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Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783 Paperback – 31 Jul 2008

4 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 832 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (31 July 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140289844
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140289848
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 3.6 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 340,201 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

'Immaculately researched, lucidly written ... brilliant' -- John Brewer, Sunday Times

'Inspiringly ambitious ... No one interested in empire should miss this' -- Ruth Scurr, Times, Books of the Year

'This will be a hard book to ignore ... clearly this author is not a man to run away from controversy'
-- Leslie Mitchell, Literary Review

Review

'Immaculately researched, lucidly written ... brilliant'

See all Product Description

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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is not a book that you will read in one go. Reason for this is, that we are not dealing with events but with a 700-page analysis of events that the reader is considered to be already fairly familiar with. Since these events concern the ever-shifting alliances from 1700 to 1783 between France, Russia, Austria, England, Hanover and the many other German principalities plus the different approaches to them by the Georges, the Whigs and Tories respectively, you can understand that without a basic knowledge knowledge of 18th century European history this book will give you a hard time. The "defeat" (the loss of the American colonies) is again, an analysis of the reason for British taxes and American complaints and how shifting alliances influenced the actions of other countries vis-a-vis this conflict, not a description of the liberation war itself.

Although mr. Simms has taken a lot of trouble to keep this book as accessible as possible for a more general readership, I consider this book mainly of interest to the serious students of this period. This group of readers will find solid and thought-provoking analysis, well written.
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A comprehensive diplomatic history of most of the 18th century, from a British perspective. Mr. Simms' main thesis is that Britain's rise to great power status during this period was predicated on Britain's ability to use alliances with European powers to its advantage. By investing military effort and/or monetary resources (subisidies) in its alliances on the continent, Britain was able to tie up its main adversary France in land war, which was crucial to enabling Britain to dominate on sea.

As Simms points out, this engagement with the Continent was such that throughout the 18th century when British politicians talked about 'the Empire' it would be the Holy Roman one, not the British overseas empire. His analysis debunks the general belief that its continental partners (including the Hannoverian Personal Union) were merely a drain on resources. In fact, they were a crucial force multiplier that enabled Britain to focus on naval domination and overseas expansion.
This point is proven by the contrast between the Victories (War of the Spanish and Austrian Successions and the Seven Years' War) and the Defeat (the American War, in which Britain had no allies, enabling the French and Spanish Bourbons to focus entirely on naval warfare to the detriment of Britain).

As valid as this point may be, I have to agree with another reviewer that the reptitiveness with which this message is hammered down seriously detracts from what is otherwise a very good book. It just would have been much better at 300-odd pages (and a lot less repetition) than it it is now at almost 700 pages. On the positive side, I really liked the extensive coverage of the less well-known events from say 1713 to 1740. Finally, potential buyers should realise this is a diplomatic and political history rather than a military history; do not expect extensive coverage of battles and campaigns.
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Format: Paperback
The period covered by this book is one of the most formative in British history, but also one that is relatively ignored by history publishers at present, so I began reading with great hopes. Unfortunately, the author overcame all the potential of his material to make it unerringly slow and repetitive. The best writers make history read like a story, but Simms is no story-teller, and the resulting style is more akin to a university thesis. Rather than identifying the best quotation to succinctly make a point before moving on, he seems desperate to show the full extent of his comprehensive research. So we find quotation after quotation making essentially the same point. True, the number of primary sources that concur with the point does add further support to it, but the point is taken after a couple.

Indeed, Simms' tone is consistently argumentative, as if he feels the need to persuade his reader. So, like a student essay defending its stance, quite basic points - such as that Britain's foreign policy was initially more Eurocentric than Atlanticist - are reiterated ad nauseam, with many such paragraphs then concluding with the phrase "In summary" in order to then make the point again! As such, some of the initially interesting political rivalries are focused on to such an extent that they soon become an obstacle to the flow of the story itself, and progress is far too slow to be engaging. Other irritating idiosyncrasies include the cliched Irish colloquialism 'to be sure', used dozens of times throughout, but it's the repetitiveness of the arguments which really kill this book and stop it being the page-turner it deserves to be.
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No-one should obtain this book expecting to read accounts of 18th century wars. It focuses almost exclusively on diplomatic manoeuvres, before, during and after, the frequent wars in order to make a case that Britain prospered most when actively engaged in Europe and especially in Germany. The constant repetition of the main argument, backed by many quotations, in what is a long book, soon becomes tedious, and although some contrary views are presented, they are there only to be knocked down unceremoniously. The puzzling aspect is that although there was indeed fierce debate about navalist/colonial and continental strategies throughout the 18th century, the settled view now would surely be that the mix of the two, famously pursued by William Pitt, was most successful, and Simms does not dissent from this. There are a surprising number of errors in the book, some no doubt attributable to poor editing, but some which just happen to back the main thrust of the text. I will touch on one only; I am sure that the Earl of Danby and Bishop Compton of London will be spinning in their graves to be described as amongst the 7 ‘Whigs’ who invited William of Orange to come with an army to invade England; the former is often described as the 1st Tory. No doubt, the argument would gain if this and other tendentious assertions were true, but it really does not need such reinforcement. The volume of information in the book is great, and it is certainly well organised and smoothly presented, but did the book have to be so polemical?
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