The Life of James Wolfe
The Capture of Quebec
General James Wolfe is best remembered in Canadian history for the capture of Quebec during the French and Indian War.
James Wolfe was born on January 2nd, 1727 in Westerham, in the County of Kent, to Col. Edward Wolfe and Henrietta Thompson.
Wolfe Enlists in the British Army
In 1738, Wolfe’s family moved from Kent to Greenwich in London. From an early age, Wolfe was destined for a career in the British Army. Wolfe followed in his father’s footsteps when he enlisted as a Royal Marine at the age of 13.
In 1740, the War of the Austrian Succession broke out. Although Britain stayed out of the war’s initial phases, the presence of a French Army on the border of the Austrian Netherlands forced the British to raise an army. In 1742, Wolfe was transferred to the 12th Regiment of Foot and sent to Flanders where he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
In 1743, Wolfe took part in a major British offensive. However, the battle did not go as planned and the army came under the personal command of King George II, who made a critical tactical error and allowed the French to pin the army against the River Main.
In an attempt to rectify the situation, the King chose to attack the French position at the village of Dettington. Wolfe’s unit was in the thick of the fighting and took heavy losses. One of the results of the battle was that Wolfe was noticed by the Duke of Cumberland.
Wolfe and the French and Indian War
In 1756, Britain was once again at war with France, both in Europe and overseas. Now a Colonel, Wolfe’s unit was assigned guard duty in Kent, where Wolfe was to protect the county in the event of a French invasion. Wolfe believed his men would not see action, but trained them diligently. As the threat of invasion subsided, Wolfe’s unit was ordered to Wiltshire. Despite early losses in the French and Indian War, Britain was also expect to go on the offensive in North America, and Wolfe expected to play a major role in the future operations.
In January, 1758, Wolfe was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and ordered to Nova Scotia, where he took part in the siege of Louisbourg. Constructed by the French in 1744, Louisbourg was a fortified garrison town on Cape Breton Island that guarded the approaches to the St. Lawrence River.
The British had attempted to take Louisbourg the year before and failed due to the presence of a large French fleet in the area. Wolfe distinguished himself, both in the planning, the initial landing and the aggressive placement of the British siege batteries. The French garrison surrendered in June, 1758.
The British had planned to advance up the St. Lawrence River that year to assault Quebec, however, the on-set of winter forced the British to postpone their plans The celebration over the British victory at Louisbourg was tempered by a defeat at Carillon
Wolfe’s actions at Louisbourg brought him to the attention of British Prime Minister William Pitt. Pitt promoted Wolfe to the rank of Major General and gave him the task of attacking Quebec City. Major General Amherst was appointed Commander-in-Chief in North America and given command of a larger force that would attack Canada from the south.
Despite a large build-up of British forces during the early stages of the French and Indian War, the French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm enjoyed local superiority as a result of the decision to split the British army into two groups.
The Battle of Plains of Abraham
The French were initially caught off guard, having not expected Wolfe to attack from the east. However, Montcalm intercepted a copy of Wolfe’s plan, which gave the French time to prepare new fortifications. Montcalm had been ordered to hold New France for as long as possible. The French believed that the war would be over within a year and chose to commit the bulk of their troops to objectives in Europe
Wolfe, who was assembling his army at Halifax, had only a small window in which to take Quebec, before the winter freeze-up.
Following a three month siege and an extensive bombardment of the city, Wolfe led 9,000 troops and an armada of 200 ships on a highly risky amphibious landing at the base of the cliffs on the west bank of the St. Lawrence River, early in the morning on September 13, 1759. Wolfe caught the French off-guard because they believed that the cliffs too steep to climb. Faced with the possibility that Wolfe would bring up cannons and knock down the walls, Montcalm’s troops formed up on the Plains of Abraham. After just 15 minutes of fighting, Quebec had fallen. Both Wolfe and Montcalm were fatally injured. Wolfe died shortly after the battle, while Montcalm died of his wounds the next day.
After his death, Wolfe’s body was returned to England, where it was interred in the family vault at St. Alfege Church in Greenwich.
Browning, Reed. The War of the Austrian Succession. Alan Sutton Publishing, 1994
Brumwell, Stephen (2007). Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe, Continuum International Publishing Group
Carroll,Joy (2004). Wolfe & Montcalm: Their Lives, their Times, and the Fate of a Continent, Richmond Hill: Firefly Books
Pocock, Tom. Battle for Empire: The very first world war 1756-63. Michael O’Mara Books, 1998
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