Battle of Signal Hill

On June 27, 1762, during the Seven Year’s War, St. John’s found itself under attack by French forces under the command of the Comte d’Haussonville. After successfully capturing St. John’s […]
September 15, 2015

On June 27, 1762, during the Seven Year’s War, St. John’s found itself under attack by French forces under the command of the Comte d’Haussonville. After successfully capturing St. John’s d’Haussonville based his forces around Signal Hill. To retake the settlement English forces under William Amherst landed at Torbay on September 13.

The Battle of Signal Hill took place on the morning of September 15 when the 200 English soldiers climbed Signal Hill attacking 295 French infantry. The attack, which caught the French by surprise, resulted in the French forces retreating and surrendering three days later.

The Battle of Signal Hill was the final battle of the Seven Year’s War in North America which secured Great Britain as the prominent European power in North America. 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.

Under a Captain 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. The French took possession of Fort William on June 29. 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.

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.”

In the early morning of 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.

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.

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.

In 1897, Cabot Tower was commissioned to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s discovery of Newfoundland and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. An excellent example of late-gothic revival architecture the tower was designed by St. John’s architect William Howe Greene.

In 1901, Signal Hill was at the centre of a major international breakthrough. Guglielmo Marconi, using an antenna suspended 500 feet by kite, received the first transatlantic wireless signal, the letter ‘S’ in Morse code. Marconi’s breakthrough, which was part of an ongoing rivalry with many inventors, led to a new age in communication technology.

Today Signal Hill offers a number of opportunities to visitors. Cabot Tower is a must see – a stone fortress at the top of the hill where soldiers and signalmen kept a watchful eye. On the main floor of the tower you will find the Heritage Shop. Come in and enjoy the music and laugh with the staff about the weather and the wind while you shop a great selection of gifts, craft, music and books. Pick up a copy of The Lookout and you will learn about the people who lived and worked on Signal Hill. Detailed interpretation of the site is available at the Visitor’s Centre. In addition to the site’s history it boasts breathtaking views of St. John’s and the rugged coast of the Avalon Peninsula. There is also a hiking trail which leads from Cabot Tower to the Battery and back.

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