British Seven Years’ War in Germany

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The 12th (Suffolk Regiment) at the Battle of Minden. 1st August 1759 by Brian Palmer.

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The Battle of Minden, 1st August 1759 by David Rowlands.

Initially, in large part due to the political sensitivity of appearing to use British resources to assist the unpopular Electorate of Hanover, the British government refused to get involved in fighting in Germany. Instead, it was at the head of a force of Hanoverians and other Germans that Cumberland was defeated by the French at Hastenbeck near Hameln on 26 July 1757. He fell back across the Electorate and capitulated at Stade in the face of a energetic pursuit. However, the danger that Frederick would be forced out of the war and the political acceptability of assisting him, rather than Hanover, was such that in April 1758 the government agreed to maintain an army of 55,000 men in Hanover in order to protect Frederick’s flank against French attack. Aside from paying for Hanoverian and Hessian troops, the British were also to pay the equivalent of 19 per cent of Prussian war costs.

This led to British troops campaigning in an area that was new to them, and, unlike the Low Countries, but like Iberia, it was one that posed serious logistical problems. These are important, given the subsequent tendency of armchair strategists armed with maps to criticize and suggest alternatives. North-west Germany lacked the resource base of the Low Countries. Marching south from the landing port of Emden in 1758, the 7,000 strong British force, under the 3rd Duke of Marlborough, found East Frisia bare of supplies, the commissionary, Michael Hatton, complaining,

No contractors, no regular magazines… a continued rain [therefore] the roads are become so bad… the major part of the baggage is behind… the bread for want of covered waggons is dissolved, though I bought the best coverings I could, as is the two days bread the men had in their knapsacks, and I am afraid there is not a dry cartridge in the army. We have bread at Coesfeld… but that can’t be got to us, nor we can’t get to that.

There has not been a pot boiled these two days the rain put out the fires… there are potatoes… which the men will get if the waters fall a little.

When he reached Coesfeld, Hatton found the available supplies inadequate and too expensive.

Germany also lacked the communications network of northern France and the Low Countries, and did not benefit from a turnpike revolution. Rivers were often crucial supply routes, but the movement of supplies along them was affected by drought, floods, ice and a shortage of draught animals, and was in any case slow, as the British discovered with the Weser in 1761. The following year, in Westphalia, “the heavy rains had so spoilt the roads and the whole country that the artillery couldn’t possibly get on”.

Such problems affected the ability of the British to manoeuvre speedily, but, as part of an army under Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, a protégé of Frederick the Great, they nevertheless achieved their tasks of defending Frederick’s western flank and of denying the French control of Hanover, which would otherwise have served as a bargaining counter of negotiations. They were less successful in keeping the French out of Hesse-Kassel.

Landing at Emden in August 1758, the British did not see action until the following year, by which time Marlborough had died and been replaced by his second-in-command, Major-General Lord Sackville, the unpopular and difficult son of the Duke of Dorset and an MP, who was also a veteran of Dettingen and Fontenoy. At Minden (1 August 1759) an Anglo-German army under Ferdinand defeated the French under Broglie and Contades, inflicting 7,000 casualties with the loss of 2,762. The courage and fire discipline of the British infantry won the battle, six battalions defeating 60 squadrons of French cavalry by misunderstanding orders, advancing across an open plain, and then repulsing two charges by French cavalry. Most of the cavalry casualties were caused by musket fire, but those who reached the British lines were bayoneted. These charges were followed by a French infantry advance that was stopped by British cannon fire, and then by another French cavalry attack, which concentrated on the flanks and rear of the British infantry, only to find the rear ranks turn about and fire their deadly muskets. Again the French charged home, but relatively few reached the British lines and they were stopped by the British bayonets. A subsequent infantry attack on the British stopped under cannon fire. The French did not fight well: their planning was poor and their artillery out-gunned, but the British cavalry failed to cement the victory by charging. This led to the court-martial of its commander, Sackville. In contrast, thanks in large part to the British contingent, Ferdinand’s artillery out-numbered that of the French and their fire dominated the battlefield. Ferdinand gave the artillery’s commander, William Phillips, 1,000 crowns. Although the French were able to withdraw in the face of a weak pursuit, the British exploited the victory by rapidly capturing Minden and Kassel. Münster was successfully besieged.

Sackville was replaced as commander of the British contingent by his second-in-command, Lieutenant-General John Manners, Marquis of Granby, eldest son of the Duke of Rutland and an MP, a prime representative of the sporting tradition of British generalship. He had a more successful war than Sackville, acquiring a reputation for boldness, bravery and success. His leadership of a cavalry charge on the French flank was decisive in the defeat of the French cavalry at Warburg (31 July 1760). Granby was supported by the British artillery which Phillips brought up at the gallop. At Fellinghausen Granby fought off a French attack (15-16 July 1761). Further successes followed at Gravenstein (24 June 1762) and Wilhelmstahl (25 June 1762). Granby was a popular commander who was personally brave, determined in command and yet an effective subordinate to Ferdinand of Brunswick. He does not enjoy much current fame, not for example receiving an entry in either Trevor Dupuy’s Encyclopedia of military biography (London, 1992) or John Keegan’s Who’s who in military history (London, 1996), but he was the most successful British general on the Continent between Marlborough and Wellington. In 1760 the number of British troops under his command was increased to 14,600.

Granby was fortunate in his opponents-neither Broglie nor Soubise was a Saxe-but also, like the 1st Duke of Marlborough, benefited from his determination to gain and retain the initiative. Granby was expert at coordinating infantry, cavalry and artillery, and out-manoeuvred the French on a number of occasions. He was unfortunate in that none of the battles was as dramatic as Minden, while, more generally, the fighting in Westphalia has been seen as less militarily significant and impressive than that involving Frederick the Great. Ferdinand was not always victorious and the French also enjoyed a number of successes. In 1760 the French regained Kassel and Ferdinand’s advance on Wesel proved unsuccessful. The following spring Kassel resisted an Allied siege, and it only fell, on 1 November 1762, after a second siege in which the French conducted an able defence. Furthermore, for the British, the conflict on the Continent was overshadowed by the drama and success of colonial campaigns, while, by 1761, hostility to the continuation of the war, especially in Germany, was rising in Britain.

 

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