Winston Churchill called it the first world war; in the United States it is known as the French and Indian war; for Indian radicals it marked the beginning of the plunder of the sub-continent by British entrepreneurs, the nabobs. But it was Linda Colley in Britons who memorably described the seven-year-long struggle for imperial dominance in the mid-18th century as "the most dramatically successful war the British have ever fought".
For that very reason the Seven Years' war, which stained so much of the world map the blood red of imperial conquest, is unfashionable, even largely forgotten. Tom Pocock, biographer of Nelson, is a direct descendant of Admiral Sir George Pocock, who provided the seaborne launchpad for Clive's conquest of Bengal. Mementoes of his ancestor's prowess, fragments from a fortress he stormed and a bloodstone ring commemorating his wounds, as well as an unsigned memoir written in cold anger immediately after a military debacle in the American backwoods and passed down in the Pocock family, first inspired the author to delve into a rich but neglected lode of personal papers to rediscover the "shadowy figures" who, under Wolfe and Clive, helped to win an empire.
The careers of many of the dramatis personae conveniently intermeshed, and through their letters and diaries the reader gets a vivid feel for the unfolding drama of this complex war. The dashing Augustus Hervey, whose diary is a classic of 18th-century seafaring prose, acts as prologue with his description of an abortive attempt to smuggle his friend, Admiral John Byng, ashore from the flagship where, within a few hours, he is to be shot "pour encourager les autres". This notorious act of moral cowardice by an administration seeking a scapegoat for its inertia in the face of a French bid for global military and commercial hegemony, actually proved a catalyst for a momentous change in policy. No wonder this period resonated with Churchill: a war leader, Pitt the Elder, was reluctantly given the seals of office, despite the opposition of king and political establishment, and dedicated himself, with popular support, to driving France from her colonies and from the seven seas.
We next meet Hervey on the quarter-deck of one of Lord Hawke's ships blockading Brest, and preventing any help from France reaching its beleaguered colonists in Canada. After suffering a string of humiliating defeats in trying to employ rigid European battlefield tactics in the backwoods, the British army took their enemy's lesson of mobile warfare, using concealment and camouflage, so much to heart that they had surrounded them in a giant pincer movement and penned them into Quebec.
The wilderness fighting for North America was, as Pocock demonstrates in one of the most gripping parts of the book, a real innovation. None played a more vital role in helping the redcoats to adapt to their new war theatre than George, Viscount Howe, a young, charismatic leader who, using the rules for survival taught by Major Robert Rogers to his Rangers as a guide, ordered his men to shorten the skirts of their coats, cut their pigtails, wear waterproof leggings, camouflage their uniforms with mud, particularly on their shiny musket barrels, and attach red ribbons to the muzzles of friendly Indians' guns for easy identification. Ten of the new American rifles were issued to each regiment and the men took turns at target practice. Officers and men were to carry the same "iron rations" of salt pork, dried peas and 30lb of wheat meal.
Across the globe, combined operations of a sophistication which Pocock is well qualified to judge - having covered several as a correspondent in the second world war - were turning the tide. As has been said with some truth, the disputes in Europe were being settled on the banks of the Ganges and the St Lawrence. A fiery young brigadier, James Wolfe, recommended himself for supreme command against Quebec by capturing its outer defence-work, Louisburg, at the mouth of the latter river. His manoeuvres to outwit Montcalm build the tension nicely here, but I suspect that Pocock lets Brigadier Townshend off too lightly over his trying to steal Wolfe's thunder.
Admiral Pocock's role in the "combined op" against the fortress of Chandernagore on the Ganges, and his successful manoeuvres at sea to save Madras and to stop French interference with Clive's campaign in Bengal, find his descendant at his salty best, describing fighting under sail.
In Walpole's words, by 1759, the "annus mirabilis", "our bells were worn threadbare with ringing for victories". Then, with France hors de combat, Spain stepped into the ring, and Pocock rounds off the book with an at-times-harrowing account of the great two-pronged assault on the linchpins of the Spanish Caribbean and Pacific empires, Havana and Manila. (Ironically the operation was successfully repeated exactly a century ago in the Spanish-American war.) Hervey reappears, skilfully steering his ship under the towering defences of Havana to give covering fire for a landing, made partly by American militia. Lord Albemarle, the land commander, wrote:
"They have conquered in a few days the strongest country you ever saw (Martinique), in the American way - running, or with the Indian whoop. I dread their meeting troops that will stand their groundI." Thirteen years later, those militia stood their ground very well in a war of freedom which resulted in part from the "heavy" taxation imposed to pay for their defence in "the French and Indian War".
John Crossland is a freelance writer, specialising in naval history.
Battle for Empire: The Very First World War 1756-63
Author - Tom Pocock
ISBN - 1 85479 332 2
Publisher - Michael O'Mara Books
Price - £20.00
Pages - 9