing place and up the hill and laid on their bellies, still, they were unobserved by the French.29

Though it would not appear there was any kind of an account left behind by any of those in the first boats, their landing was due to a piece of good luck, of which, to their credit, they took full advantage. One accounting, by a person who had to be very close to Wolfe goes this way: "... some Boats getting into some Rocks a little to the Eastward of the Bay Landed about 40 Rangers which Clamber'd up them & got into a small wood which flank'd the Enemy's Brestworks ..."30 An eye witness from the French side put it this way: "... their landing on the left of the Cove was made by chance, that they had not believed this place possible for landing, that three boats had sought there refuge from our fire ... and that they signaled the others to come on." Other French versions: Three barges to avoid the French fire rushed behind Cap Rouge and there two of them found "a nook or two" and "the third to seek the others." "Seeing that they were not observed they landed among the rocks, and did it so diligently that they had already put a considerable number of men on shore before they were seen." These boats were of the second line and seeing the first line of boats being repulsed at the beach drew off to their right (the left of the French line) and found protection under the bluff from which the French were raining down their fire, they continued to move off to their right, away from the fire and around the bluff to find "a ravine" and got on shore there.31

Major George Scott, who had been put in charge of the Light Infantry and Rangers32 seemed to be with the closest group of boats to spot Hopkins, Brown and Grant and the men who had gotten ashore in the first three boats. Scott lost no time, and, it would appear that he came ashore at the same spot with more men. It was at about then that the French became alive to the presence of the British and the foothold they had managed to obtain. About seventy French and Indians tied to push Scott off his position; but he and his men managed to hold them off while even more reinforcements came up from the landing beach.

Wolfe, ever so aware of his surroundings, in looking around saw that some of his men had gotten a foothold. He got his boat turned around and urged those men around him to pull with all their might towards the movement of the redcoated men on the shore. Soon they were at the same large split rock at which the first ones had landed. Wolfe, with cane33 in hand, together with more men, leapt to the large rock34 on the shore. The new arrivals were soon to join the first group which had formed up and holding the higher ground. The first French position was then carried with the bayonet. Wolfe's men then poured over the ridge to take the French position in flank and rear.

The bravery of the officers and the soldiers of the 18th century cannot be overestimated. There is the example of the British sergeant in one of the boats, as they rowed into the first attack, who stood up in his boat when the French started to hurl their shots and cried out, "Who would not go to Hell, to hear such music for half an hour?" A shorter time was given him, for he was shot dead as he stood; but there were many among the soldiery as reckless of consequences.35 Some of the boats, when they reached the rocky shore, were dashed to pieces or stove in by collision.36 Stevenson in his splendid essay, "The English Admirals," concluded that brave men may be driven by duty to country or love of his comrades, or family; but brave persons do what they do, mainly because they like what they do.

"A great many brave actions must be expected to be performed without witness, for one that comes to some notice. A man is not always at the top of a breach, or at the head of an army in the sight of his general, as upon a platform. He is often surprised between the hedge and the ditch; he must run the hazard of his life against a henroost; he must dislodge four rascally muskateers out of a barn; he must prick out single from his party, as necessity arises, and meet adventures alone."
... If the marines ... gave three cheers and cried "God Bless the King," it was because they liked to do things nobly for their own satisfaction. They were giving their lives, there was no help for that; and they made it a point of self-respect to give them handsomely. ...
Almost every person, if you will believe himself, holds a quite different theory of life from the one on which he is patently acting. And the fact is, fame may be a forethought and an afterthought, but it is too abstract an idea to move people greatly in moments of swift and momentous decision. It is from something more immediate, some determination of blood to the head, some trick of the fancy, that the breach is stormed or the bold word spoken."
Stevenson was speaking of the unsung hero, the regular soldier, of which there were any number on both sides at Louisbourg, who most certainly were heroes but who are now forgotten. What history has given us, and who is no less the hero, and who most certainly stood out at Louisbourg -- is James Wolfe. Wolfe receives the credit for the successful British landing and the taking of Louisbourg; and, -- so it should be.38

After Wolfe's troops were ashore they were followed in, as was planned, by the feigning flanks of Lawrence (first) and Whitmore (second).39 The fighting was hardly over because Wolfe had landed. All the troops followed the examples set by those who proceeded them. As it turned out it was not the flying lead and scrap that the French cannon and musketry spit out that was to get to them, as much as it was the sea. The hard pounding surf lashed at the boats, many were upset; "and many a brave fellow, who hoped ere night to win renown in the field, found an instant watery grave."40 Indeed Lawrence's "boat was sunk by a round shot in the surf, and nine of his comrades were killed or drowned; but he [Lawrence], being a splendid swimmer, swam safely to the shore."41

What had started as but a handful men landing at an unlikely spot had now turned into thousands of soldiers hiking out of their landing craft which were now fetching up everywhere on the shores of Fresh Water Cove. The French had made no preparations for hand-to-hand fighting.42 Earlier they had seen large numbers of landing craft go along the shore to the left of them, to the east towards their haven, fortified Louisbourg. There was a general fear that more British forces had landed at White Point (See map) and those defending where the British had effected a landing at Fresh Water Cove would be cut off from their retreat to Louisbourg. The fear developed into panic and French troops fled precipitately, as one building body along the coast, 3,000 of them.43 They left all their guns, stores, ammunition, and implements in the hands of the invaders. By noon of June the 8th, the only French troops outside the fortress were the dead, wounded and prisoners of war. Thus, it was in six short hours of a summer's morning the first and most important step in the taking of Louisbourg had been successfully accomplished.

Why is it that the English landed so quickly and with so few losses on a piece of shore that the French knew full well was the most likely landing spot: a spot that had been so well fortified, a spot that had been so well manned, a spot on which they had the high ground, a spot where the French had not a thing to do but take aim, a spot where the English had all they could do to get themselves ashore out of small boats and into pounding surf, to come ashore wet and into a tangle of fortifications and musket fire. This was the defenders best chance at repelling the English back into the sea! What happened?

Centered mid way along Kennington Cove (these days a picnic park and part of the larger historical site encompassing the rebuilt fortifications of Louisbourg and which is administered by the Canadian Federal Government) one can look out to sea as the French did back in 1758. At the shore, just there, is a beautiful little sandy beach, another like it is not to be found for many miles. Crescent shaped, as beaches generally are, it seems protected by two rocky heads that hook into the larger bay. The head on the left, as one looks out, is called Cap Rouge. This is not a large mass and within minutes one can walk out to the end of it. The beach there is not sand, not something any one can easily land on, indeed, just walking on this part of the shore like most all around except for the beach can be a quite a head down exercise, the footing treacherous (forget, for the moment, what it would be like coming out of the sea with your powder and musket overhead, wet boots underneath you and deadly balls of hot lead coming at you from three different angles). One should walk over and up on this commanding bluff and look around. The rock filled trenches are there (seemingly); there to be seen, today, some 236 years after the event. Standing there behind the French line one can see the beach running away pretty well perpendicular to these trenches, every inch exposed to French fire. To the left of the line, the bluff, Cap Rouge, continues and drops off to the rocks below. In behind the line the cape continues up terminating in a crest over which the defending French could not see. This did not seem to bother the defenders for behind them were the woods, and the British were in front of them, and had to come to them, front on, through the surf. And, indeed, that is what the English did, only to be soundly repulsed; not a boat could get ashore on the beach; this was an impregnable position.

Cap Rouge is a hard, little, rock-bound jut which hangs a little way out into the sea. On one side the beach, which the English must take if they are to come ashore, at all; on the other side, rocks pounded by surf and overlooked by even higher bluffs: No chance for an invading force. No need to add much if anything to these natural defences but maybe a little tower overlooking the whole, which, indeed, the French had built and manned in 1757 when there was a fear of a British invasion. This small tower (nid de pie) on the high ground of Cap Rouge would allow an observer see over the crest and at least keep an eye on the ground to the back of the French line: except, in 1758, the officer in charge of the French on the beach, Colonel de St. Julhien, who must have considered it, thought to leave no one there, a mistake of which the British were to take full advantage. In writing to his friend, William Rickson, on December 1st, 1758, Wolfe commented on his extraordinary good luck:

"Amongst ourselves be it said, that our attempt to land where we did was rash and injudicious, our success unexpected (by me) and undeserved. There was no prodigious exertion of courage in the affair; an officer and thirty men would have made it impossible to get ashore where we did."44
And, contained in a letter to his father written on July 27th, 1758, at his " camp before Louisbourg," Wolfe writes:
"In general, it may be said that we made a rash and ill advised attempt to land, and by the greatest of good fortune imaginable we succeeded. If we had known the country, and had acted with more vigour, half the garrison at least (for they were all out) must have fallen into our hands."45
Amherst wrote in his journal about the events of June the 8th:
"The surf was so great that the Troops could not get on shore in the Bay so that the Brigd. (Wolfe) rowed round and tryed just on the left of the Cove and landed boat by boat with the utmost Difficulty and pushed forward and took Post as soon as he could get any men formed. The Enemy by this motion being taken in Flank soon began to retreat. The Brigadier pursued as fast as he could get the Troops landed which was done in a violent surf, several of the Boats oversetting and all the Men jumping in the Water to get on Shore. The Left wing landed under the Command of Brigd. Lawrence; immediately after the Grenadiers and the Right Wing under the Command of Br. Whitmore followed. It took up so much time to land the Troops that it was impossible to pursue the Enemy so quick as could have been wished. Their Retreat was through the Roughest and worst ground I ever saw and the Pursuit ended with a Cannonading from the Town which was so far of use that it pointed out how near we could form the Camp to Invest it and so soon as the Ground was fixed on, the Troops marched back and lay on their Arms. The wind increased and we could not get anything on shore, lay on our Arms all night and ordered the Pickets to lay out in the Rear of the Camp, posting small Parties in the Front."
McLennan was to observe:
"It was after four when the attack began, it was six when Boscawen landed, and at about eight the French troops were under the protection of the guns of the town. So short a time had this decisive event taken, but little more than twice as long as leisurely and unmolested pedestrians would take to land and go over the same broken ground."46
In short order all the land surrounding the fort of Louisbourg was fully under the control of the British: and they paid little for it. The British losses after the landing were counted up and considering the position of the respective sides is does no credit to the defending French. Fifty of the British were killed and as many more wounded; most of the deaths were by drowning. As for the French; well, its hard to find a hard figure on the number of dead and wounded, it could not of have been more than the British, likely less. However, we know that the British were to immediately capture supplies that were lost to the French and proved to be invaluable in keeping the landed British troops going for those first few days.47

It was early morning, 4 a.m., when the British took to their small landing boats and went in on June the 8th. By 6 a.m., it was all over. Not only in the sense that the British had achieved the impossible by getting ashore; but in the sense that with the landing of the British forces (13,000, in all) the fate of Louisbourg with its 6,000 defenders was sealed. By eight o'clock, on that memorable morning, the fleeing French were safely within their fortress. For the British: "The assault landing had been a clean-cut success."48

[NEXT: Pt. 7, Ch. 9 - "The Bombardment."]

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