22 July 2014

Historical Article: The Seven Years War

Called (perhaps rightly) the first "world war", the Seven Years War spanned the globe and saw such dramatic changes as England taking control of Florida and Prussia demonstrating its much feared reputation of iron discipline. Read more in this historical overview of the war.

Published on 18 JUN 2009 9:05am by Scott Parrino
  1. north america, background / research material, europe, asia, seven years war

THE SEVEN YEARS WAR (1756-1763) - An Historical Overview

Author:  Bill Trotter

This watershed conflict has also been dubbed (with some justification and no small amount of poetic license) “The First ‘First World War’”. It might also be thought of as the last “traditional” European war fought before the French Revolution changed forever the dynamics of state-sponsored warfare.

Whatever you chose to call it, the conflict was vast in scope, bloody in execution, and profound in its consequences. It was also, needless to say, a bewilderingly complex political struggle which saw Prussia, Great Britain, and the small principality of Hanover (in a loose confederacy) fighting against Austria, Saxony, Russia, France, Sweden, and (briefly) Spain. That, at least, was the European line-up.

In North America (where the conflict was known as “The French and Indian Wars”), it was fought by Great Britain, its American colonial levees, and a fluctuating, sporadically engaged number of Indian auxiliaries, against France, the French-Canadian colonial levees, and their sporadically engaged Indian auxiliaries. Half-a-world away, on the Indian sub-continent, the small professional armies of France and Great Britain duked-it-out with the aid of large but confusing numbers of native troops, under the titular leadership of a motley assortment of sultans and regional warlords (whose loyalties were often determined by expediency, mercenary contracts, and local tribal, religious and ethnic agendas too murky, esoteric, and ephemeral to warrant a detailed examination here).

The causes of the war are actually clearer than many of its political and chronological details. First and foremost: the on-going colonial rivalry between the French and British empires; secondly, the power-struggle between Austria and Prussia for dominance in central Europe.

Suspicious of Austria’s intentions, and always conscious of his small, land-locked nation’s geographical vulnerability, Frederick the Great decided to forestall a planned Austrian attack by launching a pre-emptive invasion of Saxony in 1756. Caught off-balance, Austria mobilized in response and declared war on Prussia in early 1757. Having temporarily settled Saxony’s hash, Frederick attempted to sustain the initiative by invading Bohemia and laying siege to Prague. He was checked in this ambition by one of Austrian’s better commanders, Field Marshal Leopold von Daun, whose numerically superior army defeated the Prussians in the Battle of Kolin (June 18, 1857) and forced Frederick to withdraw from Bohemia altogether.

Given the Austrians’ advantage in numbers and the manner in which Prussia was open to attack from so many directions, Frederick attempted to turn a vulnerability into an advantage. Prussia’s central location, its superior internal road network, and the legendary “iron discipline” of its soldiers, all permitted Frederick to pursue a bold, even desperate, strategy of launching fierce offensive strikes against one enemy force after the other, switching the axes of his attacks more rapidly than his opponents could respond to the threats, Frederick stabbed out furiously at various points on the compass.

First, he smote a combined Austrian-French expeditionary force that had moved, rather ponderously, into Saxony, and soundly defeated them in the Battle of Rossbach (November 5, 1757); only 31 days later (taking advantage of his interior lines of communication with a swiftness and efficiency his enemies could never match), Frederick trounced an Austrian force at Leuthen (December 6, 1757). In this opening round, Frederick won three solid victories in three months, at widely separated points – the victories were not decisive, but they stabilized Prussia’s strategic position and bought Frederick some breathing room, during which his British and Hanoverian allies managed, rather ponderously, to finally weigh-in on Prussia’s side Their combined armies scored a victory against the French at Krefeld (June 23, 1758). One month later (on August 25, 1758), Frederick made a supreme effort against the Russian invasion of Brandenburg, fighting the larger tsarist army to a stand-still in the extremely bloody battle of Zorndorf.

When France again threatened Hanover in 1759, the combined British/Hanoverian army again checked them – this time for good – at Minden (August 1, 1759). These European defeats, combined with reverses in North America and a serious trouncing in India (where superior British leadership and, more crucially, more successful, indeed surprisingly sensitive diplomacy vis-à-vis their indigenous native allies) had gained His Majesty control of great swaths of strategic Indian terrain, caused Paris to grow weary of this expensive and increasingly pointless war in a far-off land whose exploitable resources remained as elusive as its climate and cuisine were ghastly..

But Austria, always slow to get warmed up it seems, was now fully committed to an anti-Prussian crusade, whilst Frederick’s cumulative casualties had significantly dulled the Prussian edge. Weight-of-numbers began to tell. At Maxen, in 1759, a SURROUNDED Prussian actually surrendered to their Austrian opponents – a reversal that would have been unthinkable even two years earlier! Not long afterwards, Frederick sustained the worst defeat of his career at Kunersdorf on August 12th in the same year, where – despite Frederick’s remarkable personal bravery and energy on the field, his 50,000 Prussians were simply ground-under by a combined Austrian/ Russian force twice as large.

Frederick the Great was not a man easily discouraged or the sort of commander who succumbs to the council of his fears, but after this particular defeat he became despondent and uncharacteristically morose. To some trusted companions he even mused aloud about the possibility of abdicating. Worse was to come, for in 1760 the Russians occupied Berlin! The shock of this event seems to have galvanized Frederick into renewed vigor and tactical audacity – on November 3, in fact, Frederick got the drop on his old Austrian nemesis, von Daun, and inflicted a stinging defeat upon him in the Battle of Turgau. Frederick’s tactical grip on that day was as assured as ever; the victory was solid and fairly won. But because of the numerical odds and a noticeable overall improvement in the Austrian infantry’s professionalism, it was one of Prussia’s costliest victories to date. The problem, of course, was that Prussia was running out of veteran soldiers much faster than Austria was or ever would, and both sides knew it.

While the battered armies recuperated and reorganized, political events took center stage as the new year of 1761 arrived. In Great Britain, a war-weary electorate rejected the pro-Prussian candidates for Parliament and with little warning, Frederick’s hitherto generous financial support from London was suddenly cut off, leaving the already depleted Prussian treasury practically bereft of the funds required to prosecute the war. Prussian agriculture and commerce were already gravely undermined by years of sustained fighting, and this new development threatened to throw the nation into a ruinous depression. That was the bad news.

From far off St. Petersburg, however, came countervailing good news: there was a new Tsar, Peter III, and he was a passionate admirer of all things Prussian. Within weeks of the British turning off their money-spigot, the Russian treasury was more than taking up the slack, giving Frederick the economic power needed to sustain, and even to expand, his war-making capability. The news seemed to revitalize him. In Berlin, which of course the Russians had returned to German control, all in good order and with no signs of vandalism, spirits rose, trade and culture flourished, and support for Frederick rebounded.

For about a year, that is; until a fanatic assassinated the new Tsar and the power-alignment in Europe once more spun into turbulent and uncharted waters. Fortunately for Prussia, the new Tsar decided to wash his hands of the whole mess and dropped out of the anti-Prussian alliance with what the Austrians at least regarded as indecent haste. With a sigh of relief audible across the entire Baltic, Sweden soon followed suit. That enlightened Scandinavian nation had been coasting on the fumes of Charles XIIth’s military glory for much too long and its army was already second-rate and irrevocably on its way to irrelevance; the Swedes had been little more than a nuisance to Prussia, but with them exiting the anti-Frederick alliance, there was a sense of clarification in the air that Vienna did not like.

Emboldened by these developments, Frederick regained some of his old spark and in the closing months of the year he scored a very satisfying victory over Von Daun near the strategic Silesian town of Burkersdorf.

Elsewhere, and with its usual inept sense of timing, Spain decided to enliven the closing weeks of 1761 by…invading Portugal! Why the thunderingly mediocre monarch of Spain, Charles IIIrd, waited until now to throw his lot in with Austria is anybody’s guess. Certainly, Spain had no reason to be afraid of Prussia! The Portuguese ploy was surely rank opportunism at its most egregious – Charles evidently believed that Great Britain was now too disillusioned to take any action over the Spanish incursion and, in any case, was militarily preoccupied with battles raging on the distant peripheries of Empire. Perhaps he hoped to knock off Portugal so quickly that he could also steal her colonies and, magically, double the size of that ramshackle entity still technically known as “The Spanish Empire”. He was sadly deluded in just about every aspect of this dotty scheme.

Taken by surprise, the Portuguese army fell back and could do little to stop the invaders from seizing the historic fortress of Almeida, along with some adjacent villages, but that’s about as much spunk as the Spanish incursion had. Just to fulfill their treaty obligations, the French grumpily dispatched from military supplies and a few sacks of gold, but did not respond to Charles’s suggestion that a veteran army corps would also be welcomed.

Great Britain, however, responded with alacrity, dispatching several thousand elite Redcoats under the capable command of “Gentlemanly Johnny” Burgoyne, who with great tact and theatricality promptly galvanized the torpid Portuguese Army into a state of crusading zeal. By the middle of 1762, without hardly breaking a sweat, Burgoyne had driven the Spanish invaders back across the border and was making a great display of preparing a counter-invasion (which he never seriously intended to carry out; the whole thing was a masterpiece of bluff and bluster). Charles feared for his throne, his colonies, and quite possibly his life. Just to show the British Lion still had plenty of un-flexed claws, the Royal Navy quickly carried out a number of high-profile/ low-risk chastisements of Spain’s “empire”, causing localized havoc in places as remote from each other as Florida, Cuba, and the Philippines.

Instead of gaining Portugal on-the-cheap, Spain now had to endure the humiliation of giving Florida to the British as the price for London calling off its sham preparations to “invade” Spain! For those not in range of the cannon balls, it was all jolly good entertainment, and for modern fans of historical might-have-beens, the actual events, while outlandish enough, suggest even more mind-boggling scenarios: Florida annexing Cuba…Canada torn with civil war over the issue of which language to speak! New England zealots invading Canada while the Canadians were preoccupied trading insults and bullets and bashing each other on the heads with impossibly long loaves of hard bread!  Indian uprisings along the frontier…and of course, in REAL history, the slow subterranean simmering had already begun that would boil over into the French and American Revolutions! History overload! Send for the programmers!

In Central Europe, where the whole messy aberration had begun, so long ago that even Frederick and his Hapbsurg counterparts probably had trouble remembering the original reasons for going to war, the Prussian victory at Burkersdorf was the last significant battle of 1762. The two major combatants had fought to a state of mutual exhaustion and were now on the verge of economic ruin. Popular support for the blood-letting, never exactly feverish to begin with, had dropped too low for measurement. Even some Prussians were deserting! Signals were passed from one court to another: isn’t it time to stop this thing, before it drags us all down?

When the new year of 1763 came, there was tacit agreement that further bloodshed was pointless, and indeed might undermine the very aristocracies who had once thought there might be some merit to the war! A peace convocation assembled in Paris, and with almost embarrassing haste, a treaty was concluded (called, logically enough, the Treaty of Paris). It was signed on February 10. 1763. Ironically, very little was changed in Europe itself: Prussia got the right to incorporate Silesia and France, Saxony, and Austria got the right to resume doing and being exactly what they had and were before the conflict started. Elsewhere, however, the changes were profound. Economically prostrate; France was forced to yield to Great Britain all its remaining claims in North America and India. India was no problem – the French were heartily sick of the beastly place and its hideous climate and counted themselves well rid of it. North America, and Canada, were another story, and their loss was a nasty pill to swallow.

What other long-term legacy did the Seven Years War bequeath to posterity? Perhaps the most insidious was the myth of the Prussian-as-Super-Soldier. We all know what poisonous fruit would eventually grow from that seed of popular myth! Frederick had once more proven himself a superb leader of armies, a master of training and administration, and the boldest military gambler between Charles XIIth and Robert E. Lee – bolder than Napoleon, one might plausibly argue, and every bit as lucky. Prussia hung on to its very existence by the proverbial skin of its teeth, and if the Austrians had had the stomach for a total show-down, there’s little doubt of the outcome. Little would have remained of Prussian but a legend of military glory and Spartan discipline.

It seems quite unremarkable that in the years following the Treaty of Paris, Frederick the Great spent much of his time composing flute concertos of Mozartean elegance and creating in Berlin, a mecca for the fine arts. One would like to have been a fly on the wall when the Iron Prussian emperor sat down to have an epic conversation with Schiller or the young Goethe…

Did they discuss metaphysics? Music? Greek philosophy? The natural sciences?

Or did they clear off the dinner table and set up a big collection of toy soldiers, get snockered on the local beer, and argue passionately over the whose set of dice to use and whether or not the Combat Results Table was rigged in favor of the Prussian player?

We shall never know, alas. But by playing Horse and Musket, we can at least fantasize much more vividly!

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