The Seven Years’ War essentially comprised two struggles. One centered on the maritime and colonial conflict between Britain and its Bourbon enemies, France and Spain; the second, on the conflict between Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia and his opponents: Austria, France, Russia, and Sweden. Two other less prominent struggles were also worthy of note. As an ally of Frederick, George II of Britain, as elector of Hanover, resisted French attacks in Germany, initially only with Hanoverian and Hessian troops but from 1758 with the assistance of British forces also. In 1762, Spain, with French support, attacked Britain’s ally Portugal, but, after initial checks, the Portuguese, thanks to British assistance, managed to resist successfully.
The maritime and colonial war proved a triumph for Britain, a reflection of the strength of the British navy–itself the product of the wealth of Britain’s expanding colonial economy and the strength of British public finances. The French planned an invasion of Britain, but their fleet was badly battered in defeats in 1759 at Lagos off Portugal (August 19-28) and Quiberon Bay off Brittany (November 20). These naval victories enabled Britain to make colonial conquests: Louisbourg (1758), Quebec (1759), and Montreal (1760) in North America; Guadeloupe (1759), Martinique (1762), and Havana (1762) in the West Indies; Manila (1762); and the French bases in West Africa. The British also prevailed in India, capturing the major French base, Pondicherry, in 1761. These campaigns around the globe demonstrated and sustained the range of British power.
The war in Europe began in 1756 when Frederick II invaded Austria’s ally Saxony in order to deny a base for what he feared would be an Austro-Russian attack on him. The invasion was successful, but it helped to create a powerful coalition against Frederick. He pressed on to invade Bohemia, but the Austrians put up unexpectedly strong resistance and forced him to withdraw.
Frederick’s survival was the product of good fortune and military success–not only a number of stunning victories, such as Rossbach and Leuthen, but also the advantage of fighting on interior lines against a strategically and politically divided alliance. Russian interests centered on East Prussia, the Austrians were most concerned by Silesia, and the French increasingly devoted their efforts to the war with Britain.
Although Prussia survived the war, casualties were very heavy. Frederick discovered how exposed his dominions were, though their extent allowed him to abandon territory and thus to trade space for the vital time he needed to exploit internal lines, in order to defeat his opponents individually.
In 1757 East Prussia was invaded by the Russians, but Frederick defeated the French at Rossbach (November 5) and the Austrians at Leuthen (December 5). In 1758 the Russians captured East Prussia, but the bloody Battle of Zorndorf (August 26), in which Frederick lost one-third of his force and the Russians eighteen thousand men, blocked their invasion of the Prussian heartland of Brandenburg. In the following year, the Russians defeated Frederick at Kunersdorf (August 12), the Prussians losing nearly two-thirds of their force; but the Russians failed to follow it up by concerted action with Austria. In 1760-1761 the Austrians consolidated their position in Saxony and Silesia, while the Russians temporarily seized Berlin and overran Pomerania. Frederick was saved by the death of his most determined enemy, Tsarina Elizabeth, on January 5, 1762, and the succession of her nephew, Peter III. Frederick was his hero, and he speedily ordered Russian forces to cease hostilities. Isolated, Austria was driven from Silesia and obliged to sign peace at Hubertusberg on February 15, 1763, on the basis of a return to the prewar situation.
Frederick’s difficulties stemmed in part from recent reforms in the Austrian and Russian armies. The Russians in particular fought well, and their formidable resources made a powerful impression on Frederick. To cope with these challenges, Frederick was obliged to change his tactics during the war: as everyone sought to avoid the mistakes of the previous year’s campaigning season, warfare was shaped by the fluid dynamics of the rival armies. Initially, Frederick relied on cold steel, but after sustaining heavy casualties from Austrian cannon and musket fire at the Battle of Prague (May 6, 1757), he placed more emphasis on the tactics of firepower, for example, at Leuthen. Frederick became more interested in using artillery as a key to open deadlocked battlefronts. However, Frederick’s success in avoiding decisive defeat at the hands of his opponents can distract attention from the extent to which they were able to innovate in order to respond to Prussian tactics. The Prussian oblique order attack (in which one end of the line was strengthened and used to attack, minimizing exposure to the weaker end) lost its novelty, and the Seven Years’ War demonstrated the essential character of European warfare: the similarity in weaponry, training, and balance between component arms of different armies made it difficult to achieve the sweeping successes that characterized some encounters with non-European forces.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.