Monday, May 19, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The French and Indian War: Wolfe’s capture of Quebec 1759

In 1759 thirty-two year English General James Wolfe successfully defeated the French General Montcalm. Quebec, France’s chief city in Canada was taken, radically altering the balance of power in North America. With the Seven Year’s war raging in Europe (known as the French and Indian war in the American colonies) and British command of the oceans, French possessions were vulnerable to British attack. Quebec itself sits on a rocky headland that rises hundreds of feet above the confluence of the St.Lawrence and St.Charles rivers. These formidable natural defences combined with a French garrison of 14,000 troops and 106 guns made the city one of the strongest fortified positions on the entire continent.

In February 1759, Wolfe returned from sick leave in England to command the attack on Quebec and St. Lawrence. He assembled his army at Louisburg, Nova Scotia. By May the British had collected a fleet of twenty-two ships-of-the-line, fourteen frigates and an expeditionary army of 14,000 troops. It was crucial that the British complete the conquest before the freezing up of the St.Lawrence River. The French unleashed fire ships down the river into the advancing British fleet, but ignited them early so they were easily fended off. By July, Wolfe had occupied the Ile d’Orleans with 8,500 on the south of the river opposite Quebec. Montcalm believed that any attack would have to come from the east because the French navy maintained that the St.Lawrence river was not navigable beyond Quebec. He therefore constructed the majority of his defences in the east, digging trenches and building gun emplacements.

On the 31st July Wolfe attempted a direct assault across the river. This was repulsed with 500 casualties. Montcalm now feared the British would attempt a landing to the west of the city. He therefore despatched on of his commanders Bougainville, to patrol the area. In the meantime, Wolfe decided that his best chance of defeating the French and avoiding a lengthy siege, would be by drawing them out of the city and defeating them on an open battlefield. He decided to attempt a surprise night attack from the rear or upstream from the French defences. In the darkness of the night of 12th September Wolfe’s troops were carried by long boat past the besieged city. A French sentry noticed the dark shapes of the boats moving up the river and cried out:
“Que vive?” One Captain Donald Macdonald answered in faultless French, ‘La France’. Further bluffing by using the name of one of the French regiments stationed at Quebec, the sentry allowed the British boats to continue upstream.

The landing above Quebec, 13th September 1759

The British boats landed in a small bay called Anse de Foulon. This was the sole point at which the British could have gained access to the path that led to the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec. Montcalm had been aware of this Achilles heal and had stationed forty troops to protect the bay. Unfortunately, their commander had been so confident that the British would not land, that he had sent the men to help collect the harvest. By 4:00 am on September 13, the British had scaled the 175 foot cliffs, overcome minor resistance and assembled 4,500 British and American troops on the cliff top.

Upon seeing the enemy battalions, Montcalm decided to strike before the British had time to land additional troops and artillery needed to begin a formal siege. He marched 5000 men out of Quebec to give battle. Fearful of weakening the city’s defences, the governor of Quebec only allowed Montcalm to take three of the guns from the city’s ramparts. The British themselves had only been able to drag a light cannon up the cliffs. This battle would be decided purely by infantry. It was in this regard, that the British had a huge superiority in quality over the available French forces. Wolfe’s army consisted entirely of professionals. The redcoats were tough, disciplined and drilled to perfection. By contrast, Montcalm’s army was a mixture of regular troops and brigades of militiamen and Indian warriors. Although the core of Montcalm’s army at Quebec was a force of eight regular infantry battalions they had been badly worn down by constant campaigning and through being milked of men to serve in various garrisons.

Yet even the regular battalions available were diverse in quality. Before the start of the campaign, 600 French Canadian militiaman had been drafted into regular units in an attempt to bolster numbers and forge links between the French metropolitan troops and the Canadians. The Canadians had spent just three months with their units. This was inadequate time in which to master the parade ground drill and discipline required to stand steady amidst the close-quarter chaos of a infantry fire fight. Worse still, the best soldiers of the battalions – the grenadiers (who traditionally spearheaded attacks) were still off with Bougainville.

The battle began on the British left flank with a sharp shooting contest between the French skirmishers and British light infantry. The three French guns opened fire on the British centre and the French battalions began to advance. However, Montcalm’s regulars soon began to lose cohesion. The confusion increased as groups of skirmishers, who had been firing at Wolfe’s army for hours, attempted to fall back through the advancing units. More seriously, the Canadians recently incorporated into the regulars swiftly lost discipline. After firing, instead of maintaining formation and reloading their muskets, they threw themselves on the ground and refused to advance. The British withheld their fire until the French were within thirty-five yards. Then they fired one murderous volley, downing the first line of French. A second volley destroyed the French line and the British began to advance. The volleys continued as the British battalions moved steadily forward over the battlefield. Sustained musket fire had only lasted for six or seven minutes. When the fog began to clear, the French regulars could be seen retreating in panic. The redcoats fixed their bayonets and advanced.

Montcalm’s attack had been broken in a matter of minutes. Although the French regulars were shattered beyond rallying, the Canadian militia continued to fight. They staged a stubborn rearguard action, fighting with enough determination to halt the advance of the redcoats until reinforcements from the 58th Foot and Royal Americans forced them to withdraw. On the rightwing, Wolfe had led the Louisburg Grenadiers and 28th Foot. This was dangerously close to the Canadian marksman crouching in the bushes above the St.Lawrence. Early on in the action, Wolfe had been shot through the right wrist. He bound it up and continued. Soon afterwards he was struck again by a musket ball that the skinned the rim of his belly. He ignored the wound and continued to lead his men. The third wound was much more serious. Wolfe was struck simultaneously by two balls into his left breast. He fell out of the line and was carried back, dying shortly afterwards in the knowledge that he had won the battle. His opponent, Montcalm suffered a similar fate. He too was wounded and taken back to Quebec where he soon died. He was buried the next day in a hole in the earth dug by British shelling.

A highly dramatised portrait of Wolfe's death.
(Benjamin West)

After Wolfe was killed, his deputy Brigadier Townsend took command. He defeated an attack by Bougainville to his rear and by the afternoon of the 17th the Union Jack flew over Quebec. The remaining French forces surrendered the next day. In total, the British had lost 630 men to the French 830. The conquest of Canada assured British domination over the French in North America and brought British victory in sight in the French and Indian war. The battle on the Plains of Abraham demonstrated the importance of drill and parade ground discipline in contributing to victory on an eighteenth century battlefield.

If you are interested in reading further about the conquest of Canada, have a look at the books below.

Nigel Cawthorne, ‘History’s Greatest Battles’ (London, 2005)

Holger Herwig, Christian Archer, Timothy Travers, John Ferris, ‘Cassell’s World History of Warfare’ (London, 2003)

Stephen Brumwell, ‘Paths of Glory: the life and death of General James Wolfe (London, 2006)

‘Empires Collide: The French and Indian War 1754-63’ ed. Ruth Shepperd (Oxford, 2006)

Brendan Simms, ‘Three Victories and a Defeat: the rise and fall of the British Empire 1714-1783’ (London, 2007)

1 comment:

france said...

I'm happy and proud to find other people fascinated by French history, the way I am.