The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Great Wars of the Early 18th Century

Category: 18th century

John ChurchillThe connection with Holland brought England into wars with France. These wars were fought under con­ditions created by two factors, the rising power of France and the rapid decomposition of the Spanish Empire.

After almost dominating Europe in the 16th cen­tury, Spain had been sinking during the 17th century into a position in which she could no longer defend her vast possessions strung half across Europe and occu­pying more than half of America. In Europe these posses­sions included a great part of Italy and area corres­ponding roughly with the modern Belgium. Both France and Austria were beginning to look upon Italy as law­ful prey while the seizure of the Spanish Netherlands, lying between France and Holland, was a necessary preliminary to any attack on the latter country. Hol­land herself, which was just passing the peak point of its commercial greatness, would hardly have been able to defend her frontiers without the help of England obtained by William III’s accession to the English Crown.

The decline of Spain had created a kind of vacu­um in Europe, and France seemed destined to fill this vacuum and to seize and exploit the domains that Spain was now incapable of exploiting for herself. Apart from the connection with Holland, the English had a consid­erable direct interest in this conflict, as the conquest by France would upset the balance of power in Eu­rope as well as reverse the whole work of the Glorious Revolution by the restoration of the Stuarts.

Besides, the Spanish colonies in America were be­coming one of the choicest fields for English traders. Spain grew too weak to enforce the regulations pro­hibiting foreigners from trading with these colonies but it was almost unlikely that this happy state of affairs would continue if these territories fell into French hands. Consequently, the two great wars of this period, the War of the League of Augsburg (1689-1697) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713) were also trading and colonial wars.

The technical character of war had been revolu­tionized since the time of Cromwell, chiefly by the invention of the bayonet and the improvement of the musket. The bayonet had the effect of almost exactly doubling the efficiency of the infantry, since each sol­dier now did the work of a pikeman as well as a mus­keteer. The pike disappeared from the battlefield and with the introduction of the ring bayonet, which made it possible to fire without unfixing, the cavalry lost their supremacy and battles were now decided mainly by the fire power and steadiness of the foot regiments.

At the same time artillery was greatly improved and fortifications and siege operations played a more impor­tant part in war. Armies now tended to be slow moving, to cling closely to carefully prepared lines and to require more elaborate equipment and vast baggage trains. The secret of John Churchill Duke of Marlborough’s success as a general lay in his ability to break through the paraly­sis that seemed to have overtaken strategy. While the Dutch were masters of slow-motion warfare, defend­ing their positions stubbornly but unwilling to move a step outside them, Marlbo­rough could take half Europe for his field of manoeuvre and draw his reluctant allies into combinations and movements which alone they would never have dared to dream about.

Yet the most important fact about the changed mode of warfare was that it was so costly that no nation which was not rich and industrially well developed could wage a long war with good hope of success. Here lay the advan­tage of the combination of England and Holland and the disadvantage of France whose financial organiza­tion was weak and whose industry had been under­mined by the expulsion of the Huguenots. Further, the wars were immensely profitable to the English finan­ciers and contractors adding to their wealth.

The first of the great European wars of this peri­od, the War of the League of Augsburg, was indeci­sive, notable only for the successful defence of the Spanish Netherlands by the Dutch and the penetra­tion of the Mediterranean by the British Navy which now secured a permanent superiority over that of the French. It also proved the efficiency of the financial apparatus which William III’s Chancellor, Montague, had built up. The war ended in 1697 with the Treaty of Ryswick, a treaty that kept all the major issues in dispute undecided.

Soon after, the king of Spain died without direct heir, and a grandson of Louis XIV of France succeed­ed him. Holland and England, which were unwilling to allow France to control the Spanish Empire, and Aust­ria which had a rival candidate in the field, at once declared war. French armies overran the Spanish Neth­erlands and Italy and a French alliance with Bavaria threatened Vienna.

In 1702 William III died and Marlborough took his place at the head of the Anglo-Dutch armies. For two years his Dutch colleagues kept him on the defensive. Then, in 1704, when a French army was actually on the Danube, Marlborough made his famous march up the Rhine and into Bavaria. The French, taken by surprise, were checked in their advance on Vienna and the con­quest of Bavaria was followed by their defeat at Blen­heim, a battle that proved the turning point of the war.

From this time it was mainly a question of how long both sides were prepared to hang on till they could agree on terms. Marlborough cleared the Span­ish Netherlands in a series of campaigns lasting till 1708. The Austrians occupied Italy. In Spain a small British army, skillfully exploiting the national griev­ances of the Catalans, met with some success and cap­tured, but was unable to hold, Madrid.

By 1710 both sides had fought themselves almost to a standstill. In 1712 the war was ended by the Trea­ty of Utrecht. The French candidate remained king of Spain, but Austria took Italy and the Netherlands, thus preserving the balance of power and giving the Dutch a secure southern frontier. The Catalans, to whom the most extravagant promises had been made, were left to the vengeance of the Spanish government.

Britain kept Gibraltar and Minorca, keys to the na­val domination of the Mediterranean. In America, Nova Scotia and the Hudson Bay Territory, which had been occupied by the French early in the century, were ac­quired. The danger to trade that was anticipated from a firmer government of Spanish America was removed by a clause in the treaty which gave Britain the monopoly of supplying the Spanish colonies with slaves, and a virtual though not formally admitted freedom of trade in other goods. The importance of this slave trade can be judged from the fact that between 1680 and 1786 about 20,000 slaves were shipped from Africa each year.

The Treaty of Utrecht stands at the beginning of a long period of peace. In the thirty years that fol­lowed it British exports increased by at least 50 per cent. The American and West Indian plantations grew in wealth and population, producing sugar, timber, tobacco and rice in ever-increasing quantities.

Holland declined in wealth and power and in France the recovery from the ravages of war was slow. En­gland now definitely took the lead in European com­merce and the conditions necessary for the establish­ment of an empire were created.

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