Gregory Brown
513 Agnes Arnold Hall
Department of Philosophy
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-3004

Seven Years' War (1756-1763)

The last major conflict before the French Revolution to involve all the great powers of Europe. Generally, France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden, and Russia were aligned on one side against Prussia, Hanover, and Great Britain on the other. The war arose out of the attempt of the Austrian Habsburgs to win back the rich province of Silesia, which had been wrested from them by Frederick II the Great of Prussia during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48). But the Seven Years' War also involved overseas colonial struggles between Great Britain and France, the main points of contention between these two traditional rivals being the struggle for control of North America (see French and Indian War) and India. Britain's alliance with Prussia was undertaken partly in order to protect electoral Hanover, the British ruling dynasty's continental possession, from the threat of a French takeover.

The hostilities of the Seven Years' War were immediately preceded by a reversal of traditional alliances in Europe. Austria had long been friendly toward Britain and hostile toward France, but because Austria seemed unlikely to protect Hanover from French or Prussian aggression, Britain in January 1756 allied itself with Prussia to obtain such security. In response, an outraged France contracted an alliance with Austria that was soon joined by Russia. This alignment of Austria with France and of Great Britain with Prussia marked a reversal of longstanding enmity between those countries in what became known as the "Diplomatic Revolution."

By the summer of 1756, the major powers of the Austrian-led alliance were poised for an attack on Prussia. Frederick the Great, a believer in attacking first, invaded Saxony on August 29 to detach that country from its alliance with the Austrians. He occupied Saxony's capital, Dresden, and the Saxon forces capitulated not long after. In the spring of 1757 Frederick again advanced south into Bohemia, defeating the Austrians at the Battle of Prague on May 6, 1757. A month later, however, he was forced to retreat from Bohemia, having suffered a heavy defeat on June 18 at the hands of the Austrian field marshal Leopold Joseph, Count von Daun, in the Battle of Kolín.

Frederick now faced a war on several fronts. In the west the French defeated a Hanoverian army led by the Duke of Cumberland, a younger son of Britain's King George II, and in September they forced Cumberland to disband his army. The French then advanced on Prussia's western frontier. Furthermore, Sweden attacked Prussian Pomerania after having joined the Austrian alliance in March. A Russian army entered East Prussia in July and won a major victory there in August, and Austria moved on Silesia. Gambling for success against France and her allies, Frederick met a Franco-German army at Rossbach in Thuringia on November 5 and, although outnumbered two to one, fought a two-hour battle that cost his enemies 7,000 men as against 550 Prussian troops. He then turned to meet the Austrians in Silesia and, again heavily outnumbered, won his greatest victory at Leuthen on December 5.

In April 1758 the British government under William Pitt the Elder signed a new treaty with Prussia providing it with much-needed financial support, and on June 23 an Anglo-Hanoverian army defeated a much larger French force at Krefeld. Britain's improved military performance was partly owing to Pitt, who realized the importance of the colonial theatres of the war and devoted his energy to the success of British arms in India and North America. In the meantime, Frederick beat back the Russians in a bloody battle at Zorndorf on August 25, but his attempt to save Saxony from the Austrians was only partially successful, and he was forced to retreat into Silesia. The Austrian and Russian armies operating in the east were finally able to link up in the summer of 1759, and when Frederick attacked them at Kunersdorf, east of Frankfurt, on Aug. 12, 1759, he suffered a disastrous defeat, losing 18,000 men in six hours of battle and watching Daun take Dresden.

The main fighting in 1760 took place in Silesia, where Frederick scored marginal victories against the Austrians at Liegnitz (now Legnica) and Torgau but remained hopelessly on the defensive. The low point of the war came in December 1761. Frederick, his armies all but exhausted by a series of rapid maneuvers against multiple enemies, was near despair. But at that point, through the death of the Russian empress Elizabeth and the succession of Tsar Peter III, an admirer of Prussia, Russia not only made peace with Frederick but also mediated a peace between Prussia and Sweden and finally joined Frederick in an effort to oust the Austrians from Silesia. Though Peter was soon afterward assassinated, his successor, Catherine II the Great, did not renew hostilities against Prussia. Frederick then drove the Austrians from Silesia while his ally, Ferdinand of Brunswick, won victories over the French at Wilhelmsthal and over the Saxons at Lutterberg and captured the important town of Göttingen.

The principal theatre of war in the German states now quieted, but the fighting for empire continued overseas in the Americas, the West Indies, Africa, and India, with Britain winning some important victories. By late 1762 the end of the war was in sight. Austria saw nothing to be gained from continuing its struggle against Prussia without Russian support. France had no interest in further supporting a war over Silesia, and Britain came to similar conclusions about supporting Prussia. By the Franco-British Treaty of Paris (Feb. 10, 1763), Britain won North America and India and became the undisputed leader in overseas colonization. Five days later at the Treaty of Hubertusburg, Frederick maintained his possession of Silesia and confirmed Prussia's stature as a major European power.

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