- Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe
Stephen Brumwell's Paths of Glory is a comprehensive biography of the celebrated "Conqueror of Canada," James Wolfe. The highlight of the book is, of course, the climactic battle on the Plains of Abraham, but the author sets this event in the context of his subject's entire career. Extensive use of both original sources and critical use of subsequent scholarship ensure that this is covered in thorough and fascinating detail.
Born into a military family, Wolfe served as a subaltern in the Low Countries and elsewhere in Europe during the War of the Austrian Succession, participating in the battles of Dettingen (1743) and Fontenoy (1745) and securing a captain's commission in Barrell's 4th Regiment of Foot. The conditions of service and details of the fighting, particularly at Dettingen, are well described, as is Wolfe's role in the suppression of the '45. Although his regiment was in the thick of the fighting at Culloden, he himself served as aide-de-camp to Major-General Hawley. Returning to the continent, Wolfe again saw action as a staff officer at the battle of Lauffeldt (1747).
Peace did not terminate his career. Promoted to major in Sackville's 20th Foot, Wolfe was posted to Scotland, where he helped suppress a riot provoked by body-snatching medical students from the University of Edinburgh, thus earning another promotion, this time to lieutenant colonel (and de facto commander) of his regiment. Granted a leave of absence, he engaged in an unsuccessful courtship and first succumbed to the bladder infection ("the gravel") which would torment him for the rest of his life.
With the onset of the Seven Years' War, Wolfe gained a reputation for training his regiment to a high state of readiness, participated in the abortive amphibious raid on Rochefort (1757), and earned an appointment as a brigadier in Major-General Jeffery Amherst's expedition to seize Louisbourg (1758). Wolfe's dynamic leadership in the successful landing and subsequent siege of the gateway to Canada led to his appointment as commander of the expedition against Quebec, which ultimately fell to British arms after a tense campaign culminating in Wolfe's victory and death, at the age of thirty-two, on the Plains of Abraham.
Such an eventful career spanning such a short life makes for dramatic reading, but Brumwell manages to maintain the reader's interest without resorting to melodramatics. Thoroughly familiar not only with the eighteenth-century British Army but with Georgian society in general, the author sets Wolfe's career in the context of his time, making the book valuable to readers with an interest in social as well as military history. Wolfe's own letters, as well those of his contemporaries, provide depth and insight, as do balanced assessments of the views of subsequent historians and scholars. The friction between Wolfe and his brigadiers, for example, and the circumstances leading to the decisive landing at the Anse au Foulon, are scrupulously analyzed.
While there may never be an absolute verdict on the true nature of James Wolfe's personality and his actual level of military competence, [End Page 1235] Stephen Brumwell's Paths of Glory presents a convincing portrait of a dedicated professional able to persevere in spite of great hardships, to include determined enemies, backbiting subordinates, painful illness, and the constraints placed upon military operations by nature itself. The author's conclusion that: "Even if not a great general, Wolfe was undoubtedly a great soldier" (p. 330) is certainly fitting. Useful to historians and accessible to the general reader, Paths of Glory is highly recommended not only to those with an interest in the period, but to anyone who appreciates a well-crafted study of a timeless subject.
Middletown, New York