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Canadian military history, an overview (1710-1812)


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I wrote this article a little while ago and I wanted some feedback on the accuracy and interpretation of my historical facts. Any other comments are welcome, and I look forward to debating any of my interpretations.

By the by, I broke the article up for the convenience of the reader.

Canadian Conflict

Early Canadian history is riddled with conflict, our nations past has and will see conflict indefinitely. This is due in no small measure to our own broad involvement in international affairs and our stringent defence of national interest. From the Franco-Indian wars, to our recent involvement in the “War on Terror”, Canada has laid claim to many lands inside and out of her conventional boundaries. She has done this with the blood of her sons and daughters, and the perpetuation of her ideologies and material across the globe.

When reflecting back upon Canadian military history it is important to keep in mind that many of the conflicts we have endured were forced upon us either by necessity or the imperialistic ambitions of other nations. The first and second world wars for instance were conflicts which we were forced to take part in due to an innate need for self defence. Furthermore, wars such as the war of 1812, or the Franco-Indian conflict, were the result of vast empires already in existence, or, coming into existence, seeking new territories to amalgamate.

We cannot look upon these imperialist nations with disdain, because it is a very real reality that Canada was in fact at one point an active accomplice in the struggle for empire. Our involvement in the Boer war for instance is a perfect example of this. I will not trivialise any conflict by boiling it down simply to imperialist ambition, but I will make the claim that imperialism can and must be recognised as an evil which cannot be rationalised in the grand scheme.

In order to gain a greater understanding of Canada’s participation in many of the conflicts we have been a part of, I should start of by going partially (if not wholly) into our nations ancestry, and how, as progeny of that ancestry we have committed to the wars we have.
The British Empire was near its peak when Canada was added to the vast list of colonies acquired by this little Islands tenacious military machine. Britain had been on the rise for some time and had created the greatest fleet of naval vessels this world had ever seen. It used this fleet to enforce a vast system of trade routes and colonies. The British were masters of the sea and certainly deserved the status they achieved. It is my belief that if Britain were to have been given a greater base, it could have easily taken on a much greater role in this world, even greater than it did by no small measure. I would venture to say that given the opportunity, Britain could have been a modern day Roman Empire. That of course is mere speculation, but when looking back upon the innovation and efficiency which grew out of the British system of governance, and the British population as whole, it is fair to say that with a little more land, a few more people, and a leadership to match this growth. That Britain would not be the middle power it is today and in fact may have continued to be the only super power in existence.

I reiterate that what I have said is mere speculation, and should be taken with a grain of salt, as any other opinion is.

Britain’s thirteen colonies in the Americas were for many years the backbone of the English economy. After the industrial revolution Britain needed a market, and the population in the acquired territories were the exact definition of a consuming market. These colonies revered the Empire and right up until the American Revolution held a special affinity for their motherland. It was this reverence which convinced many of the colonists to join in the conflict being waged between the two great powers in the region, those being France and England. France continued to hold Louisiana which accounted for much of the South and interior United States; they also held the territory of Quebec as well as Canada in the broader sense. The British saw the French as a liability to their prospects in the Americas and used the eight years war as a catalyst to the conflict which erupted in the colonies.

To begin the in-depth examination I propose to ensue upon the reader, I will first speak of the Atlantic Province’s conflicts. I must do this before moving on to the mainland as it is important to understand how the British began their incursion into Canada, and how this affected overall Canadian history, in not only a political, or military context, but sociologically and economically as well.

In 1710 Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were successfully invaded by one General Nicholson and one Colonel Vetch, the latter being the primary architect of the invasion. This was the first formal invasion of the Eastern Provinces and resulted in the treaty of Utrecht signed in 1713. The treaty formally ceded the conquered provinces to Great Britain and began a long and arduous confliction between the British rulers and Acadian settlers. It is suggested in some circles that the Acadians were treated harshly, however, it is well documented that the Acadian settlers had on numerous occasions conspired with the local MicMac tribe in a blatant attempt to shore up support for a possible insurrection. These associations were not benign either, many times the Acadians would rile up the Native Americans into a frenzy. Once this frenzy was achieved they would set them loose upon the British settlers, resulting in the deaths of many dozens of completely innocent people. Of course, to leave it at that the treatment they received would still appear harsh, however, after continued leniency and freedom given the Acadians by the British government, the Acadians continued to pay tax to Manor Lords in Cape Breton, which at this time continued to be in French possession.

Eventually Cape Breton was captured by the English as well, and the aforementioned Colonel Vetch whom had made it a personal hobby of his to prepare the invasion of Quebec laid out his plans. It was colonel Vetch’s plans which were the foundation for General Wolfe’s invasion of Quebec, and as we have come to see, they were very well laid out indeed.

The war between France and Great Britain in the province of Quebec, which has come to be known as the Franco Indian wars (due to the native Americans involvement on behalf of the French) which decided the fate of Canada and firmly put it under the yoke of British Rule was and is the most important war to take place between France and England in the America’s. However, there were other conflicts and the first shots fired in anger against the French colony in Quebec were in actuality fired in the year 1628 by the forces of one Sir David Kerkt. Kerkt had been commanded by Charles I to seize all French forts bordering the Atlantic as well as Quebec. Port Royal (modern day Annapolis) was the first city to fall to the general, followed in quick succession by St Croix and Pentagort.
Kerkt seems to have intended a swift victory with the aid of surprise, and after landing at Tadoussac on the St Lawrence he immediately demanded Champlain surrender the citadel of Quebec. This demand was snubbed by the brave, and as some have characterised Champlain, haughty Frenchman. Kerkt decided to cut his losses and began to make his way home, presumably, to Port Royal. As he was making his way home he came across the provision and emigrant ships of the Quebec colony under the command of Roquement. Roquement went out of his way to engage Kerkt and was utterly defeated for his audacity.

Champlain sat idly in his citadel, aware that his supplies for the winter had been unequivocally cut off. His colony faced starvation, and the very real prospects that come spring, Kerkt would return, and that his colony would fall. Of course Kerkt did return and despite having been informed by Champlain that in fact peace had been declared, continued to siege until an honourable capitulation was reached. For the first time in the history of North America, a British flag flew over a major centre, and the epitaph of Canadian colonisation at that time. It did not last long however and eventually the British government ceded all land that had been taken illegally during peacetime.
The Franco Indian wars are the defining moment in Canadian history; this is axiomatic and should be to anyone with a simple understanding of Canadian military history. They defined the boundaries of the continent and created modern Canada, no matter in how infantile a way.

The first major battle in this conflict was of course the battle for Louisburg, in early June 1758 a British fleet first made its presence known in the Bay of Gabarus. The weather was bad, frequent storms and fog made an invasion impossible for nearly a week. On June 8th an opening in the weather came and the first attempt at landing was made. A small beach head was made and a camp set up. Shortly after on June 12th the intrepid General Wolfe leading a highland regiment took lighthouse point across the harbour to the NE, this action set in motion a gradual encirclement, which inevitably led to the opposing force having but two options, either break out, or surrender. 

On July 9th an attempt was made by the French forces to break out of their enclosure, it was a terrible failure however and one after another every battery upon the fortifications walls fell silent. Nearly every French warship was burnt or sunk, on the British side a captain, the Earl of Dundonald was killed upon intercepting the sortie. On the 26th the town surrendered and handed itself over to the Colonel Lord Rollo. The residents of the town, not including those of British Isles descent, were deported back to France. While the combatants numbering some 5, 673 were taken as prisoners of war and sent to England to be bartered with. The fortifications were utterly obliterated; nothing was left but chars of the once grand bastion of French influence.

The year following saw the attack on Quebec city commence, the original design stipulated that general Amherst was to have taken his men via lake Champlain toward Montreal, Generals Prideaux and Johnson were to first take Fort Niagara then meet up with General Amherst at Montreal and the collective force was to meet General Wolfe at the gates of Quebec city to begin the assault. However, this plan fell through utterly, Amherst, first confused by the French officer François-Charles de Bourlamaque’s movements and then subdued by the stormy weather on Lake Champlain, finally took winter quarters at Crown Point. Prideaux and Johnson laid siege to Fort Niagara, Prideaux was killed by a cannon ball, and while Johnson bravely fought on to secure the fort (nearly annihilating the enemy in the field) he decided rather than risk the chance of being cut off by winter mid-march that he would take heed of his officers advice and take refuge in the newly acquired fort.

General Wolfe on the other hand being the astute general he was and having the gallant men he did had been quite blessed in his voyage down the St Lawrence. He arrived before Quebec with a force of several thousand men in June 1759. Wolfe made the advisable decision to attempt and wait for his colleagues, however, after nearly a month of waiting any hope that the general had for reinforcements quickly and absolutely dissolved, he reckoned to land and hopefully draw the enemy into a fight.
Montcalm and De Levis commanding officers of the French capital had under their command twelve thousand men. Unmatched (in North America) fortifications surrounded these forces from the St. Charles to the Montmorenci, just beyond the former lay the massive works of ramparts leading into the city. It would seem, from any respectable military analysis that Wolfe had no chance of taking the city, Wolfe was fully aware of this and his plan reflected that reality.

On the left side of the Montmorenci Wolfe had established his camp erecting batteries all around his position. At Point Levi Wolfe had sent Moncton in order that he may unleash a constant barrage upon the upper and lower towns. These barrages levelled and burned hundreds of buildings, public or private, all was fair game. 

Townshend and Murray resided on the West point of the Island of Orleans and lay in wait for orders from Wolfe. As for the fleet it had managed to pass the fire being laid upon them by the citadel and took sanctuary on the cove opposite where Wolfe had made preparations to land (Admiral Holmes must be given credit for his exemplary work in this capacity).

Another squadron of ships under the command of Admiral Saunders followed the channel between Point Levi and the extreme of that point which follows out into the basin toward the city.

On July 31st every preparation had been made and a large volley was fired from Point Levi to mark the beginning of the attack. The artillery bombardment gave considerable cover to Wolfe’s forces and a successful landing was made. This landing was not made however without a few casualties, a number, not a great number mind you, of Wolfe’s barges were destroyed before landing, and still others became beached.
General Montcalm was at first confused as to the intention of the British, he soon realised however that the bombardment was a prelude to an invasion and moved his forces hurriedly to Beauport plains.

The Louisburg Grenadiers and the Royal Americans were the first to land, their orders were to divide into four distinct units and not to commence any movements until the first brigade arrived to support them. However, ignoring this command they began a puzzled and impulsive attack on the French entrenchments. The French fire was consistent and accurate, and the men were quickly dispatched into a disordered mob. Eventually the brigade arrived but the attack had already been a failure, Wolfe retreated to the other side of the river and regrouped. It is a common theme during this era, particularly in the America’s, for units to disband after any number of actions perpetuated by the enemy caused alarm with the ordered ranks. The British were particularly astute at keeping order within the columns, however, as seen here, even the most rigorous and determined training can fail. The initial failed attack cost the British five hundred and forty three killed wounded and missing.

A new plan was formed as hastily as could be devised, and it is reported that it was General Townshend who suggested the next route of action. The plan to attack through Beaufort was a good plan for all intents and purposes, but was as we have seen above doomed to failure after the brash actions of a few fool hardy individuals.

Wolfe began to concentrate his forces at Point Levi, while in the same stroke sending General Murray with some twelve hundred men. This was done primarily to re-establish communication with General Amherst, but also to seek out and destroy any French ships which had avoided the initial encounter with Admiral Holmes fleet.

It was soon discovered that Amherst was in fact still in engagement with General Bougainville on the Isle-aux-Noix, and that no help should be expected from him in the immediate future.

It was therefore imperative that the attack devised by Townshend through the neighbourhood of Sillery a few miles West of Cape Diamond take place with as much haste as possible, or face the very real prospect of ending hostilities for that season. The attack faced many difficulties which need not be gone into in depth, but it is well for the reader to know that with such a small force at his disposal (in comparison with those under Montcalm) that any endeavour would have been a calculated risk.

The second assault was put into action and after having sent Admiral Saunders to cover the initial phases of the assault Wolfe made his way across the river in a number of small boats under cover of darkness. An interesting piece of trivia, it is said that a number of the boats crossing were in fact approached by the river guard. Thankfully however there was a man from the Fraser Highland regiment who just so happened to speak French after having served in Holland. When asked “Qui vive?!” he replied in the most eloquent French “Le France” and when asked “A quel regiment?” his response was “De la Reine” his response to the latter question was thanks to a freak accident which allowed him the knowledge Bougainville had under his command a regiment known as “The Queens”. When one of the more cautious sentries enquired “Why don’t you speak up?” he replied with quick wit “Tais-toi, nous serons entendus” or “hush, we shall be heard”.
The landing was a complete success, not a single man lost and the alert had not been raised. Led by the Fraser Highlanders the force began its climb up the steep heights. The foothold had been taken and when the sun rose the next day (the 13th) five thousand men had implanted themselves upon the Plains of Abraham.

The operation to thrust his forces upon the plains was brilliant; Wolfe had correctly expected that Montcalm would believe a diversionary attack at Beauport was in fact the main offensive. Montcalm quickly came to the realisation at day break however that he had in fact been deceived. Montcalm quickly turned his force about face and fled to meet this new and much more pressing threat to the West. Montcalm even more rapidly came to the conclusion that he would meet the British forces in head on combat on the Plains of Abraham. Many French historians have blamed Montcalm for the loss of Quebec due to this rash decision. I personally feel this is an unneeded blame, Montcalm could have certainly stayed within the confines of his fortifications, but the reality is that the British were now in a perfect position to either continue a long drawn out siege, or potentially (when reinforcements arrived) stormed the citadel itself.

The numbers involved in the ensuing battle are distorted, there have been many figures put forth, I find however that I believe those who were actually there, who state the figures at; French 7,500 British 4,800. The British having been well trained, as was pointed out early, let out a volley after volley of constant unnerving fire. This combined with superb mastery of the rank and file by experienced officers, and further, well trained musketry men. Led to a quick and decisive battle, the French were quickly sent into disarray. It is accounted that short into the battle the Highlanders pulling out their broadswords rushed the center of the French line; slaughtering all that fell within their field they broke the line. On the French right Montcalm was having a great deal more success, this was short lived however seeing as both their center and left flank were utterly destroyed. It is around this time that Bougainville arrived with a force of about two thousand. However, as Townshend had been given freedom of movement due to the collapse of the French center and left he was able to quickly engage and disperse Bougainville’s force.

The French began to flee, however, both Wolfe and Montcalm had met their end, Wolfe, having been struck once already, had been struck again, and as he laying dying heard one of his young Lieutenants pronounce “look, look, they run!” Wolfe immediately asked “who run?” When he learnt it was in fact the French, his reply was almost mocking “what, do they run already? Pray one of you go to Colonel Burton, and tell him to march Webb’s regiment with all speed to St. Charles River; to cut off the retreat of the fugitives from the bridge. Now, God be praised, I die happy”

Montcalm’s last words reflected General Wolfe’s, but in the negative of course. When demanding of his surgeons whether or not his wounds were mortal, I am sure he knew the answer, for when they replied that they were, his immediate response was “I am glad of it; then I shall not live to see the surrender of Quebec”.

The retreat of the French forces was an axiom of any commander on the field, and the job of following the French with hastened barbarity was left to the Highlanders, cutting down all they came across the French force would have surely been utterly destroyed had the fortifications not been so close as to allow the battlements the ability to let loose a volley upon the pursuing Scotsmen.

The British loss in this encounter was five hundred killed and wounded, the French are presumed to have taken at least twice as many, if not more. Montcalm was appalled, and with a few of his dying words took the time to admonish them in a most fervent way “If I could survive this wound, I would engage to beat three times the number of such forces as I commanded this morning, with a third of such troops as were opposed to me”.
After the plains had been taken the British set about fortifying the ground they had taken. Marines and sailors were employed to build ramparts and within three days a veritable fortress had been built upon the plains. The fortifications bristled with fifty eight mortars and sixty pieces of heavy artillery.

Eventually Vaudreuil, the Governor, and Bougainville met to discuss the day’s events. The only man (as scholars have noted) of any real import and intelligence was De Levis, De Levis however was in Montreal. When he was finally able to arrive on the scene on September 17th it was too late, the army had been withdrawn to Pointe-aux-Trembles. The garrison which stayed behind within the citadel was so beleaguered with starvation and desertion as to be considered on the very edge of surrender.

Responsibility inevitably fell upon De Ramezay, the commandant who had been left with a mere 1,800 men to do with as he pleased conceded that an immediate surrender was the best route to take. It is hard to imagine what else this commandant would have done, when you consider he had been abandoned by the majority of his colleagues and that the men at his disposal were in near shambles. It is however palatable to condemn him for his hasty adherence to the latter of Vaudreuil’s command which stated “do not abide to an assault, surrender”. On the 18th of September he surrendered to General Townshend on extremely biased and liberal grounds.

Wolfe was a brilliant tactician, he was able to take a handful of men and create what culminated in one of the most decisive victories ever conducted on Canadian soil. Enough praise cannot be given the man who made Canada what it is today. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Montcalm was a very bright man himself, though his actions in the end led to a defeat which should not have come about regardless of the lack of discipline and professionalism within his force. I have to say that after writing this out it is easy to understand why the British were so successful for so long in conquering and subduing so many areas of the globe. It is easy to assume traits upon the British commanders and their forces, but this overview gives a true representation of the propensity for conflict that the British had.