At the height of the Seven Years’ War, one British volley would almost single-handedly decide the fate of the battle of the Plains of Abraham
Though the pitched part of the battle was over in 15 minutes, Major-General James Wolfe’s victory on the outskirts of Quebec in September 1759 ranks among the most important engagements of the Seven Years’ War. It was one of a string of spectacular British military triumphs that year, culminating in 1759 being declared an annus mirabilis, or ‘year of miracles’. Success here extinguished any hope of France maintaining its fledgling North American empire, and it was largely achieved by a single fusillade later described as the “most perfect volley ever fired on a battlefield”.
As Wolfe and his men sailed downriver in the early hours of 13 September, he may well have felt he needed a miracle. He had spent two months trying to bludgeon his way across the landward approaches to the city without success. Now autumn was setting in and the threat of pack ice closing the St Lawrence river, the great estuary running adjacent his prize, was growing greater day by day. If it came he would be forced return to England in disgrace. So he resolved on a final attempt – a landing near a cove named L’Anse au Foulon, which would put his army on Quebec’s doorstep.
Fortune certainly smiled on the British as they floated in the darkness. At the same time as Wolfe’s flotilla advanced, the French sentries on duty had been expecting a friendly supply convoy to pass by – the fact that this convoy had been postponed hadn’t been deemed important enough to pass on to them. The French guards called out a challenge to the British, to what they believed to be barges laden with provisions; as luck would have it no reply had been agreed, and the story goes that a man of the 78th Highlanders (there are several candidates) replied in French. Wolfe’s men continued on their way unhindered. Only as dawn set in did the French realise their mistake and begin firing, but by then the first British boats had already landed.
Lieutenant-Colonel William Howe’s light infantry had come ashore at around 4am in the ashen pre-dawn, pulled slightly too far downriver by the ebbing tide but otherwise unscathed. Wolfe’s orders had been that a party of 24 men should storm the narrow track winding up from the bank to the heights above the Foulon. With the track nowhere to be seen and daybreak creeping closer, Howe now deviated from those commands: as well as dispatching the two-dozen men to try and find the road, he himself led three companies directly up the cliff face ahead him, his men heaving themselves up the loose shale by grasping onto branches and boughs. When they reached the top, they were behind the French outpost at the trailhead.
Quite astonishingly, a great deal of bloodshed was avoided by repeating the same the ruse that had worked on the river. One the first to make the climb was Captain Donald MacDonald of the 78th Highlanders, who in his early life had served in the French Army. He was hailed by a sentry, and with great presence of mind managed to reply using the customs he had learned years previously. It still being dark enough to hide his true allegiance, he then told the sentry that he and his companions had come as reinforcements and that the guard should call off his compatriots ranged along the hill, which he duly did.
On taking the summit Howe’s men gave a signal to those landing below – a loud ‘Huzzah!’ – and made short work of the meagre resistance that remained. By 8am, the entire army had landed, and once up the narrow track they ranged themselves on the Plains of Abraham. Wolfe had marched his men into what could be quite fairly called a life or death position. The track was too narrow to stage an ordered retreat, the boats to take men back to the transports too few. They would either achieve victory here or be annihilated.
It is unclear at what point his French counterpart, Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, realised that the firing from the Foulon was a full-scale incursion. Wolfe’s actions in the previous days had Montcalm sure that the British would attack elsewhere; indeed his best and most experienced men were farther down the coast with his protégé Louis Antoine de Bougainville for this reason. But he also felt compelled to attack quickly. He was unaware that the entire British force was now ashore. He believed that the longer he waited, the stronger they would become. Worse, he had received erroneous reports that the British were entrenching – in truth they didn’t have the tools to do such a thing, let alone the intent.
Wolfe’s force was nominally 3,800 men, but there were only 1,800 in his main battle line – the 28th, 43rd, 47th, 78th and 58th Regiments, plus the Louisburg Grenadiers and a small detachment of artillery. The 48th formed the reserve, the remainder guarding the flanks. While they waited for the French, now swarming onto the plain, they were sniped by Canadian and Native American skirmishers hiding in the bushes around them; Wolfe eventually had to order his men to lie on the ground to lessen the casualties from their withering fire.
One of the best accounts of what happened next comes from Captain John Knox of the 43rd, who kept a journal throughout the campaign. He wrote that at 10am “the [French army] began to advance briskly in three columns, with loud shouts and recovered arms”. Though they came with great gusto, they lacked discipline – in part because Montcalm had filled the depleted ranks of his regular units with untested Canadians. Men began to fire at will once they were within 130 yards, a fire that “our troops withstood with the greatest intrepidity and firmness, still reserving their fire and paying strictest obedience to their officers”.
While the British 6-pounders fired with rapidity, the men were steadfast and still. Wolfe had ordered them to load an additional ball into their muskets and to hold fire until the French were within 40 yards. Once across that threshold, Knox writes: “The 43rd and 47th regiments … gave them with great calmness, as remarkable a close and heavy discharge, as I ever saw performed at a private field of exercise”. The front ranks of the French columns were obliterated; it was, he adds, “comme un coup de canon” – like a cannon blast. More volleys followed, and within minutes the attack disintegrated into a rout in which Montcalm was wounded; he died the next day. Wolfe did not live to share the glory of the annus mirabilis either. He had a reputation for leading from the front to the point of recklessness, and was shot just before the French advance. He is said to have learned of the rout on his deathbed, passing with a smile on his face.
About 45 minutes after the battle started, Bougainville appeared; had he arrived any earlier and the outcome could have been quite different. Alone, he was no match for the British, and he retired without a fight. Five days later, Quebec surrendered.
It was not the end of the fighting around the city – that would continue for another year yet – but the British would not once lose control of what had been the jewel of New France.
The 43rd regiment
Captain John Knox’s unit was raised as Thomas Fowke’s Regiment in 1741, numbered the 43rd Regiment of Foot in 1748 and gained its first battle honour for its efforts on the Plains of Abraham. In 1762, the 43rd were part of the expeditionary force that captured the strategically important island of Martinique, which the British would use as a bargaining tool to take possession of the entirety of French Canada at the end of the Seven Years’ War.
The 43rd later saw action during the American War of Independence at Lexington and Bunker Hill in 1775; the latter is where the saying ‘Do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes’ – encapsulating Wolfe’s tactics outside of Quebec – is believed to have been coined. On both occasions, the 43rd fought alongside the 52nd Regiment of Foot, with which it would be amalgamated in 1881 to form the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. In the intervening years, the regiment was reassigned as the 43rd (Monmouthshire) Light Infantry and saw action in the Peninsular War, Indian Mutiny and New Zealand Wars. It is now part of the modern-day Rifles.
The regimental museum is the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock (http://www.sofo.org.uk). It archives includes diaries, letters and photographs, a vast collection of artefacts and a library of over 1,000 books. Genealogy enquiries can be made online if you know the full name, DOB and service number of an ancestor who served in the regiment, or by post if not. For more information visit http://www.sofo.org.uk/research.
First published in Your Family History magazine