L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
The Winning of Canada
A Chronicle of Wolfe
The Seven Years’ Peace
[This text was written by William Wood. For the precise bibliographical information, see the end of the document.]
WOLFE was made welcome in England wherever he went. In spite of his youth his name was well known to the chief men in the Army, and he was already a hero among the friends of his family. By nature he was fond of the society of ladies, and of course he fell in love. He had had a few flirtations before, like most other soldiers ; but this time the case was serious. The difference was the same as between a sham fight and a battle. His choice fell on Elizabeth Lawson, a maid of honour to the Princess of Wales. The oftener he saw her the more he fell in love with her. But the course of true love did not, as we shall presently see, run any more smoothly for him than it has for many another famous man.
In 1749, when Wolfe was only twenty-two, he was promoted major of the 20th Regiment of Foot. He joined it in Scotland, where he was to serve for the next few years. At first he was not very happy in Glasgow. He did not like the people, as they were very different from the friends with whom he had grown up. Yet his loneliness only added to his zeal for study. He had left school when still very young, and he now found himself ignorant of much that he wished to know. As a man of the world he had found plenty of gaps in his general knowledge. Writing to his friend Captain Rickson, he says : 'When a man leaves his studies at fifteen, he will never be justly called a man of letters. I am endeavouring to repair the damages of my education, and have a person to teach me Latin and mathematics.' From his experience in his own profession, also, he had learned a good deal. In a letter to his father he points out what excellent chances soldiers have to see the vivid side of many things : ‘That variety incident to a military life gives our profession some advantages over those of a more even nature. We have all our passions and affections aroused and exercised, many of which must have wanted their proper employment had not suitable occasions obliged us to exert them. Few men know their own courage till danger proves them, or how far the love of honour or dread of shame are superior to the love of life. This is a knowledge to be best acquired in an army ; our actions are there in presence of the world, to be fully censured or approved.'
Great commanders are always keen to learn everything really worth while. It is only the little men who find it a bore. Of course, there are plenty of little men in a regiment, as there are everywhere else in the world ; and some of the officers were afraid Wolfe would insist on their doing as he did. But he never preached. He only set the example, and those who had the sense could follow it. One of his captains wrote home : 'Our acting colonel here is a paragon. He neither drinks, curses, nor gambles. So we make him our pattern.' After a year with him the officers found him a ` jolly good fellow' as well as a pattern ; and when he became their lieutenant-colonel at twenty-three they gave him a dinner that showed he was a prime favourite among them. He was certainly quite as popular with the men. Indeed, he soon became known by a name which speaks for itself—' the soldier's friend.'
By and by Wolfe's regiment marched into the Highlands, where he had fought against Prince Charlie in the '45. But he kept in touch with what was going on in the world outside. He wrote to Rickson at Halifax, to find out for him all he could about the French and British colonies in America. In the same letter, written in 1751, he said he should like to see some Highland soldiers raised for the king's army and sent out there to fight. Eight years later he was to have a Highland regiment among his own army at Quebec. Other themes filled the letters to his mother. Perhaps he was thinking of Miss Lawson when he wrote : ‘I have a certain turn of mind that favours matrimony prodigiously. I love children. Two or three manly sons are a present to the world, and the father that offers them sees with satisfaction that he is to live in his successors.' He was thinking more gravely of a still higher thing when he wrote on his twenty-fifth birthday, January 2, 1752, to reassure his mother about the strength of his religion.
Later on in the year, having secured leave of absence, he wrote to his mother in the best of spirits. He asked her to look after all the little things he wished to have done. ‘Mr Pattison sends a pointer to Blackheath ; if you will order him to be tied up in your stable, it will oblige me much. If you hear of a servant who can dress a wig it will be a favour done me to engage him. I have another favour to beg of you and you '11 think it an odd one : 'tis to order some currant jelly to be made in a crock for my use. It is the custom in Scotland to eat it in the morning with bread.' Then he proposed to have a shooting-lodge in the Highlands, long before any other Englishman seems to have thought of what is now so common. ‘you know what a whimsical sort of person I am. Nothing pleases me now but hunting, shooting, and fishing. I have distant notions of taking a very little house, remote upon the edge of the forest, merely for sport.'
In July he left the Highlands, which were then, in some ways, as wild as Labrador is now. About this time there was a map made by a Frenchman in Paris which gave all the chief places in the Lowlands quite rightly, but left the north of Scotland blank, with the words ‘Unknown land here, inhabited by the " Iglandaires " ! ' When his leave began Wolfe went first to Dublin—' dear, dirty Dublin,' as it used to be called—where his uncle, Major Walter Wolfe, was living. He wrote to his father : ‘The streets are crowded with people of a large size and well limbed, and the women very handsome. They have clearer skins, and fairer complexions than the women in England or Scotland, and are exceeding straight and well made' ; which shows that he had the proper soldier's eye for every pretty girl. Then he went to London and visited his parents in their new house at the corner of Greenwich Park, which stands to-day very much the same as it was then. But, wishing to travel, he succeeded, after a great deal of trouble, in getting leave to go to Paris. Lord Bury was a friend of his, and Lord Bury's father, the Earl of Albemarle, was the British ambassador there. So he had a good chance of seeing the best of everything. Perhaps it would be almost as true to say that he had as good a chance of seeing the worst of everything. For there were a great many corrupt and corrupting men and women at the French court. There was also much misery in France, and both the corruption and the misery were soon to trouble New France, as Canada was then called, even more than they troubled Old France at home.
Wolfe wished to travel about freely, to see the French armies at work, and then to go on to Prussia to see how Frederick the Great managed his perfectly disciplined army. This would have been an excellent thing to do. But it was then a very new thing for an officer to ask leave to study foreign armies. Moreover, the chief men in the British Army did not like the idea of letting such a good colonel go away from his regiment for a year, even though he was going with the object of making himself a still better officer. Perhaps, too, his friends were just a little afraid that he might join the Prussians or the Austrians ; for it was not, in those days, a very strange thing to join the army of a friendly foreign country. What-ever the reason, the long leave was refused and he went no farther than Paris.
Louis XV was then at the height of his apparent greatness ; and France was a great country, as it is still. But king and government were both corrupt. Wolfe saw this well enough and remembered it when the next war broke out. There was a brilliant society in 'the capital of civilization,' as the people of Paris proudly called their city ; and there was a great deal to see. Nor was all of it bad. He wrote home two days after his arrival.
The packet [ferry] did not sail that night, but we embarked at half-an-hour after six in the morning and got into Calais at ten. I never suffered so much in so short a time at sea. The people [in Paris] seem to be very sprightly. The buildings are very magnificent, far surpassing any we have in London. Mr Selwin has recommended a French master to me, and in a few days I begin to ride in the Academy, but must dance and fence in my own lodgings. Lord Albemarle [the British ambassador] is come from Fontainebleau. I have very good reason to be pleased with the reception I met with. The best amusement for strangers in Paris is the Opera, and the next is the playhouse. The theatre is a school to acquire the French language, for which reason I frequent it more than the other.
In Paris he met young Philip Stanhope, the boy to whom the Earl of Chesterfield wrote his celebrated letters ; ‘but,' says Wolfe, ‘I fancy he is infinitely inferior to his father.' Keeping fit, as we call it nowadays, seems to have been Wolfe's first object. He took the same care of himself as the Japanese officers did in the Russo-Japanese War ; and for the same reason, that he might be the better able to serve his country well the next time she needed him. Writing to his mother he says :
I am up every morning at or before seven and fully employed till twelve. Then I dress and visit, and dine at two. At five most people go to the public entertainments, which keep you till nine ; and at eleven I am always in bed. This way of living is directly opposite to the practice of the place. But no constitution could go through all. Four or five days in the week I am up six hours before any other fine gentleman in Paris. I ride, fence, dance, and have a master to teach me French. I succeed much better in fencing and riding than in the art of dancing, for they suit my genius better ; and I improve a little in French. I have no great acquaintance with the French women, nor am likely to have. It is almost impossible to introduce one's self among them without losing a great deal of money, which you know I can't afford ; besides, these entertainments begin at the time I go to bed, and I have not health enough to sit up all night and work all day. The people here use umbrellas to defend them from the sun, and something of the same kind to secure them from the rain and snow. I wonder a practice so useful is not introduced into England.
While in Paris Wolfe was asked if he would care to be military tutor to the Duke of Richmond, or, if not, whether he knew of any good officer whom he could recommend. On this he named Guy Carleton, who became the young duke's tutor. Three men afterwards well known in Canada were thus brought together long before any of them became celebrated. The Duke of Richmond went into Wolfe's regiment. The next duke became a governor-general of Canada, as Guy Carleton had been before him. And Wolfe—well, he was Wolfe !
One day he was presented to King Louis, from whom, seven years later, he was to wrest Quebec. ‘They were all very gracious as far as courtesies, bows, and smiles go, for the Bourbons seldom speak to anybody.' Then he was presented to the clever Marquise de Pompadour, whom he found having her hair done up in the way which is still known by her name to every woman in the world. It was the regular custom of that time for great ladies to receive their friends while the barbers were at work on their hair. ‘She is extremely handsome and, by her conversation with the ambassador, I judge she must have a great deal of wit and understanding.' But it was her court intrigues and her shameless waste of money that helped to ruin France and Canada.
In the midst of all these gaieties Wolfe never forgot the mother whom he thought ‘a match for all the beauties.' He sent her 'two black laced hoods and a vestale for the neck, such as the Queen of France wears.' Nor did he forget the much humbler people who looked upon him as ‘the soldier's friend.' He tells his mother that his letters from Scotland have just arrived, and that ‘the women of the regiment take it into their heads to write to me sometimes.' Here is one of their letters, marked on the outside, ‘The Petition of Anne White' :
Collonnell,—Being a True Noble-hearted Pittyful gentleman and Officer your Worship will excuse these few Lines concerning ye husband of ye undersigned, Sergt. White, who not from his own fault is not behaving as Hee should towards me and his family, although good and faithfull till the middle of November last.
We may be sure ‘Sergt. White' had to behave ‘as Hee should' when Wolfe returned !
In April, to his intense disgust, Wolfe was again in Glasgow.
We are all sick, officers and soldiers. In two days we lost the skin off our faces with the sun, and the third were shivering in great coats. My cousin Goldsmith has sent me the finest young pointer that ever was seen ; he eclipses Workie, and out-does all. He sent me a fishing-rod and wheel at the same time, of his own workmanship. This, with a salmon-rod from my uncle Wat, your flies, and my own guns, put me in a condition to undertake the Highland sport. We have plays, we have concerts, we have balls, with dinners and suppers of the most execrable food upon earth, and wine that approaches to poison. The men of Glasgow drink till they are excessively drunk. The ladies are cold to everything but a bagpipe—I wrong them—there is not one that does not melt away at the sound of money.'
By the end of this year, however, he had left Scotland for good. He did not like the country as he saw it. But the times were greatly against his doing so. Glasgow was not at all a pleasant place in those narrowly provincial days for any one who had seen much of the world. The Highlands were as bad. They were full of angry Jacobites, who could never forgive the redcoats for defeating Prince Charlie. Yet Wolfe was not against the Scots as a whole ; and we must never forget that he was the first to recommend the raising of those Highland regiments which have fought so nobly in every British war since the mighty one in which he fell.
During the next year and part of the year following, 1754-55, Wolfe was at Exeter, where the entertainments seem to have been more to his taste than those at Glasgow. A lady who knew him well at this time wrote : ` He was generally ambitious to gain a tall, graceful woman to be his partner, as well as a good dancer. He seemed emulous to display every kind of virtue and gallantry that would render him amiable.'
In 1755 the Seven Years' Peace was coming to an end in Europe. The shadow of the Seven Years' War was already falling darkly across the prospect in America. Though Wolfe did not leave for the front till 1757, he was constantly receiving orders to be ready, first for one place and then for another. So early as February 18, 1755, he wrote to his mother what he then thought might be a fare-well letter. It is full of the great war ; but personal affairs of the deeper kind were by no means forgotten. ‘The success of our fleet in the beginning of the war is of the utmost importance.' 'It will be sufficient comfort to you both to reflect that the Power which has hitherto preserved me may, if it be His pleasure, continue to do so. If not, it is but a few days more or less, and those who perish in their duty and the service of their country die honourably.'
The end of this letter is in a lighter vein. But it is no less characteristic : it is all about his dogs. ‘You are to have Flurry instead of Romp. The two puppies I must desire you to keep a little longer. I can't part with either of them, but must find good and secure quarters for them as well as for my friend Caesar, who has great merit and much good humour. I have given Sancho to Lord Howe, so that I am reduced to two spaniels and one pointer.' It is strange that in the many books about dogs which mention the great men who have been fond of them—and most great men are fond of dogs—not one says a word about Wolfe. Yet ‘my friend Caesar, who has great merit and much good humour,' deserves to be remembered with his kind master just as much, in his way, as that other Caesar, the friend of Edward VII, who followed his master to the grave among the kings and princes of a mourning world.
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Source: William WOOD, "The Seven Years' Peace, 1748-1755", in The Winning of Canada. A Chronicle of Wolfe, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1915, 152p., pp. 28-42.