CHAPTER II. THE YOUNG SOLDIER 1741-1748
Wolfe's short life may be divided into four periods, all easy to remember, because all are connected with the same number-seven. He was fourteen years a boy at home, with one attempt to be a soldier. This period lasted from 1727 to 1741. Then he was seven years a young officer in time of war, from 1741 to 1748. Then he served seven years more in time of peace, from 1748 to 1755. Lastly, he died in the middle, at the very climax, of the world-famous Seven Years' War, in 1759.
After the royal review at Blackheath in the spring of 1742 the army marched down to Deptford and embarked for Flanders. Wolfe was now off to the very places he had heard his father tell about again and again. The surly Flemings were still the same as when his father knew them. They hated their British allies almost as much as they hated their enemies. The long column of redcoats marched through a scowling mob of citizens, who meanly grudged a night's lodging to the very men coming there to fight for them. We may be sure that Wolfe thought little enough of such mean people as he stepped out with the colours flying above his head. The army halted at Ghent, an ancient city, famous for its trade and wealth, and defended by walls which had once resisted Marlborough.
At first there was a good deal to do and see; and George Warde was there too, as an officer in a cavalry regiment. But Warde had to march away; and Wolfe was left without any companion of his own age, to pass his spare time the best way he could. Like another famous soldier, Frederick the Great, who first won his fame in this very war, he was fond of music and took lessons on the flute. He also did his best to improve his French; and when Warde came back the two friends used to go to the French theatre. Wolfe put his French to other use as well, and read all the military books he could find time for. He always kept his kit ready to pack; so that he could have marched anywhere within two hours of receiving the order. And, though only a mere boy-officer, he began to learn the duties of an adjutant, so that he might be fit for promotion whenever the chance should come.
Months wore on and Wolfe was still at Ghent. He had made friends during his stay, and he tells his mother in September: 'This place is full of officers, and we never want company. I go to the play once or twice a week, and talk a little with the ladies, who are very civil and speak French.' Before Christmas it had been decided at home - where the war-worn father now was, after a horrible campaign at Cartagena - that Edward, the younger son, was also to be allowed to join the Army. Wolfe was delighted. 'My brother is much to be commended for the pains he takes to improve himself. I hope to see him soon in Flanders, when, in all probability, before next year is over, we may know something of our trade.' And so they did!
The two brothers marched for the Rhine early in 1743, both in the same regiment. James was now sixteen, Edward fifteen. The march was a terrible one for such delicate boys. The roads were ankle-deep in mud; the weather was vile; both food and water were very bad. Even the dauntless Wolfe had to confess to his mother that he was 'very much fatigued and out of order. I never come into quarters without aching hips and knees.' Edward, still more delicate, was sent off on a foraging party to find something for the regiment to eat. He wrote home to his father from Bonn on April 7: 'We can get nothing upon our march but eggs and bacon and sour bread. I have no bedding, nor can get it anywhere. We had a sad march last Monday in the morning. I was obliged to walk up to my knees in snow, though my brother and I have a horse between us. I have often lain upon straw, and should oftener, had I not known some French, which I find very useful; though I was obliged the other day to speak Latin for a good dinner. We send for everything we want to the priest.'
That summer, when the king arrived with his son the Duke of Cumberland, the British and Hanoverian army was reduced to 37,000 half-fed men. Worse still, the old general, Lord Stair, had led it into a very bad place. These 37,000 men were cooped up on the narrow side of the valley of the river Main, while a much larger French army was on the better side, holding bridges by which to cut them off and attack them while they were all clumped together. Stair tried to slip away in the night. But the French, hearing of this attempt, sent 12,000 men across the river to hold the place the British general was leaving, and 30,000 more, under the Duc de Gramont, to block the road at the place towards which he was evidently marching. At daylight the British and Hanoverians found themselves cut off, both front and rear, while a third French force was waiting to pounce on whichever end showed weakness first. The King of England, who was also Elector of Hanover, would be a great prize, and the French were eager to capture him. This was how the armies faced each other on the morning of June 27, 1743, at Dettingen, the last battlefield on which any king of England has fought in person, and the first for Wolfe.