Pitt and the Seven Years War - 1757-1759
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The central object of Pitt's policy was the conquest of America from the French, together with the assertion of an overwhelming naval supremacy. But he was fully aware that the preservation of Prussia was bound up with that policy. America might be conquered, but, if Frederick were Crushed by the alliance of Bourbon and Hapsburg, the conquest of America might go for nothing, when that alliance should be directed to crushing an isolated Great Britain.
America was to be won in Germany as well as on the high seas and the American continent. But the method was not to be that of Marlborough and William III. We were not to place armies at Frederick's disposal; our own troops were wanted in America, which would draw quite as much fighting energy as could be spared from the development and extension of naval expeditions. Frederick in Europe was to be supported not with British soldiers but with British gold, gold which would maintain Hanoverians, Brunswickers, and other troops under the command of Prince Ferdinand, and would help to preserve Frederick's own treasury from depletion. It was not without some reluctance that Pitt found himself obliged to strengthen the army in Hanover with some British regiments, when Ferdinand had justified his selection by a victory at Crefeld.
But this was not sufficient. From the Rochefort expedition onwards Pitt planned a series of descents upon the French coast and the French ports. They were in appearance singularly unproductive and even aimless; and they have often been condemned by critical historians. In that condemnation Frederick the Great did not concur. They were a very material contribution to the defence of Prussia. Immense numbers of French troops were kept out of action, out of the French armies which took the field against Prussia, locked up in France because they had to be in perpetual readiness to meet a British attack, at whatever point of the coast it might be delivered.
Naval or military experts may differ on the question whether the policy was right or wrong, while the lay student is apt to judge it by the absence of any obvious resultant gain. But it was at any rate a policy approved and commended both in its intentions and in its effects by the greatest military authority of the time, in whose interest it was carried out. It must be regarded as having been in part at least the effective employment of naval supremacy to co-operate with the military forces by a constant diversion of the enemy's troops from their true military objective.
In 1757 Great Britain had achieved no successes; Frederick's victory at Prague had been more than counteracted by his crushing defeat at Kolin, and he had redeemed his position only by the two extraordinarily brilliant performances at Rossbach and Leuthen. But for the inactivity of the Russian armies beyond his eastern frontier - due to an idea that the Tsarina was dying and would be succeeded by a Tsar whose sympathies were entirely with Frederick - Prussia might even have been crushed in that year. In 1758 Frederick was able to open a campaign in Moravia, but in August he found himself obliged to strike at an advancing force of Russians.
The hardly won victory of Zorndorf drove them back into Poland; but it was already more than time for Frederick to dash back to Saxony, and then he was actually defeated by the Austrian commander Daun. But Daun rested on his laurels, and again Frederick had to race off to Silesia to give check to another Austrian army and return in time to prevent the dilatory Daun from taking advantage of his temporary absence. Mean- while Ferdinand of Brunswick had gradually forced the French in the North back across the Rhine and put them to rout at Crefeld. But he was still threatened by a second French army which Soubise had reformed; and the French prospects were very much improved by the accession to power of the vigorous minister Ghoiseul, who began to infuse a new life and energy into the war.
Frederick, then, during the year rather more than held his own; but the campaigns illustrate the enormous difficulties of his position. He could never adopt the tactics of defence, the methods of William of Orange, who never won great victories but always made sure that defeat should not mean disaster. The king of Prussia was always under the necessity of attempting to shatter the particular enemy whom he was for the moment facing. He had no time to follow up a success in one quarter or even to retrieve a defeat; because, the moment he had struck, he had to hurry at full speed to another quarter to parry another attack.
Whenever he was in Silesia the French with recuperated forces were threatening Saxony whenever he was in Saxony the Austrians were recuperating themselves and threatening Silesia; and when both French and Austrians had been temporarily beaten back, the Russians on the north-east were threatening Brandenburg itself. Each of the three allies was generally able to keep in being a couple of armies any one of which immensely outnumbered the largest force whkJh Frederick could collect in any one quarter; although, happily for him, Ferdinand of Brunswick consistently proved himself able to deal effectively with the northern French army.
As we have seen, neither of the French armies attained what should have been its maximum fighting-strength because of the forces which were detained elsewhere by fear of British descents on the coasts and ports. One such descent was made upon Cherbourg in August with some success j stores and guns were captured and fortifications were demolished. But two attacks upon St. Malo in June and September were ineffectual, and the second was attended by a heavy list of casualties, but British naval predominance was being definitely reasserted; the news of dive's apparently miraculous victory at Plassey was an inspiration to deeds of prowess, and affairs in America took a more satisfactory turn. There Pitt planned a vigorous campaign.
Loudoun was recalled, and the chief command was given to Amherst, with James Wolfe as his second in command. They, in co-operation with the fleet under Boscawen, were to capture Louisbourg, the great fort on Cape Breton commanding the estuary of the St. Lawrence, and were to proceed thence to the reduction of Quebec. A second force under James Abercrombie, who had been Loudoun's senior subordinate, was to attack the French on the Upper St, Lawrence and Lake Champlain, seizing Ticonderoga as a preliminary to the advance upon Montreal.
A third force was to attack Fort Duquesne, not so much because the fort was dangerous in itself as because it symbolised the previous successes of France on the continent. Although Abercrombie mismanaged the attack on Ticonderoga, where his troops were cut up in making a frontal attack upon a very strongly entrenched position, both Fort Duquesne and Louisbourg were captured. Amherst, however, did not feel himself able to attempt the reduction of Quebec before the winter.
The next year, 1759, was the British year of victories and the French year of disasters, while Frederick himself for the first time definitely, lost ground, and even for a moment during the course of it lost heart. He was already becoming too exhausted to do more than watch for the point where he must strike at all costs. Again it was the Russian advance which had to be repelled. In August the Russian force was descending upon Frankfurt on the Oder. It was joined by an Austrian contingent before Frederick could strike in and sever the two armies. He attacked the foe at Kunersdorf.
The attack was successful, but Frederick attempted with troops already exhausted to improve his victory into the annihilation of the greatly superior force opposed him, and his own force barely escaped annihilation,. He was saved from total destruction because neither Russians nor Austrians made any more use of their victory, and because only a few days earlier Ferdinand of Brunswick inflicted a decisive defeat on the French at Minden. The French were rolled back with very heavy loss.
The disaster, to them would have been even more overwhelming, but for the entirely unaccountable refusal of Lord George Sackvilie to employ his cavalry in accordance with repeated orders from Prince Ferdinand, conduct which ultimately led to his dismissal from the service. But the victory was admittedly won by the skilful dispositions of Ferdinand and the altogether admirable conduct of the British troops which bore the brunt of the fighting. Particular distinction was won by the Marquis of Granby, who commanded the second British line. His popularity in England, it may be observed in passing, is attested by the number of inns which adopted the gallant warrior's head as a sign. In spite of Lord George Sackvilie, the battle of Minden redounded to the honour of British arms.
But other glories of the year were exclusively British. Choiseul concentrated his designs on a plan for the invasion of England; nevertheless. so vigorously had the navy been developed that Pitt was able to despatch expeditions to the West Indies, where Guadeloupe was captured, and to the St. Lawrence, to co-operate in the plan of campaign against Canada, without fear that the remainder of the fleet would be insufficient to repel invasion, though another squadron was conveying reinforcements to India. Admiral Rodney bombarded Havre, where a flotilla awaited the embarkation of French troops, though with no very great results.
The Battle of Quiberon Bay
The two great French naval armaments lay at Toulon and at Brest, while Boscawen kept watch within the Mediterranean, and Hawke's fleet was on guard in Tor Bay. In August, La Clue slipped out of Toulon, to join Conflans at Brest, with ten ships of the line and two ships of fifty guns., Boscawen caught them off Lagos Bay on the south of Portugal, and destroyed five of them, while five were blockaded in the harbour of Cadiz, Hawke's blockade of Brest kept the main French fleet there completely shut up until contrary winds forced the British to shelter in Tor Bay. Conflans started from Brest, intending to pick up and convoy an invading force to Scotland. But Hawke too was released from Tor Bay by the change of wind.
Conflans, with twenty-one sail of the line, was in pursuit of a small squadron of British ships which were cruising in the neighbourhood when Hawke's fleet hove in sight. A north-westerly wind was rising to a gale and Conflans ran for Quiberon Bay in the hope that the pursuing British who had twenty-three ships of the line, would find themselves pounded among the shoals and rocks. Though the gale was developing into a storm, Hawke was not to be baffled. His van overtook the French rear and won a victory not less crushing than that of La Hogue.
Five of the French were sunk. Seven, lightened by throwing guns and stores overboard, got over the shallow entrance of the Vilaine, though four of them were completely disabled. Nine escaped to Rochefort or to the Loire; none had the chance of coming out again. The French line of battleships were hopelessly scattered in threes and fours in different ports, where it was an easy mattter to keep them blockaded.
The English lost in the fight or in connection with the fight only a couple of ships, which ran upon rocks. The year had added to the British Navy twenty-seven French ships of the line and thirty French frigates. From that time till the end of the war the bulk of the British fleet was available for despatch to any part of the world where it might be wanted; the balance was quite sufficient to prevent any French squadron from taking the sea. The dream of a French invasion was finally disposed of.