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Globe writer Ian Brown dresses up in 18th-century British regalia on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec: 'It felt surprisingly grave.' (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon - info@francisvachon.com)
Globe writer Ian Brown dresses up in 18th-century British regalia on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec: 'It felt surprisingly grave.' (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon - info@francisvachon.com)

Globe Focus

In Wolfe's clothing Add to ...

He now leads tours and teaches the British part of Quebec's history to aspiring tour guides. At 67, an avid re-enactor and historian, he still doesn't feel entirely comfortable in the city (whether because of his "Tarzan French" or simply because he's English, he's not sure).

However interested you may be in the English victory on the Plains in 1759, Mr. Hunkin will remind you the French won the rematch at Ste. Foy the following year (the Quebec City group was planning to re-enact that battle as well) - and that if French ships had arrived the following spring ahead of British ones, the history of Canada might have been different.

He'll show you Wolfe's much-defaced monument, and then he'll show you Montcalm's (whose mausoleum, in classic cheeseball Quebec Catholic style, resembles the front end of a Cadillac Escalade). He'll take you to Montmorency Falls, where Wolfe's initial failure to oust the French inspired his bitter order to burn every farm between Quebec and Kamouraska.

Wolfe's campaign intensified after that, becoming ever more quixotic. Montcalm might even have avoided defeat on the Plains of Abraham had he simply stayed inside the walls of Quebec City and waited for winter to drive the English away. But Montcalm had never commanded a battle on his own, without supervision - that's how much France cared about its colony - and his inexperience cost him.

It probably didn't help that the British dropped as many as 60,000 cannonballs and firebombs on the city in the course of two months, roughly a thousand a day, or more than 40 an hour, virtually razing it.

It's a bottomless story, made more fascinating by the fact that Wolfe and Montcalm were equally hapless tacticians: It's a miracle either of them managed to win. The battle was the endpoint of a global conflict France and Britain had been fighting all over Europe as well as in Africa and India. This was history's first world war. Wolfe, at least, seems to have grasped that context.

We walked over to the Plains themselves, or at least the third of the original farmer's field that remains today - past the place where Céline Dion staged a concert last spring after she complained that Paul McCartney (the Brit) had a bigger venue than she did, and past the spot where British soldiers rolled a rock to mark the spot where Wolfe received his fatal wound, to Wolfe's Hill.

There, surrounded by sunbathing Quebecois and couples engaged in public French kissing (I saw more tonsil tennis in Quebec in two days than I have in 10 years in English Canada), anyone can contemplate the strip of path and grass where regiments of French regulars met Wolfe's famous thin red line - a mile long, staggered front and back, with spaces between each man to allow for continuous firing.

This is where the two sides stood, 30 yards apart with muskets accurate to 100 yards, and, after the command "Ready, present, fire" (they didn't say "aim"), tried to obliterate each other, packing two balls into every musket charge.

Eight hundred people died here. The re-enactors had planned a minute's silence at the end of the battle to commemorate the dead.

Wolfe's Hill was where I tried on Mr. Hunkin's red and blue re-enactor's tunic - the uniform of the 60th Royal Americans, who were fighting with the British - and his tricorne hat. He told me to cock it over my left eye.

I realize it sounds absurd, but I suddenly imagined I knew what it felt like to have a destiny. I knew how my character's "life" turned out and down from here, after all. The foreknowledge was sobering.

Re-enactors admit to feeling these things all the time. They get dressed up in the uniform of someone who died fighting for a cause, and suddenly remember that life is serious, and that history isn't reversible. Those are easy things to forget in an age of technological ease.

Could that be why re-enacting is booming these days? Because people long for some hands-on reality, and the past lets them touch it without apology?

There are at least 60,000 re-enactors in North America now, and the number seems to be growing at a time when, with Iraq and Afghanistan, war has become a part of life again. An astonishing number of politically charged battles are regularly restaged: Catholic-killing Culloden in Scotland (where Wolfe fought and famously refused an order to execute a wounded highlander), Waterloo, D-Day (especially tank skirmishes), even Vietnam.

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