World Wars Re-Numbered

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   January 28, 2021

Most of us grew up thinking that there were two World Wars, the first in 1914-18, called the Great War, which became World War I, when its successor of 1939-45 qualified as Number Two. But let me tell you how I came to question that whole idea.

My father’s elder brother, Mortimer Brilliant, was, like him, a British career Civil Servant. They’d both been soldiers in that War of 1914-18, but my father managed to remain safely behind the lines, while Uncle Mort saw much more action. He was actually one of the troops, under General Allenby, who, in December 1917, took Jerusalem from the Turks.

(My father, Victor Brilliant, made up for that excitement in 1941, when he nearly lost his life as passenger on a merchant ship torpedoed by a German U-boat.)

Uncle Mort and his wife were childless, but I was their godson. Mort was quite a formidable character, and I was never quite sure what being his godson entitled me to. He lived into his nineties, and, just once, I mustered courage to ask him to leave me his house in his will. (It wasn’t a very distinguished house, but was in the same part of North-West London where I’d spent my earliest and happiest years, in a house of which my parents had lost possession, after it was “requisitioned” for a bombed-out family, while we were away in America.)

My uncle made no commitment, and, in the event, he left the house to a Jewish charity. All I got were personal papers, and some books. Perhaps feeling bitter about the house, I wasn’t interested in the papers, and donated them to a Jewish Museum in London. I kept the books, but hardly ever looked at them. They were mostly “prizes” Mort had won at school, for distinctions like “conduct, diligence, and punctuality.” 

Recently, however, I got interested in the works of Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay, the great British historian and essayist, and I remembered that among Mort’s prize books was a volume of Macaulay’s essays. Almost at random, I chose to read one about Frederick the Great, who was King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. And there I came upon a passage which I remembered having seen quoted, probably more than once. It said that, as a result of Frederick’s provocative actions, “The whole world sprang to arms… In a war which raged during many years and in every quarter of the globe, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel [in SW India], and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America.” 

War on that global scale was something new in History. Looking further into this conflict, I found it usually referred to as the “Seven Years War,” but, in the American part, as the “French and Indian War.” (It’s also known as “The War of the Austrian succession.) It actually appears to have been really started, not by Frederick the Great, but (incredibly) by a young George Washington. Moreover, it really lasted, not seven years, but nine (1754-1763). It involved all five of what were then the Great Powers. And it spanned five continents, affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India and the Philippines. Winston Churchill, himself a respected historian, referred to it as the first World War.

I couldn’t possibly detail for you here how the whole debacle unfolded. But I can tell you that the opening shots were fired in 1754, between French troops, asserting France’s claim to the Ohio Valley, and Virginians (then, of course, still British) commanded by the 22-year-old George Washington. But the whole conflict – in which Britain and Prussia (there wasn’t yet a “Germany”) opposed France, Austria, and Spain – spread to Europe, and then to wherever the European powers had interests, including the Caribbean, West Africa, and the Philippines. In 1759, General Wolfe’s capture of Quebec determined, in effect, that the whole of Canada would be British (as it still officially is). But it wasn’t until 1763 that the entire conflict was settled, in a Treaty of Paris. 

Under that treaty, there was much re-drawing of colonial lines, generally in favor of Britain. Instead of Canada, France was happy to retain the rich sugar islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, which are still French territory to this day.

But what stays with me, thanks to Uncle Mort and Lord Macaulay, is that the World War of three centuries ago really should count as the First.


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