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The Seven Years War 1756 - 63


Library of Congress

Frederick 'the Great' of Prussia

Library of Congress


In Europe, the Seven Years war was fought between an alliance of France, Russia, Sweden, Austria and Saxony against Prussia, Hanover and Great Britain from 1756 - 63. However, the war had an international element, particularly as Britain and France fought for domination of North America and India. As such, it has been called the first ‘world war’. The theatre in North America is called the ‘French Indian’ war, and in Germany the Seven Years War has been known as the ‘Third Silesian War’.

Origins: The Diplomatic Revolution

The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748, but to many it was only an armistice, a temporary halt to the war. Austria had lost Silesia to Prussia, and was angry at both Prussia – for taking the wealthy land – and her own allies for not making sure it was returned. She started weighing up her alliances and seeking out alternatives. Russia grew worried about the growing power of Prussia, and wondered about waging a ‘preventative’ war to stop them. Prussia, pleased at having gained Silesia, believed it would take another war to keep it, and hoped to gain more territory during it.

In the 1750s, as tensions rose in North America between British and French colonists competing for the same land, Britain acted to try and prevent the ensuing war destabilising Europe by altering its alliances. These actions, and a change of heart by Frederick II of Prussia - known by his many later admirers as ‘the Great’ - triggered what has been called the ‘Diplomatic Revolution’, as the previous system of alliances broke down and a new one replaced it, with Austria, France and Russia allied against Britain, Prussia and Hanover.

More on the Diplomatic Revolution

Europe: Frederick gets his Retaliation in First

In May 1756, Britain and France officially went to war, triggered by French attacks on Minorca; the recent treaties stopped other nations being sucked in to help. But with the new alliances in place, Austria was poised to strike and take Silesia back, and Russia was planning a similar initiative, so Frederick II of Prussia – aware of the plotting - initiated conflict in an attempt to gain an advantage. He wanted to defeat Austria before France and Russia could mobilise; he also wanted to seize more land. Frederick thus attacked Saxony in August 1756 to try and break its alliance with Austria, seize its resources and set up his planned 1757 campaign. He took the capital, accepting their surrender, incorporating their troops and sucking huge funds out of the state.

Prussian forces then advanced into Bohemia, but were unable to win the victory that would keep them there and they retreated to Saxony. They advanced back again in early 1757, winning the battle of Prague on May 6 1757, thanks in no small part to Frederick’s subordinates. However, the Austrian army had retreated into Prague, which Prussia besieged. Luckily for the Austrians, Frederick was defeated on June 18th by a relief force at the Battle of Kolin and forced to retreat out of Bohemia.

Europe: Prussia under Attack

Prussia now appeared to be attacked from all sides, as a French force defeated the Hanoverians under an English general – the King of England was also the King of Hanover – occupied Hanover and marched to Prussia, while Russia came in from the East and defeated other Prussians, although they followed this up by retreating and only occupied East Prussia the next January. Austria moved on Silesia and Sweden, new to the Franco-Russo-Austrian alliance, also attacked. For a while Frederick sank into self pity, but responded with a display of arguably brilliant generalship, defeating a Franco-German army at Rossbach on November 5th, and an Austrian one at Leuthen on December 5th,; both had outnumbered him greatly. Neither victory was enough to force an Austrian (or French) surrender.

From now on the French would target a resurgent Hanover, and never fought Frederick again, while he moved quickly, defeating one enemy army and then another before they could effectively team up, using his advantage of shorter, internal lines of movement. Austria soon learnt not to fight Prussia in the large, open areas which favoured Prussia’s superior movement, although this was constantly reduced by casualties. Britain began to harass the French coast to try and draw troops away, while Prussia pushed the Swedes out.

Europe: Victories and Defeats

The British ignored the surrender of their previous Hanoverian army and returned to the region, intent on keeping France at bay. This new army was commanded by a close ally of Frederick’s (his brother in law) and kept French forces busy in the west and away from both Prussia and the French colonies. They won the battle of Minden in 1759, and made a series of strategic manoeuvres to tie up the enemy armies, although were constrained by having to send reinforcements to Frederick.

Frederick attacked Austria, but was outmanoeuvred during a siege and forced to retreat into Silesia. He then fought a draw with the Russians at Zorndorf, but took heavy casualties (a third of his army); he was then beaten by Austria at Hochkirch, losing a third again. By the end of the year he had cleared Prussia and Silesia of enemy armies, but was greatly weakened, unable to pursue anymore grand offensives; Austria was cautiously pleased. By now, all belligerents had spent huge sums. Frederick was bought to battle again at Battle of Kunersdorf in August 1759, but was heavily defeated by an Austro-Russian army. He lost 40% of the troops present, although he managed to keep the remainder of his army in operation. Thanks to Austrian and Russian caution, delays and disagreements, their advantage was not pressed and Frederick avoided being forced to surrender.

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