French and Indian/Seven Years' War

1756-1757 - War on a Global Scale

Marquis de Montcalm
Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. Public Domain

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Changes in Command

In the wake of Major General Edward Braddock's death at the Battle of Monongahela in July 1755, command of British forces in North America passed to Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts. Unable to come to an accord with his commanders, he was replaced in January 1756, when the Duke of Newcastle, heading the British government, appointed Lord Loudoun to the post with Major General James Abercrombie as his second in command. Changes were also afoot to the north where Major General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, Marquis de Saint-Veran arrived in May with a small contingent of reinforcements and orders to assume overall command of French forces. This appointment angered the Marquis de Vaudreuil, governor of New France (Canada), as he had designs on the post.

In the winter of 1756, prior to Montcalm's arrival, Vaudreuil ordered a series of successful raids against the British supply lines leading to Fort Oswego. These destroyed large quantities of supplies and hampered British plans for campaigning on Lake Ontario later that year. Arriving in Albany, NY in July, Abercrombie proved a highly cautious commander and refused to take action without Loudoun's approval. This was countered by Montcalm who proved highly aggressive. Moving to Fort Carillon on Lake Champlain he feinted an advance south before shifting west to conduct an attack on Fort Oswego. Moving against the fort in mid-August, he compelled its surrender and effectively eliminated the British presence on Lake Ontario.

Shifting Alliances

While fighting raged in the colonies, Newcastle sought to avoid a general conflict in Europe. Due to changing national interests on the Continent, the systems of alliances that had been in place for decades began to decay as each country sought to safeguard their interests. While Newcastle wished fight a decisive colonial war against the French, he was hampered by the need to protect the Electorate of Hanover which had ties to the British royal family. In seeking a new ally to guarantee the safety of Hanover, he found a willing partner in Prussia. A former British adversary, Prussia wished to retain the lands (namely Silesia) it had gained during the War of the Austrian Succession. Concerned about the possibility of a large alliance against his nation, King Frederick II (the Great) began making overtures to London in May 1755. Subsequent negotiations led to the Convention of Westminster which was signed on January 15, 1756. Defensive in nature, this agreement called for Prussia to protect Hanover from the French in exchange for the British withholding aid from Austria in any conflict over Silesia.

A long-time ally of Britain, Austria was angered by the Convention and stepped up talks with France. Though reluctant to join with Austria, Louis XV agreed to a defensive alliance in the wake of increasing hostilities with Britain. Signed on May 1, 1756, the Treaty of Versailles saw the two nations agree to provide aid and troops should one be attacked by a third party. In addition, Austria agreed not to aid Britain in any colonial conflicts. Operating on the fringe of these talks was Russia which was eager to contain Prussian expansionism while also improving their position in Poland. While not a signatory of the treaty, Empress Elizabeth's government was sympathetic to the French and Austrians.

War is Declared

While Newcastle worked to limit the conflict, the French moved to expand it. Forming a large force at Toulon, the French fleet began an attack on British-held Minorca in April 1756. In an effort to relieve the garrison, the Royal Navy dispatched a force to the area under the command of Admiral John Byng. Beset by delays and with ships in ill-repair, Byng reached Minorca and clashed with a French fleet of equal size on May 20. Though the action was inconclusive, Byng's ships took substantial damage and in a resulting council of war his officers agreed that the fleet should return to Gibraltar. Under increasing pressure, the British garrison on Minorca surrendered on May 28. In a tragic turn of events, Byng was charged with not doing his utmost to relieve the island and after a court-martial was executed. In response to the attack on Minorca, Britain officially declared war on May 17, nearly two years after the first shots in North America.

Frederick Moves

As war between Britain and France was formalized, Frederick became increasingly concerned about France, Austria, and Russian moving against Prussia. Alerted that Austria and Russia were mobilizing, he did likewise. In a preemptive move, Frederick's highly disciplined forces began an invasion of Saxony on August 29 which was aligned with his enemies. Catching the Saxons by surprise, he cornered their small army at Pirna. Moving to aid the Saxons, an Austrian army under Marshal Maximilian von Browne marched towards the border. Advancing to meet the enemy, Frederick attacked Browne at the Battle of Lobositz on October 1. In heavy fighting, the Prussians were able to compel the Austrians to retreat (Map).

Though the Austrians continued attempts to relieve the Saxons they were in vain and the forces at Pirna surrendered two weeks later. Though Frederick had intended the invasion of Saxony to serve as a warning to his adversaries, it only worked to further unite them. The military events of 1756 effectively eliminated the hope that a large-scale war could be avoided. Accepting this inevitability, both sides began re-working their defensive alliances into ones that were more offensive in nature. Though already allied in spirit, Russia officially joined with France and Austria on January 11, 1757, when it became the third signatory of the Treaty of Versailles.

Previous: French & Indian War - Causes | French & Indian War/Seven Years' War: Overview | Next: 1758-1759: The Tide Turns

Previous: French & Indian War - Causes | French & Indian War/Seven Years' War: Overview | Next: 1758-1759: The Tide Turns

British Setbacks in North America

Largely inactive in 1756, Lord Loudoun remained inert through the opening months of 1757. In April he received orders to mount an expedition against the French fortress city of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. An important base for the French navy, the city also guarded the approaches to the Saint Lawrence River and the heartland of New France. Stripping troops from the New York frontier, he was able to assemble a strike force at Halifax by early July. While waiting for a Royal Navy squadron, Loudoun received intelligence that the French had massed 22 ships of the line and around 7,000 men at Louisbourg. Feeling that he lacked the numbers to defeat such a force, Loudoun abandoned the expedition and began returning his men to New York.

While Loudoun was shifting men up and down the coast, the industrious Montcalm had moved to the offensive. Gathering around 8,000 regulars, militia, and Native American warriors, he pushed south across Lake George with the goal of taking Fort William Henry. Held by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Munro and 2,200 men, the fort possessed 17 guns. By August 3, Montcalm had surrounded the fort and laid siege. Though Munro requested aid from Fort Edward to the south it was not forthcoming as the commander there believed the French had around 12,000 men. Under heavy pressure, Munro was forced to surrender on August 9. Though Munro's garrison was paroled and guaranteed safe conduct to Fort Edward, they were attacked by Montcalm's Native Americans as they departed with over 100 men, women, and children killed. The defeat eliminated the British presence on Lake George.

Defeat in Hanover

With Frederick's incursion into Saxony the Treaty of Versailles was activated and the French began making preparations to strike Hanover and western Prussia. Informing the British of French intentions, Frederick estimated that the enemy would attack with around 50,000 men. Facing recruitment issues and war aims that called for a colonies-first approach, London did not wish to deploy large numbers of men to the Continent. As a result, Frederick suggested that the Hanoverian and Hessian forces that had been summoned to Britain earlier in the conflict be returned and augmented by Prussian and other German troops. This plan for an "Army of Observation" was agreed to and effectively saw the British pay for an army to defend Hanover that included no British soldiers. On March 30, 1757, the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II, was assigned to lead the allied army.

Opposing Cumberland were around 100,000 men under the direction of the Duc d'Estrées. In early April the French crossed the Rhine and pushed towards Wesel. As the d'Estrées moved, the French, Austrians, and Russians formalized the Second Treaty of Versailles which was an offensive agreement designed to crush Prussia. Outnumbered, Cumberland continued to fall back until early June when he attempted a stand at Brackwede. Flanked out of this position, the Army of Observation was compelled to retreat. Turning, Cumberland next assumed a strong defensive position at Hastenbeck. On July 26, the French attacked and after an intense, confused battle both sides withdrew. Having ceded most of Hanover in the course of the campaign, Cumberland felt compelled to enter into the Convention of Klosterzeven which de-mobilized his army and withdrew Hanover from the war (Map).

This agreement proved highly unpopular with Frederick as it greatly weakened his western frontier. The defeat and convention effectively ended Cumberland's military career. In an effort to draw French troops away from the front, the Royal Navy planned attacks on the French coast. Assembling troops on the Isle of Wight, an attempt was made to raid Rochefort in September. While the Isle d'Aix was captured, word of French reinforcements in Rochefort led to the attack being abandoned.

Frederick in Bohemia

Having won a victory in Saxony the year before, Frederick looked to invade Bohemia in 1757 with the goal of crushing the Austrian army. Crossing the border with 116,000 men divided into four forces, Frederick drove on Prague where he met the Austrians who were commanded by Browne and Prince Charles of Lorraine. In a hard fought engagement, the Prussians drove the Austrians from the field and forced many to flee into the city. Having won in the field, Frederick laid siege to the city on May 29. In an effort to recover the situation, a new Austrian 30,000-man force led by Marshal Leopold von Daun was assembled to the east. Dispatching the Duke of Bevern to deal with Daun, Frederick soon followed with additional men. Meeting near Kolin on June 18, Daun defeated Frederick forcing the Prussians to abandon the siege of Prague and depart Bohemia (Map).

Previous: French & Indian War - Causes | French & Indian War/Seven Years' War: Overview | Next: 1758-1759: The Tide Turns

Previous: French & Indian War - Causes | French & Indian War/Seven Years' War: Overview | Next: 1758-1759: The Tide Turns

Prussia Under Pressure

Later that summer, Russian forces began to enter the fray. Receiving permission from the King of Poland, who was also the Elector of Saxony, the Russians were able to march across Poland to strike at the province of East Prussia. Advancing on a broad front, Field Marshal Stephen F. Apraksin's 55,000-man army drove back Field Marshal Hans von Lehwaldt smaller 32,000-man force. As the Russian moved against the provincial capital of Königsberg, Lehwaldt launched an attack intended to strike the enemy on the march. In the resulting Battle of Gross-Jägersdorf on August 30, the Prussians were defeated and forced to retreat west into Pomerania. Despite occupying East Prussia, the Russians withdrew to Poland in October, a move which led to Apraksin's removal.

Having been ousted from Bohemia, Frederick was next required to meet a French threat from the west. Advancing with 42,000 men, Charles, Prince of Soubise, attacked into Brandenburg with a mixed French and German army. Leaving 30,000 men to protect Silesia, Frederick raced west with 22,000 men. On November 5, the two armies met at the Battle of Rossbach which saw Frederick win a decisive victory. In the fighting, the allied army lost around 10,000 men, while Prussian losses totaled 548 (Map).

While Frederick was dealing with Soubise, Austrian forces began invading Silesia and defeated a Prussian army near Breslau. Utilizing interior lines, Frederick shifted 30,000 men east to confront the Austrians under Charles at Leuthen on December 5. Though outnumbered 2-to-1, Frederick was able to move around the Austrian right flank and, using a tactic known as oblique order, shattered the Austrian army. The Battle of Leuthen is generally considered Frederick's masterpiece and saw his army inflict losses totaling around 22,000 while only sustaining approximately 6,400. Having dealt with the major threats facing Prussia, Frederick returned north and defeated an incursion by the Swedes. In the process, Prussian troops occupied most of Swedish Pomerania. While the initiative rested with Frederick, the year's battles had badly bled his armies and he needed to rest and refit.

Faraway Fighting

While fighting raged in Europe and North America it also spilled over to the more faraway outposts of the British and French Empires making the conflict the world's first global war. In India, the two nations' trading interests were represented by the French and English East India Companies. In asserting their power, both organizations built their own military forces and recruited additional sepoy units. In 1756, fighting began in Bengal after both sides began reinforcing their trading stations. This angered the local Nawab, Siraj-ud-Duala, who ordered military preparations to cease. The British refused and in a short time the Nawab's forces had seized the English East India Company's stations, including Calcutta. After taking Fort William in Calcutta, a large number of British prisoners were herded into a tiny prison. Dubbed the "Black Hole of Calcutta," many died from heat exhaustion and being smothered.

The English East India Company moved quickly to regain its position in Bengal and dispatched forces under Robert Clive from Madras. Carried by four ships of line commanded by Vice Admiral Charles Watson, Clive's force re-took Calcutta and attacked Hooghly. After a brief battle with the Nawab's army on February 4, Clive was able to conclude a treaty which saw all British property returned. Concerned about growing British power in Bengal, the Nawab began corresponding with the French. At this same time, the badly outnumbered Clive began making deals with the Nawab's officers to overthrow him. On June 23, Clive moved to attack the Nawab's army which was now backed by French artillery. Meeting at the Battle of Plassey, Clive won a stunning victory when the conspirators' forces remained out of the battle. The victory eliminated French influence in Bengal and the fighting shifted south.

Previous: French & Indian War - Causes | French & Indian War/Seven Years' War: Overview | Next: 1758-1759: The Tide Turns

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Hickman, Kennedy. "French and Indian/Seven Years' War." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). French and Indian/Seven Years' War. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "French and Indian/Seven Years' War." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).