The Québecois produce the most remarkable stories. I’m only here a couple of days and – bingo! – old Bill Fisk’s ghost awakes me once more. From the age of five, I would be forced to listen to Bill’s recitation of English history and, far too often, of the courage of General James Wolfe.
I think that the idea of a battle called the Plains of Abraham sounded somehow romantic to him – it certainly did when Wolfe died there while defeating the French outside Quebec in 1759 – though Bill had never been to Canada in his life. It didn’t matter. I was forced to learn Wolfe’s last words as he learned he had defeated the French army of the Marquis de Montcalm and consolidated British rule in North America. “Now God be praised, I will die in peace,” he murmured. (At least, murmuring is how he faded away in Churchill’s The Age of Revolution.) Montcalm was also mortally wounded.
But I should have guessed that the 250th anniversary of this death blow to French rule would not pass without controversy in the Canadian province of Quebec. The National Battlefields Commission, a federal agency – and thus, in the eyes of the Québecois, General Wolfe’s personal public relations outfit – had scheduled a re-enactment of the Plains of Abraham battle for this summer, all feathered hats and muskets pop-popping and cannons roaring and kids licking ice cream. I find these things stiflingly awful, but they are popular. We stage the same shenanigans at Hastings and Naseby and various other bloody battlefields in Britain. Needless to say, William always comes out on top at Hastings and Cromwell has a habit of winning the English civil war.
Alas, things are not that simple on the Plains of Abraham. For the Parti Québecois and the Bloc Québecois successfully demanded that the whole three-day fandango be cancelled because they regarded it as a federalist effort to humiliate Quebec by celebrating the end of French rule in Canada.
It makes you feel sorry for Montcalm, let alone Wolfe. The series of re-enactments of America’s Seven Years War has already included a French victory (with another one to be commemorated at Ste-Foy). Besides, many of the “English” and “French” soldiers who would have turned up for the Abraham shoot-out are actually US citizens who also enjoy restaging Gettysburg every summer (where, needless to say, the Confederates always lose and the Union always wins).
Canada being Canada, of course, all the usual suspects lined up to shout for their cause. The Toronto Globe and Mail – whose writers sometimes give the impression that they would like to ship all non-Anglo-Saxon Canadians back to where they came from – announced that the show must go on and “that separatists would block the show only illustrates the depths of their insecurity.” The Quebec mayor, it should be added, realised that the battle’s re-enactment was about history rather than politics. “I’m a little tired of hearing talk of defeat,” he said.
Needless to say, the imperishable complaints of the politically correct opponents made it almost worth the row. One, a member of Quebec’s anglophone minority, announced that the tourist version of the Abraham battle this summer would re-enact “military dominance over a historically oppressed group”, an act which “is both morally reprehensible and likely to cause anger, division, resentment and possibly violence”.
Wow. Who knows what Saxon sensitivities will be awoken when William of Normandy next lands on Sussex’s beaches? Or when the Orangemen and Catholics next clash at the Boyne – I absolutely assure both sides that King Billy will win – what sectarian battles will restart in Belfast? Maybe the next re-enactment of the American civil war’s most decisive battle will be staged without the Gettysburg address. There’s even a regular restaging of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo in which French dragoons always get trounced by the Brits. But year after year, each June, the French come back for more.
Of course, there are limits. The re-enactment of Waterloo leaves out the scenes of carnage when the French corpses were shipped off to England as fertiliser for East Anglia. And if the Boyne is fair game, no one in Ireland is recommending the restaging of the siege and massacre of the civilians of Drogheda. Seventeenth century it may be – but it’s still a little close for comfort. Let’s keep Cromwell for the English civil war.
Naturally, most re-enactments are left to the cinema or television or the stage or to novels. The Second World War is still out of bounds. We might re-enact Dad’s Army for local theatre, but restaging the Normandy invasion would still be inappropriate. No one expects the Russians and Germans to gather for a bit of theatrical re-biffing at Stalingrad. The capture of Singapore, the rape of Nanking, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are out of bounds. And I doubt if anyone wants to fly an old Lancaster down the Elbe so that the citizens of Dresden can enjoy a day out pretending to die in the 1945 firestorm.
But the Plains of Abraham? This is preposterous. Montcalm no doubt regretted that Wolfe found a way of leading his 5,000 Brits up the sheer face of the Heights – where he least expected them – but it was a fair fight. Not so the battle to restage it. The Canadian National Battlefields Commission caved in and cancelled the lot. There will be no re-enactment, no banging cannons and ice creams. Now there are demands to rid Quebec of its James Wolfe statues. What next? The Québecois just don’t want Wolfe to rest in peace. Maybe they should do what the French used to do at Waterloo: pretend that they won.