What is new to us, a Frenchman once said, is often simply what we have forgotten. Few historians of the 18th century have ever doubted that 1759 was one of its decisive turning-points, on a par perhaps with 1776 or 1789; but Frank McLynn contends in this history of "the year Britain became master of the world" that it has been largely forgotten in British national memory. His book aims to restore it to its proper place by emphasising that the naval and military victories of that year laid the foundations for more than a century of global power, which in turn determined the course of world history for far longer, right down to the dominance of the English language.
McLynn makes a good case. In 1759, the British captured control of the world's seas by destroying the battle fleets of their French rivals. This left the French unable to reinforce their beleaguered establishments in America and India. Canada was lost, and the East India Company came to dominate the subcontinent.
Over the next two decades, the British triumphs of 1759 were dimmed by the breakaway of the 13 colonies, and the French had their revenge by aiding and abetting the birth of the United States. But, says McLynn, even that momentous development might not have happened if the colonists had continued to need the mother country's protection against a French-controlled Canada.
Besides, American independence did not destroy the British Empire, as the French had expected. It did destroy the monarchy of France, by making the debts it had incurred over decades of worldwide struggle overwhelming, and precipitating reforms the king proved unable to control. So, in a sense, both the American and French Revolutions can be traced back to the battles of 1759.
McLynn is at his best describing these battles. He has written a good deal of military history, ranging from 1066 to the Mexican Revolution. But his is never a dry account; he brings alive the human element of conflict, and describes the technology of killing in vivid detail.
Equally appalling are his descriptions of life at sea in the age of sail, or what it was like to fight alongside (and much worse, against) the natives of India or North America. If 1759 was a pivot of modern history, those who made it so were often horribly mangled in the process.
Nor did those who launched them into their fate much care. High policy was run on all sides by favourites, mistresses and adventurers, who bothered little about the costs of their ambitions. There are few heroes but plenty of victims, both high and low, in this account of the "glorious year". Fighters in the front line, if they survived, often suffered awful mutilations. Even generals lost their lives, like the two opposing commanders in the battle for Quebec, Montcalm and Wolfe. Commanders who lost might be executed by their own side, like the British admiral Byng, or the French Lally-Tollendal.
Lally was not strictly French at all, but an Irish Jacobite. McLynn began his writing career with a book on Jacobitism, and perhaps the most original part of 1759 is his demonstration of how important the Jacobites were in French strategic planning. Bonnie Prince Charlie and his followers were not finished by Culloden - or need not have been if the prince had not degenerated by the 1750s into a touchy, drunken buffoon. Even then, leading subordinates such as Lally were considered useful and reliable agents against the House of Hanover. They were certainly brave. They were also almost uniformly catastrophic.
In making his case for 1759, McLynn deprecates the claims of 1688 as a comparable turning-point in British history. But surely it set the scene for later triumphs in a way that he perhaps overlooks? The Glorious Revolution drove the Stuarts into the arms of the French. In doing so, it removed a spectacular strain of incompetence from the British scene.
If the Stuarts had remained in charge on this side of the Channel, and not become a distracting burden to the Bourbons, perhaps it might have been the British who were routed in 1759 - and McLynn would have been writing his story in French.
William Doyle is professor of history at Bristol UniversityReuse content