By Stuart Reid
Where Wolfe’s plan fell down was that it violated the principle of concentration of force; Wolfe was clearly overstretching his forces. In the event the attempt to run ships past Quebec into the upper river was postponed again and not actually made until the night of 18 July. The Diana (36) went aground, but the Sutherland (50) and Squirrel (20) both ran safely past Quebec and into the upper river accompanied by two sloops and two transports. Wolfe later reported to Pitt that this now ‘enabled me to reconnoitre the country above, where I found the same attention on the enemy’s side, and great difficulties on ours, arising from the nature of the ground, and the obstacles to our communication with the fleet. But what I feared most, was, that if we should land between the town and the river Cape Rouge, the body first landed could not be reinforced before they were attacked by the enemy’s whole army.’
Notwithstanding the risks Wolfe decided to proceed with the St Michel landing anyway. On the morning of 20 July the consolidated grenadier companies, still waiting patiently at the Isle de Orleans, were once again ordered to hold themselves in readiness while Saunders busied himself in preparing boats for the artillery. As time was obviously going to be of the essence in successfully executing the operation, orders were sent for Monckton to embark part of his brigade and all his light infantry immediately. Instead of mounting an elaborate, and probably futile, diversionary attack at Beauport, they were to proceed directly upriver to secure the beachhead at St Michel. Fully committed to this project Wolfe also stressed to Monckton that ‘If you cou’d be here, a little before high Water, we should have time to fetch another load of Troops, before the Tide ebbs …’
Then, just as suddenly, the whole operation was cancelled and that afternoon Wolfe had to inform Monckton that ‘Particular circumstances make it necessary to delay our attempt for a few days …’ This abrupt change of heart reflected badly on Wolfe and furnished his numerous critics, both contemporary and posthumous, with yet more ammunition. It is not difficult, however, to guess what these ‘particular circumstances’ were, for in a dispatch to the Prime Minister, William Pitt, Wolfe related that he called off the landing after finding that the French were moving guns into the area. The success of the operation would obviously hinge on his speedily establishing a beachhead at St Michel and his ability to concentrate all or most of his forces there before Montcalm and the French army turned up. Provided the timing was right, it should have been possible to do just that without a diversionary attack at Beauport. It depended on the ability to transport Townshend’s and Murray’s brigades upstream on the tide faster than the French could march overland. The unwelcome appearance of guns, which would presumably be accompanied by troops, altered the balance.
As Wolfe readily confessed, if the initial landing were to be seriously opposed or even heavily counter-attacked before the rest of the army could be brought up, then the whole operation would not only fail, but it would probably incur such heavy losses that the army would be forced to withdraw out of the St Lawrence altogether. The guns emplaced in what became known as the Samos Battery were, in fact, largely unsupported and there were only a few militia in the area at the time. Wolfe could not possibly know that, however. Indeed it is obvious that he was particularly uneasy about his lack of reliable knowledge on the French strength and dispositions.
So concerned was he at this lack of information that he next sent his quartermaster general, Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Carle ton, even further up the river with the grenadiers of Monckton’s Brigade and some rangers ‘for intelligence’. Carleton duly landed at Pointe aux Trembles, some 20 miles above Quebec, on the following day and daringly kidnapped a number of civilians – seemingly refugees from the city for the most part – who were questioned and subsequently returned to the city under a flag of truce. It is unlikely, however, that Carleton learned very much of any use and, after a planning conference on 23 July, Wolfe’s attention turned in earnest to the Beauport Lines. Nevertheless, he was far from sanguine about the chances of achieving anything there. On 25 July he wrote to Monckton asking him to send two companies of Boisrond’s Marines (perhaps those belonging to the 69th Foot) over to him at the Montmorency camp next day in order to ‘mask our real intentions’, and also ordered ‘a Corps of Troops’ to be ready to accompany him up the Montmorency River for a reconnaissance in force.
If a crossing point could be discovered higher up the Montmorency, it might allow the army to get into the rear of the Beauport Lines and thus avoid having to mount a costly frontal attack. In the meantime, he rather hopefully reasoned that his personal ‘escort’, consisting of a part of Murray’s Brigade and a composite light infantry battalion led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Howe, ought to be strong enough to seize and hold the ford until Townshend brought the rest of the troops up. Unfortunately, once again Wolfe found himself anticipated by Montcalm and as he related to Pitt: ‘In reconnoitring the river MontmorenciI, we found it fordable at a place about three miles up; but the opposite bank was entrenched, and so steep and so woody, that it was to no purpose to attempt a passage there.’
Traditionally of course it is reckoned that a reconnaissance party had not probed far enough until it had been shot at, and by this criteria Wolfe’s party performed their duties admirably as his men were heavily attacked twice: ‘Early in the morning a Party of Indians crossed the ford & were beat back by our People. About noon they came over in greater numbers – drove two comps. of foot, who retired in great confusion & disordered the Battalion. Coll. Howe’s Light infantry attacked their flank & endeavoured to surround them, & Br. Murray detached two Comp’s of Otway’s to get upon their right flank. The Enemy put into Disorder & defeated & driven over the water. In these two Skirmishes we had near 40 killed & wounded – chiefly from the opposite Bank of the River, by the indiscreet pursuit of some of our people.’