On the 2nd January 1727 one of Britain’s greatest military heroes, James Wolfe was born. He became an army officer known for his training reforms but remembered chiefly for his victory over the French in Canada. The son of a distinguished general, he received his first commission at a young age and saw extensive service in Europe where he fought during the War of the Austrian Succession. His service in Flanders and in Scotland, where he took part in the suppression of the Jacobite Rebellion, brought him to the attention of his superiors.
The outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1756 offered Wolfe fresh opportunities for advancement. His part in the aborted attack on Rochefort in 1757 led to his appointment as second-in-command of an expedition to capture Louisbourg. Following the success of this operation he was made commander of a force designated to sail up the Saint Lawrence River to capture Quebec. After a lengthy siege Wolfe defeated a French force under Montcalm allowing British forces to capture the city but he was killed at the height of the battle by a French cannon shot.
This fact reminded me of a book that my dad gave to me when I was a young boy. It was one of his own that he had had as a young lad, it was printed during the second world war sometime between 1941 and 1945 and was reproduced on thick low quality yellowing paper and it was called the ‘The Boy’s Book of Heroes’ and naturally Wolfe was included in a chapter called ‘Heroes of the Empire’, which also included Robert Clive, Duke of Wellington and Horatio Nelson. The reason that I can date it reasonably accurately is because the chapter on Douglas Bader states that that at the time he was in a prisoner of war camp in Germany.
Dad loved history and always had books and stories to share with me the tales of the past and I know that he passed down his interest to me and this led directly to me developing my own interest and ultimately to studying and gaining a degree in history at Cardiff University in 1975.
I think that few would argue that Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was probably the greatest Briton of all time. I know that I can say this with some confidence because in 2002 the BBC conducted a nationwide poll to identify who the public thought this was. The result was a foregone conclusion and Churchill topped the poll with 28% of the votes. The BBC project first identified the top one hundred candidates and the final vote was between the top ten. Second in the poll was the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel who received nearly 25% of the votes.
There were eleven Kings and Queens and eleven politicians, ten military heroes, eight inventors and seven scientists. This is what I would expect but then there were eight pop musicians including Boy George! Now, surely there must be dozens of people who could be more appropriately included on the list than that. Even if you do accept that pop stars are great Britons what is even more unbelievable is that Boy George beat Sir Cliff Richard by seven places! John, Paul and George were included in the eight but there was no place for Ringo, which doesn’t seem very fair. Enoch Powell was one of the politicians and he was a raging racist. Richard III is in but not Henry VII.
There is an issue of equality because of the one hundred only thirteen were women and I can’t help feeling that there must be more than that. Here are some suggestions of mine; the prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry, the philanthropist Octavia Hill, the pioneering aviator, Amy Johnson, the nineteenth century gardener, Gertrude Jeckyl and the very embodiment of Britishness, Britannia herself. Interestingly this inequality isn’t something new because in the ‘The Boy’s Book of Heroes’ all of the fifty-five people included were men but inside the book it did make reference to a companion volume called ‘The Girl’s Book of Heroines’, which was nice but I can’t help wondering why they had to be kept apart like this?
I have still got the book and hope to pass it on one day to someone who will appreciate its value just as much as I do. All of the pictures here are from the book.