Rearranging Sides One War after Another

Article excerpt


This is a book about Britain's political and military role in the 18th century by a professor at Cambridge University superbly informed about his subject. His research has been both diligent and extensive: not only has he explicated decision-making and policy in council chamber and battlefield in the particular period under examination, but he has delved back into the previous century to better understand why things developed as they did. Consistently articulate if opinionated, he is a dedicated advocate for the thesis he is expounding in colorful, compelling prose, often a dialectic with some other historian, for he is a master of historiography as well as a masterly historian himself.

Three Victories and a Defeat is a massive, complex volume full of incident, characters and detail, but its argument is a relatively simple one, laid out clearly at the outset:

'The history of England' in the eighteenth century, John Robert Seeley proclaimed in his classic 'The Expansion of England,' was 'not' in England, but in America and Asia.' It was not: the history of eighteenth-century Britain was in Europe. From the Dutch invasion of 1688 through the Wars of Grand Alliance against Louis IV, the French and Spanish-backed Jacobite revolts, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War to the American War of Independence, the destiny of England - or Great Britain as the composite state became known - was decided by events in Europe. ... The discussion of European treaties, subsidies, wars and the balance of power generally also loomed large in the emerging public sphere Trade with Europe far outstripped that with other continents until very late in the century.

What Mr. Simms is saying was that Britain thrived politically, economically and militarily as part of the European concert of nations, playing one power against the other in constantly shifting alliance to the enormous increase of its own strength. France had by this time displaced Spain as the predominant continental power, but throughout the 18th century, Britain steadily chipped away at its position by enlisting various nations in wars that were costly to that superpower. Both Britain and France were already what we would now call colonial or imperial powers and even a conflict grounded in European dynastic affairs like the War of the Austrian Succession spilled over into the Indian subcontinent and North America. Lured by its success in these far off theaters of war, Britain followed up the victory of its alliance against France in Europe during the Seven Years War, by forcibly expelling it from its remaining possessions in North America (Quebec).

And this enormous success, Mr. Simms argues, led Britain into the fatal error of believing that her destiny lay overseas rather than across the English Channel and opted out of European affairs in favor of an imperial strategy. But little more than a decade later, she found herself embroiled in an ultimately unsuccessful war against her own colonists in North America, leading to the cataclysmic defeat at the Battle of Yorktown, where less than 20 years after she had booted France off the North American continent, she suffered the same fate herself. She had fought the colonists unaided by any other nation - indeed those European powers who had fought with her against France as well as her traditional enemy itself had supported the rebellion against the mother country - and Mr. Simms argues that this was because she had ceased to bother cultivating Continental allies. The 1780s found her not only humiliated militarily and politically and bereft of the 13 colonies, but diplomatically isolated and friendless.

A plausible interpretation, certainly, but despite Mr. Simms' passion and erudition, ultimately unconvincing. …