Saturday, July 26, 2008

How's the Seven Years War Going, 250 years ago?

It's a big, bad day for New France. Today Louisbourg surrendered to the British siege force commanded by General Jeffrey Amherst. They are re-enacting the siege this weekend at Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park in Nova Scotia -- there's a nice photo in today's print-edition Globe & Mail, but it's not in the online edition.

The fall of Louisbourg underlined Britain's greatest advantage: sea power and the control of the Atlantic. Louisbourg was actually the best possible French riposte to that. Before Louisbourg was fortified, the British were pretty much free to land a few companies of soldiers and occupy any coastal asset they wanted. By fortifying Louisbourg, France ensured that Britain's only option was an enormous, expensive and time-consuming siege. From 1755 through 1757, Britain had been unable to bring those forces together.

In 1758, however, Britain demonstrated it was willing keep on trying, willing to commit all the resources required. In early June 1758 Amherst landed 14,000 soldiers at Louisbourg, with a vast fleet in support, and the siege still took half the summer. As long as Louisbourg remained in French hands, the British were unwilling to enter the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

So taking Louisbourg opened the eastern gate of New France's defences and made an assault on Quebec in 1759 nearly inevitable.

The sea power that underpinned Amherst's onslaught on Louisbourg was having another consequence on the long trend of the Seven Years War. New France was still getting supplies through the British naval screens, but never enough. Hardship, deprivation, starvation, epidemics were becoming chronic in New France, sapping both morale and physical strength. France hoped to endure until the British will to fight this hugely expensive war began to erode. But by mid-1758 the war of attrition was beginning to run the other way.

(I drifted away from New France studies without ever writing the big book to explain all this authoritatively. Let me refer you to John Johnston's Endgame instead.)
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