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The Young Soldier, 1741-1748

Wolfe's short life may be divided into four periods, all easy to remember, because all are connected with the same number-seven. He was fourteen years a boy at home, with one attempt to be a soldier. This period lasted from 1727 to 1741. Then he was seven years a young officer in time of war, from 1741 to 1748. Then he served seven years more in time of peace, from 1748 to 1755. Lastly, he died in the middle, at the very climax, of the world-famous Seven Years' War, in 1759.

After the royal review at Blackheath in the spring of 1742 the army marched down to Deptford and embarked for Flanders. Wolfe was now off to the very places he had heard his father tell about again and again. The surly Flemings were still the same as when his father knew them. They hated their British allies almost as much as they hated their enemies. The long column of redcoats marched through a scowling mob of citizens, who meanly grudged a night's lodging to the very men coming there to fight for them. We may be sure that Wolfe thought little enough of such mean people as he stepped out with the colors flying above his head. The army halted at Ghent, an ancient city, famous for its trade and wealth, and defended by walls which had once resisted Marlborough.

At first there was a good deal to do and see; and George Warde was there too, as an officer in a cavalry regiment. But Warde had to march away; and Wolfe was left without any companion of his own age, to pass his spare time the best way he could. Like another famous soldier, Frederick the Great, who first won his fame in this very war, he was fond of music and took lessons on the flute. He also did his best to improve his French; and when Warde came back the two friends used to go to the French theatre. Wolfe put his French to other use as well, and read all the military books he could find time for. He always kept his kit ready to pack; so that he could have marched anywhere within two hours of receiving the order. And, though only a mere boy-officer, he began to learn the duties of an adjutant, so that he might be fit for promotion whenever the chance should come.

Months wore on and Wolfe was still at Ghent. He had made friends during his stay, and he tells his mother in September: 'This place is full of officers, and we never want company. I go to the play once or twice a week, and talk a little with the ladies, who are very civil and speak French.' Before Christmas it had been decided at home--where the war-worn father now was, after a horrible campaign at Cartagena--that Edward, the younger son, was also to be allowed to join the Army. Wolfe was delighted. 'My brother is much to be commended for the pains he takes to improve himself. I hope to see him soon in Flanders, when, in all probability, before next year is over, we may know something of our trade.' And so they did!

The two brothers marched for the Rhine early in 1743, both in the same regiment. James was now sixteen, Edward fifteen. The march was a terrible one for such delicate boys. The roads were ankle-deep in mud; the weather was vile; both food and water were very bad. Even the dauntless Wolfe had to confess to his mother that he was 'very much fatigued and out of order. I never come into quarters without aching hips and knees.' Edward, still more delicate, was sent off on a foraging party to find something for the regiment to eat. He wrote home to his father from Bonn on April 7: 'We can get nothing upon our march but eggs and bacon and sour bread. I have no bedding, nor can get it anywhere. We had a sad march last Monday in the morning. I was obliged to walk up to my knees in snow, though my brother and I have a horse between us. I have often lain upon straw, and should oftener, had I not known some French, which I find very useful; though I was obliged the other day to speak Latin for a good dinner. We send for everything we want to the priest.'

That summer, when the king arrived with his son the Duke of Cumberland, the British and Hanoverian army was reduced to 37,000 half-fed men. Worse still, the old general, Lord Stair, had led it into a very bad place. These 37,000 men were cooped up on the narrow side of the valley of the river Main, while a much larger French army was on the better side, holding bridges by which to cut them off and attack them while they were all clumped together. Stair tried to slip away in the night. But the French, hearing of this attempt, sent 12,000 men across the river to hold the place the British general was leaving, and 30,000 more, under the Duc de Gramont, to block the road at the place towards which he was evidently marching. At daylight the British and Hanoverians found themselves cut off, both front and rear, while a third French force was waiting to pounce on whichever end showed weakness first. The King of England, who was also Elector of Hanover, would be a great prize, and the French were eager to capture him. This was how the armies faced each other on the morning of June 27, 1743, at Dettingen, the last battlefield on which any king of England has fought in person, and the first for Wolfe.

The two young brothers were now about to see a big battle, like those of which their father used to tell them. Strangely enough, Amherst, the future commander-in-chief in America, under whom Wolfe served at Louisbourg, and the two men who succeeded Wolfe in command at Quebec --Monckton and Townshend--were also there. It is an awful moment for a young soldier, the one before his first great fight. And here were nearly a hundred thousand men, all in full view of each other, and all waiting for the word to begin. It was a beautiful day, and the sun shone down on a splendidly martial sight. There stood the British and Hanoverians, with wooded hills on their right, the river and the French on their left, the French in their rear, and the French very strongly posted on the rising ground straight in their front. The redcoats were in dense columns, their bayonets flashing and their colors waving defiance. Side by side with their own red cavalry were the black German cuirassiers, the blue German lancers, and the gaily dressed green and scarlet Hungarian hussars. The long white lines of the three French armies, varied with royal blue, encircled them on three sides. On the fourth were the leafy green hills.

Wolfe was acting as adjutant and helping the major. His regiment had neither colonel nor lieutenant-colonel with it that day; so he had plenty to do, riding up and down to see that all ranks understood the order that they were not to fire till they were close to the French and were given the word for a volley. He cast a glance at his brother, standing straight and proudly with the regimental colors that he himself had carried past the king at Blackheath the year before. He was not anxious about 'Ned'; he knew how all the Wolfes could fight. He was not anxious about himself; he was only too eager for the fray. A first battle tries every man, and few have not dry lips, tense nerves, and beating hearts at its approach. But the great anxiety of an officer going into action for the first time with untried men is for them and not for himself. The agony of wondering whether they will do well or not is worse, a thousand times, than what he fears for his own safety.

Presently the French gunners, in the centre of their position across the Main, lit their matches and, at a given signal, fired a salvo into the British rear. Most of the baggage wagons were there; and, as the shot and shell began to knock them over, the drivers were seized with a panic. Cutting the traces, these men galloped off up the hills and into the woods as hard as they could go. Now battery after battery began to thunder, and the fire grew hot all round. The king had been in the rear, as he did not wish to change the command on the eve of the battle. But, seeing the panic, he galloped through the whole of his army to show that he was going to fight beside his men. As he passed, and the men saw what he intended to do, they cheered and cheered, and took heart so boldly that it was hard work to keep them from rushing up the heights of Dettingen, where Gramont's 30,000 Frenchmen were waiting to shoot them down.

Across the river Marshal Noailles, the French commander-in-chief, saw the sudden stir in the British ranks, heard the roaring hurrahs, and supposed that his enemies were going to be fairly caught against Gramont in front. In this event he could finish their defeat himself by an overwhelming attack in flank. Both his own and Gramont's artillery now redoubled their fire, till the British could hardly stand it. But then, to the rage and despair of Noailles, Gramont's men, thinking the day was theirs, suddenly left their strong position and charged down on to the same level as the British, who were only too pleased to meet them there. The king, seeing what a happy turn things were taking, galloped along the front of his army, waving his sword and calling out, 'Now, boys! Now for the honor of England!' His horse, maddened by the din, plunged and reared, and would have run away with him, straight in among the French, if a young officer called Trapaud had not seized the reins. The king then dismounted and put himself at the head of his troops, where he remained fighting, sword in hand, till the battle was over.

Wolfe and his major rode along the line of their regiment for the last time. There was not a minute to lose. Down came the Royal Musketeers of France, full gallop, smash. through the Scots Fusiliers and into the line in rear, where most of them were unhorsed and killed. Next, both sides advanced their cavalry, but without advantage to either. Then, with a clear front once more, the main bodies of the French and British infantry rushed together for a fight to a finish. Nearly all of Wolfe's regiment were new to war and too excited to hold their fire. When they were within range, and had halted for a moment to steady the ranks, they brought their muskets down to the 'present.' The French fell flat on their faces and the bullets whistled harmlessly over them. Then they sprang to their feet and poured in a steady volley while the British were reloading. But the second British volley went home. When the two enemies closed on each other with the bayonet, like the meeting of two stormy seas, the British fought with such fury that the French ranks were broken. Soon the long white waves rolled back and the long red waves rolled forward. Dettingen was reached and the desperate fight was won.

Both the boy-officers wrote home, Edward to his mother; James to his father. Here is a part of Edward's letter:

My brother and self escaped in the engagement and, thank God, are as well as ever we were in our lives, after not only being cannonaded two hours and three-quarters, and fighting with small arms [muskets and bayonets] two hours and one-quarter, but lay the two following nights upon our arms; whilst it rained for about twenty hours in the same time, yet are ready and as capable to do the same again. The Duke of Cumberland behaved charmingly. Our regiment has got a great deal of honor, for we were in the middle of the first line, and in the greatest danger. My brother has wrote to my father and I believe has given him a small account of the battle, so I hope you will excuse it me.

A manly and soldier-like letter for a boy of fifteen! Wolfe's own is much longer and full of touches that show how cool and observant he was, even in his first battle and at the age of only sixteen. Here is some of it:

The Gens d'Armes, or Mousquetaires Gris, attacked the first line, composed of nine regiments of English foot, and four or five of Austrians, and some Hanoverians. But before they got to the second line, out of two hundred there were not forty living. These unhappy men were of the first families in France. Nothing, I believe, could be more rash than their undertaking. The third and last attack was made by the foot on both sides. We advanced towards one another; our men in high spirits, and very impatient for fighting, being elated with beating the French Horse, part of which advanced towards us; while the rest attacked our Horse, but were soon driven back by the great fire we gave them. The major and I (for we had neither colonel nor lieutenant-colonel), before they came near, were employed in begging and ordering the men not to fire at too great a distance, but to keep it till the enemy should come near us; but to little purpose. The whole fired when they thought they could reach them, which had like to have ruined us. However, we soon rallied again, and attacked them with great fury, which gained us a complete victory, and forced the enemy to retire in great haste. We got the sad news of the death of as good and brave a man as any amongst us, General Clayton. His death gave us all sorrow, so great was the opinion we had of him. He had, 'tis said, orders for pursuing the enemy, and if we had followed them, they would not have repassed the Main with half their number. Their loss is computed to be between six and seven thousand men, and ours three thousand. His Majesty was in the midst of the fight; and the duke behaved as bravely as a man could do. I had several times the honor of speaking with him just as the battle began and was often afraid of his being dashed to pieces by the cannon-balls. He gave his orders with a great deal of calmness and seemed quite unconcerned. The soldiers were in high delight to have him so near them. I sometimes thought I had lost poor Ned when I saw arms, legs, and heads beat off close by him. A horse I rid of the colonel's, at the first attack, was shot in one of his hinder legs and threw me; so I was obliged to do the duty of an adjutant all that and the next day on foot, in a pair of heavy boots. Three days after the battle I got the horse again, and he is almost well.

Shortly after Dettingen Wolfe was appointed adjutant and promoted to a lieutenancy. In the next year he was made a captain in the 4th Foot while his brother became a lieutenant in the 12th. After this they had very few chances of meeting; and Edward, who had caught a deadly chill, died alone in Flanders, not yet seventeen years old. Wolfe wrote home to his mother:

Poor Ned wanted nothing but the satisfaction of seeing his dearest friends to leave the world with the greatest tranquility. It gives me many uneasy hours when I reflect on the possibility there was of my being with him before he died. God knows it was not apprehending the danger the poor fellow was in; and even that would not have hindered it had I received the physician's first letter. I know you won't be able to read this without shedding tears, as I do writing it. Though it is the custom of the army to sell the deceased's effects, I could not suffer it. We none of us want, and I thought the best way would be to bestow them on the deserving whom he had an esteem for in his lifetime. To his servant--the most honest and faithful man I ever knew--I gave all his clothes. I gave his horse to his friend Parry. I know he loved Parry; and for that reason the horse will be taken care of. His other horse I keep myself. I have his watch, sash, gorget, books, and maps, which I shall preserve to his memory. He was an honest and good lad, had lived very well, and always discharged his duty with the cheerfulness becoming a good officer. He lived and died as a son of you two should. There was no part of his life that makes him dearer to me than what you so often mentioned--he pined after me.

It was this pining to follow Wolfe to the wars that cost poor Ned his life. But did not Wolfe himself pine to follow his father?

The next year, 1745, the Young Pretender, 'Bonnie Prince Charlie,' raised the Highland clans on behalf of his father, won several battles, and invaded England, in the hope of putting the Hanoverian Georges off the throne of Great Britain and regaining it for the exiled Stuarts. The Duke of Cumberland was sent to crush him; and with the duke went Wolfe. Prince Charlie's army retreated and was at last brought to bay on Culloden Moor, six miles from Inverness. The Highlanders were not in good spirits after their long retreat before the duke's army, which enjoyed an immense advantage in having a fleet following it along the coast with plenty of provisions, while the prince's wretched army was half starved. We may be sure the lesson was not lost on Wolfe. Nobody understood better than he that the fleet is the first thing to consider in every British war. And nobody saw a better example of this than he did afterwards in Canada.

At daybreak on April 16, 1746, the Highlanders found the duke's army marching towards Inverness, and drew up in order to prevent it. Both armies halted, each hoping the other would make the mistake of charging. At last, about one o'clock, the Highlanders in the centre and right could be held back no longer. So eager were they to get at the redcoats that most of them threw down their muskets without even firing them, and then rushed on furiously, sword in hand. ''Twas for a time,' said Wolfe, 'a dispute between the swords and bayonets, but the latter was found by far the most destructible [sic] weapon.' No quarter was given or taken on either side during an hour of desperate fighting hand to hand. By that time the steady ranks of the redcoats, aided by the cavalry, had killed five times as many as they had lost by the wild slashing of the claymores. The Highlanders turned and fled. The Stuart cause was lost for ever.

Again another year of fighting: this time in Holland, where the British, Dutch, and Austrians under the Duke of Cumberland met the French at the village of Laffeldt, on June 21, 1747. Wolfe was now a brigade-major, which gave him the same sort of position in a brigade of three battalions as an adjutant has in a single one; that is, he was a smart junior officer picked out to help the brigadier in command by seeing that orders were obeyed. The fight was furious. As fast as the British infantry drove back one French brigade another came forward and drove the British back. The village was taken and lost, lost and taken, over and over again. Wolfe, though wounded, kept up the fight. At last a new French brigade charged in and swept the British out altogether. Then the duke ordered the Dutch and Austrians to advance: But the Dutch cavalry, right in the centre, were seized with a sudden panic and galloped back, knocking over their own men on the way, and making a gap that certainly looked fatal. But the right man was ready to fill it. This was Sir John Ligonier, afterwards commander-in-chief of the British Army at the time of Wolfe's campaigns in Canada. He led the few British and Austrian cavalry, among them the famous Scots Greys, straight into the gap and on against the dense masses of the French beyond. These gallant horsemen were doomed; and of course they knew it when they dashed themselves to death against such overwhelming odds. But they gained the few precious moments that were needed. The gap closed up behind them; and the army was saved, though they were lost.

During the day Wolfe was several times in great danger. He was thanked by the duke in person for the splendid way in which he had done his duty. The royal favor, however, did not make him forget the gallant conduct of his faithful servant, Roland: 'He came to me at the hazard of his life with offers of his service, took off my cloak and brought a fresh horse; and would have continued close by me had I not ordered him to retire. I believe he was slightly wounded just at that time. Many a time has he pitched my tent and made the bed ready to receive me, half-dead with fatigue.' Nor did Wolfe forget his dumb friends: 'I have sold my poor little gray mare. I lamed her by accident, and thought it better to dismiss her the service immediately. I grieved at parting with so faithful a servant, and have the comfort to know she is in good hands, will be very well fed, and taken care of in her latter days.'

After recovering from a slight wound received at Laffeldt Wolfe was allowed to return to England, where he remained for the winter. On the morrow of New Year's Day, 1748, he celebrated his coming of age at his father's town house in Old Burlington Street, London. In the spring, however, he was ordered to rejoin the army, and was stationed with the troops who were guarding the Dutch frontier. The war came to an end in the same year, and Wolfe went home. Though then only twenty-one, he was already an experienced soldier, a rising officer, and a marked man.


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Chronicles of Canada, The Winning of Canada, A Chronicle of Wolfe, 1915

 

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