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Was Hitler right to invade Russia?
Why France Lost the Seven Years' War
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The Seven Years' War

Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766

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Why France Lost the Seven Years' War in North America
Why France Lost the Seven Years' War in North America 
by Andrew Wright

France and England were traditional enemies. In North America alone they have fought each other in four different wars. But it was not until the Seven Years' War (1756-63) that the issue of who controlled the continent was settled once and for all. During that struggle Great Britain finally made the conquest of New France a priority and invested enough men and equipment to accomplish its aim. With the help of the Royal Navy, New France was effectively cut off from reinforcements, while at the same time it allowed the British to build up the necessary strength in the thirteen colonies to destroy the French presence in North America. British Naval Supremacy coupled with England's escalation of the war in North America sealed the fate of New France during the Seven Years' War.[1].

In order to understand what happened in North America during the war, it is necessary to understand that the conflict there was only one part of, what some historians view, as the first real global war. Britain and France not only fought in North America, but in India, Europe and on the seas. Given so many theatres of war, each with differing degrees of importance, it was necessary that nations had to choose priorities.[2].

It was easy for England to set priorities. Thanks to her island status and the supremacy of the Royal Navy, it was unnecessary for Britain to field a large conventional army to defend its shores or to fight in Europe. Since the United Kingdom's greatest interest was in sea trade and amassing colonies, it was only natural that the war at sea and in the colonies got preference. The only problem was that she was obliged to protect the Kingdom of Hanover, which was technically in Union with England. Britain solved this problem by making an alliance with Frederick the Great of Prussia, who was arguably the greatest General of the time. They also financed a German Army to fight in Hanover as well as sending a few troops of their own.[3].

France had a harder time setting priorities. As one historian noted: The "French court was divided between those who favoured concentrating on naval and colonial warfare, and those who favoured a war in Europe and felt that a naval war was secondary to the seizure of Hanover."[4]. France was traditionally a continental power that had tried to conquer Europe on several occasions. There were Frenchmen during the 17th Century like Louis XIV's venerable adviser Jean-Baptiste Colbert who advised building a colonial empire to increase France's power and wealth, but they were strictly in the minority.[5]. Given such a dedicated and powerful enemy as Britain with her Royal Navy it was not completely insensible to concentrate on Europe. If the French court can be censured for faulty policy, it is not because they set bad priorities, but because they did not set priorities at all. By juggling multiple aims the French risked defeat in all of them. In the end the French did not have the necessary strength to subdue Hanover, reinforce their colonies, protect their trade, and invade England. Needless to say, the lack of "unity of purpose" in France's Grand Strategy would have a drastic affect on New France.

However, despite the confusing war policy dictated by Paris, the French forces in North America began the first few years with a string of victories. Before the stranglehold of the Royal Navy cut off all contact from France and allowed the British to heavily reinforce the thirteen colonies, France more than held its own in the struggle. In the first few years the French used Native allies to compensate for their lack of numbers and in general understood frontier tactics better than the British and American forces. They defeated several British and American forces as well as capturing various frontier posts thanks to the utilization of interior lines of communication and to no small thanks to the French Commander Louis-Joseph de Montcalm.[6].

Montcalm was a skilled and courageous soldier with considerable military experience. He improved the defences at Fort Ticonderoga, captured and destroyed Fort Oswego in 1756, forced the capitulated of Fort William Henry in 1757, and successfully defended fort Carillon despite being outnumber five to one. While he was an honourable man, his reputation was smeared when some of his Native allies attacked the defenceless British force that was allowed to withdraw from Fort William Henry. Eventually Montcalm would witness the turn of the tide as the British gained the upper hand after capturing Louisbourg and advancing deep into the Ohio Valley. He finally met his fate in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham where he was mortally wounded.[7].

British fortunes started to improve during 1758. By the summer they had amassed around 42,000 British and colonial troops in North America while one quarter of the Royal Navy, operating off the coast, effectively cut off New France from any reinforcements.[8]. Also, despite the incompetence of General James Abercrombie during the Battle of Carillon in 1758, the British and Americans troops had improved their tactics and adapted to their surroundings.[9]. Besides the supremacy of the Royal Navy, two events during the year tipped the balance in Britain's favour. The first was the capture of Fort Frontenac, which served as a major supply depot to the French forts in the Great Lakes and Ohio region. With its capture the communications between Quebec and the western forts were eliminated.[10] More importantly was the successful siege of Louisbourg.

The settlement at Louisbourg had a powerful fortress as well as a formidable naval base. By all accounts it was the strongest fort in North America and was even given the title "The Dunkirk of North America" after the immensely fortified French port in the English Channel. It served two purposes: The protection of the St Lawrence valley, and thus the Heartland of New France from naval incursions, as well to provide a base to "raid the sea lanes between New England and Britain."[11] If the British wanted to invade Quebec via an amphibious assault Louisbourg would have to be eliminated. To accomplish such a task the British amassed "39 ships with about 14,000 sailors, and a further landing force of 12,870 soldiers."[12] This gave them a comfortable superiority over the French who had "10 French ships with 3,870 sailors, and another 3,920 soldiers inside the fortress itself."[13]

On June 8th, 1758 the British landed on Freshwater Cove to the southwest of the fort. During the next few weeks until mid-July the British cleared all the positions and trenches outside the fort. Once established, just outside Louisbourg's walls, the British were able to bombard the town directly. With the help of the Royal Navy, which cut Louisbourg off from any reinforcements as well as providing fire support to the troops, the British laid down a punishing bombardment. Faced with mounting casualties, the destruction of much of the settlement, and little hope of relief, the French Commander made overtures to surrender, which were eventually accepted on the 1st of August.[14]

With the capitulation of Louisbourg opening the St Lawrence to the Royal Navy and the vulnerability of the Western French forts after the capture of Fort Frontenac, the British finally had the initiative they needed to conquer New France. 1759 was destined to be the climax of the war in North America. The British decided to make a three pronged invasion on the Heart of New France. One army advanced towards Montreal from Fort Frontenac, another advanced from Fort William Henry to first take Fort Carillon and then meet up with the first force in Montreal, and the final assault came from the sea as the British moved up the St Lawrence River towards the Centre of Gravity of the French Empire in North America (Quebec City).[15]

Of the three objectives, Quebec City was the most significant. While the other two advances by land made steady progress, they did not capture Montreal in 1759, nor would its capture have been as important as the fall of Quebec City, the capital and primary port of New France. In charge of this fateful enterprise was a young British General named James Wolfe.

General James Wolfe was a more controversial character than Montcalm. Some historians consider him a military genius, while others credit his high rank due to powerful connections.[16] He has been portrayed as a passionate and merciful man who refused to shoot a wounded highlander at Battle of Culloden as well as a callous and barbaric man who "burned villages all up and down the St. Laurence in defiance of the current rules of civilized warfare."[17] Given such controversy it is not a surprise that some view the Quebec campaign as "a damn near thing," to quote the Duke of Wellington, while others think it was one of the most brilliantly executed operations in military history. What was undisputable was General Wolfe's courage and his role in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham leading to the capture of Quebec City.

One June 21, 1759 Wolfe, along with his armada of ships and men, arrived near Quebec City. Quebec City was fortified and sat on top of a cliff. "The French under Montcalm, planned to defend Quebec by holding the escarpments along the north shore from the Montmorency falls, below Quebec, at least as far as Ste Foy, upriver from the citadel."[18] Unfortunately, for the French, this left the British with the south shore which they used to Bombard Quebec without mercy during the whole summer. However, Montcalm's plan was not to meet the English and fight them, but wait until winter came and forced them to withdraw. An abortive assault by Redcoats against the Montmorency Falls was repulsed with significant casualties in late July, and from then on Wolfe became more desperate as time went by. While Wolfe continued the bombardment of Quebec, ships were sent to scout regions of the St Lawrence around Quebec to find a viable place to climb the cliffs. Finally, during the night of 12-13 September, a good spot around Anse-aux-Foulons was found. Thanks to the incompetence of a local commander the cove was unguarded and Wolfe led his army up the cliff towards the Plains of Abraham.[19]

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham is seen by many as the decisive moment in North America during the Seven Years' War. While the British formed up on the Plains of Abraham Montcalm ordered part of his force to meet them in battle. The battle did not last long and can be briefly described. The English had a slight but not significant numerical advantage and both sides advanced towards each other to deliver volleys of fire. The French fired at 130 yards and failed to deliver significant damage to the British line. While Montcalm's army continued to advance and fire sporadically, the disciplined British held their fire as ordered by Wolfe and waited until they were within 40 yards of their enemy. Thereupon they delivered a volley described as "the most beautiful volley in the history of warfare."[20] A second volley caused more damage and from then on the battle was irretrievably won for the British. The remaining French withdrew to Quebec City which surrendered on the 18th of September. The battle itself lasted 30 minutes, left both commanders mortally wounded, and resulted in about six hundred casualties on both sides.[21]

While the Battle of the Plains of Abraham is often associated with the end of the war in North America, in reality hostilities continued for another year. In the early spring "a large French force of 8,500 men arrived from Montreal"[22] and laid siege to English held Quebec City. The new British Commander, Major-General George Murray met the French force outside the city and was soundly defeated in the Battle of Sainte-Foy. Fortunately, for the British, he was able to retreat back into the city and hold onto it until the Royal Navy arrived to relieve him, "forcing the French to lift the siege and retreat towards Montreal."[23] Once again, the Royal Navy had exercised a decisive influence upon the conflict.

The end was finally in sight as three British armies descended upon Montreal during the summer of 1760. "By 6 September the three armies had converged and surrounded the island of Montreal, and on 8 September the French garrison surrendered to General Amherst."[24] New France had fallen, and the war in North America was over.

To understand the defeat of France in North America during the Seven Years' War it is necessary to look at both how and why they were defeated. It is easy to recognize how they lost. In the latter years of the war they lost most of the battles and sieges which inevitably meant the losing of their forts, cities and consequently New France. But why they lost these battles is the key to their defeat and ultimate downfall.

Two factors, more than anything, explain why the British were able to conquer New France. Firstly, the Royal Navy dominated the seas. The war in the colonies was dependant upon men and supplies shipped from the mother countries. Not only did the domination of the oceans mean that one nation could reinforce their own colonies, but it also meant that enemy nations could not. The British were able to win naval supremacy by building and capturing more ships, blockading the French fleet in its ports, and capturing French trade.[25]

The Royal Navy played a decisive role in North America. It allowed the British to heavily reinforce the Thirteen Colonies, as well as denying reinforcements to New France. It helped the English during the Siege of Louisbourg by landing troops and providing fire support. Finally, it ferried troops into the St Lawrence and helped Wolfe in his siege of Quebec City. In fact, it could be argued that New France's fate was secured in the Northern Atlantic, rather than at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. After all, it was the arrival of the Royal Navy in the spring of 1760 that secured Quebec City from French intervention.[26]

The other factor in the subjugation of New France was England's decision to invest enough men and equipment to further their goal of annexing the French Empire in North America. This could not have been done without the aide of the Royal Navy, but it was still of vital importance. The French may have had too small a population in the Americas to ever dream of conquering the Thirteen Colonies, but in three previous wars they had managed to hold their own and maintain a significant presence on the continent. This time Britain made the war in the North American Theatre a priority and amassed the necessary power to force an indisputable decision. As mentioned above, by the summer of 1758 the British had 42,000 troops and one quarter of their Navy deployed in and around America. The French were hopelessly outnumbered and forced onto the defensive.[27]

With their huge numerical advantage the British went onto the offensive and started unravelling New France. First they took Fort Frontenac and severed the lines of Communication between the Western Forts and Quebec, and next they took Louisbourg, opening the St Lawrence to invasion. Then they struck at the heart of Quebec, seized Quebec City, and held it until relieved. Finally in the summer of 1760 three British Armies marched on Montreal and forced it to surrender.

British naval power and England's massive commitment of forces to North America explain why the French lost the war there. The French Navy was consistently outfought by the Royal Navy and spent most of the war in her ports, leaving New France vulnerable and unsupplied. Meanwhile, Britain sent enough men and supplies, with the help of the Royal Navy, to North America to make sure the fate of New France was secured. With hindsight it is hard to see how the French could have won the war in the Americas. With such a small population in New France it is not realistic to belief she could have conquered the thirteen colonies. Additionally, it is just as unlikely that the French Navy could have gained naval supremacy and heavily reinforced her colonies. During the war, even with Spain's late entry, France and Spain only managed to build or capture 6 ships compared to Britain's 69. The best France could have hoped for was a stalemate guaranteeing her previous possessions. Unfortunately, for the French, England had the means to conquer New France, and during the Seven Years War in North America she also had the will.[28]

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2007 Andrew Wright.

Written by Andrew Wright. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Andrew Wright at:

Please take the time to visit Andrew Wright's site at

About the author:
Andrew Wright is attending his second year at the University of Regina, majoring in History and minoring in Political Science. His hobbies include reading, writing, politics, history, Halo (X-Box) and other strategy games like Chess, Axis and Allies etc. He has lived in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada most of his life, but have also lived in London England for a year and travelled around Europe including: United Kingdom, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Greece. He has an extensive military history book collection (500 or more books). He is the author of After Iraq: A Year in the Middle East.

Published online: 7/08/2007.

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