Waging war on Signal Hill

British, French fought in St. John’s 250 years ago

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on July 18, 2012

“Soldiers die in bloody battle.”    

The headline might read something like that, if a newspaper in St. John’s covered the Battle of Signal Hill 250 years ago.

“There’s no question this is probably the most important military action to take place on the island of Newfoundland,” says Robin Martin, visitor experience product development officer with Parks Canada.

He has researched the event extensively, and counts James Candow’s 2011 book, “The Lookout,” as an important source.

The battle took place Sept. 15, 1762, however, events leading to it started many years before.

The French and English had long been fighting on North American soil. They were also on opposite sides in the Seven Years War, a global conflict that broke out in 1756.

Peace talks stalled in 1762, and the French sent more than 800 soldiers to Newfoundland.

Their plan: to spend a month destroying British fishing infrastructure.

 “Not to hold anything,” Martin explains, “but to discourage the British from staying here.”

Under a captain named de Ternay, the French landed in Bay Bulls, walked overland and captured St. John’s without firing a musket. The British commanding officer surrendered because he thought the enemy numbers were much higher.

Cont'd...

The French took possession of Fort William — near where a building of the same name still stands — June 29.

Given the ease he obtained the fort, de Ternay changed the plan. He was going to stay in St. John’s.

The French began adding to the fortification of St. John’s.

They also started deporting livyers, because they didn’t have the resources to feed or manage them.

Towards the end of July, the British Navy’s North American commander-in-chief realized what was happening. So, in August, Rear Admiral Alexander Colville sailed a squadron from Halifax and set up outside The Narrows.

They were followed a few days later by 1,159 experienced soliders under the command of Lt.-Col. William Amherst.

“They weren’t messing around,” Martin says of the British deployment.

Cont'd...

 

Colville and Amherst met off Petty Harbour on Sept. 11 and discussed strategy.

Amherst wanted to land at “Kitty Vitty,” as he spelled it in a journal edited by John Clarence Webster and published in 1928.

Colville, however, convinced Amherst to go ashore at Torbay because of the enemy “had stopped up this passage” through Quidi Vidi Gut by sinking small boats there.

The British arrived at Torbay Sept. 13 and were greeted by fire from a small French company that soon fled.

From there, Amherst and his men marched overland, through thick woods and bog, likely to what is now Bally Haly golf course and onto where The Boulevard currently begins.

They proceeded to an area called the Grove, around where the Royal Canadian Legion now stands. There, they faced enemy fire from a hill to the east, where Quidi Vidi Lake flows into a river.

Under cover from the fire from a party Amherst had sent to the top of another hill in response, British companies crossed the river and drove the French out.

That gave them control of Quidi Vidi, from where Amherst determined, “The Signal Hill which overlooks this and the whole ground to the Fort, we must gain.”

It’s the first documented reference of the name Signal Hill. It had been known as The Lookout prior to that.

Cont'd...

 

Amherst ordered two companies to march from The Grove to Quidi Vidi that night and surprise the enemy.

At dawn on the 15th, under heavy fog, they attacked the French on the summit from the direction of Cuckhold’s Cove.

The offensive lasted minutes, with the French pulling back down the hill.

Both sides suffered roughly two dozen casualties, including four or five deaths each.

David Perry, who fought with one of the companies, detailed what happened next in his memoirs, “Recollections of An Old Soldier: The Life of Captain David Perry (1741-1826).”

“It pretty soon commenced raining exceedingly hard, and continued to rain until about midnight of the next night, when it cleared away. We remained masters of the hill, and were obliged to remain on it without a mouthful of food or drink of any sort, until morning of the second day after we started.”

Six hundred French infantry had retreated to Fort William.

Some of their naval officers, including de Ternay, took advantage of a heavy fog that night, cutting a boom they had deployed across The Narrows and shipping out into the Atlantic.

Amherst was told some French ships were leaving but didn’t share the information with Colville.

He did feared the French would destroy Fort William and sent a letter to the commanding officer, d’Haussonville, on the 16th, warning “every man should be put to the sword” if they damaged it.

Cont'd...

 

The French leader said he would hold out.

The British then set up two batteries and started firing.

“Threw a great many shells last night into the Fort,” Amherst wrote in his journal on the 18th.

The French didn’t roll over.

Wrote Perry: “The enemy kept up a constant fire upon us, and threw balls and shells on the hill, but did not make very great slaughter, though some of our men were killed. While a squad of regulars sat eating their breakfast in a tent, a cannon ball passed through it, and killed one man instantly; and another by the name of David Foster ... was struck on the temple bone by a grape shot, which passed under his forehead, rolled his eyes out, and left a little piece of the lower part of his nose standing; and what I thought was very remarkable, he lived to get home.”

The French finally capitulated on Sept. 18.

Martin says the exchanges between both leaders show a mutual respect for each other and an understanding there was no point in spilling more blood.

“It’s truly surrender with honour,” he says.

Cont'd...

Martin says the Battle of Signal Hill should have been a crushing defeat for the British because they sent two companies of light infantry to fight three companies of French grenadiers.

He says a number of things worked in the British favour that morning, including the dense black fog that prevented the French from seeing the true size of the enemy force as well as a serious injury to a highly-respected French officer.

The offensive was the last on North America soil of the Seven Years War, and it is the final battle to take place on Newfoundland soil.

The Treaty of Paris was signed the following year.

In it, France gave up its North American possessions, except the islands of St-Pierre—Miquelon, and fishing rights along Newfoundland’s north west coast.

Martin agrees with a suggestion in Candow’s book that historians have tended to overlook the Battle of Signal Hill in favour of larger offensives between the English and French at Louisburg, Montreal and Quebec City.

He says the French were more interested in holding onto the Newfoundland fishery, as well as the Caribbean sugar trade, than maintaining territories in North America.

Beside being a food source, he adds the fishery was also a training ground for the navy.

Martin expects there will be more study of the battle and its significance in the future.

Cont'd...

 

To mark the 250th anniversary of the campaign, Martin says the event will be re-enacted twice during an encampment being held on Signal Hill the weekend of Aug. 10 to 12.

As well, on the actual date, there will be a special performance of “Ghosts of Signal Hill,” a one-person play told through a character based on a soldier who died during the battle.

“We’re going to do up something special for added production value,” Martin says.

Meanwhile, Torbay is marking the anniversary of Amherst’s landing with a year-long celebration called “Torbay 250.”

This summer’s events include July performances by the Signal Hill Tattoo, an Aug. 4 Great Big Sea concert, and an August pageant called “1762: the Taking of Torbay.”

 

sbartlett@thetelegram.com

Twitter: SteveBartlett_