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The Seven Years’ War Was the First Truly Global Conflict

Britain and France battled for world supremacy, drawing in numerous other nations.

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  • 'The Death of General Wolfe', a 1770 painting commemorating the 1759 Battle of Quebec.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The world wars of the 20th century redrew borders and reshaped the culture and politics of the world permanently. Yet the conflicts spawned from the bullets of Gavrilo Princip’s gun were not the first global wars in history. Over 150 years before World War I broke out, European powers were brawling in a conflict that spanned five continents. The Seven Years' War would have a lasting influence on politics and diplomacy for decades, even centuries to come.

The origin of the Seven Years’ War lies in both unresolved disputes that had been brewing in Europe for years and colonization of the Americas. France had laid claim to Canada and the Great Lakes region, while the Eastern Seaboard lay in British hands. Skirmishes between the French, British, and their various Native American allies were common throughout the mid-18th century. 

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This spilled over into outright war when George Washington, then a Virginia soldier, led a joint colonial and Native American force in an ambush of the French. The conflict left several Frenchmen dead and others captured in what became known as the Jumonville affair. The 1754 ambush had international implications and saw the French retaliate against the British.

Across the Atlantic, allies were changing partners like some sort of diplomatic dance. Prussia, then a German state and an ally of France, sided with Britain instead in hopes of gaining power over Austria; Austria then abandoned the British to partner with France. This realignment of alliances is known as the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756.

Meanwhile, Prussia preemptively annexed the state of Saxony in anticipation of war, which angered much of Europe, especially the other states within the Holy Roman Empire. The Russian Empire, fearful that Prussia’s ambitions could be turned to neighboring Poland and Lithuania, also joined in against Prussia. 1756 saw war officially declared against the French by the British, and the Seven Years' War began in earnest.

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In contrast to the middling efforts of their British allies in the Americas, the Prussians were successful in that first year of the war. Despite being largely outnumbered, they were able to take over Saxony and protect their holds elsewhere. Yet an ambitious march into the Kingdom of Bohemia changed the tides for the Prussians, who were defeated in Bohemia and then forced to retreat after the Russians had taken one of their strongest fortresses. 

Sweden saw its opportunity to get in on the action, declaring war against Prussia with the main goal of retaking its former territory Pomerania. Swedish troops occupied the region and did not expect to ever actually encounter Prussian forces, figuring they would be too busy with the numerous other war fronts.

map of the seven years war
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  • A map of the participants in the Seven Years' War. Blue represents Britain and its allies; green represents France and its allies.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The end of 1757 saw a massive French and Holy Roman Empire army approach the Prussians from one flank and professional Austrian soldiers approach from the other. Yet Prussian King Frederick II proved his skill as a general and defeated both forces, with some 500 casualties of his own to the French and Holy Roman Empire’s 10,000 at the Battle of Rossbach.

Meanwhile, Britain was just starting to find its feet in North America. It began paying Prussia a considerable annual fee and provided troops to help protect Prussian borders from French forces, though 1758 was a largely inconclusive year in the war.

The next few years of the conflict were exhausting for all involved. Prussia suffered such heavy defeats that Frederick was driven to suicidal thoughts and considered abdicating the throne. But problems with the Russian supply line, and defeats to the French that prevented them from aiding their Eastern allies, meant that the Prussians could hold on.

In 1762, the Russian Empress Elizabeth died, which would change the course of the war. Her successor, Peter III, was born in Germany and could hardly speak Russian. As such, he was sympathetic to the Prussians. He pulled out Russian troops, mediating a truce between Prussia and Sweden (which had long been routed from Pomerania), and even placed a corps of Russian soldiers under Frederick’s command. 

In 1762, Spain was called into the war on the French-Austrian side. Its invasion of Portugal was initially successful, but the joint Franco-Spanish army was eventually driven back to Spain. Meanwhile, Britain was making significant gains in North America. Britain had focused much more on taking overseas territories from France and Spain rather than fighting on mainland Europe, winning in India, the Philippines, Cuba, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Senegal. Britain’s naval superiority was vital in sieging these island states and blocking off supplies to France’s overseas troops.

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In 1763, it was clear that Austria would not regain Silesia from Prussia, which was its main goal throughout the war. With this major player depleted and exhausted, along with the rest of the European armies, the end of the war on the continent was looming. The Treaty of Hubertusburg was signed on the 15th of February, in which Prussia was allowed to keep Silesia and would have Glatz (located in modern-day Poland) returned if they evacuated Saxony.

The Treaty of Paris, signed five days earlier, had an even bigger impact on borders. Though both sides returned some territories gained through conquest, Britain ultimately gained considerable land in North America and the Caribbean, including much of Canada, the eastern half of French Louisiana, and islands like Dominica and Tobago. As a result, Britain began its rise as the world's predominant colonial and naval power.

battle of rossbach
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  • Painting of the Battle of Rossbach, a significant Prussian victory.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

That skirmish with George Washington in 1754 had led to violent clashes in North and South America, Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Europe. After seven years, the global conflict was finally over. Though it led to redrawn borders and territory holdings, the greatest legacy of the war was not geopolitical, but financial. Nearly every power involved suffered major monetary losses during the Seven Years' War; Maria Theresa of Austria even had to pawn her jewelry to keep her country’s coffers full. 

Britain was able to fund its own escapades, but that came at a price. The British were able to pay Prussia by heavily taxing their American colonists. This soured the image of the Crown for those across the Atlantic, made only worse by the fact that nearby Native nations had been provoked by the hostilities. While the British were able to pack up and go home, the colonists were left to deal with increasingly fractured relationships with their Native American neighbors. To this day, Americans commonly refer to the Seven Years' War as the French and Indian War, highlighting the significant participation of indigenous forces.

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The roots of rebellion were taking shape on American soil, and when the American Revolution broke out around a decade after the Seven Years' War, France was able to get its revenge against the British by supporting the Americans against their mutual rival. Though the immediate aftermath of the Seven Years' War was mild compared to the two World Wars that would follow over a century later, it paved the way for Britain to lose one of its most powerful colonies, which would ultimately change the course of world history.