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Book Review - Like A Brazen Wall

The Battle of Minden, 1759, and its Place in the Seven Years War

Cover of book, Like a Brazen Wall; Image courtesy Helion & Company publishers

By Ewan Carmichael

Helion, Warwick, 2021, 265pp

9780733637292 - Paperback

9780733637308 - eBook

Reviewed by BRIG Chris Roberts AM, CSC (Retd.)

The Battle of Minden is noted for the extraordinary performance of a single British infantry brigade, a feat still celebrated by six successor infantry regiments and two Royal Artillery batteries of the British Army. In recounting this remarkable battle, and its place in the Seven Years War (1756-1763), Carmichael paints on a broad canvas. For this is as much a story of British political machinations and strategic priorities, as it is of the campaign in Germany that led to the confrontation at Minden. Overall, this is a well-written book, providing a wealth of information on a wide range of subjects, and a clear account of the campaign and culminating battle. While the political and strategic background is largely delivered from the British perspective, Carmichael provides a balanced account of what was essentially a Franco-German campaign, paying particular attention to their contribution, and the leading role of the French and German commanders.

Stepping off, Carmichael places the war in its strategic context. This context includes the competition between Britain and France for dominance in North America and India. It also includes Britain’s competing priorities between colonial expansion on the one hand, and a commitment in Europe on the other, driven by the need to protect Hanover and an alliance with Frederick the Great’s Prussia. Having set the scene, Carmichael then diverts the reader into a discussion of the composition and tactical practices of the French and Allied armies, before introducing the key personalities who commanded at Minden. While a good deal of interesting information is provided about the structure and employment of the various arms in the opposing armies, it could have been presented in a more cohesive fashion and embraced the employment of combined arms tactics in that era. While useful, the biographies of the personalities might have been better placed in an appendix.

Moving into the operational (or theatre) level, Carmichael provides a comprehensive narrative of the campaign in western Germany that flows coherently and engagingly, supported by good maps. Beginning with an overview of the Duke of Cumberland’s operations in 1757, the book then  focusses in greater detail on the operations of his successor, the highly competent Ferdinand, Prince of Brunswick-Luneberg-Wolfenbuttel, during 1758-59. The narrative and discussion of the operations leading up to the battle, and of the battle itself, are clearly laid out and supported by three well-presented coloured maps. Importantly, Carmichael provides a sound and comprehensive description of the ground around Minden that dictated Ferdinand’s wily manoeuvres to draw the French out of their impregnable defensive position, stressing the tactical significance of the terrain; a subject too often omitted from many battlefield histories.

Carmichael gives due attention to the failure of the French to capitalise on the surprise they achieved against the Allied left wing.  However, the focus of the battle narrative is understandably devoted to the action that decided the outcome of the battle - the inadvertent, lone advance of General der Infantrie von Sporken’s infantry brigade - comprising one Hanoverian and six British battalions. Interspersed with quotes from British and French participants that add a sense of drama and reality, Carmichael details the astonishing performance of the British battalions against the French cavalry and infantry that led to the collapse of the French line. In this, and the succeeding chapter considering the aftermath of the Allied victory, he achieves the right balance between providing sufficient detail to understand what transpired, without losing the thread and flow of the battle.

The controversy surrounding General Lord George Sackville, commanding the British cavalry, and his failure to capitalise on the infantry success, is considered in both the battle narrative, and in a separate chapter surrounding Sackville’s court-martial.  In this regard, Carmichael provides a balanced and fair assessment, delivering a sympathetic conclusion which recognises that political imperatives determined Sackville’s fate.

Carmichael rounds out his account with a chapter on the strategic aftermath which is is essentially a synopsis of the remainder of the Seven Years War. A further chapter reviews the war and the battle itself. The latter is somewhat disappointing. Carmichael’s consideration of the French performance relies heavily on great swathes of long quotes from reports written by several French generals, rather than presenting his own analysis. His discussion of the Allied conduct is rather better, although it is confined to three issues: Ferdinand’s performance, the devastating British musketry based on the technique of platoon firing, and another assessment of Sackville. A useful guide to visiting the battlefield, supplemented by a good range of photographs, and several appendices close-out the book.

Overall, Carmichael delivers a sound account, not only of campaign and Battle of Minden, but also of the prevailing British strategic interests and the political imperatives and debate that raged within Westminster, all wrapped in an overview of the Seven Years War as it affected Great Britain.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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