CHAPTER V. LOUISBOURG 1758
In 1755 Wolfe was already writing what he thought were farewell letters before going off to the war. And that very year the war, though not formally declared till the next, actually did break out in America, where a British army under Braddock, with Washington as his aide-de-camp, was beaten in Ohio by the French and Indians. Next year the French, owing to the failure of Admiral Byng and the British fleet to assist the garrison, were able to capture Minorca in the Mediterranean; while their new general in Canada, Montcalm, Wolfe's great opponent, took Oswego. The triumph of the French fleet at Minorca made the British people furious. Byng was court-martialled, found guilty of failure to do his utmost to save Minorca, and condemned to death. In spite of Pitt's efforts to save him, the sentence was carried out and he was shot on the quarter-deck of his own flagship. Two other admirals, Hawke and Saunders, both of whom were soon to see service with Wolfe, were then sent out as a 'cargo of courage' to retrieve the British position at sea. By this time preparations were being hurried forward on every hand. Fleets were fitting out. Armies were mustering. And, best of all, Pitt was just beginning to make his influence felt.
In 1757, the third year of war, things still went badly for the British at the front. In America Montcalm took Fort William Henry, and a British fleet and army failed to accomplish anything against Louisbourg. In Europe another British fleet and army were fitted out to go on another joint expedition, this time against Rochefort, a great seaport in the west of France. The senior staff officer, next to the three generals in command, was Wolfe, now thirty years of age. The admiral in charge of the fleet was Hawke, as famous a fighter as Wolfe himself. A little later, when both these great men were known throughout the whole United Service, as well as among the millions in Britain and in Greater Britain, their names were coupled in countless punning toasts, and patriots from Canada to Calcutta would stand up to drink a health to 'the eye of a Hawke and the heart of a Wolfe.' But Wolfe was not a general yet; and the three pottering old men who were generals at Rochefort could not make up their minds to do anything but talk. These generals had been ordered to take Rochefort by complete surprise. But after spending five days in front of it, so that every Frenchman could see what they had come for, they decided to countermand the attack and sail home.
Wolfe was a very angry and disgusted man. Yet, though this joint expedition was a disgraceful failure, he had learned some useful lessons, which he was presently to turn to good account. He saw, at least, what such expeditions should not attempt; and that a general should act boldly, though wisely, with the fleet. More than this, he had himself made a plan which his generals were too timid to carry out; and this plan was so good that Pitt, now in supreme control for the next four years, made a note of it and marked him down for promotion and command.
Both came sooner than any one could have expected. Pitt was sick of fleets and armies that did nothing but hold councils of war and then come back to say that the enemy could not be safely attacked. He made up his mind to send out real fighters with the next joint expedition. So in 1758 he appointed Wolfe as the junior of the three brigadier-generals under Amherst, who was to join Admiral Boscawen - nicknamed 'Old Dreadnought' - in a great expedition meant to take Louisbourg for good and all.
Louisbourg was the greatest fortress in America. It was in the extreme east of Canada, on the island of Cape Breton, near the best fishing-grounds, and on the flank of the ship channel into the St Lawrence. A fortress there, in which French fleets could shelter safely, was like a shield for New France and a sword against New England. In 1745, just before the outbreak of the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland, an army of New Englanders under Sir William Pepperrell, with the assistance of Commodore Warren's fleet, had taken this fortress. But at the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, when Wolfe had just come of age, it was given back to France.
Ten years later, when Wolfe went out to join the second army that was sent against it, the situation was extremely critical. Both French and British strained every nerve, the one to hold, the other to take, the greatest fortress in America. A French fleet sailed from Brest in the spring and arrived safely. But it was not nearly strong enough to attempt a sea-fight off Louisbourg, and three smaller fleets that were meant to join it were all smashed up off the coast of France by the British, who thus knew, before beginning the siege, that Louisbourg could hardly expect any help from outside. Hawke was one of the British smashers this year. The next year he smashed up a much greater force in Quiberon Bay, and so made 'the eye of a Hawke and the heart of a Wolfe' work together again, though they were thousands of miles apart and one directed a fleet while the other inspired an army.
The fortress of Louisbourg was built beside a fine harbour with an entrance still further defended by a fortified island. It was garrisoned by about four thousand four hundred soldiers. Some of these were hired Germans, who cared nothing for the French; and the French-Canadian and Indian irregulars were not of much use at a regular siege. The British admiral Boscawen had a large fleet, and General Amherst an army twelve thousand strong. Taking everything into account, by land and sea, the British united service at the siege was quite three times as strong as the French united service. But the French ships, manned by three thousand sailors, were in a good harbour, and they and the soldiers were defended by thick walls with many guns. Besides, the whole defence was conducted by Drucour, as gallant a leader as ever drew sword.