Sunday saw the 250th anniversary of one of the most important battles in modern British history. In the early hours of 13 September 1759, a small British army was hauling itself and its guns up a cliff path. At the age of 32, Major General James Wolfe was attempting to manage in a few hours what he had failed to achieve in the last five months, the capture of city of Quebec. Quebec was the key to the conquest of New France, modern Canada.
When Wolfe and the army arrived in April, the French were not unduly daunted. France led the way in fortress building and the walls of Quebec were formidable. These walls and the natural barrier of the St Lawrence river had successfully beaten off British attacks in 1690 and 1711. Why should this time be any different? Over the next few months Wolfe ordered several direct assaults, all beaten back with great loss of life. By September many of the remaining troops were sick, Wolfe among them, and Admiral Saunders was preparing to take the fleet back to England before winter set in and the St Lawrence river froze over.
One bright prospect in all this gloom was a young Master James Cook of HMS Pembroke. Cook’s sounding and surveying of the St Lawrence had led to the discovery that it was actually navigable by larger ships. Previously it had been thought that nothing larger than a frigate could get up river past Quebec itself. This meant the army could be landed further up river and the city attacked from behind, where its defences were less formidable.
With winter fast approaching, Wolfe was running out of time. Yet he was convinced his army could beat the French troops if he could just get them to come out and fight. On the night 12 September the troops embarked and began climbing up the cliff path to the open ground behind Quebec itself. The manuscript collection holds a copy of Wolfe’s order book (ref GRE/2) and the orders for 12th September 1759 state:
’The battalions must form upon the upper ground with expedition and be ready to charge whatever presents itself’.
As the sun came up it is easy to imagine how astonished the French must have been to find a British Army drawn up on the open ground behind the city, blocking any retreat to Montreal. The orders continue:
‘The Officers and Men will remember what their country expects from them and what a determined body soldiers are capable of doing against 5 weak battalions’.
The French commander Montcalm panicked and rushed out to attack Wolfe before the redcoats could land more men and consolidate their position. But Wolfe was right in one thing: his well drilled troops were more than a match for Montcalm’s men. The log of the Pembroke (ref ADM/L/P/79) takes up the story:
‘Upon the landing of our troops the enemy marched out of town to attack them. About 10 [am} both armies joined battle, the dispute lasted but a few minutes before the enemy gave way and retreated in great confusion to the town and left us a complete victory’.
Both Wolfe and Montcalm were killed in the battle, but their legacy is very much still with us. defeat at Quebec meant an end to New France and the French presence in North America. Free of the need for military protection, it was only 16 more years till the English colonies in North America were able to rebel against British rule and become United States of America. It is not usual to think of Wolfe as a nation builder but North America would not have been the same without him.
General Wolfe is buried at the church of St Alfeges in Greenwich and his statue stands outside the Royal Observatory, overlooking the Thames rather than the St Lawrence. (He lived in the Rangers House).