QUEBEC, 1759: Who's Missing from the Script?
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On September 12, 1759, about a quarter-millennium ago, James Wolfe landed his army under the steep bluffs that hid the Plains of Abraham and the walls of Quebec. While rangers and light infantry battled the French force guarding the top of the hill, a rushing tide carried the British past their landing place. Somehow, they stumbled back to the Anse au Foulon, struggled up the slope and lined up to await the French response.
Perhaps the Marquis de Montcalm should have collected his whole army while the British awaited their fate. Instead, as Wolfe had hoped, Montcalm mustered his white-coated French regulars, mixed in a few-thousand motley Canadian militia and his aboriginal allies and marched them up from Beauport to the Butte a Neveu, a rocky mound between Quebec's walls and the British. Experts tell us Montcalm should have calmed down his troops and waited for the British to attack up his hill. He didn't.
The armies of Wolfe and Montcalm were about the same size but they had trained differently. An infantry colonel for most of his career, Wolfe had spent the summer drilling his men to load and fire their brown Bess muskets for best effect - at short range, they were killers!. Montcalm had mixed his regulars and militia but he had despaired of making "real" soldiers from the scruffy and wilful militia. Faced with an enemy, the Canadiens and aboriginals did what modern soldiers are told to do: take cover, crawl to see an enemy, take aim and shoot. That morning, that's what they did, killing and wounding lots of British redcoats; even hitting Wolfe himself on his hand and his belly.
Suddenly, the French regulars began pouring down from their hill, eager to crush the British as they had at Monongahela, Oswego, Fort William Henry, Carillon and , four weeks before, at Montmorency Fall. A gloomy Montcalm did not stop them. Badly out of range, some began to shoot. Amid the trees and boulders of the Butte, the regulars dissolved into three distinct crowds, two heading north, one south, all missing the British centre. Forty yards from the stolid British line, the French stopped. Orders, audible to both sides, cut the air. Redcoats raised their muskets and, in succession, each line fired. A six-pounder cannon on each flank added to the carnage. What happened next? Suddenly French soldiers knew they would die. The chill of terror that had dissolved British regulars in earlier battles now struck Montcalm's men. A British cannon shell smashed their general's side. As soldiers lugged Montcalm back to Quebec, they were jostled by terrified white-coats fleeing for their lives. Bayonets glinting, the British followed at their heels. On the left, Fraser's Highlanders dropped their muskets, drew their heavy claymores, and raced forward with blood-curdling screams, to cut off a French escape to Beauport.
This is as much of the battle as most historians report. What more do you need to know? Montcalm died before dawn on the 14th. Hit again, probably by a Canadian militiaman, Wolfe died as the French ranks dissolved. Of course, fighting on the Plains continued until dusk, sustained by Canadien militia and their Native allies. When Quebec Sovereignists killed plans to re-enact the battle next September, they helped keep that part of the story secret. Perhaps they had no idea that it happened. When French regulars fled, the militia fought on. Five times they stopped Fraser's terrifying Highlanders from slaughtering the French regulars. Thanks to their despised militia and aboriginal allies, Montcalm's French regulars could safely stop at Beauport, catch their breath, and begin a long, dreary march back to Montreal to prepare for another year of war. Did the opponents of the re-enactment not want anyone to know of Canadien heroism? True, the re-enactment organizer was a former Ontario history teacher. His plan, however, was to include the whole story as had Peter MacLeod in Northern Armageddon, the Canadian War Museum's new book on the battle. Why did it matter?
Thanks to the Canadiens, Montcalm's deputy, the Chevalier de Levis, could lead a French army back to Quebec in April, 1760. Decimated by scurvy, starvation and frost-bite during a bitterly cold winter, an enfeebled British garrison marched out to Ste-Foye on April 28th to drive the French away. Like Montcalm's men five months earlier, the British lost. Survivors fled back through the gates of Quebec, leaving a thousand dead and wounded. Would Quebec be French again?
Both sides waited for the moment that really mattered. Whose navy would be the first up the St. Lawrence? On May 9th, a British sentry spotted a distant sail. It was H.M.S Lowestoft, the British frigate that had carried Wolfe's corpse home to England . A British fleet followed. Only then did Wolfe's victory really matter. Its navy destroyed at Lagos and off Britanny in 1759, Versailles left its valiant colonists to Britain's mercy. Twice defeated by the French Canadians, Britain's governor, James Murray, would, out of respect for his adversaries, help safeguard the French language and law and arranged for Roman Catholics to replace Quebec's deceased bishop. Would Sovereignists ever want you to know any of this?
History is complex and the details are sometimes tiresome. Like experience, for which History is a synonym, it is tempting to forget about failures and even embarrassments. Across Canada, provincial governments carefully control what history is taught to their students. Confederation might well have been impossible in 1867 without this vital concession to local control. It means, of course, that old, divisive myths continue to keep us apart. British Columbia students, for example, have to find out for themselves that in 1942, Ottawa allowed 21,000 Canadian citizens to be stripped of their rights and their property because they were of Japanese ancestry. Army, navy and even RCMP officers said it was unnecessary but Ottawa was spooked by a fear of race riots by white British Columbians. Years later, we all paid to compensate those who suffered at the hands of their neighbours. Confessing the truth was good for our consciences. Knowing what our ancestors did on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 might also be good for our pride. Sharing a little of that pride with a magnanimous conqueror like James Murray might be good for us too.
Montreal, 20 March 2011.
4393 Desmond Paul Morton entered CMR in 1954 and graduated from RMC in 1958, the first Rhodes Scholar from RMC since the Second World War. He left the Army in 1964 to work for the NDP. He was later principal of the University of Toronto's Erin dale campus and founding director of McGill's Institute for the Study of Canada. He is the author of forty books, including A Short History of Canada, Billet pour le front, and Une Histoire militaire du Canada.
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