Changes in Command
In the wake of Major General Edward Braddock's death at the Battle of Monongahela in July 1755, command of British forces in North America passed to Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts. Unable to come to an accord with his commanders, he was replaced in January 1756, when the Duke of Newcastle, heading the British government, appointed Lord Loudoun to the post with Major General James Abercrombie as his second in command. Changes were also afoot to the north where Major General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, Marquis de Saint-Veran arrived in May with a small contingent of reinforcements and orders to assume overall command of French forces. This appointment angered the Marquis de Vaudreuil, governor of New France (Canada), as he had designs on the post.
In the winter of 1756, prior to Montcalm's arrival, Vaudreuil ordered a series of successful raids against the British supply lines leading to Fort Oswego. These destroyed large quantities of supplies and hampered British plans for campaigning on Lake Ontario later that year. Arriving in Albany, NY in July, Abercrombie proved a highly cautious commander and refused to take action without Loudoun's approval. This was countered by Montcalm who proved highly aggressive. Moving to Fort Carillon on Lake Champlain he feinted an advance south before shifting west to conduct an attack on Fort Oswego. Moving against the fort in mid-August, he compelled its surrender and effectively eliminated the British presence on Lake Ontario.
While fighting raged in the colonies, Newcastle sought to avoid a general conflict in Europe. Due to changing national interests on the Continent, the systems of alliances that had been in place for decades began to decay as each country sought to safeguard their interests. While Newcastle wished fight a decisive colonial war against the French, he was hampered by the need to protect the Electorate of Hanover which had ties to the British royal family. In seeking a new ally to guarantee the safety of Hanover, he found a willing partner in Prussia. A former British adversary, Prussia wished to retain the lands (namely Silesia) it had gained during the War of the Austrian Succession. Concerned about the possibility of a large alliance against his nation, King Frederick II (the Great) began making overtures to London in May 1755. Subsequent negotiations led to the Convention of Westminster which was signed on January 15, 1756. Defensive in nature, this agreement called for Prussia to protect Hanover from the French in exchange for the British withholding aid from Austria in any conflict over Silesia.
A long-time ally of Britain, Austria was angered by the Convention and stepped up talks with France. Though reluctant to join with Austria, Louis XV agreed to a defensive alliance in the wake of increasing hostilities with Britain. Signed on May 1, 1756, the Treaty of Versailles saw the two nations agree to provide aid and troops should one be attacked by a third party. In addition, Austria agreed not to aid Britain in any colonial conflicts. Operating on the fringe of these talks was Russia which was eager to contain Prussian expansionism while also improving their position in Poland. While not a signatory of the treaty, Empress Elizabeth's government was sympathetic to the French and Austrians.
War is Declared
While Newcastle worked to limit the conflict, the French moved to expand it. Forming a large force at Toulon, the French fleet began an attack on British-held Minorca in April 1756. In an effort to relieve the garrison, the Royal Navy dispatched a force to the area under the command of Admiral John Byng. Beset by delays and with ships in ill-repair, Byng reached Minorca and clashed with a French fleet of equal size on May 20. Though the action was inconclusive, Byng's ships took substantial damage and in a resulting council of war his officers agreed that the fleet should return to Gibraltar. Under increasing pressure, the British garrison on Minorca surrendered on May 28. In a tragic turn of events, Byng was charged with not doing his utmost to relieve the island and after a court-martial was executed. In response to the attack on Minorca, Britain officially declared war on May 17, nearly two years after the first shots in North America.
As war between Britain and France was formalized, Frederick became increasingly concerned about France, Austria, and Russian moving against Prussia. Alerted that Austria and Russia were mobilizing, he did likewise. In a preemptive move, Frederick's highly disciplined forces began an invasion of Saxony on August 29 which was aligned with his enemies. Catching the Saxons by surprise, he cornered their small army at Pirna. Moving to aid the Saxons, an Austrian army under Marshal Maximilian von Browne marched towards the border. Advancing to meet the enemy, Frederick attacked Browne at the Battle of Lobositz on October 1. In heavy fighting, the Prussians were able to compel the Austrians to retreat (Map).
Though the Austrians continued attempts to relieve the Saxons they were in vain and the forces at Pirna surrendered two weeks later. Though Frederick had intended the invasion of Saxony to serve as a warning to his adversaries, it only worked to further unite them. The military events of 1756 effectively eliminated the hope that a large-scale war could be avoided. Accepting this inevitability, both sides began re-working their defensive alliances into ones that were more offensive in nature. Though already allied in spirit, Russia officially joined with France and Austria on January 11, 1757, when it became the third signatory of the Treaty of Versailles.