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Captain's Log Entry 2: Britain and France

Posted February 13th, 2017 at 04:33 AM by Junius

Perhaps the greatest rivalry of the Modern Era, the Anglo-French rivalry has literally encompassed the entire history of both these nations bar the last hundred years. They fought the famous Hundred Years' War against each other and were bitter antagonists throughout the Middle Ages. This entry, however, focuses primarily on the Long 18th century, from the Glorious Revolution in 1688 until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 (although the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars shall be saved for a later entry).
During this period of time, Britain and France were probably the two most powerful nations on Earth; China had by now fallen by the wayside, while the Mughals in India were in terminal decline under Emperor Aurangzeb. Spain had by now become wrecked by fiscal crises and was hard put to maintain its huge colonies, while Prussia was still in its infancy and Russia a sleeping giant. Austria's geographical position and diverse subjects hampered its strength, and just five years before, they had barely beaten back an Ottoman assault on Vienna. Thus, Britain and France were truly unrivalled in power and prestige. At the same time, huge technogical advances in weaponry and transport since the 1400's had made both the scope and reward of their conflict global.
One of the most famous battles between Britain and France (excepting the Duke of Wellington's exploits) was fought at the Plains of Abraham, in distant Quebec. The Siege of Chandranagar in Bengal broke the backs of the French in India, while larger battles in Europe like Minden, Krefeld, and Fontenoy failed to have the same effect in their respective theatres
This clash of countries put two strategic schools of thought to the test. The British were determinedly focused on the colonial wars and the naval balance of power, while France in large part favored their Army and a Europe-oriented policy. Although this was partly due to geography, France also faced an unprecedented leadership crisis in the person of the feckless and indolent Louis XV and the vacillating Louis XVI. Even though the Hanoverian Kings personally lacked the sterling statesmanship of Frederick the Great or even Maria Theresa, Britain's constitutional monarchy allowed ministers like William Pitt (both the Elder and the Younger) to function effectively in a team, while their French equivalents like the Duke of Choiseul or Jacques Necker had their hands tied by arcane and byzantine vested interests. The King could not even stand by his earlier decisions when his views mirrored those of the last person he had spoken to, and thus indecision and undue panic characterized French war efforts under Louis XV.
Another factor was France's continental policy. During the Seven Years War, when France was fighting for survival around the world, the Bourbons saw it fit to commit 100,000 men to help Maria Theresa against Frederick the Great in order to attack him from all sides. That conflict plainly did not affect the global “struggle for mastery”, as Frank McLynn put it in his book 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World, and regardless, the Anglo-Prussians were hardly in a position to bear down on Northeastern France in the face of withering pressure from the Austrians and Russians. By contrast, Britain only committed troops to Germany when Frederick was on the brink of collapse, fighting the mighty powers of Continental Europe by himself. This led to the fortuitous weakness of France in the colonies, and the mismatch in concentration of force allowed Brittania to rule the waves with naval support in the West Indies and Canada striking the death-knell for French forces in the region. Even the total absence of naval forces (as opposed to complete British superiority) proved a disadvantage to the French- their invasion of Madras necessitated an eighty mile march along the Coromandel Coast from Pondicherry and flimsy supply lines which were threatened frequently by forces in their rear. This crucial waste of time allowed the British time to rush naval forces from their monsoon harbor in Bombay by a circuitous route across the Indian Ocean (due to prevailing winter winds, ships had to go around Ceylon and northwestward along the coast of Sumatra to reach the East Coast of India).
Militarily, France remained Britain's near-equal. The French Army was one of Europe's finest and largest forces, and boasted effective infantry to support their flamboyant cavalry and deadly artillery. By contrast, Britain's Army was quite small compared to those of its rivals-even in Bismarck's day. Additionally, French ships were superior to British ships in terms of construction, especially the grand 80-gun ship of the line like L'Ocean or Le Roi Soleil, which were the pride of the French navy, able to go toe to toe with any British 74 gun ship. However, man for man, the British were far more effective; famously tenacious defenders and extraordinarily skilled in naval formations, tactics, and gunnery, allowing them to get the better of the French in the Battles of Pondicherry, Lagos, and Quiberon Bay. The volunteer infantry regulars were able to fire in near-perfectly delivered musket volleys from just 10 metres in front of the enemy- lethal enough to the heart out of any opposing formation.
Thus, even with a population that numbered merely a quarter of the French total, Britain still ended up dominating the world. The Royal Navy guarded the English Channel so professionally that any French descents across the English Channel ended in abject failure-between 1688 and 1815; only 2 minor descents on Ireland even managed to make landfall, let alone conquer and hold substantial swathes of territory. The navy also allowed Britain to take the initiative in the colonies; they could strike when and where they pleased and stifle French attempts to reinforce them. Robert Clive, James Wolfe, and the Duke of Wellington depended on the Royal Navy for supplies, troops, and limiting the enemy's options to strike back. Versailles abandoned the colonies because of the real risk that any French reinforcements ran the real risk of being sunk at sea.
As touched upon earlier, Britain's focus on the colonies instead of Europe brought it many lucrative dividends. During the War of the Austrian Succession, the British negated the French conquest of Flanders and Madras with the capture of Louisbourg in Canada. Similarly, during the Seven Years War, Britain's conquest of the French Caribbean isles allowed it to exchange those for the fortress of Minorca in the Mediterranean Sea. France tried to achieve the reverse to compensate for British naval superiority, but their colonial losses were just too massive for them to make up for in Europe- total defeat in India, Africa, the West Indies, and Canada against the seizure of Minorca and Western Germany upto about Cassel (which fell after the preliminary peace treaty was signed).
However, Britain did have one clear weakness. Until 1759, the exiled Stuarts were a major threat to Britain's stability. There were 3 major Jacobite revolts, and the Highland Scots especially did not warm up to the Hanoverians overnight. This led to the British cynically recruiting Highland regiments to serve in North America, where their bush fighting skills were in high demand against the Franco-Canadian coureur de bois and Native American warriors. The 1745 rebellion was Bonnie Prince Charlie's best chance of ruling the Three Kingdoms, but his clansmen refused to press on to London and retreated despite coming up with a stunning victory at Derby. From then on, the Hanoverians grew increasingly stronger as the Bonnie Prince grew increasingly fond of the bottle and increasingly resentful of the Highlanders who clamored for a retreat.
Nevertheless, France was also in internal turmoil. There were crippling religious disputes between orthodox Catholics and reformist Jansenists, the exchequer was almost perpetually empty, and the King could not raise money for his wars. Unlike Britain, France could not pressgang men easily and their ships were consequentially chronically short of trained seamen. France's financial issues directly led to the French Revolution and by the 1750s France was bitterly divided by religious, financial, and social issues. The peasantry and bourgeoisie bore the brunt of taxation, while most nobles did not pay a brass farthing, leading directly to the popular anger that unleashed the Revolution.
That being said, by around 1715 Britain and France were undoubtedly the two global superpowers. Their conflict encompassed five separate theaters in four different continents, and its conclusion guaranteed Britain's domination of the world. Yes, Russia dominated Central Asia and Eastern Europe, while Germany dominated Central Europe by the 1870's. However, victory at the village of Waterloo ushered in a century of Pax Britannica, where people the world over sought to emulate British institutions; the rule of law, property rights, fair play, education, financial systems; the list is exhaustive. Britain, and especially London, became the capital of the world until 1914 or even 1945, and remains a premier global city to this day.
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  1. Old Comment
    I'm very impressed by your understanding of how the long-standing rivalry between England and France was transformed into a contest for global supremacy in the eighteenth century.

    I would have been interested to hear your opinion about the origins and development of this conflict, from the middle ages to the seventeenth century, but, as you explain in your blog, you are primarily concerned with the story in the eighteenth century.

    You are clearly very well informed about international politics at the time of the seven years war, but it might have been helpful, and would have strengthened your argument, to have mentioned the fighting between the two countries during the War of the Spanish Succession, 1702 -1713, and the War of the Austrian Succession, 1740-1748.

    I agree that the seven years war was the decisive encounter between Britain and France at this time, but the
    two earlier contests were an important part of the rivalry which was to culminate in the Seven Years War. They can also be seen as precursors of the later conflict, in that the fighting was no longer confined to Europe as it had been before.

    One small point of fact. You say that the Jacobites achieved a great victory at Derby in 1745, but there was no battle here. Derby was the nearest the Jacobites got to London after invading England. It was here that Bonnie Prince Charlie, aware that there were two Hanoverian armies nearby, decided that it would be better to retreat back to Scotland rather than continuing the advance south. This was a very unpopular decision because many of his followers wanted to make one last attempt to reach London.
    Posted February 14th, 2017 at 07:22 AM by sirjohnclerk sirjohnclerk is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Junius's Avatar
    First about the factual error, my bad and thanks a ton for the catch and the compliments.

    I'll probably address the earlier two conflicts in a lafter post, but I must admit my knowledge of them is slightly scantily (still doable though). Once again, thanks for the comment.
    Posted February 14th, 2017 at 07:45 AM by Junius Junius is offline
  3. Old Comment
    You could start by looking at:
    Brendam Simms, Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783

    It has a small section on the War of the Spanish Succession and then goes on to look at the War of the Austrian Succession, The Seven Years War and the American War of Independence. There is a good bibliography so it should help you locate other helpful books on the wars of the Spanish and Austrian Succession.
    Posted February 14th, 2017 at 11:20 AM by sirjohnclerk sirjohnclerk is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Junius's Avatar
    Thanks a ton, man!
    Posted February 14th, 2017 at 06:39 PM by Junius Junius is offline
 

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