Digby Smith's latest book struck me as interesting a few months ago when I first learned that A New History of the Seven Years War Volume 1: Power and Politics (1754-1757) was forthcoming, and I immediately placed an order for it. I always enjoy adding titles to my shelves on subjects that interest me, military or not. This one, though, left me a bit nonplussed if I am completely honest.
That observation is in no way intended to downplay the not insignificant amount of time and effort required to produce a book-length manuscript, mind you, nor the back-and-forth revision process before a title finally reaches the publication, printing, and sales stages. Considerable blood, sweat, and tears go into the development of any book project (or should), and if I were able to make my living writing military histories, or crime thrillers for that matter, I would in a heartbeat. That said, as I have perused Mr. Smith's book since its arrival late last week, I am left with the distinct impression that it fails to bring any appreciable new knowledge to the table, and that it is, rather, a rehash -- albeit a nicely packaged and presented rehash -- of what can be found already in other books (or online) about all of the usual suspects of the mid-18th century, their armies, and conflicts.
In fairness to A New History of the Seven Years War Volume 1: Power and Politics (1754-1757), it makes sense to start with a quick rundown of its contents. After a brief introduction, which provides background on the political situation that led to the outbreak of the Seven Years War (but only just), the author presents a total of 27 chapters on the military operations of the period, regimental organizations, cavalry, field artillery, naval warfare, and various theaters of the war. Author Digby Smith follows by next breaking things down year by year and looking at the strategic and, to some extent, tactical activities in lesser actions and the major battles that transpired during the early years of the conflict, 1755-1757, within Europe and elsewhere around the world. He rounds out his book, 298 pages in all, with registers of place names in Eastern and Central Europe, plus a concise bibliography.
Although a good deal shorter, in places A New History of the Seven Years War Volume 1: Power and Politics (1754-1757) reminded me a bit of The Napoleonic Sourcebook (1990) by Philip J. Haythornthwaite, although it lacked the breadth of that particular title, omitting, for example, specific sections on the nations involved in the SYW, the important personalities of the era, political and military, or a chapter on miscellanea that defies easy fit pigeonholing elsewhere. Once again, in the interest of fairness, it may not have been Mr. Smith's intention to produce a broad-focused, all-encompassing work like The Napoleonic Sourcebook, but what is present here falls short, in any case, of better executed works by military history giants like Haythornthwaite, David Chandler, John Elting, or Christopher Duffy to be frank.
In particular, the bibliography provided by Mr. Smith at the back of A New History of the Seven Years War Volume 1: Power and Politics (1754-1757) ought to give serious students of the period considerable pause for thought. For example, a quick run-through reveals that it is rather short,consisting of just 45 titles, give or take. Likewise, it seems that few primary sources were consulted in research for and preparation of the mansucript. Indeed, there are two sources that clearly date from the 18th century, and these are in English. This point seems odd given that Digby Smith is fluent in German and, as such, would have ready access to any primary texts in that language where they might exist. The oldest work in German that is included as part of his bibliography here dates from 1806 (reprinted in 1975), and another in French from 1891.
Otherwise, A New History of the Seven Years War Volume 1: Power and Politics (1754-1757) relies heavily on secondary sources (in all three languages) written, in many instances, quite some time after the war in question ended -- the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries -- when its more literate participants were either extremely old, or long dead. Four of the secondary sources included by Mr. Smith within his bibliography are by Christopher Duffy himself, a noted authority on the SYW. We non-professionals could do far worse than consulting and relying on a historian like Duffy for our information about the SYW period. His work remains some of the very best when it comes to readily available histories in English, well-researched, well-written, engaging, and authoritative.
Now, maybe I am mistaken on this point about Digby Smith's bibliography since I am not a professional (military) historian by trade, but it strikes me as a major problem that a title which purports to shed new light on the subject matter under examination, as A New History of the Seven Years War Volume 1: Power and Politics (1754-1757) does, nevertheless seems to be based upon a relatively small number of titles, and very few of these give the impression of being primary sources. Based on these related considerations, then, A New History of the Seven Years War Volume 1: Power and Politics (1754-1757), falls rather short of the mark where a history text is concerned.
Even more to the point, the book does not seem to be an obvious reappraisal of, challenge to, or new perspective on accepted thinking about the early SYW period despite is title in the same way as, say, works written by Napoleonic historian Peter Hofschröer for example. His books 1815 – The Waterloo Campaign Vol. 1 (Wellington his German Allies and the Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras) and 1815 – The Waterloo Campaign Vol. 2 (The German victory, from Waterloo to the fall of Napoleon) challenged accepted notions, making the case instead that Wellington's victory in June 1815 owed far more to his German contingents (and possibly also the Prussians) than has typically been acknowledged by historians writing in English.
Some casual readers and scholars might not agree with those ideas, but the point is that the new considerations, like the kind put forth by Peter Hofschröer, are the sorts of things that breathe much needed life into (military) history rather than telling the same old story from the same tired perspective yet again. And I say that as both a Waterloo Campaign buff and an Anglophile. But Mr. Hofschröer's books nevertheless brought something new to the table at the time they appeared (late 1990s), introducing different ways of thinking about the Waterloo Campaign and presenting new, hitherto unknown pieces for us to fit into the historical puzzle. These, in turn, enable us to have a more complete picture of events, now over two centuries ago. To my mind, that's what books purporting to offer new perspectives ought to do.
In contrast, and while I admittedly will remain happy to pull my copy from the shelf and peruse it occasionally, A New History of the Seven Years War Volume 1: Power and Politics (1754-1757) does not stand out as anything special if you'll pardon my being completely blunt. Author Digby Smith provides a nice introduction to the period for those new to the Seven Years War, but his work barely scratches the surface when it comes to examining the political background of the conflict, the maneuvering and tactical behavior of troops in the field, the early actions and battles, or indeed the conflict's global scope. As mentioned above, these points are all present, but only in the most superficial of ways.
For all of that, one strength of A New History of the Seven Years War Volume 1: Power and Politics (1754-1757), however, is that it does provide readers with modern geographic names and their earlier German equivalents whenever possible. This last point strikes me as extremely useful for newcomers to the SYW period, those with only a passing general interest in it, and/or readers with no knowledge of Polish, Czech, Hungarian, or Russian, for example (guilty as charged here). More hardcore enthusiasts for the period and conflict, on the other hand, will probably have worked out already the linguistic changes -- and challenges -- superimposed onto the maps of Central and Eastern Europe since the 1760s.
Finally, A New History of the Seven Years War Volume 1: Power and Politics (1754-1757) is not exactly cheap either. I'll go out on a limb and suggest that, at USD60/GBP30 (plus postage), you might, just might, spend your hard-earned money elsewhere on other titles/authors and wait until you can borrow the book from your local library, or purchase it used at a much lower price. Just my thruppence and six pence worth.