Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Seven Years War, and the Ascension of Pitt the Elder

by Chuck Lovatt

In many ways The Seven Years War was merely an extension of The War of the Austrian Succession, which ended in 1748, at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle; the fact that it ended inconclusively virtually guaranteed further conflict. An uneasy truce lasted just a handful of years before The Seven Years War (or as it is known in the US, “The French and Indian War”) began.

In North America, New France and the British colonies along the eastern seaboard were both expanding into the Ohio Valley – the overcrowded British hungry for land, and the French in Canada wanting an overland connection from New France to the colony of Louisiana. Contact was made when a large Canadian force came upon a party of New Englanders building a fort near what is now downtown Pittsburgh. The New Englanders were expelled, and the French promptly built Fort Duquesne on the same site.

Shortly after the expulsion, a small party, consisting of a few dozen Canadians, commanded by the Sieur de Jumonville, was sent to warn off the British of any further incursions into what they considered their territory. A force of four hundred Virginia militia, under a young Lieutenant-Colonel, George Washington, was informed of the approach of this party, and subsequently ambushed them, killing ten, the Sieur de Jumonville being of that number. As a state of war did not yet exist between France and England, this became known as The Jumonville Incident.

The French learned of this outrage and sent out a sizeable force in pursuit. Washington, outnumbered, retreated to Fort Necessity, but was nonetheless forced to capitulate. He and what remained of his men, were sent packing, back over the Alleghenies, fortunate to have retained their scalps; all the more so as the officer who accepted his surrender was Jumonville’s brother.

And so, it was game on.

Braddock's Death
However, for the next three years, the ‘game’ did not go at all well for Britain. Although the next year, 1755, they did manage to capture Fort Beauséjour in the French Acadia (on the border of the present day Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia,) a major campaign against Fort Duquesne on the Ohio Valley, under General Braddock, met disaster on the Monongahela River – Braddock paying for the fiasco with his life.

The next year, 1756, hostilities were formally declared, and France promptly lay siege to Minorca. A relieving force from Britain, under Admiral Byng, subsequently got their noses bloodied, and returned to England in disgrace. As a sign of his disapproval, and pour encourager les autres, King George II had Byng put to death. The effects were not readily apparent, however, for Fort Oswego, in what is now Upstate New York, was the next to fall.

Fort William Henry
The next year, 1757, saw matters go from bad to worse. At Ile Royal (present day Cape Breton Island) an attempt to take the Fortress of Louisbourg was frustrated by a sizeable French fleet, and a hurricane that virtually crippled the armada of the would-be invaders. On the New York-Canadian frontier, Fort William Henry capitulated after a lengthy siege, and the subsequent massacre of over two hundred men, and the kidnapping of women and children, by Indians allied to the French, sent waves of anger throughout the Britain and her colonies.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Duke of Cumberland and his Hanoverians, met defeat at the Battle of Hastenback, leaving their ally, Prussia, open to invasion. In fact, the only good news to come from that year was Robert Clive’s victory in far off India, at the Battle of Plassey. However, although it would not become immediately apparent, the most important event was the fall of Newcastle’s government, and the rise of William Pitt (or The Great Commoner) to office.
One of Pitt’s more notable achievements was the reorganization of the army – promoting junior officers (who had shown their eagerness to fight) over more lethargic generals, regardless of seniority. Another was his disinclination to fight the war on the European continent, but to use the navy to his advantage, and hit the French where they were weakest, in their colonies.

Early the next year, in 1758, this strategy received a tremendous boost at the naval Battle of Cartagena. With the survivors of the French fleet bottled up in their ports (denying Versailles the ability to reinforce their overseas possessions), the Royal Navy was free to roam at will, and so they did.

Pacifying his European allies with a few brigades of reinforcements, and cash subsidies to keep their own armies in the field (thereby tying down the lion’s share of King Louis’ armies) Pitt now turned his attention overseas.

The first French colony to fall was Senegal in West Africa. On the North American seaboard, a second attempt was made on Louisbourg (which is, coincidentally, the subject of ‘Josiah Stubb,” my latest book [ahem!])* this time with success, thus opening the gateway to the St Lawrence River and Quebec.

Without any expectations of reinforcements from the mother country to meet this new threat, the French were forced to withdraw from the Ohio Valley, leaving Fort Duquesne to the mercy of the advancing British. Thus bringing the original cause of the war to a conclusion.

As good as was 1758, the next year would be even better, and would become known in Britain as the Annus Mirabilis.

The highly lucrative sugar island of Guadeloupe was the first to succumb in the West Indies. The naval battles of Lagos, and then again later, at Quiberon Bay put paid to the threat of a French invasion of Britain.

Next, on the continent, Britain and her allies achieved victory over the French at the Battle of Minden, and finally, on the other side of the Atlantic, Quebec fell following the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, leaving New France virtually unprotected. Montreal surrendered the next year, effectively putting an end to France as a power in North America.


Belle Ile was taken in 1761 - the first time in seven years of warfare that a part of France-proper had been invaded.

Another sugar island, Martinique, surrendered in 1762.

At this point, Spain, eager to maintain the balance of power in Europe, entered the war on the side of France and her allies… and promptly lost Cuba and the Philippines to the British.

At last, virtually bankrupt, France sued for peace at the Treaty of Paris. Spain ceded Florida and Minorca, but received Louisiana from King Louis in compensation. France gave up Canada for the return of her precious (and more easily and cheaper to defend) sugar islands.

In conclusion, the Seven Years War has been called the first World War for obvious reasons, although the same claim has been made of The War of the Austrian Succession, and other wars of the 18th century. Indeed, the entire century has been referred to as The Second Hundred Years War, and its results have been momentous.

For Britain, the gateway to India lay open, and for a short time she held sway over the greater part of North America, including the vast unknown landmass to the west. Even though she would lose her American colonies within another generation, this was the birth of the largest empire the world has ever seen.

For being the architect of this victory, William Pitt was given a pension of £3,000, and eventual ennoblement by a grateful king and nation.

In contrast, France, bankrupt and destitute, rife with discontent, faced the horrors of revolution, launching the world into another world war that, per capita, would be the bloodiest that the western world had ever known, the First and Second World Wars of the Twentieth Century notwithstanding.


*For more information on the siege of Louisbourg, and a ripping good yarn besides, check out the giveaway section of this blog for a free copy of my recently released book, “Josiah Stubb: The Siege of Louisbourg.” Here’s the blurb:

"It is 1758 and The Seven Years War is raging. The military might of the British and French empires collide in a desperate bid to control the key strategic Fortress of Louisbourg and, in turn, Quebec and French-held North America.

"One man caught amidst the bloodshed is the young grenadier, Josiah Stubb. Raised by a whore amidst poverty and incest, Josiah seemed doomed from birth to a life in the gutter. His attempt to leave his sordid past behind leads him to Louisbourg, but it comes back to haunt him in the form of a gifted officer, battling his own inner demons.

"As the siege blazes towards its inevitable bloody climax, will Josiah live to overcome the formidable obstacles that keep him chained to his past, or will his aspirations for a better life die with him on the brooding shores of Ile Royale?"

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