As I work through some key issues for my book on John Byng, it became difficult to avoid the fact that the admiral participated in Britain’s pre-emptive strike against France in 1755. Yes, the Seven Years’ War had many precursors prior to the official declaration of war (May 1756), the Channel Campaign among them. Pre-emptive war is familiar to us thanks to the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003. However one feels about what has become known as the Bush/Rumsfeld Doctrine, the invasion of Iraq connects the long history of pre-emptive strikes to how Britain employed this military strategy in the mid-eighteenth century. Below was my first attempt at explaining the significance of the Royal Navy’s pre-war strike against French maritime vessels in the summer and fall of 1755. I took a hatchet to it making it much shorter on the advice of my editor.


The Bush Doctrine remains controversial with defenders as well as detractors

Nonetheless, the issue of pre-emptive strikes remains a twenty-first-century reality. Given the recent presidential election results in the United States, the transfer of power from Obama to Trump raises the spectre that military pre-emptive strikes may once again be favored. In arguing for the doctrine of pre-emption both President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did do some history and thus claimed an international acceptance on the issue of pre-emptive war. Because of this new relevancy, I felt obliged to give a small history of pre-emption.


In the longue durée, England’s use of pre-emptive strikes by way of maritime forces has a chequered past. From all three of the seventeenth-century Anglo-Dutch Wars to Mers-el-Kébir in July 1940, waterborne pre-emptive strikes appear to have been a mainstay of English/British military strategy.[1] The Channel Campaign stands as one of Britain’s most successful pre-emptive strikes, if not its most important (in terms of war outcomes), yet remains largely unknown to most historians let alone the general public.

I would argue, though, that there’s a need to reflect upon the term ‘pre-emptive’, more to arrive at a clearer definition before some three-hundred years of comparisons of ‘before-war’ intentional strikes by London’s Admiralty Office can be made. Unfortunately, a consensus does not exist leaving the term rather illusory.[2] The most familiar example of a pre-emptive strike would be the twenty-first-century case of the United States invading Iraq. This 2003 controversial attack motivated scholars to review the term ‘pre-emptive’, and to begin to re-examine how past instances fit in with the new emerging definitions. Earlier attempts at defining pre-emptive war seem strange. John Blackmore states that ‘opportunism’ is the key made more so with an eye on short-term tactics rather than long-term strategies. Using Germany’s entry into World War I as an example, Blackmore asserts that weaker powers are the likeliest to utilize pre-emptive attacks fearing the stronger power’s mobilization of forces. Further, according to Blackmore, nearly all pre-emptive wars ‘have very tragic results’.[3] Blackmore’s assessment was backed by Peter Munz who further commented that the nuclear age has rendered pre-emptive wars ‘impossible’.[4] Clearly, with the United States invasion of Iraq (2003) both Blackmore’s and Munz’s thinking appear outmoded. In fact what Blackmore elucidated and Munz backed was ‘preventative war’, not pre-emptive. In a long footnote, Stephen Van Evera explained the difference: in a preventive war, ‘one side foresees an adverse shift in the balance of power, and attacks to avoid a more difficult fight later’.[5] This illumination reinforces Keir A. Lieber’s assertion that Germany’s move through Belgium in 1914 was based on that country’s fear of timely Russian mobilizations joining up with military ramp ups already underway in France.[6] Thus, Germany’s entry into the Great schlieffen-terv_es_francia_xvii_terv-svgWar through the execution of their Schlieffen Plan was not a pre-emptive strike but preventative – fostered to shorten a war considered inevitable. Yet, Van Evera’s argument reads somewhat confusing for within the same essay he postulated upon four classifications in which pre-emptive wars occur (which is our concern): ‘an attack to forestall an attack, an attack to forestall a mobilization, a mobilization to forestall an attack, or a mobilization to forestall a mobilization (such as the Russian mobilizations in 1914)’.[7] In this definition, Germany’s Belgium offensive, then, also appears pre-emptive as it was an attack to forestall Russia’s mobilization and hit France before it went on the offensive. Thus the preventative/pre-emption schemes still seem murky and regretfully undefined.

Post 9/11 scholarship, though, has allowed for further clarifications of the two terms to be reconsidered. William James Stover published in 2004 that after the events which transpired on September 11, 2001, the United States abandoned the centuries’ old concept of ‘just war’ opting instead for policies that ensured American hegemony through a new doctrine of pre-emptive strikes; a strategy, Stover adds, that has little to do with self-defence.[8] Other scholars agree, not only did the U.S. change foreign policy outlooks but redefined the concept of pre-emptive war when it invaded Iraq in 2003. A year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration codified its call for pre-emptive war with its 2002 publication of the National Security Strategy of the United States of America. That document asserted that pre-emptive actions were long recognized within the bounds of international law, especially where concepts of ‘imminent threat’ existed.[9] Yet,


At the UN, Colin Powell held a vial of anthrax arguing that Iraq would use Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Princeton professor, Michael Walzer argued in the lead up to the invasion that there was ‘nothing to preempt’ since Iraq was not expected to attack. To Walzer, the invasion of Iraq by U.S. and allied forces in 2003 was preventative, not pre-emptive – which returns us once again to the murkiness of the two terms. Walzer reiterated the traditional use of ‘preventative war’ claiming its existence when disruptions appear within ‘power balances’ between two rivals engaged in a military build up.[10] However, one can argue that if Iraq did possess Weapons of Mass Destruction [WMD], then that would have indeed upset a known power balance where the once dominant United States now faced off against a once weaker Iraq who could then play a WMD card at will. Clearly, Walzer’s definition does not assist scholars in understanding the pre-emptive, preventative dichotomy.

Perhaps the best definition I came across in regard to pre-emptive war came from James D. Fearon in his essay, ‘Rationalist Explanations for War’. According to Fearon, pre-emptive war is meant to create advantages: primarily to increase the odds of winning a war; secondly to reduce its cost; and thirdly to employ military technologies to create favourable battlefield outcomes both in the present and in the future. Thus, most pre-emptive strikes are not only offensive military manoeuvres, but those that are conducted on a large scale.[11]


Hot action photographed during the pre-emptive strike at Mers-el-Kebir.

We see this in the July 1940 attack on the French fleet anchored at Mers-el-Kébir. By taking out the French fleet, Britain found for itself a more promising position in terms of sea supremacy. In denying Vichy France a part of its navy (and thereby denying Nazi Germany possible access to those ships) Britain ensured future favourable outcomes in battles conducted in the Mediterranean and Atlantic theatres. The Royal Navy sent seventeen ships to scuttle nine French ships anchored Mers-el-Kébir, plus another fifty aircraft from the carrier HMS Ark Royal: so yes, a large scale operation. The British attack also removed the imminent threat that French naval forces would fall into the hands of Nazi Germany which, ultimately, reduced the costs of war at sea. The attack fits within the bounds of pre-emptive strikes as defined by Fearon.[12]


So too does the 1755 Channel Campaign: by seizing 300 maritime vessels and over 7,000 French seamen, Britain’s control of the Atlantic – from the Caribbean to Canada and back to European shores – became more secure. In denying France its ships, men, and cargo (valued in the millions of livre in 1755 terms) Britain induced a severe military and economic blow to its Gallic enemy. The success of the campaign thus increased the odds of winning a war in which most contemporaries had considered inescapable. Britain used two massive naval fleets to seize French maritime vessels: Hawk and Byng commanding. Last, the outcome of the campaign removed the imminent threat of invasion. Through Britain’s spy networks, the ministry learned of the damage the said campaign inflicted: French plans to invade Britain early in the course of rising tensions between the two belligerents were placed on hold. It would take four years for France to recover and give another effort for invasion. At Quiberon Bay, in November of 1759, Admiral Edward Hawke’s fleet, and daring, put an end to French visions of such an invasion and any hope at matching British naval materiality in the Atlantic.[13]


John Dryden’s etching of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (reprint, 1760)

The 1755 decision to seize French maritime appears bold, especially considering previous pre-emptive attempts the century prior. In 1651, English privateers mostly, seized 140 Dutch maritime vessels just as Parliament passed its Navigation Act to exclude Dutch ships from entering any English port.[14] But the First Anglo-Dutch War did not go England’s way. The Dutch countered with merchant-owned privateers of its own while its navy and the VOC took control of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and quite arguably the Indian Ocean theatre. England’s debts also mounted.[15] A navy-planned pre-emptive strike in the Second Dutch War similarly failed. Under the leadership of Jan De Witt, a massive Dutch counter-strike ensured that England would fail to win the war.[16] Another naval pre-war strike against the Dutch in March of 1672 failed to exact any significant toll upon seamen, ships, or capital – here, too, the Dutch were able to draw terms at the war’s conclusion.[17] When compared to these earlier pre-emptive strikes and the limitations they held for success, it can be argued then that the Channel Campaign set a new bar in terms of what pre-emptive military campaign could achieve. The Channel Campaign erased France’s ability to invade, and thwarted to some degree French abilities to conduct the war on its terms.

Interestingly, the success of the Channel Campaign can, to a great degree, be attributed to Admiral John Byng. His squadron replaced Hawke’s in quick time, overcame manning deficiencies, and remained at station till late November. During the campaign, Byng had been given ‘seventeen ships of the line, besides twenty-gun ships and sloops’ and a bevy of ‘tenders to carry a supply of provisions and necessaries for the service of the fleet’.[18] Five months later, in sailing for Minorca, the Admiralty allocated Byng ten battleships, no tenders, no hospital ships, and no twenty-gun sloops. The contrast could not be more remarkable. On 11 March 1756, Byng finally received his long-awaited Mediterranean orders. Yet, only six of the ten ships listed were then at Portsmouth, and every one of them undermanned: 865 men from those ships not mustered.[19]

Illnesses were leading cause of manning shortages in 1755. The sicknesses that plagued Edward Boscawen’s fleet, for example, also infected others. Fleets and ports throughout southern England experienced diseases which caused deaths and debilitations just as the Admiralty Office attempted to raise 30,000 men for the oncoming war. This still largely unexplored set of diseases also delayed the deployment of both Hawke’s and Byng’s fleets to monitor the French coastlines during the campaign itself. These illnesses continued to force the Admiralty into difficulties for more than year. Manning failures caused Hawke to miss intercepting the return of Comte Du Guay’s squadron on their return to Brest. That same outbreak likewise prevented Byng from stopping du Bois de lo Motte’s and Périer de Salvert’s squadrons from slipping through the British blockade.

The campaign also shone a light on the volatile nature of newspaper reporting. Admiral John Byng, championed in the press for his efforts during the campaigns of 1755, became the villain savant just a few months later after his recall from the Mediterranean. Politics certainly played a role in Byng’s post-Minorca demise. Hawke and Byng delivered a stunning blow to Britain’s Gallic enemy: France absolutely could not conduct a cross-channel invasion in the near term. Men of power, such as the Duke of Newcastle, through agents and spies, understood this: and yet, the government continued to play upon the general public’s fear of a French invasion prior to a declaration of war, and would continue to do so well after John Byng’s execution in March of 1757.[20]

Surprisingly little has been written about the taking of French maritime ships prior to the official start date of the Seven Years’ War. Seizing unsuspecting merchant ships pre-emptively in hopes of damaging the enemy’s economic ability to fight is not the type of history to fill the lexicons of heroic prose. France lost 300 ships, their cargo (which France valued at 30 million livres), and some 7,200 men, ‘more than half of them trained seamen’.[21] Comparatively, the British lost few ships when France retaliated, perhaps as few as seventeen.[22] The Channel Campaign, thus, was an overwhelming and well-calculated success, one of the few that Britain would enjoy in the early stages of a growing conflict that soon would spill into fully-fledged war.

[1] I use the term ‘waterborne’ for privateers participated in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pre-emptive strikes, therefore not wholly Royal Navy actions. See also fn. 18.

[2] To assist in this endeavour, I pulled from the following resources: William James Stover, ‘Preemptive War: Implications of the Bush and Rumsfeld Doctrines’, International Journal on World Peace, vol. 21, no. 1 (March 2004), 3-14; The Periodical Observer [TPO], The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), vol. 27, no. 1 (Winter, 2003), pp. 83-108; James D. Fearon, ‘Rationalist Explanations for War,’ International Organization, vol. 49, no. 3 (Summer 1995), 379-414; Peter Munz, ‘Blackmore on Preemptive Wars’, International Journal on World Peace, vol. 5, no. 1 (Jan-Mar 1988), 2-5; John Blackmore, ‘Preemptive Wars’, International Journal on World Peace, vol. 4, no. 1 (Jan-Mar 1987), 33-57; and Stephen Van Evera, ‘The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War’, International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer, 1984), 58-107.

[3] Blackmore, 33 and 55. It should be noted that recent empirical data refutes Germany’s entry into the First World War as ‘preemptive’. See Keir A. Lieber, ‘The New History of World War I and What It Means for International Relations Theory’, International Security, vol. 32, no. 2 (Fall 2007), 156.

[4] Munz, 2.

[5] Van Evera, 64.

[6] Lieber, 179.

[7] Van Evera, 64.

[8] Stover, 4.

[9] TPO, 83.

[10] TPO, 84.

[11] Fearon, 402-3.

[12] I do not mean to underplay the controversy yet surrounding the Mers-el-Kébir pre-emptive strike. Nearly 1,300 French sailors died when a British ultimatum delivered by Admiral James Sommerville to Admiral Marcel Gensoul expired, some scholars suggesting Gensoul was given as few as eight hours to capitulate. For more on the controversy see: Brett C. Bowels, ‘“La Tragédie de Mers‐el‐Kébir” and the Politics of Filmed News in France, 1940–1944’, The Journal of Modern History, vol. 76, no. 2 (June 2004), 347-388; Philippe Lasterle, ‘Could Admiral Gensoul Have Averted the Tragedy of Mers el-Kébir?’, The Journal of Military History, vol. 67, no. 3 (July 2003), 835-844; and Martin Thomas, ‘After Mers-el-Kébir: The Armed Neutrality of the Vichy French Navy, 1940-43’, The English Historical Review, vol. 112, no. 447 (June 1997), 643-670.

[13] French fleets remained sizeable in 1756 and 1757, particularly in Canada, but British blockades at Brest, the mouth of the St. Laurence in Canada, and the English Channel ports made it so that French ships and fleets (maritime as well as navy) had to ‘run the gauntlet’. Anderson,

[14] Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477-1806 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 714-5.

[15] Israel, 721.

[16] Though England did gain New Amsterdam in colonial North America. See, N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Navy History of Britain, 1649-1815 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 67-8.

[17] R. C. Anderson, Journals and Narratives of the Third Dutch War (Navy Records Society, 1946), 5-10.

[18] Read’s Weekly Journal, 8 Nov. 1755.

[19] Those ships were the Ramillies, Buckingham, Captain, Lancaster, Trident, and Revenge. See TNA, ADM 1/921, Osborn to Clevland, 11 March 1756. Also, in contrast, when Boscawen sailed for North America the year prior, he took nineteen ships of the line plus the Bacchus tender. See TNA, ADM 1/919, Hawke to Clevland, 23 Apr. 1755.

[20] Stephen Conway, ‘War and National Identity in the Mid-Eighteenth-Century British Isles’, The English Historical Review, v. 116, n. 468 (September 2001) , 883.

[21] These numbers also take into account Boscawen’s capture of the Alcide and Lys, and Byng’s sinking of the Ésperance. All others, however, belong to the Channel Campaign. See, Dull, 38. See also fn. 1.

[22] TNA, T 1/371/82.