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by William H. Benson

February 21, 2008

     In Europe, it was named the Seven Years’ War, because it lasted from 1756 until 1763, but in America, it was the French and Indian War, because the English colonists and the British redcoats fought mainly the French and the Indians.

     In 1753 the Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, commissioned George Washington, a young Virginian, then only twenty-one but quite tall and muscular, to head west into the Ohio River Valley and order the French to evacuate the region.

     The English colonists in Virginia had claims upon 800,000 acres of the strategic valley, but the French—Canadians and their Iroquois allies—were drifting south from the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River into the Ohio region. There they had constructed forts, trapped for furs, and claimed Ohio for the King of France.

     Thus, both European powers, the British and the French, were marching toward another confrontation, another war, this time for a prize—the disputed Ohio River Valley, and in a larger sense, all of North America.

     George Washington, born on February 22, 1732, did as Dinwiddie had instructed him, but Washington discovered that his words were not going to force the French to budge, let alone evacuate. The next year he returned with 150 Virginia militiamen, and his troops opened fire—the first shots of a fourth world war.

     British redcoats and English colonial militiamen fought the French on land and sea in a gigantic death struggle to decide who would own North America. William Pitt, the British leader in London, threw the entire weight of the British army and navy, and its treasury against the French. When the English General, James Wolfe, crushed the French general Montcalm at Quebec in 1759, England drove the French empire off the continent.

     Thus, English is the dominant language of North America, rather than French.   

     Scholars identify nine world wars, beginning with King William’s War, 1689-1697, and ending with World War II, 1941-1945. All of these world wars resulted in a fierce struggle upon the world’s oceans and upon the soil of two hemispheres—Europe and North America. The American people, whether as British subjects or American citizens, were unable to stay out of a single one of these nine wars. Neutrality was illusory.

     In the first four wars, the British fought the French. In the fifth world war—the American Revolution—it was the British colonists, led by George Washington, who fought the British, but Washington probably would not have defeated the British without the assistance of the French army, and especially her navy.

     The sixth war was the fallout that resulted from the French Revolution—the beheading of King Louis XVI, the fall of the French aristocracy, and the creation of the French republic. Napoleon’s bloody sweep across Europe that began in 1803 brought on the seventh world war. In the United States, it became known as the War of 1812 when Great Britain attacked Washington D.C., even torching the White House.

     The eighth and ninth wars, World Wars I and II, pitted the British, French, Americans, and Russians on one side against the Germans and the other Axis powers on the other.

     Today, February 21, marks the 92nd anniversary of the beginning of arguably the worst battle of the worst of the nine world wars: the Battle of Verdun during World War I. Germany’s High Command decided early in 1916 that they would attack the French position at the town of Verdun in eastern France and thus clear a path to Paris. The French forces, though badly outnumbered, would not yield, and when the battle ended on December 15, there were 304,000 soldiers killed or missing. The worst of the worst.

     The following year the Americans, under General “Black Jack” Pershing, entered the war, and effectively determined the outcome in favor of the Allies.

     Last week Newsweek wrote, “World War I has no national monument. No iconic images. And only one soldier is still alive.” The one solitary surviving U.S. veteran of World War I, Frank Woodruff Buckles, turned 107 this month.

     England, France, America—enemies at times and allies at others. Five years ago next month, England’s Tony Blair sided with the U.S. President, George Bush, in his decision to attack Iraq, but France’s people and government wisely chose to sit this one out.