Preliminaries to war: AD 1748-1756
In the aftermath of the War of the Austrian Succession two intense rivalries threaten the precariously established peace. One is between the developing empires of France and Britain. This leads to outbreaks of warfare in India in 1748, in America in 1755 and in the Mediterranean in 1756 – when the French seize the British naval base of Minorca (an event leading to the execution of Admiral Byng).
The other deep hostility results from the unfinished business between Austria and Prussia. The enmity of Maria Theresa of Austria against Frederick the Great of Prussia centres on the province of Silesia, seized by Frederick in 1740.
The loss of Silesia remains a very sore point with Maria Theresa, and much of her policy is now directed towards its recovery. Reforms in Austria’s government and army are one part of her plan. Another is the achieving of a diplomatic realignment before the next conflict.
France and Austria (the Bourbon and Habsburg dynasties) have been Europe’s chief rivals for nearly two centuries. Maria Theresa and her chancellor, von Kaunitz, now plan to change this alignment – in a previously unimaginable reversal which becomes known as the Diplomatic Revolution. They achieve the impossible. A defensive alliance between Austria and France is signed at Versailles in May 1756.
In addition to her new alliance with France, Maria Theresa has a more active pact with Russia. The empress Elizabeth offers, in April of this year, to send 80,000 Russian troops to support an attack on Prussia.
An Austrian move to recover Silesia is clearly in preparation, when it is suddenly thwarted by the most decisive ruler in Europe.
Frederick on the warpath: AD 1756-1763
Frederick II of Prussia precipitates war in Europe in 1756 just as he had in 1740, in the War of the Austrian Succession. On that occasion he seized the rich territory of Silesia, and the treaty of 1748 allowed him to keep it. This time, knowing Austria’s burning desire to win it back, he launches a pre-emptive strike.
On 29 August 1756 Frederick marches with 70,000 Prussian soldiers into Saxony (lying between Prussia and Austria). This sudden act of aggression takes the Saxons entirely unaware and launches the war.
Frederick is the most talented general of the time. But he fails to achieve the rapid and decisive victory that he needs, and he is ringed by powerful enemies. Britain, his only ally, provides him with funds but is reluctant to become more closely involved (unless to protect Hanover).
In 1757 the Russians advance into Prussia and seem in a position to crush it. But mysteriously the Russian general withdraws. The probable reason is disagreement within the Russian royal family. The empress, Elizabeth, hates PRussia, but her heir, Peter, is a passionate admirer of Frederick the Great. Elizabeth’s health is frail. A Russian general who destroys Prussia at the wrong moment may blight his career.
Frederick makes good use of the reprieve provided by Russia’s withdrawal, and does so against great odds. Prussia is surrounded by enemies (Sweden, Austria and France in addition to Russia) and Prussian armies confront them alone on the battlefield. The campaign in the west, against France, is entrusted by Frederick to his brother-in-law Ferdinand, the duke of Brunswick.
Britain is Frederick’s only ally, providing him with a useful financial subsidy but minimal practical support on the battlefield. There is no major British presence in the many battles fought in and around Germany during this war (a small force of some 8500 British soldiers serves under Ferdinand of Brunswick from the autumn of 1758). Britain’s main contribution is through her war aganst France, at sea and in north America.
In 1757-9 Frederick and Ferdinand achieve some remarkable victories, usually against much greater numbers and with fewer casualties on their own side. Frederick defeats a French and Austrian army at Rossbach in November 1757 and an Austrian army at Leuthen a month later. He holds his own against a much larger Russian force in a heavily contested encounter at Zorndorf in August 1758. Meanwhile Ferdinand defeats vast French armies at Krefeld in June 1758 and at Minden in August 1759.
This summer of 1759 proves a disastrous period on all fronts for the French. It is also the moment when the tide turns in the other war going on at the same time – between Britain and France.
Annus mirabilis: AD 1759
1759 becomes known to the British as annus mirabilis, the wonderful year, because of a spectacular run of victories. The greatest is Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in September, but there are two successes at sea which are equally important. They save England from the threat of a French invasion.
French troops have been amassing along the English Channel this summer, awaiting a fleet to ferry them across. Either of two fleets could do so, and Britain’s survival in the war depends on destroying both. One is in Toulon. In August it slips out of the Mediterranean, sailing past Gibraltar on its way north. Off Lagos, in sourthern Portugal, it is caught and defeated by Edward Boscawen.
The other fleet is in Brest. It puts to sea in November and is confronted in Quiberon Bay by Edward Hawke. On the afternoon of November 20 the fleets engage in a three-hour battle. The British lose two ships, which run aground. Most of the French fleet is either destroyed or is irreparably damaged when escaping into shallow waters.
The victory prompts David Garrick to write a song, Heart of Oak. Its title refers to the wood the British ships are made of, and by extension to the brave sailors themselves: ‘Heart of oak are our ships, Heart of oak are our men.’
The letter-writer and wit Horace Walpole responds languidly to this flood of good news in 1759: ‘We are forced to ask every morning what victory there has been’, he observes, ‘for fear of missing one.’
This Seven Years’ War is history’s first approximation to a world war, with engagements on land and sea in America, in Europe and even in a simmering confrontation in Asia. Of all the various theatres of war, by far the best news for Britain now comes from America – the place where the conflict with France originally began, and began so badly.
Pitt and north America: AD 1758-1759
The changing fortunes of the British in north America in 1758-9 are largely due to the energy and skill of the man who in the summer of 1757 becomes secretary of state with responsibility for the war – William Pitt, known as Pitt the Elder (or, later, earl of Chatham). Pitt builds up Britain’s navy and selects talented commanders on both sea and land.
His first success is an expedition sent out to capture the powerful fort at the eastern extremity of New France. Louisburg falls in July 1758 in an action in which a young officer, James Wolfe, distinguishes himself.
Four months later, in November 1758, there is a victory in the extreme west of the American war zone. The event is strategically less significant than the capture of Louisbourg, but symbolically it is most gratifying to the British.
The French capture of Fort Duquesne in 1754 began the war in America. Now four years later, on the advance of a British army (once again with George Washington commanding a contingent), the French burn their wooden fort and abandon the site. The commander of the British army writes to inform Pitt that he is giving the place a new name – Pittsburgh, in the secretary of state’s honour.
In 1759 the French fort at Niagara is taken (a strategically important site), followed shortly by another event of sweet revenge – the capture of Fort Carillon at Ticonderoga, the site of a costly and embarrassing failure in the previous year.
The stage is now set for a final assault on the very heart of New France, the original settlements of Montreal and Quebec.
Wolfe and Quebec: AD 1759
To command the expedition against Quebec, Pitt selects the young officer, James Wolfe, who has distinguished himself in the previous year’s capture of Louisbourg. Wolfe’s opponent in this crucial encounter will be the most successful French general in this war, the marquis de Montcalm.
Wolfe’s army, numbering about 8500, is brought up the St Lawrence River in British ships in June. Montcalm is defending Quebec with some 15,000 troops. The citadel is protected by the river to the south and by high cliffs to the west. Montcalm’s army is firmly entrenched to the east of the city, blocking the only easy approach.
Wolfe spends nearly three months bombarding the citadel from across the river. He also attempts various unsuccessful assaults. Montcalm sits tight. Then, during the night of September 12, Wolfe puts into effect a bold plan.
He is himself in a weak state, from tuberculosis, but in the darkness he leads his men across the river, in boats with muffled oars, to the foot of a steep wooded cliff west of the city. At the top, 300 feet above the level of the river, is a plateau – the Plains of Abraham – with open access to Quebec. By dawn the British army is on the plateau. Only in battle can the city be defended now.
The battle for Quebec lasts little more than an hour before the French flee. But that hour has been long enough to claim the lives of both commanders. Montcalm is severely injured and dies the next day. Wolfe, wounded twice in the thick of the fighting, receives a third and mortal blow just as the tide of battle turns finally in his favour. The death of the 32-year-old general, at his moment of victory, becomes an icon in British popular history.
It is a profoundly significant victory. Without Quebec, Montreal is isolated. Surrounded by British armies, the commander of the city surrenders in September 1760. The whole of French Canada is now in British hands – a state of affairs confirmed in the Paris peace treaty of 1763.
Prussian stalemate and reprieve: AD 1759-1762
The year 1759, vastly improving the fortunes of Britain, does the opposite for Prussia. Within less than two weeks of his brother-in-law Ferdinand’s victory over the French at Minden, in August, Frederick himself suffers a disastrous defeat by a Russian and Austrian army at Kunersdorf. Within a space of six hours he loses 18,000 men, more than a third of his army.
During the next three years both Frederick and Ferdinand win some engagements and lose others. The early lustre of their campaign has gone. The war drags on. Prussian success seems impossible, eventual exhaustion and defeat very probable.
Moreover by the end of 1761 Britain, well satisfied with her own successes elsewhere, is disinclined to continue subsidising Prussia in an endless continental war. The prospect for Frederick the Great seems bleak, until he is suddenly rescued by an event entirely beyond his control. It is an event which has been long and regularly expected, and which happens now just in time – from Frederick’s point of view.
On 5 January 1762 the ailing Russian empress, Elizabeth, dies. Her death transforms Russian policy overnight.
The new Russian tsar, Peter III, rapidly puts into effect his own pro-Prussian preferences. By May he has made peace with Frederick. There is an immediate knock-on effect. Austria, for whom it will be impossible to defeat Prussia without Russian support, loses heart for the battle.
In the summer of 1762 French and Prussian armies are still engaging each other in battle from time to time in the western regions of Germany. Meanwhile the other major conflict of the Seven Years’ War, the separate quarrel between Britain and France in America, has already been effectively won by Britain. By now the most eventful theatre of war is the most recent – a new colonial conflict between Spain and Britain.
The Bourbon family compact: AD 1761
The final enlargement of this already widespread war derives from an agreement, known as the Family Compact, made in August 1761 between the Bourbon kings of Spain and France. The arrangement is that Spain will enter the war against Britain in May 1762, unless France and Britain are by then at peace. Britain pre-empts this arrangement by declaring war on Spain in January 1762. The intention is to attack from the sea Spain’s far-flung and vulnerable empire.
In August 1762 the British capture Havana, in Cuba. In October a British fleet takes Manila, in the Philippines. Both will be returned to Spain in the following year – but at a price.
Peace treaties: AD 1763
Two separate peace treaties are signed during February 1763. The earlier of the two, by five days, is agreed in Paris between Britain, France and Spain. The second, between Austria and Prussia, is signed at Hubertusburg in Saxony.
The settlement between Britain and Spain restores to Spain both Havana and Manila, captured in the previous year. But it rewards Britain with the acquisition of Florida (which reverts to Spain from 1783 to 1819), completing the stretch of British territory along the entire east coast of the American continent down to the Caribbean. The northern part of this stretch, in Canada, is acquired by Britain from France in the one major upheaval contained in these treaties.
France cedes to Britain all the territory which it has previously claimed between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, together with the original territories of New France along the St Lawrence. This brings to an end the French empire in America (only New Orleans and its district remain in French hands under the treaty). The British become unmistakably the dominant power in the northern half of the continent, in one of the major turning points of history.
The lands more notionally claimed by the French between the Mississippi and the Rockies are ceded to Spain. (They are later acquired by the USA, in 1803, in the Louisiana Purchase.)
The peace treaty agreed at Hubertusburg between Prussia and Austria maintains the recent status quo in central Europe. Frederick the Great, twice the aggressor, is again allowed to keep Silesia.
This conclusion strengthens the influence of Prussia within the German empire and reduces that of the official imperial power, Habsburg Austria. It also leaves Poland flanked by two increasingly powerful neighbours, Prussia and Russia, who since 1762 have been in alliance. The development does not bode well for Poland’s future. Austria too attends the feast, when it begins in 1772.