The Fight for Empire: The Second Struggle
1. The Saviour of His Country
At last, in 1756, all pretence was cast aside, and the Seven Years' War began. England allied not with her old friend, Maria Theresa of Austria, but with her old enemy, Frederic the Great of Prussia; while France joined Austria.
The struggle opened disastrously for England. The French attacked Minorca, which she had gained in 1713. Its great port—Port Mahon—was besieged. Admiral Byng came to its relief. But he was sent too late and without proper support. Also he was faint-hearted: he let the French ships get away, and then in alarm hurried back to protect Gibraltar. And so Port Mahon was taken.
England was furious. Byng was burned in effigy in many places. With more justice, the Government was attacked on every side. So the ministers had Byng tried by a court martial, which sentenced him to death; the king refused to save him; and in 1757 he was shot. But shooting the admiral did not recover the island: moreover, the loss of Minorca was only one of many calamities. In Canada the brilliant French general, Montcalm, literally wiped out the English frontier post at Oswego. And even before this the prestige of England suffered a tremendous blow in India.
In April, 1756, Suraj-ad-Daulah, a weak and vicious youth, became Nawab, or chief ruler, of Bengal. He quickly quarrelled with the English at Calcutta, and marched against them with 30,000 men. The garrison included less than 300 Englishmen. It was deserted by its Governor, and on June 20th it surrendered. That night was made for ever famous by the hideous tragedy known as "The Black Hole of Calcutta." The English prisoners—numbering a hundred and forty-six, of whom one was a woman—were thrust into a single room, the prison cell of the fortress. The cell was only 20 feet square. The one window was small and near the ceiling. The atmosphere of the crowded room, in the full height of the burning Indian summer, was suffocating. Tortured with thirst, stifled by the heat, exhausted by the vain struggle for air and water, trampled under the feet of their stronger fellow-sufferers, scores of the victims died miserably in the hours of darkness. And, when at last the day dawned and the door was opened, only twenty-three wretched men crawled out alive.
Meanwhile the Government at home was in a hopeless state. Pitt alone had the confidence of the country, but in the corrupt manner of those days the chief Minister—the Duke of Newcastle, whom the country despised—controlled the House of Commons. Neither the Duke nor Pitt, therefore, found it possible to hold office without the other: yet they had long been enemies. So, in the middle of a great war, England was left for weeks without any Government at all. Then at last the only possible settlement was arranged: Pitt and Newcastle made peace and took office together, Newcastle to manage the king and Parliament, Pitt to manage the war.
Pitt was confident that he, and he alone, could save the nation. And he longed to restore a like self-confidence in his fellow-countrymen, and destroy the cautious spirit which had lately made admirals far more famous than Byng shrink from fighting any but a clearly weaker foe.
And this he did. He had many faults. He was imperious, quarrelsome, and arrogant. He tyrannized over his colleagues, threatening them with impeachment if they thwarted his policy. He was bombastic and theatrical in manner and in speech. But he did save England. Under his rule admirals and generals came to be chosen more often for their worth and less often merely for their birth. He himself planned out the campaigns they were to fight. He let them know that he expected them to win. He inspired them with his own magnificent courage. And he showed them, too, that success would benefit themselves as well as their country.
He changed the fierce valour of the Scottish Highlanders from a source of danger to a source of strength by raising Highland regiments for the British army. Others had done this among the loyal clans, but Pitt enlisted the very men who had rebelled only a dozen years before. And, acknowledging his own youthful errors, he now recognized the value of a war on the Continent, not for its own sake, but as distracting the attention of France from the struggle in America and India. England must still aim first and foremost at conquering the French possessions oversea, especially in America; but also English and Hanoverian troops and English money should help Frederic the Great of Prussia to fight the French in Europe. For France, if thus harassed—and alarmed at times by naval raids upon her coasts—could not put forth her full strength to meet Pitt's onslaught on her colonies. Thus, in his own words, he would "win America on the plains of Germany."
Success did not come at once. There were still some disasters to be faced. In 1757, the Austrians defeated Frederic of Prussia in a great battle; while their allies, the French, invaded Hanover, and compelled the Duke of Cumberland to surrender and agree to disband his army. In Germany, on the French coast, and in Canada English fleets and armies alike were unsuccessful.
2. The Turn of the Tide
The tide, however, was soon to turn. Already Clive had avenged the outrage at Calcutta. Bringing a small fleet and army from Madras, he recovered the place, and forced the Nawab into outward friendliness. And, when Suraj-ad-Daulah plotted with the French, Clive in turn plotted with Mir Jaffier, a rich Indian noble, and promised, in return for large payments, to make him Nawab in his master's place. It was now that Clive did the deed which for ever blotted his fair fame. A certain native refused help unless he was promised an enormous bribe. The man was worthless and grasping, but his aid was important, and Clive, who thought him a villain, resolved to deal with him according to his villainy. So a copy of the English treaty with Mir Jaffier was made, and a clause put into it promising the bribe demanded. But the treaty itself contained no such clause: the bribe was not mentioned. And, though Clive himself signed the false copy, he had another signature on it forged. He thought himself justified in using trickery against a villain, but the slur he cast on English honour has never been forgiven.
For the time, however, everything was forgotten in the triumph of the English arms at Plassey (1757). For there, with little more than 3,000 men, including only 900 Europeans, Clive routed an army fifteen times as large. Suraj-ad-Daulah was captured and killed; Mir Jaffier reigned in his stead; and, when the Dutch in Bengal presumed to show some jealousy of their English rivals, they were promptly crushed.
The year after Plassey, Pitt's own triumphs began. In July, Louisburg—"the key of Canada"—was taken by General Amherst, whose second in command was the famous Brigadier James Wolfe. In August the English captured Fort Duquesne—"the key of the great West"; and, having at last gained final possession of this long-disputed post, they replaced the French fortress by a new one, fitly named, after the great minister, Pittsburg.
But the next year, 1759, was the famous "Year of Victories," when, it was said, news of some fresh triumph came so often that one had to ask each morning what victory had been gained for fear of missing one.
The French Government had at last determined to strike hard, and to strike home, by invading England herself. The very threat, it was hoped, would force Pitt to keep back every man he could for home defence, and stop his sending fleets and armies across the sea. So flat-bottomed boats to carry 50,000 Frenchmen were built, and battle-fleets to guard the boats gathered in the harbours of Toulon and Brest. But Pitt did not behave at all as the French Government expected. He set Boscawen, indeed, with fourteen ships to blockade the French at Toulon, and Hawke, with twenty-four, to watch the French at Brest; but he also sent a fleet to Canada and a squadron to the East Indies.
And, when the threatened invasion was delayed, England took the offensive herself. The Toulon fleet, slipping out of its harbour, was pursued by Boscawen, half of it destroyed, and most of the remainder shut up in a Spanish port. Then the French Government resolved to attack Scotland instead of England and send a second smaller force to Ireland. But Hawke still held the main French fleet a prisoner in Brest, and only when the November storms drove him away for a time did the enemy get out.
Scarcely had they cleared the harbour when Hawke reappeared. Furious at their escape, he pursued them in hot haste till they sought safety in Quiberon Bay, on the west coast of France. And there, on November 20th, he won the greatest naval victory in English history since the rout of the Armada. A storm was rising; the wind blew straight on shore; the bay was full of rocks and shoals. The French admiral could hardly believe that Hawke would risk his ships where there was scarcely room to move, and Hawke's own pilot warned him against the terrible danger.
But Hawke was resolute. At last, after all his weary watching, he had a chance of crushing the enemy, and ambition and patriotism alike determined him to seize it. So the pilot was thanked for his warning, but ordered to go on. Hawke caught the enemy before they got to shelter. And—while the roar of wind and waves mingled with the booming of the cannon—six of the French ships were wrecked or captured and the rest scattered in headlong flight.
So the threatened invasion of Scotland came to nothing. In Ireland, a little later, a small French force did actually land, but within five days it fled, and was promptly captured by three English frigates which chanced to be at hand. To all intents and purposes the French navy had now vanished as a fighting force: apart from vessels sunk or wrecked, and squadrons made useless by blockades, it had lost by capture in 1759 alone twenty-seven battleships and over thirty frigates.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the English infantry had once again covered themselves with glory. For at Minden they defeated a far stronger French force, and might have utterly routed it if the commander of the English cavalry, Lord George Sackville, had not, at the critical moment, shamefully refused to charge.
3. The Conquest of Canada
But the most famous of Pitt's triumphs was won in Canada. Here Amherst was Commander-in-Chief, but James Wolfe, now a Major-General, and assisted by a fleet, was set to take Quebec. A volunteer at thirteen, a sub-lieutenant of marines at fifteen, an adjutant of infantry at sixteen, a major at eighteen, a lieutenant-colonel at twenty-three, James Wolfe had fought at Dettingen, at Falkirk, and at Culloden. He had won the praise of the Duke of Cumberland. He had made George II himself wish that "if Wolfe were mad (as some said) he would bite some of the other generals," and infect them with his own courage. By sheer genius and hard work, with no advantages of wealth or influence, he had forced his way to the front rank, and gained the confidence of Pitt. And now, at the age of thirty-two, he went to win Canada finally for England, and to die himself in the very moment of victory.
His task was singularly hard. He had only half the force he required, and he had to capture a town of great importance, planted in a situation of great natural strength, high up on a spur of land jutting out into the St. Lawrence, and beyond reach of cannon-shot from the river. The enemy were enormously superior in numbers though inferior in quality; their fortifications were most elaborate; and they had in Montcalm a general of the finest type. Wolfe's fleet arrived just too late to prevent their receiving an important convoy of food and boats. His own journey up the river took three weeks, for the French had carefully removed everything that could guide his pilots.
And, even when he had reached Quebec, eleven more weeks passed before he could force Montcalm to fight a decisive battle. The French refused to leave their entrenchments. Their guns harassed the English camps. Their shallow boats fetched supplies in safety down the river where, above the town, the water was too shallow for the English warships. Their fireships twice floated down against the English fleet, which was saved only by the gallant sailors who rowed out to meet them and towed them away to a safe spot. Their allies—Indians and Canadians (often disguised as Indians)—attacked the English with all the savage cruelty of barbarous warfare. Wolfe's one attempt to force on a battle failed completely. Autumn, with its dangerous storms, threatened soon to drive him away. And in his disappointment and anxiety his health—never strong—broke down.
At last, however, he discovered the secret of success. Early in September he sent most of his troops up the river on Admiral Holmes's ships. But enough men remained in the camps below and opposite the town to prevent the enemy from seeing that he had changed his plans, and on the night of September 12th, to deceive them still further, the French positions were attacked all along the line. One admiral made a pretence of landing a few miles above Quebec; another assailed the French entrenchments below it; the English batteries across the river bombarded the town itself. Montcalm, uncertain at which of these points the real assault would be made, had to divide his forces so as to protect them all.
And then, at dead of night, just as the tide turned, a long line of English boats, laden with the soldiers from Holmes's ships, came floating slowly down the river in the darkness to a spot not two miles above the city, where no attack was expected and Wolfe had learned that the French guard was weak. In the leading boat was Wolfe himself, with his officers and twenty-four picked men who had volunteered to make the first attempt. Feeling strongly that he would not survive the battle, he had, before starting, settled the disposal of his property in the event of his death.
But fortune was favouring his plans. Just as his men began to enter the boats the air became clouded with a mist which hid their movements. The French sentinels who challenged them as they were drifting down the stream were expecting provision boats for their own army, and so were easily satisfied. Twice, at the last moment, an accidental conflict with friends, mistaken in the darkness for foes, was just avoided. And at last, unresisted and even unheard, Wolfe's advance guard clambered up the cliffs which the French had thought no troops could climb. The whole force followed, and presently, with some 4,000 men drawn up for battle, Wolfe looked down from the Heights of Abraham on Quebec and the French entrenchments, and knew that now at last Montcalm must fight.
In the battle that followed the English infantry, standing two deep, waited silently, making no answer to the galling fire of the advancing enemy, till only forty paces separated the two armies. Then, at Wolfe's word, a single volley rang out at once all down the line. A second followed as the smoke and echo of the first died away. And then, while the French wavered and began to turn and flee, the English charged, faster and faster still as they gained upon the foe. Montcalm, trying to rally his men in defeat, was wounded to the death: Wolfe, leading his to victory, had died already. Shot in three places, and carried out of the battle, he lived just long enough to know that all was well. "They run!" he heard some one exclaim. "Who run?" "The French, sir! they give way everywhere." "God be praised! I die content." "At 11," so runs the log-book of H.M.S. Lowestoft, "came on board the corpse of General Wolfe."
Next year the English garrison in Quebec—ill-lodged, ill-clothed, ill-fed, and defeated outside the city by a far superior force—was besieged, as Montcalm had been besieged by Wolfe, but under much worse conditions. But, just when matters looked their blackest, an English fleet appeared and raised the siege, and the leading vessel in that fleet was the Lowestoft. The French fell back on Montreal; Amherst brought three armies at once against them; and early in September, almost exactly a year after Wolfe's triumphant death, Montreal surrendered, and all Canada came under English rule.
In like manner the French power was destroyed in India also. The French general, though brave and able, ruined his own plans by quarrelling with his colleagues. The French admiral—who at first had larger forces than the English—was too cautious to make good use of them. Madras, though besieged, was not taken; sea fights were generally drawn battles; at last, in the battle of Wandewash, in January, 1760, the French army was decisively defeated; and next year Pondicherry surrendered.
Meanwhile several French West Indian islands were captured. And, on the news of a fresh "family compact " between the French and Spanish kings, England declared war on Spain; and Spanish possessions in their turn became the prey of English fleets.
But in February, 1763, the war was ended by the Treaty of Paris. England, Mistress of the Sea, secured supremacy in East and West alike. She retained her conquests from France in North America, and—though she restored her conquests in India—it was on condition that France should have no army there. She retained also some of her West Indian captures; she recovered Minorca; and she received Florida from Spain. But, though her enemies had thus ample reason to crave revenge, England returned to them much that she might have kept, and would, indeed, have kept had Pitt still been in power. Pitt, however, had retired in October, 1761, when his colleagues refused to attack Spain at a favourable moment; and now, for the first time for half a century, the most important person in the Government was the king.