- Historic Sites
The Battle That Won An Empire
By a brilliant maneuver young James Wolfe conquered “impregnable” Quebec—and secured North America for the English-speaking peoples
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
Wolfe’s birthplace was Westerham in Kent, and his boyhood association with this village made it a place of pilgrimage in later generations—drawing many visitors there until the village became a still greater draw as the country home of Winston Churchill. Constant reminder of Wolfe’s career through such propinquity could hardly fail to influence Churchill, a man so historically minded, when it came to a question of giving opportunity to another young soldier of similar stamp.
When Wolfe was sent to capture Quebec by Pitt, he was eight years younger than Wingate was when sent to Burma by Churchill, but their length of military service was almost equal at the time when the great opportunity came to each of them. For Wolfe was only fourteen when he became a junior officer in his father’s regiment of marines, and sixteen when he distinguished himself, as adjutant of the Twelfth Foot, in battle at Dettingen in 1743—the last battle in which an English king led his troops in person. Three years later Wolfe made a further mark in the Battle of Culloden Moor in Scotland, when the army of Prince Charles Edward, the Young Pretender, was defeated and the Jacobite hopes of regaining the throne from George II were extinguished. Wolfe then returned to the Continent, and by his twenty-first birthday was a veteran of six campaigns. Peace came soon afterward, and he went back to garrison duty in Scotland, soon becoming commander of his new regiment, the Twentieth Foot.
He made this regiment into what others termed the best-drilled and disciplined in the British Army. One of his officers described him as “a paragon. He neither drinks, curses, gambles, nor runs after women. So we make him our pattern.” But his own letters were full of discontent, complaining that his prospects were sterile, and that “barren battalion conversation blunts the faculties.” He liked the civilian society in Glasgow no better, saying that the men were “designing and treacherous, with their immediate interests always in view. — The women, coarse, cold and cunning, for ever enquiring after man’s circumstances.” While setting a good example by attending “every Sunday at the Kirk,” he bitingly remarked that “the generality of Scotch preachers are excessive blockheads.”
He found local society somewhat more congenial when the regiment moved to the rebel area of the Highlands. Here he gave fortnightly dances as a means of restoring good relations, and remarked of the women: “They are perfectly wild as the hills that breed them; but they lay aside their principles for the sake of sound and movement.” When the regiment was later moved to Devonshire, he applied the same treatmeant, and was soon able to say: “I have danced the officers into the good graces of the Jacobite women here abouts, who were prejudiced against them.”
For him, such play was only a means to an end, and he felt much relief when war broke out afresh with France, in 1756. Meantime he had devoted much time to reading current and classic books on the military art, in preparation for the leading role he hoped to fill. He had also developed the musketry skill of his men to a high pitch by constant firing practice at varied targets. His insistence on its value was to be proved at Quebec—where two quick, effective volleys won the battle, and gained an empire.
Like most reformers Wolfe was fiercely critical of obstruction and inefficiency, saying: “We are lazy in time of peace, and of course want vigilance and activity in war. Our military education is by far the worst in Europe.” And again: “We are the most egregious blunderers in war that ever took the hatchet in hand.”
His criticisms were borne out by the mismanaged seaborne expedition against Rochelort, on the west coast of France, in 1757, which ended in futility through defective combination between the military and naval leaders. But Wolfe himself, one of the junior leaders, emerged with credit from the court of inquiry. Moreover, a letter he wrote in reflection on the expedition was a model exposition of the way to conduct amphibious operations.
After this check, Pitt decided to strike at France’s overseas possessions. “In America, England and Europe were to be fought for,” he later declared. The main expedition was to be against the great French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, which dominated the sea approaches to Canada; other campaigns were to be directed against the forts at Ticonderoga and Duquesne.
In Pitt, England had a minister strong enough to sweep aside military custom and seniority, and, “passing over whole columns of the army list,” to pick his own instruments. For command of the expedition he chose a colonel of forty, Jeffrey Amherst—making him a general—and appointed Wolfe, who was ten years younger, as one of the three brigadiers. A miserable sailor, Wolfe suffered badly during the voyage, but fought down his seasickness when action was imminent—as he always did his more deep-seated maladies.