The Seven Years War: the First World War In 1754

Written by Sam Ralph. Edited by Megan Wright.


The Seven Years War represents one of history’s least useful names. Rather confusingly, it is known as the French and Indian War in the United States, the War of the Conquest in French Canada, the Pomeranian War in Sweden and Prussia, the Third Carnatic War in India and the Third Silesian War when concerning the conflict between Prussia and Austria. It is also up for debate whether the war was actually seven years long, as the generally agreed starting date is 1754, and the ending date is seen to be 1763. Even for the least numerically gifted student, it is clear that in this case, the Seven Years War in fact lasted nine years. It has also been argued that the war was a continuation of the War of Austrian Succession, a similarly large and bloody European war fought in central Europe. It started in 1740: taking this as the starting date would have meant that the Seven Years War lasted twenty-three years. The general point to be made then, is that the name “Seven Years War” is extremely unhelpful, in terms of describing the complex chronology of the war and the motives behind it. Despite the rather dull title, it was one of the largest and most significant wars ever fought.


It is significant because it represents the first war fought on a truly global scale. While it has been argued that previous conflicts, such as the Thirty Years War or the War of Spanish Succession, have also been global wars, the Seven Years War is far more global because across the world there was large scale conflict in several theatres: it was fought across five continents. For the first time, European influence had become large enough that distant powers, such as the Mughal Empire and the Iroquois Confederacy were drawn into the conflict.


While much of the conflict was fought on the common battleground of central Europe, the war is seen by most historians to have begun with the invasion of French colonial territory by Britain. Although they had been enemies in the previous war of Austrian Succession, rising power Prussia allied with Britain, and usual enemies Austria and France allied together. By its peak, the war encapsulated Prussia, Britain and Portugal, along with some smaller German states and the British allies in North America, the Iroquois, on one side. They faced a fearsome alliance of France, Austria, Russia, Spain and Sweden. Despite the seemingly skewed odds in favour of the Austrian alliance, Britain and Prussia had the most effective navy and land forces in the world, respectively. The skill of the Prussian army, led by the military genius Frederick the Great, meant that Britain could focus its efforts on France’s colonial possessions, transforming the war into a global one. Britain’s enemiescould do little to help their colonies because of the superiority of the British navy. In North America the British were led by General George Washington, and in India by Robert Clive. There were also conflicts fought between Portugal and Spain in West Africa and South America.


After years of fierce fighting across the world, Britain, France and Spain made peace at the Treaty of Paris, in Central Europe a stalemate was reached and a treaty was made at Hubertusburg five days later. The legacy of the Seven Years War is of much historical significance. In Europe, territory did not change hands, but Prussia’s influence increased at the loss of the Holy Roman Empire, which has led some historians to argue that it represented the seeds of the modern German state. Prussia’s achievement in facing off against three powerful neighbours can largely be indebted to the brilliance of the Prussian army and the genius of Frederick the Great. However, the outcome was by far the most beneficial for Great Britain, and in some ways could be seen to be the roots of British domination of the world. Britain seized almost the entirety of New France, but in doing so spurred resentment in its own American colonies, which would lead to the American Revolution a decade later. It also effectively brought French power in India to an end. The war was also significant in that it was marker of how wars were to be fought in the future: not simply on the battlegrounds of Central Europe, but as conflicts that would encompass great expanses of territory on all corners of the globe, fought in several climates. This was indicative of Europe’s rise to domination of the world, whilst non-European powers were beginning to be dragged into conflicts that had little to do with them other than to solidify relations with invading powers who posed huge threats to their survival. It also had similarities with later wars in its bloodiness, and is estimated to have caused the death of up to 1.5 million people. In short, the unimaginative name for this conflict gives little notion either of its magnitude, nor of its historical significance.