A guide to the Seven Years’ War
Emma Slattery Williams shares a quick guide to the 18th-century conflict known as the Seven Years' War, in the US better known as the French and Indian War. Who fought in it? And how long did it really last?
What and when was the Seven Years' War?
The Seven Years’ War (1756-63) erupted from the latest in a long history of tensions between Britain and France as they each looked to exert their supremacy; it would have far-reaching and global repercussions. Fighting began in North America as a colonial struggle for control of the upper Ohio River Valley region, while in Europe the conflict centred on a territorial dispute between Prussia (Britain’s ally) and Austria (France’s ally) over the wealthy province of Silesia, modern-day Poland.
But as alliances came into play, the war pulled in all the major European powers and was fought around the world: not only in North America and Europe, but India, the Caribbean, West Africa, and the seas in between. That is why it is now considered the original world war.
Who fought in the Seven Years' War?
On one side of the conflict was a coalition led by Britain, including Prussia, Hanover (which was held by the British king, George II), Portugal and a handful of small German states. On the other side was France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden, Spain and Russia. In North America, both the British and French had allies among the Native American tribes.
Did the war actually last seven years?
Officially, the conflict lasted just under seven years: from Britain declaring war on France on 17 May 1756, to the Treaty of Paris on 10 February 1763. But hostilities had begun two years earlier in North America, with the British and French engaging in skirmishes and ambushes along the border of their territories. In the United States, the conflict is better known as the French and Indian War, and given a start date of 1754.
What did the conflict have to do with the earlier War of the Austrian Succession?
The bitter end to the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) – where Europe’s major powers had fought for power and influence, using the succession of the Austrian Habsburg crown as a pretext – made it extremely likely that fighting would break out again before long. The issues that had led to the war remained unresolved, and few of the nations involved were satisfied with the terms of the peace treaty. To Austria’s dismay, Prussia’s conquest of Silesia was confirmed, something that further upset Russia, which did not like how powerful the Prussians were becoming.
Alliances were reversed that destabilised the political situation. Austria and Prussia were soon on a war footing
This discontent led to drastic shifts in the networks of alliances across Europe, known as the ‘Diplomatic Revolution’ of 1756. Long-standing alliances were reversed – notably, Austria and Prussia swapped sides so that they became allies of France and Britain respectively – and new deals and agreements were made that destabilised the political situation in Europe. Austria and Prussia were soon on a war footing.
When and where was the first engagement of the war?
During the 1750s, the French had built a chain of forts in the Ohio River Valley in North America to challenge the British. They were in control of huge swathes of Canada and the Great Lakes area, while the British had the colonies on the eastern coast and were not prepared to accept these enemy forts on their borders. In response, the Virginia governor dispatched a British colonial militia, headed by a young George Washington and accompanied by Native American warriors.
In May 1754, Washington and his force ambushed the French and built their own stronghold – Fort Necessity – although this was quickly attacked in retaliation and surrendered. While low-level engagements, these skirmishes caused both Britain and France to send troops to North America, setting off the chain of events that led to the declaration of war in 1756.
How did the war progress in North America?
In July 1755, before the war officially began, a British force under Major-General Edward Braddock attempted to capture the French Fort Duquesne, but was ambushed by French and Canadian troops and their Native American allies. Braddock perished in the disastrous defeat. France went on to secure a number of early victories by capturing Fort Oswego in 1756 and Fort William Henry in 1757.
But the British poured more resources into the colonial conflict than France, which was more preoccupied with the war in Europe, and the momentum shifted. In 1758, Major-General Jeffrey Amherst captured the French-controlled fortress of Louisbourg, in modern-day Nova Scotia, Canada, which opened up the St Lawrence River to British ships. This, in turn, allowed Major-General James Wolfe to sail warships to lay siege to Quebec. By sending his men up a narrow path up a cliff to the Plains of Abraham, Wolfe drew the French general Louis, marquis de Montcalm, into a fight and roundly defeated him.
With the capture of Quebec, the British capped off their so-called Annus Mirabilis (‘miraculous year’). The French retreated to Montreal, but surrendered there in September 1760, all but sealing the British victory over New France in North America.
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What was happening in Europe at the time?
While the British focused on attacking France in their colonial territories, the French looked to gain the advantage in Europe. In April 1756, France launched an attack on the British-controlled Mediterranean island of Minorca.
As alliances were being formed and honoured, Britain’s chief ally, King Frederick II of Prussia, saw this as an opportunity to invade Saxony, pre-empting Austria and Russia. Soon, most of the states in Europe had been drawn into the conflict. Britain sent both troops and financial aid to its allies on the continent. Prussia found itself attacked from all sides, resulting in a number of crushing defeats but also some stunning victories for Frederick (such as against the French at Rossbach in November 1757).
France had also set its sights on Hanover – whose prince-elector was George II, king of Great Britain – and defeated a force of Hanoverian, as well as Prussian and Hessian, troops under the Duke of Cumberland at Hastenbeck in July. The duke was forced to disband his forces and accept the occupation of Hanover. However, the British government refused to accept this surrender and were determined to send reinforcements.
With the capture of Quebec, the British capped off their so-called Annus Mirabilis (‘miraculous year’)
The new Hanoverian commander, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick (who was himself Prussian), led a counter- offensive in 1758, initially driving the French back across the Rhine. In August 1759, Ferdinand’s Anglo-German forces defeated the French and Saxons at the battle of Minden – an addition to Britain’s Annus Mirabilis – having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Waves of British and Hanoverian infantry had got their orders confused and launched a potentially catastrophic assault on the French cavalry, but had managed to hold the enemy off regardless.
Further victories were then won at Emsdorf, Warburg, Villinghausen and Wilhelmstahl, which served to prevent another French takeover of Hanover. By 1761, the Prussians, Russians and Austrians were unable to launch major offensives as their forces had been severely depleted by five years of war. The French and British were also suffering with their own losses and colossal debts. No side could land the decisive blow to end the war, even when Spain entered the conflict in 1762 and attacked Portugal, which then became Britain’s ally.
How did India become involved in the war?
The end of the War of the Austrian Succession should have brought the fighting between Britain and France’s respective Indian trading companies to a close, but this did not happen. Britain’s 39th Regiment of Foot was deployed to India in 1754, and the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War only served to heighten the hostilities. The Carnatic region in south India was conquered by British troops, and victory at the battle of Plassey in 1757 helped the British East India Company seize control of Bengal. The French capital in India, Pondicherry, was surrendered in 1761.
What was happening in the Caribbean and other parts of the world?
The supremacy of the British navy was crucial in the outcome of the war: blockading and capturing French ships and taking French and Spanish islands in the Caribbean. The British launched an attack in the West Indies, with Guadeloupe being the biggest prize in 1759, followed by Martinique in 1762. The port of Havana on the Spanish island of Cuba also fell under British control. Britain’s prime minister, William Pitt, was intent on destroying the French empire around the world. To that end, he even sent an expedition to capture the settlement of Saint-Louis in Senegal, followed by attacks on trading posts in the Gambia. France’s presence in Africa was severely diminished.
How did the Seven Years' War end?
The Seven Years’ War had dwindled into a stalemate and dragged on for so long that European armies were exhausted, with coffers empty and morale low. The British national debt alone had nearly doubled from £75 million to £133 million, while French debt rose from 1,360 million livres to 2,350 million. Various states were keen, if not desperate, to secure a peace, with both Russia and Sweden having signed treaties with Prussia by 1762. It was highly unlikely that either side would be able to claim final victory.
And so, the war finally ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed on 10 February 1763 with Britain and Hanover on one side and France and Spain on the other. Five days later, Prussia, Austria and Saxony signed their own peace, the Treaty of Hubertusburg. These two agreements actually saw much of the territory captured during the war returned and, in many ways, restored the situation that had existed before the fighting began. Austria left Silesia, while Prussia left Saxony. Britain, however, made substantial gains, with France ceding all territory in North America east of the Mississippi River, along with many of its possessions in the Caribbean. Indian territories, too, were now firmly in British hands. Spain, thanks to an earlier secret treaty, received France’s Louisiana territory and was able to take back both Havana and Manila (captured by the British in 1762), but was forced to relinquish Florida, which also went to Britain.
What were the long-term impacts of the war?
Europe was left a different place. Prussia, which had been steadily growing in power, confirmed itself as one of the dominant players in Europe. Britain was on its way to global naval supremacy, as well as gathering a vast colonial empire that would become the envy of the world.
However, the debts incurred by the war would result in the British introducing damaging taxes, such as the Sugar Act of 1764 and infamous Townshend Acts of 1767. These would only encourage the American colonists to rebel against the British and fight for independence – something they would achieve in 1776.
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This article was first published in the January 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed