12–13 September 1759

Almost as famous as the image of Admiral Lord Nelson dying at the Battle of Trafalgar is the 1770 painting by Benjamin West of Major General James Wolfe as he breathed his last in the closing moments of a battle against the French outside Québec, then the capital of Canada. The battle is best remembered for Wolfe’s inspirational idea to scale the sheer cliffs of the St Lawrence River and surprise the French army at their summit. In reality, the deception happened by chance, through the hazard of the unpredictable tides of the river. The effect of surprise on the subsequent battle was decisive. As news arrived that the French were fleeing in disorder after a battle that lasted no more than a few minutes, Wolfe is said to have uttered the words ‘I die contented.’

This eighteenth-century engraving is based on a drawing made by a soldier in Major General James Wolfe’s army. It shows the British victory in September 1759 over the French on the Plains of Abraham in front of the city of Québec. The successful transfer of troops up the steep cliff face, seen in the foreground, gave Wolfe the advantage of surprise over his French adversary, General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm.

The struggle between the French and the British for control of North America, supported by the local emigrant population and American Indian allies, reached its peak during the Seven Years War (1756–63) in which French claims in America and India were defeated by British arms. In 1759, the British government decided that the moment had come to besiege and capture the capital of New France at Québec. Wolfe was sent 7,400 officers and men, supported by 300 gunners, to capture the city. At the end of June 1759, his flotilla arrived in the St Lawrence and the force disembarked at Îsle d’Orléans, a few miles downriver from Québec, which stood on a high promontory protected by cliffs, woods and water. The most favourable approach to the city was across a wide and shallow river beach known as the Beauport Shore, and it was there that the French commander, General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, Marquis de Saint Veran, positioned most of his forces and artillery in anticipation of a British assault.

The natural protection afforded to Québec made a direct approach dangerous. When Wolfe finally attempted a limited raid on Beauport on 31 July, the attackers took heavy losses from entrenched French fire, leaving 210 dead and 230 wounded. He continued to undertake probing reconnaissance for weeks, but could find no suitable spot from which to attack. Ill and despondent, he asked his subordinate commanders for their opinions. They unanimously favoured moving further upriver to find an undefended section of shore. Wolfe was reluctant, but his options were narrowing. With every passing week came the looming threat of ice at the mouth of the St Lawrence. British ships sailed upriver. In response, the French moved troops and cavalry under Colonel Louis-Antoine de Bougainville to defend an area over 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Québec. As Wolfe sailed up and down the river between the fleet and his camp at Îsle d’Orléans, he observed an entry point that had been overlooked, a narrow road leading up from the river, sided by cliffs, at Anse au Foulon. Dismissing the earlier plan, he ordered his forces to land at Foulon on 13 September so that they could reach the plain in front of the city at dawn before the French could react.

The famous scaling of the cliffs below the Plains of Abraham came by accident. The units assigned to disembark and capture the narrow road from the small French picket posted there were swept further down the beach by the tide and found themselves at the base of a cliff about 50 metres (160 feet) high. While some troops went to capture the road, William Howe led the light infantry up the cliff face, clinging to ledges and scrub, until they reached the top. A highlander, Captain Donald MacDonald, spoke enough French to persuade the French picket in the dark that his soldiers were their replacement, allaying suspicion. While Howe led his men up the cliff, Wolfe and the rest of his force cleared the defensive fortifications on the narrow road and toiled up to the plain, carrying at least two of their artillery pieces. He formed his 3,111 men in a horseshoe formation, with 1,750 of them facing the French army camped outside the city, and the rest on each side facing the French Canadian sharpshooters and militia. The British were drawn up in two lines, prepared for alternate shooting, one line after the other, but the central battalions had been instructed in a new tactic by Wolfe. As a French column approached, Wolfe had told his men to hold their fire until the last moment, then to open their ranks to let the column pass through, firing all the time at the column’s now-exposed flanks.

Montcalm was caught entirely by surprise. He had expected an imminent assault on the Beauport Shore. He ordered his army, estimated at 1,960 regulars and 1,500 militiamen, to engage the enemy but it emerged disorganized and unprepared. His columns moved forward firing at will and were hit by fierce flank fire from the left and right of Wolfe’s line at a distance of only 40 metres (130 feet). The centre held their fire until the French were only 20 metres (65 feet) away, when they released a deadly fusillade that killed most of the approaching officers. Subjected to further heavy flanking fire, the French broke up, turned and fled back towards the city, leaving 150 dead and 370 wounded on the field. The whole battle lasted only a few minutes, but long enough for Wolfe, as he stood on a small rise to observe the course of the battle, to be hit three times by Canadian marksmen hiding in the nearby bushes. He died a few minutes later as his own officers rushed up with news of the French collapse.Québec surrendered five days later, and although the British garrison was defeated in a second engagement on the plains on 20 April 1760, the city was not recaptured. Three years later, the French conceded defeat and New France was granted to the British. Much had depended on the success of surprise and it had taken Wolfe months to work out how to effect it, even if the final scramble up the cliffs had been a purely serendipitous event. In war, wrote Wolfe in 1757, ‘something must be allowed to chance and fortune’.