It has taken me a long time to read this book – it’s quite substantial, and I had a little pause in the middle – but I think it’s one of the most remarkable history books I have ever read.
The battles of the Seven Years War encompassed chiefly India, Germany, France, the West Indies, Portugal and North America, particularly from what is now New York State up into the Lakes and Canada. These battles were fought on land, and, crucially the sea. Daniel Baugh made his name as a historian of the navy and his understanding of the role of the navy not only in naval warfare but in the logistics of global warfare in the eighteenth century is crucial.
I came to this book after having seen the film ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, and then having read the book. The film is great, but bears little relation to the book. The book is first and foremost a detailed study of the culture of the American Indian tribes during the war, and the influence of the Europeans and the situation of war on them. Wanting to understand all this better, I came to this book.
Britain struggled at first in the battles in North America, having much less experience of the contested territory than the French, and less sophisticated relations with the Indians, who were given to changing sides; mostly, it seems – and this is echoed by Cooper – because they knew they were outgunned by the whites and needed to know which side their bread was buttered on.
The genius of this book is in its understanding of the logistics of war in an age before telegraphy. By logistics I mean the chain of command from the British cabinet and the extremely dissociated French government, to the management of the navies, to the security of transatlantic voyages whether conveying military personnel or provisions, the management of decision-making given the timescales involved, the choice of key military leaders, and in North America, the gradual learning process by both countries of managing a conflict in difficult terrain.
Regarding the politicians, I have read a number of books on Pitt the Elder, and this is one of the best. The author appears to have gone through the documents of the time with a toothcomb and tries to demystify some of the prejudices about this man who was a hero to the people and capable of massively influencing government policy even in opposition, such was the weight of his consideration and oratory.
In particular Baugh makes much of the ways in which Pitt, Newcastle and Hardwicke complemented each other.
As I said, Baugh made his name writing books about the development of the British navy, and some of the most memorable parts of this book describe the extraordinary achievements of the British navy taking Minorca, Belle Isle, Martinique and Havana. The detail, from an engineering perspective, of what is involved in storming a massive fortification from the sea, is fantastic.
One caution I would give about this book, is that while the attention given to the interplay between the political and military figures is exhaustive, thoughtful, and offering perspective at all times; it should not be assumed that Mr Baugh regards it as his job to offer background. You are not going to learn about the condition of the French peasantry, or exactly why the French finances were in the mess they were, or why the British political system allowed it to manage the war so well, or at least not in any detail. Nor are you going to get any kind of recap of the European history of the previous half century to see where the war came from. A certain familiarity with the course of European history is assumed.
The Global Seven Years War 1754-1763, Daniel Baugh, Longman, 2011, 736pp (+xvi)
This is a detailed, interesting and very readable book on the `global' aspect of the Seven Years War, or, to be quite clear, the Anglo-French Seven Years War. It does not deal in detail with the European Seven Years War involving Prussia and Austria, and their respective allies, except where the diplomatic aspects involve or affect the Anglo-French struggle; though the campaigns of His Britannic Majesty's Army in Germany in defence of Hanover is included.
From the Author's Preface:
"... however, the number of land battles in this war was quite small and the troop numbers involved were usually quite limited. In the naval war there were only six fleet engagements: three in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, three in the Indian Ocean. The battles mattered - some may be called decisive - but this book will also pay close attention to the challenges of mounting expeditions and sustaining lengthy campaigns in difficult circumstances. In the British case there was also the challenge of maintaining supremacy at sea, and in the French case of trying to avoid its consequences. This was a war in which strategic and operational planning, careful logistical preparation, and adaptation to unfamiliar campaigning conditions were absolutely necessary for success."
"I have chosen to tell the story of the war chronologically while making allowance for the fact that campaigns were going on simultaneously worldwide. My plan from the beginning was to examine both sides. The narrative tries not to presume that what happened had to happen. Instead, it seeks to present the circumstances and mixture of considerations in which decisions were made. Those who were engaged in making the decisions are quoted in their own words where possible."
The Contents are -
P017: Statesmen and regimes
P035: Origin of the contested regions, 1748-54
P073: Risking war, 1754-55
P111: War without declaration: North America, 1755
P141: Indecision in Europe: May to December 1755
P169: French triumphs, British blunders, 1756
P213: France's new war plans, 1756-57
P271: The tide turns, 1758
P319: The Atlantic and North America, 1758
P377: The West Indies and North America, 1759
P421: The British victory at sea, 1759
P453: Britain conquers afar, disunity looms at home
P511: The chance of peace, 1761
P559: Peacemaking, 1762: concessions before conquests
P621: Conclusion and aftermath
P667: Abbreviations and short titles
P673: Notes on sources
With 17 maps.
As far as I am concerned, the Author has delivered on his promise in his Preface quoted above. I found this a fascinating narrative of the war. It is much concerned with affairs in America, but this is because a lot happened in America, as the conflict had one of its sources in the problems arising from the peace that settled (or failed to settle) the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748. It does indeed show us the problems of campaigning in the wilderness areas of North America - and of campaigning in India and Western Germany also. We also get to see the politicians and diplomats at work, along with the workings of the cabinets and leaders of both sides, as well as the serious structural differences between the way the French and the British governments worked.
on 10 February 2016
At 665 pages (excluding source notes and index) I wondered whether this might be a bit hard going. Not a bit. From the first page it was eminently readable.
My area of interest is the British Empire and having recently been to the States, thought I should really brush up on American history too. I thought starting with the War of Independence would be a good bet, but then decided (having read various reviews on Amazon) that starting with the Seven Years War would be a good introduction to the War of Independence. I'm so glad I did! In America this is known as the Indian French War, but that relates just to the American campaign. What this book is so good at is putting the Anglo-French contest in its proper global setting. North America and Canada are part of this story, as are the West Indies, but George II was Elector of Hanover still and so had continental responsibilities in the war in Europe, not to mention competition in India between the French and the British East India Company. As such, apart from the history of how such settlements arose, this war can easily been seen as sowing the seeds of the British Empire since by the end of it, Britain had control of the east coast of America, Canada, and had effectively driven the French out of India.
For those more interested in European history, reading about the War of the Austrian Succession might set the scene for the Seven Years War, but this book stands perfectly well on its own. What is remarkable is the way personalities made such a difference when I had naively thought interactions between governments would have been above all that. Not a bit of it! The Empress of Austria hated Frederick of Prussia, and Prussia also had poor relations with Russia. Then there's a new Tsar and Prussia is flavour of the month! Similarly, with the death of George II, George III seems to have been much less interested in his Hanoverian possessions. He also had strong dislikes when it came to the Government he inherited and the changes he made, most notably elevating his friend Lord Bute, certainly led to a poorer peace settlement than Pitt would have achieved. When Bute eventually resigned after a scandal, the King appoint Grenville because he was afraid the better alternatives would open an enquiry on Bute, and Grenville's actions through the Sugar Tax and Stamp Tax can be seen to lead directly to the War of Independence.
Anyway, all this is to show that the book deals with the personalities and politics of what was going on beneath the surface, which makes it all the more fascinating. Battles are covered, but generally in fairly broad brush detail. If you're not interested in the fact that the right flank did this whilst the left flank did that (which I'm not), this amount of detail is just right. Notable events are detailed and then you get the outcome and head counts of dead and injured. As an interesting aside, you really see how much influence disease played - far more important on the numbers of men fielded than you'd expect.
Although Britain got off to a bad start, it could almost be seen that she couldn't lose. Once maritime power was assured then the end was fairly inevitable. Britain had a far better developed financial system than France and so, although it cost Britain more to wage war, there was ample supply of money via credit in London, and because of sea power, Britain continued to trade throughout the war. In contrast, France essentially ran out of money and had to seek peace as a result.
My only criticism, and it's very slight, is that more maps would have been useful. There are about half a dozen scattered through the book, but often they don't show all the places they're talking about in the related text (and I think there may be an error with duplicated place names on one). In North America, modern towns are named on the sites of historic events, but being English they didn't mean much to me - I'd have needed an atlas to hand.
Unfortunately I can't see that Daniel Baugh has written anything else otherwise I'd be buying that too, whether I was initially interested in the subject matter or not!