Wolfe Died Here Victorious

Mar 2014
6,633
Beneath a cold sun, a grey sun, a Heretic sun...
#1
So reads the stone in the Plains battlefield park. As another September 13th rolls around, I still wonder: Did Wolfe really see an opportunity at the Anse au Foulon, or was the escalade and battle that resulted really just a glorious suicide?

His last letters are rife with defeatism. His last dispatch to Pitt on September 2nd has been described as "as desponding a letter as it was in his nature to write." His last letter to his mother is in a similar vein: 'The enemy puts nothing to risk, and I can't in conscience put the whole army to risk. My antagonist has wisely shut himself up in inaccessible entrenchments, so that I can't get at him without spilling a torrent of blood, and that perhaps to little purpose.'

After his "illness" in late August which laid him up for a week, he sought (finally) the opinions of his brigadiers on his plans to attack the Beauport defences again, which had failed so disastrously in July. They unanimously rejected the plan and urged instead that the attack should be made upriver of Quebec, to which Wolfe grudgingly acquiesced. Meanwhile, the admirals and captains of the fleet had met with the generals and all agreed that the season was now too short to reach any decisive result and informed Wolfe that it was time to lift the siege and go home. At this thunderbolt, Wolfe suddenly revealed that he had a plan and if they could wait a few more days... Admiral Saunders agreed to wait, but not for long. Wolfe told his doctors that if they could keep him 'patched up' for a few more days, they needn't worry about him after that. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But did Wolfe really expect his 'plan' to succeed? By his own estimate, after casualties, disease and desertions, he could muster at the absolute most about 5,000 troops for the attempt, while he estimated Montcalm had thrice that number. At the place he chose for landing, he would be placing himself - knowingly - between Montcalm to the east and Bougainville to the west, and relying on the navy, who he distrusted and constantly criticised, to bring his troops ashore in an organized fashion, in the dark, at the base of a cliff, on a fast-flowing river, under the guns of a battery and redoubt, where they would then scale the heights, overpower the redoubt and battery, and be in place to fight a battle on two fronts against superior forces in the morning.

Begging your pardon, good sirs, but that doesn't sound like a plan at all. That sounds more like the desperate gamble of a man who doesn't want to face defeat.

The night before the battle he gave to John Jervis the miniature of his fiancee and told him to return it to her when he was killed on the morrow. Not 'if' mind you, but 'when'. Among his effects, after his death, was found the copy of Grey's Elegy which she had given him when he left England. At some point during the siege he had underlined the passage, 'The paths of glory lead but to the grave.'

Then he goes ashore in the very first boats with the 'forlorn hope' with Captain Howe, whose job was to get up the cliff and tackle the defences of Vergor's post and the Samos battery. Wolfe was frail, sick, weak and unarmed (and probably retching from being on the water - he was seasick even at anchor in Portsmouth); what did he think he was going to contribute?

I am reasonably certain he neither intended to succeed nor survive, and the victory which resulted was due in large measure to luck more than anything.

But he died well. :)
 
Mar 2014
6,633
Beneath a cold sun, a grey sun, a Heretic sun...
#5
The characters of Vaudreuil and Montcalm are far too complex to dismiss with simple adjectives. Wolfe too, for that matter. They were all often wrong, and they were all often right as well. And it is in the interactions that it all becomes interesting.

As for who was "best" in-theatre, I'm going with the Chevalier de Lévis, Montcalm's right-hand man and the go-to guy when things needed getting done, or tempers needed soothing. On the same ground that cost Wolfe and Montcalm their lives he gave France her last victory of the war, with the same troops, and against the same enemy, that were present when Quebec fell.
 
Jan 2013
909
Toronto, Canada
#6
Montcalm was the best commander in the North American theatre of the Seven Years War.
All Montcalm had to do was sit behind the walls of Quebec. Wolfe's forces would have been smashed to pieces in front of the walls or picked off by irregulars in the woods.

Instead, he fought a conventional European engagement that he was almost certain to lose.
 
Jan 2013
909
Toronto, Canada
#7
As for who was "best" in-theatre, I'm going with the Chevalier de Lévis, Montcalm's right-hand man and the go-to guy when things needed getting done, or tempers needed soothing. On the same ground that cost Wolfe and Montcalm their lives he gave France her last victory of the war, with the same troops, and against the same enemy, that were present when Quebec fell.
I agree that Levis was the best commander in the North American theatre.
 
Mar 2014
6,633
Beneath a cold sun, a grey sun, a Heretic sun...
#8
All Montcalm had to do was sit behind the walls of Quebec. Wolfe's forces would have been smashed to pieces in front of the walls or picked off by irregulars in the woods.

Instead, he fought a conventional European engagement that he was almost certain to lose.
His magazines were at Trois-Rivières, and the landward walls of Quebec were a joke. He had to fight. It was only his bad luck that he chose to start just a couple of hours before Bougainville showed up - a delay of just two hours would have seen Wolfe's army encircled and annihilated.

I'm probably alone in my belief that the French infantry were not "almost certain to lose." Casualties in the Battle were almost exactly equal and Lévis defeated Murray on the same ground in a European-style battle just a few months later.
 
Dec 2010
1,992
Oregon
#9
So reads the stone in the Plains battlefield park. As another September 13th rolls around, I still wonder: Did Wolfe really see an opportunity at the Anse au Foulon, or was the escalade and battle that resulted really just a glorious suicide?

After his "illness" in late August which laid him up for a week, he sought (finally) the opinions of his brigadiers on his plans to attack the Beauport defences again, which had failed so disastrously in July.

But did Wolfe really expect his 'plan' to succeed? By his own estimate, after casualties, disease and desertions, he could muster at the absolute most about 5,000 troops for the attempt, while he estimated Montcalm had thrice that number. At the place he chose for landing, he would be placing himself - knowingly - between Montcalm to the east and Bougainville to the west, and relying on the navy, who he distrusted and constantly criticised, to bring his troops ashore in an organized fashion, in the dark, at the base of a cliff, on a fast-flowing river, under the guns of a battery and redoubt, where they would then scale the heights, overpower the redoubt and battery, and be in place to fight a battle on two fronts against superior forces in the morning.
Well, THAT certainly paints a grim picture. One alert French sentry, or a barking guard dog, and it was game over. Perhaps Wolfe was unhinged by the costs of the July battle, something like what may have happened to William Howe after Breeds Hill.

and probably retching from being on the water - he was seasick even at anchor in Portsmouth);
Hard to imagine. He was British, after all. :)
 

Mangekyou

Ad Honorem
Jan 2010
7,915
UK
#10
Like anything, a bold maneouver like what Wolfe attempted required quick thinking and elements of luck, both of which happened during this battle. Wolfe's health had deteriorated badly before the battle, so how long he would've survived afterwards, I do not know.

Montcalm was a little unlucky he met his death during this battle. He was a very effective leader.

Well, THAT certainly paints a grim picture. One alert French sentry,
There was an alert sentry, who spotted the advance and challenged, but a Scottish officer named Simon Fraser (who was fluent in French) responded that they were being reinforcements.

It was the same Simon Fraser who was shot dead by an American sharpshooter during the battle of Saratoga, whilst leading the lines well. His death was a big loss during that battle. I thought you would've knew that, Dan :D