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Friday, 1 January 2016

General Wolfe takes Quebec, 1759


On the morning of 13th September 1759 the British general James Wolfe executed the move that would finally upon the door to making Canada part of the British Empire rather than the French one.

The French fortress of Quebec took full advantage of the geography of the area in that the cliffs alongside the St Lawrence River guarded it on one side. The steep wooded bluffs, although not particularly high, would surely be enough to dissuade any attacking force from approaching directly from the river.

However, General Wolfe found an unguarded path that zigzagged its way up the cliff to the level area above, known as the Plains of Abraham, and under cover of darkness he was able to get seven battalions of men, some 4,800 in all, arrayed along a front a mile long. All he had to do now was wait for the French, 12,000 strong, to turn up.

When they did, at about 9.00am, Wolfe gave orders not to fire until they were within 60 yards. The volleys that were then unleashed were enough to send the French back to their fortifications. The fortress surrendered on the 18th, by which time most of the French forces had retreated upriver.

General Wolfe was badly wounded during the battle, as was his opposite number the Marquis de Montcalm. Wolfe died the same day, Montcalm the day after.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of European powers fighting to gain control of far distant lands, in military terms it was a brilliant stratagem on Wolfe’s part. The tactic of sneaking round the back to attack the enemy where least expected was not original to Wolfe, whose education would have included stories such as that of the Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece, in which the Persians adopted a similar move. Likewise, Wolfe’s example was to prove useful to later generals, such as Douglas Macarthur during the Korean War in 1950, when he surprised the North Koreans at Inchon by landing in an “impossible” place.

The daring of Wolfe’s attack on the Plains of Abraham made him a posthumous folk-hero among the British, with many statues and works of art appearing as a result. Of the latter, the painting by Benjamin West entitled “The Death of General Wolfe” (as shown) is probably the best known.


© John Welford