14 September 2009

The Paths of Glory

Yesterday was the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, perhaps the climactic battle of the Seven Years' War, an event which determined and has cast a long shadow over the history of Canada. This despite the fact that there was no Canada at the time and no Canadians in any recognizable sense present at the battle.

The Seven Years War was one of the first, if not the very first, global war. It was fought in continental Europe, across the seas to places as far flung as India and the Caribbean. It's climax was fought outside a small garrison town which was the capital of a large but very sparsely populated New France. The combatants were mostly British and French Regulars, with some militia and native North Americans. But for the natives, the two armies could have fought anywhere- outside Paris, south of London. They were two European superpowers, fighting a European war, in a an unlikely place.

The Generals of the army were an interesting pair. Montcalm, the French general, was a retired colonel when he was appointed general of Quebec. He was chosen only because every other French officer ahead of him had turned down the position as beneath their dignity. He and his family would be given a large pension, whether he lived or died. He accepted the commission, was promoted to General, and sent across the ocean. He had never before commanded a large body of men in battle. France was not making the defence of New France a top priority.

Wolfe, on the other hand, was the youngest British General at 32, but had already proven himself as a capable commander and tactician. A well read Renaissance man, he was also engaged to be married to the daughter of a very wealthy family. His future was very bright. He was also sickly, and spent the coming campaign in constant pain. He was given the largest British fleet yet assembled, thousands of marines and other troops, over a thousand cannons, and he sailed for Quebec. When he arrived in the summer of 1759, he had but a hundred days to capture the city, before the freezing St Laurence river would force the fleet back out to sea.

In a campaign that would be marked by surprises, the first surprise for the French was the arrival of the British fleet near Quebec. They had trusted the treacherous narrows of the river to keep much of the fleet back, believing the British would lose many ships trying to reach Quebec. They didn't count on a young British navigator by the name of Cooke (who later gained fame and immortality for his explorations of the Pacific) scouting out and mapping a channel. The British arrived, took up positions near Levy, on the banks of the St. Laurence opposite Quebec, and began using their cannon to blast the city to pieces.

The summer wore on, and the hundred days ticked down. The first British attempt to cross the river and engage the French met with disaster. The British continued their bombardment, and began to lay waste to the surrounding countryside in an attempt to draw the French out of their fortifications and into battle. The French stayed put. (Though later historians have harped on the brutality of the bombardment and the burning of farms by the British, it was one of the least bloody campaigns. Almost all of the civilians left Quebec before the bombardment, and Wolfe gave strict orders that any British soldier found to do any harm to any women and children would be put to death.)

With his time of campaign nearing an end, Wolfe scouted the river looking for a good place to land. He saw a location at the foot of the cliffs just a few kilometres outside the city. He waited for a night where the tide and the moon would favour an operation, and chose the twelfth of September. It was a perfect night, and the location was also perfect. Montcalm had decided, against the advice of the Quebec born governor, not garrison that part of the river, believing, as he said, that the English "will not grow wings."

As Wolfe prepared to leave his ship and lead his men into battle, he recited the words to Thomas Grey's "Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard."

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

When he finished, he told his astonished listeners that he would rather have written those lines than capture Quebec on the morrow. He boarded his boat. The signal was given, and the boats set out. Wolfe had picked the perfect night. Even better, the few French guards who were present were waiting for a flotilla of French boats to be coming up the river. The French boats were cancelled for unknown reasons, but news never reached the guards. When the British sailed past, they assumed they were the French boats.

At four in the morning the British landed unopposed. Montcalm and the French forces were occupied fighting a diversion made by the British on the East side of Quebec. Through the morning the British scaled the cliffs, brought in more men, and even carried up two cannons. By morning, over four thousand British regulars stood on the plains of Abraham (named for a farmer who owned the field and used it as a pasture) facing the walls of the city. The British had set stakes forty paces in front of their lines. They were not to fire on the French until the French were inside the stakes. Wolfe had ordered each soldier to load two bullets into their guns.

Throughout the summer Montcalm had argued with the governor of Quebec. The governor understood the best way to use the Indian allies and the Quebecois, as guerrilla fighters. Montcalm, on the other hand, believed in set piece warfare, and regular armies. He even tried to get the governor to rein in the Indians and their methods, as he found them to be ungentlemanly. Now, as Montcalm pulled his exhausted troops away from the diversion to face the real threat, he had a choice to let the snipers take care of the enemy, or to charge. At that moment, the snipers and the Indians were doing real damage to the British lines. Over three hundred British men had already fallen. But Montcalm would not wait. He ordered the charge. The French line pushed forward, firing as they proceeded. The British, lined up in three ranks, held their fire, waiting for the French to step into the forty pace kill zone. Then the British fired as one. The first double shot rang out, then another, then a third. The French line broke and ran for the city. For all intents and purposes, the battle was over. It had lasted ten minutes.

The British chased the French to the city gates, but were fired upon by the militia and native snipers. They fell back, the militia having stopped the advance, but all knew it was over for the French.

It was also over for the generals. Wolfe lay dead on the field. Montcalm was mortally wounded. he made his way back into the city and lay in his bed awaiting death. When told the city would surrender to the English in the morning, he said his last known words: "At least I will not live to see the English in Quebec." He was laid to rest in a shell crater. Where his remains are now, no one knows. A body believed to be his was tested recently, and found to belong to another.

So passed the battle of the Plains of Abraham. Large commemorations were planned in honour of the 250th anniversary, but a small group of Quebec radicals threatened to disrupt the event. and intellectuals proclaimed that it would open more wounds. Our 'leaders', acting with their usual gutlessness, backed down, cancelled the commemorations, and let the day pass without notice.

The protesters claims of British brutality notwithstanding, it was the least brutal British occupation I know of. The British, perhaps following Wolfe's lead, (for Wolfe composed generous terms of Quebec's surrender shortly before the battle) let the French North Americans keep their land, their names, their religion and their institutions and even passed laws to protect them. Compare this with the occupation of Ireland and Scotland. There was no breaking of any clans, no starvations, no mass exodus, no absentee landlords, no attempts of cultural or literal genocide, not at first. For the habitants, life continued much as it had for another sixty years. In fact, when twice given opportunities to revolt against the British, first in the American Revolution, and again in the war of 1812, the people of Quebec sided with the British.

The British conquest of North America was rather short lived, in part due to the conquest of North America itself. The cost of the Seven Years War was so great the British were forced to place heavy taxes on their empire, particularly on the North American part of it. The bitterness caused by this heavy taxation had the effect of causing a certain thirteen British Colonies to revolt, successfully, against the British rule just a few short years after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

As time passed, other generals took inspiration from Wolfe's audacious tactics and emulated him. A general of those aforementioned 13 colonies by the name of Douglas MacArthur took Wolfe as his model in planning the Inchon landings at Korea. "I will land behind enemy lines," he said. "Like Wolfe at Quebec."

Here and elsewhere, the events of that long ago summer morning cast a long, long shadow.

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