In 1754, a young Virginia militia officer, Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, renewed the centuries’ long conflict between Britain and France when he ambushed the French at Jumonville Glen in the moraine-carved, serene, and picturesque wilderness of what would become Western Pennsylvania. King George II dispatched troops to the New World, and we would know this conflict as the French and Indian War. Although the war raged in the colonies, in 1756, the conflict had yet to spread to Europe. However that year, George II felt that his ancestral home in central Germany, Hanover, was threatened by France. So he made an alliance with King in Prussia, Frederick I, to protect the small city state.
The new alliance upset the delicate balance of power in Europe at the time. Maria Theresa of Austria, a traditional enemy of France and ally of Britain was upset with George’s new alliance with her rival, Prussia. She desired the return of the rich Polish province of Silesia, which she lost the decade before, and furthermore despised Frederick whom never failed to insult her every chance he got. She made an ostensibly defensive alliance with France in May 1756.
France was also ready for war with Prussia. For twenty years the second most powerful woman in France was Madame de’ Pompadour, the 13th handmaiden to the queen. This doesn’t sound like much but she was intelligent, driven, an economic genius, ran the royal household, and was the highest authority in France on matters of taste and fashion, not to mention the king’s mistress, and the queen’s closest confidant. In the spring of 1755, Frederick insulted her through their mutual friend Voltaire, and Madame de’ Pompadour never forgave him. She was not above using her influence, and the mechanisms of the state, to avenge the insult.
That summer, a third target of Frederick insults also decided the time was ripe to avenge her honor. The wily Empress Elizabeth of Russia loathed Frederick for calling her a “superstitious and indolent voluptuary”. So she put aside Russia’s traditional hostility with France to chasten the insolent Frederick… and take advantage of Prussia’s isolation. In July, 1756, Russia joined the anti-Prussian Alliance, which throughout Europe became known as the “League of the Three Petticoats”.
Frederick, surrounded by three of the most powerful nations in Europe, decided to attack before Prussia was overwhelmed. On 29 August 1756, the Prussian army of Frederick the Great crossed into Saxony to subdue his troublesome smaller neighbor before turning on Austria.
And with it, a remote colonial dispute and the salon games of the affluent, became a world war.