Wolfe in goat's clothing

Ignored by Quebec and scorned by historians, Major-General James Wolfe deserves better

1759-2009 - point de vue anglo-saxon

Peter Shawn Taylor, National Post - The Queen wasn't invited. The Pope declined to come. But if there's one
person no one wants to see at this year's 400th anniversary of the founding
of Quebec City, it's the man responsible for 249 years of that history.
Major-General James Wolfe is persona non grata at the site of his greatest
achievement. This comes as no great surprise. The historical reputation of
Wolfe has been under devastating attack for the better part of a century.
That Quebec City has chosen to ignore him altogether merely completes his
waning story arc.
Wolfe was once the British Empire's most acclaimed military hero. His
improbable and decisive victory on Sept. 13, 1759 at the Battle of Quebec
led directly to the fall of New France. In death, he became a saviour to
the colonies of New England as well as the British homeland; and muse to
countless artists. Yet today, Wolfe's good name lies in tatters. Historians
characterize him as a suicidal war criminal, ignorant of basic military
strategy, who achieved his only victory through pure dumb luck.
But this re-crafting of Wolfe's reputation owes more to politics and
popular culture than common sense or logic. A fair weighing of the
historical evidence -- plus important new scholarship -- suggests he has
been grotesquely maligned. Wolfe deserves his reputation back. And a place
of honour at Quebec City's 400th celebrations.
Take in any of the activities surrounding Quebec City's 400th anniversary
and you'll find nary a mention of Wolfe or his victory. At a January
kick-off to the celebrations, Quebec City's old town hosted a massive
series of outdoor displays that included three military episodes -- the
First World War battle of Ypres, Kandahar and the battle for New France.
The program, however, curiously claims the New France display records a
British attack on Quebec in 1760 --one year after Wolfe's victory.
At the actual Plains of Abraham battle site, now a national park, a
similar historical performance is to be put on in August. Of 45 live-action
scenes to be presented by costumed actors, "one or two" will concern
Wolfe's day of glory. And yet there are no plans for an actor to actually
play Wolfe in the event. He's missing at his own party.
A column in the park does recognize the spot were Wolfe died during
battle. This is the fifth such marker. Previous ones were habitually
defaced by Quebec nationalists -- one being destroyed by the FLQ in 1963 --
upset over the inscription: "Here Died Wolfe Victorious." The latest
bowdlerized version reads simply 'Here Died Wolfe." Quebecers, it seems,
can accept the fact he died. Just not that he won.
The disdain shown Wolfe in Quebec is, of course, entirely political. Wolfe
was once a potent symbol of the English Conquest. Erasing him from the
landscape allows for an alternative, nationalist-friendly and
exclusively-French history to take his place.
Which brings up an interesting historical dilemma. Is it better to be
forgotten or reviled? Because while Wolfe has nearly disappeared from
Quebec culture, within academic circles he is still the subject of
considerable interest. Almost all of it bad.
In 1936, the president of the Canadian Historical Association took an axe
to Wolfe's heroic status by characterizing him as a hopeless fumbler whose
success depended "almost entirely upon blind chance." As Canada's ties to
Britain faded, perhaps the country's need for Brit-ish-born heroes faded
with it. The dean of Canadian military historians, Colonel C.P. Stacey,
later called Wolfe "ineffective … vacillating and uncertain." In his
popular 2000 book Crucible of War, American academic Fred Anderson
suggested a morose Wolfe planned the attack on Quebec as an elaborate
suicide. He also fingered Wolfe for an official campaign of "rapes,
scalpings, thefts and casual murders."
Wolfe's modern critics thus accuse him of everything from military
incompetence to war criminality. These are serious charges. The only recent
attempt at a defence is Stephen Brumwell's Paths of Glory, published last
year, which paints Wolfe as a clever tactician and astute military leader.
While Brumwell is convincing in his new research, Wolfe's reputation faces
an uphill battle.
A proper re-assessment of Wolfe requires a quick recap of Grade 7 history:
When he arrived at Quebec in June, 1759, the city's fortress on the north
shore of the St. Lawrence River held the key to North America-- take the
city and the rest of New France would fall.
Opposing Wolfe in Quebec was Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm. Besides
having more troops, Montcalm enjoyed a very strong defensive position. High
cliffs run along the north shore east and west of the fortifications, and
farther east lies Montmorency Falls -- all substantial obstacles to an
amphibious assault. A landing appeared possible at Beauport, between
Montmorency and Quebec City where the shore slopes more gently to the
river; but it was here where Montcalm placed the bulk of his troops. West
of the fort, Montcalm had his most experienced soldiers as a flying column
to defend against beach-front assaults upriver.
All summer, Wolfe poked at Montcalm's apparently seamless defences. He
tried an attack at Montmorency, with disastrous results. He tried landing
west of Quebec and was easily repulsed. He even burned farms on the south
shore to provoke Montcalm into action. Nothing worked. As September
approached, Wolfe's health, never very good, collapsed. Time was running
out. His naval support was leaving at the end of September.
To bring matters to a head, Wolfe proposed a full-on assault at Beauport.
His brigadiers, always critical of Wolfe's judgment, countered with a plan
to land far west of Quebec and march to the fort. Wolfe did agree to take
his troops four hours upriver, but then impetuously decided to load them
into small boats and float them silently down river at night toward the
city. They unloaded at a small cove called Anse au Foulon, scrambled up a
narrow cliff path and waited for Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham at dawn.
It was a huge risk that shocked his brigadiers. Had the troops been
surprised on the cliffs, all would have been lost. Wolfe gambled everything
on surprise. The rest, as they say, is history.
Despite his great victory, Wolfe's critics find fault with everything he
did that night. The perils of landing at Foulon were unnecessary, they
argue. Once ashore, he failed to seize the high ground. Even his death in
action has been used as evidence that Wolfe was inexperienced and foolish.
Brumwell's careful analysis discounts all these criticisms. Had Wolfe
landed above Quebec, he would have faced a much larger army, including the
battle-hardened regulars of the flying column. His preference for the low
ground makes sense as well. On the Plains of Abraham, Wolfe was sheltered
from the cannons of Montcalm's fort. To do battle, the French general was
obliged to meet Wolfe in the open, where the tightly drilled British troops
laid waste to his poorly trained army.
Interesting new physical evidence further supports Wolfe. According to
research by physicists, oceanographers and historians, had the British
attacked higher up the river as the brigadiers wanted, the tides and
moonlight that night would have left them dangerously exposed to French
sentries. But the conditions were perfect for a surprise landing at
Wolfe may have dithered for months trying to crack the nut that was
Quebec. (And while his burning of farms seems brutal today, Montcalm and
his native allies did far worse.) But when he did act, his every decision
was proven right.
"There can't be many generals in history who've taken such criticism for
notching up such a decisive victory," says Brumwell in an interview from
Amsterdam. "Legions of armchair generals have been telling us how he should
have fought his battle. But unlike their strategies, his plan was put to
the test. And despite all odds, it was a spectacular success." Brumwell
hopes his new biography will mark a reversal in how Wolfe is seen. It's a
start. Canadian history is not so full of heroes that we can afford to
ignore the ones we've got.
As for the Quebec nationalist view of Wolfe as a symbol of English
oppression, that too may require some revision. While he didn't live to see
the surrender of Montcalm's forces, Wolfe had drafted "Articles of
Capitulation" before the battle. Under Wolfe's terms, French soldiers were
to be allowed full military honours. Civilians were welcome to stay in
their homes. And French law, language and religion were to be protected.
"There shall be no innovations in religious matters or any interruption of
Divine Service," he wrote. After his death, these instructions were closely
All this stands in sharp contrast to the fall of Louisbourg the year
before, where British commander Jeffery Amherst made the French soldiers
prisoners of war and expelled all civilians. And at a time when New
England's colonies were virulently anti-Catholic, Wolfe declared religious
matters off limits in Quebec. It's hardly the sign of a war criminal.
Wolfe's generous terms of surrender thus deserve to be seen as the
precursor to English Canada's traditional acceptance of a culturally and
politically distinct Quebec. It can be argued that the Canadian spirit of
accommodation runs straight from Wolfe to Confederation to the present day.
It's the reason French culture still thrives in Quebec; and why the 400th
anniversary celebrations are even possible. In short, Quebecers may have
much to thank Wolfe for. Not that anyone would bother.

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