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Book Review: "Anatomy of a Naval Disaster: The 1746 French Expedition to North America" by James Pritchard

Ryan loves learning about lesser-known aspects of history by reading and reviewing the literary works of historians.


In 1745, the French position in North America had received a heavy setback due to the loss of the important French fortress of Louisburg, protector of Quebec, during the War of Austrian Succession. In response, and particularly due to internal political objectives of the French naval administration, an expedition was organized ostensibly with the objective of retaking it and making war along the coast of British North America, the largest naval expedition to North America that France would ever launch. Under the command of Jean-Baptiste Louis Frédéric de La Rochefoucauld de Roye, duc d'Anville, scores of warships and merchant ships were sent forth with thousands of soldiers and sailors—and yet the expedition would be a momentous failure, with horrific casualties from disease among the men, ships lost, and the expedition returning ignominiously and in poor condition to France.

This catastrophic failure is the focus of Anatomy of a Naval Disaster: The 1746 Expedition to North America by James Prichard. The book is an excellent history of the expedition, the reasons for its failure, the consequences, and of the French navy in general in the 18th century.

A Look Through the Chapters

The introduction to the book lays out the historiography of the Louisburg expedition, its general history and disastrous outcome, and the author's hope to use it to explore evolutions in military organization and structure in the 18th century and the political and institutional factors present in the French Navy that shaped the expedition.

Chapter 1, "Policy and Ambition: Background to a Naval Expedition," shows that the Louisburg expedition was motivated by internal French politics and the hope of Maurepas, the French naval minister, to win important prestige and advancement for both his service and for his family, by a prestigious expedition under the command of his cousin. French leadership was in disarray with the end of Cardinal Fleury's long hand at the helm, with the result that there was a lack of firm policy making at the top levels of the state. The navy wished to win back influence, avoid being used for the army's plan to invade England, but had the problem of an old and geriatric officer corps, which gave space for the promotion of d'Enville—Jean-Baptiste Louis Frédéric de La Rochefoucauld de Roye, duc d'Anville.

Rochefort was one of the principal ports of France.

Rochefort was one of the principal ports of France.

Chapter 2, "Plans, Preparation, and Conflict" covers the fitting out of ships at Rochefort and Brest for the expedition, the ships to be sent, funding, supplies, and the objective of the expedition—to retake Louisburg, take Arcadia, and raid British North America. Resources were scarce, with insufficient ships, and the arsenals were in a poor state, with mixed quality administrators fiercely riven by petty rivalries, with the entire machine running into problems.

This manifests itself in Chapter 3, "Delays and Departures," which looks further into the preparation for the expedition, as vast amounts of food were prepared, ships worked on, ammunition loaded, seamen enrolled, and delays with this and bad weather prevented the fleet from sailing, combing to delay the fleet's departure by months, and led to the initial cases of sickness while waiting at the Aix roadstead near Rochefort. The fleet wasn't able to depart until June, dangerously late in the campaigning season.

Chapter 4, "The Enterprise of a Passage," explores why the southern route was chosen to go to America, and then delves into the problems that once again plagued the French, with insufficient discipline among merchant ships which led to poor speed, continuing weather problems, climate, spoiled food, and sickness. Off Quebec itself, the ships awaiting them had to return to France, as time wore on, their condition deteriorating much like d'Enville's fleet crossing the Atlantic. When it finally arrived off of the coasts of Nova Scotia, it was struck by a tremendous storm, scattering the ships and damaging many others.

Chapter 5, "Tragedy at Chibouctou," is one of the last elements of the tragedy of errors of the expedition's travel, with the sudden death of d'Enville, who passed away at a young age in the bay of Chibouctou, of apoplexy. His replacement, suffering under the tremendous burden placed on his shoulder, desiring to return quickly to France and this rejected by a council of war, promptly proceeded to commit suicide—itself the subject of lengthy exploration in the chapter, trying to determine why and explaining the different hypotheses advanced about why he did it.

The capture of the French ship of the line Mars

The capture of the French ship of the line Mars

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"The Lost Shepherds," Chapter 6, however, looks to vessels which were not with the main group, covering the vessels which failed to rendezvous after the storm and returned to France. Many of the warships had already turned about and gone back to France after the storm, not even rallying to the fleet, driven by lack of water, disease, and insufficient navigational guides. Shattered ships were chased or captured by English vessels, vessels suffered terribly from disease and shortage of food, proved by ample supplies of statistics tables.

Jonquière, an excellent naval man but unable to salvage the doomed expedition.

Jonquière, an excellent naval man but unable to salvage the doomed expedition.

Chapter 7, "La Jonquière takes command," is equally dismal for the French, looking at the plight of la Jonquière, one of the French navy's most capable officers as the book shows in detail, now plunged into the leadership of the doomed expedition. He made a last parry to attempt to capture Annapolis Royal, the main English naval base in Acadia, after resting up his men, but the failure of reinforcements to rendezvous, further declines in health, demonstrated by massive numbers of tables and statistics, and problems of coordination with the Acadians threatened even this objective.

Chapter 8, "The Final Agony," shows a cruel final blow, with another storm striking the French, scattering them, and causing the remainder to return to France, chased by English warships much of the way, with themselves in next to no state to resist. French ports were overwhelmed by the number of sick and diseased men that would have to be cared for, and horrible and frightful accommodations made the vessels into abattoirs for many as they made their way across the Atlantic and into port. Despite the horrific failure of the expedition, it had relatively little effect on politics at the court nor upon the naval ministry, as other events distracted the French court, and the army's poor Italian campaign led to the army and navy effectively agreeing to bury the memory of the affair. Almost without a trace, the d'Enville expedition passed out of memory.

The epilogue covers the sad fate of some other vessels, as well as the psychological impact that it left on some of the survivors, such as La Jonquière, to fight and lose heroically the Battle of Cape Finisterre in defense of a convoy—perhaps due to his frustration about being unable to come to grips with the enemy during the d'Enville expedition. The Micmac Indians of the region were devastated by the disease the French brought, while an unstable peace between France and Britain would lay the groundwork for a future war - one where the British would, their attention brought to the region by the abortive French expedition, allocate sufficient resources and troops to win a crushing victory in North America against the French. In all respects, the expedition was a dreadful disaster.

A Thorough and Brilliant Examination of the French Nova Scotia Expedition of 1746

Pritchard has written a brilliant and extremely well done history of the French Nova Scotia expedition of 1746, which shows the variety of reasons behind its failure, its course, its planning, preparation, and result, linked together with an excellent understanding of the operational, strategic, and political reasons behind its dispatch. His work is impressively holistic in managing to answer all of these issues, writing an integrated and detailed book about the expedition which places it into its context and lavishes attention upon every element of the journey, from its commanders, to provisioning, to preparation, to wind and geography, to training, to the men that made it up.

This extends from the beginning to end. The discussion of preparation for the voyage, as well as political leadership, is intriguing—he makes the point that the navy's organization of the expedition was in response to internal political dynamics in the French court and had relatively little to do with the international situation. Discussion about preparation continues to show the problems and failings of French administration, and these combined give an excellent perspective on the shortcomings of the French navy's organizational structure. Other books have noted the rather random and unpredictable nature of winds and tides during the era, which made it so hard to predict naval expeditions and movement, but this book shows empirically how they impacted the naval expedition to North America, how winds and weather presented such tremendous problems for the crossing of the Atlantic. And once arrived, leadership dynamics are an excellent component, with the struggle between rival competing ideas of what should be done, with more warlike officers like Jonquière confronting the those who wished to flee, upon the death of the Duc d'Anville. This book forms a brilliant window onto the inner workings of the French navy.

One of the most admirable elements of his work is the genuine sympathy and compassion which he displays for the victims of the failed French expedition. There were thousands of poor men who suffered the most gruesome and grisly fates, and their plight is a central piece of the story. Anatomy of a Naval Disaster manages to relate a humanizing account of these men and their pain, showing the dreadful effects of the "limited" and "cabinet" wars of the 18th century upon sailors, soldiers, and people.

This is backed up by an excellent degree of statistics and information which are marshaled about the expedition. The ships, their service, crews, armament, supplies, death rates, sickness rates—all are provided, often with excellent tables and charts. Pritchard has put a tremendous amount of work into the subject and it shows, and it makes for a very solid book to understand the finer workings of the French navy.

Furthermore it has an excellent historiographic section. He shows the way the perspective on the expedition has evolved over time, from just after its failure and under Voltaire, when it was written about as a tragic failure which was occasioned by the ill fortune of winds and disease, to 19th century nationalist Canadian perspectives which praised sturdy colonists, to reconciliation and friendship efforts between Canada and France after the First World War: this well done look into evolving views is of great use to the reader for a broader understanding of the historiographical development of perspectives on the French navy.

If there is one thing which would have been pleasant to have but which was not included, it would be for a brief restating of the reasons for the expedition's disaster at the end, such as in the epilogue. While Pritchard does a superb job of showing these reasons at length over the course of the book, having a recapitulation of them at the end would have been good to reinforce these and furthermore to enable them to be quickly referred to. Disease, poor administration, leadership, weather, storms, naval stores - there are many and it would have been good to have them all listed in once place.

Anatomy of a Naval Disaster is an excellent naval history book, one which merits being read by anyone interested in the French navy, 18th century naval history, the French Empire in the New World, 18th century France, and French administration. It is well written, excellently themed, amply provided with both plenty of supporting detail, and convincingly demonstrates the problems of the French expedition. A brilliant exposé of a small yet important subject, and one well worth the read.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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