Seven Years War of 1756–63

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Seven Years’ War of 1756–63


The Seven Years’ War of 1756–63 grew out of the colonial rivalry between Great Britain and France in North America and the East Indies and out of the clash between Prussian aggression and Austrian and Russian interests. Frederick II of Prussia, emboldened by his alliance with France (from 1741), pursued an expansionist policy, directed primarily against Austria. Austria, for its part, wanted to regain Silesia, which Prussia had seized in the war of the Austrian Succession of 1740–48; it was allied with Russia from 1746 and with Great Britain from 1750.

In 1754 and 1755, the British and French fought armed skirmishes in Canada, and in May 1756, Great Britain declared war on France. The Anglo-French conflict radically changed the traditional political ties between the European powers. Great Britain, fearing a Prussian attack on Hanover, a hereditary possession of the English king, concluded the Convention of Westminster with Prussia on Jan. 16 (27), 1756. Austria thus had to come to terms with its traditional enemy, France; on Apr. 20 (May 1), 1756, Austria and France signed the Alliance Treaty of Versailles. The Anglo-Prussian rapprochement in turn forced Russia to abandon its pro-British foreign policy and to adhere to the Versailles treaty; on Dec. 31, 1756 (Jan. 11, 1757), Russia concluded the Treaty of St. Petersburg with Austria.

The reversal of alliances gave rise to two coalitions. On one side were Prussia, Great Britain (with Hanover), and several German states (Hesse-Kassel, Brunswick, Schaumburg-Lippe, and Sachsen-Gotha) that largely depended on British subsidies. On the other side were Austria, France, Russia, Sweden, Saxony, and most of the German states in the Holy Roman Empire; the German states entered the war pursuant to a decision adopted by the imperial diet in Regensburg on Jan. 6 (17), 1757.

Frederick’s goal was, first, to seize Saxony and exchange it for Bohemia and, second, to make Poland a vassal state of Prussia. Austria hoped to regain Silesia, France wanted Hanover, and Sweden wanted Prussian Pomerania. Russia strove to halt the dangerous Prussian expansion in the east and to shift its own frontiers farther to the west, with compensation for Poland at the expense of Prussia; it also stipulated that it would not wage war against Great Britain.

Prussia had a well-trained army of 150,000 men, and the north German states put 47,000 men in the field. The anti-Prussian coalition had twice as many soldiers, but in 1756 it was not prepared for war. Seizing the opportunity, Frederick crossed into Saxony on Aug. 17 (28), 1756, with an army of 95,000 men, and encircled the Saxon army of 18,000 men, which capitulated on October 4 (15). The Austrians were driven back beyond the Eger (Ohře) River. In 1757, Frederick decided to exploit his enemies’ tardy deployment of forces and to engage the Austrians in battle in Bohemia before their allies could arrive. Field Marshal H. von Lehwaldt’s corps of 30,000 men remained in East Prussia to defend against Russia. On April 25 (May 6) the Prussians defeated Field Marshal M. von Browne’s Austrian army near Prague and blockaded it in the city. However, Field Marshal L. von Daun’s Austrian army came to Browne’s rescue, defeating the Prussians at Kolin on June 7 (18); Frederick was forced to quit Bohemia.

Austria’s allies entered the war in the spring of 1757. In April a 70,000-man French army under Marshal L. C. d’Estrées took Hesse-Kassel and, after the Hanoverian army capitulated at Klosterzeven, Hanover as well. A second French army under Prince C. Soubise (24,000 French and 33,000 imperial troops) drew toward Eisenach in August, threatening to invade Prussia. Frederick was forced to withdraw from Saxony and turn against the French and imperial troops, which he defeated at Rossbach on October 25 (November 5). He then moved into Silesia, where the Austrians had captured Breslau (Wrocław) and had invested Schweidnitz (Świdnica), and defeated the Austrians at Leuthen (Lutynia); the Prussians subsequently overran Silesia.

In May 1757 a Russian army of 70,000 men, under the command of Field Marshal S. F. Apraksin, crossed from Livland into East Prussia. It took Memel on June 24 (July 5) and defeated Lehwaldt’s Prussian corps at Gross-Jägersdorf on August 19 (30). An attack on Königsberg was called for, but Apraksin withdrew to Lithuania, anticipating the death of the ailing Empress Elizaveta Petrovna and expecting Russian foreign policy to make a volte-face in favor of Prussia. However. Elizaveta recovered; Apraksin was put on trial, and General W. W. Fermor assumed his command. In September 1757, Sweden invaded Pomerania but withdrew to Stralsund after the Russian withdrawal. In the winter of 1757–58, Russian troops again crossed into East Prussia and, on Jan. 11 (22), 1758, took Königsberg. Russia thereupon annexed East Prussia. The campaign of 1757 demonstrated the superior forces and capabilities of the anti-Prussian coalition, the Prussian victories notwithstanding.

In 1758, Frederick struck his main blows against the Austrians and Russians. He invaded Bohemia-Moravia and besieged Olmütz (Olomouc). However, Daun moved against his lines of communications, and the Russian army went on the offensive, besieging Küstrin (Kostrzyn) in July. Frederick thus had to move his troops to Frankfurt an der Oder. The bloody battle of Zorndorf, fought on Aug. 14 (25), 1758, was inconclusive. The Prussian troops withdrew toward Küstrin, and the Russian troops toward Landsberg (Gorzów Wielkopolski). Frederick set out to help Prince Henry of Prussia, who was pressed hard by the Austrians in Saxony, but he was defeated at Hochkirch on October 3 (14). Thenceforth, Daun”s Austrian and imperial troops were ineffective, and they withdrew from Saxony. Fermor was likewise unsuccessful at the fortress of Kolberg (Kołobrzeg) and withdrew beyond the Vistula.

In Hanover and Hesse, first one side, and then the other, won temporary victories, neither achieving permanent success. Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick and the Hanoverians repulsed the French, but Soubise’s reinforced French Army of the Rhine once more forced the Brunswick troops back beyond the Rhine.

The paltry results of 1758 gave rise to distrust within the anti-Prussian coalition. Russia and Austria suspected—not without reason—that France proposed to conclude a separate peace. Under their pressure. Cardinal Bernis, the head of the French government, was replaced by the duc de Choiseul; Austria and France signed a second Versailles treaty, prolonging the war against Prussia; Russia later adhered to the treaty.

By early 1759, the anti-Prussian coalition had 352,000 men; Prussia and its allies had 222,000 men. In the spring the Russians began an offensive toward the Oder. In June a new commander in chief, General P. S. Saltykov, assumed command of the Russian army; on July 12 (23) he defeated General C. H. von Wedel’s Prussian corps at Palzig and captured Frankfurt an der Oder, thereby threatening Berlin. Frederick hastily moved up to meet the Russians, but General G. E. von Lau-don’s Austrian corps moved up in support of the Russians. On Aug. 1 (12), 1759, the Prussian army was routed at Kunersdorf (Kunowice). The road to Berlin lay open. However, the Austrian command held back its troops, and the allies lost the opportunity to win the war in 1759.

In the west the two combined French armies were defeated at Minden on July 21 (August 1) and withdrew from Hesse.

The campaign of 1759 fueled the antagonisms within the anti-Prussian coalition. France, whose principal foe was Great Britain, was inclined toward peace and did not consent to the Russian annexation of East Prussia. Austria wanted to use the Russian army for its own selfish interests, but Russia resisted any such attempts. The failure of the Anglo-French negotiations prevented France from leaving the war.

In 1760, Frederick could barely raise an army of 100,000–120,000 to fight the 222,000 men in the armies of Russia, Austria, and the Empire. However, the Russian and Austrian commands did not coordinate their actions, and. indeed, the Austrians were relatively inactive; no decisive results could be achieved. Although General Z. G. Chernyshev’s corps took Berlin on September 28 (October 9), the Russians, without support from the Austrians, could not exploit their victory for a further offensive and withdrew as Frederick’s Prussian army of 70,000 men approached the city. The ailing Saltykov was replaced as commander in chief by Field Marshal A. B. Buturlin. After the Russians withdrew from Berlin, Frederick moved into Saxony, defeating Daun at Torgau on October 23 (November 3). France proposed the convocation of a peace congress but met opposition from Russia, which held that Prussia had not been sufficiently weakened. Great Britain rejected all compromise, and Frederick resolved to continue the war in order to consolidate his hold on Silesia.

In 1761, the Russians and Austrians again did not coordinate their actions, and Frederick was thus able to maneuver skillfully. No major battles were fought. The only result of the campaign of 1761 was General P. A. Rumiantsev’s capture of Kolberg on December 5 (16). In August, France concluded a dynastic pact with Spain, Naples, and Parma, states ruled by the Bourbons. Spain entered the war on the side of France, and Portugal on the side of Great Britain. Despite a few limited victories in 1761, Prussia was in a precarious situation by the end of the year; it had lost half of Silesia and was cut off from Poland, where it had purchased provisions; moreover, the Russians were entrenched in Pomerania after the capture of Kolberg. The new British government refused any further subsidies to Prussia.

On Dec. 25, 1761 (Jan. 5, 1762), Empress Elizaveta Petrovna died, and Peter III, an ardent admirer of Frederick, assumed the throne. Peter stopped the war and returned to Prussia all territories occupied by Russian troops; on Apr. 24 (May 5), 1762, he concluded a treaty of alliance with Prussia. As a result, Sweden quit the war on May 11 (22), 1762. Although Peter was overthrown by Catherine II on June 28 (July 9), 1762, and although the treaty of alliance with Prussia was abrogated, Russia did not resume hostilities. Russia’s exit from the war indeed saved Prussia. Frederick used Chernyshev’s Russian corps, which was temporarily put under Prussian command, to drive the Austrians out of Silesia and Saxony. Prince Henry defeated the imperial troops at Freiberg in October 1762. Prussia and France signed a preliminary peace on October 23 (November 3), and Prussia and Austria concluded an armistice on November 13 (24).

The war on the seas and in the colonies initially went well for France, for example, at the battle of Menorca in 1756. But from 1758 the French navy and colonial troops were on the defensive, and the diversion of France’s forces for the war with Prussia prevented reinforcements from being sent overseas. As a result, the British seized Canada (1760), part of Louisiana, Florida, and most of the French colonies in India. On Jan. 30 (Feb. 10), 1763, Great Britain and France concluded the Treaty of Paris, to which Spain and Portugal soon acceded. The Seven Years’ War was concluded by the Treaty of Hubertusburg, signed on Feb. 4 (15), 1763, by Prussia on the one hand and by Austria and Saxony on the other hand; the treaty reaffirmed Prussia’s possession of Silesia and Glatz.

Although the Seven Years’ War did not change the political map of Europe, it had a great impact on the balance of power among the belligerents. Great Britain greatly expanded its colonial possessions at the expense of France and Spain and grew to be the preeminent naval power. Prussia was greatly strengthened, having initiated its struggle for hegemony in Germany during the war. France emerged from the war much weakened, and its economic exhaustion intensified the domestic crisis that led to the Great French Revolution. A weakened Austria allied itself with Russia against the Ottoman Empire. For Russia, the Seven Years’ War laid the groundwork for heightened political influence, increased military might, and rapid territorial expansion in subsequent decades.

In the history of warfare, the Seven Years’ War was the high point in the development of linear tactics and the strategy of attrition, with attacks on the enemy’s lines of communications. The war revealed the shortcomings of this strategy. The Russian army displayed high combat qualities; it fought well using linear tactics without adhering blindly to accepted tactical routine.


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