In my recent post about the First World War, I alluded to there being a previous conflict that had been global in scope, which, while not as bloody and costly, had nonetheless spanned the globe long before the better known war of the early 20th century. The Economist conveniently went through the trouble of highlighting history’s first true global conflict in a recent post:
Though fighting did not start in Europe until 1756, and for this reason the conflict is known as the Seven Years’ War, it was truly global. Every inhabited continent except Australia saw fighting on its soil, and independent powers on three of those continents were active participants.
The first action of this first global conflict involved a young officer whose name may be familiar to some readers. On May 28th 1754 a small group of soldiers from the British colony of Virginia, under the command of a man called George Washington, engaged a group of French troops who were interloping from New France (ie Canada) into territory the British considered theirs. Instead of peacefully repelling them as he had been instructed, Washington ended up killing several of them, including their commanding officer. This campaign in North America then continued, with both sides in alliance with local Indian nations, until, two years later, Britain’s ally Prussia attacked the small German state of Saxony, bringing Saxony’s ally Austria, and thus Austria’s ally France (and therefore France’s enemy and Prussia’s ally, Britain), into the conflict. It is a sequence of events eerily similar to the way that in 1914 an attack by Germany’s ally Austria on the small Balkan state of Serbia brought in Serbia’s ally Russia, which then threatened Germany, which then declared war on both Russia and Russia’s ally France.
The war rapidly globalised. Both Britain and France reinforced their colonial troops in North America, and started attacking each other’s colonies in the West Indies and trading stations in Africa and India. In India, some of the princely states which had recently emerged from the dying Mughal empire also got involved, and Britain ended up taking over one of them, Bengal. The war came to South America when, near its end, Spain joined the French side and attacked one of the American colonies of Britain’s ally, Portugal.
Like the first world war, this global conflict reshaped the globe. Indeed, it is the reason why the modern world is an English-speaking one. As a colonial power, France was destroyed, and did not return seriously to the business of overseas conquest until it attacked Algeria in 1830. All of North America east of the Mississipi became British, save the city of New Orleans, which became Spanish. And the foundations of British rule in India were laid as well. As for George Washington, he ended up leading a rebel army put together by colonials who, freed from fear of French encirclement, unwilling to help pay for the war that had given them that freedom, and frustrated by British protection of the lands of their Indian allies from encroachment by colonial property speculators (including Washington himself), decided that they would rather go it alone.
While counterfactuals are always difficult to speculate on, I suspect that if the technology and military innovations of the early 20th century been available, the Seven Years’ War would have likely been as destructive and bloody as its 20th century successors.