“oh Amherst, Brave Amherst…


When the matter of the Amherst appointment as leader of the projected Louisbourg expedition was first brought to George II’s attention, the King was affronted by the idea of elevating an obscure colonel to such a command. Politics being the trite art of the possible, it took the tactful intervention of the King’s mistress, the Countess of Yarmouth (at the urging of Pitt), to change that stubborn monarch’s mind. The art of the possible operated, too, in forcing Pitt in turn to accept the bumbling James Abercromby as commander of the Ticonderoga expedition. But Pitt’s own art saw to it that Abercromby’s second-in-command was the gay and winning brigadier, Lord George Howe, whom Wolfe had called “the noblest Englishman that has appeared in my time and the best soldier in the army.” Pitt’s thought and intention was for Abercromby to have the renown while Howe did most of the commanding. So began the year of decision.

For five hundred years the Amhersts, a respected minor county family of lawyers and clergymen, had sunk their roots in Kentish earth. The boy Jeffery grew up in the small ancestral brick country house, Brooks Place, at Sevenoaks, under the vast manygabled shadow of the Sackvilles’ Knole. Jeffery himself at the age of twelve went to Knole to become a page to Lionel Sackville, the seventh earl and then first duke of Dorset. Six years he remained there as an informal attendant and secretary to the Duke. Then, through the latter’s friendly interest and with the help of Marlborough’s old general, the Huguenot John Ligonier, young Jeffery at the age of eighteen received an ensign’s commission in the First Regiment of Foot Guards.

The next seven years, spent in the trivial pageantry of peacetime military life, were finally ended by the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession (in its American phase, King George’s War).

Sixteen thousand English troops, among them the Foot Guards, were sent to Flanders to aid the Austrians against the French and their allies. Amherst first saw action in June, 1743, when the so-called Pragmatic Army, composed of the English, Hanoverians, and Hessians, and commanded by Ligonier, defeated the French at Dettingen. Dettingen—the last battle in which a British sovereign appeared in person on the field—was a shabby victory won only by Ligonier’s courageous improvisations and the anonymous discipline of the ranks.

Not for almost two years, however, did he again see action, and this time in sorrier circumstances, when the Pragmatic Army, now under the command of the purblind Duke of Cumberland, was defeated by Marshal Saxe’s French troops at Fontenoy. In this battle, the English suffered the added humiliation of having their lines broken by the Irish Brigade. That same year Amherst was made a lieutenant colonel, and just before the peace treaty was appointed aide to Cumberland.

After Aix-la-Chapclle he resumed peacetime soldiering in England, an eligible field officer well known and welcome in the London social world. Not until he was thirty-six years old did he finally marry, and then no London belle but a plain second cousin from Kent, Jane Dalyson, seven years his junior. For a while the couple lived in London, happy in their life together. But this domestic contentment was to be Meeting, almost illusory, for though no one had yet realized it, Jane’s mind was tragically flawed, and under the pressure of mere marginal stresses, she would soon become insane.

Forced to move about from camp to camp, Amherst left his wife in charge of the otherwise empty Brooks Place. There her loneliness hardened to sullen anger that in turn bred paranoid suspicion. Indeed, she may have had some justification, for whenever Cumberland was in town her husband, as an aide, led the life of the London season as if he were a bachelor.

Jane’s reaction to his absence was one of withdrawal and silence. In 1757, Amherst was again ordered to the Continent, and from there continued to write her endearingly and at much length, but she could scarcely be persuaded to reply. Once his military career was over, he had always planned for the pleasant after-years to be spent with Jane in the rural bloom of Brooks Place. The gradual disintegration of this dream threw him back on his profession.

In the summer of 1757 Lord Loudoun, commanding the British forces in North America, had organized a desultory expedition against Louisbourg that somehow never managed to sail out of Halifax Harbor. One of Pill’s first acts was to recall him. For this new year Pitt wanted surprise and action. Not even the War Office stand-bys knew of Amherst’s appointment until he had sailed to take up his command. Admiral Edward Boscawen—his name still endures in a New Hampshire town—who was in charge of the fleet operations, had sailed several weeks before, as had James Wolfe and two other brigadiers with the bulk of the forces.

The British and colonial forces against Louisbourg numbered about 12,000, the naval crews somewhat more. Behind the demi-lunes and bastions of the fortress lay a French force of 3,000 regulars, a thousand militia, with a large band of Indians and 2,600 seamen, under the sternly vigorous command of the Chevalier de Drucour. The French counted on balancing their lack of numbers by their advantages of fortification and terrain. Their primary advantage was, of course, the jagged stone-capped shore line and the turbulence of the sea approaches.