Both the American Revolutionary War and the French and Indian War (as it was called in North America) have been the subject of many history books. The original American sources have been pretty much culled through, as have many of the British sources. But French sources have not received the same scrutiny. Why this is the case, is not clear. Of course, the French language is a barrier to English-speaking historians. I believe another factor is that French historians have not shown much interest in either war, and when they have, they have failed to use adequate footnotes, making it difficult for other historians to follow up on the sources they have used and confirm their credibility. In the French and Indian War and the Conquest of New France, William R. Nester, a professor at St. John’s University in New York City, helps to address this imbalance. His history of the French and Indian War (called the Seven Years’ War in Europe), which was fought from 1754 to 1763, is from the French perspective and he has relied on many original French sources. Interestingly, despite the title of the book, about half of the book, if not more, occurs in France and the rest of Europe. This decision is understandable; paraphrasing one contemporary, Canada was lost on the battlefields of Germany.
Nester starts his history by explaining the disorganized and weak state of the French political system. One might believe that because France had a monarchial system, its government was efficient, but the contrary was true. For one, the French legislature, dominated by merchants, lawyers and the middling classes who suffered the burden of heavy taxation (aristocrats were not taxed), frequently hesitated or refused King Louis XV’s constant requests for more funds to fight his wars and pay for his extravagant lifestyle. As a result, his administration was constantly deep in debt and always short of funds it needed to fight.
The court of King Louis XV was a convoluted maze of intrigue, dominated by the king’s beautiful but conniving mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Due to her heavy influence on King Louis XV, if she did not approve of a general or a foreign diplomat, that individual would either never be retained or would eventually be fired. This was no way to run a great country.
In addition, Nester explains the shifting alliances among European powers, including Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Poland and Spain. While Austria-Hungary agreed to join an alliance with France, it ultimately cost France more than it was worth. Austria-Hungary kept getting involved in battles with Britain’s main continental ally, Prince Frederick II (also known as Frederick the Great) of Prussia, but losing them despite its superior numbers, forcing France to come to the rescue. Except France’s huge, but sprawling and poorly led, army was not able to defeat Frederick. The war in Europe became a slugfest, with no clear winner, but draining France’s resources. Little was left to defend New France (Canada) from British attacks.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the French began the war with some startling victories, including the rout of British General Edward Braddock’s army at the Monongahela by French and (largely) Indian forces. Nester criticizes the French commander, General Marquis de Montcalm, for failing to follow up on some of his early upstate New York victories, which later came to haunt the French war effort. Meanwhile, the better organized British were able to pay for and collect warships and transports to take thousands of British regulars across the Atlantic Ocean and mount several campaigns at once. I was aware that the Royal Navy dominated the seas, but was surprised to learn the extent of it during the French and Indian War. Ultimately, large numbers of French warships were captured, as well as many transport carrying thousands of French soldiers sent to reinforce Montcalm. Lacking a strong navy, France began suffering serious defeats, not only in Canada, but losing many of its valuable sugar-producing colonies in the Caribbean, as well as colonies in India and Africa. The Seven Years’ War was the world’s first truly global conflict, and France was losing, badly.
Stymied by stalemate in Europe, and suffering from weak finances, France had to decide whether to make the tremendous effort that was needed to keep Canada, as well as its possessions in Louisiana. Given that both colonies were not self-sufficient and cost France huge sums annually to support (the fur trade did not make Canada profitable), King Louis XV and his advisors decided both colonies were expendable. It did not help that Governor Vaudreuil of Canada and his cronies systematically stole French funds intended to support the colony.
The book contains a number of surprises. For one, just when the combined forces of France, Austria-Hungary, and Russia were on the verge of defeating the hated Frederick the Great, the empress of Russia unexpectedly died, and her successor, a great admirer of Frederick the Great, ordered the Russian army to return to its quarters. Nester focuses of some fascinating individuals who played key roles in the conflict and diplomatic negotiations, such as Pompadour, the diplomat Francois-Joachim de Pierre de Bernis, and in Canada, Montcalm’s talented aide, Louis Antoine de Bougainville.
Nester’s book is not a detailed history of the battles in North America. For example, Montcalm’s fight on the Plains of Abraham is covered in only a few sentences. But Nester’s book is a valuable survey of the French and Indian War from the French perspective, which is necessary to gain a full understanding of why the French lost Canada.
*Reviewed by historian Christian McBurney. Mr. McBurney is an independent historian who has written several Revolutionary War books, including most recently, Abductions in the American Revolution: Attempts to Kidnap George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and Other Military and Civilian Leaders (McFarland, 2016), as well as The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War (Westholme, 2011). For more information on his books, go to www.christianmcburney.com.