18 May 1756

The Seven Years’ War begins after Great Britain declares war on France.

SEVEN YEARS’ WAR. 1756–1763. All four of the major European wars between 1689 and 1763 also involved conflict among the imperial powers in North America and the West Indies. The first three began in Europe and spread across the Atlantic. The final conflict in this sequence was unique in that it began in the Ohio Valley and then spread to the European Continent. Known, confusingly, in America as “the” French and Indian War, this conflict is known in Europe by its duration, the roughly seven years between 18 May 1756 and 10 February 1763.

Although Britain had hoped to confine to North America its fight to remove what it considered to be French encroachments on lands it claimed in the Ohio Valley, events beyond its control ensured that this would not happen. Since 1689, Britain had followed a national security policy of joining with other European powers to curb the efforts of France to dominate the Continent. Pursuing this policy required Britain’s leaders to strike a balance between committing troops to campaigns against French armies and crippling the French economy by using its naval superiority to cut off France’s overseas trade while simultaneously subsidizing its allies to do the actual fighting on the Continent. By the middle of the eighteenth century, this “blue-water strategy” of relying on allies and the Royal Navy had become more feasible. French overseas commerce had grown into a substantial part of the overall French economy, while despite the tug of the Hanoverian connection on George II, there was a growing reluctance on the part of British politicians to be drawn into struggles on the European Continent. Britain had supported Austria with money and troops during the War of the Austrian Succession) and was trying to re-knit an alliance structure that would keep the balance of power stable through money and diplomacy.

France, too, wanted to concentrate on events overseas, but both powers were drawn into a European war when Frederick II of Prussia attacked Saxony in an effort to preempt a new grand alliance of Austria, Russia, and a reluctant France from squeezing him back to being a secondary power. Britain had no choice but to ally with Frederick and send troops and subsidies to the Continent. Although the British army initially performed badly in Germany, Frederick managed to hold off encirclement by hard marching and heavy casualties. British performance improved, culminating in a tactical triumph over the French at Minden on 1 August 1759, but by that time the bulk of Britain’s money, troops, and attention had been shifted to North America. The death of the anti-Prussian czarina of Russia on 6 January 1762 ultimately broke the alliance and saved Frederick. After several years of frustration in North America, the combination of British naval superiority and a series of slow but steady land campaigns that culminated in James Wolfe’s lucky victory at the Plains of Abraham in Quebec on 13 September 1759 capped an annus mirabilus that left Britain dominant at sea and in North America.

Even before the Peace of Paris ratified Britain’s tremendous success, its leaders were grappling with the problems of how to pay the expenses incurred during the war and how to reorder the newly expanded empire. Their choices precipitated the War for American Independence.

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