Military history

CHAPTER 45

Pitt Confronts an Unexpected Challenge

OCTOBER 1760

ON THE FIFTH of October, Isaac Barré, face disfigured and sight partially destroyed by the wound he had received at the Battle of Québec, brought word to Pitt of Canada’s capitulation. While most welcome, the news was hardly unexpected and did not occasion the kind of outburst that William Amherst’s visit had evoked a little more than two years earlier. Instead Pitt responded in a manner that had become almost routine, presenting the dispatches to the king, issuing a Gazette Extraordinary to make the news public, allowing himself to bask awhile in the adulation of the people, and then sending Amherst a letter full of congratulation, instruction, and advice. 1

The king, the man now known as the Great Commoner wrote, was delighted, but would of course expect a full account of the territories and posts that had been added to his dominions. Naturally Amherst would also want to suppress the rebellion of the Cherokee Indians in Carolina, news of which had been troubling His Majesty of late. With so little left to conquer in America, the commander in chief could take his choice between seizing the remainder of the French West Indian islands or launching an expedition against those forts that remained in enemy hands in the Mississippi Valley and at Mobile. At any rate Amherst did not need to wait for detailed instructions, “the King reposing the most entire Reliance on [his] Experienced Judgement, and Ability.” Finally, Pitt concluded, he should not expect to come home until the war was over or until the king saw fit to summon him back, and so might as well stop asking to be relieved of his command.2

Pitt finished this letter on October 24, a Friday on which—had he chosen to do so—he could have taken considerable pleasure in the current state of affairs. If he did not allow himself to feel self-satisfied, it was because in Europe there had been no breakthrough and he was growing impatient both with Prince Ferdinand and with Frederick II. Ferdinand in particular seemed unwilling or unable to take the offensive against the French army on the Rhine. Still, if Pitt had been willing to give him his due, he would have had to admit that the prince, although always outnumbered and sometimes outmaneuvered, had fenced all summer with France’s best general without losing any significant territory and had made Hanover safe once more. The end of the invasion threat after the Battle of Quiberon Bay had freed ten battalions of British horse and twelve of foot for service in Germany: these formed a “Glorious Reinforcement” sent to the prince in September and brought the number of redcoats on the Continent up to about 22,000. Although they had arrived too late to make any difference in 1760, if properly employed in the coming year they might conceivably tip the balance enough to make the French willing to sue for peace. The early indications at least were favorable. At the recent victory of Kloster Kamp, British units—especially Sir John Granby’s cavalry—had done excellent service and helped insure that the French would be on the defensive when they went into winter quarters. 3

As for the war in the east, Prussia seemed more than ever to be a sewer down which German blood and British money flowed in approximately equal volumes. Impatient as Pitt was, however, he could not have failed to see that Frederick was holding his own, and indeed even retaining the initiative. Despite (or because of) the impossibility of regaining Saxony, he had reinvaded Silesia in August, and there, at Liegnitz, had brilliantly defeated a larger Austrian army; then, with even greater brilliance, he had hoaxed the commander of the main Russian army into withdrawing his forces from Prussia for the remainder of the campaigning season. Although a small combined force of Austro-Russian raiders managed to seize and partially burn Berlin on October 9, they had retreated as soon as Frederick marched to the city’s relief. Now, Pitt knew, the doughty little king was moving to engage the main Austrian army, which had withdrawn to the Elbe and encamped near Torgau. Frederick had always won more battles than he lost. Perhaps this one would be decisive.4

In short, had Pitt taken stock of the war on that late autumn Friday, he would have realized that if European operations had not moved beyond stalemate, at least they had not deteriorated. He might well have hoped to force the French (if not necessarily the Austrians and Russians) to make peace, supposing he could put more pressure on them in the coming year. In this respect the West Indies, the Mississippi River forts, and the Alabama posts to which he directed Amherst’s attention were particularly important. And then, of course, there was that other theater of war, even more distant from Europe than America, in which the last years’ developments also looked promising—events that could only discomfit the French court, further weaken France’s overseas commerce, damage the monarchy’s credit, and thus erode the country’s ability to continue the war. For in India, the forces of the United East India Company, the company’s Indian allies, and a handful of regular troops seemed to be on the verge of erasing French power and influence altogether.

Anglo-Indian arms were succeeding on the subcontinent late in 1760 largely because the Royal Navy had come to dominate the Indian Ocean almost to the same extent it controlled the North Atlantic. Early in 1757, a remarkable clerk-turned-conqueror, Robert Clive of the East India Company, had learned of the declaration of war against France and seized the opportunity to attack the Compagnie des Indies, France’s counterpart to his own employer. In March of that year, Clive’s troops had captured one of the leading French factories, Chandernagore. In June he defeated the nawab of Bengal and the French units that supported him at the Battle of Plassey, thus gaining direct control over Bengal. In northern India, then, everything had gone splendidly; in the southeast, where the Compagnie des Indies competed more directly with British interests, the situation had initially looked less promising but had improved as time and the Royal Navy asserted their influence.

The arrival at Pondicherry, early in 1758, of a strong force from France under Thomas-Arthur, comte de Lally, had gravely threatened British interests on the Coromandel Coast. By the beginning of June, Lally had seized the rich and important company post of Fort St. David, near Cuddalore, south of Pondicherry. Before the year was out he had besieged the very seat of British power in southeast India, Fort St. George, at Madras. This had been particularly dangerous, since Clive had the majority of the company’s troops with him in far-off Bengal; and indeed Lally and his men came extremely close to taking Fort St. George during the winter. Only the arrival at Madras in mid-February of British store ships, convoyed by armed East Indiamen and a Royal Navy squadron, shifted the balance against the French commander. Not a moment too soon: Lally’s sappers had actually breached the fort’s outer wall when he found himself forced to raise the siege and retire to his base of supply at Pondicherry.5

Lally could not sustain his army without money and adequate supplies, and he could obtain neither by sea. Throughout 1759 his troops became more and more demoralized, mutinying over their lack of pay, ragged clothing, and miserable rations; and those shortages in turn could be traced to the inability of the regional naval commander, Admiral Anne Antoine, comte d’Aché, to bring them in from Île de France (Mauritius), the principal naval base in the Indian Ocean. Lally’s situation deteriorated as the year progressed, but it was not until September 10 that his fate was sealed. On that day Admiral d’Aché—who at long last had acquired food, supplies, and reinforcements, and who was sailing for Pondicherry at the head of a powerful eleven-ship squadron— encountered the smaller nine-ship fleet of Rear Admiral Sir George Pocock off Tranquebar. In an engagement rendered indecisive because both commanders adhered scrupulously to the line-ahead tactics specified in their Fighting Instructions, Pocock’s gunners inflicted considerable damage on their adversaries. Admiral d’Aché limped on to Pondicherry, but his squadron had been so badly battered that he could not remain. To save his ships, he retired to Île de France on October 1, never to return.6

In saving his fleet, d’Aché doomed Lally and the French trading stations on the Coromandel Coast. The turning point actually came at the beginning of 1760 when the British military commander in the region, Lieutenant Colonel Eyre Coote of the 84th Regiment, lured Lally out to do battle at Wandiwash, some forty miles northwest of Pondicherry. On January 22, Coote defeated his opponent in an open-field engagement; thereafter, Lally broke down psychologically and proved incapable of defending the outposts that protected Pondicherry. By the middle of April only the city and its immediate surroundings remained under French control. Meanwhile, a powerful British naval squadron had blockaded it, allowing Coote to besiege the city in August. On January 16, 1761, he would accept the sword of Pondicherry’s neurasthenic commandant and extinguish, four months after the capitulation of Canada, the influence of France in India.7

Because it took six months for news from India to reach England, Pitt knew only of the Battle of Wandiwash and the skirmishes prior to the siege of Pondicherry when he finished his letter to Amherst on October 24. Yet there is no reason to doubt that he anticipated that Coote’s and the company’s operations in India would conclude as successfully as Amherst’s campaigns in America. More than any other British minister except Anson, Pitt understood that the Royal Navy’s mastery of the seas could decide the fate of France’s empire.

Pitt was, indeed, so enamored of seaborne operations that he was willing to believe they could be decisive even in Europe, where experience actually suggested the opposite. His newest scheme was in fact to renew raiding on the French coast as a means of moving the European war off dead center. Specifically he intended to seize Belle-Île-en-Mer, the island off the Breton coast that British sailors called Belleisle. Thirty miles south of Lorient and a hundred twenty miles northwest of La Rochelle, commanding the approaches to Quiberon Bay, Belleisle dominated the Bay of Biscay. A British naval base and army garrison there, Pitt thought, could divert thousands of French troops from Germany to coastal defense. Lord Anson believed it a mad scheme and opposed it; so did Sir Edward Hawke, who arguably knew the region better than anyone else in Britain. Typically, the disapproval of the nation’s two greatest admirals deterred Pitt not in the least, and in the hope of enlisting the king’s approval for the venture, he had requested an audience for the same day on which he sent off Amherst’s instructions, the twenty-fourth. The results, however, were not what he had anticipated. George II disapproved. Pleased as he was with the recent victories overseas, he worried that seizing Belleisle would lead to the recall of British army forces supporting Ferdinand, and might thereby endanger his beloved Hanover.

Pitt, angry that Anson had gotten in ahead of him and primed the king with arguments against the plan, knew that now he would have to campaign long and hard to gain the stubborn old man’s acquiescence.8 Yet he surely did not doubt that he could do it. Since the fall of Louisbourg the king had denied him nothing. How likely was he permanently to refuse his approval to the minister who had lately delivered to him half of North America and would at any moment be able to announce the conquest of France’s last stronghold in India? How likely was the king to decline the counsel of a minister who was on the threshold of making him master of an empire greater than Alexander’s?

BUT PITT WOULD never convince the king of the strategic benefits of seizing Belleisle because, before the palace clocks had struck eight the next morning, George II was dead. He had gone to bed on Friday night feeling as well as most men of seventy-seven are permitted to feel. According to Horace Walpole, who mined the gossip of the court for every detail of the next morning’s events, he “rose at six . . . as usual, looked, I suppose, [to see] if all his money was in his purse, and called for his chocolate. A little after seven, he went into the water-closet—the German valet de chambre heard a noise louder than the royal wind, listened, heard something like a groan, ran in, and found the hero of Oudenarde and Dettingen on the floor, with a gash in his right temple, by falling against the corner of a bureau—he tried to speak, could not, and expired.” 9 The autopsy showed that he had suffered a massive heart attack—brought on, it was supposed, “from his exertions.”10

For three years, everything William Pitt touched had turned to gold. But when the old king died, the world of British politics changed forever. In a twinkling, Leicester House ceased to be a country faction and became the court. The earl of Bute ceased to be the prince’s tutor and became instead his monarch’s most trusted counselor. And the prince of Wales, thickheaded adolescent that still he was, became George III, by the grace of God king of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and America. Pitt had proven himself to be many things, but he had not been pliable, and nothing he had done in the last two years (ever since his abandonment of Bligh after the fiasco of St.-Cas) had endeared him to George and Bute, the oddly assorted pair who had suddenly become the most important men in Britain. Pitt must have sensed that he had become vulnerable; and yet no one believed more fervently than he did that he was indispensable to the Crown and its gigantically expanded empire. So he did not panic or even make extraordinary efforts to patch up relations with Bute and the new king, but rather assumed that he would carry on as he had for the last three years.

Pitt had no real conception of how unlikely it was that he would succeed in that endeavor. Since 1758 the Great Commoner had only had to reckon with his nation’s enemies and its sometimes equally bellicose allies. But the new king offered challenges of a different—and sterner— sort than any that belligerent states had posed. No one but Bute and George’s mother had ever succeeded in mastering the turbulent emotions and the passionate convictions of the man whom time and chance had made king. They had been able to do it because George loved them without question. But Pitt, who knew his worth very well, failed to understand, at the most critical moment of his career, that there was nothing about him that George III could love.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!