An essential insight into British battles of the 18th century
Although George Townshend, First Marquess (and ultimately Viscount) Townshend, rose to become a field-marshal of the British Army, it is quite possible that few students interested in the warfare of the 18th century are familiar with his early military career. He first saw action at the Battle of Dettingen during the War of Austrian Succession in 1743 and he also fought at Culloden during the abortive Jacobite Rising in 1746. Townshend returned to the European battle front in in 1747 and saw action at Lauffeld. However, perhaps his principal claim to fame came about with the outbreak of the Seven Years War when he was given command of a brigade under Wolfe at Quebec. James Wolfe was killed in this famous battle and his second in command, Robert Monckton, was quickly wounded, so Townshend took command of the British Army on the Plains of Abraham in September, 1759. Townshend displayed impressive competence during the final stages of the battle averting a potentially dangerous attack. After the battle it was he who accepted the surrender of the city. After fighting at Vellinghausen in 1761 he commanded a division of Anglo-Portuguese troops during the Spanish Invasion of Portugal. All these events are described in fascinating detail and Townshend’s account of the war in North America offers particular insights into the conduct of the French and Indian War and the command qualities of James Wolfe. Contains illustrations and maps not included in earlier presentations of this text.
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Colonel Carleton told Townshend that he had been round the camp and made the best disposition he could with the small force available, that he had placed the right flank on some rocky heights, thickly wooded, and the left flank rested on the Montmorency River. Townshend notes in his Journal that in this disposition the troops did not possess the heights, and the right flank was exposed to the attacks from Indians sheltered by the thick woods. Whilst Carleton was in conversation with Townshend, a message came to him to say that General Wolfe had altered the position of the camp, and that the troops were now to encamp with the wooded heights above mentioned in the rear of the left flank of the troops—the front to be towards the Montmorency River, the right flank near the Montmorency Falls. By this disposition Townshend notes:—
We should have had our front to our friends on the Isle of Orleans—our right flank to the enemy! and a pass under the Falls! and our rear open to the woods and exposed to the incursions of all the savages they chose to pass over the fords on the Montmorenci River to annoy us. However, the doubt was not long which of their two camps we should prefer—for a number of their savages rushed suddenly down upon us from the rocky woody height (this was the next morning, July 9th), drove a few Rangers that were there down to my quarters for refuge wounded both their officers, and in an instant scalped 13 or 14 of their men and had it not been for Bragg’s grenadiers who were in another barn giving to my quarters who attacked the Indians very bravely whilst some inclined round the right to surround them—they had spread confusion everywhere.
Before the grenadiers of Braggs had time to stand to their arms one was wounded at my door and the other close by it. In this situation, we remained till late in the evening, the general having placed the regiment upon that attack in companies with their front to the side the enemy could only attack us. Having no orders to entrench in the evening I thought it necessary not to leave the brigade liable to be attacked in the night and therefore in less than three hours I ran up a very good parapet with re-entering angles which covered the front of the two battalions the general permitted to front the accessible part of the country.
I fortified likewise the front by a parapet round my house a barbette for cannon which raked all the edges of that rocky height whence the Indians could before annoy us, and I may venture to say that I not only made the camp secure but unattackable. Add to this that upon the officer of artillery reporting to me that his guns where General Wolfe had ordered them to be placed, were so far advanced that he must retire them in the night, I ran out a salient angle which enclosed them—part of each face I made a barbette by which these guns raked both angles, right and left, the ground in the front of the two lines of musketry I had made.
We had no alarm this night though several Indians had been seen on this side of the River Montmorenci and not one post of light infantry was charged with the protection of the front of the camp, and the most passable part of that river. The next morning, the general having gone early to rest in the evening, I reported to him what I had done and in the evening, he went round the front and disapproved of it, saying I had indeed made myself secure, for I had made a fortress; that small redoubts were better than lines—that the men could not man these lines, nor sally out if they pleased. At the same time that he said this he had one battalion of my brigade and 2 which had arrived that morning (10 July) from the Isle of Orleans encamped upon the descent of the hill with their front to the river St. Lawrence and their rear to the rear of our 1st Line; exposed to the cannon shot of the enemy the first of which went through their tents and raked their encampment from right to left.
Montcalm began the attack. A swarm of Canadian and Indian skirmishers pressed our left flank where Townshend commanded, the brunt of the attack falling upon Colonel Howe and his Light Infantry. He was very hardly pressed, but held on to the houses and a coppice with great tenacity. In the notes, I see mentioned the gallant conduct of a Captain ——— (the name left blank), who had quitted a house which protected the front of General Townshend’s position by mistake, but on finding out his error he dashed back again—attacked them with bayonets and put all to the sword within the house.
Townshend then ordered up the 15th (Amherst’s), and was soon after reinforced by the two battalions of the 60th, or Royal Americans; and the steady countenance of this brigade turned the tide at this point of the battle.
Meanwhile, things had not gone so well in the right and centre of our line. Swarms of skirmishers drove in our Light Infantry, which Wolfe had posted in our front, and they fell back in disorder, causing confusion. The French columns continued their advance, and Wolfe hurried along the line, restoring order and exhorting the men not to fire without orders. The French came on with loud shouts, and opened a heavy fire. Our men fell fast, but not a shot was returned, showing what splendid discipline these battalions must have had. The 35th and the Grenadiers of Louisbourg, we are told, lost very heavily; Wolfe was slightly wounded in the wrist; and still our splendid infantry, notwithstanding their losses, stood manfully, not returning the fire, the French advancing and shouting. Townshend says our men reserved their fire till within forty yards. Wolfe then passed the order to fire, and volleys were poured in all along our line, completely shattering the French columns, which staggered, having lost heavily, and then broke and gave way.
The battle reads exactly like one of the Peninsular battles, Wolfe using exactly the same tactics as Wellington did. The French came on in columns firing, and our troops awaited them in line, a first line and a second line in reserve. When these columns came within close range, our troops in line simply shattered their heads with volleys.
This is exactly what Wolfe did then. Directly the French columns wavered and staggered under the deadly fire of the British, he at once passed the order to advance with the bayonet, and our line moved forward in beautiful order; but soon our men broke into a run with cheers, and the French gave way on all sides. Wolfe had placed himself at the head of Bragg’s (the 28th) and the Louisbourg Grenadiers as they advanced. He was hit a second time in the body. He did not fall, but tried to stagger on; but was almost immediately shot through the right breast, and fell mortally wounded. General Monckton was severely wounded at the same moment whilst at the head of Lascelles’ Regiment (the 47th), and Wolfe’s aide-de-camp went off to find Townshend, who at once came from the left flank and assumed command.
The advance of the English battalions was irresistible. The 35th (Royal Sussex), then called Otway’s Foot; the 28th (Bragg’s Regiment), the famous “Slashers”; the 47th (Lascelles’); and the Louisbourg Grenadiers carried all before them at the point of the bayonet, cheering wildly, and roused to that pitch of enthusiasm which compels victory. Townshend says that the 78th Highlanders, supported by the 58th (Anstruther’s), completed the rout of the French, and was loud in his praise of the Highlanders; the magnificent order of the 43rd (Kennedy’s) in their advance rivalled the glorious deeds of that splendid regiment in the Peninsular War fifty years after, the 43rd forming part of the famous Light Division, which was to Wellington what the 10th Legion was to Caesar.
But to return to the moment when Townshend assumed command. The rapid advance and pursuit had naturally thrown our line into great disorder; the 47th and 58th were brought to a stand by the French artillery fire as they approached the ramparts of the town; and Townshend writes that, “finding a part of the troops in great disorder I formed them as soon as possible.” He had only just got the dishevelled line into tolerable order when Bougainville’s troops were seen in our rear, coming from Cap Rouge.
The military reader will understand at once from this that Townshend had been called on to command at a most critical juncture of the battle. The commander-in-chief was killed, the second in command severely wounded, the troops in disorder and checked in their advance, and a fresh force of the enemy sighted in our rear coming on to attack! I can imagine a no more difficult situation, and nothing more highly calculated to test the ability of a commander in the field; moreover, Townshend could not have known also the strength of the fresh force of the enemy. No writer, in any of the accounts I have read, has ever grasped the difficulty of Townshend’s position in such a case.
If Bougainville had at once attacked boldly, he would have in all probability defeated our troops, disordered and strained by the battle just fought. Townshend would then have been blamed; the world would have said that it was owing to Wolfe’s death and Townshend’s being in command, and so forth; no allowance would have been made for the critical juncture and the difficulties of a general being suddenly put into a position of command in such a situation, and at the same time a situation not of one’s own making. However, Townshend at once showed himself a cool, prompt, and energetic leader, the three best qualities a general can possess. He at once re-formed his battalions into line, opened fire with two field-pieces (captured from the French), and sent forward the 48th (Webb’s) in line, this regiment having been in reserve during the battle, and therefore fresh and keen on fighting; the 35th also were brought into line with the 48th to hold the approaching column of Bougainville in check.