Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Fight For Oversea Empire

The Seven Years War

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham


[This text was written by William WOOD and was published in 1914. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]




The battle of the Plains is one of the great decisive battles of all time. It was fought out between two heroes of equal genius though unequal fortune. It was the culminating feat of arms in the central phase of that Great Imperial War which determined the oversea dominion of the world. It sealed the fate of Canada , caused the death of Greater France, marked the coming of age of Greater Britain, and foreshadowed the birth of the United States.


The actual shock, when the two armies met on this famous field, was the affair of only a few minutes; and the actual operations of the battle itself were all over in the morning hours of September 13. But the plans, manoeuvres and actions which directly led up to or resulted from this momentous event occupied a period of twenty-one days, the last three of August and the first eighteen of September. These twenty-one days were divided into seven distinct parts, each one of which must be carefully considered before the true meaning of the whole can be thoroughly understood. 1. The Brigadiers' Plan, August 29-30. 2. Breaking Camp, August 31-September 3. 3. The Brigadiers' Manoeuvres, September 4-7. 4. Rain Suspends Operations, September 8-9. 5. Wolfes Plan, September 10. 6. The Battle , September 13. 7. The Surrender of Quebec, September 18.


1. The Brigadiers' Plan, August 29-30. - Wolfe, being too ill for active work, sent Monckton a note on the 29th, asking the three brigadiers 'to consult together for the public utility,' and laying before them three plans of attack on the Beauport entrenchments. The brigadiers objected to any further attempts against Beauport, pointing out that even if the entrenchments were carried the line of the St Charles could be held, and that even if the St Charles was crossed the town might hold out for another month, even with only its land line of communication open westward. Then it would be October, and the fleet would have to sail and leave the army stranded. Their own plan was to abandon Montmorency, leave 600 men at the Island of Orleans, 600 more at the 'Point of Levy,' 1,000 at the Lévis batteries, and encamp the rest on the south shore, a little above Quebec, with the object of embarking there and manoeuvring for a landing at any convenient spot on the north shore at or above Cap Rouge, preferably Pointe-aux-Trembles. This plan had, two defects. The French were anticipating some such attack, especially at Pointe-aux-Trembles, and the ground there favoured them rather than the British, even if the landing succeeded. But Wolfe acquiesced. He had failed at Montmorency. He agreed with Saunders that Quebec could not be taken by storm from the river. He hoped the new plan might tempt or force Montcalm to action ; and he was not yet feeling well enough to carry out any alternative of his own.


2. Breaking Game, August 31-September 3 . - This difficult and dangerous operation took four days. The Montmorency was fordable little more than one hour's march up stream, and again at its mouth for the half of every tide. It was so narrow that the armies were within easy musket-shot across it. And the French would be naturally tempted to strike a blow at part of the British after the rest had embarked. The staff work was admirably managed by Carleton. The French were puzzled by apparently important movements of Holmes's ships at Cap Rouge, by a tremendous bombardment of Quebec from the Lévis batteries, and by the clever manoeuvres of the men-of-war opposite the entrenchments. The artillery, fifty pieces in all, was withdrawn first; then some infantry left in detachments ; and the final embarkation of the main body was arranged for the morning of the 3rd. At dawn the men lay behind their earthworks, waiting for the tide to rise, and trying to tempt the French to attack them. During this pause all the men at the 'Point of Levy' put off in boats and came over opposite the Beauport entrenchments, thus strengthening the French suspicions about another attack there. At ten the British marched quickly down to the beach, embarked, and joined the other boats. The French as rapidly concentrated for immediate defence. But no sooner had the two divisions of boats formed up together than they both made off for the Island of Orleans and the 'Point of Levy' as hard as they could row. Thus Wolfe broke camp under the eyes of the enemy without the loss of a single man.


3. The Brigadiers' Manoeuvres, September 4-7. - On the 4th there were 22 vessels between Quebec and Cap Rouge, watched by 500 men whom Bougainville had detached for the purpose. On the 5 th Montcalm sent a whole battalion of French regulars to reinforce these 500. On the 6th Monckton and Townshend left the 'Point of Levy,' forded the Etchemin River, and joined the fleet below Cap Rouge with 3,000 men. Murray remained at the point with 2,000. Montcalm immediately reinforced Bougainville again and sent him all the Indian scouts available. The French were now on the alert everywhere along the thirty miles of shoreline between the Falls of Montmorency and Pointe-aux-Trembles. They repulsed a reconnaissance in force against Cap Rouge on the 7th ; but on the day before Vaudreuil withdrew the battalion of Guienne which Montcalm had so wisely told off to guard the heights near Quebec on the 5th.


4. Rain Suspends Operations, September 8-9. - After finding Cap Rouge too strong on the 7 th the brigadiers went up to Pointe-aux-Trembles on the 8th, with the idea of testing its strength by a landing on the 9th ; but the heavy rain compelled them to desist. In the meantime Wolfe was preparing to resume the active command. He had been visiting all the transports, where there was a great deal of discomfort from overcrowding, and had ordered that as many as possible should disembark their troops every day, for a few hours, at St Nicholas, a village on the south shore, thirteen miles above Quebec.


5. Wolfe's Plan, September 10. - As soon as the weather cleared Wolfe went with Holmes, Monckton, Townshend, Carleton and Captain de Laune - all six disguised as privates in the Grenadiers - to the point of high land just below the mouth of the Etchemin. Here he formed his final plan, entirely on his own initiative, and without revealing it, as a whole, to any one. He saw that circumstances had made the situation particularly favourable for a master-stroke of stratagem. He knew the ground near Quebec well enough from maps, plans, spies, deserters, prisoners, and his excellent engineer and intelligence officer, Major Patrick Mackellar. He had also obtained some information from Robert Stobo, a Virginian hostage for the affair of Fort Necessity , who broke his parole, was condemned to death, was pardoned, and then escaped to spy on his generous enemy. But Stobo most certainly did not suggest this final plan, as he had left Quebec three days before, with dispatches which he delivered to Amherst at Crown Point on October 9. Wolfe was also well posted on the state of the French forces. He knew that they had been weakened by the loss of Lévis and of over a thousand good men, who had gone to Montreal to assist Bourlamaque in checking Amherst. He knew they were suffering great privations in Quebec, where casualties, disease and the increasing desertion of the Canadians were thinning their ranks. He knew their administration was corrupt, and that Vaudreuil was constantly thwarting Montcalm. And, as Vaudreuil was also an inveterate gossip, he knew most of their schemes and movements nearly as well as the men who were carrying them out.


This comprehensive knowledge enabled him to plan a surprise which would have been impossible but for the many circumstances which favoured him and baffled Montcalm. Almost opposite to him the Anse au Foulon offered a landing-place with a road which the French had often used to transport supplies across the promontory of Quebec to their camp at Beauport. This landing-place - ever since known as Wolfe's Cove - was less than two miles from Quebec. On the heights, half-way between, lay a flat open part of the Plains of Abraham which offered an ideal site for a battlefield, if he could only forestall Montcalm. This was by no means easy, in spite of the favouring circumstances of the moment. The cliff was steep, the road narrow; any good force on top could repulse ten times its numbers; and Montcalm himself was vigilant, as was shown by his sending the battalion of Guienne to the neighbourhood. But Vaudreuil had withdrawn this battalion, and had persisted in keeping the wholly incompetent Vergor - notorious for his shameful surrender of Beauséjour - in   command of the post at the head of the Foulon road, probably because Montcalm wished to replace him by the trustworthy St Martin. Thus there was nothing to fear in the immediate vicinity ; only Vergor's slovenly guard of about one hundred slack colonials, the Samos battery three hundred yards further up - four guns and a mortar, and a few patrols and sentries. The garrison of Quebec was feeble and unsuspecting. Best of all, Wolfe's soldiers thought they were going to attack Pointe-aux-Trembles, while the French thought the attack was to be either there or against the Beauport entrenchments.


Wolfe considered all these circumstances, and all the risks inseparable from such undertakings, in the light of his knowledge, and formed his plan at once with all the skill he had earned by a lifetime of preparation. Along the thirty miles of front there was a great deal of French apprehension for the left, below Quebec, and a great deal of French and British excitement about the right, above Cap Rouge. But nobody was thinking about the centre, except Wolfe and Montcalm themselves. Wolfe knew that it was weakly guarded, that when Montcalm had reinforced it Vaudreuil had weakened it again, and that it was at least two hours out of supporting distance from the left, and twice as much out of supporting distance from the right. If he could only land by complete surprise, under present conditions success was almost certain. But this success could only be won by the perfect adjustment of every part, of the fleet and army to every other part and to the whole amphibious force engaged. To bring five thousand men in three brigades by different routes or modes of conveyance; to bring them with or across a five-mile current; to do this on a pitch-black night, along a hostile shore ; to land in the dark, form up in the dark, climb cliffs in the dark, and rush a post in the dark ; to arrange that the boats and transports should disembark their men in the right order, and that all the different parts of the army should fit exactly into their proper places afloat and ashore, so that they might mount the cliff in one unbroken column, form on the top, advance to the battlefield without check or pause, and then deploy there into a final formation which was absolutely new to the art of war ; to make all this the culmination of three nights and days of ceaseless manoeuvring by land and water, over a front of thirty miles, in presence of the enemy : to do all this, and do it to perfection, was not to take Quebec by any kind of luck. Quebec was taken by sheer genius, which alone can see into the heart of complex problems, where luck itself is only a single factor that may, like any other factor, be turned to good account by the supremely fit.


6. The Battle , September 13. - On the 11th and 12th the men-of-war and transports manoeuvred between Cap Rouge and Pointe-aux-Trembles, very much as they had been doing for several days past, and troops were landed for a short rest at St Nicholas, also in the usual way. Bougainville continued his exhausting vigil on shore, painfully dragging his weary two thousand backwards and forwards over exceedingly rough ground, in his faithful efforts to keep touch with an enemy who floated easily up and down with the tide. He had been employed in this way for weeks, and each week the work had become harder than before, and his half-starved men more nearly worn out by it. Yet the ceaseless patrol was well maintained, especially from the heights opposite St Nicholas up to Pointe-aux-Trembles. Precautions were taken even higher up still ; for the French knew to their cost what they had suffered in August from Murray at Deschambault, forty miles above Quebec.


At Quebec itself the garrison had their attention fully employed by the Lévis batteries, which were unusually active, much in the same way as on July 31, when Wolfe had attacked the Beauport entrenchments. The bulk of the French army still had to remain in these entrenchments, because they covered the only open ground near Quebec, and because the movements of the fleet in the basin and of the troops and marines at the Island of Orleans and the 'Point of Levy,' looked as if designed for a renewed attack on them. On the 12th, particularly, Saunders distinctly threatened a possible landing by laying in-shore buoys and firing as if to draw the enemy, and by sending all his boats, manned and armed, to manoeuvre for the supposed spot at midnight.


Meanwhile Wolfe and Montcalm never lost sight of the Foulon. Montcalm again tried to have a better man put in Vergor's place, again tried to reinforce the patrols between Quebec and Cap Rouge, and again ordered the same battalion of Guienne back to the heights, this time to the very spot itself : '12th, Wednesday. Order by M. le Marquis de Montcalm to the battalion of Guienne to go and camp at the Foulon.' But all in vain : Vaudreuil left Vergqr there alone in command, and said he would look into the affairs of the Foulon 'tomorrow morning.' Montcalm had provided against every naval and military move, so far as his limited means allowed, and now, in spite of the fact that Wolfe's secret plan was being worked out behind the impenetrable screen of the British fleet, he nevertheless divined it, with a genius quite equal to Wolfe's own. But he could do no more. False friends and the fleet turned the whole scale against him.


Wolfe's orders of the 11th and 12th gave the exact distribution of his army afloat and ashore ; but no point of attack was named. No one knew it on the 10 th except Holmes and Chads, who were in charge of the covering squadron and the boat-work between Cap Rouge and Pointe-aux-Trembles, where the first and second brigades were afloat under Monckton and Murray, with Wolfe, of course, in personal command. The third brigade, under Townshend, was still at Etchemin, opposite the Foulon. Its presence there naturally lent further colour to the French apprehensions about Beauport, which were strengthened by the fact that Burton's and Carleton's men of this brigade were plainly visible at the 'Point of Levy' and the Island of Orleans. Thus on the 12 th there was universal interest only in what was expected to happen below Quebec and above Cap Rouge. The French below Quebec saw a very menacing fleet, two bodies of redcoats, and unusually active batteries, which were protected by redcoated marines; and they knew that another body of redcoats was within easy reach. At the same time the French above Cap Rouge saw Holmes's fleet and convoy manoeuvring up stream as usual, apparently for the attack which both sides expected at Pointe-aux-Trembles. Their attention was further directed to Pointe-aux-Trembles by the frigates which remained there, as if to cover the advance next morning. These frigates rendered Wolfe another service by stopping the French provision convoy that would otherwise have tried to creep down to the Foulon that very night. Wolfe knew this convoy had been stopped. But Montcalm, down at Beauport, and the French sentries who had orders to let it pass along the shore from Cap Rouge to the Foulon, did not know, and they were anxiously hoping that it might get down safely without being seen by the British men-of-war.


After dark the selected ships and boats were all assembled opposite Cap Rouge without having excited any unusual attention, and Wolfe's final orders had been read out to the troops. These orders completed every detail, but were as silent as the previous ones about the point of attack: the watchword that night was ' Coventry .' They ended with the true ring of patriotic duty : 'A vigorous blow struck by the army at this juncture may determine the fate of Canada . . . . The troops will land where the French seem least to expect it . . . . Officers and Men will remember what their Country expects of them.' This, however, did not satisfy the brigadiers, three very able men, who felt slighted by being kept out of the secret, and who naturally thought that on the eve of action they should be told exactly where they were going to. At eight o'clock they handed in a joint note to Wolfe : '. . . we must beg leave to request from you as distinct orders as the nature of the thing will admit of, particularly of the place or places we are to attack.' At 8.30 Wolfe replied to Monckton about the first and second brigades and separately to Townshend about the third, mentioning the Foulon to them all for the first time. It was probably on account of the coolly critical Townshend that he kept his own counsel to the last.


Then, having settled every detail of his public duty, he called his young naval friend Jervis - the future Earl of St Vincent and Nelson's commander-in-chief - into the flagship's cabin, where he handed over his note-book, will, and the miniature of his fiancée, Miss Lowther, afterwards Duchess of Bolton. He had long had a presentiment that he was to fall in action, and this very day, while reconnoitring from a boat, he showed how closely the idea beset him by reciting a part of Gray's Elegy. He must have felt a poignant prophecy in the now famous line: 'The paths of glory lead   but to the grave.' His will is remarkable for being nearly half taken up with bequests to his servants and directions about their wages and prospects. He was invariably kind to those in humble positions, and well earned his nickname of 'The Soldier's Friend.' Saunders and Carleton were remembered among his friends ; he directed that Miss Lowther's miniature should be set in jewels and returned to her, and he left the residue of his estate to his 'good mother, entirely at her disposal.'




Between nine and ten the first brigade got into the boats, which, on the signal of 'I light in the Sutherland's maintop­mast shrouds,' formed up between her and the south shore. This took till midnight. Then there was a pause of two hours more, the men, according to a letter from one of the forlorn hope, 'waiting impatiently for the signal of proceeding. Fine weather, the night calm, and silence over all.' At a little past two a second light was hoisted above the first, and the boats immediately began to drop down stream along the south shore, with Wolfe and de Laune's twenty-four men of the forlorn hope in the lead. 'Then, with a following breeze from the west, and under a clouding sky, which was reddened and torn by the flash and thunder of artillery in the east, that tense and silent British army swept down the mighty river with the ebbing tide, between those sheer black banks, and into the heart of that dark expectant night, to carry out a plan laid with such daring skill, and to win one of the great immortal battles of the world.'


At three Wolfe's boat was nearing the Hunter, about two miles above Sillery Point. The arrangement was to round her close-to and then slant over for the north shore at Sillery, which was only half a mile above the Foulon. From two deserters on board of her Wolfe had his information about the French provision boats confirmed, and he turned it to good account when the first challenge rang out at Sillery, 'Qui vive ? ' Young Simon Fraser, a Highland officer who spoke French like a native, answered, 'La France !' The sentry asked, 'What regiment ?' and Fraser replied, 'De la Reine ,' as the British knew this regiment was furnishing the escort for the provision boats. The sentry, however, was suspicious and asked again in French, 'Why don't you speak louder ?' But when he received the plausible answer, 'Keep quiet or the English will hear us,' he let them pass on in the dark.


By four the boats had rounded in to the Foulon and Wolfe had sprung ashore. He at once formed up the forlorn hope with three light infantry companies, and led them to the steep spur marking the townward side of the cove. 'I don't know,' he said, 'if we shall be able to get up there ; but we must make the attempt.' The men scrambled up quickly, and were soon circling back to their left on the crest so as to rush Vergor. That worthy jumped out of bed at the first shot and ran for his life. The post was carried with the bayonet, and the British cheers told Wolfe, who was now back at the bottom of the path in the middle of the cove, that the first obstacle had been removed. The pioneers and remaining seven companies of light infantry, under Colonel Howe, sprang eagerly forward, threw the double abattis out of the way, climbed to the top, and were instantly followed by one battalion after another, without a break, until the whole army was formed up on the edge of the heights.


The dovetailing of the different parts was perfect. When the boats had landed the first brigade, they passed through the intervals of the second, which had followed them down in the small transports, and cut across the rapid current to Etchemin, where they took in the third. They then crossed back, again passed through the intervals of the now empty small transports, and had their leading battalion on shore soon enough for it to close up on the rear battalion of the second brigade. Meanwhile the first men up had taken the Samos battery, which stood 300 yards west, and stopped its five pieces from firing into Holmes's men-of-war. At eight o'clock Saunders signalled for all his boats to assemble off the 'Point of Levy,' whence they rowed up with a strong naval brigade and all the artillery, stores and equipment that Wolfe's men required after the battle. This supplemented the earlier efforts of Holmes's bluejackets, who worked so well that the first field gun was brought into action against Montcalm and the second against Bougainville.


All being now secure in the immediate neighbourhood, Wolfe took the remaining seven companies of light infantry and the 58th regiment across the promontory to the Ste Foy road, from which he could see the Beauport entrenchments. There was nothing in motion there, so he marched in, seized the buildings at the junction of the road up from the St Charles with the road out from Quebec, and at once brought the rest of his army forward. His five thousand men were in twelve battalions. Of these he deployed six to his right in the first two-deep 'thin red line' known to the history of war. This formation was adopted because he had to command a width of three-quarters of a mile with so few men. His front occupied seven hundred yards. His right flank was secured by a battalion thrown back so far as almost to face the St Lawrence, and his left not only by a battalion similarly formed, but by the further prolongation towards his rear of Howe's seven companies of light infantry, which could be supported by another battalion in reserve. He thus occupied the whole right half-mile, and secured himself against the left quarter-mile by three battalions ready to hold off the French irregulars, who were mostly in that direction. Another battalion was held in reserve towards the right, and the last was kept far in rear to cover the landing-place.




From eight o'clock till after nine the British waited for the French attack. There was continual skirmishing between the advanced parties and the French irregulars, especially on the left flank. But most of the men in the centre and on the right were lying down. There had been some showers, but the rain was nearly over, and the first sunshine of that memorable day was soon to make every feature of the surrounding country stand out serenely clear:


And all nature contains no scene more fit for mighty deeds than the stupendous amphitheatre in the midst of which Wolfe was waiting to play the hero's part. For the top of the promontory made a giant stage, where his army now stood between the stronghold of New France and the whole dominion of the West. Immediately before him lay his chosen battlefield; beyond that, Quebec. To his left lay the northern theatre, gradually rising and widening, throughout all its magnificent expanse, until the far-ranging Laurentians closed in the view with their rampart-like blue semicircle of eighty miles. To his right lay the southern, where league upon league of undulating upland rolled outward to a still farther-off horizon, whose wider semicircle, curving in to overlap its northern counterpart, made the vast mountain-ring complete. While east arid west, across the arena where he was about to contend for the prize of half a continent, the majestic river, full-charged with the right-hand force of Britain, ebbed and flowed, through gates of empire, on its uniting course between earth's greatest lakes and greatest ocean. And here, too, at these Narrows of Quebec, lay the fit meeting-place of the Old World with the New. For the westward river-gate led on to the labyrinthine waterways of all America, while the eastward stood more open still-flung wide to all the Seven Seas.


Meanwhile Montcalm had had an anxious night; and when he heard the Samos battery firing into Wolfe's second and third brigades, which did not land till after dawn, he naturally supposed it was the fleet firing into the provision convoy which he so urgently needed. None the less, he rode down to the St Charles at once, though Saunders was still threatening his camp and he could see the British tents that had been purposely left standing at the Island of Orleans and 'Point of Levy.' Arrived at the St Charles he found Vaudreuil calmly writing an official letter to Bougainville, although the news that the British had landed in force was already known there. Vaudreuil then ordered Montcalm to take one hundred men to see what Wolfe was doing ! But Montcalm, now catching sight of the redcoats marching in exclaimed, 'There they are where they have no right to be,' and galloped off to turn out every available man, and sent the whole battalion of Guienne up the heights to reconnoitre. This was the same battalion which he had twice ordered to guard the landing-place, and which Vaudreuil had twice counterordered. Montcalm was quick in his efforts to bring his army into action. But Vaudreuil had forestalled him. When Montcalm's aide-de-camp showed his orders to bring up the left, the commanding officer showed Vaudreuil's orders to keep it where it was till further notice ! When Montcalm applied for the twenty-five light field guns in Quebec, the commandant would only give him three, because Vaudreuil would not send a covering order ! Finally, he succeeded in getting away from Vaudreuil with all the regulars - eight little battalions, under three thousand strong, and only five of them French regulars, including the badly disciplined battalion of Languedoc , which had been filled up by a gaol-bird draft sent out to replace the good men taken by Boscawen's fleet in the Gulf in 1755. His total strength in action was about five thousand; the same as Wolfe's in mere numbers, but very different from Wolfe's homogeneous whole in military value.


An hour after Wolfe had formed his two-deep line of battle, Montcalm had his eight battalions half a mile off, on the inner slope of the culminating swell of ground which ran across the promontory and hid the armies from each other. He had chosen the proper ground and line of attack. Any attempt to take Wolfe in the left flank, by advancing across the marshy valley of the St Charles in full view and storming the cliffs, would have been sheer madness; worse, in every way, than Wolfe's attempt on Montmorency. He had ridden forward to reconnoitre some time before, and had then seen the last British battalion coming up to join the reserve. He could not see Wolfe's right, as the men were lying down behind some standing crops there. He thought they might not yet have had time to form. But the fleet and Vaudreuil and many other adverse circumstances had kept him so much in the dark that he called his brigadiers, staff and colonels to the front, and asked if any one had any positive information. The general belief was that Wolfe had not yet completed his formation, but that he was beginning to entrench, so that the only hope was an immediate attack. For other reasons, too, this was the best, and, indeed, the only course to take. Once Wolfe bestrode the promontory, Montcalm simply had to fight, starve or surrender. The single marshy road in the valley of the St Charles could never provision the twenty thousand mouths in the camp and Quebec . It was of no use to wait, as what could be gained by Bougainville's co-operation would be more than offset by Wolfe's entrenchments. Besides, every delay must add to the British strength, as they had the naval brigade and fleet to draw upon, as well as a few more men of their army. So Montcalm advanced his troops to the top of the swell of ground, and there deployed them into a six-deep line in full view of Wolfe a quarter of a mile away. He doubted the effectiveness of the colonial regulars ; but he had no choice in the matter, and so put them on the flanks, where he hoped they would face the shock best. He knew the Languedoc battalion was untrustworthy, so he kept it in quarter column and led it into action himself.


When the formation was complete he rode down the front of his line, stopping to ask the men if they were tired, and always getting the answer from those he had so often led to victory that they were never tired before a battle. And, despite all drawbacks, they, and perhaps even he, still felt the hope of one more glory. The three brigadiers and three senior colonels were all good men. 'Montcalm himself towered aloft and alone - the last great Frenchman of the Western World. Honoured alike by the spiteful hate of the Canadian Government, by the personal devotion of his own army, and by the soldier-like regard of his enemies, he never stood higher in all manly minds than on that fatal day. As he rode before his men there, in the full uniform of the lieutenant-general of the king, his presence seemed to call them on like a drapeau vivant of France herself.'




Wolfe had been watching closely, and as soon as the French began to form their line he moved his front a hundred paces forward, so as to commit both sides to decisive action. His orders were that the front was not to fire till he gave the signal, when the French were only forty paces off. Each of the six battalions was then to fire one double-shotted volley, close up another twenty paces to its own front, fire a 'general' - that is, each man independently - and look for the order to charge with the bayonet. His one six-pounder now arrived, and was run out in front by the bluejackets and fired by Captain York of the Royal Artillery, who caught the nearest French in the act of deploying. But Montcalm's men soon steadied, and, on a signal from their general, their whole line cheered loudly and began the advance, which in those days was made in slow time, with frequent halts for firing at short ranges. They all pressed on energetically for the first half of the way ; but no sooner were the Canadian regulars, who had no bayonets, within extreme range, than they began firing without orders and threw themselves flat to reload. This spoilt the whole formation, as it uncovered both flanks ; and the French regulars wavered and paused when they saw that, while the Canadians who remained in line evidently had no intention of getting hand to hand, the others were slinking off to join the skirmishers under cover.


Closing their ranks, however, their five battalions went on alone, though with much less assurance than before. They soon began to lose direction, their left inclining to its own left, and their centre and right to their own right. Thus they all sheered off from the British centre, where the 43rd and 47th were left without an enemy in front of them. Then the Languedoc battalion got out of hand, lost control of its fire, and spread the same sense of unsteadiness from the centre as the Canadian regulars had just been spreading from the flanks. In a moment the long months of hardship and nights of recent vigil did their unnerving work, and the whole French line was firing wildly, in an undisciplined attempt to shake the British at a distance before closing in on them for the final charge:


And it was all in vain. There stood the long, straight, two-deep line, with shouldered arms - a steadfast living wall of red, flashing defiance from its keen steel-pointed crest of bayonets - magnificently silent, yet eagerly waiting to seize the long-despaired-of chance to fight it out fairly, hand to hand, on equal terms, and in the open field. Closer and closer came the densely massed attacking line of battle, its officers leading it on with the utmost gallantry to the very last ; but with its far right and left still melting away, as the Canadians sought their familiar brushwood cover, and its five French battalions still breaking it asunder, as they instinctively bore outwards from the centre to save their deserted flanks from a double overlap of fire and steel. And soon even these tried veterans lost heart a little, when they began to near the narrow forty paces where they had to meet that silently expectant line in the death-grapple which was to decide the fate of half America. They still came on, however ; though now their thronged white ranks only surged forward a few steps at a time, and broke continually in wild bursts of impotent smoke, as baffled waves break short of a reef protected shore. And, as they came, Wolfe's straining eye was measuring every pace of that decreasing interval - a hundred - seventy-five - fifty - forty - 'Fire !' -   and the first volley thundered from the Grenadiers of Louisbourg and was instantly followed by another from each battalion, all down the British line. So perfectly delivered were these famous volleys that they sounded like salvoes of artillery, and so truly aimed that the whole front rank of the French went down, almost to a man, before their terrific storm of bullets.


The 43rd and 47th regiments having no enemy in front, turned half-right and half-left to fire into the nearest opposing bodies. The five short six-deep French battalions were therefore taken on both their outer and inner flanks by the six long two-deep British battalions, which immediately closed up another twenty paces to the front under cover of their own smoke; so that when it cleared off the two armies found themselves literally face to face. The British fired again at twenty paces. The French right swayed, heaved and crumbled like a tottering wall, then broke and fled in mad confusion, followed by the centre at the moment of the British charge. The splendid battalion of Royal Roussillon stood fast a moment to receive the British right which Wolfe was leading on in person. But it also was carried away in the general rout ; and victors and vanquished ran towards Quebec, pursuing and pursued.


The French made for the bridge of boats across the St Charles and got over in safety. They owed their safety in crossing the valley chiefly to a magnificent stand made by the very men who had failed to support them on the Plains. When the Highlanders reached the Côte d'Abraham they were brought to a dead stop by some Canadians who were lining the bushes on the edge of the cliff. These men fought with such determination that it took three battalions to drive them into the valley, where some of them again stood at bay till they were cut to pieces. This gallant stand reflects great credit on all classes of the French soldiery. The leader, Dumas, Beaujeu's successor at Braddock's defeat, was a French regular ; but his men were all Canadians, regulars and militia.


The British victory was completely won before Bougainville's first men appeared about eleven o'clock. Considering his lack of information, the way in which his men were harassed, misled and worn out by the fleet, and the distance at which he had to remain from Quebec, through no fault of his own, he must be allowed the credit of having done all that any leader in his unfortunate position could possibly do. The very fact that he collected a strong force from the thirteen miles of shore-line between Cap Rouge and Pointe-aux-Trembles, and brought his men before noon on to a field between ten and fifteen miles away from where most of them had spent the last of many weary nights, is in itself sufficient evidence of his loyalty, zeal and capabilities. He made a reconnaissance in force, saw that the day was hopelessly lost, and retired to Lorette.




The British loss was only 655 killed and wounded. The French was about 1,000 and a good many prisoners. But the quality of the losses on both sides was more important than its quantity. Just as the British charge began, Wolfe received his third and mortal wound. He reeled aside, half stunned by the shock, and begged the three officers who came to his assistance not to let his men see him fall. He was helped back a couple of hundred yards and seated on a grenadier's coat. An officer on a little knoll in front of him called out, 'They run, they run!' 'Who run ?' asked Wolfe, raising himself with a supreme effort. 'The French, sir ; egad ! they give way everywhere !'   'Then I die content,' said Wolfe, and, almost as he said it, his soaring spirit passed away.


When he fell Monckton took command, but was himself wounded almost immediately. Then Murray took charge of the pursuit up to the walls, as he had just been told that Townshend had been hit. But in a few minutes Townshend came up unwounded, as it was Carleton and not he who had been hit on the left of the line. Thus the British command-in-chief passed through the hands of all four generals in the space of one short half-hour.


But the French command-in-chief was simply swept away in blood. Montcalm, his three brigadiers - Sennezergue, Fontbonne and St Ours - and the senior colonel, Beauchâtel, were all killed or mortally wounded. When, wounded already, Montcalm was desperately trying to rally enough men to cover the retreat, he was shot through the body, and would have fallen from the saddle had not two grenadiers supported him. As he rode through St Louis Gate some terrified Quebec women cried out, 'O my God ! the marquess is killed !' But Montcalm answered at once, 'It is nothing - you must not distress yourselves on my account, my good friends.' He went on down the street to the house of Dr Arnoux, who told him he had only a few more hours to live. 'So much the better,' he replied ; 'I shall not be a witness to the surrender of Quebec .' He then dictated the following letter to the British commander, whom he addressed simply on the outside as 'Monsieur,' since no one round him at that moment knew who had succeeded Wolfe: 'SIR; Being obliged to surrender Quebec to your arms, I have the honour to recommend our sick and wounded to Your Excellency's kindness, and to ask for the execution of the cartel d'échange agreed upon by His Most Christian Majesty and His Britannic Majesty. I beg Your Excellency to rest assured of the high esteem and respectful consideration with which I have the honour to be, Sir, Your most humble and most obedient servant, MONTCALM.' After this he answered an application for advice from Vaudreuil by pointing out that the only alternatives were to fight again, surrender the colony, or retreat to Jacques Cartier. He told the Chevalier de Ramezay, who commanded the garrison of the city that he could advise no means of defending Quebec. Then his mind turned to his home and his family, to each member of which he sent a farewell message. He spent the night in receiving the consolations of religion; and, just as the dreary day was breaking, he breathed his last.


The next night, by the fitful glare of torches, he was buried in the Ursuline Chapel. As this was the only place of worship which the siege had left with a roof on, the British officers also assembled there ten days later to hear the chaplain of the flagship preach a sermon in memory of Wolfe.


Montcalm is commemorated there by an inscription composed by the French Academy of that day, at the request of Bougainville, to whom Pitt wrote a letter of manly admiration for the dead hero and gave permission for the tablet to pass through the British lines by land and sea. But the tablet was unaccountably lost, and only replaced by another, with the original inscription, on the centenary of the battle, in 1859. Long before this, however, a British governor-general had put another inscription over the grave ' Honneur à Montcalm ! Le destin, en lui dérobant la victoire, l'a récompensé par une mort glorieuse'. The imperial forces in Canada, for their part, had commemorated Wolfe, on the spot where he died, by a monument inscribed with these four words


'Here died Wolfe victorious.' And full honour has been done to both heroes together by the single monument in the governor's garden which bears on one side the word Wolfe, on the other Montcalm , and in the centre this splendid tribute to their joint renown: 'Mortem virtus communem, famam historia, monumentum posteritas, dedit.'


7. The Surrender of Quebec, September 18. - As soon as Bougainville left the promontory clear of enemies, Townshend entrenched for the night. This was a wise precaution. But he might have saved himself the trouble. Vaudreuil first blustered about taking his revenge, then held a council of war which decided that a retreat to Jacques Cartier was unavoidable. That retreat took place at nine o'clock, and the whole movement soon degenerated into a perfect sauve qui peut, though there was no pursuit, nor even the threat of one. Quebec was thus abandoned to its fate, and though Vaudreuil loitered about at a safe distance, he did nothing effective to relieve it. On the 17 th the British batteries were ready to open fire within a quarter of a mile. Saunders closed in with an unbroken line of men-of-war stretching from the basin to Sillery, and had a strong landing party ready to attack from the lower town at the same time as the army stormed the walls, which were too weak to afford any real protection to the depleted garrison of twelve hundred effectives. Ramezay thereupon surrendered with the honours of war. The British marched in on the 18th and hoisted three Union Jacks in token of possession - one over the citadel, a second on a gun in the centre of the esplanade, and the third, which was hoisted by the men of the fleet, on the ground to the left of Mountain Hill, looking down.



Saunders presently sailed away, leaving Murray to winter in Quebec with the army. Lévis took charge of the French forces, which wintered in Montreal with Vaudreuil. And the greatest of all Canadian campaigns came to its decisive end.

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Source: William WOOD, "The Fight For Oversea Empire: The Battle of the Plains", in Adam SHORTT and Arthur DOUGHTY, eds., Canada and Its Provinces, Vol. I, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, 312p., pp. 288-308.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College