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Friday, September 13, 2013

As the buoyant warmth of summer...

gives way to solemn chill of autumn, I find myself contemplating the various facets of the Battle of Quebec (a.k.a. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham) which took place on September 13, 1759. The French and Indian War has always held a special interest for me as someone who is fascinated by the Anglo-American connection.
    While The English Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution spawned the political notions that would give birth to the United States, The French and Indian War served more directly as a training ground for the fighting men who on both sides of the American Revolution. Aside from the way it affected my own country, it also determined the future of our northern neighbour, Canada, and assured that she would have a culturally rich and complex heritage.
    The legacy of the Battle of Quebec is a mixed one for Canadians as a whole. At the centre of the debate is the character of General James Wolfe, one of the most well-known and misunderstood British military commanders in history. He has been both canonized and demonised, transformed into a strategic genius on a dizzyingly high marble pillar, and “myth-busted” into an always priggish, innately brutal, military madman who could trace back his victory to a random stroke of luck. Disgruntled French Quebecois joined in the fray, defacing Wolfe-related monuments and trying to ridiculously rewrite history and call the Battle of Quebec a draw!
    This irrational attitude towards historical events on the part of the Quebecois is hauntingly similar to a wing of the Scottish Nationalists and their propaganda efforts. Elements in both groups advocate independence from mature, right-respecting governments based on flimsy arguments appealing to the emotions and a sense of supposed indignation over past wrongs. At the end of the day, it is questionable whether they have not duped themselves by their own excessive eagerness, since their post-independence plans sound highly suspect. Fortunately for the Canadian government, the Quebecois can safely be said to have ‘bottled it’ for the time being. Hopefully, the “mother country” will share the same good fortune.
    Getting back to Wolfe, no matter what good or bad characteristics he displayed, there is no doubt that his actions have affected innumerable aspects of the modern world. Perhaps this article would be written in French instead of English if not for his conquest. But besides that, it must be remembered that Wolfe was not some stick-figure in a text-book, but a real human being like the rest of us, who pondered and joked and flirted and dared to dream. Shedding light on both his humanity and his ability, one can reach a better understanding the old ballads about him that I sing so often for the entertainment of others.
    Judging from his letters, it is obvious that Wolfe was far from an eternal prude and was more than willing to crack jokes with family and friends, often about his own slight carcass, inability to dance, trouble with mathematics, etc. He was also quite a flirt when it came to ladies and fell passionately head-over-heels more than once, putting paid to the theory that Wolfe was a repressed homosexual.
    Of course, he did have an intense side, revealing a moody and brooding young man given to long contemplations on the nature of life and death and the future of his career. Although he was not known for being particularly religious, he clearly believed in Providence. “You know the One I am referring to,” he would say when explaining his belief that there was someone who controlled the destiny of men and of battles. But it seems that beyond any religious feeling, Wolfe was grounded in his military career.
    As for brutality, there is no doubt he could be degrading in his language and bloody-minded in his actions. “Canaille” was the word he used to describe the Highland Scots, the Colonial Americans, and the French Quebecois among others. He seemed to have no problem taking part in the brutal suppression of the Second Jacobite Rebellion and personally came up with a shockingly ruthless plan to annihilate the rebel Highland clan of McPherson of Cluny by putting some of his own troops in an indefensible position so they would be wiped out by the rebels, giving Wolfe the excuse to wipe out the rebels in response! Later, in the French and Indian War, he willingly waged civilian warfare, destroying French Canadian villages and ravaging the countryside. He also took and threatened to execute civilian hostages if the French high command wouldn’t “play ball” with him during negotiations.
    However, it must be said that Wolfe was not alone in using the scorched earth policy. It was an accepted mode of warfare in the 18th Century, and it was meant to deprive the enemy of resources and draw them into battle. In spite of the burning and plundering, Wolfe did not want his men to physically harm the civilians of French Canada. In fact, he was furious when one of his officers massacred the inhabitants of a village, an act which proved to be one of the worst war crimes committed during the campaign. Also, Wolfe offered the French Canadians of the burned-out villages the option to surrender themselves to the British as opposed to starving to death in the woods. It may not sound like much of a break, but it did offer the desperate refugees some access to resources.
    It must also be said that Wolfe’s low view of other races and the inhabitants of other places usually improved with time. For example, Wolfe started by saying that the Highland soldiers were “no great mischief if they fall” to saying that the officers’ corps was “the most manly and gallant” he had ever seen. Likewise, he started off by calling the Americans “dirty, contemptible dogs” and moved on to naming one of their regiments “Swift and Bold”! This held true for the civilian population of Scotland and the local recruits of small towns in England, as well.
    A final point that needs to be made about Wolfe’s legacy is his unique relationship with his soldiers. That relationship, as much as his audaciousness in strategy and courage on the battlefield, helped to immortalize him as folk hero. His letters clearly demonstrate that the bond between commander and men was very important to him, and that he viewed his army as “a band of brothers” where every man, no matter how high or low his rank, was bound to do his duty out of honour. He urged the officers to observe the characters of their soldiers so that they would better know which ones to encourage and which ones to discipline. He also urged them to be concerned about the physical well-being of their men, inquiring after their health and assuring they were given what was needed to improve their condition.
    Wolfe practised what he preached. He visited his soldiers often, inquiring after their health, taking a personal interest in them, and winning their undying respect and admiration. Ironically, it was the Highlanders who became particularly enamoured with him, affectionately nicknaming him “The Red-Headed Corporal”, because of his flaming hair and the worsted badge he wore. They loved his hands-on leadership style, not dissimilar to their clan chiefs of old, and it was said they would have “gone through fire and water to have served him.” According to legend, one Highlander named Duncan McPhee became Wolfe’s self-appointed body-guard, much to the general’s bemusement!
    Another story relates how, just before Wolfe was killed at the Battle of Quebec, a British sergeant was shot through the lunges as the general passed along the lines decked out in his scarlet cape and silver walking cane. Wolfe paused, knelt beside the gasping man, and squeezed his hand. He then promised that if he survived the wound, he would be promoted, and passed on the message to another officer to assure that the promise would be carried out.
    Not long after, Wolfe was shot multiple times. “Don’t let my brave fellows see me fall,” he said to the soldiers who came to support and bare him off the field. As “The Red-Headed Corporal” lay bleeding to death, the Highlanders charged the French and the battle was won by the British. Thus it was also that at the height of victory, Wolfe’s soldiers wept for his passing.
    This victory would, in many ways, define Canada: a safe haven for the United Empire Loyalists after the Revolutionary War to the south; insulation from the turmoil of the French Revolution; and a close relationship with Britain that continues to this very day. It is not for nothing that the first and last verses of The Maple Leaf Forever, long Canada’s unofficial national anthem, read:

In days of yore, from Britain’s shore,
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came
And planted firm Britannia’s flag
On Canada’s fair domain.
Here may it wave, our boast our pride
And, joined in love together,
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine
The Maple Leaf forever!
On merry England’s far famed land
May kind heaven sweetly smile,
God bless old Scotland evermore
and Ireland’s Em’rald Isle!
And swell the song both loud and long
Till rocks and forest quiver!
God save our Queen and Heaven bless
The Maple Leaf forever!

(A version of this article appeared on Open Unionism:

General Wolfe, "The Red-headed Corporal"


  1. Thanks for posting that, Most Excellent Pearl. A nice bit of history.

  2. Your most welcome, Most Excellent Mack! ;-)