life travel

The Plains of Abraham

I’m counting the days before I head off to Québec City for the five weeks of intensive courses in French as a foreign language. I’m extremely excited and have been hitting the Speak and Read Essential French MP3’s extra hard lately.

I’ve also been reading up on the 1759 Battle for Québec. I find early Canadian history so rich with action and excitement, I love to read all about it! We’ve got our fair share of stories that would make brilliant blockbuster movies, allow me to share this one and let me know what you think.

The odds were stacked against New France. The British outnumbered the French three to one in ships, four to one in troops, and the Brits had a ten to one advantage in money.

I’ve been checking out Google maps to try and figure out where the attack must have happened. As the story goes, the British sailed down the St. Lawrence with more than 140 ships (one full quarter of the British Navy) and were spread over a distance of 50 miles. James Wolfe, the English General, had also in his command over 13,500 men — 9,000 of whom were from the best units in Britain.

It was the best trained and equipped army North America had seen, supported by the biggest and best fleet.
-popular historian Gordon Donaldson

However, conquering Québec City, “the Gibraltar of the New World” was not an easy task, and Wolfe soon discovered that despite his huge advantage there wasn’t really any way to get beyond the city’s fortified walls. Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, the French general, was misinformed by native-born Canadien and governor Pierre de Vaudreuil’s engineers that the English cannons did not have the range to reach them over the huge St. Lawrence River, and so didn’t reinforce the southern shore. In this they made a grave mistake.

Determined that he would wear the French down by sheer persistence, Wolfe ordered his cannons to pound the city for months killing civilians and destroying homes by the score. The prolonged destruction served no real military purpose other than to terrorize and demoralize the city’s inhabitants.

Summer turned to autumn and still Wolfe had not taken the fortified city. Time was beginning to run out for Wolfe, and he began to worry how he would explain to England why the attack was taking so long. He decided to try a new strategy.

Earlier, [Wolfe] had spotted a break in the cliffs west of the city, at a cove called l’Anse-au-Foulon. If [he] could somehow land his men undetected and then scale the cliffs, he might be able to put his army on the plains behind the city and draw Montcalm out into the open . . . and so it was, on a moonless night in mid-September, that a flotilla of 30 flat-bottomed boats slipped silently downriver with the tide.

On September 13, 1759, after bluffing their way past a French Sentry, an advance guard climbed the narrow trail and overpowered the French post at the top. The rest of the troops followed soon after pulling themselves onto the Plains of Abraham and by daybreak more than 4,500 English troops assembled on the far side of the City.

The surprise was complete. General Montcalm had been convinced that the final attack, if it came, would be on the other side of the city at the Beauport shore. When an aide suggested that the British might try to climb the cliffs, Montcalm had snorted with derision. “We do not need to imagine that the enemy has wings,” he wrote in his journal, “so that in one night they can cross the river, disembark, and climb the obstructed cliffs.” But now, they had done just that. As he hurried to assemble his troops, Montcalm looked out at the redcoats that were lining up behind the city, and complained, “They have no right to be there.”

Wolfe had managed to drag up only two light cannons. Montcalm decided that time was of the essence and that the British had to be attacked immediately, before they could dig in and strengthen their position. For the first time since the British arrived, Montcalm acted impulsively. He had 3,000 reinforcements somewhere behind the British lines—a message had been sent and they were on their way—but he didn’t wait for them to arrive. Instead, Montcalm gathered the troops he had on hand and threw open the city gates . . .

The battle lasted only 15 minutes. The British had formed a “thin red line,” two men deep, and the French advanced in a ragged charge, the regulars and the Canadiens stumbling over each other. Native snipers were picking off British soldiers from nearby woods, but Wolfe stood his ground. Then, when the French were only 30 paces away, the order was given. The redcoats raised their muskets and fired, one platoon after the next in rolling thunder across the Plains. Smoke filled the battlefield. The British re-loaded and advanced, emerging from the smoke like ghosts. They fired a second volley, and that was all it took. The French broke and ran.

Both Wolfe and Montcalm were killed due to injuries suffered in the battle, Wolfe on the Plains and Montcalm within the city walls. The two sides had each taken roughly the same number of losses, 650 each, and the British hadn’t really won anything of consequence, it was just a field, and in fact not a particularly safe one, but all the same the French were rattled.

The British had won a field. That was it. If anything, they were in a dangerously exposed position. Québec fell not because the British won, but because the French lost their nerve. Vaudreuil panicked and fled with his troops along a side road. Five days later, the city’s bewildered commander (who had been left behind without any clear instructions) surrendered the city. The Canadiens hadn’t been conquered by the British: they had been abandoned by France.

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