England Won a Battle but Lost a Brave General
In 1759 the French determined to descend on England. England—or Pitt, it was the same thing—decided that they should do nothing of the kind. Rodney and Boscawen, accordingly, went to sea, respectively tackled the Havre and Toulon fleets—with good results—while Dunkirk and Brest, where other fleets were gathered, were blockaded.
So ended the French dream.
Pitt, however, also had a dream; he dreamt that England was going to wrest the Canadian colonies from France, and he formed a plan whereby he could bring his dream true. Canada was governed by Marshal de Montcalm, a brave and gallant Frenchman, and it was well defended at the vital spots by strong forts. Pitt determined to effect a great coup; he sent three forces against as many important points—General Prideaux against the Niagara Fort and Montreal, General Amherst against Ticonderoga, and Major-General Wolfe, a young man of thirty-three, against Quebec; the two former generals, after bringing their own enterprises to successful issues, to concentrate before Quebec.
With regard to the first two objects, it must suffice to say that Prideaux's force captured Niagara Fort, but was unable to advance to Quebec; while Amherst succeeded in taking Ticonderoga, but could not go to Wolfe's aid. It seemed that Pitt's scheme—for —for it was Pitt's, from beginning to end—was likely to fail.
But there was still Wolfe.
Wolfe had reached the Isle of St. Orleans, in the middle of the St. Lawrence, some distance below Quebec, and landed his army of some seven thousand men on June 27th. He then began to clear the way for his operations against the city. The first thing he did was to issue a proclamation vindicating the action of England in attacking the French possessions by referring to French projects to invade England, and pointing out the utter hopelessness of the French-Canadians making any resistance. He also offered them "the sweets of peace amidst the horrors of war," and wound up by saying that he flattered himself "that the whole world will do him justice, if the inhabitants of Canada force him, by their refusal, to have recourse to violent methods."
The inhabitants of Canada forced him to violent methods, for they refused to entertain his suggestion that they should give in without striking a blow.
Wherefore Wolfe got to business. He knew that he had a difficult task in front of him, yet he did not care a jot for that. Before him and above him lay Quebec, a city strongly placed on a steep and rocky promontory on the left bank of the St. Lawrence, with the River St. Charles on its other side. Behind rose a chain of hills, almost inaccessible, called the Heights of Abraham, while across the peninsula between the two rivers was a line of fortifications where Montcalm was encamped with some ten thousand troops. The city itself was held by a garrison under the Chevalier Ramsay, the governor.
Despite the difficulties, Wolfe calmly went on with the work of preparation. First he dispatched Brigadier Monckton with four battalions to take Point Levi—a strong position within cannon-shot of the city. Monckton waited until night, then crossed the river and landed, tackled the heights and drove the French off, immediately afterwards raising a battery with which he began to fire upon Quebec.
Meanwhile Colonel Carleton had done the same at the western point of Orleans, and Wolfe settled down to wait for the coming of Amherst. But Amherst could not come—he had his hands full at Ticonderoga. Wolfe, however, had no thought of giving up the task before him, but rather took heart and went on. The thing to be done was to tempt Montcalm to leave his strong position; but that general was a wily bird and refused to be caught. Only once he made a sally, and sent a strong force against Point Levi. But the batteries were too strong for them, and they had to recross the river.
Wolfe next endeavoured to force a general action, and determined to cross the River Montmorency. Admiral Holmes was sent up the other bank of the St. Lawrence with a number of transports, to lead Montcalm into thinking that an attack was contemplated in that direction. Then troops were landed near the Montmorency, and Brigadier Townsend led his men across the river by a ford which had been discovered, while Wolfe was to cross in boats at another point. The landing parties were supported by the Centurion man-of-war, which was to engage the battery that commanded the beach.
Townsend pressed on. Wolfe's boats attempted the passage, but, becoming entangled in the rocks, were unable to disembark their troops in time to effect a juncture with Townsend. The French were ready, too, and poured in a destructive fire both upon the boats and the fording men. The Grenadiers, though they had been ordered to wait for the arrival of the troops in the boats, fixed their bayonets and charged headlong at the French entrenchments. This meant that the English were in far too small numbers to achieve anything, and when Wolfe saw what havoc the French fire was causing amongst the Grenadiers, who could not get close enough to use their bayonets, he ordered a general retirement, and the attacking force went back the way they had come. A great thunderstorm broke out while the retreat was being made, and Wolfe found that to fall back was almost as difficult as to go forward, for the enemy dashed out after them and endeavoured to turn the retreat into a rout. The English were well covered, however, by the Fraser Highlanders, who turned and faced their attackers while the army moved off, inflicting so much damage upon the French that they at last gave up the pursuit.
The episode put Wolfe in anything but a confident state of mind; he began to realise that the task was more difficult than he had even anticipated.
Once more, however, he tried to lure the crafty Montcalm. Admiral Holmes was sent off down the river as if seeking a landing-place, while Wolfe and the greater part of his force encamped on the right bank, apparently to wait until Holmes returned with his news. For several days Holmes passed along the river, and Wolfe waited hoping that Montcalm would at last issue forth and give battle. Montcalm refused to be drawn, and contented himself with sending fifteen hundred men to keep a watch upon the English.
By this time things had reached a critical state. Wolfe did not know what to do. Someone, however, suggested the idea of scaling the rocky precipice that led on to the Heights of Abraham—a thing which the French had never thought practicable. It was indeed, the keynote to the position, inasmuch as it overlooked the City at the point, and in view of its supposed inaccessibility was but feebly guarded.
Wolfe was on the sick list; disappointment and hardship had had the effect of undermining his constitution, but, weak as he was, he left his bed and began to make preparations for the bold attempt.
To carry it to a successful issue, it was, of course, essential that the plan should be put into operation during the night, and in order to throw the enemy off their guard Holmes was once more sent up the river, and Admiral Saunders made a demonstration near Montcalm's camp.
This naturally drew attention from Wolfe himself, and in the dead of night he put off across the river in flat-bottomed boats, at the head of the Louisbourg Grenadiers, Master Lovat's Highlanders, and four battalions of line. The night was very dark, and the tide was flowing with such rapidity that the boats were carried somewhat out of their course, with the result that the troops had to land at a place some distance away from the spot Wolfe had intended.
The passage was not without incident, and the attempt was nearly nipped in the bud.
In the first place a couple of French deserters who had been taken on board one of the vessels under Saunders informed the English that Montcalm was that night going to receive some boatloads of provisions from another part of the neighbourhood. Presently the deserters caught sight of the English boats making their way across the river, and at once said that these were the boats carrying the provisions to the French.
Instantly the English captain ran out his guns to fire upon the boats, but just in time Wolfe came alongside the ship, having heard some commotion on board. He immediately inquired the meaning of it, reassured the captain, and so succeeded in preventing the cannonade that would not only have done great damage to the English force, but would also have aroused the whole city, and so put an end to the enterprise.
A second incident filled with the same possibilities also took place. Montcalm had sentinels posted along the bank of the river to keep an outlook for passing boats. Quietly the boats glided down with the tide. All at once a challenge rang out from the shore:
"La France!" said a Fraser Highlander with great presence of mind he had served in Holland, and was able to speak French well.
"A quel régiment?" asked the Frenchman.
"De la Reine!" answered the Fraser, who fortunately knew that this regiment was posted at the place whence the provisions were to be sent and might be the one deputed to carry them.
Apparently he was right, for the sentinel simply cried:
And the boats passed on.
Lower down, however, another sentinel challenged them, and received the same replies.
Apparently this soldier was more suspicious than the former one, and he therefore asked why the challengers answered so quietly. The Highlander replied that it was necessary, lest they should be overheard. Which was only too true, yet in a different sense than the Frenchman had in mind. He was satisfied, however, and the English once more passed on.
Though they were only the first detachment, Wolfe, who was the first to spring ashore, determined not to wait for the second, but to strike while the iron was hot. Above them towered the precipice, rocky, treacherous of foothold, and having at the top a French guard. Still, they had come to scale it, and they meant to try it whatever the difficulties. Pointing upwards, Wolfe turned to the Highlander commander, saying:
"I do not believe, sir, there is any possibility of getting up, but you must now do your best."
It was enough. The Frasers pulled themselves together, slung their muskets behind them, held their claymores between their teeth, and began the perilous ascent. Hand over hand they went, clutching roots of trees here, tufts of grass there, hauling themselves up by projecting crags, the foremost staying a moment to help another man behind—and all in such silence that the French watch on the summit never dreamed of their coming. Suddenly, however, when the summit was almost reached, the Frenchmen apparently caught a sound—perhaps a loose rock tumbled, perhaps a sword dropped. In any case the watch was on the alert at once, and, following the sound, fired down the rocks. The scalers returned the fire, instead of reserving their volley until they were on the summit, and of course the Frenchmen knew at once what was happening.
Before they had time to do any damage, however, the English were upon the summit. Scared out of their lives at the sudden appearance of the foe, whom they had never dreamed would attempt such a feat, the Frenchmen took to their heels and ran, followed by the Frasers, who quickly possessed themselves of a battery.
It was now easy for the remainder of Wolfe's force to mount the Heights, and when the morning broke the Frenchmen in Quebec were presented with the edifying sight of nearly the whole English army in battle array on the Heights which they had thought impregnable. Moreover, the British were advancing towards the city, and were taking up a position about three-quarters of a mile from the ramparts.
The news was quickly carried to Montcalm, who at first refused to believe it. But the eye must needs believe what it sees, and Montcalm at once realised that the time had come to give battle.
"I see them, indeed," he said, "where they ought not to be! But, as we must fight, I shall crush them!"
He therefore left his camp at Montmorency, pressing forward with all haste to take up a position against the English. In order to arrive as quickly as possible he sacrificed his artillery, which he left at Montmorency, with the exception of three small field-pieces. His Indian allies went on in front, well sheltered by the woods, with all the intricacies of which they were perfectly familiar. Hard upon these scouts went the main army; at first in close order, but later on, when they came within gunshot, opening out somewhat, and sending in an irregular fire.
Ere the French reached their intended position, Wolfe had made all his arrangements. His force was drawn up in two lines, the right wing of the first consisting of the 28th and 35th Regiments and the Louisbourg Grenadiers, under Wolfe himself, the centre being held by the 43rd and 47th, under Brigadier Muchelney, and the left by the 58th and 78th, under Brigadier Murray. The second line consisted of the 15th and two battalions of the both, and was commanded by Brigadier Townsend, while as a reserve Wolfe had left the 48th, under Colonel Burton, the light infantry under Colonel Howe, covering the rear. Wolfe's left was the weakest spot, being more exposed to the enemy, whose Indians and some five hundred picked marksmen were hidden amongst the thickets. The right was well protected by the precipice up which the English had climbed, and so been able to bring matters to a head. For artillery he had to be content with one gun which a party of sailors had hauled up for him with great difficulty, and the four cannon that had been taken when the French watch fled.
Wolfe's whole army was less than 5,000 men, against whom were opposed 7,000 Europeans besides a large number of Indians—in all over 12,000 men.
The French came on towards the English, whom Wolfe had ordered to lie down and reserve their fire until the enemy was close upon them. Montcalm's advance party got within forty yards, and then the order was given to fire. Taking steady aim, the English sent in a horrowing volley that made great gaps in the advancing rank; then, before the French could recover, another and yet another volley was let fly at them, and soon the soldiers found it difficult to advance owing to the heaps of dead, and the French had to content themselves at that point with returning the destructive fire being poured in amongst them. They could not get past that cloud of bullets.
Meanwhile the Indians and the marksmen in the thickets had been tackled. They had been doing too much damage to be let alone, especially as their object was to strike down the English officers. "Mark well the officers!" had been the order.
At the same time Montcalm sent a force against the English left. Townsend's infantry received the foe with a drilling fire which sent them back quicker than they had come. The repulse affected the whole of the French line, which, half and hour before the battle began, was seen to waver. Their ranks broke, and men began to fly. Wolfe, quick to take advantage of this, put himself at the head of his men and urged them forward. The French left still held on, however, and Wolfe's right wing for some time found itself hotly engaged.
Wolfe, who had exposed himself to the hottest fire, was leading his men to the charge when a bullet shattered his wrist. Coolly binding up the wound, he still kept at the head of his men and urged them on and on, and when the French line began to waver, he ordered the whole line to advance. At that moment a second bullet caught him, this time in the groin. He still refused to fall back, though this second wound was a serious one, and caused him much agony.
The foe had marked him down for death, however, and almost immediately a third bullet bored its way into his breast, and the gallant Wolfe collapsed and staggered back into the arms of an officer just behind him. Even then he did not forget his brave men.
"Support me," he said faintly; "let not my brave fellows see me fall! The day is ours; keep it!"
But the English had seen the fall of their general, and, whipped into, a fury at their loss, they pressed forward with renewed vigour, the Highlanders especially infuriated.
"Claymore! Claymore! Dirk and claymore!" they yelled, and while Wolfe was being carried to the rear, the whole British line rushed headlong at the foe. The Frasers cast their muskets aside, gripped their claymores and dirks, and laid about them in the good old Highland style. Hand to hand English and French met; nothing could check the rush of the angry, gallant Britishers, and presently Captain Currie, the officer who had caught Wolfe, and who still supported him while he received medical attention, cried: "They run! See how they run!"
"Who run?" asked the expiring Wolfe, raising himself with a sudden burst of energy, as though he would like to be there, participating in the glories of victory.
"The French!" replied Currie in answer to his whispered question. "The French—they are giving way in all directions!"
"What, do they run already?" cried the dying hero. Then, giving his last order for the reserve to be sent to cut off the enemy's retreat, the gallant soldier turned over on to his left side, muttered "Now God be praised! I die happy!" and died—died in the hour of triumph.
Meanwhile the retreating French had also lost their commander, for Montcalm, while trying to rally his men for a last great stand, was struck by a shot which laid him low. For the moment he was saved; only to die in Quebec, whither he was quickly carried. When he was informed that he could not live, he cried:
"So much the better—I shall not then live to see the surrender of Quebec. I have got my death fighting against the bravest soldiers in the world, at the head of the greatest cowards that ever carried muskets!"
Whether or no the French were cowards, there is no doubt that the English were brave, and ere long the battle was over; the English had won.
Four days later the city surrendered to Townsend, on condition that the lives and properties of the inhabitants were respected, and that the prisoners should be sent home to France. The fight had cost England over 600. But it had cost France more than that—1,400 men and the Dominion of Canada, for the victory of Wolfe at Quebec was very soon followed by the capture of Montreal, and the English were masters of North America.