Feature

On the Plains of Abraham

A novelist recreates one of Canada’s greatest battles

Photograph by Alana Riley
Geroge D. Tomlinson (after Benjamin West), The Death of General Wolfe, 1882, National Gallery of Canada

THE RIVER

It is a river as big as an ocean.

I am used to the small streams at home, streams that rush down the hillside, flickering with fish, where the sunlight illuminates the mossy stream beds and the water rattles with its own emptiness.

Here, the river is silent. It has filled its voice. The swift and changing currents are invisible. No light can breach the watery darkness. This river cannot be known, so it cannot be trusted.

The last time we tried to invade, in 1711, we came with no understanding of the St. Lawrence, and eight of our ships ran aground near the Île aux Oeufs. Almost 900 men drowned in the wreckage.

This time, for this invasion, we are determined not to be defeated before we start, not to be defeated by the river before we even reach Quebec. So we are constructing a map. We are noting the shoals and the currents. We are sounding the depths, dropping the knotted, weighted rope over the side of the ship to measure the length of the darkness that slopes beneath the hull. Already we know that the river bottom will not hold an anchor well. Already we know that there are shoals and shallows along the Beauport shore, and so we have come prepared with landing craft that have no keel, that can be rowed in less than two feet of water by eighteen men and carry sixty soldiers amidships.

But I am getting ahead of myself. We are nowhere near ready to land, to attack. The French control the heights. They have all the advantage. We are camped on moving water, on a surface that is constantly shifting beneath us.

I am not deceived into thinking we will ever really know this great river. I listen to the numbers called out by the men on the sounding rope. I look at the drawings being made of the shoreline that slowly drifts past. These bits of knowledge make the men confident, but I am not confident.

I am used only to small streams, but I understand them. I know that a river is always allied with the land that borders it. That these two things work together. They are not separate. One creates the other.

Some men stand beside a rushing stream and feel restless, feel that the relentless force of the water wants to move them into action. Other men stand beside the same stream and are grateful for the forward surge of the water. They can remain motionless, because the water is doing the moving for them.

This is the question a river asks, and one to which we, the 16,000 men in this navy, have no answer.

This is the question: when to be the river, and when to be the land? When to push forward, and when to remain perfectly still?

THE WOODCOCK

Every night, James Gibson, a naval chaplain, stands on deck and watches the bombardment fall on the city. The sky is lit up with fire. The noise of the cannons shudders the planks beneath his feet.

The church has been shelled. The city is in ruins. This should help Wolfe’s cause, but it does not. The French soldiers are not primarily within the city walls. They are spread out along the Beauport shore, with some high up on the cliffs that run the length of the promontory. They are largely unaffected by the shelling of the city.

General Wolfe has rarely been defeated in battle. Now he cannot figure out how to attack the French soldiers, so instead he attacks a city filled with civilians. He is a man of action. He is driven to attack.

James Gibson is not such a man. He is troubled by thoughts of the citizens of Quebec suffering the bombardment. He regrets coming on the voyage. At thirty-eight, he is too old to be interested in battle, even if he were that way inclined.

Gibson is the curate of the parish church in Upham, a small village in Hampshire, seven miles from Winchester. A small village. A small life. Not this stuttering inferno. Not this endless landscape. He fears he is losing his hearing from the cannon fire. If the ship sails close enough for the French to fire on them, he might even have cause to lose his life.

And all because of a bird.

James Gibson is obsessed with birds. At home in England, he catalogues those he sees, goes regularly on forays into the countryside to search for different varieties. He has come to Canada to look at the Canadian birds, to write his observations of them. Even, if he is so lucky, to kill and stuff specimens to take back home with him at the end of this violent ordeal.

Where the ocean empties into the great river, there are gulls and shorebirds. In the few landings he has been permitted, he has seen waders. There are swallows over the water at dusk. Nothing unusual.

But everything has changed. Gibson looks across to Quebec, to the smoke that hangs in the space above the city buildings. He dislikes being a witness to this needless destruction, but tonight even this has been made better by the fact that he went ashore several days ago with a landing party and saw a bird that was believed not to exist in this place.

A woodcock.

Photograph by Alana Riley
Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, Sketch for The Death of Montcalm, 1902, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec

It was in the grasses on the beach at the base of the cliffs, instantly recognizable, with its brown, dappled body and long, thin bill. He has seen his fill of woodcocks in England. They are not an especially attractive bird. But interesting, perhaps, because they have eyes on the sides of their heads, like horses, and like horses they can see all around them.

But the woodcock did not see James Gibson. He spotted it in the grass, and he stood motionless, watched it strut about on the sand, going about its evening business, oblivious to Gibson’s excitement.

Unfortunately, it was frightened off by some of the men before he could capture it. But no mind. He knows that it exists. He will try and come ashore to look for it again.

When James Gibson volunteered to join the Royal Navy, to journey across the ocean to this place, his parishioners were convinced that he would make his name in battle, that he would return a better man for having been in the midst of so important and glorious a victory.

But Gibson does not anymore believe this to be true. He knows now that what will make his name has three long toes, a sturdy body, and a short, raspy song that sounds almost exactly like a frog’s.

THE SIEGE

Those who can have left the city, have fled to the surrounding countryside. For those who must stay, life is lived solely in reaction to the bombardment.

All the major edifices—churches, schools, hospitals—are being hit by the shells or burned by the firebomb “carcass” missiles. Homes have been reduced to rubble. Flames destroy the frame dwellings, and after the fire plays itself out it is decreed that what burns in wood will henceforth be rebuilt in stone.

Everyone is on the move. The nursing sisters of the Hôpital Général have set up a mobile aid station to treat the wounded civilians. Father Récher has moved from his rectory beside Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, to the Quebec Seminary, to a temporary chapel inside a house just beyond the city walls. Each of these places has been bombed, and now he conducts services from the hospital chapel. Since no building can be relied upon to survive, he has become his own church.

The French control the heights of the Beauport shore, but beyond their encampments Wolfe’s men land and lay waste to the countryside, burning houses and crops for miles on both sides of the river. Some of the unlucky residents of Quebec who have sought shelter outside the city find themselves again under fiery attack from the British.

Food for the soldiers on the battlements is meant to be transported through the countryside by horse and cart along the Chemin du Roy. Because most of the available men are serving in the militia, the supply carts are driven by women, older men, and children. Where fear or rain renders the paths impassible, food for the city is floated downriver at night on bateaux, at great risk.

Thus, food is scarce. Sometimes the soldiers are down to only a few days’ worth of rations. Everyone is fixated on when they will eat next.

So when Wolfe’s men row their landing craft through the dark waters along the Quebec promontory, it is easy for them to bluff their way past the French guard ships. Wolfe’s soldiers simply pretend that they are part of the provision convoy, that they are coming ashore with food supplies. One of the soldiers even speaks in French, and so they are not truly challenged, and so they are allowed to pass safely by.

THE CLIMB

We are fighting for England, but few of us are actually from England. Less than a quarter, I’d say. The greatest share are Americans, but there are also some Irish and Scottish soldiers, even a few Swiss and German. I myself am a Highlander and fought against Cumberland and Wolfe at Culloden. A man who defeated our Bonnie Prince Charlie, who destroyed our homes, has now recruited the 78th Highlanders to kill for him in this war.

It does not bear thinking about for any length of time, and I am glad that we are now on the move, that there is a plan.

We are to land where the enemy least expects us, at the Anse au Foulon, about a mile from Quebec. To do this, we must climb the steep cliffs that rise from the river and that are, at four in the morning, great and forbidding walls of darkness.

We have slipped anchorage, loaded the flat-bottomed landing craft with soldiers, drifted down the north shore—the current and the ebb tide moving us so swiftly that rowing is almost unnecessary. Three armed sloops follow behind the landing craft, carrying extra ammunition and the two six-pounder field guns. We have lied our way past the French guards, and here we are, on the beach, at the base of the cliffs.

I am a young man, and in the best of health. I have climbed many hills in Scotland, but none as sheer and steep as this one, and never in the dark. There is a moment when I am entirely without confidence, and then the first man starts to haul himself up by root and rock, and we all scramble upward.

There is barely a moon. Dawn is a slow crawl of pink to the east. I can only see what is directly in front of me, but I can hear the other men on the cliff face, can hear their breathing and the small stones they kick down, trying to get a toehold in the rock. If one of them slipped and fell, he would easily take out half the regiment on his way down.

To be a soldier is to work for little pay and little food. It is to join the enemy’s army when you have been humiliated and defeated by them. It is to do what we are doing, following one another up a cliff, in the dark, with no idea of what to expect when we get to the top.

THE PLAINS OF ABRAHAM

After the landing, after the soldiers along the headland have been overwhelmed, after Wolfe has made inroads into the promontory, after he has led his men along the Foulon road toward the fortified city, he looks for a place to make his stand and fight the French.

A battle requires a line of men three deep. A line requires open space, since it often stretches out over a mile in length. So the woods that fan out from the road will not do, but the pastures and wheat fields that lie beyond them will.

Not that the area is clear. There are clutches of trees, rocks, small hills, hedges, shallow ponds, brush, ravines, fences, tall meadow grass, and the wheat fields. There are even a few houses and farm buildings scattered along the road. But, despite all the obstacles, there is enough standing space for Wolfe’s army to construct a thin red line across the field.

Wolfe has brought 4,400 sailors ashore. Of these, 2,100 are to form a line to fight the French, and the remaining 2,300 are to hold the north and south flanks, and guard the breach at the Anse au Foulon. Because of the small number of men, a line three deep—shoot, kneel, load—is not possible. This line is only two deep, with a space of three feet between men. But Wolfe has ordered his soldiers to load two musket balls into their guns so they can double their firepower.

The Canadian militia who have been surprised at the top of the cliffs, and the soldiers who have survived the skirmishes along the headland, have warned the French army. Montcalm’s forces know the English are assembling in the fields below the city. So all that is required of Wolfe’s men is to form their line, to make that furrow across the field, and to wait.

THE BATTLE

The British have surprised us. When the first warnings reached the city that Wolfe’s army had breached the Anse au Foulon and were assembling for battle on the Plains of Abraham, I found it impossible to believe. That is the trouble with surprise: too much time is spent wondering how something happened, and not enough time responding to the fact that it has happened.

We have two choices: to wait for reinforcements, or to fight the British before they can receive reinforcements. Our general decides not to wait. We are 3,400 men, marching in a line three deep, with Montcalm leading us on horseback. Even though we have been surprised, our spirits are high. Montcalm has never suffered a defeat in any of his previous campaigns against the British. There is no reason to think we might lose this battle.

Once we leave the fortifications and begin our journey toward the Plains of Abraham, we are going uphill. The hillside is interrupted by fences, ponds, rocky ravines, dense brush, and a wheat field where the stalks are higher than a man’s head. It proves difficult to keep to our formation. Each man travels at a different speed, encounters different obstacles. We break down into smaller groups. Someone gives the order to charge, and everyone begins to run. Our group enters the wheat field, and by the time we emerge out the other side we are estranged from the other groups.

The British wait, in perfect formation. We are running to catch up with the rest of our line. I cannot see our general. I don’t know how many men are still struggling up the hillside, caught up in the trees and ravines.

We are panicked from the running, from losing our structure. We are panicked, and the sight of the calmly waiting enemy panics us further. No one gives the order, but we all begin to fire our muskets before we are close enough for them to have any effect. After the noise and smoke have cleared, most of the British line is still standing where they had been before we began firing. Our volley has fallen short.

Here I must say, in our defence, that many of us are not soldiers. We are ordinary civilians who are fighting out of necessity. The French army is meticulously trained. We only do the odd drill on Sundays and holidays. The French soldiers operate as a single body; we are a collection of individuals. It is no wonder that we all make our own decisions about when to shoot.

When the British open fire on us, we are within range, and the casualties are enormous. They are also employing field cannons, spraying grapeshot across our ranks, and killing as many of us as possible with their muskets.

We stand it for as long as we can, but it is only minutes before we realize that we are overpowered. Just as each man made his decision to fire his musket, each man now makes his decision when to turn and run from the British. My moment comes when they begin to charge and I see the Highlanders draw their broadswords. I know the reputation of these warriors, how they can lay a man open in seconds with their deadly blades. It is one thing to be shot, another to be butchered. I turn and run along the hillside toward the city, equally as quickly as I had run into battle.

THE WITNESS

The French force, like the British, is composed of different groups. There are the regular French soldiers, the Canadian militia, and the native warriors. The warriors are allies of the French, existing peacefully alongside them, and united with them in their desire to repulse invaders. Braves from a number of nations made their way to the Plains of Abraham when they became aware of the British presence there. Since their participation is strictly voluntary, the warriors have made it known to the French, in previous conflicts, that even though they will fight with them they will fight in their own way.

Ouiharalihte has come with his grandfather to help defeat the British, but when they arrive on the battlefield and meet the Hurons preparing to fight the long line of soldiers, each one bright like a drop of blood in his scarlet waistcoat, Ouiharalihte’s grandfather has a change of heart.

“Go back to the village,” he says. “You are too young for this fight.”

“I am not too young.”

“Go back and wait.” Ouiharalihte’s grandfather gives the boy a little push, and the argument is effectively over.

Ouiharalihte turns and heads back toward the trees that border the edge of the field, but he cannot bring himself to go back to the village, to wait there with the women and young children for the braves to return victorious from battle. Already, the French are yelling their advance. He can hear them coming down the hill from the town. He could just watch for a little while and then return to the village. His grandfather will never know.

Ouiharalihte settles down in the long grass at the base of a tree, well protected from errant shots, and from the chance of anyone spotting him. Like his grandfather, like the other braves in the Huron nation, he does not see the point in fighting the way the Europeans do, with exposed lines of soldiers squaring off against each other. A good warrior should use the natural features of the landscape for cover. He watches the braves and the Canadian militia take cover behind the trees and rocks. They have positioned themselves to attack the north and south flanks of Wolfe’s army, where there are fewer soldiers.

He does not know what to expect from the battle, but all the same he is disappointed. There is yelling, and then the thunder of musket fire, and then a great wall of smoke. When the smoke clears, he can see bodies on the ground. Even though he was watching all the time, he somehow didn’t see the moment when the soldiers fell. As he looks for his grandfather, the muskets fire again, and the smoke that fills the field is as thick as if a cloud had plummeted from the sky to earth.

This time, when the smoke lifts, Ouiharalihte can see men running and other men chasing them. He still cannot find his grandfather, but the direction the soldiers are running is away from where the braves are crouched behind the trees. The soldiers are running back down the hill, toward the town.

A battle is not one thing, thinks Ouiharalihte. It is many things. The crack of the guns, and the scorched smell of the powder. Movement full of purpose, and then movement riven with confusion. The screams of the dying men, and the look of their crumpled bodies on the ground.

He scrambles up from his hiding place, suddenly glad he has been spared the battle. His grandfather was right, once again. He doesn’t feel old enough for this much death.

THE DEATH OF THE GENERALS

Montcalm is shot in the back while he is on horseback, in retreat from the British. Several French soldiers who are near to him when he is hit support his mortally wounded body upright on his horse, until they can get him safely within the city walls. He dies in the early hours of the morning and is buried in a shell hole beneath a church. His final act is to write a letter to General Wolfe, surrendering the city of Quebec and asking for mercy in the treatment of the sick and wounded.

Wolfe is killed on the battlefield. He is hit by three musket balls, one passing through a tendon in his right wrist, one hitting him in the stomach, a third in the chest. He dies without speaking, in the company of several of his men. His body is carried down to the water, placed in one of the landing craft, and rowed out to the Lowestoft. He has died just an hour after the fighting began, perhaps living long enough to hear the news, in his semi-conscious state, that the French army is in retreat.

THE WOMAN

Eleanor Job is the only woman on the battlefield that day. She is the wife of a Royal Artillery gunner, and has accompanied her husband from England to the Plains of Abraham. She is present at the battle not for sentimental reasons, but because she is a field nurse, known for her courage under fire. Eleanor has been given the nickname Good Mother Job by the soldiers she mends.

On the morning of September 13, once it is obvious that the French army is on the run, she walks among the wounded British soldiers with her satchel of bandages and dressings, assessing who is in the gravest need of her attentions, who should be moved, who should remain where they are. Because the soldiers stand close together in their firing line, when they fall they often land on top of one another. Sometimes a dead man will be covering a wounded man, and Eleanor will have to roll the corpse away in order to treat the man underneath.

The tall meadow grasses are flattened by the weight of the fallen soldiers. There is blood on the ground and acrid smoke still hanging in the air. As Eleanor kneels beside the injured, and rises again, and kneels again, she is always on the watch for her own husband among the dead and wounded. The terror at perhaps finding him there is a constant bitter taste at the back of her throat.

The British soldiers who have suffered minor wounds are raiding the corpses of the French soldiers, stripping them of swords and any valuable personal effects they have carried into battle. A soldier’s pay is meagre, and this is how they supplement their income. This is the right of the victor, to take from the dead what they no longer need. After the looting, the dead soldiers will be buried—English and French together—in mass graves, here on the plains where they fell.

It is late in the morning when Eleanor learns that General Wolfe is dead, and later still when she is taken back to the ship to attend to his corpse. She has still not heard of the fate of her own husband, when she is led below decks and left to embalm the body of General James Wolfe.

He lies naked on the table in front of her. Daylight flickers through the small, round ship’s window. Eleanor has asked to be left alone with the body, although after she has put the drains in she will have to call for someone to empty the basins that will fill rapidly with the general’s blood.

This is what she will do: drain James Wolfe’s blood, and then inject his arteries with turpentine and camphor, to preserve his body long enough to get it back to England so he can be buried with all the ceremony befitting so great a man.

Eleanor Job is thirty-six years old. In a different life, she would have remained in the village where she was born. She would be raising children instead of tending to the dead and dying. It would be an exact opposite life to the one she has been given.

The skin of James Wolfe is cool to the touch. Eleanor runs her fingers around the hole near his right breast. This is the shot that probably killed him. She walks around the table. Wolfe’s right wrist is still wrapped in a bloody strip of cloth. This wound was the first he received, and he must have hastily bandaged it himself in the midst of battle, thinking he could easily survive it and continue on.

One day, perhaps even this day, Eleanor Job will be presented with the dead body of her husband. Every death is a rehearsal for that death, for that moment, and she knows it.

In the field, she stops the flow of blood with styptic and bandages, with the steady pressure of her hand above the wound. Saving a man means keeping his blood from spilling. Now she has to empty General Wolfe’s body. All her instincts go against making that first incision, putting the drain in. But Eleanor Job takes a deep breath, looks out the window at the blue water and the even bluer sky, steadies herself, and settles down to her work.

THE RETREAT

We walk west—the French soldiers, the Canadian militia, the warriors. There are three or four thousand of us, an impressive number when seen walking two or three abreast along the wagon road. It takes hours for the line of us to pass through each village.

We left in the evening, initially moving north and then south to get past the British. We have no tents, no means of making camp, so we keep on walking. It is lucky that the weather is fair, the skies clear and blue.

It is strange, but the retreat has restored our morale rather than destroyed it. We are eating well enough. The marching has calmed us, and, most important, we have received word that Wolfe is dead.

The fate of Quebec has been left to the strength of the militia. I am worried about my own family, who took shelter inside the city walls when the countryside became too dangerous—when the British were wantonly setting fire to every farm and homestead.

My own farm has been torched. My barn, with the animals inside, burned to nothing.

I sometimes think that we are merely fighting to protect what we have already lost. To build up my farm again will take years, and it does me no good to consider all the work that will be required to accomplish this. I must act as though I am still on the farm, performing one task and then another, never thinking further ahead than the thing that I am doing. First we assembled, then we fought, and now we are marching. I have to believe that it is really not much different from a morning on the farm. First I milk, then I have breakfast, and then I walk with the horse and plow and turn the furrows.

A bridge is out at the river we need to cross, and as we wait for the boats that will ferry us over the water, word reaches us that provisions have been hoarded to supply our army. Lévis, who has taken over for Montcalm, rallies us to march back into Quebec and save the city from British occupation.

So this is how we leave, and this is how we decide to go back.

THE SURRENDER

The city of Quebec is being defended by a mix of militia, regular soldiers, and sailors. Food supplies are running out, and everything is further complicated by the arrival of 2,700 refugees, who fled the city when it was first under siege, and then fled the countryside after the onset of the battle.

The British have laid another siege against the city, and are now closing in on the ramparts. They are also still burning out the inhabitants of the country. Flags of smoke wave, day and night, above the distant fields.

It is rumoured that the British are launching an amphibious assault against Lower Town. It is rumoured that they are marching along the Saint-Charles Valley to attack the city. It is known that they have far greater numbers than we do. It is known that they are better fed, better supplied with weaponry.

Most of the Canadians who make up the militia have families they are determined to protect. They are tired of the bombardment, tired of the siege, tired of not having enough to eat. They are especially tired of imagining that conditions could grow worse than they already are. Officially, they are still soldiers. Unofficially, they want to return to being simple civilians.

THE RETURN

Our march back to the city is the opposite of our march out. It rains for two days. The road becomes a quagmire, the mud pulling at our boots with a stronger force than we possess to lift them clear. We are soaked through, the water running in rivulets from our heads to the ground. It is hard to boil the kettles in the evening to heat our rations, hard to get the fires to burn convincingly.

I am too miserable to be adequately surprised when, on September 19, just over a mile from the city walls, we are approached by a rider who tells us that Quebec surrendered the day before, that the Union Jack now flies above our ruined houses.

Standing on the road, in the muck, in the pouring rain, with everything the same and everything utterly changed, we are still, and forever, walking toward home on foreign ground.

For the writing of this story, I am indebted to D. Peter MacLeod’s excellent book Northern Armageddon (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008).

Alana Riley is a visual artist and freelance photographer currently residing in Los Angeles. She won Montreal’s Prix Pierre-Ayot in 2010.