Q&A: How many years of its existence has Britain been at war?

Statistics state that the USA has been at war for 210 years of its existence. For how many years has Britain been at war?

This Q&A was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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The United States declared its independence in 1776, making it 236 years old. The figure of 210 years of warfare is derived from the classification of the American-Indian Wars – a series of intermittent struggles between 1783 and 1924, with fighting at its most intense between 1860 and 1880. Some see this as a continuous conflict, making it one of the longest wars in history, at 141 years.

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In addition to this war, the United States has fought 12 major conflicts, as well as in numerous minor conflicts, ranging from the Barbary Coast War (1801–05) to the invasion of Panama in 1989.

However, the dates of many conflicts overlap with the ongoing American-Indian wars. So it’s simply incorrect to claim that, for 210 years of 236-year existence, the US has been at war.

Deriving a similar figure for Britain is a daunting task. The Kingdom of Great Britain dates from 1707, so the time frame is similar to that of the US. However, Britain fought far more wars than the US in this time period. It engaged in some form of military conflict in every year of Queen Victoria’s reign, fighting an incredible 230 wars in this 64-year period alone.

In fact, the sheer quantity of conflicts that Britain has fought from 1707 to the present makes calculating an accurate figure for the number of years she has spent at war almost impossible.

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Answered by Dr Spencer Jones, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham.