Chronicles of America 

William Pitt, War Minister

During four campaigns the British had suffered humiliating disasters. It is the old story in English history of caste privilege and deadly routine bringing to the top men inadequate in the day of trial. It has happened since, even in our own day, as it has happened so often before. It seems that imminent disaster alone will arouse the nation to its best military effort. In 1757, however, England was thoroughly aroused. Failure then on her own special element, the sea, touched her vitally. Admiral Byng--through sheer cowardice, as was charged--had failed to attack a French fleet aiding in the siege of the island of Minorca which was held by the English, and Minorca had fallen to the French. Such was the popular clamor at this disaster that Byng was tried, condemned, and shot. There was also an upheaval in the government. At no time in English history were men more eager for the fruits of office; and now, even in a great crisis, the greed for spoils could not be shaken off. The nation demanded a conduct of the war which sought efficiency above all else. The politicians, however, insisted on government favors.

In the end a compromise was reached. At the head of the government was placed a politician, the Duke of Newcastle, who loved jobbery and patronage in politics and who doled out offices to his supporters. At the War Office was placed Pitt with a free hand to carry on military operations. He was the terrible cornet of horse who had harried Walpole in the days when that minister was trying to keep out of war. He knew and even loved war; his fierce national pride had been stirred to passion by the many humiliations at the hand of France; and now he was resolved to organize, to spend, and to fight, until Britain trampled on France. He had the nation behind him. He bullied and frightened the House of Commons. Members trembled if Pitt turned on them. By his fiery energy, by making himself a terror to weakness and incompetence, he won for Britain the Seven Years' War.

Though Pitt became Secretary of State for War in June, 1757, not until 1758 did the tide begin to turn in America. But when it did turn, it flowed with resistless force. In little more than a year the doom of New France was certain. The first great French reverse was at a point where the naval and military power of Britain could unite in attack. Pitt well understood the need of united action by the two services. Halifax became the radiating center of British activities. Here, in 1757, before Pitt was well in the saddle, a fleet and an army gathered to attack Louisbourg--an enterprise not carried out that year partly because France had a great fleet on the spot, and partly, too, on account of the bad quality of British leadership.

Only in the campaign of 1758 did Pitt's dominance become effective. With him counted one quality and one alone, efficiency. The old guard at the War Office were startled when men with rank, years, influence, and every other claim but competence for their tasks, were passed over, and young and obscure men were given high command. To America in the spring of 1758 were sent officers hitherto little known. Edward Boscawen, Commander of the Fleet, and veteran among these leaders, was a comparatively young man, only forty-seven; Jeffrey Amherst, just turned forty, was Commander-in-Chief on land. Next in command to Amherst was James Wolfe, aged thirty.

These young and vigorous men knew the value of promptness or they would not have been tolerated under Pitt. Before the end of May, 1758, Boscawen was in Halifax harbor with a fleet of some forty warships and a multitude of transports. On board were nearly twelve thousand soldiers, more than eleven thousand of them British regulars. The colonial forces now play a minor part in the struggle; Pitt was ready to send from England all the troops needed. The array at Halifax, the greatest yet seen in America, numbered about twenty thousand men, including sailors. Before the first of June the fleet was on its way to Louisbourg. The defense was stubborn; and James Wolfe, who led the first landing party, had abundant opportunity to prove his courage and capacity. By the end of July, however, Louisbourg had fallen, and nearly six thousand prisoners were in the hands of the English. It was the beginning of the end.

In the autumn Wolfe was back in England, where he was quickly given command of the great expedition which was planned against Quebec for the following year. Admiral Sir Charles Saunders, who seems almost old compared with Wolfe, for he was nearly fifty, was in chief command of the fleet. Amherst had remained in America as Commander-in-Chief, and was taking slow, deliberate, thorough measures for the last steps in the conquest of New France.

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