TW Viewpoint | The Lesson of LouisbourgJuly 8, 2022 | Stuart Wachowicz
It was 1713 and France had not done well in the treaty ending the War of the Spanish Succession. The Treaty of Utrecht saw it lose claim to Newfoundland and much of Acadia. The loss of Newfoundland threatened France with a loss of control over the waters entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence and thus access to the inland colonies of New France.
About this time, French seamen found an agreeable deep-water harbour on the Atlantic shoreline of eastern Cape Breton (now Nova Scotia). The French fishing fleet began to use this harbour for shelter, as a base for processing their catch, and to resupply.
Additionally, this location would provide the French government with control over access to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the major French colonies in Canada. Eventually, the new settlement also became a military and naval base for the French Empire, and was named Louisbourg, in honour of King Louis XV.
The King agreed to a plan to build Louisbourg into what would become the largest military fortification in North America. The fortress was 24 years under construction, designed by France's best military engineers. The walls were 11 metres (33 feet) thick in some places and rose 9 metres (28 feet) above a surrounding entrenchment. On the landward side of the fortress there were stout walls that were surrounded by marsh, thought to prevent any artillery from being placed within range.
The cost of construction was immense. King Louis XV was rumoured to have commented, upon seeing some of the bills, that he should soon be able to see the walls rising out of his west-facing windows in Paris.
In 1740, France and England were again in conflict in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Some English captives who had been held in Louisbourg upon their release reported their observations to the Governor, William Shirley of Massachusetts. They told of low morale, poor food, and more notably, aspects of poor construction in the walls. They also reported that the high ground around Louisbourg was poorly defended.
While military engineers had designed the fortress, private contractors, in order to enhance their profits, made some bad choices. Sea water was used to mix mortar, which was now crumbling. Inadequate water supplies existed inside the fortress, both in terms of quantity and quality.
In 1745 an expedition of 4000 New Englanders, supported by the Royal Navy, attacked Louisbourg. They captured the supporting defenses that guarded the harbour entrance and blockaded the port. The colonial army used wide wooden sledges to drag and float heavy artillery over the surrounding marshes. British artillery was then able to fire downward on Louisbourg. On June 28, with parts of the walls breached, Louisbourg, short of men, water and supplies, had no choice but to surrender.
In 1748, under the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the British returned Louisbourg to France, much to the disgust of New Englanders. Defenses were repaired, and the fortress was stocked to withstand a one-year siege. Some of the key issues however were not corrected. The water supply had the same limitations, the surrounding hills were not defended, and the weakened mortar was not replaced.
In 1756, France and England were again at war. A British fleet appeared near Louisbourg in 1758. The officer given responsibility for the siege was Brigadier-General James Wolfe. By June 25, Wolfe had captured all of the strategic positions around the main fortress, repeating the strategy of the New Englanders 13 years prior. He moved huge cannon onto the still undefended high ground. Louisbourg capitulated.
French soldiers and officers had fought courageously, but they had been let down by those who had failed to consider quality control in construction and to ensure essential access to sufficient supplies of clean water.
Today, Parks Canada has rebuilt a good portion of the town and parts of the fortress as they were in 1756, including some of the massive walls. It is one of the best places to take a step back in time and see how life was over two centuries ago.
As one walks around this site, a proverb comes to mind: "He who is slothful in his work is a brother to him who is a great destroyer" (Proverbs 18:9). If those responsible for the quality of Louisbourg's construction had done their work well, its history may have ended differently.
The sad story of Louisbourg is an example of what happens when integrity and diligence are not part of one's character and decision making.