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Paths of rehabilitation: resuscitating the reputation of a debated Canadian hero.

Paths of Glory: the Life and Death of General James Wolfe Stephen Brumwell McGill-Queen's University Press 406 pages, hardcover ISBN 9780773532618

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which took only a morning to fight a short distance from Quebec City in September of 1759, was an improvised, even desperate affair with world-shaking consequences: It determined the fate of the North American continent, led to the American Revolution, allowed the global ascendancy of the British Empire and the decline of the French.

But two weeks before the battle, things looked anything but heroic.

General James Wolfe was feverish, bedridden, stewed in drugs and paralyzed with indecision. He had a quarter of the British Navy at his disposition, thousands of infantry, and most of the summer, and yet his campaign to capture Quebec was a failure. All he had managed to do was ravage the countryside and burn settlements in a campaign that bordered on savagery. In the field of battle, he had blundered strategically and lost hundreds of men in a failed amphibious attack against the French position. His generals were openly contemptuous of him. "Wolfe's health is but very bad," General George Townsend wrote about his superior. His "generalship, in my poor opinion--is not a bit better, this only between us. He never consulted any of us till the latter end of August, so we have nothing to answer for." Now the Navy commanders told him that the massive armada would soon have to return to England as the level of the St. Lawrence was dropping and autumn approaching.

When he finally did consult his generals, it was almost pathetic: "I found myself so ill, and am still so weak," he wrote, "that I begged the general officers to consult together for the general utility. They are all of the opinion ... to draw the enemy from their present situation, and bring them to an action. I have acquiesced in their proposal, and we are preparing to put it into execution."

Wolfe's commanders set the invasion for 50 kilometres upriver between Pointe-aux-Trembles and St. Augustin. Five thousand men sat in transports and landing boats ready to attack the north shore of the St. Lawrence, then march downriver to assault Quebec. Rain, however, delayed the invasion, and the men sat cooped up and drenched.

Wolfe, who suffered from kidney stones and probably tuberculosis, was still not in a very martial mood, as his last letter to England reveals: "The weather has been extremely unfavourable for a day or two, so that we have become inactive. I am so far recovered as to do business, but my constitution is entirely ruined, without the consolation of having done any considerable service to the State, or without any prospect of it."

Then, as the rain cleared, Wolfe famously changed his mind. He abruptly decided to call off the landing, scrap his generals' plans and play a hunch. His entire force of thousands of men would glide the long distance downriver in landing craft and scramble onto a narrow beach that was at the base of a 46-metre cliff, virtually on the doorstep of Quebec. His men would scale the cliff on a goat path that was reported to be there and up the rocks to an abandoned farmer's field, the Plains of Abraham.

On the face of it, this was insane. Wolfe had not reconnoitred the landing spot or the cliff and, of course, could not be certain what the terrain was like on the Plains. If he did reach the top, undetected by the French, he had no avenue of retreat since the river and the cliff would be at his back; furthermore, he would certainly be caught between two French armies--the one Montcalm would bring from Quebec and the other two hours' march away guarding the river under General Bougainville.

If Wolfe had failed, he would have been disgraced back home, if not court-martialled. But all the luck went in his favour. The landing boats rode out the strong current and did not overshoot the beach, the sentries on top of the cliffs did not notice the British, and 5,000 men managed to scale a cliff undetected. By noon the next day, the British had won the battle and Wolfe was dead.

When the news reached England and the American colonies, Wolfe was elevated to the stature of a near deity and became the heroic embodiment of the British Empire, the epitome of manhood and of the martial spirit.

The events of September 9, 1759, also divided historians into two camps. In Camp One, the British Commander, James Wolfe, was a heroic leader of men who executed one of the most brilliant and unorthodox military manoeuvres of the age, and who ranks with Horatio Nelson as one of the fathers of the British Empire. In Camp Two, James Wolfe was a depressive, indecisive and desperate glory seeker who risked the lives of 5,000 men on an impetuous last-minute gamble that would have had no business succeeding if his adversaries had been on their toes.

The world has moved on and taken little interest in settling this dispute; and in Canada, as we approach the 250th anniversary of the Plains of Abraham in 2009, we can anticipate wholesale amnesia from Ottawa or Quebec City when it comes to marking the event. But we can expect an occasional salvo or two between historians, and the most recent is Stephen Brumwell's Paths of Glory: The Life and Times of General James Wolfe.

Brumwell belongs emphatically in Camp One: the Wolfe-the-Dauntless-Hero school. The last lines in his 400-page book are "as long as courage, determination and loyalty continue to be recognized and valued, James Wolfe, no less than Horatio Nelson, merits the 'immortal memory'." His editors should have been sharper in curbing some of these dewy-eyed asides (and his maddening use of the word "whilst" on practically every other page). Brumwell's book, nevertheless, is a major work of research and competently written, and will be consulted by all future scholars. It follows James Wolfe's entire career and relatively short life--32 years--through Britain's wars in the West Indies, the Low Countries, Germany and the infamous Battle of Culloden, where the English defeated the Scots in one of the bloodiest slaughters on British soil. These parts of the book will interest military history buffs more than the general public.

Wolfe made his name in 1758 in the siege of the French fortress at Louisbourg, where he led an amphibious landing with daring that bordered on recklessness. One could debate whether Wolfe was rash or brilliant in this action, but there was no doubt about his courage. This action helped him get command of the expedition against Quebec the next year and enter the pantheon of imperial glory, with a giant statue at Greenwich and an elaborate memorial in Westminster Abbey.

His reputation remained undisturbed--mostly because of indifference--for almost 200 years, the subject of mawkish paintings and books to inspire youth, until 1936 when historian E.R. Adair fired a devastating broadside against Wolfe at the Canadian Historical Association, portraying him as a mediocre general. By the time the bicentenary of the battle came around, it seemed that attacking Wolfe had become a popular sport, as Brumwell describes: "Respected historians on both sides of the Atlantic produced treatments that were highly critical of Wolfe. In a lively and popular work, Christopher Hibbert painted Wolfe in an overwhelmingly unsympathetic light--ruthless, neurotic, priggish and probably a repressed homosexual to boot." Colonel C.P. Stacey, in his exhaustive account of the campaign, Quebec 1759, was so critical of Wolfe that he confirmed the revisionist tide.

Since the Wolfe-trashing market was so crowded, it appears the only room for Brumwell to manoeuvre was to rehabilitate him. His book is presented to us as a revisionist history (the dust jacket advertises "a boldly argued reassessment" and it certainly is that). Brumwell relentlessly defends Wolfe at every twist of career and fortune, like a dedicated attorney. He does this competently, but he is so determined to see the positive side of everything Wolfe did that this becomes the book's weakness.

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was the result of an almost incredible set of accidents, blunders, confusions and coincidences on both sides, and it killed both generals. If there are any lessons to be drawn from it, they are more sad than glorious, and they say less about heroism than about the role of random fortune and chaos in shaping history.

Mark Starowicz is executive director of documentary programming for CBC Television. He wrote and produced "Battle for a Continent," the episode about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Canada: A People's History.
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Title Annotation:Paths of Glory: the Life and Death of General James Wolfe
Author:Starowicz, Mark
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2007
Words:1454
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