|General James Wolfe|
It is very much a national peculiarity, but we English do love a good underdog. For those unfamiliar with the term, it describes someone who steps up to the fight knowing that they are likely to lose, but gets on with it anyway.
However, history tells us that in every generation there are a special few who are made of stronger stuff. They give their all and win the fight, but end up dying in the process. Take Lord Nelson for example, already a national hero through fighting in the Napoleonic wars, he immortalised himself by dying at the brink of victory during the battle of Trafalgar. What makes his accomplishments all the more heroic is that throughout his career as a naval officer, he suffered from ongoing chronic seasickness!
Unknown to many of us we had rejoiced in heroism like this before, but unlike Nelson the name has not been engraved in the national psyche. The significance of this can only be described as a travesty of justice because in his time he was perhaps one of the most famous men the world had ever seen. And the name of this forgotten fallen hero? James Wolfe the ‘The Hero of Louisbourg’ and the man singularly responsible for defeating the French bringing Canada under British rule.
|Modern day Westerham|
|Explosion on anchored French warship|
British ships began firing on those of the French which were still anchored in the bay. By chance, a lucky shot hit a French gunpowder store which in turn set fire to stationary French warships. It wasn’t long before the anchored fleet became nothing more than a gigantic fireball.
|Map of Quebec|
The victory at Louisbourg was vitally important to the British command as it effectively cut off both French supplies and their reinforcements allowing the British forces to sail down the St. Lawrence River to Quebec unimpeded. The victory at Louisbourg was only one element in a three part strategy to capture Quebec, the last real French stronghold in North America. But with winter closing in, the final attack on Quebec had to be delayed.
Unfortunately for General Wolfe poor health had been a constant companion throughout his life. Throughout this time he was suffering from tuberculosis and kidney failure, but the demands of battle were making him weaker still. He decided to take this opportunity to return to England and spend some time convalescing in the ancient Roman spa town of Bath. When he arrived in England news had already spread and he found himself to be already famous. It was at this time he became known as ‘The hero of Louisbourg’. William Pitt, the then British Prime Minister, arranged for a meeting with James Wolfe and, suitably impressed, gave Wolfe command of the forthcoming Quebec assault force.
In June 1759, the stage was set and Wolfe, along with 9000 men, sailed up the St Lawrence River towards the treacherous cliff face of Quebec. He landed unopposed on the Island of Orleans, placing them virtually opposite the French position who had been expecting attacks from Lake Ontario in the West and Lake Champlain in the South. Wolfe’s new battle plan was beginning to come together, especially as his arrival along the St Lawrence had taken the French by surprise.
On 31st July 1759 Wolfe attempted a direct attack on his opponent the Marquis de Montcalm on his riverside fortifications at Beaumont, but the land was too well protected and it failed. An even greater disaster followed when a landing was made on the Falls of Montgomery. Over 400 of Wolf’s men died in the final attack forcing the British to withdraw. Wolfe’s plan to siege Quebec was beginning to falter.
|Slipping on the cliffs|
On 12th September Wolfe received intelligence that French supply ships were going to venture down the St Lawrence under the cover of darkness. In fear of their plan being discovered it was decided to feign an attack on Montcalm’s fortifications east of the city. They hoped that this would have the effect of drawing the French commander’s attention away from the proposed landing site. If the deception proved successful then it would also present Wolfe with an unexpected opportunity, tipping the balance in favour of the British!
The diversion worked and while Montcalm’s forces were concentrating on the opposite side of Quebec, Wolfe’s orders were read out to the troops to effect their final assault. The ending of which is eerily similar to Nelson's famous signal at Trafalgar. “…The officers and men will remember what their country expects from them…”
It was close to midnight when the English troops embarked in their small boats, taking advantage of a turning tide they began their three hour passage to Anse au Foulon. It was now that the earlier intelligence report was used to their gain. Although the French sentries who lined the route challenged the British advanced party they were answered by a by a highland officer who spoke fluent French. He was able to convince them they were the expected French supply ships enabling the force to land virtually without incident. Within two hours Wolfe had a force of 4828 men on top of the cliffs, but what was more astounding was that he was even able to bring up some artillery!
|The Plains of Abraham|
It was 9.30 in the morning when the French were first ordered to advance, but they were excitable and poorly discipline. With no return fire from the British they sensed victory and began to run towards their lines firing prematurely. It wasn’t long before the French attack began to loose its cohesion. Wolfs forces, instilled with his legendary parade ground discipline, waited until the enemy was only 40 yards away before they fired off a single, deadly volley from their Brown Bess muskets. As Montcalm’s army broke and fled, a second volley was released which all but destroyed the French line.
|Death of James Wolfe|
He was offered the services of the regimental surgeon but believing the battle about to be lost Wolfe refused saying “…it is needless; it is all over with me...”. Dejected he asked to be laid on the ground and from then on he prepared for his end. Moments later, according to Captain John Knox of the 43rd regiment, someone cried out “See them run!” Wolfe, lying motionless, stirred as though woken from a deep sleep. “Who runs?” he asked weakly. The answer he received strengthened him considerably, “The French!”
Wolfe’s final orders were this “... go to Colonel Burton – tell him to march Webb’s regiment down to St. Charles River to cut off their retreat from the bridge…” Turning on his side he then added “...Now God be praised, I will die in peace...” And so, victorious in battle, ended the life of one of England’s greatest military geniuses.
|Death of Marquis de Montcalm|
History tells us that both Wolfe and Montcalm were killed in the battle, both surviving to know the outcome. It was the very nature of this battle and his death at the moment of victory, which made Wolfe a national hero. The news of his death was received with mourning across the whole of Britain and his services to his country were rewarded by a monument erected in Westminster Abbey. However, the tremendous bravery and tactical brilliance of the man would have counted for nothing without his extraordinary knack for having luck on his side. If Montcalm hadn’t blundered into an early attack, Wolfe’s forces would have been crushed and his reputation would have turned out very different. And so to conclude, it’s because of this very reason why Wolfe possesses all the qualities necessary to hold the title as one of England’s greatest underdogs. Long may he be remembered.
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By Benjamin West - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=160192
By Hervey Smyth (1734-1811) - Library of the Canadian Department of National Defence, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2959750
By Hervey Smyth (1734-1811) - Library of the Canadian Department of National Defence, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2959750 - public domain
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WHO WAS GENERAL JAMES WOLFE