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.
In the early days of the Seven Years War, known in the British colonies of North America as the French and Indian War, Prussia was surrounded and isolated by its enemies France, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and Austria. Frederick II, King in Prussia’s only major ally was Great Britain. Unfortunately for Frederick, the British war would be conducted in India, the West Indies, the Americas, and especially on the high seas. King George II could offer no military assistance to the Prussians on the European continent. In 1757, the weight of numbers was immediately felt by Frederick and his small army. His initial invasion of Bohemia to knock Austria out of the war failed, the Russians over ran East Prussia, France steamrolled his small German allies to the west, and Austria was marching on Silesia to the south with a massive army from the heart of their empire.
Frederick however had two big advantages: he had interior lines of communication which allowed him to quickly shift his army to face the different threats, and his army was much more highly trained and disciplined than his opponents’. Knowing the French would be an easier target, he first engaged and mauled the French “mob” at the Battle of Rossbach; lest they fall upon him from behind as he moved to face the much larger and better trained Austrian Army. He then turned to face the Austrians.
At the town of Leuthen (Lutyia in modern Poland), Frederick’s 37,000 man force encountered the 80,000 strong army under Prince Charles of Lorraine. What Charles didn’t know was that the rolling hills around Leuthen were the Prussian Army’s primary drill grounds and maneuver training area. Every one of Frederick’s soldiers, officers and units had spent thousands of hours learning and mastering the rigid tactics of the eighteenth century linear battlefield there. And now they were going to fight a battle on the very ground they’d trained on.
On 5 December 1757, the two armies lined up opposite each other. In the early morning mist and fog common to Central Europe, Frederick disengaged from battle before it really even began. Prince Charles was surprised, but nonetheless let the Prussians leave unmolested, confident that Frederick would have to eventually face him. It would happen much sooner than he expected.
Frederick was just feigning retreat and marched south over the familiar terrain around the Austrians’ left flank without getting lost in the fog, all the while screened by the hills. Once south of the Austrians, Frederick’s entire highly trained army did the 37,000 man equivalent of a “Left Flank, March” and rolled up the Austrians from the south while the Austrians were still facing west. Unable to concentrate any sort of mass to the face the attack, the surprised and confused Austrians broke in short order.
The Seven Years War/French and Indian War would eventually become the planet’s first “World War” but because of the Battle of Leuthen, the next five years of that war would be fought on Prussian and British…and American terms.
In 1756, the 20 year old Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, did not share his grandfather’s fondness and welcoming of the British East India Company traders. He accused them increasing their fortifications in the area and of meddling in internal politics with some justification. This caused him great difficulties and distractions from his wars against the Afghan tribes and Mahratta raiders to his north. Siraj-ud-Daulah mobilized his levies, sought support from the French East India Company, and moved against Fort William, the British East India Company’s outpost near Calcutta. The British for the most part evacuated, but left a small force of soldiers, sepoys (native troops equipped and trained in the tactics and techniques of European warfare) to garrison Fort William including civilian administrators and family members.
The fort surrendered after a brief siege. Unbeknownst to Siraj-ud-Daulah, the 146 garrison survivors were placed in a 14’ by 21’ foot cell. When morning came, 123 died of suffocation, dehydration, madness, or were crushed to death in what became known the “Black Hole of Calcutta”. (The exact details are still in dispute, such as the number in the cell. What isn’t in dispute is that 123 died that night of the 146 that surrendered that evening.) The British East India Company ordered Col Robert Clive with a small force at Madras to sail for Calcutta to exact retribution. He defeated Siraj with an aggressive night attack on the Nawab’s camp in February 1757, and secured a treaty which restored the British East India Company’s former privileges in Bengal.
So would have ended the Third Carnatic War, had Great Britain and France not been fighting the Seven Years War at the same time in Europe (and in America as the French and Indian War). At the time, the French, Dutch, and British trading outposts were under the Nawab’s protection by treaty (the violation of which was the official pretext of Clive’s expedition in the first place, well, second, since Siraj argued that the British violated it first with their meddling). Clive saw an opportunity to replace Siraj with one of his more pliable generals, Mir Jafar. But he had to work fast because he was going to be recalled to fight the French at Ponicherry near Madras.
After quickly laying the proper political groundwork, Clive advanced on the French outpost at Chandranagar and burned it to the ground. Siraj sent troops to intervene but anticipating this Clive bribed the Bengali general beforehand. Correctly guessing that Clive was trying to have him replaced, Siraj again massed his feudal levies and headed south, this time to crush the British force.
Clive was vastly outnumbered but had a clear quality advantage. However, that wouldn’t last as he heard a French force was approaching the area from the west. The French force was small like his, but it would provide the necessary backbone for Siraj’s men. Furthermore, many in Clive’s force were Frenchmen, either captives fighting instead of going to prison, or just isolated French merchants and adventurers who chose to join the expedition. Clive was worried that they would defect if an actual French army was in the area. So Clive confronted Siraj in the mango groves outside the village of Palashi 93 miles north of Calcutta. The village is better known by its Anglicized name of Plassey.
Siraj had 19,000 cavalry, 42,000 infantry, and 50 large field cannon, including a number of war elephants and 200 Frenchmen who mostly supervised the guns, and even crewed a few. Clive had a mixed European force of 800 professional infantry, 2100 Indian sepoys, and eight cannon crewed by about 200 gunners and sailors. Although Siraj vastly outnumbered Clive, Clive’s men were much more disciplined for the most part, and all had modern firearms. Siraj’s men mostly had swords and spears, but did have a significant number of old firelock muskets.
On 23 June 1757, Clive and Siraj’s respective troops lined up against each other and the battle began with a thunderous barrage on both sides. The professional British gunners managed a rate of fire of two or three rounds a minute, while the Bengali’s, under French tutelage, managed just one round every fifteen minutes. Fortunately for Siraj, a thunderstorm broke out which ceased the firing on both sides.
When the storm subsided, Siraj decided to attack since his guns and gunpowder were soaked, and assumed Clive’s were the same. However, Clive’s gunners covered their guns and powder with tarps, and unleashed devastating volleys into the Bengali masses as they approached. The Bengali’s retreated.
Siraj by this time was clearly unsure of what to do and sought counsel. He spoke to his astrologer (who was bribed by Clive) and the seer predicted his death if he stayed. Also, Mir Jafar, one of Siraj’s division commanders, also counseled retreat. Siraj did not know that Clive had secured Mir’s assistance. As Siraj was discussing his options with his advisers, Clive attacked. The Nawab of Begali quickly got on his camel and sped out of camp. With their leader gone, the army broke and Mir Jafar and his men defected. Siraj was eventually killed by his own people, and Mir Jafar replaced him as Nawab of Bengal.
The Battle of Plassey removed the French presence from Bengal and brought the area under control of the British East India Company. It was the first step in the British quest for domination of South Asia. Over the next one hundred years, the British would go on to conquer the rest of the Indian subcontinent. By the time of Queen Victoria in the late 19th century, India was known as the Crown Jewel of the British Empire.