This Day In History: Publishing Magnate Robert Maxwell Dies Mysteriously at Sea (1991)

Robert Maxwell


Ian Robert Maxwell MC (10 June 1923 – 5 November 1991), born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch, was a British media proprietor and Member of Parliament (MP). Originally from Czechoslovakia, Maxwell rose from poverty to build an extensive publishing empire. After his death, huge discrepancies in his companies’ finances were revealed, including his fraudulentmisappropriation of the Mirror Group pension fund.[2][3]

Early in his life, Maxwell escaped from Nazi occupation, joined the Czechoslovak Army in exile in World War II and was decorated after active service in the British Army. In subsequent years he worked in publishing, building up Pergamon Press to a major publishing house. After six years as an MP during the 1960s, he again put all his energy into business, successively buying the British Printing Corporation, Mirror Group Newspapers and Macmillan Publishers, among other publishing companies.

Maxwell had a flamboyant lifestyle, living in Headington Hill Hall in Oxford, from which he often flew in his helicopter, and sailing in his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. He was notably litigious and often embroiled in controversy, including about his support for Israel at the time of the 1948 Palestine war. In 1989, he had to sell successful businesses, including Pergamon Press, to cover some of his debts. In 1991, his body was discovered floating in the Atlantic Ocean, having fallen overboard from his yacht. He was buried in Jerusalem.

Maxwell’s death triggered the collapse of his publishing empire as banks called in loans. His sons briefly attempted to keep the business together, but failed as the news emerged that the elder Maxwell had stolen hundreds of millions of pounds from his own companies’ pension funds. The Maxwell companies applied for bankruptcy protection in 1992.

Early life

Maxwell was born into a poor Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jewish family in the small town of Slatinské Doly (now Solotvyno, Ukraine) in the easternmost province of pre-World War II Czechoslovakia.[4][5][6] His parents were Mechel Hoch and Hannah Slomowitz. He had six siblings. In 1939, the area was reclaimed by Hungary. Most members of his family died in Auschwitz after Hungary was occupied in 1944 by Nazi Germany, but he had already escaped to France.[4] In Marseille, he joined the Czechoslovak Army in exile in May 1940.[7]

After the defeat in France and the retreat to Great Britain, Maxwell (using the name “Ivan du Maurier” [8]) took part in a protest against the leadership of the Czechoslovak Army, and with 500 other soldiers he was transferred to the Royal Pioneer Corps and later to the North Staffordshire Regiment in 1943. He was then involved in action across Europe, from the Normandy beaches to Berlin, and achieved the rank of sergeant.[4] He gained a commission in 1945 and was promoted to the rank of captain. In January 1945, he received the Military Cross from Field Marshal Montgomery. Attached to the Foreign Office, he served in Berlin during the next two years in the press section.[6] Maxwell naturalised as a British subject on 19 June 1946[9] and legally changed his name by deed of change of name on 30 June 1948.[10]

In 1945, he married Elisabeth “Betty” Meynard, a French Protestant with whom he had nine children with the goal of “recreating the family he lost in the Holocaust”.[11] Five of his children were later employed within his companies. His three-year-old daughter, Karine, died of leukemia and his eldest son, Michael, was severely injured in a car crash in 1961 (at the age of fifteen) while being driven home from a post-Christmas party when his driver fell asleep at the wheel. Michael never regained consciousness and died seven years later.[12][13][14][15]

After World War II, Maxwell used various contacts in the Allied occupation authorities to go into business, becoming the British and U.S. distributor for Springer Verlag, a publisher of scientific books. In 1951, he bought three-quarters of Butterworth-Springer, a minor publisher; the remaining quarter was held by the experienced scientific editor Paul Rosbaud.[16] They changed the name of the company to Pergamon Press and rapidly built it into a major publishing house.

In 1964, representing the Labour Party, Maxwell was elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for Buckingham and re-elected in 1966. He gave an interview to The Times in 1968, in which he said the House of Commons provided him with a problem. “I can’t get on with men”, he commented. “I tried having male assistants at first. But it didn’t work. They tend to be too independent. Men like to have individuality. Women can become an extension of the boss.”[17] Maxwell lost his seat in 1970 to the Conservative William Benyon. He contested Buckingham again in both 1974 general elections, but without success.

At the beginning of 1969, it emerged that Maxwell’s attempt to buy the News of the World had failed.[18] The Carr family, which owned the title, was incensed at the thought of a Czech immigrant with socialist politics gaining ownership and the board voted against Maxwell’s bid without any dissent. The News of the Worlds editor Stafford Somerfieldopposed Maxwell’s bid in an October 1968 front page opinion piece, in which he referred to Maxwell’s Czech origins and used his birth name.[19] He wrote, “This is a British paper, run by British people…as British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding…Let us keep it that way”.[20] The tycoon who gained control was the Australian Rupert Murdoch, who later that year acquired The Sun, which had also previously interested Maxwell.[21]

Pergamon lost and regained[edit]

In 1969, Saul Steinberg, head of “Leasco Data Processing Corporation”, was interested in a strategic acquisition of Pergamon. Steinberg claimed that during negotiations, Maxwell falsely stated that a subsidiary responsible for publishing encyclopedias was extremely profitable.[22][23] At the same time, Pergamon had been forced to reduce its profit forecasts for 1969 from £2.5 million to £2.05 million during the period of negotiations, and dealing in Pergamon shares was suspended on the London stock markets.[23]

This caused Maxwell to lose control of Pergamon and he was expelled from the board in October 1969, along with three other directors in sympathy with him, by the majority owners of the company’s shares.[24] Steinberg purchased Pergamon. An inquiry by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) under the Takeover Code of the time reported in mid-1971:[6] “We regret having to conclude that, notwithstanding Mr Maxwell’s acknowledged abilities and energy, he is not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company.” It was found that Maxwell had contrived to maximise Pergamon’s share price through transactions between his private family companies.[22]

At the same time, the United States Congress was investigating Leasco’s takeover practices. Justice Thayne Forbes in September 1971 was critical of the inquiry: “They had moved from an inquisitorial role to accusatory one and virtually committed the business murder of Mr. Maxwell.” He further continued that the trial judge would probably find that the inspectors had acted “contrary to the rules of natural justice”.[25] The company performed poorly under Steinberg; Maxwell reacquired Pergamon in 1974 after borrowing funds.[26]

Maxwell established the Maxwell Foundation in Liechtenstein in 1970. He acquired the British Printing Corporation (BPC) in 1981 and changed its name first to the British Printing and Communication Corporation (BPCC) and then to the Maxwell Communications Corporation. The company was later sold in a management buyout and is now known as Polestar.

Later business activities

In July 1984, Maxwell acquired Mirror Group Newspapers from Reed International plc.[27] for £113 million.[28] MGN, now part of Reach plc, formerly Trinity Mirror, published the Daily Mirror, a pro-Labour tabloid, and other popular newspapers in England and Scotland. At a press conference to publicise his acquisition, Maxwell said his editors would be “free to produce the news without interference”.[27] Meanwhile, at a meeting of Maxwell’s new employees, Mirror journalist Joe Haines asserted that he was able to prove that their boss “is a crook and a liar”.[29][30] Haines quickly came under Maxwell’s influence and later wrote his authorised biography.[29]

In June 1985, Maxwell announced a takeover of Sir Clive Sinclair’s ailing home computer company, Sinclair Research, through Hollis Brothers, a Pergamon Press subsidiary.[31] The deal was aborted in August 1985.[32] In 1987, Maxwell purchased part of IPC Media to create Fleetway Publications. That same year, he launched the London Daily News in February after a delay caused by production problems, but the paper closed in July after sustaining significant losses contemporary estimates put at £25 million.[33] At first intended to be a rival to the Evening Standard, Maxwell had made a rash decision for it to be the first 24-hour paper as well.[34]

By 1988, Maxwell’s various companies owned, in addition to the Mirror titles and Pergamon Press, Nimbus Records, Macmillan Publishers (of which Collier was a part), Maxwell Directories, Prentice Hall Information Services and the Berlitz language schools. He also owned a half-share of MTV in Europe and other European televisioninterests, Maxwell Cable TV and Maxwell Entertainment.[26] Maxwell purchased Macmillan, the American publishing firm, during 1988 for $2.6 billion. In the same year, he launched an ambitious new project, a transnational newspaper called The European. In 1991, he was forced to sell Pergamon Press and Maxwell Directories to Elsevier for £440 million to cover his debts;[26] he used some of this money to buy an ailing tabloid, the New York Daily News. Also in 1991, Maxwell sold 49 percent of the stock of Mirror Group Newspapers to the public.[6]

Maxwell’s links with Eastern European totalitarian regimes resulted in several biographies (generally considered to be hagiographies[35]) of those countries’ leaders, with interviews conducted by Maxwell, for which he received much derision.[6] At the beginning of an interview with Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu, then the country’s Communistleader, he asked, “How do you account for your enormous popularity with the Romanian people?”[36]

Maxwell was also the chairman of Oxford United, saving them from bankruptcy and attempting to merge them with Reading in 1983 to form a club he wished to call “Thames Valley Royals”. He took Oxford into the top flight of English football in 1985 and the team won the League Cup a year later. Maxwell bought into Derby County in 1987. He also attempted to buy Manchester United in 1984, but refused owner Martin Edwards’s asking price

Israeli connection

1948 war

A hint of Maxwell’s service to the Israeli state was provided by John Loftus and Mark Aarons, who described Maxwell’s contacts with Czechoslovak anti-Stalinist Communist leaders in 1948 as crucial to the Czechoslovak decision to arm Israel in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Czechoslovak military assistance was both unique and crucial for the fledgling state as it battled for its existence. It was Maxwell’s covert help in smuggling aircraft parts into Israel that led to the country having air supremacy during their 1948 War of Independence.[41]

Mossad allegations; Vanunu case

Shortly before Maxwell’s death, a former employee of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, Ari Ben-Menashe, approached a number of news organisations in Britain and the U.S. with the allegation that Maxwell and the Daily Mirrors foreign editor, Nicholas Davies, were both long-time agents for Mossad. Ben-Menashe also claimed that in 1986, Maxwell had told the Israeli Embassy in London that Mordechai Vanunu had given information about Israel’s nuclear capability to The Sunday Times, then to the Daily Mirror. Vanunu was subsequently kidnapped by Mossad and smuggled to Israel, convicted of treason and imprisoned for eighteen years.[42]

Ben-Menashe’s story was ignored at first, but eventually The New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh repeated some of the allegations during a press conference in London held to publicise The Samson Option, Hersh’s book about Israel’s nuclear weapons. On 21 October 1991, two MPs, Labour’s George Galloway and the Conservative’s Rupert Allason (also known as espionage author Nigel West), agreed to raise the issue in the House of Commons under Parliamentary Privilege protection,[43] which in turn allowed British newspapers to report events without fear of libel suits. Maxwell called the claims “ludicrous, a total invention” and sacked Davies.[44] A year later, in Galloway’s libel settlement against Mirror Group Newspapers (in which he received “substantial” damages), Galloway’s counsel announced that the MP accepted that the group’s staff had not been involved in Vanunu’s abduction. Galloway himself, however, referred to Maxwell as “one of the worst criminals of the century.”[45]


On 5 November 1991, Maxwell was last in contact with the crew of his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, at 4:25 a.m. local time, but was found to be missing later in the morning.[44]Maxwell was presumed to have fallen overboard from the vessel, which was cruising off the Canary Islands,[44][46] and his naked body was subsequently recovered from the Atlantic Ocean.[42] The official ruling at an inquest held in December 1991 was death by a heart attack combined with accidental drowning,[47] although three pathologists had been unable to agree on the cause of his death at the inquest;[42] he had been found to have been suffering from serious heart and lung conditions.[48] Murder was ruled out by the judge and, in effect, so was suicide.[47] He was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.[49]

Prime Minister John Major said Maxwell had given him “valuable insights” into the situation in the Soviet Union during the attempted coup of 1991. He was a “great character”, Major added. Neil Kinnock, then Labour Party leader, spoke of him as a man with “a zest for life” who “attracted controversy, envy and loyalty in great measure throughout his rumbustious life.”

A production crew conducting research for Maxwell, an eponymous biographical film by the BBC, uncovered tapes stored in a suitcase owned by his former head of security, John Pole. Later in his life, Maxwell had become increasingly paranoid of his own employees and had the offices of those he suspected of disloyalty wired so he could hear their conversations. After Maxwell’s death, the tapes remained in Pole’s suitcase and were only discovered by the researchers in 2007.[50]


  1. Jump up^ Haines, Joe (1988). Maxwell. London: Futura. pp. 434 et seq. ISBN 0-7088-4303-4.
  2. Jump up^ “A Notorious Fraud – the Robert Maxwell Farrago”. Australian Guardians. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  3. Jump up^ “The way is still clear for a tyrant and a fraud”The Independent. 20 January 1996. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  4. Jump up to:a b c Марк Штейнберг. Евреи в войнах тысячелетий. p. 227. ISBN 5-93273-154-0 (in Russian)
  5. Jump up^ Иван Мащенко (7–13 September 2002). Медиа-олигарх из СолотвинаЗеркало недели (in Russian) (#34 (409)). Archived from the original on 22 December 2012.
  6. Jump up to:a b c d e Whitney, Craig R. (6 November 1991). “Robert Maxwell, 68: From Refugee to the Ruthless Builder of a Publishing Empire”The New York Times. p. 5.
  7. Jump up^ Ludvík Hoch (Maxwell) in the database of Central Military Archive in Prague
  8. Jump up^ “Naughty Boys: Ten Rogues of Oxford” Retrieved 5 July 2015.
  9. Jump up^ “No. 37658”The London Gazette. 19 July 1946. p. 3739.
  10. Jump up^ “No. 38352”The London Gazette. 13 July 1948. p. 4046.
  11. Jump up^ Witchell, Alex (15 February 1995). “Interview with Elisabeth Maxwell”The New York Times. Retrieved 31 October 2013.
  12. Jump up^ Maxwell: The final verdict
  13. Jump up^ A mind of my own by Elisabeth Maxwell
  14. Jump up^ “Free Research Papers – Information Intelligence, 1991”. 28 March 1999. Archived from the original on 3 November 2013. Retrieved 31 October2013.
  15. Jump up^ Rampton, James (28 April 2007). Maxwell was a monster – but much more, tooThe Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 9 February 2018.
  16. Jump up^ Haines (1988) 135
  17. Jump up^ Barwick, Sandra (25 October 1994). “The beast and his beauties”The Independent.
  18. Jump up^ “1969: Murdoch wins Fleet Street foothold”BBC On this Day 2 January.
  19. Jump up^ Greenslade, Roy (2004) [2003]. Press Gang: How Newspapers Make Profits From Propaganda. London: Pan. p. 395.
  20. Jump up^ Grundy, Bill (24 October 1968). “Mr Maxwell and the Ailing Giant”The Spectator. p. 6.
  21. Jump up^ “The Maxwell Murdoch tabloid rivalry”BBC News. 5 November 2011.
  22. Jump up to:a b Dennis Barker and Christopher Sylvester “The grasshopper”, – Obituary of Maxwell, The Guardian, 6 November 1991. Retrieved on 19 July 2007.
  23. Jump up to:a b Nicholas Davenport “Money Wanted: A Board of Trade inquiry”The Spectator, 29 August 1969, p.24
  24. Jump up^ Nicholas Davenport “Money: The End of the Affair”The Spectator, 17 October 1969, p.22
  25. Jump up^ Betty Maxwell, p. 542
  26. Jump up to:a b c “Robert Maxwell: Overview”,
  27. Jump up to:a b “Briton Buys the Mirror Chain”The New York Times, 14 July 1984
  28. Jump up^ Roy Greenslade Press Gang: How Newspapers Make Profits From Propaganda, London: Pan, 2004 [2003], p.395
  29. Jump up to:a b “Say It Ain’t So, Joe”The Spectator, 22 February 1992, p.15
  30. Jump up^ Roy Greenslade Press Gang, p.395
  31. Jump up^ “Sinclair to Sell British Unit”The New York Times. 18 June 1985. Retrieved 4 December 2009.
  32. Jump up^ “Sinclair: A Corporate History”Planet Sinclair. Retrieved 4 December 2009.
  33. Jump up^ “Maxwell Closes London Paper”Glasgow Herald, 25 July 1987, p.3
  34. Jump up^ Duncan Campbell “The London legacy of Cap’n Bob”The Guardian, 28 August 2006
  35. Jump up^ David Ellis and Sidney Urquhart “Maxwell’s Hall of Shame”Time, 8 April 1991
  36. Jump up^ Editorial: “Breaking the Spell”The Spectator, 21 December 1991, p.3
  37. Jump up^ “”, Headington History
  38. Jump up^ Jon Kelly “The strange allure of Robert Maxwell”, BBC News, 4 May 2007
  39. Jump up^ Reuters “Murdoch conclusion stirs memories of his old foe Maxwell”Chicago Tribune, 1 May 2012
  40. Jump up^ “Not Private Eye”, Tony Quinn,, 6 March 2007
  41. Jump up^ John Loftus and Mark AaronsThe Secret War Against the Jews.
  42. Jump up to:a b c Robert Verkaik “The Mystery of Maxwell’s Death”The Independent, 10 March 2006
  43. Jump up^ which allows MPs to ask questions in Parliament without risk of being sued for defamation.
  44. Jump up to:a b c Ben Laurance and John Hooper, et al “Maxwell’s body found in sea”The Guardian, 6 November 1991
  45. Jump up^ “Scottish MP wins libel damages”The Herald (Glasgow), 22 December 1992
  46. Jump up^ “Robert Maxwell: A Profile”. BBC News. 29 March 2001. Retrieved 4 April 2009.
  47. Jump up to:a b Larry Eichel “Maxwell’s Legacy Of Money Troubles Maxwell’s Own Daily MirrorNewspaper Now Routinely Calls Him ‘The Cheating Tycoon'”Philadelphia Inquirer, 14 December 1991
  48. Jump up^ Marlise Simons “Autopsy Indicates Maxwell Did Not Drown”The New York Times, 12 December 1991
  49. Jump up^ Clyde Haberman “The Media Business; Maxwell Is Buried In Jerusalem”The New York Times, 11 November 1991
  50. Jump up^ “BBC reveals secret Maxwell tapes”. BBC. 25 April 2007.
  51. Jump up^ Prokesch, Steven (24 June 1992). “Maxwell’s Mirror Group Has $727.5 Million Loss”The New York Times. Retrieved 9 February 2018.
  52. Jump up^ Diski, Jenny (26 January 1995). “Bob and Betty”London Review of Books. Retrieved 16 December 2014.
  53. Jump up^ MacIntyre, Ben (1 January 1995). “A Match for Robert Maxwell”The New York Times. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  54. Jump up^ Roy Greenslade, “Betty, Robert Maxwell’s widow, dies aged 92“, The Guardian (9 August 2013)
  55. Jump up^ Kempley, Rita (December 19, 1997). TOMORROW NEVER DIES’: JAMES BOND ZIPS INTO THE ’90S”The Washington Post. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  56. Jump up^ Turner, Kyle (May 30, 2018). “There’s No News Like Fake News: Tomorrow Never Dies Today”Paste Magazine. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  57. Jump up^ “Suchet in title role of BBC Two’s Maxwell”. 2007-02-16. Retrieved 2013-10-31.
  58. Jump up^ Luft, Oliver (25 November 2008). “UK scoops seven International Emmys”The Guardian. Retrieved 15 August 2014.
  59. Jump up^ Benedict Nightingale. “Portrait of a megalomaniac.” The Times, London, 13 January 2006: pg 39.
  60. Jump up^ Archer, Jeffrey (1996). The Fourth Estate (First ed.). London: HarperCollins. ISBN 0002253186.
  61. Jump up^ Aviv, Juval (2006). Max (First ed.). London: Random House UK. ISBN 1844138755

The Daily Horoscopes for Monday, November 5

Free daily horoscope for each star sign from renowned Astrologer Kelli Fox. Forecasts for the week ahead in life, love and career.



March 21- April 19

It may be challenging to strike a compromise today, but that’s just the spirit you should go for. You prefer to be the leader, but sometimes it’s better to demonstrate that you’re one of the team. You might have to ‘fake it till you make it.’ But you can do it! Smile, nod and cooperate. This reduces tension for everyone, and makes them more open to following your lead in the future.


If you try to pin someone down, they could become evasive. No one wants to rock the boat today — not even you. Which means lots of folks won’t give their true opinions. When you’re in mixed company, it’s best to avoid touchy subjects such as politics or spirituality. No one wants to sense tension in the group! Spend time with close friends now. It’s a relief when you can be yourself.


May 21-June 21

People seem especially interesting today. Or maybe it’s just that your mind is more alive now than usual. Either way, conversations flow like a fast-moving river, and laughter soon follows. Your own words and thoughts are articulate and well-formed. It’s easy to slip into a kind of performance mode as you command a rapt audience. Enjoy this brief, invigorating influence! It’s a lot of fun to be so intellectually attuned.


June 22-July 22

If a certain relationship or business partnership feels strained today, you may have to set aside your feelings in order to work through the issue. That could be tough for you to do, especially if your feelings are hurt. But being able to focus on what’s most important — working harmoniously together — shows an impressive level of maturity. And you’d much rather work together than have to strike out on your own.


July 23-August 22

At a party or on a date today, you’re the centre of the crowd. People find your ideas incredibly interesting. Or maybe you just deliver them in such a vibrant, engaging way! Business meetings go well, too. You’re thinking on your feet, with a high level of creativity. It’s a great day for doing imaginative work or bringing a team together. You can motivate people to unite under a common banner.


August 23-September 22

Do your best to accommodate others’ needs and wishes today. Of course, you always do. You naturally take other people’s feelings into account, and you always help out when you can. That’s the perfect attitude for the current lunar energy. Cooperative action takes you where you want to go. And there are side benefits to being helpful, too. For one thing, people are more likely to support you when you need it!


September 23-October 22

You’re highly impressionable today. Each person you talk to is able to sway your point of view, simply by presenting theirs. Well, it’s not your fault that you relate to so many different perspectives! But it might be best to avoid decisive action today. Wait until your own position is clearer. There’s no reason you should have to make up your mind if you aren’t ready yet. Keep clarifying, Libra.


October 23 – November 22

Welcome to a pleasant, peaceful day. Time spent with friends or family should be harmonious. Intense emotional displays are no fun for anyone now, so avoid them if you can. That might mean making a special effort to choose your battles, including choosing to ignore minor irritations. Of course, you’ll have to talk out any bigger issues that come up. Do so with a level head and an eye for fairness.


November 23-December 20

It’s a great day for brainstorming and networking. This is the true power of a group of people: Creative ideas start to flow, producing a wonderfully proactive energy. Soon, a project takes on a life of its own, and all you have to do is ride the wave. Be an inspiration to others in this first phase of generating ideas. Communicate your broad view. No idea is too great or too small.


December 21-January 19

You’re used to making decisions, even the tough ones that no one wants to make. But there are many different viewpoints to consider today. This makes it a lot harder to put your foot down without second-guessing yourself. If you have to decide soon, try to do what you know is right. Otherwise, keep an open dialogue with other people. See if you can find a way to accommodate everyone’s wishes.


January 20-February 18

Spending time alone doesn’t hold nearly as much appeal today as connecting with other people. Accept any invitations you receive, or host your own impromptu gathering. Conversation is stimulating and laughter flows easily now. It’s a great day for a little romance, too! Spending time with a friend or someone special just feels right. It promotes a sense of togetherness, an awareness that we’re all in this together.


February 19-March 20

Build free time into your schedule today. You’re in the mood to gather with friends and loved ones. In fact, it’s tough to be alone! If you’re stuck solo at home or the office, a lonely mood could settle in. In that case, dispel the gloom by calling a friend or IM-ing a coworker. In this day and age, there’s no need to be alone if you don’t want to!

By Kelli Fox


American Revolution: Colonies and the World Conflict 1689-1783

While England was colonizing the eastern seaboard from Maine to Georgia, France was extending its control over Canada and Louisiana and asserting its claim to the Great Lakes region and the Mississippi Valley in the rear of the British colonies. Spain held Florida, an outpost of its vast colonial domains in Mexico, Central and South America, and the larger islands of the West Indies. England and France were invariably on opposite sides in the four great dynastic coalition wars fought in Europe between 1689 and 1763. Spain was allied with France in the last three of these conflicts.

Each of these European wars had its counterpart in struggles between British and French and Spanish colonists in America, intermingled with a quickening of Indian warfare all along the frontiers as the contestants tried to use the Indian tribes to their advantage. Americans and Europeans called these wars by different names. The War of the League of Augsburg (1689–1697) was known in America as King William’s War, the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1713) as Queen Anne’s War, the War of Austrian Succession (1744–1748) as King George’s War, and the final and decisive conflict, the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) as the French and Indian War. All these wars involved control of the North American continent; in the last of them it became the principal point at issue in the eyes of the British government.

The main centers of French strength were along the St. Lawrence River in Canada and at the cities of Quebec and Montreal. The strategic line along which much of the fighting took place in the colonies lay between New York and Quebec, either on the lake and river chain that connects the Hudson with the St. Lawrence in the interior or along the seaways leading from the Atlantic up the St. Lawrence. In the south, the arena of conflict lay in the area between South Carolina and Florida and Louisiana. In 1732 the British government established the colony of Georgia primarily as a military outpost in this region and as a dumping ground for their convicts.

In the struggle for control of North America, the contest between England and France was vital, the conflict with Spain, a declining power, important but secondary. This latter conflict reached its height in the “War of Jenkins’ Ear” (1739–1742), a prelude to the War of Austrian Succession, which pitted the British and their American colonists against the Spanish. In the colonies the war involved a seesaw struggle between the Spanish in Florida and the West Indies and the English colonists in South Carolina and Georgia. Its most notable episode, however, was a British expedition mounted in Jamaica against Cartagena, the main port of the Spanish colony in Colombia. The mainland colonies furnished a regiment to participate in the assault as British regulars under British command. The expedition ended in disaster, resulting from climate, disease, and the bungling of British commanders. Only about 600 of over 3,000 Americans who participated ever returned to their homes. The net result of the war itself was indecisive, and it did little to inspire the average American soldier with admiration for British military leadership.

The first three wars with the French were also indecisive. The nature of the fighting was much the same as that in the Indian Wars. Although the French maintained garrisons of regulars in Canada, they were never sufficient to bear the brunt of the fighting. The French Canadians also had their militia, a more centralized and all-embracing system than in the English colonies; but the population of the French colonies was sparse, scarcely a twentieth of that of the British colonies in 1754. The French relied heavily on Indian allies whom they equipped with firearms. They were far more successful than the British in influencing the Indians. Their sparse population posed little threat to Indian lands; and the French-controlled fur trade depended on Indian workers, while the British colonies saw Indians as an obstacle to settlement. The French could usually count on the support of the Indian tribes in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions, though the British colonists did maintain greater influence with the powerful Iroquois Confederacy in New York. The French constructed forts at strategic points, like Niagara and Detroit, and garrisoned them with small numbers of regulars, a few of whom they usually sent along with militia and Indian raiding parties to supervise operations. Using guerrilla methods, the French gained many local successes and indeed kept the frontiers of the English colonies in a continual state of alarm, but they could achieve no decisive results because of the essential weakness of their position.

The British and their colonists usually took the offensive and sought to strike by land and sea at the citadels of French power in Canada. The British Navy’s control of the sea made possible the mounting of sea expeditions against Canada and at the same time made it difficult for the French to reinforce their small regular garrisons. In 1710 a combined British and colonial expedition captured the French fort at Port Royal on Nova Scotia, and by the treaty of peace in 1713 Nova Scotia became an English possession. In 1745 an all-colonial expedition sponsored by Massachusetts captured Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in what was perhaps the greatest of colonial military exploits, only to have the stronghold bargained away in 1748 for Madras, a post the French had captured from the British in India.

While militia units played an important part in the colonial wars, colonial governments resorted to a different device to recruit forces for expeditions outside their boundaries such as that against Louisbourg. This was the volunteer force, another institution that was to play an important part in all American wars through the end of the nineteenth century. Unlike the militia units, volunteer forces were built from the top down. One of the colonial governors or assemblies chose the commanding officer, who in turn enlisted his men. The choice of a commander was made with due regard for his popularity in the colony, since this was directly related to his ability to persuade officers and men to serve under him. While the militia was the main base for recruitment and the officers were almost invariably men whose previous experience was in the militia, indentured servants and drifters without military obligation were also enlisted. The enlistment period was only for the duration of a campaign, at best a year or so, not for long periods as in European armies. Colonial assemblies had to vote money for pay and supplies, and assemblies were usually parsimonious as well as unwilling to see volunteer forces assume any of the status of a standing army. With short enlistments, inexperienced officers, and poor discipline by European standards, even the best of these colonial volunteer units were, like the militia, often held in contempt by British officers.

The only positive British gain up to 1748 was Nova Scotia. The indecisive character of the first three colonial wars was evidence of the inability of the English colonies to unite and muster the necessary military forces for common action, of the inherent difficulty of mounting offensives in unsettled areas, and of a British preoccupation with conflicts in Europe and other areas. Until 1754 the British government contented itself with maintaining control of the seas and furnishing regulars for sea expeditions against French and Spanish strongholds.

Until 1755 no British regulars took part in the war in the interior, though small “independent companies” of indifferent worth were stationed continuously in New York and occasionally in other colonies. No colony, meanwhile, was usually willing to make any significant contribution to the common cause unless it appeared to be in its own interest. Efforts to form some kind of union, the most notable of which was a plan that Benjamin Franklin promoted in a colonial congress held at Albany in 1754, all came to naught.

Between 1748 and 1754 the French expanded their system of forts around the Great Lakes and moved down into the Ohio Valley, establishing Fort Duquesne at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in 1753 and staking a claim to the entire region. In so doing, they precipitated the final and decisive conflict that began in America two years before the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in Europe. In 1754 Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia sent young George Washington at the head of a force of Virginia militia to compel the French to withdraw from Fort Duquesne.

Washington was driven back and forced to surrender, certainly an inauspicious beginning to his military career. The British government then sent over two understrength regiments of regulars under Major General Edward Braddock, a soldier of forty-five years’ experience on continental battlefields, to accomplish the task in which the militia had failed. Accustomed to the parade-ground tactics and the open terrain of Europe, Braddock placed all his faith in disciplined regulars and close-order formations. He filled his regiments with American recruits and early in June 1755 set out on the long march through the wilderness to Fort Duquesne with a total force of about 2,200, including a body of Virginia and North Carolina militiamen. Washington accompanied the expedition but had no command role.

Braddock’s force proceeded westward through the wilderness in traditional column formation with 300 ax men in front to clear the road and a train of wagons in the rear. The heavy train so slowed his progress that about halfway he decided to let it follow as best it could and went ahead with about 1,300 selected men, a few cannon, wagons, and packhorses. As he approached Fort Duquesne, he crossed the Monongahela twice to avoid a dangerous and narrow passage along the east side where ambush might be expected. He sent Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage (later to gain a measure of infamy as the general in charge of the raids on Lexington and Concord in 1775) with an advance guard to secure the site of the second crossing, deemed a likely spot for an ambush. Gage found no enemy, and the entire force crossed the Monongahela the second time on the morning of July 9, 1755, then confidently took up the march toward Fort Duquesne, only seven miles away.

About three-quarters of a mile past the Monongahela crossing, Gage’s advance guard suddenly came under fire from a body of French and Indians concealed in the woods. Actually, it was a very inferior force of 70 French regulars, 150 Canadian militiamen (many mere boys), and 650 Indians who had just arrived on the scene after a hasty march from Fort Duquesne. Some authorities think Gage might have changed the whole course of the battle had he pushed forward and forced the enemy onto the open ground in their rear. Instead he fell back on the main body of Braddock’s troops, causing considerable confusion. This confusion was compounded when the French and Indians slipped into the forests on the flanks of the British troops, pouring their fire into a surprised and terrified mass of men who wasted their return volleys on the air. “Scarce an officer or soldier,” wrote one of the participants, “can say they ever saw at one time six of the Enemy and the greatest part never saw a single man.”

None of the training or experience of the regulars had equipped them to cope with this sort of attack, and Braddock could only exhort them to rally in conventional formation. Two-thirds of his officers fell dead or wounded. The militia, following their natural instincts, scattered and took positions behind trees; but there is no evidence they delivered any effective fire, since French and Indian losses for the day totaled only twenty-three killed and sixteen wounded. The few British cannon appear to have been more telling. Braddock, mortally wounded himself, finally attempted to withdraw his force in some semblance of order; but the retreat soon became a disordered flight. The panic stricken soldiers did not stop even when they reached the baggage wagons many miles to their rear.

Despite the completeness of the victory, the French and Indians made no attempt to pursue. The few French regulars had little control over the Indians, who preferred to loot the battlefield and scalp the wounded. The next day the Indians melted back into the forest, and the French commandant at Duquesne noted in his official report, “If the enemy should return with the 1,000 fresh troops that he has in reserve in the rear, at what distance we do not know, we should perhaps be badly embarrassed.” The conduct of the battle was not so reprehensible as the precipitate retreat of the entire force to the safety of the settled frontiers when no enemy was pursuing it.

Although Braddock had been aware of the possibilities of ambush and had taken what he thought were necessary precautions, in the broader sense he violated the principles of security and maneuver:  When the ambush came he had little idea how to cope with Indian tactics in the forest. As he lay dying on the wagon that transported him from the battlefield, the seemingly inflexible old British general is alleged to have murmured, “Another time we shall know better how to deal with them.”

Braddock could not profit from his appreciation of the lesson, but the British Army did. “Over the bones of Braddock,” writes Sir John Fortescue, the eminent historian of the British Army, “the British advanced again to the conquest of Canada.”

After a series of early reverses of which Braddock’s disastrous defeat was only one, the British government under the inspired leadership of Prime Minister William Pitt was able to achieve a combination of British and colonial arms that succeeded in overcoming the last French resistance in Canada and in finally removing the French threat from North America. In this combination, British regular troops, the British Navy, British direction, and British financial support were the keys to victory; the colonial effort, though considerable, continued to suffer from lack of unity.

As an immediate reaction to Braddock’s defeat, the British Government sought to recruit regulars in America to fight the war, following the precedent set in the Cartagena expedition. Several American regiments were raised, the most famous among them Colonel Henry Bouquet’s Royal Americans. On the whole, however, the effort was a failure, for most Americans preferred short service in the militia or provincial volunteer forces to the long-term service and rigid discipline of the British Army. After 1757 the British government under Pitt, now convinced that America was the area in which the war would be won or lost, dispatched increasing numbers of regulars from England—a total of 20,000 during the war. The British regulars were used in conjunction with short-term militia and longer-term volunteer forces raised in the service of the various individual colonies. The most effective device to assure the sort of colonial cooperation the British desired was to shoulder the principal financial burden, reimbursing individual colonies for most of their expenses and providing the pay and supply of many of the colonial volunteer units to ensure their continued service. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York furnished about seven-tenths of the total colonial force employed.

Braddock’s defeat was not repeated. In no other case during the French and Indian War was an inferior guerrilla force able to overcome any substantial body of regulars. The lessons of the debacle on the Monongahela, as the British properly understood, were not that regular forces or European methods were useless in America or that undisciplined American militia were superior to regular troops. They were rather that tactics and formations had to be adapted to terrain and the nature of the enemy and that regulars, when employed in the forest, would have to learn to travel faster and lighter and to take advantage of cover, concealment, and surprise as their enemies did. Or the British could employ colonial troops and Indian allies versed in this sort of warfare as auxiliaries, something the French had long since learned to do.

The British adopted both methods in the ensuing years of the French and Indian War. Light infantry, trained as scouts and skirmishers, became a permanent part of the British Army organization. When engaged in operations in the forest, these troops were clad in green or brown clothes instead of the traditional red coat of the British soldier, with their heads shaved and their skins sometimes painted like the Indians’. Special companies, such as Major Robert Rogers’ Rangers, were recruited among skilled woodsmen in the colonies and placed in the regular British establishment.

Despite this employment of light troops as auxiliaries, the British Army did not fundamentally change its tactics and organization in the course of the war in America. The reduction of the French fortress at Louisbourg in 1758 was conducted along the classic lines of European siege warfare. The most decisive single battle of the war was fought in the open field on the Plains of Abraham before the French citadel of Quebec. In a daring move, Major General James Wolfe and his men scaled the cliffs leading up to the plain on the night of September 12, 1759, and appeared in traditional line of battle before the city the next morning. Major General Louis Joseph, the Marquis de Montcalm, the able French commander, accepted the challenge; but his troops, composed partly of militia levies, proved unable to withstand the withering “perfect volleys” of Wolfe’s exceptionally well-disciplined regiments.

The ultimate lesson of the colonial wars, then, was that European and American tactics each had a place; either could be decisive where conditions were best suited to its use. The colonial wars also proved that only troops possessing the organization and discipline of regulars, whatever their tactics, could actually move on, seize, and hold objectives and thus achieve decisive results.

Other important lessons lay in the realm of logistics, where American conditions presented difficulties to which European officers were unaccustomed. The impediments to supply and transport in a vast, undeveloped, and sparsely populated country limited both the size and variety of forces employed. The settled portions of the colonies produced enough food, but few manufactured goods. Muskets, cannon, powder, ball, tents, camp kettles, salt, and a variety of other articles necessary for even the simple military operations of the period almost all had to come from Europe. Roads, even in the settled areas, were poor and inadequate; forces penetrating into the interior had to cut their roads as they went, as Braddock did. Movement by water, when possible, was by far more efficient. These logistical problems go far to explain why the fate of America was settled in battles involving hardly one-tenth the size of forces engaged in Europe in the Seven Years’ War and why cavalry was almost never employed and artillery to no great extent except in fixed fortifications and in expeditions by sea when cannon could be transported on board ship. The limited mobility of large regular forces, whatever the superiority of their organization and tactics, put a premium both on small bodies of trained troops familiar with the terrain and on local forces, not so well trained, already in an area of operations. Commanders operating in America would ignore these logistical limitations at their peril.


SOURCE: American Military History (United States Army Center of Military History)