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The War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714, by James Falkner

Precis: A good work on a now-obscure war recommended for readers who enjoy military and diplomatic history, or who have an interest in European history of the Eighteenth century.

Main Review: If one were to summarize the War of the Spanish Succession in the most cynical manner, one might put it thus: “Two old men get into a fight over whose grandson gets to be king of Spain, thousands die, little changes.”

One would not be far off.

Of course, the war had deeper issues than that. The crisis began when King Charles II of Spain, the sickly and bizarre last of the Spanish Habsburgs, died in 1700 without a direct heir. He had named as heir Philip of Anjou, the grandson of his older sister and King Louis XIV. If Philip for some reason refused, the next named heir was Archduke Charles of Austria, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and, through his mother, grandson of King Philip III of Spain, making him Charles II’s cousin.

Being made to trace a Habsburg family tree might well be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

In any event, both men claimed the throne at the urging of their respective monarchs, King Louis XIV and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. The strategic stakes were actually enormous for both realms: for nearly two hundred years, French foreign policy had striven to prevent a union of the two powerful crowns, which would have left them surrounded. The Spanish Empire, though in decline, was fabulously wealthy, and that wealth, in the hands of a vigorous Habsburg at the head of the reunited House, would poses a mortal danger to France. Thus Louis was anxious to see his grandson take the throne, both to prevent that union and get his own grubby paws on all that wealth.

On the other hand, the Austrian Habsburgs wanted the Spanish throne and empire for similar reasons: to counter France and to provide more money and troops for their struggle with the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans.

And then there was England, first under King William III and then Queen Anne, and the Dutch republic. Both had reasons for wanting to weaken Spain and carve off pieces of its Empire, as well as preventing France from gaining control of Spain, the prospect of which probably had the leaders of both lands waking up screaming from nightmares. Thus they backed the claim of Archduke Charles.

And so with Spain in a regency, both sides gathered allies, lined up, and declared war in 1701. A war that would last 14 years, until treaties get signed, Philip gets to keep his throne, some minor territorial changes take place, France winds up broke, and everyone takes a breather until the next war.

Falkner does a good job telling the story of the war and its diplomacy, going year by year and the many fronts: the Rhine region, the Spanish Netherlands (largely today’s Belgium), Italy, and Spain and Portugal. He describes the campaigns and how the commanders fought them, covering battles and sieges, and the diplomacy and strategy of both Louis, on the one hand (for he was decidedly the senior partner in the Franco-Spanish alliance), and the “Grand Alliance” on the other.

But it is a work of pure military history, and thus rather dry for that. Also, the war dragged on for so that, that the reader might well find himself sighing and thinking “Look, it’s over. Just cut a deal already.” If one is looking for how the war affected the societies of the principals, one will find little of that. For me that was fine, as I wanted to learn more about the war itself. The book is heavily footnoted, but these are mostly citations, not explanatory notes. Also, the lack of more than a few maps was unhelpful, particularly when reading about major battles, such as Blenheim and Ramillies. Still, the descriptions are not hard to follow.

One section I greatly appreciated was Appendix III, which provides brief biographies of key players in the war, including what happened to them after it ended. It was the biography of the Duke of Berwick, the illegitimate son of King James II of England and his mistress, Arabella Churchill (thus making him a relative of Winston Churchill, I believe), and one of King Louis’ best generals (his father having been deposed and forced to flee in 1688), that provided my favorite quote:

“Having lived in semi-retirement for some time, Berwick was recalled to service by King Louis XV to campaign in the War of the Polish Succession. At the siege of Phillipsburg, on 12 June 1734, he was decapitated by a roundshot thought to have been fired in error by his own gunners.

Should have stayed in retirement, Your Grace.

I read The War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714 in Kindle format and I’m happy to report I found it well-formatted and typo-free. Too often, Amazon lets sloppy publishers publish shoddy work.

Recommended, with the caveat that it is most likely to appeal to those with a strong interest in military history per se.

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