Pitt the Elder: Man of War by Edward Pearce

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Pitt the Elder: Man of War by Edward Pearce

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Category: Biography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A life-and-times, rather than true biography, of the 18th century statesman whose power was at its height during the Seven Years' War with France, and his era.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 978-1845951436

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William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham, and Prime Minister from 1766 to 1768, has come down to us through the ages as the great eighteenth century equivalent of Winston Churchill, one of the great men of the British Empire in its earlier days, and the man who led England triumphantly through the Seven Years War of 1756-63. During the 'year of victories' in 1759, Quebec was captured, the combined English and Prussian forces defeated the French at Minden, and the army won a famous victory at Quiberon Bay. For this, Pitt took – or was accorded by generations of historians – much of the credit.

Yet true history is not necessarily the story of great men and women who are fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. Part of the purpose of Pearce's book is to put his standing in perspective. If this volume is not quite an exercise in debunking, it does nevertheless leave us in no doubt that the author strongly believes Pitt's historical reputation is not fully merited. He shows us that Pitt neither planned nor financed the war, and it was his sovereign, King George II, not he who was responsible for the main military appointments. He had nothing but contempt for Lord Anson, who was responsible for British naval movements during those years and its main successes. Significantly Pitt's his main strategic initiatives of naval raids on the French coast were all failures, and the conflict was led by commanders and soldiers who had to take difficult yet fortunate decisions on the spot. In those days there was no question of strategy being decided by a war cabinet in London, as the only means of communication was by letters or messengers with several weeks' delay. Moreover, Pitt was a poor speaker, and although his oratory was widely praised, he often sounded heavy and dull. Admittedly, he suffered from regular ill-health which doubtless affected his ability to make the right decisions, but by and large he was little more than a showy figure in an age of war. (More recent comparisons with two Prime Ministers from the last sixty years might be usefully drawn).

Pitt entered Parliament at the age of 25 for the family borough of Old Sarum in Wiltshire, the notorious 'rotten borough' with five voters. Pearce has little to say about his early career at Westminster beyond referring to his criticism of Walpole's methods, which could in part be explained by the old principle of opposition for opposition's sake. Despite the book's title, it should be said, this is really in effect a 'life and times', with very little about the politician as a man. We are introduced briefly to his wife and children, one of whom, his namesake, was later also Prime Minister, but the main focus is on British foreign policy during the era.

Towards the end, there is a moving portrait of his decline and last months, up to his collapse in the House of Lords while making the speech which ended in his seizure, and death at his home in Kent a few weeks later. (I am intrigued, though, that he died in May 1778, yet the first plate in the book is of Copley's famous painting of that final scene in Parliament, which according to the caption took place two months after his death). His analysis in an Appendix of Pitt's mental condition and long-running battle with depression also makes interesting reading, although it is apparently based largely on the thoughts of Dr David Owen, former SDP leader and psychiatrist, who is quoted at considerable length. Nonetheless, all things considered, it is one of those books in which the mere life of the ostensible subject tends to disappear beneath the history.

As a detailed narrative of the age, it tells the story passably well. My reservations with the book are not concerned with his comparisons with present-day politics – as long as they do not become too intrusive – so much as his breezy, over-colloquial, cliché-laden style. Pearce also writes for the press, and in a piece on one of today's issues in the Guardian or Daily Telegraph, or indeed a lecture from one's college or university tutor, this is perfectly acceptable. But in what aspires to be a fairly heavyweight historical biography, I find it irritating.

To take one example, when talking about the siege at Quebec, he tells us that what happened next is perfect boys' story, a damn close-run thing to end damn close-run things; it would make a decent film. When speaking about military naval strategy, it is not necessarily Britain he mentions, but 'we' and 'us', as in We would have to do this or that. (Present reviewer's emphasis). Later, he reflects on Pitt as a man of property at home. Anyone who has listened to Michael Heseltine talking about his Oxfordshire garden and the things he can do with his JCB to make it more beautiful will recognize Pitt's intense pleasure in his to gardens. Exactly so, I'm sure, but stylistically such references seem out of place to me. Some readers may welcome this, but I beg to differ.

Our thanks to Pimlico for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

For more on 18th century history, you might also like to try Thomas Paine: His Life, His Time and the Birth of the Modern Nations by Craig Nelson; or for a biography of a Pitt relative, Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis.

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