The history of the War of the Austrian Succession has tended to be overshadowed by the later Seven Years War and that of American Independence, which were, in very different ways, globally significant for the development of colonial empires and state formation. Part of the explanation for the partial eclipse of the War of the Austrian Succession lies in the fact that it is viewed as inconclusive, with the great conflicts between Austria and Prussia over Silesia or France and Great Britain in North America being left unresolved. There is much truth in such an assessment, but this should not lead us to underestimate the scale or importance of a long struggle which helped to shape the political and diplomatic history of the eighteenth century. In his new book, Fadi El Hage takes a fresh look at the war, offering a concise and highly readable account of the European dimension of the conflict. El Hage is a respected military historian, and the book is concerned above all with the ebbs and flows of the various continental campaigns seen from a French perspective. In many ways, the sub-title, ‘Louis XV et le déclin de la France’, is a misnomer because the king appears only fleetingly and his role in the formation of policy is not examined in any depth. The strength of the book lies in its clear description of the course of a war that France entered initially in support of its ally, Charles-Albert of Bavaria, who was pressing his ultimately successful claim to be elected Holy Roman Emperor. It was in support of his ambitions that a Franco-Bavarian army invaded the territories of Maria-Theresa of Austria in 1741, seizing Prague and briefly, it seemed, threatening the very existence of the Habsburg monarchy. Her tenacity, the perceived treachery of the Prussian king, Frederick II, who while nominally an ally of France was single-mindedly pursuing his own interests, and the almost inevitable logistical problems of maintaining an army at distance in largely hostile territory led to disaster. El Fage recounts these events with skill and in addition to blaming the overconfidence of the maréchal de Belle-Isle, the inspiration and driving force behind the Bohemian campaign, he argues that the French army more generally was suffering from the effects of the long period of comparative peace that had followed the great wars at the end of the reign of Louis XIV. By 1740, France had a much smaller army than at the turn of the century, and many of its officers either had limited practical experience of their métier or were still wedded to the tactics of an earlier age. It is in the military sphere that he identifies his ‘déclin de la France’, and the Bohemian debacle was followed in 1746 by an almost equally ignominious setback in Northern Italy where French and Spanish forces were forced into headlong retreat leading to a brief invasion of Provence. Yet these blows were more than compensated for by the triumphs of Louis XV and his great general, the maréchal de Saxe, in the Low Countries and Flanders. A series of memorable victories including Fontenoy (1745), Rocoux (1746) and Lawfeld (1747) led to the capture of Brussels and the conquest of the Austrian Netherlands. By 1748, after the fall of Maestricht and Bergen-op-Zoom, France threatened the Dutch Republic and had acquired substantial collateral for the peace negotiations that would see these conquests exchanged for the crucial fortress of Louisbourg, which had been lost to the British in Canada, and a number of relatively minor gains for the Spanish branch of the House of Bourbon in Italy. Given the importance of the colonial and maritime theatres both to the War of the Austrian Succession and those that followed it, El Fage’s decision to omit any detailed discussion of that aspect of the story is a pity as it certainly weakens the overall argument. By the late 1740s, the dangers of fighting both a maritime and continental war, something that had also proved too much for the France of Louis XIV, were all too apparent to both Louis XV’s government and the more astute of his subjects, and that accounts, in part, for the generosity of the peace terms offered by the king in 1748. It was the subsequent failure to avoid the trap of a renewed maritime and continental war that would ultimately lead to disaster and the temporary decline of France as a military power. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
French History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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