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on 8 July 2013
It is often difficult to find books on the AWI from a British perspective. As you would expect for a history that is now largely unknown in the UK, not taught in schools and barely appreciated by the majority of the population. It is often difficult to find anything outside the norm of American historical studies, that for all their relevance to American history see the conflict in isolation rather than the context of the European and world conflict that the British government had to consider it from. Andrew O'shaughnessy a British academic in Virginia (beautiful place if you ever get the chance to visit), has written a potted biography of the ten most important British protagonists; politicians, soldiers and naval officers. It gives a view of their actions that does not disguise the in-fighting, destructive politicing and sometimes vainglorious adventurism that characterised this war, but neither does it denigrate them as people or their military exploits, both successful and disastrous.

The key American figures are little more than ciphers in this narrative and although the context of the seven years war which was so formative, is alluded to it is not covered in any detail. Nevertheless this a brilliant piece of historical research and writing. The battles in parliament often being from my pespective more riveting than those on the battlefield. The petty and professional jealousies between Cornwallis and Clinton, Carleton and Burgoyne, the Howe Brothers and the quite extraordinary Admiral Rodney, make for an education in late 18th century politics, military fortitude and chaos that nowadays would be regarded as close to professional anarchy. The British may have won most of the engagements, but their misunderstanding of the narrowness of loyalist political support and the rising popularity of nascent American nationalism led to frustration, disgust and an anxiety to be rid the whole adventure. Once the French entered the war (whatever Americans may think, they were acting on their own behalf, rather than with any great sympathy for independence) and subsequently the Spanish and with support from Dutch finance, there was simply no way that Britain could sustain and win such a war. They could win battles but not hold territory. American military resistance although fluctuating to the point of almost total disappearance sustained enough depth, purpose and potency to win victories beyond what was expected of them.

These portraits humanise the protagonists , show their agonies of choice, personal and political doubts and compromises and their perosonalities, some sympathetic, others especially Rodney quite loathesome.

In the end this was a war incapable of being won with the resources available and if the rest of Britain's then empire was to be preserved. And do you know what, this was a good war to lose. The thought of an occupation force in America brutalised and brutalising would have been even more vicious and soul destroying than any of the vagaries of the war itself.

Highly recommended.
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on 13 June 2014
This is a series of essays on the key people whose decisions could be said to have lost the American colonies - King George III, General Corwallis, Pitt the Elder, Lord North etc. It is very well written and fairly readable but as a book for the non-academic it has some serious disadvantages.

Firstly, the author assumes that the reader already has a fairly good knowledge of the American War of Independence. This book does not contain such a history. I felt rather lost without one. When the author refers to events, it is difficult to appreciate their significance, their place in the story. The book contains 8 maps, but these are disappointingly bare sketches and not very detailed.

Secondly, the collection of essays does not form a continuous narrative. The essays look at mostly the same events from different perspectives, but they do not compare and contrast. They could (probably) stand alone.

Thirdly, each essay itself does not follow a continuous historical narrative but instead critically reconsiders the arguments for and against the culpability of each of the protagonists. The similar structure and purpose of each chapter becomes a little repetitive.

The book is too obviously academic. I cannot help thinking that it would be far more popular (ie more readable) if the content were re-cast into a single historical narrative.

Having made these criticisms, I have to say that the book is nevertheless wonderfully informative and packed with historical detail. The descriptions of battles and campaigns are tantalizing. The reality of the war is shown to be far more complex than the conventional view of it as the idealistic struggle of a fledgling republic for freedom from imperial despotism. The characters are brought to life marvellously. For example, the anguish of the amiable Lord North, burdened with having to try to satisfy too many conflicting interests, and desperate to retire but unable to do so.

I didn't manage to finish the book. The similar academic style and format, repeated chapter after chapter, is tiring. The strength of this format is that you really do get inside each character, understand their motives, appreciate their difficulties and the choices they were forced to make. I definitely want to finish it and read it again.
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on 27 December 2013
As someone who grew up 20 miles from the Saratoga and Bennington battlefields, this book was a thought-provoking view of the "other" side of the story. As such, the first chapter I read was the one on Burgoyne! However, what really interested me was the description of the war in the South. I don't think enough emphasis is placed on this in US histories, even though Washington and Jefferson were both Virginians.
As other reviewers have noted, it's helpful to have some knowledge of the period, particularly regarding the growth of the British Empire and the concurrent political and economic rivalry with France.
In sum, a really well-written book about a fascinating period of history.
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'Your failure is, I am persuaded, as certain as fate. America is above your reach...her independence neither rests upon your consent, nor can it be prevented by your arms. In short, you spend your substance in vain, and impoverish yourself without hope.'

Thomas Paine, "To the People of England," 1774

In this scholarly but very accessible book, O'Shaughnessy takes the view that Britain's loss was not inevitable, and that in most cases the commanders and political leaders were scapegoated for the failure. He does this by taking a biographical look at the main players, political and military, on the British side; and showing the constraints that contributed to their defeat. As a non-historian, I make my usual disclaimer that I can't comment on the historical accuracy of the book.

I always enjoy biographical history and so the format of this book was perfect for me. Each section concentrates on one person (except for the Howe brothers, when O'Shaughnessy combines their stories). O'Shaughnessy tops and tails each biography with brief summaries of the person's life and career before and after the war, but the bulk of each section concentrates on the involvement in the war itself. In each case, he explains the reasons behind any successes or failures and, as the book progresses, common themes emerge.

The British system of government at the time led to divided responsibilities and thus to in-fighting between ambitious men. George III still had more power than a modern monarch would, especially in terms of patronage, and therefore interfered in the management of the war. The opposition was powerful and the government could never be sure of parliamentary support. There were budgetary constraints since Britain already had a high national debt. The distances involved led to continual problems with supplies and the supply chain, and for most of the war the British Navy (to my surprise) did not 'rule the waves' but indeed was inferior to the combined French/Spanish fleets it was facing. But perhaps most importantly of all, there was a belief that the rebels did not have the support of the majority of Americans and this led the British to place too much reliance on loyalist support which never materialised in the numbers anticipated. This belief persisted throughout despite the increasing evidence to the contrary.

I'm not sure that O'Shaughnessy convinced me that the British could have won the war. In fact, as I read, I became convinced that so many things would have had to be different to make winning a possibility that it actually surprised me that the commanders achieved the levels of success they did. So O'Shaughnessy certainly succeeded in his other aim - to show that the commanders as individuals have, on the whole, been unfairly blamed for the failures. (Except Sir George Rodney - Guilty! Guilty! Off with his head!!)

The book is very well written, and is both informative and enjoyable. There are a generous number of colour plates, mainly of portraits of the leaders discussed. My only complaint is that the scope of the book means that, though I'm now much better informed about the British side of the war, I remain almost entirely ignorant of the American side, so I sincerely hope that O'Shaughnessy is working on a companion book on The Men Who Won.

NB This book was provided for review by the publishers.
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on 2 November 2013
After I bought the kindle version of this book i had doubts about it particularly when I realised it was written by an American - but all doubts went when I started to read it. Well written, well constructed and easily read - some prior knowledge of that part of history was handy but not essential. The author has managed to avoid taking sides and doesn't make the mistakes evident in Mel Gibson's film a few years ago.
As often with modern history books it drags a little towards the end - almost as though a certain number of words were required by the publisher - but stll a good read.
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on 29 September 2013
A great intelligent read, detailed but not too difficult. Unusual view of the American revolutionary war but thankfully unbiased. Reading history I like to know what the main characters are REALLY like (I'm not fond of Hero's) and was surprised by Admiral Rodney's behaviour, always in debt hiding in France of all places to avoid his creditors & the barbaric treatment of the people of St. Eustatius. Rodney is famous for his great victory over De Grasse at the Saintes in 1782 but was absent the previous year when the French Admiral obstructed the British fleet at the little known Battle of the Chesapeake Capes 1781, a naval encounter that turned out to have tremendous importance in the American war . If your interested in the American Revolution this book will surprise & entertain you.
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on 13 February 2014
The political background in Britain to the problems in the American Colonies is very well-described and evocative. There are so many resonances with recent failed British foreign military adventures that it makes you wonder if any politician reads and understands the lessons of history!

I read this on Kindle which means that there is limited ability to reference illustrations and maps. If you have the shelf-space then buy a hard copy.
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on 12 September 2014
Brilliantly researched, well written with a good understanding of men, motives and politics. Great price and service from Amazon.
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on 12 February 2015
Elegantly written and meticulously researched, a fascinating book which represents history writing at its very best.
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on 30 May 2014
Other than a broad-brush knowledge of the events, not really a period I have read much about but heard O'Shaughnessy won numerous awards so decided to try it out and was delighted I did. All the usual comments - very well written, informative, sorry it ended. It really has made me want to read more widely about the era and characters.
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