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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Under the influence of Count Kaunitz


A

striking incident signalized the commencement of hostilities. Rather a man of pleasure and a courtier than an able soldier, Marshal Richelieu had, nevertheless, the good fortune to connect his name with the only successful event of the Seven Years' War that was destined to remain impressed upon the mind of posterity. Under his orders, a body of twelve thousand men, on board of a squadron, commanded by M. de la Galissonniere, left Toulon on the 10th of April, 1756, at the moment when England was excited by expectation of a coming descent upon her coasts. On the 17th, the French attacked the Island of Minorca, an important point whence the English threatened Toulon, and commanded the western basin of the Mediterranean. Some few days later, the English troops, driven out of Ciudadela and Mahon, had taken refuge in Fort St. Philip, and the French cannon were battering the ramparts of the vast citadel.

On the 10th of May an English fleet, commanded by Admiral Byng, appeared in the waters of Port Mahon; it at once attacked M. de la Galissonniere. The latter succeeded in preventing the English from approaching land. After an obstinate struggle, Admiral Byng, afraid of losing his fleet, fell back on Gibraltar. The garrison of Fort St. Philip waited in vain for the return of the squadron; left to its own devices, it nevertheless held out; the fortifications seemed to be impregnable; the siege-works proceeded slowly; the soldiers were disgusted, and

began to indulge to excess in the wine of Spain. "No one who gets drunk shall have the honor of mounting the breach," said Richelieu's general order. Before long he resolved to attempt the assault.

[Illustration: Attack on Fort St. Philip----218]

Fort St. Philip towered up proudly on an enormous mass of rock; the French regiments flung themselves into the fosses, setting against the ramparts ladders that were too short; the soldiers mounted upon one another's shoulders, digging their bayonets into the interstices between the stones; the boldest were already at the top of the bastions. On the 28th of June, at daybreak, three of the forts were in possession of the French; the same day the English commandant decided upon capitulation. The Duke of Fronsac, Marshal Richelieu's son, hurried to Versailles to announce the good news. There was great joy at court and amongst the French nation; the French army and navy considered themselves avenged of England's insults. In London Admiral Byng was brought to trial; he was held responsible for the reverse, and was shot, notwithstanding the protests of Voltaire and of Richelieu himself. At the same time the king's troops were occupying Corsica in the name of the city of Genoa, the time-honored ally of France. Mistress of half the Mediterranean, and secure of the neutrality of Holland, France could have concentrated her efforts upon the sea, and have maintained a glorious struggle with England, on the sole condition of keeping peace on the Continent. The policy was simple, and the national interest palpable; King Louis XV. and some of his ministers understood this; but they allowed themselves to drift into forgetfulness of it.

For a long time past, under the influence of Count Kaunitz, a young diplomat equally bold and shrewd, "frivolous in his tastes and profound in his views," Maria Theresa was inclining to change the whole system of her alliances in Europe; she had made advances to France. Count Kaunitz had found means of pleasing Madame de Pompadour; the empress put the crowning touch to the conquest by writing herself to the favorite, whom she called "My cousin." The Great Frederick, on the contrary, all the time that he was seeking to renew with the king his former offensive and defensive relations, could not manage to restrain the flow of his bitter irony. Louis XV. had felt hurt, on his own account and on his favorite's; he still sought to hold the balance steady between the two great German sovereigns, but he was already beginning to lean towards the empress. A proposal was made to Maria Theresa for a treaty of guarantee between France, Austria, and Prussia; the existing war between England and France was excepted from the defensive pact; France reserved to herself the right of invading Hanover. The same conditions had been offered to the King of Prussia; he was not contented with them. Whilst Maria Theresa was insisting at Paris upon obtaining an offensive as well as defensive alliance, Frederick II. was signing with England an engagement not to permit the entrance into Germany of any foreign troops. "I only wish to preserve Germany from war," wrote the King of Prussia to Louis XV. On the 1st of May, 1756, at Versailles, Louis XV. replied to the Anglo-Prussian treaty by his alliance with the Empress Maria Theresa. The house of Bourbon was holding out the hand to the house of Austria; the work of Henry IV. and of Richelieu, already weakened by an inconsistent and capricious policy, was completely crumbling to pieces, involving in its ruin the military fortunes of France.


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