21.4.3: A Global War
Although the question of whether the Seven Years’ War was the first world war remains ambiguous, it marked a shift in the European balance of power that shaped the world far beyond Europe.
Assess the claim that the Seven Years’ War was the first world war
- Because of its span and global impact, some historians have argued that the Seven Years’ War was the first world war, almost 160 years before World War I. However, this label has also been given to various earlier and later conflicts. Regardless, the war restructured not only the European political order, but also events all around the world.
- Although Frederick the Great’s preemptive invasion of Saxony in 1756 marks the conventional beginning of the Seven Years’ War, key developments in the colonial rivalry between Britain and France in North America preceded the outbreak of the war in Europe.
- The war preceded by events in North America and formally started in Europe soon turned into a war for colonies outside of North America: the British-French conflict over trading influences reignited in India and in West Africa and the British captured several French colonies. The triple Franco-Spanish invasion of Portugal in Europe was followed by a Spanish invasion of Portuguese territories in South America. Over the course of the war in colonies, Great Britain gained enormous areas of land and influence.
- While the question of whether the Seven Years’ War was indeed the first world war remains ambiguous, the conflict certainly had global impact and marked a shift in the European balance of power. And as European empires continued their efforts to colonize territories on other continents, the impact reached far beyond Europe.
- Although the war did not result in major territorial changes in Europe, a new political order emerged. With Britain becoming the main colonial power, Prussia confirming its position as a military, economic, and political European power, and Austria and Russia proving their growing military potential, France lost its influence in Europe.
- The war also ended the old system of alliances in Europe. In the years after the war, European states now saw Britain as a greater threat than France and thus did not rejoin old alliances.
- diplomatic revolution
- The reversal of longstanding alliances in Europe between the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War. Austria went from an ally of Britain to an ally of France. Prussia became an ally of Britain. It was part of efforts to preserve or upset the European balance of power and a prelude to the Seven Years’ War.
- Second Hundred Years’ War
- A periodization or historical era term used by some historians to describe the series of military conflicts between Great Britain and France that occurred from about 1689 (or some say 1714) to 1815. It is named after the Hundred Years’ War when the England-France rivalry began in the 14th century. The term appears to have been coined by J. R. Seeley in his influential work The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures (1883).
- The Seven Years’ War
- A world war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other.
- Treaty of Hubertusburg
- A 1763 treaty signed by Prussia, Austria, and Saxony. Together with the Treaty of Paris, it marked the end of the Seven Years’ War. The treaty ended the continental conflict with no significant changes in prewar borders. Silesia remained Prussian and Prussia clearly stood among the ranks of the great powers.
Seven Years’ War: The First World War?
The Seven Years’ War was fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other. For the first time, aiming to curtail Britain and Prussia’s ever-growing might, France formed a grand coalition of its own, which ended in failure as Britain rose as the world’s predominant power, altering the European balance of alliances.
Because of its span and global impact, some historians have argued that the Seven Years’ War was the first world war (almost 160 years before World War I). However, this label has also been given to various earlier conflicts, including the Eighty Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the War of the Spanish Succession and the War of the Austrian Succession, and to later conflicts including the Napoleonic Wars. The term “Second Hundred Years’ War” has been used in order to describe the almost continuous level of worldwide conflict during the entire 18th century, reminiscent of the more famous and compact struggle of the 14th century. The Seven Years’ War influenced many major events around the globe. The war restructured not only the European political order, but also paved the way for the beginning of later British world supremacy in the 19th century, the rise of Prussia in Germany, the beginning of tensions in British North America, and France’s eventual turmoil.
A Global War
Although Frederick the Great’s preemptive invasion of Saxony in 1756 marks the conventional beginning of the Seven Years’ War, key developments in North America preceded the outbreak of the conflict in Europe. The boundary between British and French possessions in North America was largely undefined in the 1750s. France had long claimed the entire Mississippi River basin, which was disputed by Britain. In the early 1750s, the French began constructing a chain of forts in the Ohio River Valley to assert their claim and shield the American Indian population from increasing British influence. The most important French fort planned was intended to occupy a position at “the Forks” where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River (present day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). British colonial militia from Virginia were sent to drive them out. Led by George Washington, they ambushed a small French force at Jumonville Glen in 1754. The French retaliated by attacking Washington’s army at Fort Necessity, forcing them to surrender.
News of these events arrived in Europe, where Britain and France unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a solution. The two nations eventually dispatched regular troops to North America to enforce their claims and engaged in military actions in 1755. Defeated France prepared to attack Hanover, whose prince-elector was also the King of Great Britain and Minorca. Britain concluded a treaty whereby Prussia agreed to protect Hanover. In response, France concluded an alliance with its long-time enemy Austria, an event known as the diplomatic revolution.
The war preceded by events in North America and formally started in Europe soon also turned into a war for colonies outside of North America. In 1757, the British-French conflict over trading influences reignited in India. By 1761, the British effectively eliminated French power in India. In 1758 in West Africa, the British captured Senegal and brought home large amounts of captured goods. This success convinced them to launch two further expeditions to take the island of Gorée and the French trading post on the Gambia. The loss of these valuable colonies further weakened the French economy.
When the Seven Years’ War between France and Great Britain started in 1756, Spain and Portugal remained neutral, but everything changed when Ferdinand VI died in 1759 and was succeeded by his younger half-brother Charles III of Spain. One of the main objects of Charles’s policy was the survival of Spain as a colonial power and thus as a power to be reckoned with in Europe. The triple Franco-Spanish invasion of Portugal in Europe (main theater of the war, which absorbed the lion’s share of the Spanish war effort) in 1762 was followed by a Spanish invasion of Portuguese territories in South America (a secondary theater of the war). While the first ended in humiliating defeat, the second represented a stalemate: Portuguese victory in Northern and Western Brazil, Spanish victory in Southern Brazil and Uruguay.
Over the course of the war in colonies, Great Britain gained enormous areas of land and influence. They lost Minorca in the Mediterranean to the French in 1756 but captured territories in West Africa and North America, the French sugar colonies of Guadeloupe in 1759 and Martinique in 1762 as well as Havana in Cuba and Manila in the Philippines, both prominent Spanish colonial cities.
Many middle and small states in Europe, unlike in previous wars, tried to steer clear away from the escalating conflict, even though they had interests in the conflict or with the belligerents, like Denmark-Norway. The Dutch Republic, a long-time British ally, kept its neutrality intact. Naples, Sicily, and Savoy sided with the Franco-Spanish alliance. Like Sweden, Russia concluded a separate peace with Prussia before the war formally ended.
While the question of whether the Seven Years’ War was indeed the first world war remains ambiguous, the war had certainly global impact and marked a shift in the European balance of power. And as European empires continued their efforts to colonize territories on other continents, the impact reached far beyond Europe. Faced with the choice of retrieving either New France or its Caribbean island colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique, France chose the latter to retain these lucrative sources of sugar. France also returned Minorca to the British. Spain lost control of Florida to Great Britain, but it received from the French the Île d’Orléans and all of the former French holdings west of the Mississippi River. In India, the British retained the Northern Circars, but returned all the French trading ports.
When later France went to war with Great Britain during the American Revolution, the British found no support among the European powers. Furthermore, France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War caused the French to embark upon major military reforms with particular attention being paid to the artillery. The origins of the famed French artillery that played a prominent role in the wars of the French Revolutionary wars and beyond can be traced to military reforms that started in 1763.
The Treaty of Hubertusburg between Austria, Prussia, and Saxony simply restored the status quo of 1748, with Silesia and Glatz reverting to Frederick and Saxony to its own elector. The only concession that Prussia made to Austria was to consent to the election of Archduke Joseph as Holy Roman Emperor. However, Austria’s military performance restored its prestige and the empire secured its position as a major player in the European system. Prussia emerged from the war as a great power whose importance could no longer be challenged. Frederick the Great’s personal reputation was enormously enhanced and after the Seven Years’ War, Prussia become one of the most imitated powers in Europe.
Russia, on the other hand, made one great invisible gain from the war: the elimination of French influence in Poland. Although the war ended in a draw, the performance of the Imperial Russian Army against Prussia improved Russia’s reputation as a factor in European politics, as many had not expected the Russians to hold their own against the Prussians in campaigns fought on Prussian soil.
The war also ended the old system of alliances in Europe. In the years after the war, European states such as Austria, The Dutch Republic, Sweden, Denmark-Norway, Ottoman Empire, and Russia now saw Britain as a greater threat than France and did not revert to previous alliances, while the Prussians were angered by what they considered a British betrayal in 1762. Consequently, when the American War of Independence turned into a global war between 1778–83, Britain found itself opposed by a strong coalition of European powers and lacking any substantial ally.
- A Global War
“French and Indian War.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_and_Indian_War. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Treaty of Hubertusburg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Hubertusburg. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Second Hundred Years’ War.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Hundred_Years%27_War. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Diplomatic Revolution.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diplomatic_Revolution. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“SevenYearsWar.png.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Years%27_War#/media/File:SevenYearsWar.png. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.