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General Wolfe

James Wolfe was very much born into a career as a soldier. His grandfather had been a soldier, and his father was away with his regiment of Marines when James was born on 2nd January 1727 in Westerham, Kent. James lived his first eleven years in Westerham at a house then called Spiers, now known as Quebec House. The house is owned by the National Trust and has been restored to appear much as it did when the Wolfes lived there.

The family then moved to Greenwich, and James joined his father's regiment of Marines aged fourteen. Two years later he had transferred to the 12th Regiment of Foot and fought at the Battle of Dettingen, the last battle in British history where a monarch, George II in this case, was present. By 1745 young James was already a brigade major and fought at the Battle of Culloden. In the aftermath of this battle, government commanders ordered that wounded Highlanders be killed. James Wolfe refused to do this, saying that his honour was more important than his commission. Surprisingly perhaps his career survived such outspokenness. It also survived his lack of social graces - "I can neither laugh nor sing, nor talk an hour upon nothing" - and his poor health. He was not a strong man, suffering from rheumatic disease, and probably from tuberculosis.



In 1750, at the age of twenty three Wolfe became a lieutenant colonel. At this point he tried to improve his education and social accomplishments, which was essential if he wanted to be promoted to senior military command. He studied maths, Latin, French and dancing. Perhaps as a man of action he would have been impatient with some of these studies, but he was obviously an admirer of poetry. At the Battle of Quebec, which was to make him famous, he recited Grey's Elegy In A Country Churchyard to his men as they went into battle.

Events leading to this poetic moment began unfolding in 1756. In this year the Seven Years War began, between Britain and France. Britain and France by this time were global powers, and the Seven Years War was to be the first global war. It was fought in India, the Caribbean, Germany, New England, and Canada. In 1757 Wolfe was involved in raids on the French coast in support of Britain's ally Prussia. He was involved in a chaotic operation to get men ashore at Rochefort, and although the overall command of this operation was poor, Wolfe's role within it brought special commendation and further promotion. In 1758 Wolfe was in command of a brigade at the capture of Louisberg on Cape Breton Island in what is now Canada. This island sat at the mouth of the St Lawrence river. Its capture allowed a British advance up the St Lawrence into French Canada. (See Hatchlands Park for information on Admiral Boscawen who commanded the Royal Navy at Louisberg.)



In September 1759, William Pitt the Elder decided to put Wolfe in charge of an attack up the St Lawrence against Quebec. An initial attack east of Quebec failed, and Wolfe's fragile health broke down through anxiety and fatigue. His poor condition was partly responsible for the decision not to attack again across easy, well defended country east of Quebec, but to land north of the town. Here terrain was difficult. Cliffs were 175 feet high, with only a narrow path leading through them. But the French general Montcalm was not expecting any attack to take place here. As British boats approached the Heights of Abraham at night, quiet was maintained. But it was now that in a low voice Wolfe recited Thomas Grey's poem Elegy in a Country Churchyard to the men in his boat.


Elegy in a Country Churchyard is Grey's famous and humane poem about the ordinary and yet special people who might lie unrecognised in a country churchyard. "Mute inglorious Miltons" might lie there, people who might have been the greatest of poets if only the world had given them a chance. People who fought brave and unrecognised battles in their own small worlds, might lie there. Wolfe was a tough army officer, with a fiery temper, but he was a man who saw human quality beyond the false divisions of rank or race. He improved the kit of British soldiers by using the design of knapsack used by native Americans. Perhaps in that boat on the St Lawrence, Wolfe was telling his men that they could all be heroes. He then led them to victory at Quebec, in a battle that in many ways decided the future of north America. As usual he was involved in the fighting, and was wounded twice before a third shot hit him in the chest and injured him critically. He lived for a short time afterwards, long enough to be told that the French had been defeated, and to give orders to cut off their retreat.

The story of General Wolfe used to be taught as a matter of course to British children. My father remembers reading about him in a book called The Boys Book of Heroes. Nowadays such stirring tales of colonial conquest are not nearly as fashionable. But perhaps in thinking of Wolfe we can think of Thomas Grey's poem about people who show unrecognised heroism everyday. Wolfe may or may not be a hero. Times and opinions change. As Thomas Grey made clear in his poem it is hard to define a true hero.


Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood.

Th' applause of list'ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbad: nor circumscribed alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse's flame.

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.

Yet e'en these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

(From Elegy in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Grey)