World war zero: Spanish succession, Austrian succession and the age of Napoleon

A fun idea in reading very fast and remembering everything is coming up with connections other people rarely notice or do not want to discuss. History is a subject characterized by very deep expertise. This means that experts spill ink discussing very narrow very local subjects. Global phenomena are somewhat harder to address and easier to miss.

We live in an era of global conflicts.

I am happy that we do not yet have something like the WWI and WWII in the 21st century. WWIII could be truly devastating. The “cold war” or “the war on terror” were global conflicts, but they were not as intense as the world wars of the 20th century. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is bloody, but I hope it will not generate a global conflict.

The world feels smaller with every year. Communications are faster, logistics cheaper, and cultural phenomena are truly massive. Yet even before the 20th century, there were truly global conflicts. These conflicts took decades and their cost was millions of lives. Yet, they were one of the defining forces for the world we live in.

What is a global conflict?

A global conflict will usually involve activity in at least three continents, with about a dozen participating countries divided into large blocks. So if you see wars involving Russia and US at the same time, it is a good idea to dig deeper.

We all know WWI took part in the second decade of the 20th century. In fact, there were huge wars in the second decades of the 19th and 18th centuries. Both wars kind of involved European powers, America, Russia, India, Africa, and more.  Direct casualties could be counted in millions. The mid-18th century seven years war was also a global conflict. Why these conflicts were not named “world war”? Probably because the communications were slow, and each war theater was almost independent.

Who invented the term “world war”?

Wikipedia is usually a reliable source. Going to we get:

The Oxford English Dictionary cited the first known usage in the English language to a Scottish newspaper, The People’s Journal, in 1848: “A war among the great powers is now necessarily a world-war.” The term “world war” is used by Karl Marx and his associate, Friedrich Engels, in a series of articles published around 1850 called “The Class Struggles in France”. Their term was not applied to the events of their age.

The Crimean war from October 1853 to February 1856 was a European war with approximately a million casualties. All superpowers attacked Russia.  Taiping Civil War in china December 1850 – August 1864 coincided with at least 20 million dead. American civil war again coincided. April 1861 – April 1865 with at least half a million dead. Yet these were local conflicts.

So when did we start counting wars? The term “World War I” was coined by Time magazine on page 28b of its June 12, 1939 issue. In the same article, on page 32, the term “World War II” was first used speculatively to describe the upcoming war. The term “World War I” was coined by Time magazine on page 28b of its June 12, 1939 issue. In the same article, on page 32, the term “World War II” was first used speculatively to describe the upcoming war.

War of Spanish succession

The first truly global war was long. War of the Grand Alliance 1688–1697 involved a large coalition of superpowers fighting against France. 680,000 military deaths. The war was also fought by sea, with small battles in India and in Africa, and in French colonies in America.  The war was bloody and inconclusive.

Soon after, in 1701-1714 there was the war of Spanish succession. 400,000 military deaths, and more deaths due to disease. Once again, the French fought against a great coalition: in Europe, both Americas, Asia, and Africa. The French ambitions were temporarily stopped. Article II of the Peace of Utrecht included the stipulation that “because of the great danger which threatened the liberty and safety of all Europe, from the too-close conjunction of the kingdoms of Spain and France,… the same person should never become King of both kingdoms.” Some historians view this as a key point in the evolution of the modern nation-state.

What was happening in Russia during that time? The Great Northern War (1700–1721)  was a huge, basically independent conflict with Russians fighting Swedes and other European superpowers joining either side. About 50,000 military deaths, half a million died from famine, disease, and exhaustion. Russians were victorious.

In Asia there were independent conflicts. Mughal–Maratha Wars in India started around 1680 and culminated in 1707 with the death of Aurangzeb. The body count was millions. Probably above 2 million. The message of this war echoed the global conflicts: even the richest man in the world, the ruler of the greatest empire should not wield too much power.

It’s not like there this message was accepted everywhere. In 1687–1697 Qing China conquered Mongolia. In 1720 Quing conquered Tibet…. The conquest of Dzungar Khanate by Quing in 1755 coincides with Maratha Empire conquering Deli in 1757 and the next great global conflict.

War of Austrian succession

The war of Austrian succession was fought in 1740-1748 and marked the rise of Prussia as a great power. The war was also very imperialistic.  450,000 military dead. There were several related wars all over the globe.  The war was also conducted in North America and India. British and French empires clashed violently over colonies. Spanish treasure ships were captured in South America and Philipines. It was a so-called cabinet war in which disciplined regular armies were equipped and supplied by the state to conduct warfare on behalf of the sovereign’s interests. Occupied enemy territories were regularly taxed and extorted for funds.

The war between the French and English empires was resumed in another global war: the seven years’ war 1756–1763. This war was global with around a million men lost. The results were very bad for the french, especially in America. France cedes its North American and Indian possessions to great Britain. Mughal Empire cedes Bengal to Great Britain.

For much of the eighteenth century, France approached its wars in the same way. It would let colonies defend themselves or would offer only minimal help sending them limited numbers of troops or inexperienced soldiers. This strategy was to a degree forced upon France by geography, coupled with the superiority of the British navy,

As a result of these wars, the British empire grew. All of us learn English at school. And English possessions in America became sizable enough to justify the American revolutionary war.

Napoleonic wars

Napoleon was an office in the next set of conflicts, the French revolutionary wars 1792 -1802. The young french republic aided by Spain and Nederlands fought against all other superpowers combined. The fighting was fierce, and yet more soldiers were captured than killed. The French republic was desperate to survive. Yet, Napoleon was skilled enough to launch a massive Mediterranean campaign with a huge expedition to Egypt.

The fundamental shifts in warfare that occurred during the period have prompted scholars to identify the era as the beginning of “modern war”.  There was massive mobilization of poorly trained and equiped people seeking liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

The Indian Mysore country was less lucky. It was a very rich very productive land, with the highest GDP per capita in 18th century. In warfare, it deployed multiple launch rocket system carts. In the 18th century. There were several rounds of war between Mysore and the English alliance with local powers. The first war rounds were inconclusive. The third Anglo-Mysore war in 1790-1792 and the fourth war in 1798-1799 were decisive English victories. Bonaparte had an alliance with Mysore royalty.

Napoleon became an emperor, and next, he launched a series of attacks called the Napoleonic wars 1803-1815. The wars were fierce, with around 5 million dead. There was an awakening of nationalism, especially in Spain and Russia. In America, Washington DC burned in 1814, yet the star-spangled banner waved over the victorious colonies. Even in Latin America, this was a period of independence wars and the birth of modern countries.

From cabinets to ideology

Napoleonic wars were very different from the cabinet wars of the previous century. They were very bloody and ideologically intense. The stakes were high. There was very little use of industrial might that we see in WWI and WWII – except for the continuous domination of the English fleet.

We would like to see Russians and American victorious, allied with English and supporting passive French troops against aggressive Germans. This happened in WWI and in WWII. The three global conflicts before that were dominated by English nautical domination and French army victories. It took the entire might of all other European superpowers to limit French progress for more than a century. The rise of Prussia to power was surprising to say the least. The independence and empowerment of America was more gradual and steady. European powers ceded their territories as they were unable to defend them as well as fight European wars – until the USA became a superpower.


WWII was marked by industrial mobilization. At the beginning of the war the USA had 3 aircraft careers in the pacific fleet and another 3 in the Atlantic fleet. By the end of the war, it has 99 careers. A third of American production was dedicated to the war effort. This was not the case in the wars of the previous centuries. The world population was mainly rural, and the forces involved horses and smoothbore firearms.  Napoleonic wars were the first wars characterized by a massive mobilization of the population both in regular armies and partisan movements. There was nothing similar in the global conflicts of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Until the 18th century each country had its own military structure with a focus on different elements. In the 18th century, the European military model became more powerful than any local element. This military superiority and projection of naval power were the cornerstones of  European imperialism and global warfare.

And yet, observing centuries of bloody history it is hard for me to shake the feeling that people learned nothing. The WWI was a result of treaties built to make wars too terrible to attempt. And then after WWII nuclear weapon was built to do just that. MADness. Mutual assured destruction.


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