Military history


The End of an Alliance


THE KING AND BUTE were now free to replace Pitt and Temple, but not to reshuffle the rest of the cabinet’s ministries according to their liking. Newcastle, without whose complicity Pitt could never have been unseated, would remain in the post Bute coveted, while the aging architects of military operations, Anson and Ligonier, would continue to direct the navy and the army. Thus while Pitt’s departure averted an immediate declaration of war on Spain, it generated only marginal changes in long-established patterns. The duke of Bedford, Newcastle’s old enemy and an ally of Bute, was named to replace Temple as lord privy seal, while Charles Wyndham, the second earl of Egremont—an aristocrat qualified by irreproachable pedigree, if no other qualities, for the office—took over Pitt’s old position as Southern secretary.1

Since no commoners now held ministerial posts, someone had to be designated to manage the government’s interests in the House of Commons, and for that role Bute and the king settled on George Grenville. This was in some ways a clever choice, for Grenville was Temple’s brother and Pitt’s brother-in-law, and an important figure in “the faction of cousins” that had been the Great Commoner’s base in Parliament during his long career in opposition. Although he put himself on bad terms with the other members of his party by accepting the position as the ministry’s leader in the Commons, Grenville was still bound by familial and political ties to Pitt, and thus at least potentially offered another means of keeping Pitt out of opposition. Grenville was a deeply unimaginative man but a legendarily hard worker and an able fiscal technician—all qualities that commended him to Bute. A rarer quality commended him to the king: a reputation for incorruptibility equal to Pitt’s, before Pitt accepted the pension. This made him a figure capable of retaining the loyalty of the independent M.P.s on the backbenches and thus limiting the damage Pitt could inflict as an opposition leader. At the top of his form Grenville was no better than a lackluster orator, but his talents as a parliamentary operative seemed adequate to offset that deficiency.2

In policy, as in personnel, the changes that followed Pitt’s resignation all came at the margins. The circumstances of the Great Commoner’s departure and the necessity of avoiding a crisis that would compel the king to recall him to office dictated that George and his ministers take a hard line on the war, particularly on questions relating to Spain. Thus the negotiations with France, long fettered by a fisheries issue that might now have been resolved, were allowed to lapse. The British ambassador in Madrid was instructed to demand assurances that Spain’s intentions in concluding the Family Compact were peaceable and was authorized to open negotiations on the logwood question. In the meantime, however, Ligonier and Anson set to work preparing for a widened war.3

In the event of hostilities, Spain’s likeliest first move would be to invade Portugal, a country bound to Britain by a defensive treaty and so tightly tied to the British empire economically as to be a virtual dependency. To defend Portugal would take perhaps 10,000 soldiers more than the approximately 110,000 currently on active service. This posed a major problem because since 1760 the number of volunteers enlisting had been no more than adequate to replace losses. Ligonier and Charles Townshend—the brilliant young opportunist who had been appointed secretary at war in March—therefore grasped the nettle of necessity and sanctioned “raising for rank,” or offering commissions as field officers to gentlemen who could raise new battalions from among their tenantry. To revive this antique practice was a desperate measure, since the personal loyalties that produced such units weakened the professionalism of the army; yet the only alternative, conscription (declaring a “land impress”), would have produced worse effects and probably riots. Lord Anson, meanwhile, faced even more inflexible limits in ships and manpower as he began trying to identify potential targets in the Spanish empire. So fully was the navy committed that any expeditions would have to rely heavily on troops already based outside the home isles—an expedient, it was true, but one that had the advantage of speed. If plans could be laid before the declaration of war, orders might be sent overseas soon enough to enable the expeditions’ commanders to surprise their opponents. Or so, at least, Anson hoped.4

Pitt’s departure, then, created paradoxical effects. A king who had hoped to effect great changes in the cabinet found its composition barely altered; ministers who had plotted Pitt’s downfall because they hoped to sidestep a war with Spain found that hostilities were all but inevitable. On November 19, Egremont instructed the British ambassador to deliver an ultimatum: if Spain did not immediately declare that it had no intention of acting as an ally to Britain’s enemies, Britain would regard its silence as “an aggression” equivalent to “an absolute Declaration of War.” Madrid made no reply. Thus on January 4, 1762, Great Britain declared war; Spain responded in kind on the eighteenth. By then, Anson and Ligonier had already dispatched orders for British forces in America to initiate operations against Havana, and those in India to prepare for an assault on Manila.5


George Grenville (1712–70). Shown here in an engraved version of a Hoare portrait, issued after his appointment as treasurer of the navy in 1754, Grenville appears as a fortyish, but still youthful, figure. He holds an Act of Parliament, “establishing a regular method for the punctual, frequent & certain payment” of seamen’s wages—appropriately enough, a law dealing with the kind of technically complex financial issues that Grenville understood better than any other politician of his day. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Thus the strategy and policy of Pitt’s “System” survived its architect’s political eclipse. Britain would continue to concentrate on imperial, not continental warfare. The Martinique expedition, which Pitt ordered Amherst to organize at the beginning of the year, had proceeded irrespective of the political changes in London and now produced the kind of result to which Britons had become accustomed. On November 19, with the hurricane season over, Robert Monckton (once more fit for duty, and a major general) led a task force of seven thousand men from New York, heading for a rendezvous with another seven thousand redcoats and a large naval task force in the West Indies. Although British command of the sea in effect decided the outcome of the Martinique venture in advance, the island’s terrain made the campaign difficult: a month and nearly five hundred British casualties separated the landings of mid-January and the surrender of the last defenders on February 16, 1762.6

Once Martinique capitulated, the rest of the French West Indies islands fell like dominoes: St. Lucia on February 26, Grenada on March 5, and St. Vincent soon thereafter. In each case, the planters—starved for manufactures and foodstuffs, glutted with unshippable produce, nervous about their slaves—welcomed the chance to begin trading legitimately within the world’s most prosperous empire. What British arms had begun, therefore, British commerce completed with admirable thoroughness. A correspondent reported to the Pennsylvania Gazette from Martinique that “the Inhabitants” seemed “never so happy before.” Perhaps he exaggerated, but some kind of relief was unmistakable in the “elegant service of Plate” that the merchants of the island gave Monckton as a going-away present.7

So in a sense Pitt’s war went on without him: partially because Bute and the other ministers feared the consequences of an abrupt change in policy, and partially because no one dared propose an alternative to the military strategies perfected during his ministry. But these continuities implied a similar persistence in the war’s greatest problems, too, for in Europe nothing the British could do had yet enabled Ferdinand or Frederick to gain a permanent advantage over their vastly more numerous adversaries. Indeed, it may be that Britain’s renewed concentration on colonial war grew most of all from the sense that military progress could be made nowhere else.

The year 1761 saw an alarming deterioration on both the eastern and western fronts in Germany. After his winter campaign had foundered on shortages of men and supplies, forcing him to withdraw from the Rhineland, Ferdinand had regrouped, invaded Hesse, and won a victory at Vellinghausen on July 15 and 16—only to be forced to retreat before a powerful French counteroffensive. By the end of the campaign the French had pushed him back east of the Weser: further east, in fact, than he had been in March. There, despite the exhaustion of his men, he resupplied his army and in early November counterattacked to halt a French invasion of Hanover. He was therefore able to enter winter quarters without having lost what was still (to Newcastle, if not to Bute or the king) the most important territory in western Europe. But as tactically brilliant as his campaigning had been, Ferdinand could only be judged a success if his record was measured against his brother-in-law’s. In the east, Frederick II had narrowly escaped disaster in 1761 only to face the prospect of certain destruction in the following year.8

Frederick’s problem lay in the erosion of manpower. Although briefly buoyed by the costly victory of Torgau, late in 1760, Prussia began the campaigns of 1761 with only a hundred thousand men under arms, as against three times that number of Austrian and Russian troops. The Austrians had refused to exchange prisoners at the close of the 1760 campaigns in order to deny Frederick access to the last significant reservoir of trained Prussian infantry; at the beginning of 1761, therefore, new recruits and foreigners comprised at least half of his forces. The Prussian army now had nothing in common with the force Frederick had wielded like a rapier at the war’s beginning. Once he had sought battle, hoping to gain a decisive victory; now he knew that a single defeat could destroy his army and desperately tried to avoid combat. The strain told on him so heavily, he wrote to an old friend, that “the hairs on the right side of my head have gone quite grey; my teeth are rotting and falling out; my face is wrinkled like the folds of a lady’s dress, my back [is] as bent as a fiddlestick and my mind as melancholy as a Trappist’s.”9

Austrian troops now occupied most of Silesia, Frederick’s most prized conquest. His efforts to save what was left of it very nearly cost him the main force of his army: on August 20, after failing to prevent the junction of Austrian and Russian armies in northern Silesia, he found himself cut off from Prussia and forced to retreat to high ground near the village of Bunzelwitz, about twenty miles east of Glatz on the present Czech-German border. There, for ten days in late August and early September, his men feverishly improvised fortifications while the Austrian and Russian commanders debated whether to attack. Only their inability to decide saved him. On September 9 the Russians withdrew, leaving the Austrians no choice but to enter winter quarters. But Frederick’s luck held only briefly. In December a Russian army seized Kolberg, depriving him of his last port on the Baltic, and for that matter control of the province of Pomerania. For the first time in the war, a Russian army could winter on the doorstep of Brandenburg and within easy striking distance of Berlin, in a position to deny Frederick access to the grain harvest of Poland, on which he had come to rely for provisions.10

As Frederick’s year of disasters ended, he controlled only Prussia’s heartland provinces of Brandenburg and Magdeburg, a fragment of northern Silesia, and parts of Saxony. The Austrians occupied the rest of his conquests, the Russians held East Prussia and Pomerania, and the French controlled his Rhineland provinces. His remaining subjects were prostrate under the burdens of taxation and conscription. Britain’s annual subsidy of £670,000 no longer compensated for the resources he had lost. He knew that he would be able to field fewer than seventy thousand men in the coming year, against four times as many enemies. Desperately, Prussian diplomats beseeched the Ottomans to attack Russia, implored the Crimean Tatars to invade Hungary. But Frederick knew that unless the Turks attacked Russia by February 20 his game would be up. Since a severe bout with depression in 1758 he had carried a small box containing a lethal dose of opium pills. Now he wrote to his brother, Prince Henry, that he would “not die a coward’s death[.] When I see on 20th February that [the Ottomans have not declared war on Russia], I shall cling to my Stoics and the little box.” Then Prussia’s diplomats could make peace on any terms they pleased on behalf of Frederick William, the nephew and heir whom Frederick despised. The house of Brandenburg, he believed, was done for.11

Frederick was not a religious man, but what happened next he would ever after regard as God’s miraculous intervention on Prussia’s behalf. On January 6, 1762, the tsarina Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great and Frederick’s most determined enemy, died suddenly of a stroke. Her Germanized nephew, the duke of Holstein-Gottorp, ascended the throne as Tsar Peter III: a man whose greatest contribution to Russian history would be his wife, Catherine, and whose only strong personal trait was an abject adoration of the king of Prussia. Peter’s first diplomatic venture as tsar was to ask Frederick to grant him a Prussian title, the Order of the Black Eagle. Frederick’s spirits revived: he had barely finished composing a nasty epitaph for before he began drafting terms of peace for consideration at St. Peters-burg. He would offer East Prussia in return for peace; would the tsar accept? Peter protested in reply that he would rather be one of Frederick’s generals than tsar of all the Russias, and all that remained to be worked out were technicalities. In May, Russia and Prussia ratified the peace, Peter handed East Prussia back to his hero and asked if Frederick would care to have the use of a Russian army corps for the rest of the war. Sweden did not fail to discern its future prospects in these developments and made a hasty peace. By the end of May 1762, a king who would otherwise have taken his own life months before found himself very much alive, militarily reinvigorated, and facing only Austria. He was prepared to deal with them, whether the British continued their subsidy or not.12

the Russian Messalina, the Cossacks’ whore Gone to service lovers on the Stygian shore,

All these improbable events, so fortunate for the house of Brandenburg, could hardly have been better timed, for the British alliance had in fact fallen apart. The first signal had come on January 6, the day of the tsarina’s death and two days after the declaration of war on Spain, when Bute, now preeminent in the cabinet, posed “the Great Question, for Consideration only, of withdrawing all our troops from Germany and giving up the German war.” Newcastle was aghast. To abandon the Germans, and with them the diplomatic and military “System” that he and Pitt had devised, would allow France to seize Hanover, and—because Elizabeth’s death would not be known in England for some days, and its consequences would remain uncertain for months—would permit Russia and Austria to dismember Prussia. More than economy was at stake: honor, too, must have some place in Britain’s foreign policy.13

And yet Newcastle knew only too well that Britain could not go on expending heroic sums on the Continent and fight the Spanish as well. He well remembered how hard it had been to negotiate the loans to pay for 1762’s campaigns, when the “money’d men” had agreed to lend only at a heavy discount—eighty pounds currency to buy a hundred pounds’ worth of securities—and at the steep effective interest rate of 5 percent. Even so, Newcastle had been able to secure only twelve of the fourteen million pounds the budget estimates required and was facing the unpleasant prospect of covering the difference by issuing Exchequer bills without the cooperation of the Bank of England. The Spanish war would inevitably reduce revenues generated from the customs on Mediterranean trade, pressing the government even harder in meeting its obligations. To the nervous duke, this looked ominous indeed. Yet he passionately insisted that to abandon the German war would be to surrender everything in Europe to France, at the very moment France was staggering on the verge of financial disaster. Bute, having gauged the old man’s will to resist, retreated from his proposal. Once the “Great Question” had been broached, however, time would only make it more insistent.14

As Pitt had earlier, the duke now found himself looking for allies that no longer existed in the cabinet. With the tacit approval of the king and Bute, the duke of Bedford actually made a motion in favor of abandoning the German war in the House of Lords on February 5—an extraordinary act for the lord privy seal, and one that Newcastle recognized as a slap in the face. News of Peter III’s reversal of Russian policy so thoroughly undermined Newcastle’s position that all Bute and his allies needed was a pretext to force him out of office. That excuse came soon enough, in the form of a minor crisis in finance. Sending troops to Portugal to oppose the expected Spanish invasion required an emergency appropriation of a million pounds. In order to ask the House of Commons for authority to borrow this sum, Newcastle in early April asked for cabinet approval. Bute, Grenville, and Bedford refused to agree. The money would have to come from somewhere. The German budget was the only possible source.

The ministers had given Newcastle the opportunity to resign on an issue of principle. Newcastle, unlike Pitt, missed his cue. In a futile effort to retain office, he trimmed his opinions to match those of the majority and agreed to suspend the subsidy to Prussia. Frustrated, Bute and his allies adopted more direct measures, ones that would be unmistakable even to the duke. In mid-April, Grenville began intervening directly in Treasury operations, issuing orders to the secretaries who ran its day-today operations. Newcastle informed the king that if such meddling did not cease, he would resign. His Majesty chose to construe this ultimatum as an offer and promptly accepted it. As Newcastle described it on May 15, “without one word of concern on my leaving him, nor even . . . a polite compliment—after near fifty years service and devotion to the interest of his Royal Family,” George III turned him out. On the twenty-sixth he delivered up the seals of his office, declined the pension the king offered, and retired from public life. 15

It was a sad, graceless exit for a minister who had been central to the creation of the modern British state and indispensable to the most prodigious military triumphs in British history. Yet Newcastle’s departure, bitter as it was for him, cleared the way for the king and Bute to end the war on their own terms. None of the men who had been instrumental in winning the war’s victories would be able to play a role in making the peace.

Perhaps George felt that he could afford to be surly in dismissing Newcastle, for the duke could no longer block Bute’s advancement to the post of first lord of the Treasury. The manner in which the “Dearest Friend” responded to the chance to seize the office he had so long schemed to get, however, has left posterity almost no alternative to judging him a ninny. His whining expressions of self-doubt, his worry over possible lack of support in the Commons, his protestations and hesitations and neurotic twitches surprised even George, who sent encouraging little notes to brace him up. “The thought of [your] not accepting the Treasury, or . . . retiring chill my blood,” the king wrote. “Is this a moment for despondency? No for vigour and the day is ours; . . . to be short take the Treasury and the numbers [of supporters in Parliament] will be with you.” Reassured of his monarch’s love if unconvinced of a secure majority in the Commons, Bute at length accepted the office. And that, at last, put paid to the Prussian alliance.16

Bute hated Frederick with a fervor exceeded only by Frederick’s detestation of him. The new first minister wanted to end the war without delay, and Prussia’s newly strengthened position against Austria threatened only to prolong the war. Frederick was anything but cooperative. When Bute advised him to make peace with Austria by giving back Silesia, the king replied with scorn: “Learn your duty better, and take note that it is not your place to proffer me such foolish and impertinent advice.” When Bute subsequently asked the tsar to keep armies in the field against Prussia—a note that Peter forwarded to his idol—Frederick’s contempt overflowed. “To break faith with an ally, to hatch plots against him, to work zealously for his downfall, such enormities . . . [are] abominable.” In the end the Anglo-Prussian alliance dissolved less because Britain could no longer afford to continue its subsidy than because Bute and Frederick, two accomplished haters, regarded one another with unalloyed mutual loathing.17

In 1762, therefore, the war of Prussia against Austria proceeded to its conclusion on a course parallel to, but independent of, Britain’s war against France and Spain. This placed Prince Ferdinand in an anomalous position, but Bute and his allies feared Pitt’s power in Parliament too much to terminate aid to Hanover. Ferdinand thus continued to fight the French with no more than his accustomed handicaps of understrength regiments and underfed horses. Frederick himself was almost relieved by the end of the relationship, for it gave him the opportunity to repair his fortunes without British interference. Ironically, the subsidy money from 1761 had been shipped late in the year, and he embarked on his 1762 campaign in a relatively sound financial state. That, and the timely arrival of twenty thousand Russian soldiers, enabled him to reinvade Silesia. Making the most of his opportunities, he engaged Daun’s Austrians at Burkersdorf on July 24 and won the battle that positioned him to recapture the province.

It was well that Frederick acted quickly, for his victory at Burkersdorf in fact came at the last possible moment. The nobles of the Russian court, acting with the encouragement of the tsarina, had deposed Tsar Peter on July 9. Tsarina Catherine, who despised Frederick as much as her husband had worshiped him, immediately recalled the Russian forces, but Frederick persuaded (or perhaps bribed) the Russian commander into remaining with him just long enough to tie down a large component of the Austrian army while he came to grips with Daun. Because Austria had been in financial trouble since 1760, and had come to rely so much on Russia for military support, Burkersdorf proved a blow disproportionate to its actual size.18

Daun’s refusal or inability to resume offensive operations allowed Frederick to invest the last Austrian stronghold in Silesia, the fortress of Schweidnitz. They gave it up, and with it the province, in October—not long before Prince Henry’s army routed a superior Austrian force at the Battle of Freiberg and reasserted Prussian control over Saxony. Meanwhile, in the west, Prince Ferdinand prevented France from making a last-ditch attempt to regain Hanover when he defeated a French army at Wilhelmsthal on June 24. Then, moving southward, he broke up the French forces in Hesse during July and besieged Cassel, which capitulated on November 2. At that point armistices were at hand both in the east, where Austria despaired of regaining Silesia, and in the west, where the intervention of Spain had produced nothing but further humiliations for the house of Bourbon.19

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