Of Rivals and Revivals

What to read this month

Sometime intimate foes, sometime bitter allies, France and Britain have for centuries largely defined themselves in relation to each other. This remarkably inventive, stylish, and audacious work traces the history of that infernal couple, from the seventeenth century to the present. Probing national culture and sensibility as well as war, diplomacy, and finance, the authors (husband and wife—he’s a Cambridge don who has written a pathbreaking study of the Paris Commune; she’s a French-born historian of Britain who works at the Foreign Office) assay the entire 300-plus years in their nearly 800-page history, but they focus on what scholars call the “Second Hundred Years’ War”: the period of intermittent conflict between 1689 and 1815, which started when William III summoned a “Grand Alliance” to thwart the Sun King’s bid for European mastery and ended with Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon, a defeat that permanently blunted and diverted France’s power and international ambitions.

Battle of Waterloo

These were struggles on an appalling scale: The years between 1688 and the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 claimed the lives of some 2 million combatants; the death toll in Marlborough’s victory at the Battle of Malplaquet, in 1709, matched that of the first day of the Somme; the Napoleonic Wars cost France 1.4 million men and Britain some 200,000. They were also of a global scope: During the Seven Years’ War (which Winston Churchill called the true “first world war”), French and British soldiers fought each other in the Ohio Valley, on the Mediterranean, and on the plains of Plassey, in India, among other places. And hence they were phenomenally expensive: Just maintaining Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, over its lifespan cost as much as “the annual budget of a small state”; owing to the wars against France, Britain raised taxes by 1,600 percent between 1689 and 1815, and government borrowing increased by 24,000 percent.

Synthesizing a generation of scholarship on the rise of the “military-fiscal state,” by such historians as John Brewer, Paul Langford, and N. A. M. Rodger, the Tombses breezily explicate how, in a somewhat circular process, Britain’s naval contest with France—which Rodger has called “the largest, longest, most complex and expensive project ever undertaken by the British state and society”—demanded a transformation in public finance, which in turn spurred the commercial and industrial revolutions that would propel Britain to its economic and geopolitical ascendancy. But as important, the authors deftly shift from money and high politics to social and cultural matters, as they discern, with sharp eyes and tart wit, how such developments as divergent infantry tactics both reflected and shaped national self-images and notions of masculinity; how the two nations’ very different educational approaches have engendered and entrenched opposing habits of mind and expression; and how, ever since the eighteenth century, the sometimes sober, sometimes swaggering influence of the English aristocracy’s sport and country clothing (and of English male tailoring techniques) have enlivened French high fashion, giving it a bounciness that militates against its tendency toward overrefinement.

The authors periodically interrupt their adroit synthesis of narrative and analysis to conduct sharp debates with each other, an exercise that shows just how many of the great historical questions—the aims and motivations behind British colonial and commercial expansion, the nature and legacy of the French Revolution, the degree to which French security and German ambitions could have been reconciled after World War I— have yet to be settled. On one important matter, they rightly unite to insist that readers grasp a truth that’s nearly universally acknowledged among scholars but that the popular and journalistic mind appears incapable of absorbing (thanks largely to the lingering, and for a long time pernicious, influence of John Maynard Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a book they denounce as a “travesty of the truth”): The Treaty of Versailles, though enormously flawed, was hardly a Carthaginian peace, and it didn’t hobble Germany either economically or geopolitically. With so long and complex a work, one inevitably quibbles: The authors really should have devoted more attention to the French-inspired Salonika campaign in the First World War—a source of continual Anglo-French tension and a significant distraction (as the Brits saw it) from the main theater of operations—which illuminates the impact of France’s deep domestic political divisions on relations between the allies and on their conduct of the war. Still, however, this is one of the most engaging and invigorating works of international history I’ve read in years.