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The Seven Years' War: History & Impact

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  • 0:07 Seven Years' War
  • 0:45 Background
  • 2:02 War In Europe
  • 3:53 War in Colonies
  • 5:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the Seven Years' War, a global conflict that was fought in central Europe and in North America, which had important financial and territorial ramifications for its participants.

Seven Years' War

Most people consider the two wars that occurred from 1914 to 1918 and from 1939 to 1945 as World War I and World War II, respectively. They are called such because most of the world was either allied with one side or the other, and fighting occurred on multiple continents in both conflicts.

But if those are the main criteria for something to be considered a World War, historians of 18th-century Europe often point out that the Seven Years' War, which occurred from 1756 to 1763 in Europe and from 1754 to 1763 in North America, should possibly be considered history's true first World War.

Background

Many of the European states that became caught up in the Seven Years' War had barely recuperated from the War of the Austrian Succession which ended in 1748. The war had not ended decisively, but ended due to the military and financial exhaustion of both sides. Some territory in Europe and North America changed hands between Spain, France, and Great Britain, but the most important condition of the end of the war was Prussia retained control of the Austrian territory of Silesia. Maria Theresa, Queen of Austria, desperately wanted to retake Silesia from the Prussians, who had taken advantage of the tumult surrounding the succession of the Austrian throne to take the strategically important territory.

Immediately before the war started, the traditional alliances in central and western Europe shifted dramatically. Great Britain, who had traditionally allied itself with Austria against French interests, worried that Austria wouldn't assist Britain if the Prussians invaded the German principality of Hanover, the original seat of the current British monarchs. To address this concern, Great Britain switched sides, signing an alliance with Prussia. France, who'd fought on the Prussian side during the War of the Austrian Succession was outraged at the move, and scrambled to make an alliance with its traditional enemy, Austria. In the Seven Years' War, Austria and France would be joined in their alliance by Russia, Sweden, and Spain.

War In Europe

These were the alliances when Austria readied to make her move for Silesia in 1756. However, the Prussian king, Frederick II (often referred to as Frederick the Great), expected Austria to invade the territory, and Frederick preemptively invaded Austria's ally, Saxony. In only a few short months, Frederick had conquered Saxony, and the following summer he continued south into Bohemia. This was Frederick's first incursion into territory directly controlled by the Austrian monarchy since his invasion of Silesia in 1740. His advance was checked by a large Austrian army in June of 1757, at the Battle of Kolin, and Frederick was forced to retreat to Saxony.

While Austria was beating back a Prussian invasion, its allies were doing their part to pressure the Prussians into retreat. Sweden invaded Prussian-controlled territory of Pomerania on the coast of the Baltic, and France advanced on Prussia's westernmost territories after routing a British force commanded by King George II's son, the Duke of Cumberland. Russia joined the fray in the summer, invading East Prussia.

With attackers on all sides, Prussia appeared to be in dire straits. Frederick only saved his army and his campaign from total destruction through two major victories in 1758 against much larger Austrian and Russian armies. Regardless of these victories, the Russian and Austrian advances kept Frederick on the defensive, and he was forced to retreat out of Saxony and Silesia.

More than anything else, luck saved the Prussian war effort. The death of Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, in 1761 allowed Frederick to make a peace treaty with Russia and eventually Sweden. Now able to concentrate his forces, Frederick was able to push the Austrians and Saxons back out of Silesia by the end of 1762. The ensuing Peace of Hubertusberg, signed in 1763 between Austria and Prussia, confirmed Prussian control of Silesia once and for all.

War in Colonies

The Seven Years' War did not take place in central Europe alone. Full-scale war between the French and English had actually existed in North America since 1754, and is known in North America as the French and Indian War. The French and Indian War began when a young British officer named George Washington marched an English force to Fort Duquesne in the Pennsylvania hinterlands to oust the French from British land. War erupted when Washington encountered a French scouting party and took several days of heavy fire behind the makeshift Fort Necessity before being forced to retreat.

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