The Highland Regiments have always enjoyed a world-wide popularity quite apart from the quality of their achievements. This popularity is due to the appeal of imagination and romance. The spectacle of a Highland regiment, its pipes playing, and the kilts swinging file by file, recalls the old days when the clans rose for the Stuarts. The Highland dress is not only linked for all time with Lucknow, Balaclava, and Quatre Bras, but, stepping farther backward, with Culloden, Killiecrankie, and Glencoe. People unacquainted with uniforms find a difficulty in recognising certain English line regiments whose records are the glory of our military history. But the Highlander, beyond his distinctive regiment, carries in the memories aroused a passport to popular favour.
Fortunately the Highland Regiments have earned by more than glamour the admiration of Britain. In campaigns extending over the last hundred and fifty odd years the Highlanders have borne their share of the fighting, and whenever the call has come have proved themselves ‘second to none.’
It was in the eighteenth century that the Jacobites rose for the last time against the King of England, and whatever the rights or wrongs of the rebellion, the loyalty and bravery of the clans will for ever remain undimmed by time. Loyalty may make mistakes, but it is none the less noble for that, and when the ‘45 was over it was the sons of the men who died for Prince Charlie who were ready to fight for King George.
It is most important to understand, no matter how simply, the broad characteristics of the clan system, an established order of things that, in mid-eighteenth century times, the Government considered most dangerous to the peace of England. Their reason for thinking so is not hard to seek. Instead of a peaceful, pastoral country, the Highlands were an armed camp. In the twentieth century, when strong active men are needed so badly, such an organisation would have been of the greatest value; then it was rightly regarded as a menace both to the Lowlands and to the English throne.
The clan was composed of a large or sometimes comparatively small number of people bearing the same name, and sworn to obey the Chief, whose word was absolute, and whose greatest ambition was the number of swords he could summon to his side.
The Highlander took little interest in tilling or reaping. He left that chiefly to the women. His bearing and instincts were those of a gentleman, while his ruling desire was to engage in fighting. He was proud, indolent, but faithful to the death. The chiefs, who dreaded the loss of their power more than anything else, and were not so blind as to believe that progress could be indefinitely defied, rose for the cause of the Stuarts with the gambler’s hope that the old days might remain a little longer.
Every one knows how the clans rallied to the standard of Prince Charlie, of their march into England, and of their defeat by the Duke of Cumberland, who was the Prince’s cousin.
The battle of Culloden was to seal the doom of the clan system, and to prepare the way for the history of the Highland Regiments. It was Pitt who ‘sought for merit’ in the wild mountains of Scotland, and no finer recruiting ground could have been discovered. The Highlander was distinguished for his loyalty, his bravery, and his conservatism. War and hunting were his employment, but underneath his fiery temperament lay a deep vein of self-sacrifice and poetry. That none of those poor people gave up their Prince for gold is wonderful enough. That they never forgot him is more precious than all the treasures in the world.
The love of the Celt for the place of his birth provided one of the most tragic periods in our history. Emigration, ruin, and the end of the clan system inspired some of the most beautiful and moving songs in our language. The point, therefore, that must be emphasised at the moment is the poetic temperament of the Gael, his love of romance, of old tales, of old times, of bravery, of loyalty, and of leading an active life.
It was just through this love of adventure that cattle-raiding continued during the first half of the eighteenth century, and that is why people on the border line paid ‘blackmail.’ In modern life one of the most valuable resolves to make is never, under any circumstances, to pay blackmail; never, that is, to allow freedom of action or will to pass into the hands of another person. Payment of blackmail once, invariably means payment for always. But in the Highlands there was no such ignominy attached to the word. Blackmail carried with it protection from theft, not shelter from disgrace. It was paid in much the same way as a citizen pays the Government taxes to provide policemen to guard his house. From the year 1725 onwards law-abiding people in the Highlands congratulated themselves, in all good faith, upon the excellent work that certain newly raised companies of Government militia were doing in keeping the district quiet. These companies were called the ‘Black Watch,’ partly because of their dark tartan, partly owing to the nature of their duties.
A Highland Chief
Let us see what kind of corps this was. With the hope that some display of authority would quell the simmering spirit of revolt in the Highlands, the Government, at the suggestion of an ardent Hanoverian, decided in the year 1725 to raise a local force officered by Highland gentry. It was an insignificant body at first, but from time to time further companies were added, until in the year 1740 it was embodied under the number of the 43rd, to be changed some years later to the 42nd. In this fashion, and simply as a vigilance corps, the ‘Black Watch,’ a regiment that has carved its name upon the tablets of history and romance, came to be formed.
It may seem strange that the marauding habits of the clansmen should have come so admirably beneath the discipline of the army. The secret is not far to seek. The qualities that bound the clansmen to the chief were simply transferred to the new regime. No finer, simpler, more powerful tribute to these qualities could be found than in the words of General Stewart of Garth, written a century ago, but not without force at the present time:
“In forming his military character, the Highlander was not more favoured by nature than by the social system under which he lived. Nursed in poverty, he acquired a hardiness which enabled him to sustain severe privations. As the simplicity of his life gave vigour to his body, so it fortified his mind. Possessing a frame and constitution thus hardened, he was taught to consider courage as the most honourable virtue, cowardice the most disgraceful failing; to venerate and obey his chief, and to devote himself for his native country and clan, and thus prepared to be a soldier he was ready wherever honour and duty called him. With such principles, and regarding any disgrace he might bring on his clan and district as the most cruel misfortune, the Highland private soldier had a peculiar motive to exertion. The common soldier of many other countries has scarcely any other stimulus to the performance of his duty than the fear of chastisement, or the habit of mechanical obedience to command, produced by the discipline by which he has been trained…. The German soldier considers himself as part of the military machine, and duly marked out in the orders of the day. He moves onward to his destination with a well-trained pace, and with his phlegmatic indifference to the result as a labourer who works for his daily hire. The courage of the French soldier is supported in the hour of trial by his high notions of the point of honour, but this display of spirit is not always steady: neither French nor German is confident in himself if an enemy gain his flank or rear. A Highland soldier faces his enemy whether in front, rear, or flank, and if he has confidence in his commander it may be predicted with certainty that he will be victorious, or die on the ground which he maintains.”
After the ‘45, when the last dream of the marauders was for ever shattered, the Highlands, possessing such unequalled military qualities of physique and imagination, were to prove a magnificent recruiting ground for the British Army. Not only the Black Watch but many other regiments were raised for the Government, and the military spirit was, by the genius of Pitt, guided into legitimate and honourable warfare.
THE BATTLE HONOURS OF THE BLACK WATCH (ROYAL HIGHLANDERS)
Guadeloupe, 1759; Martinique, 1762; Havannah; North America, 1763-1764; Mysore, Mangalore, Seringapatam, Corunna, Busaco, Fuentes de Oñoro, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Nive, Orthez, Toulouse, Peninsula, Waterloo; South Africa, 1846-1847, 1851-1853; Alma, Sevastopol, Lucknow, Ashanti; Egypt, 1882-1884; Tel-el-Kebir; Nile, 1884-1885; Kirbekan; South Africa, 1899-1902; Paardeberg.
On the head of Frederick (the Great) is all the blood which was shed in a war which raged during many years, and in every quarter of the globe—the blood of the column of Fontenoy, the blood of the brave mountaineers who were slaughtered at Culloden. The evils produced by his wickedness were felt in lands where the name of Prussia was unknown; and in order that he might rob a neighbour whom he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel, and red men scalped each other by the great lakes of North America.—Macaulay.
Flanders was not altogether unknown in the historic sense to the men of the North, and the ‘cockpit of Europe,’ as it has been named for its successive tragedies of war, has been fated to become too often the Scottish soldier’s grave. Campaign after campaign has raged across its fertile country-side, leaving in its trail desolation and despair.
It is outside the story of the Highland Regiments to discuss the political situation at the time when the Stuart cause was for ever crushed. What must not be overlooked, however, is that the French appeared more interested in the Jacobite Rebellion than could be attributed entirely to friendly feelings towards Prince Charles. No more ominous sign of how the wind really blew could be cited than the way in which Louis XV., King of France, hustled the unhappy young man out of the country in his hour of failure. The reason for his attitude was simple enough—the Highland trouble was but an incident in the European situation, no more than a pawn in the great game of war. After many years of unbroken peace and prosperity, the fall of Walpole made way for the ambitions of the Earl of Chatham, whom we have already quoted as Pitt the Elder. Pitt was naturally proud of the newly coined name of ‘patriot,’ and during his time of office, which opened with the ‘War of Jenkins’s Ear’ and closed with the disastrous rebellion of the American colonies, there was hardly a breathing-space of peace.
The time inevitably arises when a great and vigorous country must expand or perish. England had set her heart on expansion, and at this period there was ample space in the world for the formation of colonies. The only rival was France, and a very brave and dangerous rival she was to prove. For the next half-century the struggle for supremacy was fated to carry bloodshed into many corners of the world.
In the War of the Austrian Succession, England assisted Maria Theresa to defend her throne against the forces of France, Bavaria, and Prussia, while from this time the rivalry with France became increasingly fierce, both in Europe and America. The conflict resolved itself into a prolonged struggle on land and sea, with the main seat of operations in India and Canada. The curtain went down on the long drama at Waterloo.
At this period we were at war with Prussia, whereas sixty odd years later Wellington awaited the timely advance of Blücher. Again another hundred years and the British forces were to approach the same fateful field, but this time allied with their old enemies the French.
We are faced, therefore, by the history of nearly fifty years of the building of the British Empire, and the corresponding downfall of France in America and India.
At this time we possessed twelve colonies along the American coast, including the township of New York. The colonists in this district were a simple, industrious people, principally descendants of those early Puritans who had sailed across the Atlantic in the Mayflower. They lived in constant dread of the Red Indians, but in no less dread of the French, whose own colonies were in close proximity, while beyond the Great Lakes was French Canada.
There were very many more English colonists than Frenchmen, but the latter possessed the advantage of closer intimacy with the Indians, who proved a powerful and active ally and a cruel and revengeful enemy.
We shall therefore follow the fortunes of the Highlanders through the long struggle with France, first on the Continent and in America, leaving the position in India for a later chapter.
There must be few, if any, to whom the name of Flanders does not instantly recall in all its tragic significance the heroism of Belgium.
How often will the old familiar lines, asking the old unanswered question, recur throughout the coming chapters.
“And everybody praised the Duke
Who such a fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he;
“But ’twas a famous victory.”
It is well for us to keep that unhappy country before our minds, for we shall return from time to time to the conflicts that have thundered themselves into the great silence.
In 1743-44 the Black Watch embarked for the Continent, and in May 1745, after some two years’ service with Marshal Wade, the 42nd assembled with the Allied Army under the command of the Duke of Cumberland. The force consisted of British, Hanoverians, Dutch, and Austrians. The French army was commanded by the famous Marshal Saxe, the scene of battle being in the neighbourhood of Fontenoy. The Duke of Cumberland, who was ever an impetuous and courageous though not very skilful leader, opened the engagement, and for a considerable time pressed the French, hurling them out of their entrenchments at the point of the bayonet, while the Highlanders wielded their claymores with remarkable effect. In this, their first taste of disciplined warfare the eyes of Europe were upon them.
The point at which the Highlanders and Guards were launched was speedily taken, but things went less happily elsewhere. The cavalry under General Campbell suffered a reverse—the Dutch and Austrians reeled back before the French fire—the fortunes of the day were dependent upon the British.
Presently came the dramatic and magnificent advance of the British infantry with the Black Watch upon the extreme right. With measured tread and set faces they came on. Their ranks were ploughed and broken with shot, but re-forming in silence they drew ever nearer to the French.
It was then that Lord Charles Hay of the 1st Guards turned to the men beside him crying, “Men of the King’s Company, these are the French Guards, and I hope you are going to beat them to-day.”
He was not disappointed. Not for the first time, nor for the last, the English Guards hurled back the pick of the Continental soldiers in confusion.
Saxe, dreading a reverse, ordered his horse, and, supported by a man on either side because of his bodily weakness, rode forward to lead up the veteran troops of France, knowing well the inspiration that his presence would bring. And at that moment the British artillery slackened its fire, thus giving an opportunity to the famous Irish Brigade to win or lose the cause of France.
The Irish Brigade was composed of men for the most part of good family, who had left the country of their birth to follow King James into exile. They were magnificent troops, inflamed by a deadly hatred of England, and always ready to avenge the wrongs that they believed they had suffered at English hands. Their advance was practically invincible, and before very long they took ample revenge for the severe drubbing they had received at Dettingen two years before. With shouts of ‘Remember Limerick!’ they broke like an angry sea upon the English flank, which stood stubbornly until retreat was seen to be inevitable. Soon the French cavalry were pouring down upon the English withdrawal, and at that critical situation the hour of the Black Watch dawned. It was due to the bravery of the Highland regiment that the English forces were not driven into irretrievable confusion. Captain John Munro of the 43rd has written of the day’s work: “We got within musket shot of their batteries, when we received three full fires of their batteries and small arms, which killed us forty men and one ensign. Here we were obliged to skulk behind houses and hedges for about an hour and a half, waiting for the Dutch, who, when they came up, behaved but so and so. Our regiment being in some disorder, I wanted to draw them up in rear of the Dutch, which their general would scarce allow of; but at last I did it, and marched them again to the front. In half an hour after the Dutch gave way, and Sir Robert Munro thought proper we should retire; for we had then the whole batteries from the enemy’s ground playing upon us, and three thousand foot ready to fall upon us. We retired; but before we had marched thirty yards, we had orders to return to the attack, which we did; and in about ten minutes after had orders to march directly with all expedition, to assist the Hanoverians…. The British behaved well; we (the Highlanders) were told by his royal highness that we did our duty well.
“By two of the clock we all retreated; and we were ordered to cover the retreat as the only regiment that could be kept to their duty, and in this affair we lost sixty more; but the Duke made so friendly and favourable a speech to us, that if we had been ordered to attack their lines afresh, I dare say our poor fellows would have done it.”
So much for the Highlanders. But what did the French think of them? “It must be owned,” says one, “that our forces were thrice obliged to give way, and nothing but the good conduct and extreme calmness of Marshal Saxe could have brought them to the charge the last time, which was about two o’clock, when the Allies in their turn gave way. Our victory may be said to be complete; but it cannot be denied, that, as the Allies behaved extremely well, more especially the English, so they made a soldier like retreat which was much favoured by an adjacent wood. The British behaved well, and could be exceeded in ardour by none but our officers, who animated the troops by their example, when the Highland furies rushed in upon us with more violence than ever did a sea driven by a tempest.”
One can appreciate how much the French were impressed by the Highlanders by the exploit of one of the Black Watch who killed nine Frenchmen with his claymore, and was only prevented from continuing by the loss of his arm.
But half the success was due to the discretion of Sir Robert Munro, of Fowlis, who allowed his Highlanders to engage in their own way, a method of fighting that greatly upset the enemy. He “ordered the whole regiment to clap to the ground on receiving the French fire, and instantly after its discharge they sprang up, and coming close to the enemy poured in shot upon them to the certain destruction of multitudes, then retreating, drew up again, and attacked a second time in the same manner. These attacks they repeated several times the same day, to the surprise of the whole army. Sir Robert was everywhere with his regiment notwithstanding his great corpulency, and, when in the trenches, he was hauled out by the legs and arms by his own men; and it is observed that when he commanded the whole regiment to clap to the ground, he himself alone, with the colours behind him, stood upright, receiving the whole fire of the enemy, and this because although he could easily lie down, his great bulk would not suffer him to rise so quickly.”
The prospect of invasion has been so very critical within our own recollection that it is interesting to recall that, after the campaign in Flanders, the Black Watch returned to England, and in view of the contemplated descent of the French upon the coast, was stationed along the cliffs of Kent.
The dispersal of the Jacobite forces at Culloden left the Duke of Cumberland free to return to the Continent, where he stationed his army to cover Bergen-op-Zoom and Maestricht, while Saxe encamped between Mechlin and Louvain.
The Highland regiment, however, saw very little fighting during this campaign, and was shortly withdrawn to England. In 1749 the Black Watch assumed the world-famed regimental number of the 42nd.
The rivalry between our nation and the French died down upon the Continent, but burst into flame in North America, and it is to that wild and unknown country—for so it was in the year 1756—that we must follow the Black Watch.
The Expeditionary Force was under the command of a singularly incompetent General named Sir James Abercrombie, and landed at New York after many weary weeks’ journey. The appearance of the Highlanders created a tremendous sensation, particularly amongst the Red Indians, who displayed the keenest interest in their dress, and were ready to accept them as brothers-in-arms. It must also be recalled that many Highlanders had emigrated during the years succeeding 1745, so one can take it for granted that the Black Watch were warmly received by their kinsfolk in the New World.
The French forces were commanded by the gallant Marquis de Montcalm, who in 1756, acting with his usual promptitude, had captured Fort Ontario, a success clouded over by the ill-treatment of the British soldiers by the Red Indians. In 1757 the only incident worthy of note was the fall of Fort William Henry.
So far our enemies had succeeded, and the Government, irritated by this unsatisfactory state of affairs, fitted out a further naval and military force of some fifteen thousand men.
The British force in America was divided into three expeditions. We shall deal briefly with each in turn. But for fear that hard facts may obscure the romantic setting, it will be just as well to sketch the features of the country in which these undertakings played their part. It had all the wonder of a virgin land. It was there that—
Soldiers and priests in the grim bivouac—
A handful dreaming in the wilderness—
In fancy reached Quebec and Tadousac
And told of great exploits, of long duresse,
Of Fort St. Louis’ graves, of sore distress,
Of France’s venture in the southern land.
Vast lakes and rivers, mountains and cañons, not unlike to the glens the Highlanders had left in Scotland, confronted them. In the deep stillness of the woods wild animals slipped into the darkness, and savages were a sleepless menace. In the dead of a summer night the long-drawn cry of an Indian brave would chill the blood of some straggling soldier, or from the thicket would fly the arrows of death. It was a country where one force could not hope to keep in touch with another nor guard its lines of communication: an army was swallowed up in a wilderness of forests and rivers. In such circumstances each man carried his life and the lives of his comrades in his hands, for defeat meant annihilation or capture, and it would be better to fall into the hands of the French than to be tracked down by their ruthless allies the Indians. “Here were no English woodlands, no stretches of pale green turf, no vistas opening beneath flattened boughs, with blue distant hills, and perhaps a group of antlers topping the bracken. The wild life of these forests crawled among thickets or lurked in sinister shadows. No bird poured out its heart in them; no lark soared out of them, breasting heaven. At rare intervals a note fell on the ear—the scream of hawk or eagle, the bitter cackling laugh of blue jay or woodpecker, the loon’s ghostly cry—solitary notes, and unhappy, as though wrung by pain out of the choking silence; or away on the hillside a grouse began drumming, or a duck went whirring down the long waterway until the sound sank and was overtaken by the river’s slow murmur.
“When night had hushed down these noises, the forest would be silent for an hour or two, and then awake more horribly with the howling of wolves.”
We now come to one of those episodes of reckless bravery that have immortalised the Highland regiments—an engagement that was to ring throughout England, bringing a new renown to the Black Watch. It is associated with a place bearing the strange and musical name of Ticonderoga—‘the meeting of the waters.’ Many years before our story the famous Frenchman Champlain had nearly suffered defeat in that dreaded country of the Iroquois. Many years had passed since then, and now Ticonderoga was held by the French. How difficult a place it was to storm will be gathered from the following description:
“Fort Ticonderoga stands on a tongue of land between Lake Champlain and Lake George, and is surrounded on three sides by water; part of the fourth side is protected by a morass, the remaining part was strongly fortified with high entrenchments, supported and flanked by three batteries, and the whole front of that part which was accessible was intersected by deep traverses, and blocked up with felled trees, with their branches turned outwards, forming together a most formidable defence.”
It was rendered not less hazardous because Abercrombie did not take the trouble to employ ordinary precautions. He could have stormed the place with artillery, attacked it on the flank, or cut Montcalm’s line of communications. He did none of these things. In other words, he trusted to the bravery of his soldiers to achieve what was practically impossible. Embarking his troops on Lake George, he made his way down the still and placid lake, landing without opposition. The very silence was ominous.
In the meantime Montcalm was straining every nerve to prepare for the coming struggle. With him were a comparatively large force of French and several hundred Canadians, while a further reinforcement was hourly expected. On the report that the defences of Ticonderoga were still unfinished, Abercrombie decided upon an instant attack. The English attacking force, composed of the Grenadiers with the Highlanders in reserve, advanced heroically to the assault, only to discover that the entrenchments were far stronger than had been anticipated. Montcalm waited until the English were within a close distance of the garrison before giving the order to fire. The British were mown down in hundreds. Again and again they charged, to fall in heaps at the foot of the stockades. Even now Abercrombie would not give up the insane attack. So far the Black Watch had taken no part, but the time soon came when they could restrain their impatience no longer, and, gripping their broadswords and Lochaber axes, they broke into a charge. Madly they rushed at the stockade, only to find, like their comrades, that it was practically unscalable. They were dauntless in their despair. By scrambling upon each other’s shoulders a few managed to enter the enclosure and were instantly killed by the French. After a forlorn struggle, in which the Black Watch lost some 300 men killed with over 300 wounded, Abercrombie resolved to retire. He had attempted to take a position impregnable without a bombardment. Well might the French commander remark: “Had I to besiege Ticonderoga, I would ask for but six mortars and two pieces of artillery.” Abercrombie had the artillery, but did not trouble to bring it up.
“The affair at Fontenoy,” says Lieutenant Grant of the Black Watch, “was nothing to it: I saw both. We laboured under insurmountable difficulties. The enemy’s breastwork was about nine or ten feet high, upon the top of which they had plenty of wall pieces fixed, and which was well lined on the inside with small arms. But the difficult access to their lines was what gave them a fatal advantage over us. They took care to cut down monstrous large oak trees which covered all the ground from the foot of their breastwork about the distance of a cannon-shot every way in their front. This not only broke our ranks, and made it impossible for us to keep our order, but put it entirely out of our power to advance till we cut our way through. I have seen men behave with courage and resolution before now, but so much determined bravery can hardly be equalled in any part of the history of ancient Rome. Even those that were mortally wounded cried aloud to their companions not to mind or lose a thought upon them, but to follow their officers, and to mind the honour of their country. Nay, their ardour was such, that it was difficult to bring them off. They paid dearly for their intrepidity. The remains of the regiment had the honour to cover the retreat of the army, and brought off the wounded as we did at Fontenoy. When shall we have so fine a regiment again?”
The Black Watch at Ticonderoga
On Independence Day 1906, in the Carnegie Public Library at Ticonderoga, a tablet was unveiled commemorating the gallantry and the severe casualties of the Black Watch in July 1758, a calamity comparable to that of Magersfontein in 1899.
Here, as throughout our story, was displayed a reckless bravery under trying conditions, an uncomplaining heroism under fire, a simple pride in the honour of the regiment.
“With a mixture of esteem, and grief, and envy,” says an officer, “I consider the great loss and immortal glory acquired by the Scots Highlanders in the late bloody affair. Impatient for orders they rushed forward to the entrenchments, which many of them actually mounted. They appeared like lions breaking from their chains. Their intrepidity was rather animated than damped by seeing their comrades fall on every side.”
It was following this gallant exploit the news came that for past valuable services the regiment was to be called ‘the Royal Highland Regiment of Foot.’ After Ticonderoga it was doubly worthy of such recognition.
The second expedition—that against Louisburg, in which Fraser’s Highlanders served—sailed from Halifax on May 28, 1758, and after a stormy passage effected a landing under General Wolfe.
The town surrendered after a considerable bombardment, great gallantry being shown by the Highlanders engaged.
The third expedition, against Fort Duquesne, was under the command of Brigadier-General John Forbes. The British force, amongst whom were Montgomery’s Highlanders, were confronted by almost impenetrable country, but that did not prove so great a danger as the foolhardiness that led the commander to belittle the strength of the enemy. It was rumoured that the French garrison was limited to 800 men, largely composed of Indians. A party of Highlanders, under Major James Grant, and a company of Virginians marched cheerfully ahead to reconnoitre. The honest strains of the bagpipes warned the enemy for miles around that the Highlanders were approaching. Instant preparation being made for their arrival, they walked into an ambuscade. A fierce fire from the dense undergrowth raked their closed ranks unmercifully. Major Grant, who appears to have taken no precautions whatever, was captured, while the ranks of the Highlanders were decimated. A retreat, humiliating though it was, was the only course, and this reverse so disheartening that the British commander determined to abandon any further advance. It fell to George Washington, at this time a young man of twenty-six, accompanied by Provincials, and a detachment of Highlanders, to retrieve the failure of the former expedition. His march was a notable one. It was in dead of winter, and the hills were white with snow. Defeat, as always in that country, spelt ruin and death, but the little force pressed onwards, determined to succeed, and to regain the prestige of the British arms. Nearer and nearer they came to the enemy. Suddenly, one evening, a sullen glow of firelight shot up into the sky. The disheartened garrison had set fire to Fort Duquesne, and taken flight upon the Ohio. This was hardly a satisfactory conclusion for the British force, already short of provisions, but amidst the smouldering ashes Washington planted the flag of England, naming the place Pittsburg, after the Prime Minister.
The time had at last dawned for a decisive movement. Abercrombie had been succeeded by General Amherst, who planned a second assault upon Ticonderoga. To General Wolfe was allotted the almost impossible task of storming Quebec. General Prideaux was to advance against the French position near the Falls of Niagara.
General Amherst, with whom were the Black Watch, secured an easy triumph in taking possession of Ticonderoga, already deserted by the French, and thus obtained a naval security upon the lakes.
The expedition of General Wolfe deserves a separate chapter.
Time plays strange tricks with the affairs of men, and it is not without significance to recall that the conqueror of Quebec was in the year 1746 engaged in crushing the defeated Highlanders after Culloden. More than that his hatred for the Jacobites was very genuine, though his dislike was tempered with mercy. It was for that human quality that the Highlanders bore him no grudge, and won for the name of Wolfe the victor of Quebec.
Wolfe was born in Kent in 1727. In 1743 he fought at Dettingen, and in 1745-6 in the Highlands. He was a most able and determined leader, with an odd and not inspiring presence. In Fort Amity Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s hero remarks: “‘What like is he?’ says you; ‘just a sandy-haired slip of a man,’ says I, ‘with a cocked nose, but I love him, Jack, for he knows his business.’”
In that sentence lies the whole secret of successful generalship. The troops who stormed Quebec had an implicit confidence in their leader.
General Wolfe embarked with his forces at Sandy Hook on May 8, 1759, and, after putting in at Louisburg, entered the St. Lawrence and disembarked off the Isle of Orleans in preparation for the formidable task before him.
The outposts of Canada were fast falling into British hands, but the key to ultimate supremacy was Quebec, and Wolfe had only 8000 men to take it. For a long time he besieged the place, knowing that to engage upon an open assault would be a piece of madness; and in those days artillery was not sufficiently powerful to reduce a position of such strength. The city of Quebec was also heavily fortified and entrenched. But as time went on more active measures were necessary. Days were speeding into weeks, winter was drawing nigh, and the British ships were likely enough to be held up or destroyed in the freezing of the St. Lawrence. Disease was weakening the army even more than shot, and in the end Wolfe himself was overcome by sickness. The expedition promised to be an utter failure.
In the first attack upon the fortress Wolfe was driven back with a loss of 400 men. Well might he become dispirited and long for the day when Amherst, now that Niagara had surrendered, would come marching to his aid. But Amherst did not come, while all the time the situation grew more critical. Not only was there a strongly entrenched enemy in Quebec, but from every wood shots were fired at the British, and every night rang with false alarms to wear down their strength and courage.
At last Wolfe, weak with fever, but burning with the greater fire of patriotism, resolved to wait no longer. It came to his knowledge that up the cliff side of the fortress there was a narrow pathway leading to a plateau upon the Plains of Abraham. Should he contrive to capture such a commanding position the enemy could be met upon fair terms. The situation is aptly expressed in the jingle:
Quebec was once a Frenchman’s town, but twenty years ago,
King George the Second sent a man called General Wolfe, you know,
To clamber up a precipice and look into Quebec,
As you’d look down a hatchway when standing on the deck.
Upon the 5th and 6th of September he embarked his forces and planned to take the French by surprise. It was a very dark night, and no moon shining, when Wolfe’s force, including Fraser’s Highlanders, took to their boats, and soon, in absolute silence, the transports were gliding like ghosts over the water.
Wolfe, spent with sickness, sat amongst his officers, and it is recorded that as the boats reached the cliff up which they hoped to find the way to victory, he repeated to himself some verses from ‘An Elegy in a Country Churchyard,’ remarking, “I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec.”
By a simple ruse the boats arrived at the shore. They were challenged by a sentry, but a Highland officer replied with more resource than truthfulness that they were French. For the moment the danger was negotiated, and soon they were at the foot of a precipitous cliff which rose some 200 feet sheer above them. Landing in absolute silence, the Highlanders began to move up its front, hoisting and pulling each other from foot to foot, and ledge to ledge, clinging to roots and trees with bleeding hands and knees—but always nearing the top. The few French pickets, nodding in the darkness above, saw the danger that had crept out of the night too late. They were speedily overcome and silenced, and at dawn of day some 4000 British troops were drawn up upon the Plains of Abraham. Well might Montcalm say, “They have at last got to the weak side of this miserable garrison; we must give battle and crush them before midday.” Quebec was, in that admission, already half won.
The forces of Montcalm, composed of French soldiers, Canadians, and Indians, advanced with reckless daring against the British lines, and the bravery of the French leader must ever command our respect and admiration. He led five largely undisciplined battalions against the veterans of the British Army.
Wolfe, ever in the forefront of the fight, was almost immediately hit, but it took a third shot to send him to the ground. In the meantime Montcalm had hurled his forces at the British troops, himself cheering them on, and taking no heed of his wounds, as brave and gallant a leader as Wolfe himself.
But the British regulars met the broken lines of the enemy as they met the charging clansmen at Culloden. They reserved their fire until the French were a bare forty yards distant, and in a few minutes the victory was already won, for “the Highlanders, taking to their broadswords, fell in among them with irresistible impetuosity, and drove them back with great slaughter.” At the moment that Wolfe led his men to the decisive charge he fell upon the field of victory.
“Support me,” he said to one of his staff; “let not my brave fellows see me drop.”
“They run, they run,” cried the officer.
“Who run?” asked Wolfe, scarce able to speak.
“The French give way everywhere.”
“What! Do they run already? Now, God be praised, I die happy.”
In the meantime, Montcalm, also mortally wounded, was carried back to the fortress, where panic had seized the French garrison. It was rumoured that the General was killed.
“So much the better for me,” he sighed when he heard of it; “I shall not live to see the surrender of Quebec.”
With his death passed away the ascendancy of France in Canada.
In the siege of Quebec Fraser’s Highlanders took a gallant and important share. They were amongst the troops who landed upon Wolfe’s Cove, as it was afterwards called, and won the Heights of Abraham, and when the French attack was broken, the regiment pursued the fugitives to the very gates of the town into which they were shortly to march.
In the following April when the French, under De Levi, advanced against Quebec, Fraser’s Highlanders, under the command of General Murray, were forced to retire into the city after a severe action. Later on Lord Murray achieved a junction with General Amherst, whose arrival had been so exceedingly tardy.
Ticonderoga, which covered the frontiers of New York, was now in British hands, together with Niagara. Quebec was conquered; the only place of strength remaining was Montreal. Upon this township, therefore, the forces of General Munro and General Amherst were concentrated. The Governor, perceiving that resistance was futile, surrendered, and in this peaceful fashion concluded the campaign that added Canada to the British Empire.
In the summer of 1908 extensive celebrations were held in Canada to commemorate the taking of Quebec, and the foundation of Britain’s power in the Far West just a hundred and fifty years before. Field-Marshal Lord Roberts was sent over to represent Great Britain, being accorded a magnificent reception from the Canadians, whose loyalty to the Empire has always made them her generous supporters whenever the call has come.