Hume and the Expedition to Canada

by Charlie Huenemann

Lorient-au-18-eme-siecleIn 1746, Hume returned to London after touring Europe as tutor and caretaker of the mad Marquess of Annendale. He was not sure what was next in his life. He was already 35 and somewhat ashamed of not having yet made a career for himself. He resolved to return to Scotland, but at the last minute he received an unexpected invitation to serve in a military expedition to Canada. The invitation came from Lieut.-General James St Clair, a distant relative of Hume whom he had recently met. The opportunity hit Hume at just the right time, and he wondered if this was the beginning of a career in the military.

The plan for the expedition was to approach Quebec by way of the St. Lawrence River in August. Hume set his affairs in order and reported for duty. But what followed was not the exciting onset of an adventure at sea, sails rippling in the wind, but three months of fits and starts. When the wind was not favorable, they were stuck in one harbor or another; when the wind was favorable, the orders from the Navy changed and kept them from going anywhere.

By the end of August, the orders changed dramatically. Forget Canada; the new plan was to invade the French coast and cause a distraction from the campaign taking place then around Flanders. But winds were unfavorable once again, giving St Clair the opportunity to remind the Navy that for this new assignment he had no maps, no military intelligence, no horses, and no money.

The Navy sent along a major and some ship pilots to help plan for an invasion – though, as it turned out, none of them could provide any helpful information. Thus, as Hume put it, the company “lay under positive orders to sail with the first fair wind, to approach the unknown coast, march through the unknown country, and attack the unknown cities of the most potent nation of the universe”.

On September 15th, they undertook to do just that, setting out for Lorient in Brittany with about 50 ships and 4500 men, with the guidance of a map bought in a shop in Plymouth. They arrived at the French coast in the evening of September 18th. But instead of invading right away, the commanding admiral waited to land until the following morning, and on the morning they encountered winds that prevented their landing for two more days. This of course gave the French plenty of time to see them, sound alarms, and prepare a defense of some 3,000 militia, plus cavalry. The wind finally relented and the invading British troops landed, diverting at the last moment to an unoccupied section of the coast. They chased some French soldiers into the hills and issued a general declaration to villagers in the area that they would not be harmed if they did not oppose. Hume was apparently so excited that he simply co-signed this declaration “David,” forgetting to supply his last name.

What followed then was the sort of comedy of errors one could easily see coming. The British troops began to poke around the unfamiliar territory, engaged in some minor skirmishes, sacked a village, and entered into a firefight in which they ended up shooting at each other. Rain kept pouring, morale was low, and many soldiers just wandered off into the French countryside.

Lieut.-General St Clair marched to the town of Lorient and demanded its surrender. The governor replied that the British force should just go away and stop annoying them. St Clair then sought to ready his artillery and begin an assault upon the town's high walls – only to discover that the engineers had come to shore without enough ammunition. They dutifully fired a few shots, to no effect. Meanwhile, Lorient had all the opportunity to call for more reinforcements.

By September 26th, St Clair had had enough. He withdrew his troops and headed back to the ships. Amazingly, he left his camp just before the French showed up to surrender to him, despite the fact that they now outnumbered the British five to one, with further French reinforcements on the way. What is more, the French had spent several days observing the antics of this invading army produced by the same nation that would one day also produce Monty Python. So their decision to surrender is puzzling. In any case, the French delegation brought their white flag to an abandoned camp, shrugged, and walked back home.

St Clair, Hume, and the British fleet went on to antagonize a couple of other small towns and forts along the coast, though heavy storms had scattered their small fleet. They also found and sank a French vessel. But soon enough the fighting in Flanders was over and so there was no need to further distract the French. Hume & Co. made their way back to England, and so ended the expedition.

And so, for the most part, ended Hume's military career. (He did travel across Europe with St Clair on a diplomatic mission over the first half of 1748, but he went along knowing that his life in the service was at an end.) At least he had seen first hand how badly an invasion can be bungled, and he must have come to appreciate the logistics of military action. Less abstractly, he also saw men fight and die; and he saw a friend kill himself, distraught by the belief he had failed to serve with honor. Perhaps, as Mossner observes, this foray into the lives of men of action prepared him in some measure for writing his history of England. But by the middle of 1747 Hume found himself back in Scotland, doubting once again his career and his calling, and pulling every lever he could to get at least half of the pay owed him for his military service. He felt he had earned it. The War Office disagreed, since in fact the expedition never made it to Canada.

Source relied upon: E. C. Mossner, The Life of David Hume (Oxford University Press, 1980)