War of the Austrian Succession

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Introduction

Since the results of the War of the Austrian Succession were some of the direct causes of the Seven Years War, it is important to have an overview of this former conflict to better understand the reasons who led to the outbreak of the Seven Years War.

Description

Causes of the war

The roots of this war can be traced to War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713) where Charles VI, the Habsburg sovereign of Austria-Hungary and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, saw the grave consequences caused by the absence of an heir to the throne of Spain, and realised the danger threatening the unity of his own empire because he had no male heir. In August 1713, to prevent dispute for his succession, Charles VI proclaimed the Pragmatic Sanction which specified that all Habsburg dominions were indivisible and provided for the succession of his daughter Maria Theresa to the throne. The sanction also had a clause specifying that in the event of her death, the daughters of his brother Joseph would be next in the line of succession.

Austrian diplomacy had worked for years to persuade European countries to recognize the Pragmatic Sanction, sacrificing several Habsburg estates and business interests to achieve this goal. The Pragmatic Sanction finally got recognition by European countries.

After the death of Charles VI on October 20, 1740, these same countries quickly abandoned their promises. Many candidates claimed the throne of the Habsburg dominions. The most prominent of them were Charles Albert (1679-1745) Elector of Bavaria ; Augustus III (1696-1763) prince-elector of Saxony and Philip V (1683-1746) king of Spain. They based their claims on the Salic law which prevented women from inheriting. To counter such arguments, Maria Theresa's husband Stephen Francis, gand duke of Tuscany was proclaimed emperor but most European countries did not recognize his coronation.

Indeed, most European powers considered the accession of a woman to the throne of the Habsburg dominions a golden opportunity to achieve their own territorial ambitions at the expense of Austria. France was coveting the Austrian Netherlands (present-day Belgium) and Spain wished to put her hand on the Austrian estates in Italy. However, the most dangerous of these aspirants was Frederick II king of Prussia who became obsessed with the desire to annex the rich Austrian province of Silesia which his father had already claimed before him on the pretence that Silesia was once the property of his ancestors, citing the Treaty of Brieg of 1537. Consequently, Frederick II offered his support to Maria Theresa for the nomination her husband as emperor in exchange of her renunciation to the province of Silesia, but she declined this offer.

Most European countries, to the exception of Poland and of the Ottoman Empire, were involved in this war which went through several phases and gradually spread from Central Europe to the colonies of North America, India and to the high sea.

First phase of the war

The first phase of the War of the Austrian Succession began when Frederick II assembled his army along the Oder River in December 1740 for an eventual intervention in Silesia. On December 16, without a declaration of war, the Prussian Army marched into Silesia, quickly defeating Austrian garrisons and easily occupying the province to the astonishment of the rest of Europe. Frederick's army was an excellent instrument : well trained and highly organised by European standards. For example, a Prussian infantry regiment was able to fire five rounds during the time its Austrian counterpart could fire only three. This superiority of his army allowed Frederick II to invade Silesia without meeting much resistance, Austrian commanders fortifying a few places and withdrawing to Bohemia and Moravia.

Austria then assembled a field army placed under the command of Count Neipperg in order to recover Silesia. On April 10 1741, Neipperg met the Prussian army in the battle of Mollwitz which demonstrated the military superiority of Prussia. This defeat of the Austrians revealed the weakness of their army to the European countries. In May 1741 at Nimvenberg, France, Bavaria, Saxony and Prussia entered into a secret alliance and initiated war against Austria. The forces of Charles Albert of Bavaria, supported by the French and Saxon advanced on three axes towards Upper Austria and Bohemia. In November 1741, these forces occupied Prague and Charles Albert was soon crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire under the name of Charles VII. Austria was now in a very difficult situation despite the assistance of its British and Dutch allies.

Maria Theresa then resolved to appeal to the aristocracy of Hungary for assistance to confront her enemies. The Hungarian nobility wonderfully responded to her appeal and assembled some 20,000 men to help Austria to renew combat. A new army was assembled in Vienna under the command of General Andreas Khevenhuller while troops were recalled from Italy. Meanwhile, under the advice of her British ally, Maria Theresa initiated secret negotiations with Frederick II which conducted to a secret agreement in Breslau in July 1742. By this treaty, treaty, Maria Theresa ceded most of the Silesian duchies to Prussia except for the Duchy of Teschen, the districts of Troppau and Krnov south of the Opava river as well as the southern part of the Duchy of Nysa, that were all to become the province of Austrian Silesia. Furthermore Frederick annexed the Bohemian County of Kladsko.

This treaty marks the end of the first phase of the war. Austria could now concentrate its effort against France and Bavaria. Austrian troops were able to achieve some victories against the French and Bavarians, to invade Bohemia, to recover Prague, to enter into Bavaria and to make themselves master of Munich. An Austrian army even threatened to wrestle the province of Alsace from French control. Meanwhile, Frederick II remained idle in Silesia in accordance with the secret agreement that he had signed with Austria. France was forced to recall troops deployed on the borders to counter the Hanoverian and British assistance sent to Austria.

During this time, situation had changed in Great Britain where John Carteret, the new Secretary of State, was more favourable to a British intervention in the war at the side of Austria. In 1743, he sent a British army to Hanover and worked to build a coalition regrouping Austria, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Sardinia. On June 27 1743, the Allies led by George II achieved an important victory over the French at Dettingen, even though there was not yet any formal declaration of war between France and Great Britain. Later, Saxony joined this alliance.

France was now in a critical situation and sought alliance with Spain for a confrontation with Great Britain and its allies.

Russia and Sweden, who had been at war since 1741 signed the Treaty of Åbo in August 1743.

In Austria, despite the numerous successes of the last years, fear of Frederick II was rising.

Second phase of the war

Frederick II soon realised the danger for Prussia of an Austrian victory over France. Furthermore, a victorious Maria Theresa could divulge some of the terms of the secret agreement concluded Frederick. Consequently, Frederick hurried into a new alliance with France which was more than happy to welcome him.

Frederick attacked Austria suddenly and occupied Bohemia, entering into Prague on September 16 1744. This new invasion forced Maria Theresa to appeal to the Hungarians again. They provided nearly 70,000 men. An Austro-Saxon army led by General Otto Traun forced Frederick II to retire from Prague but was unable to penetrate into Silesia.

In the meantime, in March 1744, France officially declared war to Great Britain. On May 11 1745 at Fontenoy, a French army led by General Maurice de Saxe achieved a great victory over the combined forces of Great Britain, Austria and the Netherlands, which were led by the Duke of Cumberland.

On December 15 1745, Frederick II gave another proof of his military genius in his victory over an Austro-Saxon army at Kesseldorf. This victory led to the conclusion of the Treaty of Dresden, on December 25 1745, whereby Maria Theresa officially ceded the province of Silesia to Prussia while Frederick recognized the election and coronation of Stephen Francis, husband of Maria Teresa, to the title of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on October 4 1745.

Great Britain had already concluded a separate peace with Frederick II in Hanover on August 26 1745 to concentrate its effort against the new threat posed by Charles Edward Stuart who, assisted by the French, demanded the restoration of the Stuart to the throne of Great Britain. He had disembarked in Scotland and received the support of several Highland clans. George II was forced to recal the Duke of Cumberland and part of the British forces from Europe to face this danger.

Charles Edward had his father proclaimed King of Scotland under the name of James VIII. He then tried to invade England but, on April 16 1746, the Duke of Cumberland defeated the Jacobite army at the battle of Culloden.

Battles and skirmishes continued in Europe between the belligerents in 1747 and 1748. There were also engagements in the colonies of North America and India, particularly between France and Great Britain, but that none of the parties could achieve a decisive victory.

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle

Long negotiations took place from April to October 1748. They led to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle on October 18, 1748. This treaty recognized the rights of Frederick II in Silesia, as well as those of Maria Theresa to rule over Austria-Hungary and those of her husband to be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Furthermore, Austria ceded Parma in Italy to Spain and all other estates were restored to their original owners before the conflict.

The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was not a true reconciliation but only a temporary truce. Indeed, problems and colonial conflict between France and Great Britain had not reached an agreement. On the high sea, small engagements between the navies of the two countries continued; and in the colonies of North America and India occasional conflicts broke out.

France and Great Britain braced themselves for a decisive struggle for colonial supremacy. Furthermore, Austria resented the loss of the province Silesia and was preparing to recover it.

Indeed, peacetime was but a period of preparation for the next war which soon broke out in 1756 (even earlier in North America and India) and is now knows as the Seven Years War.

References

Abbott, John S.C. The empire of Austria (its rise and present power), New York, 1899, p. 22.

Carlyle, Thomas; History of Friedrich II of Prussia, London, 1916.

Freeman, Edward A.; History of Europe, New York, 1889.

Guedalla, Philip; The partition of Europe 1715-1815, London, 1914.

Hayes, Carlton J.; A Political and Social History of Modern Europe, New York, 1916 ,vol.1

Morris, John E.; A history of Modren Europe from the middle of the sixteenth century, London, 1914.

Shea, John G.; General History of Modern Europe from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the council of the Vatican, New York, 1870, vol. 3.

Skrine, Francis H.; Fontenoy and Great Britain's share in the war of the Austrian succession 1741-1748, London, 1924.

Acknowledgments

Abbass Hassan Obbaiss, a historian from Babylon in Iraq, for the initial version of this article