France and England Clash in Canada

Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War

France and England (after 1707, Great Britain) fought four major wars in North America either alone or in conjunction with allies. The first was the war of the League of Augsburg (also known as King William’s War), which broke out in 1689 and ended with the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. The next was the War of the Spanish Succession, waged between 1702 and 1713, followed by the War of the Austrian Succession (1744–48). The final conflict was the Seven Years’ War (known in the United States as the French and Indian War), which started in North America in 1754 and ended with the withdrawal of France from virtually all of the continent in 1763. For almost the entire time between the mid-1600s and 1763, a vicious war of raids, ambushes, no quarter and no prisoners, was fought along the border between New France and the English colonies. Throughout that time, a few companies of French regular soldiers, the New France militia, and the Compagnies franches de la Marine (as well as New France’s aboriginal allies) constituted the French fighting force in America.

What Britain would call the Seven Years’ War began deep in the North American interior in the late spring of 1754, when a small expedition of Virginia militia, led by George Washington, ventured west across the Allegheny Mountains. They were determined to expunge the French presence in the Ohio River Valley as a prelude to both settlement and land speculation. Beginning in the 1680s, French explorers had mapped out a great Y-shaped empire in the interior. In the northeast, Quebec stood as the major entrepôt and military guardian of French interests in America. In the far south, at the mouth of the Mississippi, Louisiana and the post of New Orleans, on Lake Pontchartrain, gave France internal access to the Gulf of Mexico. To the far northwest, Fort Rouge (later Winnipeg) put French traders on the doorstep to the fur-rich lands of Saskatchewan, bypassing the English posts on Hudson Bay. On the southeast coast of Cape Breton, the fortified seaport of Louisbourg, with its massive stone fort built after the Treaty of Utrecht ended the War of the Spanish Succession, stood guard over the sea approaches to Quebec. New Englanders saw Louisbourg as a mortal threat to their trade and their lives and chafed for opportunities to crush it. And at virtually all the junctions of the great river roads that linked this vast empire in the continental interior stood French forts. They were mostly crudely built and manned by but a handful of regulars or marines. Their major source of strength was not their walls or their soldiers, but the strong ties they had established over decades with the powerful Indian nations who ruled the land from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Plains.

George Washington intended to begin unravelling this network of furs, trade, and Indian alliances at a point he thought vulnerable, virtually at its centre. However, his expedition was a disaster, and the French quickly sent him and his irregulars packing, back across the mountains. Washington and other American colonists had had enough of French border raids, French rule over the interior water-ways, French sway over the Indians, and the French threat posed by Louisbourg. They were determined to launch a new foray, this time with considerable support from Britain. Colonial entreaties to London were answered when the British sent General Edward Braddock and a contingent of regular troops to try again to attack the French in the Ohio Valley in the summer of 1755. Braddock led an expedition to take Fort Duquesne, at the forks of the Ohio, but he was killed and his contingent routed. The French then responded to the reinforcement of British troops in North America with reinforcements of their own regular troops from overseas.

In May 1755, four battalions of French regulars arrived at Quebec and two at Louisbourg. These troops were the first formal regiments of the French army to arrive in Canada since the departure of the Carignan-Salières. Over the next three years (war between Britain and France on the European continent officially broke out in 1756) six more regiments arrived, along with Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, Marquis de Montcalm, a professional soldier with long experience in European positional warfare, with its well-drilled infantry, formal approaches to the battlefield, and lines of soldiers engaging in mass volleys of fire. Montcalm and the regulars were sent not so much to bolster the marines and militia of New France, but to take over the war effort. As thousands of redcoats debarked along the Atlantic seaboard and hundreds of Royal Navy warships arrived in Atlantic waters, France was getting the unmistakable message that this fourth war for the continent could well be the last.

The twelve battalions of troupes de terre from the Régiments La Reine, Guyenne, Béarn, Languedoc, Bourgogne, Artois, Royal Roussillon, La Sarre, Berry, Cambis, and Volontaires-Étrangers were the equal of any similar contingent of European regular soldiers of that era. The rank and file were a collection of young adventurers, former serfs, and the dregs of French ports and cities, as well as a handful of the newly emerging middle class, who saw the army as a potential ladder of upward mobility. The officer corps were a mixed bag. Some were young men from noble families whose commissions were largely purchased and whose military skills were minimal. Others had received formal military training and their rank was based on ability and accomplishment. The troops included no cavalry contingent, some artillery, but mostly heavy infantry, armed with swords and muskets fitted with bayonets, who carried heavy packs of hardtack, beer, ammunition, and powder while in the line of march. They were subject to harsh discipline. They drilled, trained, marched, and manoeuvred with but a single objective—to stand shoulder to shoulder at distances as close as 50 metres to the enemy’s line and fire mass volleys of lead balls at the men opposite. The nature of the principal weaponry of the day—the long-barrelled musket, made even longer by the bayonet—dictated this tactic. This single-shot flintlock firearm could not be easily reloaded from a prone position, or fired accurately. Besides, accuracy was a moot point so close to the enemy. It wasn’t a case of hit or miss but rather of standing in place in the face of withering volleys, firing, reloading, and firing again, without breaking. In such a fashion a line of infantry could shoot thousands of rounds right at the enemy several times in a minute.

The British gained the initial strategic successes on the Atlantic seaboard. British troops captured Fort Beauséjour, in Acadia, in June 1755 and Louisbourg in July 1758. In the latter campaign they mustered 27,000 men, both regulars and colonial militia, and 157 ships to fight 7,500 French soldiers, sailors, and marines. With the fort surrounded and British artillery able to bombard the position virtually at will from surrounding heights, the outcome was inevitable: the French were chased from the Maritimes. But French forces more than held their own in the first years of fighting in the forests and among the lakes and rivers of the interior. In August 1757 they captured Fort Ontario at Oswego, New York, and secured control of Lake Ontario. A year later they besieged and captured Fort William Henry on Lake George, New York, giving them virtual domination over the route from the Hudson River Valley to the St. Lawrence. Although the militia and France’s Indian allies greatly aided in the campaign, the brunt of the fighting was done by the French regulars. As late as 1758 Montcalm was pleased with their successes and reported that their discipline was excellent.

But 1758 was also the nadir of French success in the war. Despite their short internal lines of communication, along the great rivers from the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi to the Missouri, and the staunchness and fighting quality of their aboriginal allies, the French were in a precarious position. The Royal Navy ruled the Atlantic and the approaches to Louisiana, Louisbourg, and Quebec. The entire population of New France numbered barely sixty thousand, while the British colonies were already over a million. Even under the best of circumstances the French could never conquer the British in North America, whereas it was entirely feasible that the opposite might happen. Finally, Britain—strongly supported by its colonists—had had enough of the French sitting astride their potential routes of expansion into the west, terrorizing their frontiers, and threatening their trade on the east coast. The British poured tens of thousands of regular troops across the Atlantic, while the colonies raised tens of thousands more. By 1759 an estimated fifty thousand troops carried the British colours in the field, an extraordinary number for North America. No matter how well the French fought, no matter how good they were, superior numbers created a strategic advantage all its own.

In 1758 British forces captured and destroyed Fort Frontenac, near present-day Kingston. France’s aboriginal allies in the Ohio country decided to make a separate peace with the obviously superior British army, forcing the French to abandon Fort Duquesne. With the interior cleared and Louisbourg gone, the British launched three major attacks on the heartland of New France—the area between Montreal and Quebec—in 1759. One army captured Fort Niagara, another drove up the Lake Champlain–Richelieu River route toward the St. Lawrence, and the third besieged Quebec City. Although both the morale and the fighting ability of the French-Canadian militia and the marines remained high, the state of the French regiments had deteriorated markedly. There were constant arguments between Montcalm and the colony’s Canadian-born governor Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil de Cavagnial, Marquis de Vaudreuil, who was nominally in charge of all military forces in the colony. Vaudreuil had little patience for or knowledge of the apparently stiff European style of warfare, and he and Montcalm rarely agreed on either strategic objectives or tactical preferences. Because of British control of the seas, few reinforcements reached the French regiments, and the constant fighting and movement through the hilly and often cold and rainy forests of eastern Canada and northern New York and New England wore them down. Discipline began to deteriorate; desertion increased; performance under fire declined.

By the spring of 1759, Montcalm’s hold was precarious. He could muster only some five battalions of regulars in defence of Quebec itself—2,900 troops—together with about 8,000 militia from Montreal, Trois-Rivières, and Quebec, 600 garrison troops, and a number of his aboriginal allies. But because of serious disagreements between Montcalm and Vaudreuil, the French neglected to build blocking positions downriver of Quebec to forestall the Royal Navy besieging the town or landing troops.

On June 26, 1759, a British fleet of 168 ships under Admiral Charles Saunders anchored off the south shore of the island of Orléans and began debarking 8,500 troops under the command of General James Wolfe. The French did not directly contest the landings; in fact, Vaudreuil, who as governor was in overall command of the garrison, withdrew his troops from the entire south shore of the river. The British set up artillery on the south shore of the narrows, directly opposite Quebec, and began to bombard the town and the citadel. They also established major encampments at Point Lévis and on the eastern bank of the Montmorency River. The French manned the citadel and entrenchments along the north shore of the river from the tidal flats off the mouth of the St. Charles River, east of Quebec, to the western bank of the Montmorency River. On July 31, Wolfe tried to cross the Montmorency in an effort to roll back the French left flank to the flats below the citadel, but the attack was beaten back with heavy losses.

As the summer waned, Montcalm and Wolfe weighed their prospects. Montcalm’s position was even more precarious than it had been when Wolfe and Saunders arrived, a result of the surrenders of Forts Niagara, Carillon, and Saint-Frédéric (at the northern end of Lake Champlain) at the end of July. Even so, he knew that if he could hold out until October, the British would have to withdraw their fleet before the onset of winter and the freezing over of the St. Lawrence. Wolfe was well aware that he did not have unlimited time to bring the siege to a successful conclusion, but he was unsure how to get at the French positions. Finally, he and his officers decided on an indirect approach—to put men and ships upriver of Quebec, cross the river at a point to be determined, and threaten to cut Montcalm’s supply lines to Montreal from the French rear. That could force the French to come out and fight.

On the night of September 12/13, 1759, British troops from ships anchored in the river rowed stealthily, with muffled oarlocks, from midstream to the small cove of Anse-au-Foulon, at the foot of a cliff about 3 kilometres above Quebec. A small guard at the top of the cliff was quickly overcome, and for the next several hours the British troops quickly scaled the cliffs, dragging cannon, stores, and munitions with them. They then assembled on the Plains of Abraham and moved north, toward the road that connected Quebec with the small settlement of Sainte-Foy and, beyond it, to Trois-Rivières and Montreal. Not long after daybreak, the French spotted Wolfe’s advancing lines, 4,800 strong. They were taken completely by surprise. Montcalm did not learn of the British deployment until mid-morning. When he did, he raced from his headquarters at Beauport, about halfway between Quebec and the Montmorency River, and ordered his troops to muster opposite the British. Some 4,500 regulars and militia answered the call and, to the roll of drums, began to deploy in front of the walls of Quebec, facing the British.

Montcalm was not greatly outnumbered by Wolfe, but his troops were a mixed bag. History has recorded that he had about five battalions of regulars but gives little detail about their composition at this stage of the war. The well-trained regiments that had arrived with Montcalm four years earlier still existed in name and still flew their regimental banners, but by now many of the soldiers in their ranks were former militiamen or marines. They had not been trained in the severe firing discipline of the regimental troops; instead they instinctively sought cover in the rolling terrain, the tall grass, or the bushes on the battlefield as soon as the shooting started. As the lines approached each other, shots rang out from the flanks as French snipers and skirmishers fired at the redcoats, who came steadily on. The French line fired several volleys at the British but the British did not return fire. Instead, they continued to advance, seemingly oblivious to the gaps in their ranks that opened every time one of them fell dead or wounded.

Some of the French riflemen—those not trained in European-style warfare—threw themselves to the ground to reload. This increased the confusion in the French ranks. Were these men dead or wounded? Was it time to dive to the earth or even to run back to the citadel? Gaps opened in the French line, rendering their firing discipline much less effective than it might have been. When the two lines were at the astonishingly close distance of 12 metres or so, the British stopped, then opened a withering fire at the French, cutting the troops down like mown wheat. After a few volleys, the kilted Highland regiments drew their large claymore swords and charged the French. The French line broke and, with few exceptions, ran in panic back to Quebec and even past it, to Vaudreuil’s encampment. Both Wolfe and Montcalm were mortally wounded in the encounter. Vaudreuil then led the surviving French troops around the British and on to winter in Montreal. British forces entered Quebec six days later.

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, as it is called, did not end the war in Canada. Over the winter the French regrouped and reorganized in Montreal, then marched on Quebec in late April 1760. The French commander, François-Gaston de Lévis, Duc de Lévis, led a combined force of 5,000 men against British commander James Murray’s 3,900 men at the Plains of Abraham. This time the French won the encounter and the British retreated to Quebec, where they were put under siege. Within weeks, however, the ice broke on the St. Lawrence and the British fleet reached Quebec first. Lévis broke camp and retreated to Montreal. The British, now reinforced, followed him, and other British columns advanced on Montreal from Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain. On September 8, 1760, Vaudreuil surrendered New France to the British commander, General Jeffery Amherst. The surrender was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the Seven Years’ War on February 10, 1763. This ended the era of Canada’s French regiments, and the British regimental tradition in Canada was about to be born.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.