Book Review of The Emergence of Britain’s Global Naval Supremacy: The War of 1739-1748

Richard Harding. The Emergence of Britain’s Global Naval Supremacy: The War of 1739-1748. Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-84383-580-6. Figures. Maps. Plates. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. viii, 374. $115.00 (hardcover).

Richard HardingBritain’s war with Spain (1739-1748) and involvement in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) has received limited attention from historians in recent years.  In this study, Dr Richard Harding, Professor of Organisational History and Head of the Department of Leadership, Development, and Organisation at the University of Westminster in England, addresses British politics and the operational conduct of the wars against Spain and France in the 1740s.  Harding is known for his works Amphibious Warfare in the Eighteenth Century: The British Expedition to the West Indies, 1740-1742 (1991), The Evolution of the Sailing Ship, 1509-1815 (1995), Seapower and Naval Warfare, 1650-1830 (1999), as editor of A Great and Glorious Victory: New Perspectives on the Battle of Trafalgar (2008), and co-editor of Naval Leadership and Management, 1650-1950 (2012).

After over a decade of tension concerning commerce and trade issues in the West Indies, Britain declared war against Spain in October 1739.  British leaders in the Walpole ministry under King George II (ruled 1727-1760) believed that the threat or use of naval power would quickly force Spain to agree to an acceptable commercial treaty.  Within a month, British forces captured Porto Bello in the Viceroyalty of New Granada.  But, in 1741, a large-scale British expeditionary amphibious force was defeated by Spain at the battle of Cartagena de Indias.  British sea power had failed to achieve a quick victory against Spain in the West Indies.  Meanwhile, in 1740, Frederick II of Prussia invaded Silesia, beginning the War of the Austrian Succession.  Britain, in support of the Anglo-Austrian alliance, was now engaged in a much larger conflict with diplomatic, military, naval, and financial commitments to support Maria Theresa of Austria against Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, and France.  The original Anglo-Spanish war had faded into the background.

In 1742, British forces joined the allied army — the so-called Pragmatic Army — consisting of Austrians, Hanoverians, Dutch, and Hessians in the Austrian Netherlands.  In the following year the Pragmatic Army moved into Germany.  As Elector of Hanover, George II led the Pragmatic Army to victory against the French at the battle of Dettingen (1743).  In 1744, France made preparations to invade Britain in support of the Jacobites but the attempt was called off due to bad weather conditions at sea.  Meanwhile, French forces invaded the Austrian Netherlands and captured Menin, Ypres, Knocke, and Furnes.  In 1745, Britain became part of the Quadruple Alliance (Treaty of Warsaw) with Austria, the Dutch Republic, and Saxony against France and Prussia.  The French launched a spring offensive with plans to besiege and capture Tournai.  Consequently, the Duke of Cumberland led the Pragmatic Army, consisting of British, Austrian, Dutch, and Hanoverian troops, against Marshal Maurice de Saxe, and was defeated at the battle of Fontenoy (1745).  Afterwards, the French quickly advanced in the Austrian Netherlands, taking Tournai, Ghent, Bruges, Oudenaarde, Dendermonde, Ostend, Nieuwpoort, and pushed forward to the Dutch border.  French success led to a second French invasion threat in support of the Jacobite Uprising in 1745-1746.  Britain had to redeploy forces from the Low Countries to the British Isles to defend against the Jacobite invasion of England.  At that time, Britain was on the defensive, including in the English Channel and the West Indies.  The only success was the capture of the key French fortress at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in 1745.

In 1746, the French army achieved further success in the Low Countries.  French forces captured Brussels, and then defeated the Pragmatic Amy at the battle of Rocourt, near Liège.  In 1747, the French defeated the Pragmatic Army led by Prince William IV of Orange and the Duke of Cumberland at the battle of Lauffeld.  The French then besieged and captured the Dutch fortresses at Bergen-op-Zoom (1747) and Maastricht (1748).

Harding stresses that after 1744 the British ministry was slowly changing the military commitment to defeat France on the continent to refocus on the maritime war.  Britain kept military troops in the Low Countries to fight France, but concentrated on strengthening naval power, especially the Western Squadron to protect Britain and control the high seas.  Nevertheless, it was becoming more apparent that France could not be defeated in the Low Countries.  In 1747, Britain achieved naval victories against the French in the First and Second Battles of Finisterre, but the fall of Bergen-op-Zoom convinced George II and others that a diplomatic peace was needed right away, and the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was hammered out in 1748.

Harding, utilizing numerous archival sources in Britain, addresses British politics, the diplomatic situation, military and naval strategy, naval administration and mobilization, and financial issues dealing with the War of 1739-1748.  The author argues that British ministries learned to focus on the buildup and employment of the British fleet, especially the Western Squadron.  He emphasizes that “British sea power dominated the North Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean” in the last years of the conflict (p.341).  Harding stresses that through the successes and failures of the War of 1739-1748 the British government and navy gained substantial experience in the planning and conduct of warfare that would be beneficial in the Seven Years War (1756-1763).

Harding’s study is a great addition to the literature on European conflict from 1739 to 1748.  Studies focusing on British foreign policy and naval operations include Jeremy Black’s  America or Europe? British Foreign Policy, 1739-1763 (1998), Philip Woodfine’s Britannia’s Glories: The Walpole Ministry and the 1739 War with Spain (1998), and Richard Harding’s Amphibious Warfare in the Eighteenth Century: The British Expedition to the West Indies, 1740-1742 (1991).  Michael Orr, Dettingen 1743 (1972) and Charles Grant, The Battle of Fontenoy (1975) are useful.  Older studies are F.H. Skrine’s Fontenoy and Great Britain’s Share in the War of the Austrian Succession (1906), Sir Evan E. Charteris’ William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland: His Early Life and Times (1721-1748) (1913), H.W. Richmond’s The Navy in the War of 1739-1748 (1920), and Richard Pares’ War and Trade in the West Indies, 1739-1763 (1936).  Reed Browning’s The War of the Austrian Succession (1995) and M.S. Anderson’s The War of the Austrian Succession, 1740-1748 (1995) provide an overview of the conflict.  For the French perspective, see Jon Manchip White, Marshal of France: The Life and Times of Maurice, Comte de Saxe (1696-1750), Rohan Butler, Choiseul: Father and Son, 1719-1754 (1980), Frank J. McLynn, France and the Jacobite Rising of 1745 (1981), and James Pritchard, Anatomy of a Disaster: The 1746 French Expedition to North America (1995).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in Anglo-French Wars, Book Reviews, British Foreign Policy, British Military History, British Naval History, Europe in the 18th Century (1713-1789), War of Jenkins' Ear (1739-1748), War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Book Review of The Emergence of Britain’s Global Naval Supremacy: The War of 1739-1748

  1. William Young says:

    Reblogged this on Military History.

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