British Empire Books

Armies of the Seven Years War:

Commanders, Equipment, Uniforms and Strategies of the 'First World War'

AuthorDigby Smith

Digby Smith is well known in Napoleonic circles for bringing impressive research, depth and detail to studies of the all the various Revolutionary and Napoleonic Armies. He is a prolific gatherer and curator of information. If you need to know what colours were worn by some obscure regiment of the Kingdom of Westphalia in 1813 or how a Corps of the French Guard was organised then Digby Smith should be able to provide that answer for you. It is therefore invaluable that he has started to widen the period of his interest and research to the Seven Years War from 1756 to 1763. Effectively, he has moved his primary area of focus forwards by a half a century to what he refers in the subtitle of the book as the 'First World War'.

The Seven Years War is one of the more overlooked conflicts which is surprising given the influence and impact that it would have on World history. After all the war helped define Frederick of Prussia as a hero to his nation, it provided the platform for Wolfe to become part of the British Imperial pantheon of heroes at Quebec, it allowed Clive to displace the French in India and it provided the Royal Navy with its most significant victory to date at Quiberon Bay. In short, it was a remarkable war for Britain and Prussia who effectively showed that they were the new and rising powers on the block. They were challenging the supremacy of the old order which was beginning to crack through dynastic struggles and fossilisation. The war allowed Prussia to push itself towards the table of great powers in Continental Europe whereas Britain was able to flex its financial and maritime muscles to allow it to punch way beyond its weight on the World stage.

Digby Smith has compiled facts, images, figures, tables, biographies and descriptions of battles and organisations of the nations and empires involved in the conflict. There are 330 pages but with plenty of black and white images and a good number of colour plates using the beautiful images from David Morier, Herbert Knotel and Rudolf von Ottenfeld amongst other famous illustrators of uniforms. It is so important to see colour images as the colour and extravagance of the uniforms was one of the defining characteristics of all the nations involved in the war. The colourful uniforms allowed the generals to envision the flows in the battlefield and allowed him to marshal his forces to exploit breakthroughs or plug gaps. I am therefore delighted to see that there are over 70 coloured diagrams by the some of the most pre-eminent military illustrators bringing to life the uniforms of the combatants or showing the flags or the colour schemes of the various regiments within the armies themselves. There are also about a dozen colour maps showing the major battles of the war, on land and on sea. These are very clearly laid out and help the reader understand the movements on these major battlefields.

The structure of the book primarily revolves around the organisation of the 17 armies (and in some case navies) of the nations and empires involved. It systematically goes through the infantry, cavalry and artillery of the participants minutely recording the colours of the facings and the flags and standards that they carried into battle. The book overwhelmingly concentrates on the war in Europe, where the vast majority of the fighting took place, but it does not completely ignore the wider imperial battles in North America, the Caribbean or in Asia. The colonial formations are rather subsumed into the European details and you have to search hard to find the relevant data, but it is there. More information on the non-European angle is also found in the appendices. There are three appendices which cover an impressive 80 pages and are no mere add-on but a fundamental part of the book. Appendix 1 gives very clear overviews of the major battles including Orders of Battle and often has a very clear supporting colour map as mentioned previously. These battles are arranged in chronological order but do bring in the colonial battles, hence the battle of Plassey and of Quebec are included, as are the major sea battles such as Quiberon Bay. In the case of these naval engagements the book helpfully provides the names of all the ships involved, how many guns they carried and the fate of each ship in the action. Appendix 2 is designed to help the modern reader locate the actions of the campaigns in Europe. Of course, the borders and composition of the nations have changed beyond all recognition since the war some two and a half centuries ago, therefore the author has provided the German names, their modern Polish equivalents and the precise locations so that modern maps might be used to plot the movements of the armies or locate battlefields. For those interested in literally following the footsteps of the protagonists, this is an invaluable resource. Of course, in the era of Google maps and the internet, you could even use satellite or birds-eye view images of the sites mentioned in the book. The third appendix provides a thumbnail sketch of all the major individuals involved in the campaign. The war was one of those dynastic rivalry affairs that pitted the families and ruling houses of Europe against one another. Therefore, a high percentage of the biographies concern rulers, princes, aristocrats and of course their generals. There are also some surprising names such as George Washington who made his debut on the international scene fighting for the British against the French in the forests of Ohio. The biographies often cover the exploits of the individuals across their whole career and do not solely concern themselves with their actions during the Seven Years War.

The book provides three additional chapters at its beginning highlighting the political background to the conflict, the military tactics, weapons and equipment and one on the naval war. These are extremely interesting, if a little brief. I would happily have exchanged some of the extraneous non-Seven Years War related information on the thumb sketch biographies for an expanded view and analysis of the style of warfare. Digby Smith makes it clear that the Seven Years War was part of a continuum in Eighteenth Century warfare that built upon lessons from earlier wars in the century and would ultimately culminate in the tactics and strategy of Napoleon half a century later. It was very much a transitionary war with important developments that had not yet fully incorporated themselves into the military doctrines of the major powers. Ideas like the development of Horse Artillery, breech loading rifles or even camouflage were experimented with. These were all ideas that were circulating, but found it difficult to penetrate into the conservative military establishments of the continent, although some of them were more warmly received in the colonial theatres that were more open to innovation or had to deal with more unusual patterns of warfare and geography. Digby Smith provides some fascinating insights into these developments and explains why some of the ideas took off or why some floundered and had to be developed by others at a later date. It is a good general overview of weapons and tactics from the 17th to 19th Century but it would have been nice to have had some more comparison between the combatants themselves or an analysis of their national strengths and weaknesses when compared to one another. The narrative supplied is useful and interesting but not comprehensive in its analysis or its application to the war itself. I was delighted to find out that the Spanish invented the concept of Marines way back in 1537 but dissappointed to not be able to find out how these Marines were used in the Seven Years War.

This book is a resource to refer to rather than an overview of the war itself. It would be perfect for modellers, wargamers or historians who simply had to know what colour facings were worn by the 50th Foot or how many horses were needed to move the artillery of an army during the war. If you have specific questions, Digby Smith provides specific answers. The book also provides serviceable introductions to the main actors, armies and battles of the war. However, if you want to understand the political machinations, diplomatic overtures or a grand narrative of events and how they inter-related with one another then this book is not the book for you. It is like a recipe book with all the ingredients provided, but you have to make the cake yourself. You have the ingredients of warfare for 17 nations provided for you in minute detail. However, there is no chronological overview or analysis of how and why the war played out as it did. This book is for those who want to get lost in the magnificent complexity of Eighteenth Century armies - presumably those people already have books on the causes, course and consequence of the war. In that case, you may be ready to immerse yourself in the minutiaie of the Commanders, Equipment, Uniforms and Strategies of the 'First World War.'

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by Stephen Luscombe