In the 1750s, British settlers in America wanted to trade in Ohio Country. The French didn't want them to. In 1753 the French began construction of a series of forts in the Ohio Country. Nobody stopped them because Ohio Country was de facto French territory. The French had been trading there for years and had boots on the ground.
The fact that Ohio Country was French territory didn't stop other powers from claiming it. Indians claimed the territory on the grounds they were there first. British colonies claimed it on the grounds they outnumbered the French and the Indians.
In December 1753, the royal governor of Virginia dispatched Lieutenant Colonel George Washington on a 1000-mile round-trip to order the French to abandon their posts and forts. It was an adventure. They literally went to Murdering Town.
The Day following, just after we had passed a Place called the Murdering Town, where we intended to quit the Path, and steer across the Country for Shannopins Town, we fell in with a Party of French Indians, who had lain in wait for us; one of them fired at Mr. Gist or me, not 15 Steps, but fortunately missed. We took this Fellow into Custody, and kept him till about 9 o'Clock at Night, and then let him go, and walked all the remaining Part of the Night without making any Stop, that we might get the Start so far, as to be out of the Reach of their Pursuit the next Day, as we were well assured they would follow our Track as soon as it was light: The next Day we continued travelling till quite dark, and go to the River about 2 Miles above Shannapins; we expected to have found the River frozen, but it was not, only about 50 Yards from each Shore; the Ice I suppose had broke up above, for it was driving in vast Quantities.
There was no Way for getting over but on a Raft, which we set about, with but one poor Hatcher, and got finished just after Sun setting, after a whole Day's Work; we got it launched, and on board of it, and set off; but before we were half Way over, we were jammed in the Ice in such a Manner that we expected every Moment our Raft to sink, and ourselves to perish: I put out my setting Pole to try to stop the Raft, that the Ice might pass by, when the Rapidity of the Stream threw it with so much Violence against the Pole, that it jirked me out into 10 Feet Water, but I fortunately saved myself by catching hold of one of the Raft Logs; notwithstanding all our Efforts we could not get the Raft to either Shore, but were obliged, as we were near an Island, to quit our Raft and make to it.
The Cold was so extremely severe, that Mr. Gist had all his Fingers, and some of his Toes frozen, and the Water was shut up so hard, that we found no Difficulty in getting off the Island on the Ice in the Morning, and went to Mr. Frazier's. We met here with 20 Warriors, who were going to the Southward to War, but coming to a Place upon the Head of the Great Cunnaway, where they found 7 People killed and scalped, all but one woman with very light Hair, they turned about and ran back, for Fear the Inhabitants should rise and take them as the Authors of the Murder: They report that the People were lying about the House, and some of them much torn and eaten by Hogs; by the Marks that were left, they say they were French Indians of the Ottaway Nation, Etc. that did it.
―excerpt from George Washington's journal
George Washington arrived at Fort Le Boeuf. George Washington politely asked the French to leave. The French politely refused to leave. George Washington returned home.
The royal governor of Virginia ordered George Washington to raise a militia to occupy the Forks of the Ohio. George Washington raised a militia but it was too big to reach the Forks of the Ohio by river. The royal governor of Virginia instead sent a small force of 36 men to occupy the Forks of the Ohio. The French and their allies sent a force of 500 men to the Forks of the Ohio. The Virginians agreed to leave. The French disassembled the British fort and built Fort Duquesne in its place.
In March 1753, the royal governor of Virginia ordered Washington to "act on the [defensive], but in Case any Attempts are made to obstruct the Works or interrupt our [settlements] by any Persons whatsoever, You are to restrain all such Offenders, & in Case of resistance to make Prisoners of or kill & destroy them". This was done with neither the condonance nor the knowledge of the British government in London. He didn't even bother to get authorization from Virginia's legislative body.
The French, in contrast, were under orders not to attack unless provoked because the French wanted to not start a world war.
George Washington assembled a force of 186 men. They marched to a position 37 miles south of the Forks of the Ohio called the Great Meadows where they built a makeshift fort.
The French sent a force of 35 soldiers to politely ask George Washington to leave. George Washington sent a force of 76 men to intercept them. Upon receiving more intelligence, George Washington left with 40 more men to intercept the French.
The battle took 15 minutes. At least 10 Frenchmen were killed and 30 captured. One Virginian was killed.
George Washington retreated to the Great Meadows where they built Fort Necessity which was completed June 3, 1754. Rain filled the trenches surrounding Fort Necessity. The Virginians built breastworks. George Washington led what had become a force of 300 Virginians to widen the road to Fort Duquesne. A French force of 600 men advanced. George Washington retreated to Fort Necessity, abandoning most of his supplies to stay ahead of the French advance. The Virginians arrived at Fort Necessity where they began to starve, due to having abandoned most of their supplies. The French besieged Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754. More rain fell. The Virginians' gunpowder got wet.
Negotiations began. The Virginians got drunk. The French said that George Washington would just please leave French territory he would let all the Virginians live so that they wouldn't have to start a world war. George Washington went home. The French and their Indian allies looted what remained of Virginian's supplies.
George Washington expected to be reprimanded by the royal governor of Virginia. He wasn't. In England, the Duke of Newcastle sent two regiments force from Ireland across the Atlantic Ocean to remove the French from Fort Duquesne. This was supplemented by British colonial forces. The French and their Indian allies ambushed and destroyed the British expeditionary force.
The French weren't supposed to know about the Irish expeditionary force. When they discovered it had been deployed, the French sent their own soldiers to reinforce Canada. The French ambassador informed the British that any act of hostility taken by British ships would be considered an act of war. A British squadron attacked a French troop convoy in June 8, 1755. They took 1,500 Frenchmen prisoner. Britain and France declared war in 1756.
The Seven Years' War
Britain and France weren't the only powers with territorial disputes. Prussia and Austria both wanted Silesia. Prussia quickly conquered Saxony (which was part of the Holy Roman Empire). Britain, bound by the Westminster Convention, allied with the Prussians. France allied with Austria as did (most of) the Holy Roman Empire. A few German states from the Holy Roman Empire joined Britain and Prussia. Sweden joined the French because they wanted to regain territory from Prussia. Spain and Russia joined the French to oppose the British. Denmark, Norway, the Dutch, Naples-Sicily and Savoy tried to stay out of the whole thing.
[Blue represents Britain and its allies. Green represents France and its allies. Image is from Wikimedia Commons.]
There was a big war. By 1757, the British had captured a French settlement of Chandernagore in India. By 1758 the British had captured Senegal from the French. By 1762, Britain was occupying Spanish Manila in the Philippines.
If it sounds like the British were winning everywhere that's because Britain had naval dominance. The French were counting on their European land power. The French reasoned that it didn't matter how many overseas territories they lost to the British if they won the European theatre. The French abandoned their colonies to win Europe. The British abandoned Europe to win the colonies.
The French failed to cross the Strait of Dover.
By 1763, the British were running out of money but they had conquered many territories from the French, captured a few territories from the Spanish and left Prussia out to dry. All they had lost was Menorca, an island so insignificant its name literally means "small". The British had the upper hand in negotiations.
A million people lay dead. Adjusted for global population growth, that's ten million people today.
Giant swaths of land were opened up to American colonists. The British felt the Virginians ought to help pay for all this. The American colonists declared "no taxation without representation" and revolted under the leadership of George Washington.
This legacy of insane overconfidence with no regard for the consequences is why I'm proud to be an American!