British Strategy Part 2

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> States >> Great Britain >> British strategy during the Seven Years' War >> Part 1

Foreword

This article is the second part of a dissertation originally submitted to King's College in London by Ewan B. Carmichael. It portrays the strategic issues of the Seven Years' War from the British point of view.

Part 2 – Narrative of Britain’s role in the Seven Years War

The West – Europe and America

As the Canadian conflict smouldered, it is all too easy to reflect with hindsight on Newcastle’s unconvincing opening shots compared to Pitt’s determination and resolve when the war was at its peak.48 This is, perhaps, an unfair comparison. There are many subsequent examples of British underinvestment in war effort during the early phases of a large war. Pitt’s blunt energy was in stark contrast with Newcastle’s prim approach, yet Newcastle’s strategic lines of development were broadly appropriate. His initial moves were reasonable and, if the energy he injected inadequate in reality, it certainly seemed proportionate for his perception of the challenge on the Ohio. The British were initially surprised by the aggressive initiative and the resourcefulness of the French Canadians and their native allies. Newcastle’s ‘strategic defensive’ from which an offensive might be later launched, his war of ‘limited object’ suggests that he did not anticipate unlimited war.

How was Britain to act? Would she act offensively or defensively? The decision was to opt for the latter. As it presented itself to Newcastle in 1754, the Ohio affair was a challenge to British citizens’ legitimate trade in that buffer zone. It was assumed that such a challenge could not possibly have stemmed from direct orders from France but, rather, as a result of misguided local initiative. Newcastle assumed that a stiff show of force would bring about a prompt denial from Versailles.49

If, on the other hand, France declared its open support for Duquesne, then the situation was entirely different and, as Newcastle perceptively, and anxiously, wrote to Albemarle, ‘We then begin the war’.50 This phrase captures the tragic recognition of the risk involved.

Early in 1755 Braddock sailed with 400 men, and a British naval squadron embarked to prevent a sizeable French force of 3,000 from putting in to America. This was designed to isolate Louisbourg. Today such acts would be considered nakedly aggressive, but in the 18th Century such Colonial operations were considered to be ‘hostile intercourse short of war’.51 To attack Louisbourg blatantly would have been a different matter altogether, a frank act of war. The skill and subtlety of Newcastle’s moves was that France could not take exception without admitting her own sins. Newcastle wrote to Albemarle, ‘You will try such a turn to these defensive measures as may make the French ministers ashamed to claim of them’.52

Newcastle’s initial gambit established the foundations of a broad strategic defensive from which an offensive could be launched relatively quickly. In the beginning Newcastle interpreted that any war arising would be of ‘limited object’, capturing some territory in North America.53 He did not yet anticipate an unlimited war. Later however, under Pitt, it would become just that – a war which would decide who out of Britain or France would emerge as a power.54 If Newcastle’s initial moves seem modest, it may be that Pitt’s heroic reputation became built on an almost unlimited object, that of the destruction of France as a maritime and colonial power.

Perplexingly, Britain’s early efforts failed. In July 1755 Braddock was defeated through ‘absurd adherence to European tactics’ at Monongahela.55 Further, the French fleet successfully evaded a block under Boscawen, made successful landfall and then returned to France. Yet another French squadron carried Montcalm and a further 1,000 troops from Brest, contributing to his seizing command of the Great Lakes, a vital precursor for further Canadian operations. Early in the conflict the French showed that they were certainly the equals, if not more than a match for, their British opponents in Canada and the Atlantic.

In November 1755, in the Commons, Pitt rounded on the Hanoverian foreign policy with its subsidy treaties. Emphasising the role of the Royal Navy, he was critical of the failure to make adequate provision for the defence of North America. He provided a notably Whiggish interpretation of the King’s position – that the King owed a supreme service to his people. Consequently he was sacked as Paymaster and his attacks in parliament made scant impact, although he reverted to his stance that the Ministry could not be trusted with either the country or its constitution Britain could not go to war without a guarantee of Hanoverian neutrality. Equally, Britain could not ensure Holland’s freedom from harm. If those could be made certain, Britain could restrict the war to the colonies and the oceans, both areas where Britain had a preponderance, then France could probably be forced to agree terms, but this view failed to take account of either Austria’s disdain for Britain’s previous lacklustre support or Britain’s inability to control Prussia’s atavistic ambition. Prussia under Frederick II was emerging as a European great power and a more promising and useful guarantor, initially at least, than Austria of Hanover’s security: Britain’s ‘continental sword’.56 The 1756 Convention of Westminster of 13 January tied Prussia in to Britain’s policy of defensive European alliances.57

Austria signed the First Treaty of Versailles with France on 1 May 1756. This ‘Diplomatic Revolution’ ruined Britain’s containment policy towards France and saw Austria, meant to be the protector of the Dutch ‘Barrier’, allied with the hostile camp.

The last war had hardly been over for 6 years and loomed large in the consciousness of European statesmen. At the same time, however, there was an unhealed rift between Prussia and Austria. Frederick of Prussia’s ambition, coupled with his almost feral sense of selfpreservation, was the new and almost unpredictable aspect. For Britain the colonial situation was now complicated by the growing crisis on the continent of Europe. The moment of the colonial dispute coming to a head happened to occur just as Frederick made a pre-emptive strike on Saxony to prevent an Austrian attempt to regain Silesia.58

War was formally declared between Britain and France on 17 May 1756.

Admiral Byng’s failure to prevent the French from capturing the British colony of Minorca in May 1756 provided a surprise reverse and an opening for Pitt to return to office as Secretary of State when the Duke of Devonshire’s Ministry preferred to have Pitt on its benches rather than be critically attacked by him. As a result, Pitt became the Government’s principal spokesman in the House of Commons. Byng’s court-martial and subsequent execution, on the grounds that he withdrew in the face of the enemy, reveals another factor, the effect of the London mob. The mob could be ugly, vociferous and aggressive. Angry that Byng’s failings would be covered up by his peers the mob, demanding a scapegoat, threatened, ‘Save Byng, and lose your King’.59

The crisis worsened as all the British forts and factories in Bengal were captured and Calcutta fell to Siraj-ud-Daulah. Worse was yet to come: a feint invasion from Europe was staged in the English Channel; and just as the overall situation seemed to be at its most dire at the end of 1756, Frederick of Prussia launched his Continental war and requested British naval assistance in the Baltic.

Pitt was too weak politically at this time to carry out his ‘Patriot’ programme, which was intended to block subsidy treaties which were meant to buy the support of Continental rulers. However, the speech which he wrote on behalf of the King, and which was delivered in Parliament on 2 December 1756 insisted that ‘the succour and preservation of America cannot but constitute a main object of my attention and solicitude’.60

Pitt’s main effort was to be North America. It was imperative to gain the upper hand in Canada and this could only be achieved through naval superiority which would protect and enable the safe passage of the Army. 12,000 troops sailed to invade Canada with an escort of 15 ships of the line. The first staging post was to be Halifax, from which the door to the St Lawrence, Louisbourg would be retaken. However, on leaving Halifax, the British force discovered a sizeable French fleet which had left Brest and Toulon and was blocking the route. The attack by sea was delayed. Simultaneously, Montcalm was exploiting his advantage and starting to squeeze the land routes to New York. More strenuous efforts were required and the power of the Royal Navy was exerted to protect the sea routes and tighten control of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Boscawen, now in command of the Canada Squadron, was strengthened. Off Cartagena Osbourn struck a blow at De la Clue’s reinforcements and the French Toulon Squadron. Hawke too dispersed yet another fleet in the Aix Roads. Off Halifax, the French squadron which had so successfully prevented the attack on Louisbourg lost its advantage by returning to France.61

In spite of Pitt’s resolute commitment to the Atlanticist point of view, in February 1755 a French advance into Germany having threatened Prussia’s Western flank, he had to agree with a request for monies needed to defend Hanover and also its ally, Frederick of Prussia. In order to meet George’s obligations to Frederick, a suitable means might be by supporting an Army of Observation made up mainly by Hanoverians and Hessians. Pitt carried this off, in spite of Hanover’s unpopularity (the ‘despicable Electorate of Hanover’) by his emphasis on the necessity for supporting the Protestant Hero.62 Prussia was faced by the prospect of simultaneous attacks by four hostile powers from all pints of the compass. However, events in Germany did not go to plan and Hanover was overrun by the French in 1757. The Duke of Cumberland, Commander of the Army of Observation, was obliged to sign the Convention of Klosterzeven, leaving the French in control and incurring the wrath of his father in the process.63 This demonstrated Hanover’s comparative limitations on several counts: by having land borders, by having limited power in diplomacy and by not having a large army.

Spring and Summer of 1757 saw Pitt’s political crisis at its apogee. He lost office, effectively rendering the Government rudderless for three months. The war was not going well and Britain had lost the initiative on many fronts.

Yet Pitt’s return to office in Newcastle’s ministry in the August restored the vital spark. It came about largely through his reputation with the public. Newcastle entrusted Pitt with additional responsibility and he came to dominate the Cabinet.64

Pitt cannot have found the issue of Hanover easy to juggle as he had contradictory obligations to Patriot opinion and to the Government. By the Winter of 1757 he had a significant part in creating a political settlement, tying British direction of the defence of Hanover with the Prussian alliance. He had already almost anticipated as much when he had supported the original grant for the Army of Observation in Parliament. Much of the cost of that army now fell to Britain, which also agreed a subsidy for Prussia: George’s price for renouncing the Klosterzeven treaty and rejoining the war. Achieving the necessary parliamentary support for these measures was an indication of Pitt’s persuasive powers of oratory, his popularity and ability in strategic communication.65 Meanwhile Frederick had reversed his dire position through two stunning victories at Rossbach and Leuthen.

In Canada, 1758 did not start well. Abercromby’s failure to capture Ticonderoga had not helped, causing nervousness in the American colonies. However important strategic linkages kicked in, contributing to wider success. For example, at sea, having regained maritime superiority through enhanced efforts in the Bay of Biscay, off Gibraltar and off the coast of Canada, Boscawen manoeuvred Amherst and 12,000 men onto a position where the combined effects of manpower and ships outnumbered the French opponents in Louisbourg. At the tactical level, several early British operations were unsuccessful, not being adapted to local circumstances.

On the credit side, lessons were quickly identified and assimilated, allowing later victories. Examples would be trail blazing, light land tactics and amphibious ‘descents’, the latter being particularly supported by Pitt. These contributed to the capture of Fort Duquesne and Louisbourg itself. Its fall in August 1758 opened the waterways into the depth of Canada. Yet at sea the French squadron off Louisbourg had managed to impose a delay and the season was becoming advanced. The net result was to postpone any attack on Quebec for another year.

However, on the French side the situation was precarious and Canada looked doomed to fall without reinforcement or unless affairs in Europe could impose a general peace. 1759 was a remarkable year for Britain, an Annus Mirabilis, for although on the Continent her ally Prussia suffered some significant reverses, a combined German and British army defeated a strong French one, against the odds, at Minden. The new French Chief Minister, de Choiseul believed that Britain might be sufficiently distracted by a counter-blow at the homeland: if Britain could be forced to defend everywhere, France might be able to concentrate sufficient force to strike a blow across the Channel. However, the French concentration was destroyed by Boscawen who anticipated a flotilla from Toulon, defeating it at Lagos. To compound French misery, Wolfe stormed the heights of Abraham outside Quebec and destroyed the French garrison in a couple of minutes of volley fire, while Hawke smashed the division from Brest in November in Quiberon Bay.66

However Canada itself proved to be a more resilient opponent. The new British garrison at Quebec almost lost it when the harsh Canadian winter sealed it off from the sea and allowed the French army to isolate and invest it. The end of winter came just in time for the British fleet to break the ice and bring relief to the beleaguered and hard-pressed garrison. British naval numerical superiority having been restored, both at sea and on inland waterways, Britain was able to get a stranglehold, advance on Montreal and take effective control of Canada in 1760.67

The East

On the other side of the world, parallel events of equal significance, even if on a smaller scale, were underway in India. Both sides had roughly 2,000 European combatants, but the French had built up a much larger native army through their strenuous political pursuits. Overall the French had greater political influence and possessed larger territories, mainly through Dupleix’s scheming. In spite of those territorial advantages, her sea-power was inferior. The British had a naval squadron in the waters of East India under Admiral Charles Watson. The British East India Company was thriving while its French rival was in danger of catastrophic decline. This imbalance was proved when war broke out.

The disparity in naval strength was all too apparent to the French themselves and they had intended to send a squadron in 1755, but Britain managed to use her stronger sea power to dominate the enemy, drawing and fixing him off course. This was accomplished by trusted, experienced commanders who understood their place in the firmament, what was expected of them and that they could employ initiative. It also highlights the need for any force to have sufficient elements capable of being commanded and operating independently around the globe. Watson ferried Clive and an expedition to Calcutta where in 1757 Clive took revenge for the ‘Black Hole’, seized Chandernagore from the enemy and expelled them from the province. At Plassey he trounced Siraj-ud-Daulah, securing Bengal.68

On land, however, the French still had capacity to act and to surprise. Without the British fleet, France attacked the Coromandel Coast, taking Masulipatam and the Northern Circars.

Pocock, Watson’s successor, hounded his French opposite number D’Ache, seizing the French base at Karikal as a launching pad to be able to maintain close proximity to D’Ache and to cling to him in order to force a conclusive engagement. Under such constant, unremitting pressure, D’Ache fearful for his own communications and supplies eventually withdrew to the Mauritius, giving up the contest.69 For the British, the effects were felt almost immediately in that the pressure of a twin land and sea attack on Madras was abandoned by Lally. On the other hand, the winter monsoons forced Pocock to seek refuge in Bombay in 1758. Lally made another attempt on Madras but without resupply and reinforcement from the sea the siege was raised, while the British had been able to relieve and save Madras from the sea. The effect of sucking rival naval forces from one area to another was further demonstrated by drawing de Bussy from Hyderabad to support coastal operations. This further damaged French standing with the locals. Maritime was clearly a significant factor in the operations themselves, but there was also a wider effect on policy generally.

While Britain had relative freedom of action on the sea to transport her forces from home to India, and then wherever she needed on the Indian coast, as long as she was determined to win she could do. Clive understood this full well. Richmond quotes his correspondence to Pitt in January 1759:

‘The superiority of our squadron and the plenty of money and supplies of all kinds which our friends on the coast will be furnished with from this province (Bengal), while the enemy are in total want of everything, without any visible means of redress – an advantage as, if properly attended to, cannot fail of wholly effecting their ruin in that as well as in every other part of India.’70

These French supply difficulties were certainly serious. An example might be D’Ache’s failed attempt to relieve Pondicherry in August 1759. Departing from Mauritius, he was intercepted and attacked immediately. Although in possession of a significant superiority, D’Ache appears to have been daunted by the risk of defeat. Determined to protect his fleet at all costs, he dropped some supplies at Pondicherry and withdrew.

Britain was now able to exploit her success. Coote routed the French and their Indian allies at the Wandiwash in January 1760, de Bussy being captured and the remaining French coastal positions, with the exception of Pondicherry, being seized. Pondicherry’s isolated, stubborn garrison clung on, encouraged only by the hope of relief from the sea but D’Ache never appeared, having been ordered to defend Mauritius because of a rumour that Pitt intended to capture it, a credible threat made realistic by Britain’s maritime capability. Beleaguered Pondicherry was compelled to surrender through starvation, thus ending the war between Britain and France in India. The British became so invested in India that it was not seriously threatened by local efforts for almost 200 years.71

Pitt

Turning to Pitt himself, his fortunes reversed in 1759 with a series of victories which enabled him to portray himself as the representative of the nation’s fate. Breaking the stupor of reaction into which Britain had fallen in 1756, when French invasion had seemed inevitable, Pitt was insistent that Britain should maintain its course, retaining the initiative not only in Germany, but particularly in Canada.72 Pitt’s acceptance of the inevitable need for support in Germany is an indication of his ability to see the bigger picture in spite of his personal preferences. This, coupled with his determination and willpower, were keys to success. Clausewitz would have recognised the central role of will.

Pitt’s reward for his support to the significant efforts being made in North America to gain Canada was the recognition he received when Canada finally fell to the British. The success this time contrasted well with the lacklustre campaign of the War of the Austrian Succession when Britain’s foreign policy priority had been efforts in the Low Countries.

Pitt recognised that a negotiated peace which pleased everyone in Britain would be unlikely and he advised Parliament of that on 13 November 1759. He recognised too that there would be a political price to be paid as a result of the necessary give and take. That he was actually actively considering negotiation and, while it was not generally widely known that he had pondered returning Louisbourg, his return to his more habitual stance in public of opposing national sell-outs and of fighting on for at least another season cut little ice with his fellow ministers.73

By 1760, with the situation in Canada having stabilised in Britain’s favour, Pitt was now able to support the plan to send more troops to Germany. The subsequent debate on this has been variously interpreted and, while some authorities describe it as ‘conquering America in Germany’ the former had already been accomplished.74 Rather, Black makes it clear that France was hardly in a position to reverse the situation in Canada, and that America should be retained in Germany – effectively preventing French opportunities for gains in Germany which could be traded for Canada in any peace negotiations.75 Anticipating peace negotiations during active conflict was important. Pitt recognised the need to plan ahead. With the upper hand, he was able to consider in advance what territories might be used as bargaining chips by both sides.

Foot notes

48. Corbett, op cit., 14.

49. ibid., 15.

50. ibid., 14-29.

51. Corbett, op cit., 26.

52. ibid., 27.

53. Clausewitz, op cit., 601-616.

54. Baugh, op cit., 79-83.

55. Anderson, op cit., 103.

56. Black, op cit., 35- 51.

57. Simms, op cit., 353-354 and 403.

58. idem.

59. B. Lavery, Empire of the Seas (London: Conway, 2012), 43.

60. Black, op cit., 40.

61. Anderson, op cit., 208-209.

62. P. Bobbit, The Shield of Achilles (London: Allen Lane, 2002), 132.

63. L. Worsley, Courtiers (London: Faber & Faber, 2011), 309.

64. Szabo, op cit., 79.

65. Black, op cit., 41.

66. Simms, op cit., 451-452.

67. M.C. Ward, The Battle for Quebec 1759 (Stroud: History Press, 2000), 212-223.

68. Baugh, op cit., 282-295.

69. F. McLynn, 1759 (London: Pimlico, 2005), 187.

70. Richmond, op cit., 180-181.

71. Baugh, op cit., 479 and 483.

72. Black, op cit., 41.

73. ibid., 42.

74. Simms, op cit., 467.

75. Black, op cit., 42.

References

This article is a reproduction of the following work with the kind authorisation of its author:

  • Carmichael, E. B.: To what extent was Great Britain able to influence her strategy in the face of the events of the Seven Years' War?, dissertation for King's College, London, August 2012