This conflict, also known as King George's War in North America, and incorporating the war of Jenkins' Ear between Britain and Spain, involved most of the powers in Europe, except the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Portugal. The war began upon the death of Emperor Charles VI, the last male Habsburg, in October 1740—an event which disturbed the fragile stability of Europe's inter-state system, prompted a realignment of key power affiliations, and with the succession of a woman, Maria Theresa, to the Austrian throne fanned the expansionist ambitions of Frederick II, the young and dynamic Prussian monarch. Maria Theresa's succession rights were legally guaranteed through the so-called Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, signed by a majority of the German states (including Prussia), but preserving her possessions intact would prove inherently problematic. The loosely federated Habsburg lands, patched together by marriage alliances, were scattered across central Europe—dominions including Hungary, Bohemia, parts of what are now Romania, southern Germany, northern and central Italy, and Belgium—each with its own administrative, financial, and judicial system, all virtually impossible to coordinate. Charles VI's death not only entailed an interregnum but also marked the end of a continuous line of Habsburg emperors since 1438, thereby weakening imperial authority in favor of the electoral territories—the empire's constituent states vying for greater autonomy since the Thirty Years' War, and even before. Although, legally, these sub-domains could not form alliances against the emperor—the empire, by this point, had become a largely powerless entity, enjoying honorific dignity but existing in name only, lingering as such until its termination by Napoleon in 1806.
It was against this background that on December 16, 1740, King Frederick suddenly invaded the rich Austrian province of Silesia, thereby launching the lengthy succession war to follow. Ruler of barren and fragmented territories, Frederick wanted Silesia for its flourishing industries, rich farmlands, ore deposits, and strategic location, the province occupying a plain intersected by two rivers, the Oder and Elbe, which were ideal venues for military transport into Saxony and Bohemia: buffers against expected Austrian countermeasures. Geopolitically, Silesia also gave Prussia a critical edge against Saxony, which stood to lose the chance of establishing a land bridge to Poland, an area it ruled from 1697 to 1763. Altogether the new acquisition was calculated greatly to enhance Prussia's wealth, strength, and prestige.
Once the invasion began, other predatory powers such as France, Bavaria, Saxony, Piedmont, and Spain likewise seized the opportunity to benefit from what seemed the imminent dismemberment of a state whose monarch was untested, whose army was ill prepared, and whose administration was glaringly inefficient. France hoped to increase her European influence, Spain wanted further gains in Italy, while both Bavaria and Saxony had competing claims to the Habsburg succession via marriages to the daughters of Emperor Joseph I, but could do little without French aid. Only England, Hanover, and the Dutch were prepared to uphold existing treaty obligations, supporting Austria's cause for the wider purpose of sustaining the continental power balance by thwarting Franco-Bavarian ambitions in central Europe.
Following Prussia's narrow victory at Mollwitz (April 1741) and subsequent absorption of lower Silesia, Frederick II signed an offensive alliance with France and Bavaria which enabled him to expand his striking forces in preparation for the next campaign. During the interim, upper Austria was seized by a combined French—Bavarian army, the Saxons invaded Bohemia, while Spain was gathering a formidable force to attack Habsburg possessions in Italy, together with the king of Sardinia. French diplomacy also attempted to neutralize Russia—a potential Austrian ally—by encouraging a Swedish offensive across the Finnish border in August 1741.
Utilizing Austria's distraction by his allies, Frederick II resumed operations in February 1742, and struck unguarded Moravia, but was forced to withdraw in the face of peasant risings and sorties by the garrison at Brunn which threatened his vital lines of communication. He rebounded with another hard-fought victory over the Austrians at Chotusitz (May 1742). At almost the same time, a French detachment under Broglie broke through Austrian lines near Budweis (May 24, 1742). As a result, Austria—feeling the strain of her multi-front operations—agreed to the Peace of Breslau (June 11, 1742), an agreement that gave Frederick control over all of Silesia and the adjacent county of Glatz in return for a guarantee of neutrality.
Temporarily freed of Prussian duress and her finances restored by British subsidies, Austria rebounded energetically, driving back the French and Bavarians to the Rhine River and even occupying Bavaria itself. Moreover, a combined Anglo-Austrian—Hanoverian army, commanded by George II personally, inflicted heavylosses on the French at the notable Battle of Dettingen (June 27, 1743), forcing them on the defensive. Compelled by the British to buy off Charles Emmanuel of Savoy (Treaty of Worms, September 1743), who henceforth cooperated against France, Naples, and Spanish forces in Italy, Austria also began to rebound in that theater, scoring important victories in Piedmont and Lombardy.
Alarm at these developments prompted Frederick to renew his alliance with France (1744) and reenter the war, advancing via Saxony into Bohemia with the intent of curbing Austria's seeming resurgence. This initiative proved a failure, as did the overall Prussian campaign of 1744, Frederick having to evacuate Bohemia and retreat to Silesia with heavy losses. Austria, however, was unable to gain a foothold in the province itself.
During the following year, Austria—joined by troops from Saxony, an ally since December 1743—resumed the offensive northward but with indifferent results. Chastened by his near-catastrophic last campaign, Frederick during the winter lull had initiated numerous reforms to enhance basic infantry proficiency, cavalry performance, logistical organization, and medical services. The value of these reforms—applied with tactical brilliance—was illustrated by the major Prussian victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Hohenfriedburg (June 1745). Gratifyingly, this success reactivated British pressure on Austria to negotiate and make peace on the basis of the earlier Breslau treaty (i.e., guarantee Prussia's retention of Silesia and Glatz), but diplomatic complications and intermittent Austrian successes in the west stiffened Vienna's resistance to what they had regarded from the beginning as humiliating terms, unwillingly accepted. Imperial hopes were promptly crushed by Frederick's further victories at Soor (September 30, 1745) and Kesseldorf before the close of the year, culminating in the occupation of Austria's ally, Saxony. These events led to the Treaty of Dresden, mediated by England and signed on Christmas Day 1745, whereby Austria again renounced all claims to Silesia and Glatz, while Saxony recovered its conquered territories on payment of a substantial indemnity. Prussia had become a leading European military power and the Austrian succession question was effectively settled.
Once France joined Britain's trade conflict with Spain, formally declaring war on Austria, Britain, and Sardinia in 1744, the war henceforth became concentrated on the Rhineland, the Netherlands—traditional areas of French interest—Italy, and the colonial sphere. The recognition of this prompted Britain's attempt to detach Frederick from France and secure his adhesion to the “Old System”—consisting of Britain, Holland, and Austria—which had safeguarded the European power balance since the days of Louis XIV. Frederick was not averse toward a connection with Britain but only on condition that the former accept the Prussian alliance as a substitute for that with Austria, correctly perceiving that Maria Theresa would never forget or forgive the loss of Silesia unless the Austro-British entente was completely severed; he could not risk an outright rupture with France. This problem remained unresolved until the Anglo-Prussian alliance concluded, under changed circumstances, in 1758.
Austrian forces, meanwhile, scored numerous victories in Italy which were counterbalanced by defeats in the Netherlands at the hands of Marshal de Saxe, whose gains at Fontenoy and Roucoux helped by Prussia's reentering the war, gave France virtual control of the Netherlands and placed her in an ideal position for a direct assault on the Dutch, thus far timid and irresolute, and their poorly defended Barrier fortifications. Possession of the Netherlands brought the French closer to northern Germany, threatened Hanover, George II's electorate, and posed potential dangers for Britain itself by making possible an enemy cross-Channel invasion.
Ongoing colonial competition between the Bourbons and Britain also linked hostilities in central Europe to clashes overseas, thus expanding the geographic range of the War of the Austrian Succession. By the 1740s, colonial wars fought by maritime powers to strengthen their dominance over the world market economy had become an integral part of the chronic confrontation between European states. The success of French diplomacy in Balkan and imperial affairs, combined with an evident resurgence of French naval and commercial strength, reawakened Britain's traditional suspicions of Bourbon designs. These suspicions were given added force by France's military commitments to Spain during the latter's trade war with Britain resulting in French continental intervention and the sending of a French squadron to the Caribbean (1740) with orders to support a Spanish attack on Jamaica. Ending disastrously, this expedition momentarily stalled France's plans for active cooperation with Spain in the new world, while British operations against Caribbean and South American ports were largely confined to small-scale raids on shipping and futile attempts to isolate Spain from her colonies. A concurrent attempt to capture Cuba proved abortive, resulting in heavy British casualties. The remnant of the royal fleet returned to England in January 1743, by which time continental campaigning absorbed available army resources, both in troops and money. The navy and its commanders, moreover, came under attack nationwide for the ineffectiveness of their exploits. Great warships, it was being slowly realized, could only succeed with united, political support, a unified command, and proper deployment—all factors lacking thus far. Partly this was due to the declining but still potent stature of the pacifist leading minister, Sir Robert Walpole, who had opposed the war on principle from the outset and, unreconciled, continued to press for a diplomatic settlement with Spain even after costly operations had been launched. The policy of moderation, assiduously promoted by Walpole, ended with his fall in February 1742, and the entry of Carteret, an avowed continentalist, into the ministry. This led to a more energetic pursuit of the war, not only in Europe—primarily against France—but ultimately overseas, where imperial supremacy, whether French, British, or Spanish, was at stake. The clash of Anglo-French interests, henceforth more direct and urgent (further aggravated by France's support of the Stuart Pretender James), was the main reason for the continuance of the War of the Austrian Succession beyond 1745.
Once the naval conflict broke out in earnest (after 1745), Britain's fleets focused on protecting the British Isles against possible invasion in support of the Stuart cause, attacking the French in the Mediterranean, harassing French merchant vessels en route for the West Indies or India, and closer to home, blocking French harbors for the purpose of disrupting vital coastal trade and preventing the dispatch of reinforcements. France's attempt to support a Jacobite rebellion was abandoned when a storm dispersed the French fleet, but Madras, Britain's major settlement in the Carnatic and a lucrative commercial entrepôt, was captured by France in 1746. Following the arrival of a sizable squadron under Admiral Boscawen, carrying troops and artillery reinforcements, the British laid siege to Pondicherry, so heavily fortified that the assault was called off after two months.
Naval operations in the West Indies, entailing heavy privateering action on all sides, remained low key until October 1748, when Sir Charles Knowles bested a Spanish squadron in the Bahamas Channel but was prevented from consolidating his victory by the arrival of news that peace talks had begun. In North America, the major event of note was the New England expedition (covered by a British naval force) that captured the strategic fortress of Louisbourg controlling the St. Lawrence seaway into French Canada.
In Italy, meanwhile, after oscillating confrontations between Franco-Spanish and Austro-Sardinian forces, no clear decision could be forced, complicated political factors nullifying any gains made by either side. Eventually, northern Italy was left in Austrian hands but shifting battle lines and logistical difficulties prevented their planned advance toward the Alps. With offenses blunted by counteroffensives and holding actions, Italy remained the scene of desultory campaigns and contested objectives until the final peace.
Ultimately, Britain's indisputable domination of French trade was more significant than Marshal de Saxe's successful campaigns in the Netherlands. By 1748, after four years of draining naval conflict and despite temptations to achieve complete military conquest of the Dutch, France proved ready for peace—as did Austria, anxious to begin much-needed, wide-ranging domestic reforms, as well as England, tired of the financial burden. Begun in early 1748, held at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), the peace negotiations led to a formal treaty signed on October 18, 1748. By its terms, Louisbourg was restored to France, who in turn surrendered her conquests in the Netherlands and also Madras; the French expelled the Stuarts, guaranteed the Protestant succession, and agreed to dismantle Dunkirk's coastal defenses; Silesia was guaranteed to Prussia and Austria ceded minor territories (Parma and Piacenca) in Italy to Spain and more of Milan to Savoy. This meant that Italy henceforth ceased to be a prime source of European conflict until the Revolutionary period. At the same time, however, the treaty sparked the beginning of German dualism between Prussia and Austria, which would eventually fuel German nationalism and the drive to unify Germany politically. It also left unresolved the rivalry between Britain and France for naval/colonial preeminence—an issue vital to the economic future of both powers, and one determinative of renewed conflict eight years later (the Seven Years' War). In more general terms, the War of the Austrian Succession, like all other conflicts of the time, displayed an inevitable disparity between ends and means. Political/diplomatic schemes were intrinsically grandiose yet their execution, given prevailing socioeconomic, political restraints, invariably fell short of expectations and demonstrated conclusively that the small eighteenth-century standing armies could conquer incrementally but could not deliver the decisive blow. This was even more so in the case of allied combinations, where conflicting personalities, clashing dynastic ambitions, and divergent private interests militated against cooperative pursuit of a common objective.
SEE ALSO: Frederick II of Prussia (“the Great”) (1712–1786); Jacobite Rising (1745–1746); Saxe, Hermann Maurice, Comte de (1696–1750); Seven Years' War (1756–1763).
Full text Article Frederick II "the Great" (1712-86) King of Prussia (1740-86) from 'Receuil des Estampes, representant les Rangs et les Dignites, suivant le Costume de toutes les Nations existantes', published 1780 (hand-coloured engraving)
Artist: Duflos Pierre (1742-1816) Location: Private Collection Credit: Frederick II "the Great" (1712-86) King of Prussia (1740-86) from 'Receuil de
As chancellor (1753-92) he controlled Habsburg foreign policy under Empress Maria Theresa and her son Emperor Joseph and...
The war between Prussia, Britain, and Hanover on one side and France, Austria, Russia, and Spain on the other. The war had two main...