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Sunday, 16 March 2014

"Paths of Glory - The Life and Death of General James Wolfe" by Stephen Brumwell

Published 2006, this paperback edition published 2007.

I read this over the last three weeks, finishing it last weekend. It is the second biography I have read from Stephen Brumwell and I liked it very much. I had forgotten that at Primary school in the early '60s we were taught Wolfe was a great soldier who died too early in the service of his country.

James Wolfe was born on 2nd January 1727 to Lt Col Edward Wolfe of the Foot Guards and his wife Henrietta at Westerham, Kent. He was a sickly child and suffered throughout his life, but James was destined for a military career.

In 1740, when aged 13, his father was part of the force sailing to lay siege to Spanish-held Cartagena in the West Indies. James was to go with the force but suffered terribly from sea sickness so was sent home - there is no record of how he felt about this - but this probably saved his life as about 80% of the British force died through disease.

Victory and defeat were both experienced. Victories came when James was at Dettingen with 12th Foot and then ADC to General Hawley, serving under Cumberland  at Culloden. Defeat came from the hands of a genius, Maurice de Saxe who beat the Pragmatic Army led by Cumberland at Laufeld in 1747.

It was in North America that Wolfe made his name. My reading of the book suggests he was known as a soldier's soldier, strict with high standards but also caring for his men. 1758, he played a leading role in the successful siege of Louisbourg and the subsequent expelling of the Acadians (a bit of ethnic cleansing?). The following year, the British government and military devised a three pronged strategy to eject France from North America. Amherst was to take Fort Ticonderoga, Johnson to take Fort Niagara, Wolfe was to command the British forces to take Quebec. All three were successful. On 13th September 1759, British troops climbed up from the St Lawrence River and onto the Plain of Abraham and met and defeated the French forces of Quebec. Both Army commanders at Quebec died there, Wolfe and Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, on that day.

Stephen Brumwell thinks that Wolfe may have planned to make the Quebec campaign his last, that he planned to retire when he returned to England. The travelling and campaigning had taken a heavy toll on his body, he had wanted to campaign in Germany. He was engaged to marry Katherine Lowther on his return and he planned to have a family.

"The Death of General Wolfe" by Benjamin West
At the time and for the next two centuries, Wolfe's death was seen as heroic, as the epitome of imperial sacrifice. West painted the scene, the engraving of which sold extremely well, Nelson had a copy.

Brumwell ends the book with this opinion, Wolfe helped to establish Britain's tradition of martial success and set Britain down the path of Empire. If Wolfe had lived and been persuaded to stay in the Army, he may have matured into one of the great generals, ranking with Marlborough and Wellington. I agree.

To sum up - I really liked this book. This was the second work by Brumwell that I have read, the first being his work on Washington, I find his style of writing to be easy to read and enjoyable.

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