Military history

CHAPTER 16

Britain Drifts into a European War

1756

THE NEWS OF OSWEGO’S loss arrived in London on September 30, in time to contribute to a governmental crisis that had been brewing since May. With the reorientation of European alliances, Hanover had ceased to be a target that France could threaten as a means of influencing British policy. The first unanticipated result of the Diplomatic Revolution was thus to convince the French foreign ministry that it might most effectively encourage Britain to suspend hostilities at sea and in the New World by threatening to invade England itself. France accordingly built up its army strength in the Channel ports to a hundred thousand men, forcing the British ministry to take stock of its ability to defend the home isles. Newcastle, concluding that the army and navy were stretched too thin to prevent the French from devastating the coast with raids or even launching an invasion, decided that he had no choice but to summon Hessian and Hanoverian troops to bolster England’s defenses—and thereby handed Pitt the occasion to question both his competency and his patriotism. Although Fox continued to manage the ministry’s business in the House of Commons deftly enough, he was growing more and more alienated from Newcastle, whom he regarded as a man of little real capacity; at the same time Newcastle was making no secret of his distaste for the ambitious, grasping Fox. As the rift between the two men widened and became common knowledge, the cabinet began to split apart internally. Meanwhile Pitt could not be silenced, and the more he railed, the more the ministers blamed one another for the disarray in Britain’s defenses. How could this travesty, Pitt cried, be called “an Administration? They shift and shuffle the charge from one to another: says one, I am not General; the Treasury says, I am not Admiral; the Admiralty says, I am not Minister. From such an unaccording assemblage of separate and distinct powers with no system, a nullity results.”1

Pitt’s jabs told all the more heavily for their accuracy, for the military situation grew more critical by the day. In addition to the forces gathering across the Channel, the French were assembling a fleet at Toulon, from which they could threaten Britain’s strategic naval base on the Mediterranean island of Minorca. No one knew whether the French were trying to distract British attention from Minorca by building up their forces in the Channel ports, or preparing to send a massive reinforcement to their army in Canada. Newcastle, whose temperament virtually prohibited decisive action, could bring himself to detach only a small squadron from the defense of the home waters. At the end of March, he ordered ten warships to proceed to Gibraltar, where their commander, Admiral John Byng, was to respond to whatever the French might attempt. If French ships had already passed the Straits, he was to pursue them to America; otherwise, he was to proceed to Minorca and help the garrison resist attack.

Byng, alas, was no fighting admiral, but rather a senior officer notable for administrative skills and strong family political influence. Moreover, the ships in his task force had only recently returned from raiding French commerce on the Atlantic. It was, therefore, with depleted crews, unmade repairs (two vessels were taking on water fast enough to need frequent pumping), and fouled hulls that Byng’s ships sailed from Portsmouth on April 7. When he reached Gibraltar nearly a month later, news was waiting that the French had landed on Minorca and besieged the island’s fortress, St. Philip’s Castle. Without waiting to refit, Byng sailed off to meet his enemy. 2

By the time Byng found the French fleet off Minorca on May 20, the British government had been at war with France for two days. Newcastle had long hesitated to issue a formal declaration of war, for domestic no less than diplomatic reasons. Given the gravity of the news from Minorca, however, where a small garrison under the command of an octogenarian colonel was being attacked by a much stronger force, the ministry had had little choice. Byng’s mission thus assumed enormous significance for the government, for as Newcastle knew only too well, a failure to relieve St. Philip’s Castle would bring down the ministry. The duke was frantic to avoid taking the blame himself, and long before the first news had arrived from the Mediterranean, at least one old political hand was advising Henry Fox to consider if there was “anybody to make a scape-goat” in the event Minorca should be lost.3

When the news finally arrived from the Mediterranean, all of it was bad. Byng’s leaky, barnacle-fouled, undermanned squadron had engaged a better-equipped force under the marquis de La Galissonière—the same man who as governor of Canada in 1749 had ordered Céloron de Blainville to make his celebrated reconnaissance of the Ohio Valley. In a four-hour action, half of Byng’s ships had been heavily damaged without inflicting any appreciable loss on La Galissonière’s force. That was humiliating enough, but not in itself disastrous, for following the exchange of fire La Galissonière had declined to press his advantage and sailed off to support the troops on Minorca. What turned this indecisive battle into a catastrophe was Byng’s decision, four days after it was over, to return to Gibraltar for repairs rather than to stand off Minorca and await the reinforcements that were on their way from the Rock. Byng’s retreat to Gibraltar doomed the Minorca garrison. Even so, the defenders held out until June 28 before capitulating, with full honors of war, to the French.

As the reports of these disasters filtered back to England, Newcastle’s divided ministry began to fall apart. Fox, fearing that the “scape-goat” would be him, blamed Newcastle for giving Byng too few ships, having concluded that “those who had direction of [the country] could no more carry on this war, than his three children,” and decided to resign when the right moment came. Newcastle, desperate to escape responsibility for the disaster, determined to blame Byng and set in motion the court-martial proceedings that would end with Byng’s execution by firing squad on March 14, 1757.4

Voltaire would later explain that in England it was thought a good thing to shoot an admiral, from time to time, in order to encourage the others, but in the aftermath of the Minorca debacle many English politicians thought that Newcastle’s obsessive pursuit of Byng signaled only his lack of fitness to lead the government. Thus opposition M.P.s were already in full cry against a disintegrating ministry when news arrived that the king of Prussia had precipitated a crisis certain to result in a continental war. On August 30, 1756, Frederick, without consulting and indeed almost without bothering to inform the British, invaded Saxony and launched military operations against the Austrian empire. The Convention of Versailles now operated inexorably to bring France to the defense of Maria Theresa, Austria’s empress-queen. The Russians, unprepared for war and knowing that they could expect no support from the English, abrogated the subsidy treaty and sought an accommodation with France and Austria. Once again Hanover stood exposed to invasion, and—Newcastle’s hopes and diplomatic efforts to the contrary notwithstanding—Great Britain found itself slipping over the brink into a general European war.5

Stories of Oswego’s fall, spreading from newspaper to newspaper across England in early October, therefore seemed to be the final calamity in a string of misfortunes that made it hard to imagine how Newcastle could face a new session of Parliament. Choosing his moment to wound the duke most gravely, Fox resigned on October 13. With no one to manage the Commons, and with Pitt, the only M.P. with sufficient stature to lead, trumpeting his refusal to serve in any administration that included Newcastle, the duke had no choice but to resign. By October 20 he knew the end had come and prepared for it by paying off his supporters with honors and pensions. On November 11, Newcastle formally surrendered the seals of office as first lord of the Treasury, and, for the first time in nearly four decades, retired from public life. 6

Yet while Newcastle was formally out of power at the end of 1756, he was not yet shorn of political influence. Formed under the leadership of William Pitt as Southern secretary (Pitt disdained the Treasury along with all issues of public finance, so the new first lord was a figurehead, the duke of Devonshire), the new ministry was destined to be a weak one for reasons that contemporary observers found self-evident. In the first place, Pitt’s base of support in the House of Commons was anything but secure. After years in opposition, his greatest constituency was external— the merchants and financiers of London and that vaguer body he called “the People” or “the Nation,” by which he meant the urban middle class and lesser gentry. Among active politicians in Parliament, Pitt could count on the votes of three groups only: “the faction of cousins,” as his in-laws the Grenvilles and their supporters were known; the Leicester House faction, or those politicians attached to the interest of the teenaged prince of Wales, his tutor the earl of Bute, and his mother the dowager princess; and the so-called independents, mostly Tory backbenchers who could be swayed by Pitt’s oratory and reputation as an incorruptible statesman.

What weakened Pitt even more, however, was the fact that George II detested him and his Grenville kin for the warmth of their connections with the heir apparent and the Leicester House faction generally. Nothing could budge the old king from keeping faith with his favorite son, the duke of Cumberland, and Cumberland’s protégé, Henry Fox. The enmity of the king was no mere inconvenience, for British monarchs remained powerful enough in the mid-eighteenth century that no ministry could long endure without royal cooperation. Finally, Pitt’s prospects were sharply limited by the fact that many members of the House of Commons remained under the influence of the duke of Newcastle, whose decades of assiduous attention to patronage had made him a man, in or out of power, whose opinion few M.P.s could afford to ignore. From the start Pitt was, therefore, a minister on a very short leash, capable of governing only at the sufferance of the king and Newcastle— and he knew it.7

Thus Pitt’s policies marked no great departure from the substance of those that Newcastle and Fox had pursued, although the Great Commoner did succeed in placing his distinctive rhetorical stamp on them by declaring the American war to be his first priority. Both the army and the navy were to be built up to new levels of strength and proficiency, he promised, and principally committed to American and West Indian operations. Lord Loudoun was to have no fewer than 17,000 regulars at his disposal by the beginning of the campaigning season, and use them first to seize Louisbourg, then Québec. Because the Hessians and Hanoverians who had been summoned to defend against French invasion had returned home at the outbreak of hostilities in the Germanies, Pitt also proposed to supplement the regular army by creating a militia for home defense—a 32,000-man territorial force raised in the counties under the leadership of local squires (eventually including the pudgy, bookish Edward Gibbon, whose service as a captain in the south battalion of the Hampshire militia would prove invaluable to history, if not necessarily indispensable to the defense of the realm).8 As for the Continent, Pitt had no intention of committing British soldiers there at all, preferring to let Germans spill German blood. The man who had so roundly reviled Newcastle for his policy of foreign subsidies accordingly advocated pouring vast sums into the coffers of Hanover, Hesse, and Prussia. These three together, he maintained, could raise 50,000 or 60,000 men to defend Hanover, and Britain should pay them to do it. Since Prussia was strong enough to carry the main burden of the land war against France and Austria, it deserved a subsidy of £200,000 annually.

Pitt intended this vigorous trimming of sail—and especially the attention to defending Hanover—to win the king’s trust and to secure Newcastle’s neutrality, if not necessarily his support. He achieved the latter only. George II could scarcely bear Pitt’s presence and absolutely loathed Pitt’s brother-in-law Richard Grenville, Lord Temple, who was serving as first lord of the Admiralty. Thus at the first flicker of independence on the part of Pitt—it came when he made a plea for clemency on behalf of Admiral Byng, then under sentence of death for neglect of duty—George sacked the lot. In early April 1757, after a little more than four months in office, Pitt was once again without a job, and the country, in the midst of a war going worse with every passing day, was without a government.9

Fox and Cumberland had forced this turn of events. Fox hoped to replace Pitt as first minister, and Cumberland gave him the support he needed by bluntly refusing to go to Hanover and assume command of the army there, so long as Pitt remained in office. Given the king’s unconcealed distaste for Pitt, this gambit had every prospect for success and doubtless would have worked brilliantly—had Newcastle agreed to cooperate. The duke, however, had never cared for Cumberland and refused to forgive Fox for his recent treachery. Without Newcastle’s support no progress could be made in any direction. Thus what followed the dismissal of Pitt in April was a bizarre three-month interlude of maneuvering and intrigue during which no one seemed to be in control of the government. Horace Walpole, half-amused and half-appalled, called it “the inter-ministerium.”10

None of what happened during this period, while the duke of Devonshire stayed on to head a ghostly caretaker cabinet, had anything to do with policy, for no one suggested that any change should be made in the way the war was to be waged. The only real issues at stake had to do with personalities. The king wished to revive the coalition of Fox and Newcastle, but Newcastle refused to have anything to do with Fox. The duke would undertake no ministry without first being assured that the king and the Leicester House faction could be reconciled, for he had no wish to find himself caught between feuding halves of the royal family. Yet Pitt, high in influence at Leicester House, would cooperate only if he could name his own terms, and they were too steep for either the king or Newcastle to tolerate. Fox wished to return to power, or—failing that— to be appointed to a position of profit; nothing would be possible unless some way could be found to satisfy his ambitions. To reconcile these competing desires and contradictory demands within the rigid frame of parliamentary politics demanded that equations of Einsteinian intricacy be solved. But until all the necessary calculations had been worked out, nothing—not even the war—could take precedence.11

The interministerium did not end until June was nearly over, when Newcastle and Pitt finally resolved, to their own and to the king’s grudging satisfactions, the all-important question of who should occupy what offices. In the end it was agreed that Newcastle would return to office as first lord of the Treasury and would exercise control over all patronage and financial affairs; the formulation of policy would be left to Pitt, who would reassume the Southern secretaryship. Thus Pitt would become “minister of measures” and the duke, “minister of money.” Newcastle’s old friend Robert D’Arcy, earl of Holdernesse, would return to the Northern secretaryship, balancing Pitt in the other of the two chief administrative posts in the Privy Council. Fox, whose patron Cumberland had gone off to defend Hanover, found himself cut off from power but amply rewarded by the paymaster generalship of the forces, a position that paid handsomely (above £4,000 per annum) and provided its incumbent with the choicest opportunities for profiteering that eighteenth-century English government afforded. Fox knew full well when he accepted the post that so long as he held it he would be putting himself on the shelf politically, for the paymastership communicated no influence whatever; but in the end he was happy enough to trade power for profit. Before his tenure ended in 1774, Fox would harvest more than £400,000 from the office. As for the rest of the interested parties, the king saw to it that no single interest triumphed. The detested Grenvilles received offices that conferred (at most) prestige, not power, and that kept them out of his closet. The Townshend brothers, important allies of Pitt among the independents, got nothing at all. Even Newcastle, who had tried to have a ministerial post created for Lord Halifax—a secretaryship of state for America and the West Indies—found himself brought up short. 12

What would come to be known as the Pitt-Newcastle ministry was a coalition created by strenuous bargaining, and it was obviously one that could function only so long as its major parties remained willing to compromise. Relieved that the long weeks of drift were at an end, politicians and others outside the new ministry greeted its formation with expressions of hope for the future. Given the lack of goodwill and trust between the ministers at the outset, however, optimism was hardly the order of the day within the government itself. The king had been deeply offended during the interministerium by Newcastle’s unwillingness to do his bidding; Newcastle was still speaking of Pitt as “my enemy”; Pitt was calling his role in the new ministry a “bitter but necessary cup,” which he approached with a “foreboding mind.”13 As if all that were not enough, on the very day that Newcastle and Pitt kissed the king’s hand for their seals of office, news of the most forbidding sort arrived from the Continent.

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