by Michael Fry

The Moor’s Last Sigh

March 21, 2016 | by Michael Fry

THERE is a good argument for saying that the capture of Quebec in 1759, and the subsequent absorption of Canada into the British Empire, was owed first and foremost not to the English hero, James Wolfe, who fell in the moment of victory, but to one of his officers, Captain Donald MacDonald of Clanranald. MacDonald was in command of the ‘forlorn hope’, the twenty-four volunteers who landed before dawn on 14 September from the St Lawrence River and first scaled the Heights of Abraham above Quebec. The cliff was being guarded by the local militia, Canadian lads no doubt eager to defend their homeland but no match for professional soldiers if only these could get to grips with them. From a sentry post the country boys called out in the darkness when they heard the scuffles from beneath: ‘Qui va là, Who goes there?’

It was MacDonald who answered them in perfect French, explaining he was in charge of a consignment of provisions for the besieged city. He bought time for enough of his own men to gather and overpower the sentries. This in turn let 5000 British troops climb the cliffs and occupy the heights. Doomed Quebec fell a few hours later.

Wolfe and MacDonald were on the same side that day but only thirteen years before they had been enemies at the Battle of Culloden, Wolfe as a young officer under the Duke of Cumberland. MacDonald was then one of the clansmen fighting for Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender leading the rebellion to restore the House of Stuart to its British thrones, now facing final defeat. In the intervening years, Wolfe had continued to pursue his military career, but he was rather a misfit and perhaps his deliberately seeking death in battle offered him the only way he was ever likely to find to the glorious immortality he craved. MacDonald had after Culloden escaped to France, where he served in the army of King Louis XV and acquired his perfect French. But he longed to be home again: he took advantage of an amnesty to return and join up with Fraser’s Highlanders, a regiment raised from former Jacobites. The British government decided it was now safe to use their military prowess for its own purposes, and its purposes including winning global power through empire. Conquest of Canada was one of the first steps.

Trevor Royle’s Culloden leads us right back to this lost world of derring-do. There have been many books on the battle and his is one of the most objective and fair-minded of them. He will have nothing to do with the distortion of this into a struggle between Scotland and England. There were as many Scots in the Duke of Cumberland’s army as in Prince Charles’s. Even the Highlands were not unanimously Jacobite, and the royal ranks included Munro’s Regiment, largely recruited from the hardy Presbyterians of Scotland’s northernmost counties, Caithness and Sutherland.

Nor does Royle stereotype the commanders as some other authors have been guilty of doing. Cumberland was perhaps a little fatter than he allows (there is actually a sketch by one of his officers demonstrating as much), but he was far from being just a slob. He was an intelligent man and a courageous soldier. While he did indeed harry the Highlands after his victory, he did also worry about it, even though he had come to regard it as a necessity. He indeed sought authority from on high about how to treat the vanquished local population, but authority was giving nothing away. He had to decide for himself what to do, and take the rap if it came, as he well knew. Lucky for him that the rap came only from history. As for Prince Charles, he really had no redeeming features but charm and wit, and Royle does not try to endow him with any others.

As a military historian to trade, Royle rather shows a special interest in how Culloden shaped the development of armies, strategies and tactics. For such a small engagement, with no more than 5000 men on each side, the effect was amazingly big. In opening up this theme, Royle leads us well away from the usual lamentations over a lost Highland idyll that have marked the work of too many writers dealing with, and distorting, the subject before him. In fact his account of the battle itself is over before we reach page 100. The rest of the narrative give us much more original and valuable material.

For a century before Culloden, the Highland charge had been probably the most effective tactic available on any battlefield. Military engagements tended to be long drawn-out affairs because the loading of firearms, whether cannon or muskets, was such a laborious affair, and generals did not usually venture far beyond exchanges of shot till they had softened their enemy up and thinned his ranks. The clansmen cut through this tiresome process by casting aside their small arms, taking up their claymores and running full tilt at the enemy lines in front of them. The men standing there, still loading, were best advised to take to their heels before a blade cleft their skull.

This was the tactic that had won most of the Marquis of Montrose’s battles in the Civil War, had won also the crucial Battle of Killiecrankie for Bluidy Claverhouse, had indeed won the Battle of Prestonpans for Prince Charles himself. It might conceivably have won the Battle of Culloden too, if he had learned the right lessons. Instead he drew his clansmen up in ordered lines on Drummossie Moor, almost as if this had been a French or Austrian army. They stood in freezing wind and sleet being decimated by Cumberland’s artillery, calling out loud for the order to charge. It came too late and too uncertainly to bring them victory.

There was in fact to be one more example of the devastating Highland charge, and that was the charge by Fraser’s Highlanders on the Heights of Abraham. There the French had been the first to charge, this being probably their only chance to beat a superior British force. But their charge was brought to a halt by the disciplined volley that Wolfe organised, when hundreds of rifles fired with what sounded like a single crack. Then it was the Highlanders’ turn to charge. Heads and limbs flew from those Frenchmen who could not get back inside the walls of Quebec quick enough.

Yet this was also history’s last example of the victorious Highland charge. The real lesson of Culloden lay in the way Cumberland had disciplined his troops to stand their ground as the inevitable Highland charge came at them. They could hardly feel anything but terror as the horde of screaming brutes fell on them. But they were to keep cool, fix their bayonets and thrust the blade at the man not in front but to his left, who would be running with his sword-arm upraised so that he could therefore be skewered and put out of action. At Culloden the clansmen broke through the first line of royal troops and even reached the second. Yet the wall of bayonets forced them at last to fall back.

What, then, was to replace the Highland charge as the best way to win battles? It was precisely the ability of the trained infantryman to stand firm while death whistled or bounded towards him, in the form of a bullet or a cannonball, so that his formation held together till the time came for it to move forward and dislodge the enemy from his position. That was the rather boring way battles were to be won in future. Things were all the worse for the soldier if he was wearing a fancy uniform, in French silver or British red, which made him an even better target for the other side: there was no khaki, let alone camouflage, in those days. Waiting and taking it became in the ordinary soldier a capacity more important than going out and giving it. But in time, at Waterloo or in the Crimea, we could be sure the thin red lines would hold. Culloden had set a new pattern for the exercise of British prowess.

This complex process of gradual evolution in military tactics Royle explains throughout with crisp precision, as if giving a situation report to a general staff. But his true skills as a historian come to the fore when he leaves all the technical background behind and enlivens his tales with graphic sketches of the later careers of the men who fought at Culloden. They take us down to the end of the eighteenth century and in one or two cases even beyond. These characters assume shapes all the sharper because set against a moving background, of a United Kingdom that had only just learned to control the internal conflicts it inherited – Culloden was the last big battle on British soil. Yet almost at once this new polity set out on constructing a global dominion that stretched from the backwoods of North America to the sun-baked plains of India. It needed to create professional fighting forces, and the use of fighting techniques first deployed at Culloden was one of the things making that possible. It was imperial power that grew out of the soil fertilised by Highland blood on Drummossie Moor. Trevor Royle’s rapid-fire yet crystal-clear account does credit to the battle and to himself.


 

Culloden, Scotland’s Last Battle and the Forging of the British Empire
Trevor Royle
Little, Brown, £25, ISBN: 978-1408704011, PP409

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