250th anniversary of General Wolfe's death in Westerham

PUBLISHED: 11:31 24 August 2009 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 February 2013

Portrait of Wolfe at Quebec, a reproduction of one by Shaak. Wolfe stands proud, in profile, holding his right arm up, his black armband showing that he was in mourning for his father

Portrait of Wolfe at Quebec, a reproduction of one by Shaak. Wolfe stands proud, in profile, holding his right arm up, his black armband showing that he was in mourning for his father

In September 1759, news of General Wolfe's death at the Battle of Quebec sparked national grief similar to that for Princess Diana more than two centuries later. This month, his home town of Westerham is the focus of the 250th anniversary of Wolfe...

In September 1759, news of General Wolfe's death at the Battle of Quebec sparked national grief similar to that for Princess Diana more than two centuries later. This month, his home town of Westerham is the focus of the 250th anniversary of Wolfe's death and celebrations of his short but remarkable life

Quebec House, the National Trust-owned Tudor mansion on the Maidstone road in Westerham, will be attracting even more visitors than usual this month, as they come to celebrate the life and death of General James Wolfe, long revered as the conqueror of French Canada.

On 15 September, it will be exactly 250 years since one of the most epic battles in history took place, the British capture of Quebec. Wolfe's unlikely victory against the French on the Plains of Abraham made the conquest of Canada merely a formality. He was killed in the fighting, but in dying in the service of his country, achieved military recognition and immortality.

James Wolfe's heroic exploits at Quebec were testimony to his passionate, ambitious nature, which partly stemmed from the military world of the British Army he was born into: his father was Edward Wolfe, Lieutenant-Colonel of the Foot Guards, while Major Walter Wolfe was his uncle.

After his mother Henrietta gave birth to James at the Westerham vicarage on 2 January 1727, he spent his early years growing up in nearby Quebec House. Wolfe's early opportunity for military experience in the British Army emerged in 1740 as a 'volunteer', accompanying his father in preparing their departure for the West Indies to fight for Spain's colonial possessions.

At Portsmouth, however, James became seriously ill and had to be sent home, even before the British Fleet sailed. Bad health was to follow him throughout his military career, and it was a belief he might not have long to live which drove his obsessive desire to attack Quebec.

Kent's James Wolfe first saw military action in the War of the Austrian Succession on the European Continent during 1743, when British forces defeated the French in the Battle of Dettingen in Germany. He also participated in the Duke of Cumberland's 1746 brutal massacre of Highlanders at Culloden in Scotland.

During the War of the Austrian Succession that ended in 1748, Dettingen proved to be the only real Anglo success. When the Seven Years' War against the French began in the 1750s, first in North America and then on the continent, British forces were again found wanting.

But England's inspirational parliamentary orator, the elder William Pitt, decided to focus on the American theatre. He replaced military officers considered redundant and long past their best with younger, energetic alternatives such as Wolfe, who was promoted to Brigadier.

In mid-1758, James Wolfe participated in the British siege of Louisboug at Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Under the command of another Kent army officer, Major-General Jeffery Amherst (see March Kent Life), Wolfe's undeniable attributes of courage, determination, and even impulsiveness at vital moments, soon had the French soldiers desperately retreating to the sanctuary of the fortification.

The British gradually forced the French to surrender Louisbourg on 26 July, after weeks of massive artillery bombardment and the sinking of ships in the harbour.

To Wolfe, the whole process had been far too slow, despite the fact the British had faithfully followed tried and tested European siege techniques.

But now was the time to press on to Quebec. He had long advocated "an Offensive, daring kind of war", and been obsessed with moving against Quebec in order to secure the conquest of Canada before the end of 1758. His sense of urgency was prompted by a feeling his poor health might prevent him returning to the colonies the following year, together with the imminent appearance of the freezing North American winter, which would put a temporary halt to any further military campaigns.

Unfortunately for Wolfe, much time-consuming consolidation was required to secure the former French fortress of Louisbourg for British occupation. There would be no military campaign against Quebec in 1758. Disgruntled, he threatened to quit the army, but instead returned to England where, in a series of letters to military correspondents, condemned the slowness of the British campaign, emphasising that "if the siege of Louisbourg had been pushed with vigour, Quebec would have fallen".

Wolfe's refusal to abandon his ambition of attacking Quebec finally paid off in early 1759. As British forces in America spent the winter preparing for the next campaigns against the French, he received a temporary, independent command from King George II on 5 February.

His instructions required him to depart for the now British-occupied Louisbourg, and when everything was in readiness, sail from there up the

St Lawrence River to attack Quebec.

Before leaving England, he dined with William Pitt and reportedly being so overcome by the euphoria of the monumental task ahead, swung a sword around the room, boasting of what he would achieve as the sharp blade sliced through the air.

In the middle of 1759, when the weather had turned much warmer, James Wolfe sailed from Louisbourg up the St. Lawrence River to the vicinity of Quebec. There he expected reinforcements from Amherst, who had achieved uneventful victories over the French on the Great Lakes with barely a shot being fired.

Those reinforcements never arrived at Quebec, but the British success on the Great Lakes forced many French soldiers back to this major Canadian city, thus setting the scene for one of history's epic military confrontations.

Driven by the inner anxiety he felt over his own destiny, Wolfe failed to entice the French to attack him, a situation that did not sit well with someone of his active, impatient nature. A dangerous, alternative move was for him to strike first. Against the firm advice of other British officers, he launched an unsuccessful assault on French entrenchments, taking more than 400 redcoat casualties.

With his health rapidly declining, and no indication of reinforcements, James Wolfe decided on another bold, daring and risky tactic. On 13 September 1759, he led his forces up a rocky cliff face on the north side of Quebec, encountering no French resistance. It had been assumed such a heroic feat was far too difficult to attempt.

The following day, Wolfe was killed in leading around 4,000 British troops in defeating the French on the Plains of Abraham. Dying in the service of his country at Quebec, he gained hero status and immortality. Great Britain's capture of French Canada was considered by many commentators as practically completed, and its successful culmination unashamedly attributed to James Wolfe.

The influential Annual Register in England emphasised, that Quebec would "for ever denominate him The Conqueror of Canada".

A chorus of British opinion subsequently elevated Kent's deceased James Wolfe almost to sainthood. On both sides of the Atlantic, his victory

at Quebec was perceived as the triumph of conservative English beliefs and values over dangerous, more liberal French ideas. He became the ultimate subject for expression in the literary and visual arts that readily portrayed him as a national martyr.

After years of military failure against France, Wolfe was granted immortality as the icon of British courage and heroism, aspects tourists still reflect on as they walk the polished timbered interior of Westerham's Quebec House, symbol of Kent's contribution to the 18th-century conquest of Canada and expansion of the British Empire.

Westerham Wolfe Weekend

Wolfe's boyhood home, Quebec House, owned by the National Trust, will be part of a programme of events this autumn to bring his story alive.

• Some of the rooms at Quebec House have been redisplayed to create a feel of what it would have been like when he lived there in the 1720s and professional re-enactors will recreate some decisive moments of Wolfe's life and military campaigns.

• A special exhibition will bring one of the original versions of the iconic painting The Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West to Quebec House. The massive 6ft x 9ft replica, usually hung at Ickworth House in Suffolk, depicts the 32-year old Wolfe - dying at the moment of victory - as a Christ-like figure and will be shown alongside other reproductions of the image, to explore key elements of Wolfe's celebrity.

•Squerryes Court (home of the Warde family, who were great friends of the Wolfe family) will have exhibits and other events, and special performances have been created for the celebrations by the National Youth Ballet.

• A memorial service on 13 September at St Mary's Church, (where Wolfe was christened) will remember him, but also the French general, Montcalm, and the dead of both armies as well as the suffering of the Canadian civilian population.

•Local businesses will be joining in by creating window displays that recall mid-18th century life.

Where to go

Quebec House

Quebec Square, Westerham

TN16 1TD

Telephone - 01732 866368

E-mail - quebechouse@nationaltrust.org.uk Open until 1 Nov, Wed, Thu, Fri, Sat and Sun, 12-5pm

Directions: At the east end of Westerham, on the north side of the A25, facing the junction with the B2026 Edenbridge road. M25 exit 5 or 6. OS reference 187:TQ449541.

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