Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church


James Wolfe was the son of a soldier who had fought under Marlborough, and set his mind from his earliest days on being a soldier himself. In 1740, when he was only thirteen, he volunteered to join the expedition to Cartagena. Luckily, something prevented him from going, for the affair was a terrible failure, and many who went never came back. Two years afterwards, at an age when it is a rare thing for a boy to be in the head form of a public school, he received a commission, and carried the colours of his regiment when the King reviewed the troops at Blackheath. The following year (June 27) he fought at Dettingen, the last battle in which an English king actually led his troops. He not only fought, but distinguished himself, for in default of any older officer to take the place, he had to act as adjutant. After the battle, he was made lieutenant and adjutant, and the year following was promoted to be captain. Four years more saw him a major—he had been present meanwhile at Falkirk and Culloden—and his regiment had the reputation of being the best drilled in the army.

From 1748 (the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle) to 1756 there was, in name at least, peace between England and France. But in North America the French and English settlers were at war. In 1755 George Washington, of whom I shall have to say much in the next chapter, fought a mixed force of Indians and French on the Ohio. The same year, General Braddock led some troops into the backwoods. Braddock, never a good soldier, was particularly unfit to command in such an expedition. He was surprised and routed. Two-thirds of his troops were killed or taken. With Braddock was a company of Wolfe's own regiment, the 20th. Happily he was not with it. He was reserved for greater things.

Pitt had kept his eye on young Wolfe ever since the day when he had fought so well at Dettingen. When war was declared with France (May 1, 1756) he remembered him as an officer who might do good service. The first attempt to strike was a failure. An expedition was sent against La Rochelle, but it did nothing. In this Wolfe held the post of Quartermaster-General. In the early part of the following year, he received a sudden summons to London. An army was to be sent to Cape Breton, and he was to be brigadier. The special object which Wolfe had before him was the port of Louisburg, then an important place. For some days the troops could not land, for the fog was thick, and the sea was rough. But on June 2 (1758) the boats were ordered out. Wolfe was the first man to leap ashore. After about two months of hard work, Wolfe being all along the most active in pushing the siege, Louisburg surrendered. He had to go home on account of ill health, but he came out again early the next year. His object was now Quebec itself, the capital of French Canada.

[Illustration] from English History Stories - III by Alfred J. Church


The first thing was to take the fleet safely up the St. Lawrence river. The navigation was difficult, and to the English unknown. The device of hoisting flags that bore the French Lilies was practised. Canadian pilots hastened to offer their services, and found, when they were on board, that the Lilies were changed for the Cross of St. George. Doubtless they were made to understand that, though they were good subjects of the French king, they must not run the English ships aground. However this may be, the English fleet reached Quebec in safety, not a little to the surprise of the French. "They have brought forty ships of war," wrote one of the Quebec people, "where we should be afraid to take a vessel of a hundred tons." The presence of the fleet was of immense advantage to General Wolfe—he had the rank of general though he was really only a colonel. He could move hither and thither as he pleased—the enemy had no power to hinder him. Their fleet was much weaker, and what there was had been sent further up the river out of harm's way. One thing that Wolfe soon did was to set up some batteries on the bank opposite to Quebec. The St. Lawrence here is scarcely a mile broad. The English cannon soon laid a great part of the city in ruins. An attempt to destroy the batteries, made by a party of volunteers from the city, failed completely. Still, the governor of the city and the Marquis Montcalm (who was in command of the army encamped outside) had no fear that the city might be taken. "The English," they said, "will not be mad enough to attempt it." And indeed it seemed quite impossible that the city should be taken. It stands on a narrow strip of land between the two rivers, St. Lawrence and Charles, and looks eastward down the St. Lawrence. Behind it, i.e.  to the westward, is some high ground known as the Heights or Plains of Abraham. On the river side there are steep cliffs, which seem to be quite beyond all climbing. Yet it was in this way that Wolfe determined to approach the city. He made an attempt to take up a position lower down on the left bank of the St. Lawrence, but it failed. Then came three weeks of severe illness, and nothing was done. He was suffering from a deadly disease, but his spirit and courage were not in the least broken. "Give me a few days without pain," he said to his doctor. If he could only get to work, he felt that Quebec might be taken. And he took it.

He had noticed, between two or three miles above the city, a place where the line of cliffs was broken. From this a path led up to the Plains of Abraham. If he could land his men here, and get them up to the top without hindrance, he felt that his work was done. He had fewer soldiers, it is true, than Montcalm, but they were all of the best quality. After dark on September 12, the army embarked on some flat-bottomed boats and dropped quietly down the river on the ebb tide. Wolfe, as they went, repeated to his companions Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard  (published eight years before), saying, when he had finished it, "I would rather be the author of that piece than take Quebec." The boats glided into the cove, and the troops landed without any hindrance. They made their way up the narrow path—so narrow that two men only could walk abreast—and reached the level ground at the top in safety. There was a small body of men on guard at the top, but a volley of musketry sent them flying. Wolfe had about 3500 men, for part of his 5000 had been left to guard the landing-place, and part was sent to guard against an attack from the rear. As soon as it was sufficiently light, this force was drawn up in line facing Quebec. Montcalm, who had heard the firing, rode in the direction of the Plains, saw the red coats of the English regiments, and at once made up his mind to fight. This was the only chance of saving the city. He had rather more than double the number of men, not counting the Indians. At ten o'clock, the French line advanced, somewhat unsteadily. Wolfe would not allow his troops to return the fire until the enemy were within forty yards. Then they poured into the advancing line so heavy a volley as to break it at once. Without allowing the enemy time to reform their ranks, Wolfe led his men to the charge. A bullet struck him on the wrist, but he wrapped his handkerchief round it and pressed on. His uniform made him a conspicuous figure, and the Canadian riflemen, deadly shots, though not disciplined enough to stand steady under the shock of battle, made him their mark. A second bullet struck him in the groin. Even that could not stop him, but the third, hitting him in the breast, brought him to the ground. He was carried to the rear. When they asked whether a surgeon should be sent for, he said, "No, it is all over with me." For a time he seemed to become unconscious. Then there was a cry, "They run! They run!" "Who run?" cried the dying man. "The enemy, sir," replied one of those about him. "They give way everywhere!" Wolfe raised himself. Faithful to his duty to the last, he did not forget that the victory must be made as complete as possible. "Go, one of you, back to Colonel Burton," he said; "tell him to march Webb's regiment with all speed down to the river to cut off the retreat of the fugitives from the bridge." He then turned upon his side, and with the words "Now God be praised, I die in peace," he passed away.

The loss of the British was 87 killed, and about seven times as many wounded. The French loss was 500 killed or mortally wounded, and twice as many taken prisoners. The Marquis Montcalm died soon after, and on the 17th Quebec surrendered. France lost Canada at the battle of Quebec.