• Review of Death or Victory: The Battle for Quebec and the Birth of Empire

    Review of Death or Victory: The Battle for Quebec and the Birth of Empire, by Dan Snow
    Reviewed by Alwyn

    Why review this book now?

    People who play Empire Total War know that the French and Indian War appears in part two of the Road to Independence campaign (and a similar conflict can happen in the main campaign). Even after a decade since Empire Total War was released and since Dan Snow's book was published, people continue to play and mod the game and to debate what historical realism means for this period of warfare.

    After the release of the new Total War Saga: Troy, speculation is likely to grow over the setting of the next historical Total War games. Perhaps the developers will release a sequel to Empire Total War in the 2020s, or a Saga game using the French and Indian War as a setting? If they do, this book could attract many new readers - and this review suggests that it deserves to.

    Snow's book is based on historical research, in particular, on journals and letters written by soldiers who participated in the 1759 Quebec campaign on both sides. Some reviews of history books focus on the historical sources and the writer's interpretation of them. This review is different; it aims to show what this book offers to Total War players and modders who are interested in this period, especially those who are interested in historical realism.

    What this book tells us about the 1759 Quebec campaign

    On September 13, 1759, on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec, the French forces of the Marquis de Montcalm met the attacking British army of James Wolfe. This battle was the culmination of a long campaign in which Wolfe's British army aimed to take Quebec from France. Snow explains why Quebec was strategically important in the French and Indian War, as Quebec connected France's North American colony to the supply route along the Saint Lawrence River:

    This was the gateway to Canada, the jewel in the crown of New France, a vast French empire that stretched from the North Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains and down to New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi. But its great size was matched by its vulnerability and especially now that France was at war ... For four years New France had been fighting the British whose colonies in North America clung to to the Atlantic Ocean from Massachussetts down to Georgia. At the beginning of each campaign season when the ice melted in the St. Lawrence River, the artery of Canada, the settlers or habitants waited nervously to see what help France would send her North American possessions. - Dan Snow, Death or Victory: The Battle for Quebec and the Birth of Empire, p. 2
    Quebec had formidable defenders and defences.

    Located high on a bluff above the swiftly flowing St. Lawrence, Quebec appeared to be an unassailable fortress. The defenders, numbering more than 14,000 men, were confident that 180-foot cliffs made it impossible for an invading army to make a direct assault, while rivers and tide flats made the approach from the east unlikely. To guard against an overland advance at Beaufort, the north bank of the river, the French deployed the bulk of their force there, including the forces of the Marquis de Montcalm. Quebec itself was defended by combined French regulars and Canadian militiamen. - United States History, Battle of Quebec
    Snow's book includes the story of the preparation for the Quebec campaign, including the conditions of British regiments which had spent the previous winter in various North American locations, the assembling and transport of the soldiers and supplies, the journey up the St. Lawrence River towards Quebec and the skirmishes in the early part of the campaign. The British naval expedition entered the Gulf of the St Lawrence in June 1759. There were 42 warships escorting between 120 and 140 transport ships carrying troops and supplies. Fourteen of the warships were ships of the line carrying 60 or more guns, led by the Neptune.

    Richard Wright (1715 - 1780), The Fishery, a 1764 painting which includes HMS Neptune (source)

    The Neptune, on whose quarterdeck Wolfe and his staff took their daily exercise, was one of the most powerful ships of the line in the world. Weighing nearly two thousand tons, she was 171 feet long and crewed by just under eight hundred officers and men. She had twenty-eight cannon on her lower gun deck, each firing a thirty-two pound ball, termed 32 pounders, and on her middle and upper decks another sixth 18 and 12 pounders. In a second, the Neptune was capable of firing a ton of lead into the hull and rigging of an enemy ship. - Dan Snow, Death or Victory, p. 31
    The Gulf of St. Lawrence is the largest estuary in the world and it is difficult for sailing vessels because of the strong flow of water, the prevailing south-westerly winds in the summer months and the shallows, reefs and islands. The British ships progressed slowly, with 'sounding vessels' in front checking the depth of the water. At times, ships collided with each other or ran aground and needed to be towed back into deep water.

    There were significant challenges ahead for the British expedition. As they progressed up the St. Lawrence, they saw signal fires ahead, showing that the French defenders of Quebec were aware that they were approaching. Even when the British reached L'Isle-aux-Coudres (Coudres Island), they were still about 50 miles from Quebec. They could continue upriver on their ships, but the ships travelled slowly and they needed to complete the campaign before the Canadian winter arrived. If they landed troops too far from Quebec, the soldiers would be easy prey to ambushes by Canadian regulars, militia and their Native American allies.

    Joseph Highmore, Portrait of Major-General James Wolfe (1727-1759)

    The British commander, James Wolfe, would have wanted to avoid repeating the disastrous expedition of General Braddock in 1755, which was an attempt to capture Fort Duquesne by a long march by his infantry column through Ohio country. Braddock's column only managed to travel between three and eight miles per day. His supply train collapsed and his ranks were thinned by dysentery. When Braddock's men crossed the Monongahela River, nine miles from their target (a French fort), they walked into an ambush. The ambushers used light infantry tactics, firing from cover, while the British formed traditional infantry lines which provided excellent targets. 108 Canadian colonial regulars, 146 militia and 600 Native Americans defeated Braddock's force of about 1,500 men - a decisive French victory in which two-thirds of the British force were killed or captured. In his Quebec campaign, if Wolfe landed his army too far from Quebec and marched overland through unfamiliar woods, he would riske the same fate. His force remained on their ships for most of the way to Quebec, travelling slowly. This gave the British limited time to complete their campaign before the arrival of the Canadian winter.

    Even after landing and constructing camps, British troops found it difficult to make progress, and life became increasingly more dangerous for Quebec's defenders and civilians too. Snow's history doesn't leave out the more gruesome of the Quebec campaign, such as the scalping of a ranger by Native Americans (p. 116), the brutal killing of Canadians who had surrendered by British soldiers (p. 259), the artillery bombardment of civilian areas of Quebec by British artillery (p. 179) or incidents such as one involving two rangers who captured a Canadian resident. The prisoner's young sons cried out in distress as they followed the rangers and their prisoner. Sadly, the rangers murdered the sons as they were afraid of being discovered by the enemy because of the noise the sons were making (p. 163).

    The New Student's Reference Work, Siege of Quebec, source

    The British established a camp on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River (Wolfe's Camp on the map above). On 26 July, the British sent an expedition overland from Wolfe's camp, aiming to cross the Montmorency River towards Quebec. This was commanded by Brigadier Murray, with Otway's 35th Regiment, five companies of Light Infantry and some rangers as well as two cannon (probably six pounders). The British column found themselves in thick woodland, ideal terrain for Canadians and Native Americans to use the light infantry tactics which had been so effective four years earlier when Braddock's expedition was destroyed at the Monongahela River. The British light infantry and rangers skirmished with the Canadians and Native Americans as the British column approached the river. At a ford across the river, the British found themselves under withering fire from enemy troops who were protected by earthworks. Wolfe's army had trained to fight in woodland, to learn the lessons of Monongahela, and the Brigadier Murray's column which reached the Montmorency River was pushed back, not destroyed. The British avoided a complete disaster, but they would have put themselves in very unfavourable conditions if they tried to reach Quebec overland from Wolfe's camp. They needed another way to Quebec.

    On 31 July, Wolfe's army tried to find another way to Quebec, by landing troops on the Beauport shore. Wolfe spotted a redoubt on the left of the French defences at Beauport, which he believed was beyond the range of musket fire from the French entrenchments. He believed that, if he could take the redoubt, this could lead to a decisive battle with the French army. His plan to take the redoubt was that two 'Cats ' - ships with 14 cannon and a shallow draught - would be deliberately run aground. He was told that they would be able to get within 50 yards of the redoubt. The Cats, with their strong oak timbers, would become temporary wooden forts. Soldiers in the Cats would provide covering fire for grenadiers who would take the redoubt.

    However, the plan didn't work as Wolfe hoped. The Cats ran aground between 500 and 600 yards from the French defences. The soldiers in in the Cats were far beyond effective musket range so they couldn't provide covering fire. The Cats were exposed to artillery fire from cannon on the land as well as floating batteries.

    After this setback, Wolfe had a choice. Would he retreat or go ahead with his plan to send 13 companies of grenadiers supported by 200 men from the 2nd Battalion of the 60th Royal American Regiment, using flat-bottomed boats to land on the Beauport shore? Snow vividly highlights how the dangers of the campaign up this point impelled the British soldiers and their commander to attack.

    Like all commanders in the heat of battle Wolfe found himself mentally impelled towards action. ... The grenadiers had endured a summer of frustration, time and agaijn being ordered into flat-bottomed boats for assaults that had ben cancelled. Friends and comrades had been captured, tortured and scalped while on patrol. Wolfe knew that these men were desperate for revenge - Dan Snow, Death or Victory, p. 225
    Wolfe decided to continue with the landing. It seemed to go well, at first. The French soldiers fell back from the redoubt to their trenches, allowing Wolfe's infantry to take possession of the redoubt which was Wolfe's initial objective. However, instead of remaining in the redoubt, Wolfe's men pursued the French solders towards the trenches of the main French and Canadian force. When he planned the attack, Wolfe believed that the redoubt was beyond the range of fire from the French entrenchments, but he was mistaken.

    For twenty minutes, French regulars and Canadian militia defended their trenches with highly effective muskety, supported by cannon firing grapeshot. Whie the French and Canadian defenders lost between 20 and 30 men, the British casualties were about 450. As well as demonstrating the value of earthworks for protecting infanty, this engagement shows how useful such defences were for artillery. British artillery from the other side of the Montmorency River (Wolfe's Camp) and British warships fired over 3,000 shot, trying to support the landing - however, four French cannon, protected by earthworks, continued to fire all day despite the enormous amount of British artillery fire. The British first wave of infantry retreated to the shoreline, where a second wave, Monckton's brigade, was landing. Wolfe decided to retreat, the Cats were burned and Fraser's 78th Highland Regiment provided a rearguard, they were the last men to leave the beach.

    This French victory, and the significant British losses, must have affected the morale of Wolfe's army. Wolfe's Chief Engineer, Patrick Mackellar, qrote that:
    ... there is little or no chance of landing upon a coast naturally strong and fortified, and defended by superior numbers, so that the capture of the city has now become doubtful - Dan Snow, Death or Victory, p. 237
    If Wolfe had not learned of a beach at Anse au Foulon with a path to the top of the cliff, his expedition could have been a complete failure. Stories have been told about Wolfe's decision to land at Foulon, suggesting that this was a secret route which was discovered by accident or spies. In one of these stories, the British general saw a French woman walking down to wash clothes and realising that there must be a route from the river to the top of the cliffs. Snow points out, however, that this landing site was an obvious choice which Wolfe had been considering all summer (p. 319). French sources had identified Foulon as one of a few possible landing sites for an attacking army which had sailed up the St Lawrence River and passed Quebec, and it was guarded by a hundred men, who had built an abatis (a tangle of tree trunks with sharpened branches) across the road.

    It's not surprising that stories emerged about Wolfe's choice of Foulon as a place to land. Commanders in this campaign did receive information about their enemy from civilians, deserters and prisoners, as well as individual soldiers. This suggests that there is scope for mechanics in Total War games which reflect this. Campaign events could include the arrival of a deserter offering news or the opportunity to persuade or coerce a civilian to reveal information about the enemy. This information would be sketchy or incomplete and might be unreliable, so a wise commander would send spies or scouts to check its accuracy.

    We have seen that the mistaken beliefs of the British commanders about the attack on the Beauport shore had serious consequences - the ships which were run aground weren't close enough to provide covering fire and the redoubt which was the initial objective was not out of range of fire from the French and Canadian trenches. Snow shows that the beliefs and expectations of both sides were important on the large scale of the campaign as well as the smaller scale of the battlefield. For example, at the start of the campaign Mountcalm expected to be badly outnumbered:

    In all [Mountcalm] expected to face the enemy with just over ten thousand troops. 'What is that ... against at least fifty thousand men which the English have?' - Dan Snow, Death or Victory, p. 65
    Wolfe's army was "badly understrength", with between 500 and 800 men in most of his battalions. The French and Canadian forces in North America faced fewer than 40,000 British soldiers which were divided into three major groups (Wolfe's army was one of these). At Quebec, even after Wolfe's small boats had successfully landed about 4,000 British troops to the shore, the British commander learned that he had put his army in between two French forces. Ahead of him was the army of Montcalm, forming line to defend Quebec. Behind him, 2,000 French solders under Louis Antoine de Bougainville marched to help with the defence of the city. Dan Snow shows vividly how history could have been different if the army of Bougainville had arrived just a little earlier:

    Forty-five minutes earlier and the history of north America may have been rather different. [...] Given the impossibility of co-ordinating any joint attack before telegraph or radio, turning up to fight forty-five minutes apart was quite remarkable; however, in that brief flash of time the hopes of New France had been extinguished. Bougaineville's 2,000 men were some of the finest in north America and would have served as a hammer to Montcalm's anvil - Dan Snow Death or Victory, p. 381
    The climax of the book arrives with the principal battle of the campaign, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Dan Snow presents this in an informative and enjoyable style and there are many useful details for players, modders and writers of After Action Reports. For example, we learn that the accuracy of a 6-pounder cannon firing roundshot was a remarkable 90% at 600 yards and that the artillerymen would have used canister shot from 300 yards. About 30% of the 40 musket balls in a canister would strike a column at 300 yards, and about 50% at 150 yards (p. 365). We learn about the composition and tactics of both armies. The British had 3,826 regulars, 600 light infantry and 46 artillerymen; the French had 2,000 troupes de terre (French regulars), 600 troupes de la marine (who Snow describes as colonial troops), plus militia and Native Americans, and the French army had about 4,500 men in total. (p. 350).

    By Imagewikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, source.
    Like the other maps in this article, this isn't from the book. The book provides useful maps, both for the area of Canada where the campaign occurred and the battlefield.

    At the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the British formed a thin line and advanced, with their light infantry forming a rearguard in case of a surprise attack. The French infantry advanced in column formation. They began to fire at long range (about 130 yards), causing few casualties. Their regiments included local recruits who would duck and take cover to reload their muskets. Taking cover makes sense for an individual, but disrupts the cohesion of a line infantry regiment (p. 366). Meanwhile, French skirmishers fired from both flanks into the British line. Since the British light infantry were behind the British line, watching for any possible attack from the rear, they were not available to counter the French light infantry. British regiments sent some of their line infantry to return fire, but these soldiers lacked training and experience in light infantry combat. The British line infantry were ordered to hold their fire until the French columns were close, at just 40 yards. Snow tells us that it's estimated that line infantry achieved 40% accuracy at 40 yards, although Prussian infantry achieved 60% accuracy at 75 yards and British militia just 20% accuracy (p. 365). This is interesting data, particularly for modders who wonder if better quality infantry would only have been faster at reloading, or if they would also have been more accurate.

    It took about two hours to get the armies into position for the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, but the main exchange of fire took only about 10 minutes (p. 375). The casualty figures for the British provide useful information about the effectiveness of various French units. British units such as the Highlanders of the 78th Regiment and the 2nd Battalion of the 60th Royal American Regiment, which fought near the ends of the British line, lost one-third of their men - a sign of the effectiveness of the French skirmish fire (which included Canadians and Native Americans). The British 43rd and 47th Regiments, which were closer to the centre of the British line and which endured fire from the French columns, suffered only 26 and 38 casualties respectively. While a column can be useful for keeping infantrymen in a cohesive formation, it reduced the number of soldiers who are able to fire. Snow reports that the ratio of killed to wounded in this era of warfare was normaly 1:3, but on at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham it was more like 1:10. He suggests that this shows that fire at long range, both from the French columns and the skirmishers, increased proportion of soldiers who were wounded rather than killed (p. 376).

    What does this book do well?

    Some history books are dry but provide impressive historical detail, others are fun to read but provide a blurred or inaccurate picture of the history. For me, the great strength of Snow's book is that it provides engaging drama, precise details and the use of historical sources.

    The attitudes and expectations of the commanders are explained well. We learn that Montcalm under-estimated the effectiveness of irregular warfare (p. 159) and that the naive British commanders expected the Canadian colonists to be neutral between the defenders of New France and the British invaders (p. 161). We can have confidence in Snow's account of what happened, as the book provides detailed notes on the sources he used, which included letters and journals by soldiers who were involved in the campaign on both sides, the records of units such as the Royal American Regiment and history books which discuss the campaign. A particular strength of Snow's book is that, while he has obviously invested considerable time in scholarly investigation of the sources, he presents the story of the campaign in an engaging style.

    One of the helpful features of the book, for Total War players, modders and writers of AARs (After Action Reports), is Snow's interest in details. if you'd like to know details such as how many rounds of ammunition a British infantryman carried during a mission (36 rounds, p. 95), or the length and weight of a 32-pounder cannon (three yards and three tons, p. 164), they can be found in this book. Snow's book is also helpful for players and modders because of the attention given to unit types. For the French army, we learn which unit types Montcalm sent to reinforce Bougainville (grenadiers, light companies from line infantry regiments, militia light companies - about 1,500 men in total - and all of his Native American troops, another 1,500 men). A French officer described these 3,000 reinforcements as "the elite of the army" (p. 310). It's interesting to learn that New France had militia light companies; perhaps these are the kind of units represented in Empire Total War as Coureurs de Bois - a unit type which Quebec (the emergent faction which holds New France in Empire Total War) is able to recruit.

    Snow tells us about the perceived effectiveness of grenadiers in the British Army ("the finest men in the unit gathered together", p. 125) and their arrangement in battle ("The grenadier company was split in two, each half taking up position on either extreme of their regiment", p. 353) and rangers (marching in loose formation, wearing dark green jackets and armed with a tomahawk and a musket or rifle, p. 149). Snow explains why many Native Americans were more willing to fight for the French than the British (because the French offered peaceful co-existence, p. 127) and presents the Native American style of warfare as based on ambushes and other surprise attacks (p. 130), a style of warfare shown in the movie The Last of the Mohicans, which is set during the French and Indian War.

    Snow's book highlights the challenges and choices facing the French and British commanders in the 1759 Quebec campaign, and the significance of the beliefs and expectations of the commanders (both on the battlefield and in the campaign as a whole) as well as the importance of terrain (including earthworks), tactics (especially the use of light infantry), unit types and formations. For those who are interested in the French and Indian War, play Empire Total War, or who create mods or AARs with this game, this book is well worth reading. This is an enjoyable, well-researched and rewarding book and is highly recommended.
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Turkafinwë's Avatar
      Turkafinwë -
      Another title to join my list of books I should read. Solid review Alwyn!
    1. -Durango-'s Avatar
      -Durango- -
      Very good review. I particularly enjoyed the attention to sources and details, as well as the implications regarding ETW modding. Thumbs up!