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Wolfe’s taking of Quebec from Montcalm won Canada for the British

Posted in Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, War on Thursday, 30 May 2013

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This edited article about the Capture of Quebec originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 274 published on 15 April 1967.

Death of Wolfe, picture, image, illustration

The Death of General Wolfe by Severino Baraldi

During the 18th century, the long drawn-out rivalry between France and England overflowed from the Old World into the New. Colonists from both countries had been establishing themselves along the North American coasts for the past 200 years. Gradually they drew apart, the English remaining to the south while the French developed their main strength in Canada.

The key to the French position in Canada was the city of Quebec, on the great St. Lawrence River. Founded by the French in 1608, Quebec stood at the junction of two rivers (the St. Lawrence and the St. Charles), its rear protected by the steep cliffs called the Heights of Abraham.

Generations of military engineers had steadily improved the already formidable natural defences of the city until Quebec was considered to be impregnable. The French commander at the time of the British attack was the Marquis de Montcalm. Montcalm was an experienced general, and there were some 16,000 troops in the city.

The Prime Minister of Great Britain, William Pitt, chose James Wolfe to command the attack. Wolfe was something of a prodigy. He was only 32, but he had been in the army since he was 14, and had already seen action in the greatest battles of the day.

Wolfe was in America in 1758, fighting the French, and on his return to England he urged Pitt to the attack on Quebec, the centre of French resistance. The statesman took the advice of the young soldier, and in 1759 a large fleet sailed from Spithead, reaching Nova Scotia in May.

It was not until June that the English fleet penetrated the St. Lawrence as far as Quebec. When it did so, Wolfe succeeded in capturing points on the opposite bank of the river, and established artillery there which shelled the town.

But the siege itself dragged on inconclusively. In July, an attack on the outer defences was attempted, but failed. Summer began to shade into autumn, Quebec was as secure as ever – and time was short. The campaign had to be completed before the onset of the Canadian winter.

It was on 12th September, 1759, that Wolfe hazarded everything on an apparently impossible frontal assault on the Heights of Abraham. During the night, a body of 5,000 men descended the St. Lawrence in small boats and scaled the cliffs. By daybreak the impossible had been accomplished and Montcalm was forced now to open battle.

Wolfe was wounded during the first clash. He continued to lead the attack, but two more bullets struck him and he collapsed, still ignorant of the course the battle was taking.

Wolfe was brought to the rear. When asked if he wanted a doctor, he said it would be pointless because he knew he was dying.

Then someone cried out, “They run – see how they run!”

Wolfe roused himself. “Who runs?” he asked.

The answer came, “The enemy, sir.”

Wolfe thereupon gave instructions to follow up the retreat. Then, turning on his side, he said, “Now God be praised, I will die in peace.”

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