The first world war (which started in 1756)

<i>Crucible of War: the Seven Years' War and the fate of the Empire in British North America 1754-1766</i> by Fred Anderson (Faber &amp; Faber, &pound;25)
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The Independent Culture

We have grown used to believing that the only two global conflicts worthy of the description "world war" occurred in the 20th century. This is not how it appeared to our 18th-century predecessors. Apart from the titanic post-1789 struggle between Britain and France that only ended at Waterloo, the Seven Years' War of 1756-63 was also fought on a global scale. It gave the English-speaking people permanent supremacy in North America, wrecking French ambition and bloodying Spain; it snuffed out France's hopes of remaining a major player in India; and it allowed Britain to seize a crop of French Caribbean possessions. Finally, the balance of power in Europe was altered to France's distinct disadvantage.

We have grown used to believing that the only two global conflicts worthy of the description "world war" occurred in the 20th century. This is not how it appeared to our 18th-century predecessors. Apart from the titanic post-1789 struggle between Britain and France that only ended at Waterloo, the Seven Years' War of 1756-63 was also fought on a global scale. It gave the English-speaking people permanent supremacy in North America, wrecking French ambition and bloodying Spain; it snuffed out France's hopes of remaining a major player in India; and it allowed Britain to seize a crop of French Caribbean possessions. Finally, the balance of power in Europe was altered to France's distinct disadvantage.

No wonder that for the next half century, the French thirsted for revenge against Britain, finding only a temporary satisfaction in their role in supporting the American Revolution. Indeed, not until the Anglo-French entente of 1904 were relatively cordial relations established, and even those were to take some hard knocks, from the French military collapse in 1940 via the abrupt British abandonment of the 1956 Suez campaign to de Gaulle's veto on the British application for membership of the EEC. Today it is English, not French, that is the world's premier language, not least through its domination of the internet-led globalisation of information.

This hefty, well-written and ambitious book at last does full justice to the Seven Years' War. It is a triumph of research and perseverance, very thorough and - as far as any book can be - definitive. The writing is sharp and businesslike, but also packed with intriguing detail.

Despite the significance of the war in India and elsewhere, Anderson concentrates his analytical and narrative powers on North America. For the non-specialist he will, I suspect, have a surprising story to tell. Far from the Seven Years' War paving the way to a colonial mind-set that made independence inevitable, Anderson emphasises that the colonists who shed their blood and gave their treasure on behalf of the empire, "fairly revelled in the name of Briton."

Why then did things go so badly wrong after the triumph of Anglo-American arms in Canada and the Ohio valley? Anderson's thesis is an enlightening mixture of the unfamiliar and well-established. He argues that the Stamp Act of 1765, commonly perceived as a significant stumble on the slippery path to revolution, was nothing of the sort. It represented a crisis, but one that, after a riotous interlude, was negotiated away in the spirit of optimism that derived from the successful conclusion of the war. American colonists looked forward to a future of commercial prosperity and the opening up of the interior to English-speaking settlement - all within the imperial system.

What went adrift was that the post-war imperatives of the British government did not match those of the colonists. British administrators wanted to guarantee imperial security with revenue raised in the colonies, rather than depend on a notoriously bloody-minded colonial élite to come to the rescue in times of emergency. They wished to redefine the imperial connection according to their own needs, not at the behest of a fluid colonial population. It was, fundamentally, a collision between the forces of optimism and pessimism.

Ironically, shortly before the outbreak of the Seven Years' War, British and colonial statesmen had defined their future relations in the Albany Plan, which envisaged a proto-union of the English-speaking colonies. The plan was aborted in the face of colonial disquiet. In the end, the American colonies declared their independence, though not without much heart-searching. In the first draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson wrote ruefully that "we might have been a great and free people together." As it turned out, each side became a great and free people apart.

Denis Judd is the author of 'Empire; the British Imperial experience from 1765 to the Present' (Fontana)

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