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Book Review: "The French Navy and the Seven Years' War" by Jonathan R. Dull

Ryan loves to read and review literature. He writes book reviews in his spare time.

A brief review of a thorough, if mistitled, history of the Seven Years' War.

A brief review of a thorough, if mistitled, history of the Seven Years' War.

The Seven Years' War

The argument can be made about which war was the first really global war—one fought all across the planet—and one of the good candidates for this is the Seven Years' War. A planet-spanning affair involving a huge list of nations including France, Britain, Prussia, Hannover, Austria, Russia, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, a heady mix of Native American tribes, Indian states, Saxony, and various German states as part of the Holy Roman Empire against Prussia. And it was certainly the first decisive victory in any world war, as the British persevered over the French, annexing Canada and significant parts of the French colonial empire in the Caribbean and Africa. Its ultimate ramifications would go as far as igniting the fuse for American independence and accelerating the chain of events that several decades later would lead to the French Revolution.

This tremendously complicated war is the centerpiece of The French Navy and the Seven Years' War by Jonathan R. Dull, a noted historian of the French navy and its relationship to the British navy during the 18th century. Despite the title (not unique to this book, as Dull's The Age of the Ship of the Line is in a similar fashion—much more of a diplomatic and strategic work than a naval history), the book is focused upon the general nature of the Seven Years' War and the French role in it, concentrating on diplomacy, strategy, institutions, and broad operations.

Here's a look at the breakdown of countries in the Seven Years' War in Europe—note that Spain and Portugal only joined later.

Here's a look at the breakdown of countries in the Seven Years' War in Europe—note that Spain and Portugal only joined later.

Structure of the Book

Organizationally, the book is structured on chronological lines. It starts by discussing the run-up to the war; why Anglo-French tensions existed to cause it; the diplomatic structure of the European continent and, in particular, Louis XV's secret diplomacy; the aftermath of the War of Austrian Succession; the French navy, its troubled performance during the War of Austrian Succession, and its structural problems of insufficient size and limited financial support; and the increasing disputes in North America that threatened to lead to an outbreak of war once more between the British and French.

Subsequent chapters treat the war on a year-by-year basis, starting in 1755 with both the British and French sending reinforcements to North America, negotiations failing, and the opening blows beginning with unprovoked British attacks on French ships and simultaneous defeats on land. French strategic decisions would be set in place for the rest of the war: knowing that they were badly outmatched in North America, they would seize Hannover instead to negotiate it for the return of territory in North America, complicated by the momentous diplomatic change as the French allied with the Austrians when abandoned by their former Prussian allies. Simultaneously the French navy prepared for war under the vigorous leadership of naval minister Machault: war had begun.

At this point, subsequent chapters mostly serve to state the ongoing course of affairs, with interesting tidbits being fed in concerning the French navy and its deployment, the war in Europe, military deployments, economic effects, and above all else diplomatic affairs, as the French came within a whisker's breadth of victory in 1757 after the occupation of Hanover and continuing victories in the New World, but the British didn't crack and ultimately mobilized far superior resources and won decisive victories over the French by 1759. The book's crucial argument is that the French, by bloody-minded determination and massive commitment of resources in Hanover, as well as the later entrance of Spain onto their side, were able to apply enough pressure to the British to make the war unpopular and to gain better peace terms than they might have otherwise expected.

The British capture of Louisbourg, a crucial moment in the war which laid open the path to Quebec and the fall of French North America.

The British capture of Louisbourg, a crucial moment in the war which laid open the path to Quebec and the fall of French North America.

An Enlightening Read

The conclusion to the book discusses the French and Spanish naval build-up against Britain, the end of French secret diplomacy with failure in Poland, Louis XV's legacy as having preserved French strength and secured internal reforms that would enable France to fight and win the American War of Independence, and how victory in the end brought not only the destruction of the First British Empire but also the end of the French monarchy itself, which collapsed under the accumulated debts of war.

There is a thin line between being too narrow and being too broad. Many military history books tend to err on the side of being too narrow, focusing on purely combat matters and with little focus on strategic elements. In The French Navy and the Seven Years' War, Jonathan R. Dull completely reverses this, instead choosing to write a principally diplomatic, strategic, and to some extent operational view of the Seven Years' War. It rejects narrowly compartmentalizing the war into European land theaters and overseas colonial and maritime theaters, and instead insists on the unity of the whole. This approach might lead to unexpected developments for a reader expecting an extremely detailed work purely on the French navy, with long sections devoted instead to things such as army operations against Prussia and Hanover by France and its allies, as well as the land colonial campaign in Canada. But it makes a great deal of sense as part of Dull's real work, which is his new perspective on the general history of the Seven Years' War. His main sin with the book is that it is inaccurately titled.

Dull's book would have been excellent as a history of the French involvement in the Seven Years' War. As it turned out, it is too expansive for the French navy: it lacks the very extensive technical and tactical detail that would be expected in a book of its size on the subject. Other naval history books generally give far more details concerning individual battles, ship construction, training, organization, doctrine, the merits of individual commanders, and other tactical combat factors, and these are only present in a limited way in Dull's work.

This is not to say that it is bad, for it certainly provides a number of excellent points. It demonstrates the great danger which disease subjected naval fleets to, although the reasons for why certain fleets were impacted and if the French undertook any measures to respond are not covered to as great of an extent. Financial and administrative constraints or structures of the French navy receive excellent focus, the various campaigns the French waged and what they hoped to achieve are put into the spotlight, the diplomatic framework that the peace was achieved in is a crucial component, and the economic effect on France by the blockade and various English operations against France receive their due share. The various French generals and their campaigns, in Europe and in the colonies, are well covered. And the effect of the war is dealt with well too, writing convincingly that the Anglo-French conflict was disastrous for both France and Britain in the end, as both the First and Second British and French empires were lost in mutual conflagration. There is nothing per se wrong with the book, and more that it has cast its net very far indeed and so it is incapable of capturing in detail the low-level tactical operations, equipment, doctrine, training, and other features of the navy. Perhaps it is because in the end, after the first few years of the war, the French fleet was so little capable of operations that its activities dwindled down to a bare minimum.

While the book has a good selection of maps at the beginning, it lacks tactical maps of battles, and these opening maps do not include highlights for battle zones. Furthermore, it does not have any illustrations or diagrams: these could have been excellent tools to make it more readable and comprehensible.

I heartily recommend the book for a general understanding of France and the Seven Years' War and presenting a strong and new perspective about the importance which the French attached to their colonies and the tremendous effort which went into saving them, and the cohesive and logical nature of French strategy, undone by poor implementation on land and by crushing numerical inferiority at sea. It also is an interesting attempt at rehabilitating Louis XV, who is not shown as an incompetent and naive king, but rather as a keen policy maker, intelligent, with firm ideals, and the necessary backbone to persevere despite huge obstacles to his effort to protect French dignity and honor at the peace table. Perhaps this is somewhat overdone, but it is still welcome. Its shortcoming is the title, in that the book doesn't match up to what it would seem to be about, but what it chose to cover instead, that of the diplomatic and strategic elements of a heavily interconnected global war. This is brilliantly done: it is sure to give any reader a new and richer perspective about the French role in the Seven Years' War, dispelling old myths about the ineffectiveness of the French navy and the lack of French commitment to their colonies and raising interesting questions about the effect of the ultimate outcome of the war. Simply do not expect, however, a book about the French navy in itself.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas