The French Connection

PrintPrintEmailEmail
 
 
 

The dinner, however, had far more important consequences than stirring the warm and passionate heart of an adolescent. De Brogue was a man of the greatest consequence, banished to Metz in semidisgrace because of the defeats he had suffered at the hands of the British, and, like so many men of his class—the elite aristocratic generals of the French army—he longed for revenge for the humiliations inflicted on France by England during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). What rankled most was the Treaty of Paris. De Brogue and his peers loathed the arrogance of the British commissioner installed at Dunkirk, who made certain that the moles and ramparts remained destroyed so that this superb naval base could not be put into a state of readiness. The swift French corsairs based there had preyed happily on the slow, rich British convoys beating their way up the Channel or across the North Sea from the Baltic. Even more bitter were the memories of what had been lost—Canada, the earliest of all French colonies, along with France’s colonies and fortifications in India and Senegal—but worst of all, as Vergennes, the French foreign minister, wrote to Louis xvi at his accession, was the humiliation, the shame of defeat. As Vergennes gloomily noted, the French government, which used to be the greatest of European powers, was no longer consulted. It had become a mere spectator of great events. French pride had been dipped in gall.

The humiliation bore so heavily on France for reasons not commonly realized. France possessed men, money, and materials in a profusion that totally outstripped England. France’s population was some twenty-four million to England’s eight or nine, but the close alliance with Spain (the Family Compact) weighted France’s favorable balance by another ten million. Furthermore, France had on call some three hundred thousand military men and a professional standing army of about a hundred and forty thousand—very well equipped and excellently trained—whereas the British standing army, loathed by Englishmen and constantly under attack by Parliament, numbered about thirtyfive thousand. Although near to equality in naval affairs England was, of course, seriously outnumbered by the combined fleets of France and Spain, and it was for this reason that the British always dreaded a war against France without the support of the Dutch. The material riches of France were commensurate with its population: it possessed excellent armament industries—indeed, the best in the world—backed by great financial resources. But here, at least, England could look eye to eye with France, for England had developed a sophisticated and stable financial system that bred confidence not only in the British people but also in the Dutch, who invested heavily in British funds. Without great financial resources England could never have hoped to defeat the Goliath of France, but money bought mercenary soldiers, notably the Hessians, whose discipline and accuracy of fire the Americans were soon to taste. Even so the British politicians feared France; indeed, they had been scared by their own victories in the Seven Years’ War—especially in 1759, the great annus mirabilis. When Wolfe stormed Quebec, the French fleets were humiliated at Lagos and Quiberon Bay, and even the British army scored one of its rare victories in Europe—at Minden—the first for fifteen years. Chatham, the architect of these victories, had wanted to smash France and Spain for good, but his colleagues were appalled by the breadth of his vision of Europe. They backtracked. And the Treaty of Paris, in 1763, loathed and hated by the French, was in fact an extraordinarily generous treaty, giving back to France almost all, except Canada, that Britain had conquered. This was done quite deliberately in the hope of avoiding another war with France. A severe settlement, many argued, must lead to renewed wars, and the British did not in their hearts believe that they could go on defeating the greatest military power in Europe over and over again. Smug in their own generosity, few English statesmen appreciated the deep sense of ignominy and shame that gnawed at the hearts of Frenchmen such as the Comte de Broglie; for so great a power as France to be humiliated by such a small nation was too bitter.

The Treaty of Paris naturally affected the destiny of America: the expulsion of the French from Canada, which at that time reached down to the headwaters of the Mississippi, freed the West; indeed, one of the reasons that influenced the British government in choosing to take Canada rather than the rich sugar islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique was that military pressure on the frontiers of the American colonies would be relieved. Whether Britain was wise can be endlessly debated. The sugar isles gave the French both commercial riches and superb naval bases from which its fleets could threaten not only Jamaica and the West Indies trade but also the coasts of the southern states. Chatham would have seized both possessionsCanada and the West India Isles—from France, for he felt that the policy of compromise was bound to leave a French dagger pointing at British colonies. He was right, for that dagger was to become the executioner’s axe at Yorktown. The American colonies, therefore, either at peace or at war with England, lay at the very heart of the strategic confrontation between Britain and France.