Wednesday, 13 September 2017

It’s 258 years today since Wolfe took Quebec

Churchill was asked how to make children proud to be British and replied 'Tell them Wolfe took Quebec'. Are they still told this and if so do they think it was an unjust, colonial war?

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It’s 258 years today since the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.
I read about it when I was four in the book that most influenced me in my life The Royal Portrait Gallery, published in the early 1890s. Here is how the battle is recounted in another, much more famous book. Our Island Story: A Child's History of England is a book by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, first published in 1905.

‘…For a long time Wolfe tried in vain to take the town. Montcalm was too clever and watchful. Day by day passed, and Wolfe grew ill with care and weariness. Many of his soldiers were killed, and the fresh troops which he expected did not arrive. At last he decided upon a bold and daring plan.
There was one place which the French did not guard very strongly, because they thought it was quite impossible for the British to attack them there. This was a steep cliff. But Wolfe noticed that there was a narrow pathway up this cliff, and he decided to take his soldiers by that path. He felt so doubtful of success, however, that he wrote a sad letter home before he made the attempt. "I have done little for my country," he said, "I have little hope of doing anything, but I have done my best."
One dark night the British soldiers were rowed over the river. No one spoke, every one moved as quietly as possible. The oars even were muffled, so that the sound of rowing might not be heard by the French. Only Wolfe, as his boat went silently down the river, repeated a poem to his officers in a low voice. The poem was called "An Elegy in a Country Churchyard" and it had been written a few years before by an English poet called Gray.
"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
"Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds."
That is how the poem begins. It is a long poem, and very beautiful, and, when Wolfe had finished repeating it, he turned to his officers and said, "Now, gentlemen, I would rather be the author of that poem than take Quebec."
The boat reached the Quebec side of the river, and Wolfe was among the first to spring ashore. Silently, quickly, with beating hearts and held breath, the men followed. Then as silently and quickly the boats put off again, for there had been room in them only for half the soldiers, and they returned to bring the rest.
The climb up the narrow pathway began. It was so narrow in places that only one could go at a time. But every man was full of courage and hope. They struggled up as best they could, clinging on to bushes, rocks, roots of trees, anything that would give them the least grip for hand or rest for foot. A regiment of Highlanders were among the first to lead the way, for they were used to scrambling and climbing among the rocks of their homeland.
Nearer and nearer to the top they came, unseen and unheard by the French sentinels above. But at last the rustling among the bushes and leaves down the slope caught their ear. "What was that?" they asked, and fired at randow down into the darkness. But it was too late, the first soldiers had reached the height, others followed after them and, terrified at the sudden appearance of men where they had thought no men could be, the French sentinels ran away.
As soon as the British reached the top, they fell into fighting order, and when day broke, the sun shone on their red coats as they stood drawn up in line upon the heights of Abraham, as the place was called.
At first the French leader, Montcalm, could hardly believe that he saw aright. Then he said quietly, "I see them where they ought not to be. We must fight them, and I am going to crush them."
A fierce battle followed. Wolfe was struck in the wrist, but he tied his handkerchief round it and went on fighting and giving orders, as if nothing had happened. A second time he was hit. Still he went on. A third shot struck him in the breast. Then he sank to the ground with a groan.
Wolfe was quickly carried out of the fight, but nothing could be done for him. He was dying. His officers stood sadly round him, when suddenly one of them cried, "See, they run, they run."
"Who run?" asked Wolfe, opening his eyes and trying to raise himself.
"The enemy, sir," replied the officer, "they are running everywhere."
"Thank God," said Wolfe, "I die happy." Then he fell back and never spoke again.

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