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- The Passing of New France - 1/17 -
CHRONICLES OF CANADA Edited by George M. Wrong and H. H. Langton In thirty-two volumes
THE PASSING OF NEW FRANCE A Chronicle of Montcalm
By WILLIAM WOOD
MONTCALM IN FRANCE 1712-1756
'War is the grave of the Montcalms.' No one can tell how old this famous saying is. Perhaps it is as old as France herself. Certainly there never was a time when the men of the great family of Montcalm-Gozon were not ready to fight for their king and country; and so Montcalm, like Wolfe, was a soldier born.
Even in the Crusades his ancestors were famous all over Europe. When the Christians of those brave days were trying to drive the unbelievers out of Palestine they gladly followed leaders whom they thought saintly and heroic enough to be their champions against the dragons of sultan, satan, and hell; for people then believed that dragons fought on the devil's side, and that only Christian knights, like St George, fighting on God's side, could kill them. The Christians banded themselves together in many ways, among others in the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, taking an oath to be faithful unto death. They chose the best man among them to be their Grand Master; and so it could have been only after much devoted service that Deodat de Gozon became Grand Master, more than five hundred years ago, and was granted the right of bearing the conquered Dragon of Rhodes on the family coat of arms, where it is still to be seen. How often this glorious badge of victory reminded our own Montcalm of noble deeds and noble men! How often it nerved him to uphold the family tradition!
There are centuries of change between Crusaders and Canadians. Yet the Montcalms can bridge them with their honour. And, among all the Montcalms who made their name mean soldier's honour in Eastern or European war, none have given it so high a place in the world's history as the hero whose life and death in Canada made it immortal. He won the supreme glory for his name, a glory so bright that it shone even through the dust of death which shrouded the France of the Revolution. In 1790, when the National Assembly was suppressing pensions granted by the Crown, it made a special exception in favour of Montcalm's children. As kings, marquises, heirs, and pensions were among the things the Revolution hated most, it is a notable tribute to our Marquis of Montcalm that the revolutionary parliament should have paid to his heirs the pension granted by a king. Nor has another century of change in France blotted out his name and fame. The Montcalm was the French flagship at the naval review held in honour of the coronation of King Edward VII. The Montcalm took the President of France to greet his ally the Czar of Russia. And, but for a call of duty elsewhere at the time, the Montcalm would have flown the French admiral's flag in 1908, at the celebration of the Tercentenary of the founding of Quebec, when King George V led the French- and English-speaking peoples of the world in doing honour to the twin renown of Wolfe and Montcalm on the field where they won equal glory, though unequal fortune.
Montcalm was a leap-year baby, having been born on February 29, 1712, in the family castle of Candiac, near Nimes, a very old city of the south of France, a city with many forts built by the Romans two thousand years ago. He came by almost as much good soldier blood on his mother's side as on his father's, for she was one of the Castellanes, with numbers of heroic ancestors, extending back to the First Crusade.
The Montcalms had never been rich. They had many heroes but no millionaires. Yet they were well known and well loved for their kindness to all the people on their estates; and so generous to every one in trouble, and so ready to spend their money as well as their lives for the sake of king and country, that they never could have made great fortunes, even had their estate been ten times as large as it was. Accordingly, while they were famous and honoured all over France, they had to be very careful about spending money on themselves. They all--and our own Montcalm in particular--spent much more in serving their country than their country ever spent in paying them to serve it.
Montcalm was a delicate little boy of six when he first went to school. He had many schoolboy faults. He found it hard to keep quiet or to pay attention to his teacher; he was backward in French grammar; and he wrote a very bad hand. Many a letter of complaint was sent to his father. 'It seems to me,' writes the teacher, 'that his handwriting is getting worse than ever. I show him, again and again, how to hold his pen; but he will not do it properly. I think he ought to try to make up for his want of cleverness by being more docile, taking more pains, and listening to my advice.' And then poor old Dumas would end with an exclamation of despair--'What will become of him!'
Dumas had another pupil who was much more to his taste. This was Montcalm's younger brother, Jean, who knew his letters before he was three, read Latin when he was five, and Greek and Hebrew when he was six. Dumas was so proud of this infant prodigy that he took him to Paris and showed him off to the learned men of the day, who were dumbfounded at so much knowledge in so young a boy. All this, however, was too much for a youthful brain; and poor Jean died at the age of seven.
Dumas then turned sadly to the elder boy, who was in no danger of being killed by too much study, and soon renewed his complaints. At last Montcalm, now sixteen and already an officer, could bear it no longer, and wrote to his father telling him that in spite of his supposed stupidity he had serious aims. 'I want to be, first, a man of honour, brave, and a good Christian. Secondly, I want to read moderately; to know as much Greek and Latin as other men; also arithmetic, history, geography, literature, and some art and science. Thirdly, I want to be obedient to you and my dear mother; and listen to Mr Dumas's advice. Lastly, I want to manage a horse and handle a sword as well as ever I can.' The result of it all was that Montcalm became a good Latin scholar, a very well read man, an excellent horseman and swordsman, and--to dominie Dumas's eternal confusion--such a master of French that he might have been as great an author as he was a soldier. His letters and dispatches from the seat of war remind one of Caesar's. He wrote like a man who sees into the heart of things and goes straight to the point with the fewest words which will express exactly what he wishes to say. In this he was like Wolfe, and like many another great soldier whose quick eye, cool head and warm heart, all working together in the service of his country, give him a command over words which often equals his command over men.
In 1727, the year Wolfe was born, Montcalm joined his father's regiment as an ensign. Presently, in 1733, the French and Germans fell out over the naming of a king for Poland. Montcalm went to the front and had what French soldiers call his 'baptism of fire.' This war gave him little chance of learning how great battles should be fought. But he saw two sieges; he kept his eyes open to everything that happened; and, even in camp, he did not forget his studies. 'I am learning German,' he wrote home, 'and I am reading more Greek than I have read for three or four years.'
The death of his father in 1735 made him the head of the family of Montcalm. The next year he married Angelique Talon du Boulay, a member of a military family, and grand-daughter of Denis Talon; a kinsman of Jean Talon, the best intendant who ever served New France. For the next twenty years, from 1736 to 1756, he spent in his ancestral castle of Candiac as much of his time as he could spare from the army. There he had been born, and there he always hoped he could live and die among his own people after his wars were over. How often he was to sigh for one look at his pleasant olive groves when he was far away, upholding the honour of France against great British odds and, far worse, against secret enemies on the French side in the dying colony across the sea! But for the present all this was far off. Meanwhile, Candiac was a very happy home; and Montcalm's wife and his mother made it the happier by living together under the same roof. In course of time ten children were born, all in the family chateau.
Montcalm's second war was the War of the Austrian Succession, a war in which his younger opponent Wolfe saw active service for the first time. The two future opponents in Canada never met, however, on the same battlefields in Europe. In 1741, the year in which Wolfe received his first commission, Montcalm fought so well in Bohemia that he was made a Knight of St Louis. Two years later, at the age of thirty-one, he was promoted to the command of a regiment which he led through three severe campaigns in Italy. During the third campaign, in 1746, there was a terrific fight against the Austrians under the walls of Placentia. So furious was the Austrian attack that the French army was almost destroyed. Twice
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