The bombardment of Porto Bello, by Samuel Scott.

At first it looked as though the hawks’ optimism was well-founded, for in November 1739 Admiral Vernon, commanding a fleet of just six ships, took Porto Bello on the Atlantic coast of Panama by storm. But the Royal Navy flattered to deceive. It simply did not have the resources or the bases to operate with success in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and home waters. One dramatic exception to a depressing tale of abortive expeditions was the success in July 1742 of Captain William Martin in bringing Charles VII of Naples ‘to a just sense of his errors’ in assisting the Spanish campaign in northern Italy. Striking anchor with his squadron within easy firing range of defenceless Naples, Martin gave Charles half-an-hour to withdraw from the war, which he did. As Nicholas Rodger observes’ ‘no more economical demonstration of naval power has ever been given’. Other British successes were few and far between, but they did include the capture of the great French fortress of Louisbourg in Canada and two small-scale victories over the French off Cape Finisterre in May and June 1747.

‘The War of Jenkins’ Ear’ had been underway for little more than a year when it was subsumed in a much greater conflict with a much more portentous title–the War of the Austrian Succession. At one level, this represented a resumption of the centuries-old conflict between Bourbon and Habsburg for the domination of continental Europe, but it was accelerated by the fortuitous death of three monarchs in 1740. The first to go was Frederick William I of Prussia on 31 May. This brought to the throne his mercurial son as Frederick II, as complex as he was intelligent and with quite a different approach to the assertion of his kingdom’s interests. Although brutal to the point of madness, Frederick William I’s foreign policy was unassertive, timid even. He was restrained by three kinds of loyalty–to the Hohenzollern dynasty, to the Holy Roman Empire and its Emperor, and to his terrible Calvinist God. His son, on the other hand, never cared anything for his family, demanding that the interests of the Hohenzollern dynasty be subordinated to the interests of the Prussian state; he had only contempt for the Holy Roman Empire, despising its ‘antiquated, fantastical constitution’; and he dismissed Christianity as ‘an old metaphysical fiction, stuffed with fables, contradictions and absurdities: it was spawned in the fevered imagination of the Orientals, and then spread to our Europe, where some fanatics espoused it, where some intriguers pretended to be convinced by it and where some imbeciles actually believed it’.

Frederick William I had nursed many grievances against the Emperor Charles VI, who had ignored his interests in Poland in 1732, snubbed him over Mecklenburg in 1733 and disregarded his claims to the duchies of Jülich and Berg in 1738, but apart from a brief period of alienation in the mid 1720s he had remained loyal. He concentrated his demonic energies preparing for rather than waging war, leaving his son an army 81,000-strong, which in terms of quality was the best in Europe, supported by a great treasure-chest. Although he had every reason to hate his father, Frederick II hailed his achievement, writing in The History of My Own Times:

The fame to which the late king aspired, a fame more just than that of conquerors, was to render his country happy; to discipline his army; and to administer his finances with the wisest order, and economy. War he avoided, that he might not be disturbed in the pursuit of plans so excellent. By these means he travelled silently on towards grandeur, without awakening the envy of monarchs.

It was these tools that his son was now to put to such devastating use. There is no reason to doubt his own candid admission that, first and foremost, he wanted to make a name for himself and Prussia, to wipe the sneer off the face of George II of England, for example, who had derided Frederick William I as ‘the corporal’, ‘king of the high-roads’ and ‘arch-dustman of the Holy Roman Empire’. Despite the formal elevation to royal status in 1701, Prussia was still ‘a kind of hermaphrodite, rather more an electorate than a kingdom’, as Frederick put it. To make its masculine identity unequivocal, he first cavassed the possibility of acquiring Jülich and Berg, but got nowhere. It was then that the grim reaper came to his assistance, carrying off the Tsarina Anna of Russia on 23 October 1740 and Charles VI three days later. On hearing the news, Frederick resolved ‘immediately’ to ‘reclaim’ Silesia. Writing of himself in the third person, he went on: ‘this project accomplished all his political views; it afforded the means of acquiring reputation, of augmenting the power of the state, and of terminating what related to the litigious succession of the Duchy of Berg’. Unmentioned but probably also important was the thought that if he did not claim Silesia, someone else would. He was especially anxious to keep it out of the hands of the Saxons, for the province would form a territorial link between the Electorate and Poland. The almost simultaneous death of the Tsarina was crucial, for on past form Russia would be disqualified from giving the Austrians any assistance by a struggle over the succession. Indeed Frederick claimed that ‘the death of Anna…finally determined [me] in favour of this enterprise’. He was proved to be right, for Anna was succeeded by the infant Ivan VI, who was deposed a year later in favour of Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great by his first marriage.


Prussian infantry during battle of Mollwitz 1741.

On 16 December 1740 the Prussian invasion of Silesia began. Frederick received important assistance from religion–‘that sacred prejudice among the vulgar’–for about two-thirds of the Silesians were Protestants anxious to escape the vigorous persecution inflicted on them by the late emperor. The capital, Breslau, surrendered without resistance early in January 1741. There were only just over 7,000 Austrian troops in the whole province, so it was not long before the Prussians completed their occupation. It was not until 10 April 1741 at Mollwitz that an Austrian army under General von Neipperg mounted a military challenge. This was certainly not Frederick’s finest hour. With the superior Austrian cavalry apparently winning the day, he was persuaded by his second-in-command, Count Schwerin, to leave the battlefield. In his absence, Schwerin rallied the apparently defeated Prussians and won the day with the infantry. As Frederick recorded ruefully: ‘it is difficult to say who committed the most faults, the King or Marshal Neipperg’, giving all the credit to his army: ‘the battle was one of the most memorable of the present century; because two small armies then decided the fate of Silesia, and because the troops of the king there acquired that fame of which they can never be deprived, either by time or envy’.

Mollwitz was no more decisive militarily than any other battle of the period, but it did have an extremely important political consequence. By showing that Prussia could defend its new conquest, it encouraged the war-party in France, led by the marquis de Belle-Isle, to conclude an alliance with Frederick and join the war. Louis XV and his chief minister Fleury thought Frederick was ‘a fool’ and ‘a cheat’ respectively, but that low opinion did not stop them following the rush to settle accounts with the Habsburgs once and for all. If the war had gone according to plan and they had been in a position to dictate terms to the new ruler of the Habsburg Monarchy, the twenty-three-year-old Maria Theresa, they would have enforced a radical reconstruction of central Europe. The cunning French plan was to create four roughly equal states, by giving Lower (northern) Silesia to Prussia; Bohemia, Upper (western) Austria, the Tyrol, Breisgau and the imperial title to Bavaria; part of Lower Austria, Moravia and Upper Silesia to Saxony, and leaving the Habsburgs with just their remaining Austrian territories and Hungary. France, of course, would hold the balance between these four, and would take the Austrian Netherlands into the bargain. The Habsburg lands in Italy would be divided between Sardinia and Spain.

Unfortunately, they could neither achieve the necessary degree of military supremacy, nor could they control the mercurial Frederick. As the latter wrote, he had no intention of creating a yoke for his own neck, so instead of behaving like a loyal ally of France, he rather sought to maintain a balance between France and Austria. Intercepted despatches had revealed that the French would desert him at once if the Austrians agreed to cede Luxemburg and Brabant. So in October 1741 Frederick signed a secret truce with the Austrians at Klein-Schnellendorf, by which he ceased hostilities and the Austrians evacuated Silesia. Maria Theresa badly needed this respite, for the Saxons and the Bavarians had moved smartly to assist the French military effort. By early 1742, the Elector of Bavaria, Charles Albert, had been crowned King of Bohemia and Archduke of Austria and had also been elected Holy Roman Emperor. In the north, French diplomacy had encouraged the Swedes to attack Russia, thus ensuring that Maria Theresa could expect no help from that quarter. With a French puppet on the imperial throne–the first non-Habsburg for three centuries–and a Franco-Bavarian army occupying Prague, French influence in Europe had reached a point far in excess of anything achieved by Louis XIV.

This success was short-lived. Although Frederick briefly re-entered the fray late in 1741, he left it altogether in June 1742 after victory at Chotusitz in May allowed him to negotiate the Treaty of Breslau, which fulfilled his essential aim–the cession of most of Silesia. Almost all of Frederick William I’s treasure-chest had been spent, but, as Frederick recorded, ‘provinces that do not cost more than seven or eight millions are cheaply purchased’. Meanwhile Maria Theresa had succeeded in raising sufficient troops, mainly from Hungary, to expose the French and Bavarian armies as paper tigers–‘sybarite courtiers’ was Frederick’s derisive comment on the quality of the French. By the end of 1742, the Austrians had regained control of Bohemia and had occupied Bavaria. The diplomatic situation was also improving, for in Britain the fall of Sir Robert Walpole in February 1742 led to the appointment of Lord Carteret as secretary of state and a much more forward policy on the continent. British subsidies financed the formation of a ‘Pragamatic Army’ of British, Hanoverians, Hessians and Dutch, which in June 1743, led by George II, scored a major victory over the French at Dettingen near Frankfurt am Main. This was to be the last time that a British sovereign commanded his troops in battle personally.

This revival of Austrian fortunes was not to the liking of Frederick of Prussia at all. By the beginning of 1744 he was becomingly increasingly anxious that Britain and Austria might force a peace settlement on France that would cost him Silesia. He claimed to have in his possession a copy of a letter from George II to Maria Theresa stating ‘Madam, that which is good to receive is good to return’. Also alarming was the defection of Saxony to the enemy camp in December 1743, which revived the nightmare of a Saxony-Silesia-Poland bloc. On the other hand, Frederick had not rested on his laurels, using the period of peace to bring his army up to 140,000, to improve the cavalry and to form a war-chest of 6,000,000 talers, or enough–so he (wrongly) thought-for two campaigns. Only too well aware that his thinly resourced state must be at a disadvantage in any prolonged war of attrition, his strategy was to deliver sharp shocks to gain limited objectives in short wars. On this occasion, the war began brilliantly with the invasion of Bohemia and the capture of Prague on 16 September 1744 but nearly ended in disaster, as he greatly underestimated the dangers of a winter campaign in hostile territory. With his army melting away through desertions, he was forced to retreat back into Silesia, there to await the inevitable Austrian retribution.

The decisive battle came on 4 June 1745 at Hohenfriedberg when Frederick’s army of about 55,000 routed roughly the same number of Austrians and Saxons in four-and-a-half hours of savage fighting, capturing 7,000 and killing 4,000 for the loss of just over 1,000 Prussians. It was enough to save Silesia and to secure peace with Great Britain but not yet enough to bring the Austrians to the negotiating table. Only after further Prussian victories at Soor on 30 September, at Katholisch-Hennersdorf on 22 November and at Kesselsdorf on 15 December, which led to the capture of Dresden, could Maria Theresa be persuaded that, for the time being at least, Silesia would have to be abandoned. On Christmas Day 1745 the Peace of Dresden was signed, by which Frederick gained Silesia from Austria and a million talers from Saxony. In return, he recognized the election of Maria Theresa’s husband Francis as Holy Roman Emperor, which had occurred without Prussian participation the previous May. Frederick returned to Berlin to a hero’s welcome; it was from this time that he acquired the sobriquet ‘the Great’. He himself knew that he owed his triumph more to the army created by his father than to his own leadership, although an unusually favourable international situation helped, not to mention a good slice of luck. ‘From now on I shan’t hurt a fly, except to defend myself’, he wrote. It was to prove easier said than done.

Meanwhile, on the western front the Austrians were also finding the war heavy going. Although George II’s victory at Dettingen in 1743 had expelled them from Germany, the French found campaigning in the Austrian Netherlands much more congenial. Beginning in 1744 their armies, commanded by the maréchal de Saxe, an illegitimate son of Augustus the Strong of Saxony, won one victory after another, most spectacularly at Fontenoy near Tournai on 11 May 1745 in the presence of their king. When the battle was over, Louis XV and the Dauphin made a triumphal procession from one regiment to another to be fêted. It was undoubtedly the high-point of the reign. Shortly afterwards, the outbreak of the second great Jacobite rising sent most of the British contingents rushing back across the Channel. In the course of the next two campaigns Saxe’s army completed the conquest of the Austrian Netherlands and set about invading the Dutch Republic.

All this success should have allowed Louis XV to impose the sort of settlement his predecessor had achieved in 1678–9. Unfortunately, in other theatres, the war did not go so well. In Italy the Austrians and their Sardinian allies had achieved total control by the end of 1746, while in Great Britain the Jacobite rising came to an abrupt end at Culloden on 16 April 1746. Overseas, the capture of Madras by the French East India Company was counterbalanced by the loss of Cape Breton Island and Louisbourg. Growing British maritime supremacy brought a blockade of French trade and fears that the French sugar-islands in the Caribbean would be conquered. With neither side able to land a knockout blow and all combatants suffering from varying degrees of financial exhaustion, a settlement was painfully worked out and eventually signed at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) on 18 October 1748. Almost a decade of fighting across the globe did not yield a commensurate amount of territorial change. Outside Europe, Britain and France exchanged their Canadian and Indian conquests. On the continent, the French restored to the Dutch and the Habsburgs all their conquests in the Low Countries. Their only territorial gain was by proxy, Louis XV’s son-in-law Don Philip of Spain acquiring the Italian duchies of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla. So at long last, after thirty years of scheming, Elizabeth Farnese had succeeded in setting up her two sons by Philip V as independent sovereigns. Not surprisingly, a settlement that left France empty-handed, despite all Saxe’s great victories, was deeply unpopular, ‘bête comme la paix’ (as stupid as the peace) passing into everyday speech as an expressive simile.

Some consolation might be drawn from the humbling of the Habsburgs, indeed one French envoy at the Aachen peace conference proclaimed that ‘France has achieved her great aim, the humiliation of the House of Austria’. Certainly Maria Theresa was very bitter about her treatment at the hands of her notional allies, the British-as bitter as her father had been back in 1714. A longer-term perspective would have yielded some consolation to soothe her wounded pride. At least she had survived the dark days of 1740–1 when the very existence of the Monarchy was in doubt. If she had had to give up Silesia to Prussia, Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla to Don Philip, and a small portion of the Duchy of Milan to Sardinia, the great bulk of her bulky empire had been preserved, despite the adverse military verdict. With her husband given international recognition as Holy Roman Emperor, there was every reason to hope that the house of Habsburg-Lorraine would be as long-lived as its predecessor.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the loss of Silesia to Prussia, for it was populous (about 1,000,000 inhabitants), economically advanced (a flourishing textile industry and excellent water communications) and fiscally productive (yielding about 25 per cent of the total tax revenue of the Austrian and Bohemian lands). To lose all that was bad enough, but the damage did not stop there. As Silesia had formed an integral part of the economies of the neighbouring provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, they too suffered serious and lasting damage. Moreover, the fact that this great asset had passed to Prussia doubled the depth of the wound: if all the various resources of Silesia were added together and expressed by the algebraic symbol ‘x’, then the power relationship between the Habsburg Monarchy and Prussia changed as a result of its transfer not by ‘x’ but by two times ‘x’, for what had been taken away from the one was added to the other. The same applied to its strategic position. In the hands of the Habsburgs, Silesia was a tongue of territory stretching into northern Germany; its loss not only reduced Habsburg influence there, it also put Prussian armies within 100 miles (160 km) of Prague and 130 miles (210 km) of Vienna. The great victor of the War of the Austrian Succession was undoubtedly Frederick the Great. He had established his supremacy over his great rivals for the domination of northern Germany-Hanover and Saxony-and was now challenging Austria for the mastery of the whole German-speaking world. As Spain and the Dutch Republic had clearly forfeited their great-power status, Prussia joined France, Great Britain, Austria and Russia to form a pentarchy of states capable of acting independently in international affairs.

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