Britain vs. France: The Creation of the Modern World
Today, we will look at one of the great rivalries in history. Like modern sports rivalries, the honor and reputation of the contestants was at stake, but unlike today, the fate of the world also hung in the balance. This rivalry, Britain vs. France, shaped the world that we live in. This rivalry led to multiple wars, including two periods of warfare lasting a hundred years or more! In this post, we will examine the second of those hundred year wars, lasting from roughly 1688 to 1815, with short periods of peace throughout. This was one of the defining conflicts of the Kabinettskriege period. For a timeline of events referred to in this post, click here.
|British Soldiers in North America|
Why did Britain and France engage in this period of conflict? The answer, though complicated, can be boiled down to this: both wanted power in Europe, and power overseas. Louis XIV of France, often called the "Sun-King," ruled over France during the first half of the 2nd Hundred Years War. Louis XIV consolidated much of the states power into the person of the monarch, and greatly increased France's military forces. During this time, France still had the position of Europe's leading power. Govind Sreenivasan, a historian at Brandeis University, refers to France as the, "nine hundred pound gorilla," of early modern Europe. Around the year 1700, France possessed a huge population, roughly 20 million compared with 6 million in Great Britain, less than 6 million in the Low Countries, 8 million in Austria, and 1.5 million in Prussia. Thus, in order to oppose France, the countries of Europe needed to ally with one another in order to resist French expansion.
|French Soldiers of the War of Spanish Succession|
The French juggernaut was opposed by England, Austria, the Dutch, and Prussia, in the Nine Years War, and the War of Spanish Succession. In the Nine Years War, the French sought to oppose William III, a Dutch Prince who recently took the throne of England. In this conflict, the French won most of the victories in Europe, but failed to invade England or have notable success at sea. In the War of Spanish Succession, the Allies attempted to prevent the unification of France and Spain under the house of Bourbon. While the French candidate did eventually take the Spanish throne, the French lost overseas power, and were forced to give up power in Europe as well, such as the Spanish Netherlands, and the Kingdom of Naples. Louis XIV died shortly after the conclusion of the War of Spanish Succession. While the war was technically a French victory, it was costly, and weakened the French position in future wars. Louis XIV's policies also created higher levels of social unrest in France, a trend which would continue under his successor, Loius XV.
The World in the Balance: 1715 to 1789
During this period, the French and the English engaged in numerous wars over colonial possessions. While the French occasionally made local gains, they were heavily defeated in the Seven Years' War, (known as the French and Indian War in North America) and lost what we now know as Canada to the British. They experienced a brief revival late in the 18th century, assisting the American rebel colonists in obtaining independence in the American War of Independence. For once, the French navy was able to pull through when it mattered, defeating the British in the Battle of Chesapeake, and ensuring Cornwallis' surrender to a joint American-French army at Yorktown. Throughout the 18th century, the French overseas empire lost ground to the British, most notably in Canada and India.
|The Battle of Waterloo-The Last Gasp of the Franco-British Wars|
The Final Chapter: 1789 to 1815
In 1789, the French people, dissatisfied with their living conditions, rose up in revolution against yet another Louis (the XVI). This dramatic event led to consternation throughout the rest of Europe, as other monarchs began to fear for their lives. It also had horrible consequences for warfare. The French revolutionaries, unable to compete with the rest of European armies in quality, instituted the Levee en masse, drawing on the entirety of the population for support in the war. This quickly enlarged the French army, and required the other European states to follow suit. Unfortunately for France, even the Levee en masse, the higher morale of French troops, or the genius of Napoleon and his marshals could not save the French from the combined power of Europe's monarchies. The French were defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and Napoleon went into his final exile. Even more disastrously, France lost her overseas colonies, as a result of the unparalleled British navy in this period.
The Results: How did this give us the modern world?
In the 1688 to 1815 period, the British managed to defeat the French repeatedly in overseas conflict, despite the French success during the American War of Independence. The British dominated Canada, India, and managed to keep France from overwhelming the rest of Europe. After 1815, the French, while still forming a potent piece of European (and global) affairs, never quite threatened the rest of Europe as they did in the 1688 to 1815 period. The British joined an alliance dedicated to the punishment of French expansion, and ended up winning a global empire of their own in the process. Eventually, the other European powers realized that Britain was running away with the global game. Unfortunately for the French, the damage was done, and the French Revolution turned France into the enemy of the whole of Europe. Today, in places like Canada, India, and the United States, we are still reminded of the consequences of this competition.
Thanks for reading,