Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

The Fall of Quebec

"They have fallen

Each in his field of glory. Wolfe upon the lap

Of smiling victory, that moment won."


W OLFE left England late in February 1759, but the winds being contrary and the seas running high, May had opened before the wild coast of Nova Scotia was dimly seen through whirling mists of fog. The Louisburg harbour was still choked with ice, and it was not till June that the advanced squadron of the fleet could begin the passage of the St Lawrence. Wolfe had never seen Quebec, the city he was sent out to capture; but he knew that Montcalm, the French general, had four times as many troops as he had, and he spared no pains to make his own troops as efficient as possible.

"If valour can make amends for want of numbers, we shall succeed," he wrote to Pitt at home. Enthusiasm soon spread through the troops. "British colours on every French fort, post, and garrison in America," they cried, as they sailed cautiously along the lower reaches of the St Lawrence river towards their goal. It seemed incredible to the French in Canada that an English fleet should navigate its way through the difficult channels of the river St Lawrence; and they received the news that the English had landed on the shores of the Isle of Orleans with surprise and dismay.

"Canada will be the grave of the British army," they said confidently; "and the walls of Quebec will be decorated with British heads."

It was June 26 when the fleet anchored at the Isle of Orleans, and beheld for the first time the rock city of Quebec. The bravest British heart might well have quailed at the sight. High up against the western sky it stood, perched on its rocky throne. The rugged outline of batteries, bristling with cannon, seemed to frown defiance at the mere handful of Englishmen, now looking across the waters at it for the first time.

"I will be master of Quebec if I stay here till the end of November," Wolfe had said.

The task before him seemed wellnigh hopeless, yet his gallant heart never despaired. He would perform this last service if it were possible. He seized Point Levi, exactly opposite the city of Quebec. This gave him complete command of the river mouth. From here, too, his troops could fire across on to the city, and he might destroy it if he failed to capture it.

Meantime Montcalm kept rigidly within the walls of Quebec. He knew that a hard Canadian winter, with its frost and snow, must compel Wolfe to retreat.

So July came and went. Daring feats were performed on both sides, but Quebec remained uncaptured by the British forces. One day the French chained some seventy ships together, filled them with explosives, and set the whole on fire. Down the river, towards the English fleet, came this roaring mass of fire, until the courageous British sailors dashed down upon it and broke it into fragments.

August arrived, with storms and cold. Fever took hold of Wolfe. Always frail in body, he lay for a time between life and death, his "pale face haggard with lines of pain and anxiety." But he struggled back to life, and planned his great attack on Quebec.

In one of his many expeditions he had discovered a tiny cove, now called Wolfe's Cove, five miles beyond Quebec. Here was a zigzag goat-path up the steep face of the towering cliff, which was over 250 feet high at this point. Wolfe had made up his mind. Up this mere track, in the blackness of the night, he resolved to lead his army to the attack on Quebec. He kept his plans to himself.

The night arrived: it was September 12.

"Officers and men will remember what their country expects of them," he cried, as he gave his troops the final orders.

It was one of the most daring exploits in the world's history.

At two o'clock at night the signal to start was given. From the Isle of Orleans, from Point Levi, the English boats stole out in the silence and darkness of the summer night. Wolfe himself was leading. As the boats rowed silently through the darkness on this desperate adventure, Wolfe repeated some lines recently written by the poet Gray,—

"The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,

Await alike the inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave."

"Gentlemen," he said to the officers with him in the boat, "I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec."

Suddenly the voice of a sentry at the top of the cliff challenged them.

"Who goes there?"

"The French," sang out a Highlander who had served in the foreign wars and picked up a little French.

"From which regiment?" asked the suspicious sentry.

"From the Queen's," answered the ready Highlander in French.

A convoy of provisions was expected, and the sentry let them pass. But it was a narrow escape for the British fleet stealing stealthily along under the enemy's lines. At last the cove was reached in safety. The soldiers began to climb in single file up the face of the steep cliff. Wolfe was among the first, weakened though he was with fever and anxiety. It was an anxious time. Like a chain of ants the men crawled up the steep cliff in the darkness, until, with the first streak of dawn piercing the darkness, Wolfe and his troops stood triumphantly at the top. When morning broke Montcalm was greeted with the news that the British commander, whom he had kept at bay for months, now stood with an army of 4500 men in line of battle on the plains of Abraham, overlooking Quebec. Never a word of dismay uttered the French general as he mustered his troops to defend their city against the English.

He had some 10,000 men. By nine o'clock all was ready. The battle began. In fifteen minutes it was all over. The French opened fire on the English lines at a distance of 200 yards. The English had been told by Wolfe to reserve their fire, and the men now stood with shouldered arms, as if on parade. Silent and motionless they stood amid the rain of French bullets and the din of French cheers. Then came the order to fire. Since the invention of gunpowder never had such a tremendous volley been delivered. The sudden explosion of 4000 muskets sounded like the blast of a single cannon-shot. As the smoke lifted, the French could be seen lying dead in heaps. Then Wolfe sprang forward, at the head of his men, sword in hand, and the whole line advanced. At that moment the sun burst forth, lighting up the gleaming bayonets and flashing swords. Another moment and Wolfe fell, hit by two bullets.

"Don't let my gallant soldiers see me fall," he gasped to the few men who rushed to help him.

They carried him in their arms to the rear, and laid him on the ground. They mentioned a surgeon.

"It is needless," he whispered; "it is all over with me."

The little sorrowing group stood silently round the dying man. Suddenly one spoke.

"They run! See how they run!"

"Who run?" murmured Wolfe, awaking as if from sleep.

"The enemy, sir," was the answer.

A flash of life returned to Wolfe. He gave his last military order. Then turning on his side, he whispered, "God be praised, I now die in peace."

That night, within the ruined city of Quebec, lay Montcalm mortally wounded.

"How long have I to live?" he asked painfully.

"Twelve hours possibly," they answered him.

"So much the better," murmured the defeated and dying man; "I shall not live to see the surrender of Quebec."

So the two leaders died,—one at the moment of victory, the other in the hour of defeat. If France was grieved at Montcalm's failure, all England was intoxicated with joy at Wolfe's magnificent victory. The country flamed into illuminations, for the English colonies in America were saved. French power in the Far West was crushed as it had been in the East, and "the whole nation rose up and felt itself the stronger for Wolfe's victory."

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