Note: Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom // Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland by John Giles Eccardt // Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham by Jean Baptiste van Loo
In December 1756, Pitt, who now sat for Okehampton, became Secretary of State for the Southern Department, and Leader of the House of Commons under the premiership of the Duke of Devonshire. Upon entering this coalition, Pitt said to Devonshire: "My Lord, I am sure I can save this country, and no one else can".
He had made it a condition of his joining any administration that Newcastle should be excluded from it which proved fatal to the lengthened existence of his government. With the king unfriendly, and Newcastle, whose influence was still dominant in the Commons, estranged, it was impossible to carry on a government by the aid of public opinion alone, however emphatically that might have declared itself on his side. The historian Basil Williams has claimed that this is the first time in British history when a "man was called to supreme power by the voice of the people" rather than by the king's appointment or as the choice of Parliament.
Pitt drew up his plans for the campaigning season of 1757 in which he hoped to reverse Britain's string of defeats during the war's opening years.
In April 1757 Pitt was dismissed from office on account of his opposition to the continental policy and the circumstances surrounding the court-martial and execution of Admiral John Byng. He was succeeded by the Duke of Devonshire who formed the 1757 Caretaker Ministry. But the power that was insufficient to keep him in office was strong enough to make any arrangement that excluded him impracticable. The public voice spoke in a way that was not to be mistaken. Probably no English minister ever received in so short a time so many proofs of the confidence and admiration of the public, the capital and all the chief towns voting him addresses and the freedom of their corporations (e.g., London presented him with the first ever honorary Freedom of the City awarded in history). Horace Walpole recorded the freedoms of various cities awarded to Pitt:
...for some weeks it rained gold boxes: Chester, Worcester, Norwich, Bedford, Salisbury, Yarmouth, Tewkesbury, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Stirling, and other populous and chief towns following the example. Exeter, with singular affection, sent boxes of oak.
After some weeks' negotiation, in the course of which the firmness and moderation of "The Great Commoner", as he had come to be called, contrasted favourably with the characteristic tortuosities of the crafty peer, matters were settled on such a basis that, while Newcastle was the nominal, Pitt was the virtual head of the government. On his acceptance of office, he was chosen member for Bath.
A coalition with Newcastle was formed in June 1757, and held power until October 1761. It brought together several various factions and was built around the partnership between Pitt and Newcastle which a few months earlier had seemed impossible. The two men used Lord Chesterfield as an intermediary and had managed to agree a division of powers that was acceptable to both. For the past few months Britain had been virtually leaderless, although Devonshire had remained formally Prime Minister, but now Pitt and Newcastle were ready to offer stronger direction to the country's strategy.
By summer 1757 the British war effort over the previous three years had broadly been a failure. Britain's attempts to take the offensive in North America had ended in disaster, Minorca had been lost, and the Duke of Cumberland's Army of Observation was retreating across Hanover following the Battle of Hastenback. In October Cumberland was forced to conclude the Convention of Klosterzeven which would take Hanover out of the war. The French Invasion of Hanover posed a threat to Britain's ally Prussia, who they would now be able to attack from the west as well as facing attack from Austria, Russia, Saxony and Sweden.
Although it was late in the campaigning season when he had come to power, Pitt set about trying to initiate a more assertive strategy. He conspired with a number of figures to persuade the Hanoverians to revoke the Convention and re-enter the war on Britain's side, which they did in late 1757. He also put into practice a scheme of Naval Descents which would see amphibious landings on the French coast. The first of these, the Raid on Rochefort took place in September, but was not a success. The centrepiece of the campaign in North America, an expedition to capture Louisbourg was aborted due to the presence of a large French fleet and a gale that scattered the British fleet.
In 1758 Pitt began to put into practice a new strategy to win the Seven Years' War, which would involve tying down large numbers of French troops and resources in Germany, while Britain used its naval supremacy to launch expeditions to capture French forces around the globe. Following the Capture of Emden he ordered the dispatch of the first British troops to the European continent under the Duke of Marlborough, who joined Brunswick's army. This was a dramatic reversal of his previous position, as he had recently been strongly opposed to any such commitment.
Pitt had been lobbied by an American merchant Thomas Cumming to launch an expedition against the French trading settlements in West Africa. In April 1758 British forces captured the ill-defended fort of Saint-Louis in Senegal. The mission was so lucrative that Pitt sent out further expeditions to capture Goree and Gambia later in the year. He also drew up plans to attack French islands in the Caribbean the following year at the suggestion of a Jamaican sugar planter William Beckford.
In North America, a second British attempt to capture Louisbourg succeeded. However, Pitt's pleasure over this was tempered by the subsequent news of a significant British defeat at Battle of Carillon. Towards the end of the year the Forbes Expedition seized the site of Fort Duquesne and began constructing a British settlement that would become known as Pittsburgh. This gave the British control of the Ohio Country, which had been the principal cause of the war.
In Europe, Brunswick's forces enjoyed a mixed year. Brunswick had crossed the Rhine, but faced with being cut off he had retreated and blocked any potential French move towards Hanover with his victory at the Battle of Krefeld. The year ended with something approaching a stalemate in Germany. Pitt had continued his naval descents during 1758, but the first had enjoyed only limited success and the second ended with near disaster at the Battle of St Cast and no further descents were planned. Instead the troops and ships would be used as part of the coming expedition to the French West Indies. The scheme of amphibious raids was the only one of Pitt's policies during the war that was broadly a failure, although it did help briefly relieve pressure on the German front by trying down French troops on coastal protection service.
In France a new leader, the Duc de Choiseul, had recently come to power and 1759 offered a duel between their rival strategies. Pitt intended to continue with his plan of tying down French forces in Germany while continuing the assault on France's colonies. Choiseul hoped to repel the attacks in the colonies while seeking total victory in Europe.
Pitt's war around the world was largely successful. While a British invasion of Martinique failed, they captured Guadeloupe shortly afterwards. In India, a French attempt to capture Madras was repulsed. In North America, British troops closed in on France's Canadian heartland. A British force under James Wolfe moved up the Saint Lawrence with the aim of capturing Quebec. After initially failing to penetrate the French defences at the Montmorency Falls, Wolfe later led his men to a victory to the west of the city allowing the British forces to capture Quebec.
Choiseul had pinned much of his hopes on a French invasion of Britain, which he hoped would knock Britain out of the war and make it surrender the colonies it had taken from France. Pitt had stripped the home islands of troops to send on his expeditions, leaving Britain guarded by poorly trained militia and giving an opportunity for the French if they could land in enough force. The French did build a large invasion force. However the French naval defeats at Lagos and Quiberon Bay forced Choiseul to abandon the invasion plans. France's other great hope, that their armies could make a breakthrough in Germany and invade Hanover, was thwarted at the Battle of Minden. Britain ended the year victorious in every theatre of operations in which it was engaged, with Pitt receiving the credit for this.
Pitt's power had now reached its peak, but was soon under threat. The domestic political situation was altered dramatically when George II died in October 1760. He was succeeded by his grandson, George III, who had once considered Pitt an ally but had become angered by Pitt's alliance with Newcastle and acceptance of the need for British intervention in Germany – which George was strongly opposed to. The new king successfully lobbied for his favourite Lord Bute to be given the post of Northern Secretary. Bute was inclined to support a withdrawal from Germany, and to fight the war with France largely at sea and in the colonies.
Pitt's plan for an expedition to capture Belle Île was put into force in April 1761 and it was captured after a siege. This provided yet a further blow to French prestige, as it was the first part of Metropolitan France to be occupied. Pitt now expected France to offer terms, although he was prepared for a longer war if necessary. Envoys were exchanged, but neither side could reach an agreement. Pitt's refusal to grant the French a share in Newfoundland proved the biggest obstacle to peace, as Pitt declared he would rather lose the use of his right arm than give the French a share there and later said he would rather give up the Tower of London than Newfoundland. Newfoundland was at the time seen as possessing huge economic and strategic value because of the extensive fishing industry there.
The war in Germany continued through 1761 with the French again attempting to overcome Brunswick and invade Hanover, but suffering a defeat at the Battle of Villinghausen. Pitt had substantially increased the number of British troops serving with Brunswick, and he also planned further conquests in the West Indies. A strategy he hoped would compel the French to conclude a reasonable peace treaty.
The London Magazine of 1766 offered 'Pitt, Pompadour, Prussia, Providence' as the reasons for Britain's success in the Seven Years' War. Posterity, indeed, has been able to recognize more fully the independent genius of those who carried out his purposes. The heroism of James Wolfe would have been irrepressible, Clive would have proved himself "a heaven-born general", and Frederick the Great would have written his name in history as one of the most skilful strategists the world has known, whoever had held the seals of office in England.
But Pitt's relation to all three was such as to entitle him to a large share in the credit of their deeds. He inspired trust in his chosen commanders by his indifference to rules of seniority — several of 'Pitt's boys', like Keppel, captor of Gorée, were in their thirties — and by his clear orders. It was his discernment that selected Wolfe to lead the attack on Quebec, and gave him the opportunity of dying a victor on the heights of Abraham. He had personally less to do with the successes in India than with the other great enterprises that shed an undying lustre on his administration; but his generous praise in parliament stimulated the genius of Clive, and the forces that acted at the close of the struggle were animated by his indomitable spirit.
Pitt's particular genius was to finance an army on the continent to drain French men and resources so that Britain might concentrate on what he held to be the vital spheres: Canada and the West Indies; whilst Clive successfully defeated Siraj Ud Daulah, (the last independent Nawab of Bengal) at Plassey (1757), securing India. The Continental campaign was carried on by Cumberland, defeated at Hastenbeck and forced to surrender at Convention of Klosterzeven (1757) and thereafter by Ferdinand of Brunswick, later victor at Minden; Britain's Continental campaign had two major strands, firstly subsidising allies, particularly Frederick the Great, and second, financing an army to divert French resources from the colonial war and to also defend Hanover (which was the territory of the Kings of England at this time)
Pitt, the first real Imperialist in modern English history, was the directing mind in the expansion of his country, and with him the beginning of empire is rightly associated. The Seven Years' War might well, moreover, have been another Thirty Years' War if Pitt had not furnished Frederick with an annual subsidy of £700,000, and in addition relieved him of the task of defending western Germany against France: this was the policy that allowed Pitt to boast of having 'won Canada on the banks of the Rhine'.
Contemporary opinion was, of course, incompetent to estimate the permanent results gained for the country by the brilliant foreign policy of Pitt. It has long been generally agreed that by several of his most costly expeditions nothing was really won but glory: the policy of diversionary attacks on places like Rochefort was memorably described as 'breaking windows with gold guineas'. It has even been said that the only permanent acquisition that England owed directly to him was her Canadian dominion; and, strictly speaking, this is true, it being admitted that the campaign by which the Indian empire was virtually won was not planned by him, though brought to a successful issue during his ministry.
But material aggrandisement, though the only tangible, is not the only real or lasting effect of a war policy. More may be gained by crushing a formidable rival than by conquering a province. The loss of her Canadian possessions was only one of a series of disasters suffered by France, which included the victories at sea of Boscawen at Lagos and Hawke at Quiberon Bay. Such defeats radically affected the future of Europe and the world. Deprived of her most valuable colonies both in the East and in the West, and thoroughly defeated on the continent, France's humiliation was the beginning of a new epoch in history.
The victorious policy of Pitt destroyed the military prestige which repeated experience has shown to be in France as in no other country the very life of monarchy, and thus was not the least of the influences that slowly brought about the French Revolution. It effectually deprived France of the lead in the councils of Europe which she had hitherto arrogated to herself, and so affected the whole course of continental politics. It is such far-reaching results as these, and not the mere acquisition of a single colony, however valuable, that constitute Pitt's claim to be considered as the most powerful minister that ever guided the foreign policy of England.