The Seven Years’ War



BY 1756 Europe had known eight years of peace. But the War of the Austrian Succession had settled nothing. It had left Austria insecure in Bohemia and Italy, Prussia insecure in Silesia, Britain insecure in Hanover, France insecure in India, America, and on the Rhine. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) had achieved no territorial settlement comparable in stability with that reached by the Treaty of Westphalia a century before. The old balance of power had been disturbed by the growth of the Prussian army and the British navy; that army might sally forth on new absorptions; that navy needed only time to capture the colonies of France, Holland, and Spain. The rising spirit of nationalism was fed in England by the profits and prospects of commerce, in Prussia by successful war, in France by a cultural superiority uncomfortably conscious of martial decline. The conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism had ended in a stalemate; both sides waited for some turn of chance to renew the Thirty Years’ War for possession of the European soul.

Austria took the initiative in preparing a new throw of the human dice. Maria Theresa, the thirty-nine-years-old but still fair head of the Austrian empire, had all the pride of her Hapsburg ancestry, all the anger of a woman scorned; how could she live with Silesia amputated from her inherited realm—whose territorial integrity all the major states of Europe had guaranteed? Even the Frederick who had humiliated her would later praise her “courage and ability,” and the way in which “when it seemed that events were conspiring to ruin her, this … younger ruler caught the spirit of government, and became the soul of her council.”1 Defeated, yielding Silesia as the price of peace, she made the peace only a truce, and devoted herself to the reform of administration, the restoration of her shattered armies, and the acquisition of strong allies. Frequently she visited the camps where her troops were being trained; for this purpose she traveled to Prague in Bohemia, to Olmütz in Moravia; she inspired the soldiers with rewards and distinctions, and even more by her regal and yet womanly presence. Her generals did not have to swear fidelity to her, for this was in their blood and chivalry; so the Prince of Liechtenstein spent 200,000 écus ($1,500,000?) of his fortune in recruiting and equipping for her a complete artillery corps. She founded near Vienna a War College for the younger nobility, and brought to its staff the best teachers of geometry, geography, fortification, and history. “Under her,” said Frederick, “the military of Austria acquired a degree of perfection never known to her predecessors, and a woman carried out designs worthy of a great man.”2

Diplomacy was the other side of the design. She sent agents everywhere to win friends for Austria and stir up hostility to Frederick. She noted the rising strength of Russia, which had been organized by Peter the Great and was now commanded by the Czarina Elizaveta Petrovna; she saw to it that Frederick’s sarcastic remarks about the amours of the Russian Empress should reach her ears. Maria Theresa would gladly have renewed her alliance with England, but that entente had been soured by England’s separate peace with Prussia (1745), which had compelled Austria to surrender Silesia. Now England’s foreign policy was turning to protect her trade in the Baltic against the power of Russia, and her hold on Hanover against any threat from Prussia or France. She depended upon Russia for the timber of her navy, and she depended upon her navy for victory in war. So on September 30, 1755, England signed a treaty that bound Russia, in return for English subsidies, to maintain 55,000 troops in Livonia; these, the English hoped, would deter Frederick from any expansionist adventures to the west.

But how should England deal with France? For hundreds of years France had been her enemy. Time and again France had fomented or financed Scottish hostilities to England; repeatedly she had prepared or threatened to invade the British Isles. Now she was the only state that challenged Britain on the seas and in the colonial world. To defeat France decisively would be to win her colonies in America and India; it would be to destroy her navy or render it impotent; the British Empire would then be not only secure but supreme. So William Pitt the Elder argued to Parliament day after day, in the most forceful oratory that that body had ever heard. But could France be defeated? Yes, said Pitt, by allying Prussia to England. Would it not be dangerous to let Prussia grow stronger? No, Pitt answered; Prussia had a great army, which on this plan would help England to protect Hanover, but she had no navy, and therefore could not rival Britain on the sea. It seemed wiser to let Protestant Prussia replace Catholic France or Catholic Austria as the dominant power on the Continent, if that would let “Britannia rule the waves” and capture colonies. Any victories of Frederick in Europe would strengthen England overseas; hence Pitt’s boast that he would win America and India on the battlefields of the Continent. England would supply money, Frederick would fight the land battles, England would win half the world. Parliament consented; Britain proposed to Prussia a pact for mutual defense.

Frederick had to accept this plan, for the development of events had clouded his victories. He knew that France was flirting with Austria; if France and Austria—worse yet, if Russia too—should unite against him he could hardly resist them all; in such a predicament only England could help him. If he signed the pact that England offered he could call upon her to keep Russia from attacking him; and if Russia abstained Austria might be dissuaded from war. On January 16, 1756, Frederick signed the Treaty ofWestminster, which pledged both England and Prussia to oppose the entry of foreign troops into Germany. That single clause, they hoped, would protect Prussia from Russia and Hanover from France.

France, Austria, and Russia all felt that this treaty was a betrayal by their allies. There had been no formal termination of the alliances that had bound England with Austria, and France with Prussia, in the War of the Austrian Succession. Maria Theresa, as she informed the British ambassador, was shocked to learn that her English friends had signed a pact with “the mortal and constant enemy of my person and my family.”3 Louis XV complained that Frederick had deceived him; Frederick replied that the treaty was purely defensive, and should give no offense to any power not meditating offense. Mme. de Pompadour, who chose and dominated French ministries, remembered that Frederick had charged her with depositing great sums in British banks, and had called her “la demoiselle Poisson” (Miss Fish) and “Cotillon IV” (Petticoat IV—fourth mistress of Louis XV). Louis remembered that Frederick had ridiculed the barnyard morals of the French King. The desertion struck France just when her armies and treasury were exhausted, and when her navy was only beginning to recover from the neglect it had suffered under the pacific ministry of Cardinal Fleury. In 1756 France had forty-five ships of the line, England had 130;4 naval supplies were clogged with corruption and theft, naval discipline had been ruined by the invidious promotion of titled incompetents and the frequency of defeats. To whom now could France turn for an ally? To Russia?—but England had forestalled her. To Austria?—but in the last war France had violated her pledge to guarantee Maria Theresa’s inheritance, had joined Prussia in attacking her, and had continued to attack her even when Frederick had made peace. Austria under the Hapsburgs, France under the Bourbons, had been foes for centuries; how could they and their peoples, long trained to mutual hatred, suddenly become friends?

Yet that was precisely the “reversal of alliances” that the Austrian government now proposed to France. So far as we can now trace its history, the plan took form in the mind of Count Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, the ablest, most penetrating, most persevering diplomat produced on the European Continent in the eighteenth century. The Seven Years’ War was to be a contest in arms between Frederick the Great and Marshal Daun, and a contest in brains between Kaunitz and Pitt. “Prince Kaunitz,” said Frederick, “has the wisest head in Europe.”5

Being a second son, Kaunitz was told to become a priest; instead, privately, he became a disciple of Voltaire.6 As his father served as ambassador to the Vatican and as governor of Moravia, the son inherited diplomacy. At thirty-one he was Austrian envoy at Turin. His first dispatch to his government was so logically reasoned on such careful observation of political realities that Count von Uhlfeld, presenting it to Maria Theresa, said, “Behold your first minister.”7 At thirty-seven he was Austrian plenipotentiary at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle. There he defended the interests of Maria Theresa with such pertinacity and skill that even in her defeat the Empress was grateful for his services and devotion. And when, as early as 1749, he broached to her his plan for an alliance with France, she met with an open mind the idea of embracing the traditional enemy of her house. Her heart was set on defeating Frederick and regaining Silesia. But this, Kaunitz explained, could not be done by alliance with England, whose power was on the seas; it required alliance with France and Russia, whose power was on the land. Between these and Austria Frederick could be crushed. The Empress bade Kaunitz labor to this end.

In 1751 he was sent as ambassador to Paris. He astonished the nobility by the splendor of his official entry to the city; he pleased the populace by giving alms; he amused the salons with his luxurious raiment, his assortment of cosmetics, and his laboriously powdered curls;8 “a most high-sniffing, fantastic, slightly insolent fellow,” thought Carlyle;9 but he impressed the King, his mistress, and their ministers by his knowledge of affairs and his appraisal of policies. Gradually he prepared their minds for an entente with Austria. He pictured the possibility of bringing Russia, Poland, and Saxony into taking part in disciplining Frederick. He asked what France had gained by her alliance with Prussia—only the aggrandizement of a land power that challenged the Continental hegemony of France; and had not Frederick repeatedly broken his pledge when it suited his interest?

Kaunitz was making good headway when Maria Theresa called him back to Vienna to be her chancellor, with full power over both domestic and foreign affairs (1753). His plan was long opposed by the aging nobles at the Viennese court; patiently he expounded and defended it; the Empress supported him; and on August 21, 1755, the proposal for an alliance with France received the formal approval of the Imperial ministry. Count Georg von Starhemberg, who had succeeded Kaunitz as Austrian ambassador at Paris, was instructed to promote the grand design at every opportunity with Louis XV and Mme. de Pompadour. Kaunitz sent a flattering letter to the maîtresse-en-titre (August 30, 1755), and attached to it a note which she was requested to hand secretly to the King. She did so. The note was from Maria Theresa, and read:

As an empress and a queen, I promise that nothing will ever be disclosed of all that is going to be offered in my name by Count Starhemberg to the most Christian King, and that the deepest secrecy in this respect will always be maintained, whether negotiations succeed or fail. It will be understood, of course, that the King will give a similar declaration and promise.

Vienna, June 21, 175510

Louis appointed the Abbé de Bernis and the Marquise de Pompadour to confer privately with Starhemberg at her pavilion “Babiole.” There the ambassador proposed, in the name of the Empress, that France should renounce her alliance with Prussia, and should pledge at least financial aid to Austria in case of war. He argued that Frederick was a useless and unreliable ally, and he hinted that Frederick was even now engaged in clandestine dealings with the British ministry. Austria, for her part, would refrain from any hostile action against France if France should make war upon England; in case of such a war Austria would allow France to occupy Ostend and Nieuport, and she might ultimately allow the Austrian Netherlands to fall to France.

Louis noted that the pact would involve him in an Austrian war against Prussia, but would not pledge Austrian aid to France against England. He had good reason to fear Frederick’s army more than the Austrian—so often defeated and so badly led in the recent war. He instructed Bernis to reply that France would make no change in her alliance with Prussia until proofs were offered of Frederick’s dealings with England. Kaunitz could as yet offer no such proofs, and was temporarily checked in his course. But when Louis received Frederick’s acknowledgment of the Anglo-Prussian Treaty of Westminster, he saw that his alliance with Prussia was factually dead. Perhaps, amid his sins, it occurred to him that he might appease the Almighty by uniting the Catholic powers—France, Austria, Poland, and Spain—in a plan to control the destinies of Europe.11 On May 1, 1756, the Treaty of Versailles completed the reversal of alliances. The preamble professed that the sole aim of the convention was to maintain the peace of Europe and the balance of power. If either of the contracting parties should be threatened in its European possessions by any power but England, the other would come to its aid by diplomatic intercession and, if necessary, by subsidies or troops. Austria would not promise aid to France against England, and France would not aid Austria against Prussia unless Prussia should be clearly the aggressor. As Louis saw no likelihood of Prussia endangering her gains by again attacking Austria, he and his mistress could deceive themselves into believing that the new alliance made for peace on the Continent.

Kaunitz had as yet fallen short of his aim to secure French aid against Prussia. But he was patient; perhaps he could prod Frederick into attacking Austria. Meanwhile he had little difficulty in persuading the Czarina into the new alliance. Elizaveta was eager to remove the Prussian obstacle to Russia’s expansion westward. She offered to attack Prussia before the end of 1756 if Austria would promise to do likewise; and she promised, in that event, to make no peace with Prussia until Silesia was completely restored to Austria. She learned with delight that France had signed the Treaty of Versailles. Kaunitz had to check her enthusiasm; he knew that her armies would not be ready for a major campaign till 1757. Not until December 31, 1756, did he sign the agreement by which Russia formally joined the Franco-Austrian entente.

Meanwhile England, confident that her alliance with Frederick would immobilize Austria, had already begun naval operations against France, without any declaration of war. From June, 1755, English men-of-war seized French shipping wherever possible. France retaliated by preparing an invasion of England, and by sending a squadron of fifteen vessels, under the Due de Richelieu, to attack Minorca. This island had been captured by the British in the War of the Spanish Succession (1709). To reinforce the small garrison there Britain dispatched ten ships under Admiral John Byng; three additional vessels joined these at Gibraltar. On May 20, 1756, the hostile fleets engaged near Minorca. The French were repulsed, but the English squadron suffered such damage that Byng led it back to Gibraltar, making no attempt to land reinforcements at Minorca. The helpless garrison surrendered; France had now a strategic post in the Mediterranean; Richelieu was hailed as a hero in Paris and Versailles, and Byng was executed on his own quarterdeck in Portsmouth Harbor (March 14, 1757) on the charge of failure to do his utmost for victory; Voltaire and Richelieu interceded for him in vain. This, said Voltaire, was England’s way of “encouraging the others” who held British commands. On May 17, 1756, England declared war on France, but the official inception of the Seven Years’ War was left to Frederick.

He knew that his conquest of Silesia had left him subject to revanche whenever Maria Theresa should find new resources and allies. His own resources were perilously limited. His kingdom was an assortment of disjecta membra: East Prussia was severed from Prussia proper by Poland, and the Prussian provinces in Westphalia and East Frisia were separated from Brandenburg by independent German states. Including these scattered fragments and Silesia, all Prussia had in 1756 some four million population, England eight million, France twenty. A large part of Prussia’s population was in Silesia, which was still half Catholic and pro-Austrian. Only seven miles from Berlin lay the border of hostile Saxony, whose Elector, the Catholic King Augustus III of Poland, looked upon Frederick as an insolent and rapacious infidel. How could one survive in that caldron of enmity?

Only by wits, economy, a good army, and good generals. His own wits were as keen as any; he was the best-educated ruler of his age; he came off with honors in correspondence, conversation, and controversy with Voltaire. But his tongue was too sharp to be loosed; he might have had calmer seas had he not spoken of Elizaveta Petrovna, Maria Theresa, and Mme. de Pompadour as the “three first whores of Europe”;12 it is comforting to see that even the Great can be foolish now and then. As to the economy of Prussia, Frederick subjected it to state control and what seemed to him the unavoidable needs of possible war. He did not dare, in the circumstances, to change the feudal structure of Prussian life, lest it disturb the feudal organization of his army. That army was his salvation and his religion. Ninety per cent of his revenues went to its maintenance.13 He called it the Atlas whose strong shoulders carried the state.14 He built it up from the 100,000 men bequeathed him by his father to 150,000 in 1756. He disciplined it with severe punishments to immediate and precise obedience, to march steadily toward the opposing line without firing a shot till ordered, to change direction, and maneuver en masse, under fire. It had, at the beginning of the war, the best generals in Europe after Frederick himself—Schwerin, Seydlitz, and James Keith.

Almost as important as his generals were the spies that he had scattered among his enemies. They left him no doubt that Maria Theresa was forming a cordon of hostile powers around him. In 1753-55 his agents in Dresden and Warsaw secured copies of secret correspondence, between the Saxon and Austrian ministries, which convinced him that these courts were conspiring to attack and—if fortune favored—dismember Prussia, and that France was conniving at the scheme.15 On June 23, 1756, he ordered the Prussian general in Königsberg to be prepared for an attack from Russia. He notified the British government that “the court of Vienna has three designs to which its present steps are tending: to establish its despotism in the Empire, to ruin the Protestant cause, and to reconquer Silesia.”16 He learned that Saxony was planning to enlarge its army from seventeen thousand to forty thousand during the winter;17 he guessed that the allies were waiting for the spring of 1757 to advance upon him from three directions; and he resolved to strike before their mobilization was complete.

He felt that his only chance of escaping from his peril was to disable at least one of his foes before they could unite in action. Schwerin agreed with him, but one of his ministers, Count von Podewils, begged him not to give his enemies excuse for branding him as the aggressor; Frederick called him “Monsieur de la timide politique”18 Long ago, in a secret “Political Testament” (1752), he had advised his successor to conquer Saxony and thereby give Prussia the geographical unity, the economic resources, and the political power indispensable to survival.19 He had put the idea aside as beyond himself to realize; now it seemed to him a military necessity. He must protect his western frontier by disarming Saxony. Even in his almost idealistic Anti-Machiavel (1740) he had sanctioned an offensive war to forestall a threatened attack.20 Mitchell, the Prussian minister in England, informed him that while the British government strongly desired the maintenance of peace on the Continent, it recognized the emergency that Frederick faced, and would not hold him “in the least to blame if he tried to forestall his enemies instead of waiting until they carried out their hostile intentions.”21

In July, 1756, he sent an envoy to Maria Theresa soliciting assurance that Austria intended no attack upon Prussia either in the current year or in the next. A member of the Austrian cabinet thought such assurance should be given; Kaunitz refused to send it; all that Maria Theresa would say was that “in the present crisis I deem it necessary to take measures for the security of myself and my allies, which tend to the prejudice of no one.”22 Frederick sent a second message to the Empress, asking for a clearer reply to his request for assurance; she answered that she “had concluded no offensive alliance; and although the critical situation of Europe compelled her to arm, she had no intention to violate the Treaty of Dresden [which pledged her to peace with Frederick], but she would not bind herself by any promise from acting as circumstances required.”23 Frederick had anticipated such a reply; before it reached him he led his army into Saxony (August 29, 1756). So began the Seven Years’ War.

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