CHAPTER VII. THE PLAINS OF ABRAHAM September 13, 1759
At half-past nine the French reached the crest and halted. The two armies were now in full view of each other on the Plains and only a quarter of a mile apart. The French line of battle had eight small battalions, about 2,500 men, formed six deep. The colonial regulars, in three battalions, were on the flanks. The five battalions of French regulars were in the centre. Montcalm, wearing a green and gold uniform, with the brilliant cross of St Louis over his cuirass, and mounted on a splendid black charger, rode the whole length of his line, to see if all were ready to attack. The French regulars - half-fed, sorely harassed, interfered with by Vaudreuil - were still the victors of Ticonderoga, against the British odds of four to one. Perhaps they might snatch one last desperate victory from the fortunes of war? Certainly all would follow wherever they were led by their beloved Montcalm, the greatest Frenchman of the whole New World. He said a few stirring words to each of his well-known regiments as he rode by; and when he laughingly asked the best of all, the Royal Roussillon, if they were not tired enough to take a little rest before the battle, they shouted back that they were never too tired to fight - 'Forward, forward!' And their steady blue ranks, and those of the four white regiments beside them, with bayonets fixed and colours flying, did indeed look fit and ready for the fray.
Wolfe also had gone along his line of battle, the first of all two-deep thin red lines, to make sure that every officer understood the order that there was to be no firing until the French came close up, to within only forty paces. As soon as he saw Montcalm's line on the crest he had moved his own a hundred paces forward, according to previous arrangement; so that the two enemies were now only a long musket-shot apart. The Canadians and Indians were pressing round the British flanks, under cover of the bushes, and firing hard. But they were easily held in check by the light infantry on the left rear of the line and by the 35th on the right rear. The few French and British skirmishers in the centre now ran back to their own lines; and before ten the field was quite clear between the two opposing fronts.
Wolfe had been wounded twice when going along his line; first in the wrist and then in the groin. Yet he stood up so straight and looked so cool that when he came back to take post on the right the men there did not know he had been hit at all. His spirit already soared in triumph over the weakness of the flesh. Here he was, a sick and doubly wounded man; but a soldier, a hero, and a conqueror, with the key to half a continent almost within his eager grasp.
At a signal from Montcalm in the centre the French line advanced about a hundred yards in perfect formation. Then the Canadian regulars suddenly began firing without orders, and threw themselves flat on the ground to reload. By the time they had got up the French regulars had halted some distance in front of them, fired a volley, and begun advancing again. This was too much for the Canadians. Though they were regulars they were not used to fighting in the open, not trained for it, and not armed for it with bayonets. In a couple of minutes they had all slunk off to the flanks and joined the Indians and militia, who were attacking the British from under cover.
This left the French regulars face to face with Wolfe's front: five French battalions against the British six. These two fronts were now to decide the fate of Canada between them. The French still came bravely on; but their six-deep line was much shorter than the British two-deep line, and they saw that both their flanks were about to be over-lapped by fire and steel. They inclined outwards to save themselves from this fatal overlap on both right and left. But that made just as fatal a gap in their centre. Their whole line wavered, halted oftener to fire, and fired more wildly at each halt.
In the meantime Wolfe's front stood firm as a rock and silent as the grave, one long, straight, living wall of red, with the double line of deadly keen bayonets glittering above it. Nothing stirred along its whole length, except the Union Jacks, waving defiance at the fleurs-de-lis, and those patient men who fell before a fire to which they could not yet reply. Bayonet after bayonet would suddenly flash out of line and fall forward, as the stricken redcoat, standing there with shouldered arms, quivered and sank to the ground.
Captain York had brought up a single gun in time for the battle, the sailors having dragged it up the cliff and run it the whole way across the Plains. He had been handling it most gallantly during the French advance, firing showers of grape-shot into their ranks from a position right out in the open in front of Wolfe's line. But now that the French were closing he had to retire. The sailors then picked up the drag-ropes and romped in with this most effective six-pounder at full speed, as if they were having the greatest fun of their lives.
Wolfe was standing next to the Louisbourg Grenadiers, who, this time, were determined not to begin before they were told. He was to give their colonel the signal to fire the first volley; which then was itself to be the signal for a volley from each of the other five battalions, one after another, all down the line. Every musket was loaded with two bullets, and the moment a battalion had fired it was to advance twenty paces, loading as it went, and then fire a 'general,' that is, each man for himself, as hard as he could, till the bugles sounded the charge.