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The Seven Years' War in Europe and North America

With Europe's major powers having settled their differences, Voltaire, Montesquieu and some other intellectuals became optimistic about the nations of Europe getting along with each other. In 1751, Voltaire described Europe (excluding that controlled by the Ottoman Turks) as "a sort of great republic." The kingdoms of Europe, he wrote, had "the same principles of public and political law unknown in other parts of the world" and were bent on "maintaining among themselves as far as possible an equal balance of power."

If there was a balance of power in Europe it was not an effective instrument in maintaining peace. War was still not dreaded enough to adequately motivate compromise or harmony. Military action was still viewed more than economic development as a means to well-being. In European civilization there was still no international law to which all the powers felt obliged to adhere. And not all powers would endure in taking seriously the recent agreements that ended the wars just ended.

War and Ethnic Cleansing in North America

Renewed conflict between Britain and France erupted in the Ohio Valley in 1754 – to be known as the French and Indian War. In early 1755, troops left Britain and crossed the Atlantic. In late April that year troops from France embarked for the Americas, and in early June the British attacked the ships carrying those troops. It had been seven years since the British public had tired of war, and now they were again eager for war against the French.

The British had taken what they now called Nova Scotia from the French during the Queen Anne War of 1702-13, and now the captured Fort Beauséjour on the border separating Nova Scotia from France's colony. This was followed by a British policy of deportation of the French living in Nova Scotia, to be known as the Great Expulsion, a deportation of approximately 11,500 French people (Acadians). There was some resistance to the deportations, while approximately a third of these people are said to have perished from disease or drowning. note6

Taking Sides in Europe

King George II of Britain saw his conflict with France as a threat to his territory in Hanover. To discourage the French, he signed a defensive treaty with Frederick the Great of Brandenburg-Prussia. Austria's Maria Theresa had seen the return of war between Britain and France as an opportunity to regain Silesia and had suggested to Britain that she would support the British only if they supported her against Frederick. She was shaken when learning of Britain's agreement with Frederick, and her foreign minister urged her to forget the 250-year-old feud between the Bourbons of France and her Habsburg family and ally herself with France.

Wielding some power in France was Madame Pompadour, who was hostile toward Frederick, sparked by his insult to her. She had sent Frederick greetings through Voltaire. Frederick and Voltaire had had a falling out and an angry Voltaire had returned to France, describing Frederick as a homosexual and telling Madame Pompadour that when he had passed along her greeting to Frederick he had responded by saying "I don't know this woman."

France was ready to take advantage of the falling out between Britain and Austria. French strategists interpreted British aggressions against them as stemming from certainty of assistance from Brandenburg-Prussia. And they were ready to accommodate Austria with an alliance.

Russia also felt threatened by the treaty between Britain and Brandenburg-Prussia. The ruler of Russia since 1741 was Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth, who had also been the target of Frederick's insults. Rumors described Frederick as describing her as a superstitious and indolent voluptuary. Elizabeth was unhappy about Frederick having territory alongside Poland and his possessing Silesia. In April 1756 her ministry suggested to Austria that Frederick's territory be partitioned, with Silesia and Glatz (on the border with Silesia) going to Austria, East Prussia going to Poland, and Courland (just north of East Prussia) going to Russia.

On May 1, 1756, France and Austria signed an alliance that was ostensibly defensive – the First Treaty of Versailles. It was recognized that Austria was to remain neutral regarding France's war against Britain, and France was to accept Austria’s attack on Brandenburg-Prussia. Russia joined this alliance – upsetting its traditional hostility towards France. And the new alliance between Madame Pompadour of France, Maria Theresa of Austria and Elizabeth of Russia became known as the League of the Three Petticoats.

The Fighting Begins

Frederick did not want war, but he believed that to defend himself he should move first. He sent 11,000 men to Pomerania to guard against Sweden joining the war to take back that area, and he sent 26,000 men to his frontier with Russia. Then, on August 29, 1756, with an army of 70,000 Frederick crossed into Saxony – which had been conspiring with the League of Three Petticoats. Frederick had learned from the last war that it was dangerous to leave a hostile Saxony on his border while fighting others, and he did not want to commit that mistake twice. Frederick and his army took the Saxon capital, Dresden, on September 10, and defeated Saxons were ordered into Frederick's army – the forced recruitment typical of those times. note7

One prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire invading the territory of another prince-elector did not set well with some of Germany's other elector-princes, and they joined France, Austria and Russia against Frederick.

The War to its Conclusion in 1763

The object of warfare among the Europeans at this time was not to force a showdown with the enemy. Showdowns were considered too risky and too costly. The preferred strategy was to outmaneuver the enemy army, to prevent the enemy army from acquiring adequate supplies, including food, and to force it to retreat. Nevertheless, Austria's army and Frederick's met on October 1 at Lobositz, just south of Saxony. The two sides exchanged artillery fire and cavalry charges followed by a clash of their infantries. Each side lost about 3,000 men, killed and wounded, with indecisive results: Maria Theresa’s army managed an orderly withdrawal, and Frederick's army returned to Saxony to wait out the winter.

In March 1757, Sweden joined the war against Frederick – despite Frederick’s sister being Queen of Sweden. In early May, Frederick's forces began maneuvering against Austria's forces in Bohemia, and on May 5 the two armies met just outside the city of Prague. The fighting lasted two hours, with Frederick losing 11,740 killed and wounded and 1560 as prisoners – about 21 percent of his army's strength. The Austrians lost about as many and retreated behind Prague's walls.

On May 17, 1757, a Russian army of 85,000 advanced against Frederick's territory at Königsberg in East Prussia. And that spring the French crossed the Rhine River and overran King George II's territory, Hanover. In November, Frederick defeated a French army at Rossbach, just south of Leipzig in Saxony, and a month later he defeated the Austrians at Leuthen, in Silesia.

With Frederick surrounded by advancing enemies – Sweden from the north, Russia advancing across East Prussia, and the Austrians coming at him from the south – Britain in 1758 began giving more aid to Frederick. France was focusing on its ground war in America, where it was hoping to stave off defeat while winning in Europe. Britain was hoping to win in America and just hold on in Europe. Austria became distracted by new threats from the Ottoman Empire.

In 1759, Frederick still had 150,000 in the field, but they were slower in loading and firing their rifles compared to his better-trained troops at the start of the war. His ability to maneuver was also reduced and his cavalry weaker. And in August, at the Battle of Kunersdorf, he lost half of his force of 43,000 men against a combined force of Russians and Austrians, who together lost 15,700. Fortunately for Frederick, however, the Russians and Austrians failed to pursue Frederick's defeated force.

In 1760, the belligerents were again hurting enough from war that they again wanted peace – except for Great Britain. That year the British were tightening their noose around the French in Canada. In October, while Frederick and his army were under pressure in Saxony, a combined force of Russians and Austrians occupied and looted Berlin. Then, hearing that Fredrick and his army were on their way, they fled. Also in October, George II died. The new king, George III, cared little about Hanover, and British subsidies to Frederick were discontinued.

Late in 1760, Frederick was drawn into battle against the Austrians in Saxony, at Torgau, where he won the battle but lost 30 percent of his force of 44,000. In 1761 the British defeated the French in India, while France's army in Germany was occasionally confronting the enemy and gaining nothing. That year, Frederick was moving rapidly between the Russians and Austrians, striking here and there, trying to keep the Russian and Austrian armies from joining, and by the end of 1761 Frederick was exhausted.

Russian armies around the Pomeranian seaport of Colberg had failed to take the city but had reduced it to starvation, and they took up winter quarters in Pomerania. Frederick withdrew into an entrenched camp in Silesia, where his enemies refused to risk an attack. Then Frederick was blessed by good luck. On January 5, Russia's empress, Elizabeth, died. She was succeeded by Peter III, a 33-year-old grandson of Peter the Great on his mother's side, who saw himself as German, disliked Russia and was a great admirer of Frederick. On February 23 he declared an end to the war against Frederick. In Frederick's Brandenburg-Prussia it was seen as a miracle (to be remembered during World War II – the miracle that Goebbels and Hitler had in mind when Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945). Peter put Russia's armies on Frederick's side. Making former allies into enemies and former enemies into allies in the middle of a war was awkward. But for Sweden it was an opportunity to abandon a war from which they had lost hope of gains, and on May 22 the Swedes made peace with Frederick.

On June 28 a military coup overthrew Peter III and placed his wife, Catherine II, on the throne, and she declared Russia's neutrality. Maria Theresa, suffering from the loss of Russia as an ally and receiving little help from France, was also ready for negotiations. Also, her military was exhausted and she was without money. She saw no hope of defeating Frederick and sent him representatives to discuss an end to the war.

By now the war had also impoverished Great Britain's treasury, and Britain's political leaders saw the time as right to negotiate. On February 10, 1763, Britain, Spain and France signed the Treaty of Paris, and on February 15, Austria and Brandenburg-Prussia signed the Peace of Hubertusburg.

Frederick had successfully defended his hold on Silesia. Austria had gained nothing. France lost all of its possessions in the Americas to the British – except for some small islands in the Caribbean and on the St. Lawrence River. It also lost its African colony by the Senegal River to the British, and it agreed to pull out of India. The royal French government was also deeply in debt, which would contribute to a coming revolution. The war also impoverished Britain's treasury, which would impact the British government's policy toward the king's American colonies.

Sources

Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia, Public Broadcasting (PBS), 2006

A History of Modern Germany, 1648–1840, Hajo Holborn, 1967

The Acien Regime in Europe, 1648–1789, by E N Williams, The Bodley Head, 1970

Germany under the Old Regime, 1600-1790, by John G Gagliardo, 1991

A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526–1918, by Robert A Kann, University of California Press, 1980

The War of Austrian Succession, 1740–1748, by M S Anderson, Browning, Reed, 1995

Frederick the Great and the Seven Years' War, by F W Longman, ninth edition, Longman, Green and Company, 1908

Great and Noble Scheme, the Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from the American Homeland, by John Mack Faragher, 2005

Frederick the Great: King of Prussia, by David Fraser, 2000.

The Rise of the European Powers, 1679 -1793, by Jeremy Black, published by Edward Arnold, 1990

Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Chapter 3, Paul Kennedy, 1987

Copyright © 2000-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.