General James Wolfe has cemented his place in the Pantheon of British military heroes and deservedly so for his capture of the French Canadian city of Quebec with a plan so audacious that even now it seems close to ludicrous. It was the victory that brought him the honour and glory he so desperately sought but at the price few would have been willing to pay.
James Peter Wolfe was born in Westerham, Kent, on 2 January 1727 to a father who was a Colonel in the Marines and a military career was always going to be his son’s chosen path. Indeed, James enlisted in his father’s Regiment when he was aged just thirteen and from the outset he was to prove himself an assiduous student of military tactics and very ambitious being commissioned 2nd Lieutenant the following year.
His rapid rise through the ranks was more earned than it was down to his family connections and it was in 1743 at the Battle of Dettingen during the War of the Austrian Succession that he first came to the attention of King George II’s youngest son William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland who was so impressed with this young man that he promoted him to Captain and sent him to Scotland where serving as Aide-de-Camp to the elderly Sir Henry Hawley he did his best to warn him of the threat posed by Jacobite rebellion which quite literally fell on deaf ears. When Sir Henry, as complacent and bloody-minded as ever blundered to defeat at the Battle Falkirk none of the blame rubbed off on the young Wolfe who was instead promoted to lead a Regiment of the line.
On 16 April 1746, his Regiment was involved in some of the fiercest fighting in the decisive Battle of Culloden where he earned praise for his qualities of leadership but when he was ordered to execute a Highlander in the presence of the Duke of Cumberland he refused saying: “My honour is worth more than my Commission.”
It was an act of mercy that should not be confused with sympathy for the Highlander or the Jacobite cause and he regularly referred to the Scots as savages, though his opinion of them moderated somewhat when he was given command of a Regiment of Scots Fusiliers.
Wolfe was to remain in Scotland for a further six years before returning to England where still only 23 years of age he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
In 1754 the Seven Years War (it was in fact to last 9 years) broke out and despite most of the fighting taking place in Europe where the major powers were pitted against one another for the British it was less a war of dynastic succession than of Imperial conquest at the expense of their old enemy France.
When Britain did involve itself in the conflict in Europe their campaign was invariably a disaster.
Indeed, the now General Wolfe was present during the chaotic attempt to storm the French port of Rochefort where all his suggestions how to do so were rejected which at least meant he could not be blamed for the operational fiasco that ensued even it meant he was in constant dispute with his superiors.
Described as a bundle of nervous energy never short of an idea or unwilling to voice an opinion he was considered by many of his peers an irritant whose constant carping was only mitigated by a severity of hypochondria that meant a day rarely passed without him suffering from some malady or other.
Even so, he still appeared to be everywhere at the same time and hard working and exacting in everything he did his presence energised those around him but he also expected similar standards from the troops under his command. When an Officer complained to the King of Wolfe’s hyperactivity describing it as madness he responded:
“Mad is he, then I wish he would infect some of my other Generals.”
In his short career so far Wolfe had managed to impress everyone, so much so that the Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder appointed him Second-in-Command to Sir William Amherst in Canada, his task a simple one, to eject the French from Canada and make it British.
He was on the fast-track to glory.
Having distinguished himself at the Siege of Louisbourg, Pitt, whose admiration for Wolfe seemed unbounded, now put him in charge of the campaign to take the greatest of all the French-Canadian cities, Quebec.
Wolfe was determined not to fail but he was aware of the difficulty of the task. If he could not take the city then he would make its continued occupation untenable. He wrote to Amherst:
“I propose to set the town on fire with shells, to destroy the harvests and cattle, and leave desolation and famine behind me.”
Wolfe was correct in his assessment and following a failed assault on the city he was to be stuck outside the walls of Quebec for months and it was not the French but the British position that was becoming increasingly desperate.
The French Commander at Quebec was the Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, an able and experienced soldier who had taken charge of French forces in North America in 1756 following the capture of his predecessor. He had proven a great success taking a number of forts before defeating a much larger British force at the Battle of Carillon in July 1758, but his reputation had been damaged by the massacre of British prisoners following the surrender of Fort William Henry including women and children by his Algonquin Indian allies.
They had negotiated their surrender of the fort on the promise of safe conduct and Montcalm had given his word that they would not be harmed but he had been unable to provide them with the protection he said he would, and though he personally did his best to halt the attacks the same cannot be said of many of his Officers.
An aristocrat to his vey core he considered himself first and foremost a man of honour and it has been suggested that he curtailed his advance on the now vulnerable Fort Edward out of a sense that he had been disgraced.
Wolfe had been advised to approach Quebec from the north and sever Montcalm’s supply line from Montreal, this he had done but he also knew it would take months for it to have any real effect. In frustration he had tried to storm Quebec’s riverside defences but the attack had been bloodily repulsed. it seemed that the city was near impregnable and Wolfe knew that he had to lure the French out from behind their fortifications and give battle so he ordered farms in the area surrounding the city attacked and burned, but Montcalm would not be drawn – an alternative had to be found. What he came up with was a plan of such breathtaking audacity that all of his senior Officers advised him against adopting it.
Wolfe would take 4,000 men down the St Lawrence River in the dead of night and disembark them at a small cove. They would then scale the 170 foot sheer cliff face of the Heights of Abraham emerging on the plains above before the walls of the city. Montcalm, with some justification had thought the Heights an insurmountable barrier and had left them virtually undefended.
Wolfe’s preparations had been thorough and he had every confidence in his army many of who were veteran soldiers but he nonetheless had his doubts. Waiting for a night when the light of the moon would be shrouded by cloud on 12 September he wrote:
“I had the honour to inform you today that it is my duty to attack the French Army. To the best of my knowledge and ability, I have fixed upon that spot where we can act with most force and are most likely to succeed. If I am mistaken I am sorry for it and must be answerable to His Majesty and the public for the consequences.”
It would be his last letter for that night the assault on the Heights of Abraham would begin.
Discipline was essential as total surprise was necessary for the plan to succeed. If they were caught on the river or discovered whilst scaling the Heights then a massacre would ensue especially as a substantial French force under Colonel de Bougainville lay to their west exposing them to a flank attack.
Before they set off the oars of the boats were muffled and the order was given forbidding anyone to speak.
Reports of boats being seen on the river reached Montcalm but they were dismissed as a shipment of supplies that had been expected to arrive from sea and Wolfe who was also aware of the French intention to sail ships down the St Lawrence River knew it provided perfect cover. He now ordered a feint attack to be launched on the east of the city to draw French troops away from the intended landing zone.
Once at the Heights the troops were ordered to remove their boots before they started the climb and so stealthy was their advance they were challenged only once by a sentry who answered by an English Officer in perfect French allowed them to pass unhindered.
As dawn broke on the morning of 13 September, Montcalm was astonished to see a British army formed up in two lines before the city walls.
Wolfe was in a precarious position unable to call upon reinforcements and with the cliffs behind him no possibility of retreat but Montcalm now acted in haste. He may have believed that Wolfe had artillery which was not the case or perhaps saw it as an opportunity to rout the British forces but he now ordered his troops to form up for an assault but they were ill-prepared to do so with a third of them untrained militia and Indians who had no idea how to fight in formation.
Wolfe in the meantime had ordered his troops to lie low to avoid the fire from skirmishers and to double-load.
As the French advanced they stopped briefly to fire but too distant their shot fell short and eager to engage the militia soon broke ranks to charge the British lines.
The British rose up to meet them but held their fire until the enemy were within 35 yards when the ground shook from the force of 4,000 muskets all firing at once. The scene was soon shrouded in smoke as the British re-loaded and fired for a second time upon a now unseen enemy.
As the smoke of the gunfire began to clear the French could be seen fleeing the field and Wolfe ordered a bayonet charge but as he advanced with his men he was shot first in the hand, then in the arm, and finally in the chest. He fell to the ground mortally wounded.
When he heard an Officer say “they run”, he asked “who runs?”
The Officer replied – the French!
Upon hearing these words he issued further orders before he turned onto his side and died, he was 32 years of age.
The Marquis de Montcalm who had bravely led his men into battle on horseback and was desperately trying to rally them when he was also shot down. Carried from the field he was to die the following day despairing of his troop’s failure to obey orders and of running at the first whiff of powder.
The Governor of Quebec, the Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial was quick to blame Montcalm for the defeat and six days later ordered the city abandoned.
The battle had lasted barely fifteen minutes during which the British had suffered some 200 casualties, the French 600 but its consequences were to be immense even though there was still much hard fighting to be done and indeed the British were soon themselves besieged in Quebec, but this time it did not fall.
The capture of Quebec provided Britain with a vital foothold in Canada reinforced by the later surrender of Montreal and the defeat of the French Fleet at Quiberon Bay and three years after Wolfe’s remarkable victory at Quebec the French signed the Treaty of Paris ceding their territories on the North American Continent and what had been New France became British Canada.
In death James Wolfe became a hero and a martyr to British Imperial ambitions. Indeed, some of his Officers were later to suggest that he had deliberately courted death to enable him to become so. If that was the case then he ensured that his martyrdom would be etched in marble where stands a monument to him in Westminster Abbey.