Anglo-French War (1778–1783)
The Anglo-French War was a military conflict fought between France and Great Britain with their respective allies between 1778 and 1783 as part of the American Revolutionary War. In 1778, France signed a treaty of friendship with the United States. Great Britain was then at war with France, and in 1779 it was also at war with Spain. As a consequence, Great Britain was forced to divert resources used to fight the war in North America to theatres in Europe, India and the West Indies, and to rely on what turned out to be the chimera of Loyalist support in its North American operations. From 1778 to 1783, with or without their allies, France and Britain fought over dominance in the English Channel, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the West Indies.
Within days of the news of Burgoyne's surrender reaching France, King Louis XVI decided to enter into negotiations with the Americans that resulted in a formal Franco-American alliance and the French entry into the war, moving the conflict onto a global stage. Spain did not enter into the war until 1779, when it entered the war as an ally of France pursuant to the secret Treaty of Aranjuez. Vergennes' diplomatic moves following the French war with Britain also had material impact on the later entry of the Dutch Republic into the war, and declarations of neutrality on the part of other important geopolitical players like Russia. Opposition to the costly war was increasing, and in June 1780 contributed to disturbances in London known as the Gordon riots.
The two protagonists in the naval showdown in the Indian Ocean had as their objective the political dominance of the Indian subcontinent, and a series of battles fought by Admirals Edward Hughes and Pierre André de Suffren in 1782 and 1783 offered France a position to displace the British from its territories. The opportunity only ended when Suffren and Hughes had to stop fighting upon learning of the provisional Anglo-French-Spanish peace treaties of 1783.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Anglo-French naval crisis, 1778
- 3 War in the West, 1778–1779
- 4 East Indies, 1778–1780
- 5 Spain enters the war, 1779–1780
- 6 North American Operations, 1780-1781
- 7 Antilles War, 1781-1783
- 8 East Indies Campaign, 1782–1783
- 9 Peace proposal and the end of the war
- 10 Historians' perceptions
- 11 See also
- 12 Notes
- 13 References
Ever since the Seven Years' War of 1756-1763, France's Foreign Ministers, beginning with Choiseul (in office: 1761-1766), had followed the general idea that the independence of Britain's North American colonies would be good for France and bad for Britain, and furthermore that French attempts to recover parts of New France would be detrimental to that[which?] cause.[need quotation to verify] When the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, the Comte de Vergennes, then the French Foreign Minister, outlined a series of proposals that led to secret French and also Spanish support of the rebel movement, and preparations for war, including expansion of their navies. To further the aim of French participation in the war, Vergennes closely monitored news from North America and from London, and worked to remove impediments to Spanish participation in the war. Vergennes went so far as to propose war to King Louis XVI in August 1776, but news of the capture of New York City by British forces under the command of General Howe in September 1776 delayed that plan.
By 1777, the Thirteen Colonies' rebellion was entering its third year. The British General John Burgoyne's surrender at the Battle of Saratoga (October 1777) signalled that the struggle against the American colonies was likely to prove longer and more costly than London had expected. British defeat had raised the prospect of French intervention and of a European war. The British government of Prime Minister Lord North, fearful of war with France, sought reconciliation with the American colonies and was willing to grant a fair measure of autonomy to this end, but what would have been enough in 1775 would no longer suffice by 1778. North had no intention of offering independence, but in the wake of Saratoga and with the prospect of a French alliance, the Americans were unlikely to agree to lesser terms.
Although equally interested in maintaining its influence among the German states, France had a double problem. While France supported the rebellious British colonies in North America, it was in the French interest to avoid complications in Europe. France could do more damage to the British in North America than in Europe. The diplomatic realignment in 1756 had overthrown 200 years of French foreign policy that united the French Crown and the French populace against the House of Habsburg, bringing to France massive territorial gains in repeated wars with Habsburg Austria and Spain. A reversal of this policy in 1756 tied French foreign policy in Europe to Vienna. Despite this restructuring, there existed in the French Court at Versailles, and in France generally, a strong anti-Austrian sentiment. Many Frenchmen regarded the diplomatic revolution of 1756, sealed in 1770 with the personal union (the diplomatic term for marriage) of Louis, the Dauphin of Viennois, and the Austrian Archduchess Marie Antoinette, as both a political and matrimonial mésalliance. It flew in the face of 200 years of French foreign policy, in which the central axiom "had been hostility to the House of Habsburg". The French Foreign Minister, the Comte de Vergennes (in office: 1774-1787), maintained deep-seated hostility to the Austrians that pre-dated the alliance of 1756. He had not approved of the shift of France's traditional bonds, and considered the Austrians untrustworthy. He managed to extricate France from immediate military obligations to Austria by 1778.
On December 4, 1777, word reached Benjamin Franklin at Versailles that Philadelphia had fallen and that Burgoyne had surrendered. Two days later, Louis XVI assented to negotiations for an alliance. The treaty was signed on February 6, 1778, and France declared war on Britain one month later, with hostilities beginning with naval skirmishes off Ushant in June. George III did not welcome a war with France, but he was "prepared" for it. The king believed he had tried to avoid the conflict, but "France chooses to be the Aggressor", and Britain had taken "all the steps necessary if it should end in war". He was "prepared" for armed conflict with the French by remembering British victories over that Bourbon power in the Seven Years' War.
During that conflict, France had been pinned down in Europe fighting Continental powers while Britain defeated the French navy and won victories in India, the West Indies and North America. However, Britain's strategic position at the beginning of 1778 was far different from the one she enjoyed in 1756. Gone was the alliance with the Kingdom of Prussia: in 1778 Britain was diplomatically isolated and without European allies. In the first months of this year, Britain attempted, without success, to find a Continental ally to engage the power of France. This failure produced the central strategic fact of the War of 1778: there would be no competing European campaigns to absorb France's strength. European isolation didn't matter in peacetime, but Britain was at serious disadvantage without European allies in war against France.
Unlike previous wars against the French, this one would offer Britain few, if any, strategic options like choosing to fight at Europe as opposed to one in Asia and America. France and Britain fought over the control of the Channel, as one of the episodes of the globalised warfare that followed the start of the hostilities in 1778. Early in the war, the first fleet action in European waters was fought on 27 July 1778, 100 miles west of Ushant, an island at the mouth of the Channel. The two French and British battle fleets, of equal strength at 30 ships each, came to battle each other violently for several hours with neither side scoring a clear victory. The battle had been described since then as indecisive in its results.
War in the West, 1778–1779
The strategic and operational situation in the West was complex. It consisted of battles for naval supremacy, raids on enemy convoys and colonies, and sorties in support of the sides fighting the War of the American Independence. The French blockaded Britain's most important sugar producers, Barbados and Jamaica, cutting them off from food and supplies, with thousands dying from starvation and disease. Colonial militias played only limited supporting roles and more French and British troops died from the Caribbean climate and disease than from fighting. One key territory that was of particular interest was the West Indies island of Dominica, which lay between French-held Martinique and Guadeloupe, and had been captured by Britain in 1761. Recapture of the island would improve communication among the islands, and deny the use of Dominican ports to privateers who preyed on French shipping.
In August 1778, François Claude Amour, the marquis de Bouillé, the French governor-general of Martinique, received word that war had been declared. The French frigate Concorde reached Martinique on August 17 with orders from Paris to take Dominica at the earliest opportunity, and de Bouillé made immediate plans for such an operation. He had maintained contacts in the Dominican population, which had remained largely French during the years of British administration. As a result, he had an accurate picture of the condition of the Dominican defences, and knew that the island's garrison numbered fewer than "fifty soldiers fit for duty". He was also concerned with the whereabouts of the British Leeward Islands fleet of Admiral Samuel Barrington, which significantly exceeded his in military power. Unbeknownst to de Bouillé, Barrington, who had only recently assumed his post, was under orders to retain most of his fleet at Barbados until further instructions were received. The British regular forces on the island, which in total numbered about 100, were distributed among defences in the capital Roseau, the hills that overlooked it, and at Cachacrou.
De Bouillé carefully maintained a façade of peace in his dealings with Dominican authorities while he began preparing his forces on Martinique. On 2 September he and Lieutenant Governor Stuart signed an agreement that formally prohibited privateering crews to plunder. The next day de Bouillé sent one of his officers to Dominica to see whether a Royal Navy frigate was still anchored in Prince Rupert's Bay (near present-day Portsmouth). Stuart, suspicious of the man, had him questioned and then released. On 5 September de Bouillé was informed that the frigate had sailed for Barbados. He struck fast, defeating the British at Dominica in September 1778. De Bouillé left a garrison of 800 (700 French regulars and 100 free black militia) on the island, turned its command over to the Marquis de Duchilleau, and returned to Martinique. These events were the first in a series of military actions resulting in the change of control of Caribbean islands during the war, in which De Bouillé was often involved.
News of Dominica's fall was received with surprise in London considering that a single ship of the line might have prevented the attack, Admiral Barrington was widely blamed for the loss, and criticised for adhering too closely to his orders. French Admiral the comte D'Estaing arrived in the West Indies in early December 1778 in command of a fleet consisting of 12 ships of the line and a number of smaller vessels. At about the same time a British fleet under Admiral William Hotham also arrived, augmenting the West Indies fleet of Admiral Samuel Barrington. The orders and reinforcements whose late arrival had held Admiral Barrington at Barbados were to launch an attack on French-held St. Lucia, which the British then captured in December 1778. Despite d'Estaing's attempt at relief, the British used St. Lucia to monitor the major French base at Martinique, where d'Estaing was headquartered.
The British fleet was further reinforced in January 1779 by ten ships of the line under Admiral John Byron, who assumed command of the British Leeward Islands station. Throughout the first half of 1779 both fleets received further reinforcements, after which the French fleet was superior to that of the British. Furthermore, Byron departed St. Lucia on 6 June in order to provide escort services to British merchant ships gathering at St. Kitts for a convoy to Europe, leaving d'Estaing free to act. D'Estaing and de Bouillé, seised the opportunity to begin a series of operations against nearby British possessions. Their first target was the isle of Saint Vincent, south of St. Lucia. It fell on 18 June, and d'Estaing turned his attention to other islands. He had hoped to capture Barbados, a key British possession, but after making no progress against the prevailing easterly trade winds, he turned his attention instead to Grenada. The French fleet arrived off Grenada on 2 July, and stormed its main defences beginning late on 3 July. Terms of capitulation were agreed on the 4th.
The first large expedition to the North was undertaken in 1779 by French Vice Admiral d'Estaing. In the attempt to invade the British-occupied Savannah, the French brought 20 ships-of-the-line and 3,000 troops in transports to Georgia. Although Washington failed to cooperate with his allies, being fixated on attacking the British in New York City, D'Estaing landed the troops in aid to the Americans before he returned to France, as he had been ordered to do. On 9 October 1779, in concert with a contingent of the Continental Army, the French admiral initiated an assault on the besieged city. The well-fortified British army repulsed the invaders; d'Estaing was seriously wounded and had to sail for Europe. Despite a correct strategic concept, allied cooperation eluded successful operational implementation.
East Indies, 1778–1780
One clear result of the renewal of the Anglo-French contest in the East Indies between 1778–1783 was a greater appreciation by the British of the strategic needs of their newly acquired possessions in Asia. The superimposition of a global struggle between European powers upon several localised Indian wars did unnerve the Company and seriously embarrass its presidencies. Furthermore, the war exposed the rival geo-political ambitions of the French and these in turn provoked the more stolid, unreflecting British to formulate their own logic of empire. When word reached India in 1778 that France had entered the war, the British East India Company moved quickly to capture French colonial outposts there, notably capturing Pondicherry after two months of siege.
By March 1779 the British forces won Mahé ("Mahey") from the French; the Nairs ("Nayhirs"), a Hindu community that was ruled by matriarchs and (to some extent) practiced polyandry, took this opportunity to rebel against Haidar Ali's rule. The uprising was supported, if not instigated, by the British but suppressed, and the French retook Mahé in 1780 with Haidar Ali's aid.
Spain enters the war, 1779–1780
In April 1779 France and Spain signed the Convention of Aranjuez, which laid out a summary of Bourbon war aims. Spain sought to recover Gibraltar and Menorca, Mobile and Pensacola in Florida, and to expel the British from Spanish Central America by ending their right to cut logwood in the Bay of Honduras and the coast of Campeche. France declared that her aims were to expel the British from the Newfoundland fishery, to end restrictions on French sovereignty over Dunkirk, to regain free trade in India, to recover Senegal and Dominica, and to restore the Treaty of Utrecht provisions relating to the Anglo-French commerce.
Spain entered the war with one of the goals of recovering Gibraltar, which had been lost to England in 1704. Its garrison included troops from Britain and the Electorate of Hanover. Spain formally began the siege in June 1779, the fourteenth and longest of Gibraltar, with the Spanish establishing a land blockade around the Rock of Gibraltar. The Spanish strategy combined a steady bombardment of Gibraltar from the land with seaborne attacks and attempts to cut off the supply lines to Morocco, planning to retake Gibraltar by blockading and starving out its garrison. The matching naval blockade was comparatively weak, and the British discovered that small fast ships could evade the blockaders, while slower and larger supply ships generally could not. By late 1779, however, supplies in Gibraltar had become seriously depleted, and its commander, General George Eliott, appealed to London for relief.
A supply convoy was organised, and in late December 1779 a large fleet sailed from Britain under the command of Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney. Although Rodney's ultimate orders were to command the West Indies fleet, he had secret instructions to first resupply Gibraltar and Menorca and on 4 January 1780 the fleet divided, with ships headed for the West Indies sailing westward. This left Rodney in command of 19 ships of the line which were to accompany the supply ships to Gibraltar.
The supply convoy sailed into Gibraltar on January 19, driving the smaller blockading fleet to retreat to the safety of Algeciras. Rodney arrived several days later, and the British garrison was heartened by the arrival of the supplies and the presence of Prince William Henry. Upon the return of the ships from Menorca, Rodney put to sea again on February 13, for the West Indies, the detachment from the Channel fleet accompanied him three days' sail on his way, and then parted for Britain with the prizes. On this return voyage it fell in with fifteen French supply vessels, convoyed by two sixty-fours, bound for the Ile de France, in the Indian Ocean, one of the ships of war, the Protée, and three of the storeships were taken.
North American Operations, 1780-1781
With d'Estaing back to France, Washington got stuck in New Jersey, while asking for a continuous French naval presence in North American waters. When Lieutenant General Comte de Rochambeau arrived in Newport in July 1780 with an army of 6,000 men, he described the situation: "in any operation, and under all circumstances, a decisive naval superiority is to be considered as a fundamental principle, and the basis upon which every hope of success must ultimately depend". The Dutch were helping the American rebels by selling them guns and gunpowder from their ports in the Caribbean. The British used this as a pretext to declare war on the Netherlands in December 1780. Admiral Rodney spent the years of 1780 and 1781 in the Caribbean plundering and sacking the Dutch Caribbean islands.
By December 1780, the War in North America had reached a critical point. The Continental Army had suffered major defeats earlier in the year, with its southern armies either captured or dispersed in the loss of Charleston and the Battle of Camden in the south, while the armies of George Washington and the British commander-in-chief for North America, Sir Henry Clinton watched each other around New York City in the north. The national currency was virtually worthless, public support for the war, about to enter its sixth year, was waning, and army troops were becoming mutinous over pay and conditions.
French military planners had to balance competing demands for the 1781 campaign. After a series of unsuccessful attempts at cooperation in America (leading to unsuccessful attempts on Newport, Rhode Island and Savannah, Georgia), they decided more involvement in North America was necessary. They also needed to coordinate their actions with Spain, as there was potential interest in making an assault on the British stronghold of Jamaica. It turned out that the Spanish were not interested in operations against Jamaica until after they had dealt with an expected British attempt to reinforce besieged Gibraltar, and merely wanted to be informed of the movements of the West Indies fleet.
As the French fleet was preparing to depart Brest in March 1781, several important decisions were made. The West Indies fleet, led by the Comte de Grasse, after operations in the Windward Islands, was directed to go to Cap-Français (present-day Cap-Haïtien) to determine what resources would be required to assist Spanish operations. Due to a lack of transports, France also provided six million livres to support the American war effort beyond of providing additional troops. The French fleet at Newport was given a new commander, the Comte de Barras. De Barras was ordered to take the Newport fleet to harass British shipping off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and the French army at Newport was ordered to combine with Washington's army outside New York. In orders that were deliberately not fully shared with General Washington, De Grasse was instructed to assist in North American operations after his stop at Cap-Français. The French general, the Comte de Rochambeau, was instructed to tell Washington that de Grasse might be able to assist, without making any commitment. (Washington learned from John Laurens, stationed in Paris, that de Grasse had discretion to come north.)
De Grasse received these letters in July at roughly the same time Cornwallis was preparing to occupy Yorktown, Virginia. De Grasse concurred with Rochambeau and subsequently sent a dispatch indicating that he would reach the Chesapeake at the end of August but that agreements with the Spanish meant he could only stay until mid-October. The arrival of his dispatches prompted the Franco-American army to begin a march for Virginia. De Grasse reached the Chesapeake as planned, and his troops were sent to assist Lafayette's army in the blockade of Cornwallis. A British fleet sent to confront de Grasse's control of the Chesapeake was defeated by the French on September 5 at the Battle of the Chesapeake, and the Newport fleet delivered the French siege train to complete the allied military arrival. The Siege of Yorktown and following surrender by Cornwallis on October 19 were decisive in ending major hostilities in North America.
Antilles War, 1781-1783
In October 1781, a plan had been worked out between de Grasse, commander of the French fleet in the West Indies, and Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, General Bureau for the Spanish Indies, court representative and aide to the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez. The strategic objectives of this plan were to guide the Franco-Spanish military forces in the West Indies to accomplish the following objectives:
- Aid the Americans and defeat the British naval squadron at New York,
- Capture the British Windward Islands, and
- Conquer the island of Jamaica.
This plan became known as the De Grasse – Saavedra Convention and the first objective was essentially met with the surrender of the British army under General Cornwallis at the Siege of Yorktown in September 1781. De Grasse and his fleet had played a decisive part in that victory, after which they then sailed to the Caribbean. On arrival in Saint Domingue November 1781 he was given news that the plan was given the go ahead: to proceed with the conquest of Jamaica.
Jamaica was the most profitable British possession in the New World. Its most valuable commodity was sugar; it was more valuable to the British economy than the thirteen American colonies combined. In a letter from King George III to Lord Sandwich he declared that he would risk protecting Britain's important Caribbean islands at the risk of Britain herself, and this was strategy implemented in 1779. Sugar made up 20% of all British imports and was worth five times as much as tobacco. As well as the gradual expulsion of the British from the West Indies by the French and Spanish, the conquest was to force a massive blow on the British economy. The invasion itself though was perceived in the courts at Paris and Madrid as an alternative to the Spanish and French attempts to take Gibraltar which for two years had been a costly disaster.
While de Grasse waited for reinforcements to undertake the Jamaica campaign, he captured St. Kitts in February 1782. The rest of the Windward Islands (Antigua, St Lucia, and Barbados) still remained under British control, while Admiral George Rodney arrived in the Caribbean theatre the following month, having brought reinforcements. These included seventeen ships of the line, and gave the British a slight advantage in number.
On 7 April 1782, de Grasse set out from Martinique with 35 ships of the line, including two 50-gun ships and a large convoy of more than 100 cargo ships, to meet with a Spanish fleet consisting of 12 ships of the line. In addition de Grasse was to rendezvous with 15,000 troops at Saint Domingue earmarked for the conquest by landing on Jamaica's North coast. Rodney on learning of this then sailed from St Lucia in pursuit now with 36 ships of the line the following day.
The British ships by this time had hulls which gone through a process known as copper sheathing; found to be a practicable means of protecting them from marine growth and fouling as well as salt water corrosion. The result of this was that their speed and sailing performance as a whole in good wind improved dramatically.
Between 9 April 1782 and 12 April 1782 a British fleet under Admiral George Brydges Rodney engaged and defeated a French fleet under the Comte de Grasse at the battle of the Saintes, thus frustrating French plans for an invasion of Jamaica. Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood fought under Rodney during the battle, and was deeply critical of his commander for not pushing home his victory against the retreating enemy fleet. The British fleet made its way to Jamaica, from where Rodney ordered Hood to seek out any disabled or damaged French ships that had escaped the battle. Hood's division of thirteen ships set out towards toward Hispaniola, and while travelling through the Mona Passage, came across a number of French ships which had become separated before the battle of the Saintes and were on their way to Cap-Français.
By the end of 1782 the French were on defensive in the Caribbean, which signalled a stalemate of the seas. Soon after, the Royal navy was conducting a blockade off Cap-Français and Fort Royal as well as keeping a watch off Havana. At the same time British frigates were battling both Spanish and French privateers.
East Indies Campaign, 1782–1783
Vice Admiral Pierre André de Suffren Saint-Tropez, an aggressive fighter and seeker of decisive action, foiled a British attempt to take the Cape in early 1781, attacking a Royal Navy squadron at Porto Praya in the Cape Verde Islands which are in the Atlantic about 450 miles west of Africa. He arrived in southern India a year later. On land, the French supported the Nawab of Mysore in his war against the British East India Company. At sea, Suffren fought five intense and hard contested battles against the British East Indies Fleet during 1782 and 1783. Vice Admiral Edward Hughes was aware that the French purpose was objectived at dislocating the British economic exploitation and military domination, and that the preservation of his squadron was crucial for the survival of the British presence in India. The two equally capable and determined fleets broke off their mutual challenge only when news arrived that peace treaties had been signed by Britain, France and Spain in early 1783.
Peace proposal and the end of the war
Over the next few weeks, serious negotiations began between Britain, France and Spain (for which Britain's chief negotiator was Alleyne Fitzherbert, and Spain's Count of Aranda). Although a French naval expedition had destroyed British trading posts in Hudson Bay during the summer, no territory had actually been captured. From time to time, news would arrive from India of continuing stalemate, both in the land wars (which involved the French only as supporters to local rulers) and in naval battles; the British still appeared to hold all the French territory there that they had captured in 1778–79, while the French held no British territory. In the West Indies, on the other hand, the French still held all the territory they had captured, while the British held only one French island, St. Lucia.
In the preliminary treaties signed with France and Spain on 20 January 1783, France and Britain returned to each other nearly all the territories they had taken from each other since 1778, except for Tobago, which the French had captured in 1781 and were allowed to keep. France also gained some territory around the Senegal River in Africa which it had lost to Britain in 1763. The whole arrangement for fishing around the Newfoundland coast had to be renegotiated because of the rights awarded to the Americans.
In Alfred Thayer Mahan's view, British strategy had been fundamentally flawed. By necessarily needing large and substantial contingents at home to prevent invasion by France and to protect converging trade routes while sending detachments to other war theatres, Great Britain exposed its military forces to defeat in detail. The best policy, in his opinion,
to be effective, calls for superior numbers, because the different divisions are too far apart for mutual support. Each must therefore be equal to any probable combination against it, which implies superiority everywhere to the force of the enemy actually opposed, as the latter may be unexpectedly reinforced. How impossible and dangerous such a defensive strategy is, when not superior in force, is shown by the frequent inferiority of the English abroad, as well as in Europe, despite the effort to be everywhere equal.
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