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On the Anniversary of the Battle of Quebec: "The Path of Glory Leads But to the Grave"

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On a moonless night in the morning hours of Sept. 13, 1759, a procession of boats steered silently down the St. Lawrence River. The boats contained the small British expeditionary force under the command of 32-year-old, red-haired Major-General James Wolfe, who in a low voice repeated line after line of Thomas Gray's "Elegy in Country Churchyard," a popular poem of the time. The 19th century historian Francis Parkman states:

"Among the rest was the verse which his own fate was soon to illustrate, - 'The paths of glory lead but to the grave. Gentlemen,' he (Wolfe) said as his recital ended. 'I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec.' None were there to tell him that the hero is greater than the poet."

This week marked the 252nd anniversary of the Battle of Quebec or The Battle of the Plains of Abraham as it is also known. Fought during the Seven Years War, a conflict which pitted Great Britain and its American Colonies against the French, French-Canadians and Indian Allies in an almost nine-year struggle for supremacy over the North American continent, the Battle of Quebec marked the virtual end of French rule of Canada. The war continued for three years, but the Fall of Quebec was considered to be the finest in the long line of British victories in the Annus Mirabillis, as the year 1759 was henceforth known in British history, a year when "our bells are worn threadbare with ringing for victories," as the writer Horace Walpole remarked.

In many ways, the battle of Quebec can be seen as the most pivotal battle ever fought on the American continent and for transatlantic relations. It marked the end of the French pincer that kept the British colonies confined to the eastern shores of the continent. It eliminated the Indian threat to colonial frontiers from Massachusetts to Georgia, paved the way for the British colonies' westward expansion by seizing the strategic Ohio Valley from the French, and for the first time, helped thousands of Americans, who until then saw themselves as merely uprooted British citizens, develop a distinct American identity, which set the stage for the American Revolution less than two decades later, ultimately leading to the creation of the United States of America.

The battle itself was a small, bloody affair. A single volley of British musketry set the French Army, which was ordered hastily out of the city fortifications by Brigadier General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm Gozon, Marquis de Saint-Veran, supreme commander of French forces in North America, to flight. Tragically, both commanders Wolfe and Montcalm were wounded mortally in the engagement. Combined casualties were around 300 killed and 1,000 wounded. The city itself finally capitulated on Sept. 18, 1759. The French regular garrison was allowed to march out of the fortifications with full military honours (keeping their colours, weapons, and one bronze cannon as a gesture to the gallant French defence of the city).

For years beforehand, Brigadier General Marquis de Montcalm and the Canadian-born Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal, governor of New France, had quarreled over the right strategy in fighting the superior British forces. It was the classical conventional versus guerilla warfare argument, as the American historian Fred Anderson states in his magnificent work, The Crucible of War: The Seven Year's War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766:

"Vaudreuil saw the problem of defense in light of the proven Canadian strategies of Indian alliance and wilderness warfare. His was essentially a guerilla's conception of defense, for it rested upon his confidence, that although the British might conquer territory, they could never hold it so long as Canada's French and Indian peoples remained united and capable of resisting in the interior...[the Indian Warriors] could visit such havoc on the enemy's frontiers that the British would eventually be forced to sue for peace....Montcalm had seen matters in almost exactly the opposite way....In his view the only key to Canada was the city of Quebec....The specters of Oswego and Fort William Henry [Indians massacred British defenders of these forts] had convinced him that Vaudreuil's preferred approach was no better than a surrender to savagery. Canada might be preserved until a general peace could be concluded in Europe.... But if, on the other hand the colony should fall to an overwhelmingly strong enemy, at least Montcalm would have conducted an honorable defense. For the diminutive marquis held an article of faith what so few Canadians seemed able to grasp: that there were more important things in war than winning."

I wonder what the insurgents fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan would have to say to that.