During the mid-18th century, North America was at war. The tenuous balance of colonial powers on the continent had reached a tipping point, sparked by the actions of a young George Washington, then a British officer.
The political landscape was very different then. New France dominated large swathes of the continent, with British America and the Spanish colonies clinging to its edges. Tensions were ignited by Washington’s ambush of French Canadians in 1754, leading into the Seven Years’ War, a war that involved every European great power and spanned 5 continents.
In North America, it was fought between the British and the French colonies, with troops from both parent countries and support from various Native American allies on both sides. At first the conflict went disastrously for the British with several losses – including the Siege of Fort William Henry.
But the Siege of Quebec proved the turning point.
The perilous approach to Quebec
From the very onset, the plan to take Quebec was filled with danger. Just getting to Quebec was a challenge. Surrounded by cliffs and forests, these natural barriers made access by land nigh impossible.
This river was, and remains, extremely treacherous, with shifting tides, sudden shallows, and low-sitting rocks. Even the French, who had retained control of the river until the British captured Louisbourg in 1758, suffered losses traversing it.
It was still uncharted, and so the British decision to sail a fleet down it seemed suicidal.
To the shock of General Montcalm, the French commander, Wolfe’s force emerged before Quebec without having lost a single ship. This was due to a methodological, scientific approach that involved proper scouting and charting of the waters as they advanced. One of the officers involved in charting the river was a young James Cook, the later famed explorer.
Another danger that British armies normally faced was poor health, particularly scurvy. However, Wolfe was part of a new generation of young officer who prioritised troop well-being and preparedness.
This part of North America was full of spruce pines, which contained vitamin C, and so to combat scurvy Wolfe ordered his men to produce beer out of it. This was yet another example of the new scientific approach to war being conducted by the British.
The defences of Quebec were still formidable and the British were on the wrong side of the river, so Wolfe decided on an artillery barrage to soften them. For weeks shot after shot rained down on Quebec. Cannonballs, explosive mortars, incendiary carcasses devastated the city.
It proved to no avail. Quebec stood strong.
As winter approached, Wolfe attempted a new sort of amphibious assault. Using flat-bottom boats, the British soldiers sailed across the river to the opposing shore. Once there, the men charged towards the French lines. It was a disaster.
Rather than line up and wait for orders, the grenadiers charged with reckless abandon. By the time they retreated the field was strewn with corpses; the French cheered in triumph. The British settled in for a long siege.
One month later, Wolfe tried again. Learning from his mistakes, he sent a small deployment to cross the river by night, and seize a small French camp defending the plain outside the city. He then followed with his main force. By the morning the British had gained a foothold, and were lining up their troops. Montcalm decided to charge the British.
And so on 13 September 1759 the Battle of the Plains of Abraham commenced. This was the type of warfare Wolfe’s troops had trained for. Whilst the French fired haphazardly as they charged, the British waited. And waited.
Only once they were within 30 yards, when they could see the enemies’ eyes, did they fire. Volley after volley, they turned back the French charge. The battle was over. The British had won.
Both Wolfe and Montcalm died during the battle. Vaudreuil, the Governor of Quebec, decided to abandon the city, and within days the victorious British marched in.
The British did not enjoy their victory for long. With winter came bitter cold, and with most of the buildings destroyed by the artillery bombardment, shelter was scarce. Scurvy ran rampant, and the garrison was reduced to 4,000 men. After winter, a relieving French force defeated the British garrison at the Battle of Sainte-Foy and laid siege to Quebec, waiting for reinforcements.
However, the first ships to arrive was a British squadron, having defeated the French support ships.
The capture of Quebec proved to be the turning point of the Seven Years’ War. In 1763 the French ceded all their territories in North America. The continent was now controlled by the British, though the Spanish also gained some land to the west.
The British were now confirmed as the dominant global power, with their Empire slowly growing to become the largest in history. Whilst the war had led to British supremacy, it also led to their most humiliating defeat.
Britain was now in huge debt, and so to raise money they decided to tax the colonists in America. Enraged by the taxes, and no longer needing British protection from the French, the colonies rose up under the leadership of George Washington, the very man whose actions had precipitated the Seven Years’ War.
We could argue that the siege of Quebec was one of the most significant in history. It pioneered a scientific, approach to warfare reliant upon the navy, and British industry, that would characterise British warfare for the next century.
With the French defeat in the Seven Years’ War, the path was open for Britain to become the largest empire the world has ever seen.
North America was now British, and though the United States would emerge 20 years later, its language, customs, and constitution were formed on a British foundation. The debt incurred by the French would lead into the French Revolution, sparking the Revolutionary Wars and the decline of the old absolute monarchies.