Battle of Königgrätz

Summary

The Battle of Königgrätz on July 3, 1866 near the Bohemian town of Königgrätz was the decisive battle in the German War. The Prussian army defeated the armies of Austria and Saxony. In an area about ten kilometers wide and five kilometers deep, more than 400,000 soldiers fought each other in a battle full of losses. The centers of the fighting were the strategically important hills Svíb near Maslowed and Chlum near Schestar. As a result of the victory, Prussia became the leading power in Germany, and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck thus implemented the small German solution. The battle is considered one of the precursors to the founding of the German Empire in 1871. In several languages, the battle is named after the village of Sadowa, especially in France, where it was perceived as a political defeat and the cry “Revenge for Sadowa!” arose.

After the Napoleonic Wars, the old interstate order in Europe was largely restored between the European powers at the Congress of Vienna. On the territory of the Holy Roman Empire, the German Confederation had emerged as a loose confederation of states that included parts of Prussia and Austria. The cause of the Prussian-Austrian War lay in the tensions between the powers of Prussia and Austria, which were growing in the struggle for supremacy in the German Confederation: In the autumn crisis of 1850, war had almost broken out between the two; under Russian pressure, Prussia had to abandon its nation-state project, Erfurt Union.

The reason for the war was the conflict over the possession of the territories of Schleswig and Holstein, which were jointly administered by Austria and Prussia after the German-Danish War. In 1865, the antagonisms were overcome once again with the Gastein Convention, in which Austria confined itself to the administration of Holstein. But when Prussia occupied Holstein in violation of the terms of this agreement, Austria declared the mobilization of the federal army. Prussia then withdrew from the German Confederation and declared war on Austria on June 19, 1866.

On Austria”s side were the German central states of Bavaria, Hanover, Saxony, Württemberg, Baden, and various small German states.

On Prussia”s side were most of the small Thuringian states (Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach was the wife of the Prussian king), some northern German states, and Italy, which was to receive Veneto from Austria in the event of victory.

On the Prussian side, the Chief of the General Staff, General von Moltke, had worked out a wide-ranging pincer maneuver. Moltke”s battle plan was based on a principle that was quite problematic in its execution: “March separately – strike together,” that is, a deployment contrary to traditional strategic doctrine on the “outer lines” rather than the inner lines with their advantage of shorter distances and easier mutual reinforcement.

Thus, at the end of June 1866, the Prussian High Command set three armies in motion – the 1st Army under Prince Friedrich Karl Nikolaus of Prussia gathered in Lusatia, the 2nd Army under his cousin, Crown Prince Friedrich-Wilhelm, had to advance in the east from Silesia. The Elbarmee under General Herwarth von Bittenfeld turned against the Saxons and advanced from Dresden across the Bohemian border to Rumburg.The large-scale encircling movement was to seek to encompass the entire Austrian force in northern Bohemia. The Elbarmee (General Command VIII Army Corps with 46,000 men) was to occupy Saxony and attack the Austrians from the west, from the north the 1st Army (II, III and IV Army Corps with 93,000 men) was to push southward via Reichenberg to draw the main enemy force towards itself, while the 2nd Army (Guards, I, V and VI Army Corps with 115,000 men) of the Crown Prince was to advance from the east via Glatz and the Owl Mountains.

The Prussian 2nd Army advanced in three army columns, partly from the county of Glatz, via Braunau, as well as on the Landeshut road to Liebau. On June 27, the Prussian I Corps was defeated at Trautenau by the Austrian X.  Korps under FML Ludwig von Gablenz and had to fall back to Goldenöls, whereupon the Prussian Guard Corps advancing via Eypel took over the vanguard and defeated parts of the Austrian IV Corps at Soor and Burkers.  Corps at Soor and Burkersdorf.On June 27, the left wing of the Crown Prince”s army, General Steinmetz”s V Corps, had defeated the Austrian VI Corps under FML Ramming. Korps under FML Ramming at Nachod, on June 28 the Austrian VIII Korps under Archduke Leopold at Skalitz, which had rushed to help, and on June 29 parts of the enemy IV.  Korps (FML Tassilo Festetics) at Jaromierz and Schweinschädel.

By 28 June, the Prussian 1st Army had repulsed the enemy at Turnau and Podol and was able to unite with the Elbar Army at the Iser River. The Elbarmee had simultaneously defeated the Saxons and the Austrian I Corps (FML Clam-Gallas) at Münchengrätz. On June 29, the Prussian 1st Army scored another success against the Saxon corps under Prince Albert at Gitschin. Finally, in the area of Königinhof, the connection of the Crown Prince with the army of Prince Frederick Charles was established on June 30 with about 220,000 men, but 60,000 of them could not intervene in time in the Battle of Königgrätz that followed on July 3.

The Austrian Feldzeugmeister Ludwig von Benedek had become known as a skilful strategist through his military successes in the campaigns in Italy (1848 and 1859) and after the outbreak of the war – at the age of 61 – he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Austrian Northern Army. Since he had no military experience in the new Bohemian theater of war, he tried in vain to refuse the post at first, but he did comply with Emperor Franz Joseph”s decision.

The Austrian vanguards had already had nasty experiences with the Prussian firing needle rifle in several engagements, so Benedek decided to post his main force in a strong defensive position on a series of small hills between the Bistritz River and the Elbe River; the fortress of Königgrätz behind it could cover the retreat if necessary. He hoped that the infantry lying in this position, supported by strong artillery, could halt the Prussian advance.

The Austrians had seven corps, but three of them had already suffered heavily from the preliminary fighting, so that about 190,000 men were assembled on the heights.On the left wing, an eighth corps – about 22,000 Saxons under Crown Prince Albert – was assigned the heights at Problus. The Saxon 2nd Division under Lieutenant General Thuisko von Stieglitz was behind Problus, the Leib Brigade on the right, the 1st Brigade on the left. The Saxon 1st Division under Lieutenant General Bernhard von Schimpf was massed between Lubno, Popowitz, and Tresowitz, and had concentrated its reserves between Problus and Stresetitz. The Saxon 3rd Brigade was positioned at Problus, the 11th and 12th Brigades at Nieder-Prim. The Austrian VIII Corps (under FML Joseph von Weber since 29 June), serving as a rear guard, secured the positions on the far left in Upper-Prim and the forest in front of it from evasion. Cavalry of the Saxon 2nd Division kept in touch with the Austrian X.  Corps. In the center Benedek united about 44,000 men with 134 guns, the X.  Corps under FML Gablenz, weakened by the preliminary fighting, and the even fresher III Corps under Archduke Ernst, which held the heights of Lipa and Chlum.Following as the right wing with about 55,000 men was the IV Corps under FML Festetics south of Maslowed, at Cistowes and Nedelist, the II Corps under FML Karl von Thun und Hohenstein held the position from Sendrasitz to the Elbe. Benedek kept behind it a third of his army, the I (Major General Gondrecourt) and VI Corps (FML Ramming), with over 60,000 men and 320 guns in reserve. With these formations he intended to lead his counterattack once the Prussian attack had stalled at his forward defensive position.

At about 4 a.m. on July 3, the advance of the Prussian 1st Army under Friedrich Karl zur Bistritz began. On the left the 7th Division reached Cerekwitz, in the center the 8th Division under General August von Horn advanced on Klenitz as the vanguard, and on the right the 3rd and 4th Divisions were advancing on Dohalitz and Mokrowous. Behind them, in second line, the 5th and 6th Divisions followed in the direction of Sadowa. The vanguard of the Horn Division was involved in an artillery fire exchange with the artillery of the Austrian X. Corps. As the Prussians attempted to cross the Bistritz River, two Austrian corps commanders decided to distinguish themselves and move against the enemy”s right flank. Without continuing to make a front against the expected Prussian 2nd Army, the troops of corps commanders Festetics and Thun left their positions and advanced westward, leaving a gap in the Austrian defenses to the north; exactly where the Prussian 2nd Army would later decisively intervene.

In the morning, the Austrians had only the Prussian 1st Army in front of them – the Crown Prince”s units were still on the march, and the Elbar Army had not yet crossed the Bistritz near Nechanitz. Consequently, the pressure on the outnumbered Prussian troops on the ground increased. In the center, Thun and Festetics were engaged in heavy fighting in the Swiep Forest. The Prussian 7th Division under Major General Eduard von Fransecky, including in particular the 2nd Magdeburg Infantry Regiment No. 27, entrenched itself in the Swiep Forest and engaged in a terrible slaughter in an attempt to repel the offensive of two Austrian corps. On the wings, the Prussians occupied the Swiepwald. Without artillery preparation and knowledge of the army command, the Austrians under Count Festetics tried to retake the forest. Count Festetics” right foot was shattered by a shell, so Field Marshal Lieutenant Anton Mollinary led the further attacks. A heavy battle raged in the Swiep Forest, with the Prussian 7th Division almost being routed, but at the same time the Austrians suffered heavy losses. In the Holawald, the Prussian 8th Division ran itself aground and was reinforced by the trailing 4th Division under General Friedrich Adrian Herwarth von Bittenfeld.

Meanwhile, at the southern end of the front, the Elbarmee also crossed the Bistritz. As of 10 a.m., the 15th Division had managed to cross the Bistritz at Lubno, and General Philipp Carl von Canstein was preparing to attack Neu- and Nieder-Prim.

The Austrian generals were already basking in the feeling of victory, and in Prussian headquarters the first resentment arose against the unorthodox deployment plan of the eccentric Moltke. Even King Wilhelm I and his Prime Minister Bismarck feared defeat. Then, around noon, at the height of the village of Horenowes opposite, the Prussian 1st Guards Regiment on foot appeared. It formed the vanguard of the Prussian Guard Corps belonging to the 2nd Army – the Crown Prince”s army was there and, together with the Elbar Army attacking from the southwest, took on the Austrian troops entrenched in the Swiep Forest. At 1:45 p.m. the attack of the 14th Division under General Hugo Eberhard zu Münster-Meinhövel against the Problus-Stresetitz line also began. In front of the pressure of the Elbarmee set from Nechanitz, the Saxon corps on the opposite side slowly retreated in the afternoon.

By 1 p.m., when Benedek was about to give the order to deploy the reserve, the Austrians were aware of the full extent of the danger now threatening from the north. The Prussian 1st Guards Division under General Wilhelm Hiller von Gärtringen – vanguard of the now intervening 2nd Army – was approaching Chlum via Maslowed. Field Marshal Lieutenant Thun, who was threatened in the rear, had to immediately lead the bulk of his troops back to the east. The Austrian positions in the Swiep Forest also collapsed as a result.

Behind the incoming 2nd Guards Division, the Prussian I and V Corps were already advancing, and the 11th and 12th Divisions of the VI Corps under General Louis von Mutius were already pushing into the Austrian flank on the far right. Thun had to order the withdrawal of his corps on the western bank of the Elbe, making the situation on the Austrian right wing even more exposed.

Benedek himself led an infantry brigade into an ineffective counterattack at Chlum. The Austrian reserve – the VI Corps – in close combat with the Prussian 1st Guards Division almost managed to retake the lost Chlum, but was stopped short of the objective.Finally, to relieve the hard-wrestling infantry, two Austrian cavalry divisions attacked in the skirmish at Stresetitz and at Rosberitz-Langenhof, here 39.5 Austrian faced about 31 Prussian squadrons. The attack of the Hessian cuirassiers at Rosberitz met the Prussian cavalry brigade under Major General Georg von der Groeben and led to an early break-off due to the intervention of the enemy infantry. However, the heavy 3rd Reserve Cavalry Division under Major General Count Karl von Coudenhove proved more than a match for the Prussian dragoons with the Cuirassier Brigade under Prince Windischgrätz at Stresetitz.

Even before the intervention of the 16th Division under General August von Etzel, which had followed across the Bistritz, the Saxon positions at Problus had collapsed.When Ramming”s last counterattack at Chlum had failed, Benedek ordered the sacrifice of his last reserves. With the threat of encirclement of the entire Austrian army looming, von Benedek abandoned the battle at about four o”clock and ordered a retreat to Königgrätz.Meanwhile, at Elbarmee, the 14th Division with its 27th Infantry Brigade under General Emil von Schwartzkoppen was able to push the Saxons out of the village of Problus. The defenders of Problus were among the last battalions to leave the battlefield and formed the rearguard of the Austrians.The I Corps under Major General Leopold Gondrecourt with three brigades had to prevent the Prussians from cutting off the retreat of the main Austrian force. Before this corps could make a makeshift break from the enemy, it alone had suffered losses of 279 officers and 10,000 men, 2,800 of whom had been taken prisoner.

The Austrians flooding back were pursued by the Prussian cavalry, which was then kept at a sufficient distance by the artillery. Under the protection of the guns of the Königgrätz fortress, the defeated Austrians retreated to the Elbe. The fortress commander, Major General Leopold von Weigl, misjudging the situation, closed the city gates in the evening and, by opening sluices, created a small marshy area that inflicted further unnecessary losses on the retreating Austrians.

Total Prussian losses in the battle were 359 officers, 8,794 men, and 909 horses, including 1,929 killed, 6,948 wounded, and 276 missing.The Austrians lost 1,313 officers, 41. 499 men and 6,010 cavalry, of whom 5,658 were killed, 7,574 wounded, 7,410 missing and 22,170 captured.The Saxon Corps lost 55 officers and 1,446 men, of whom 135 were killed, 940 wounded and 426 missing.

Recent research has significantly reduced the estimate of the importance of the firing needle rifle. The firing cadence of the firing needle rifle is about 3 times that of a Minié muzzleloader, but the range of the firing needle rifles was only about half that of the Austrian Lorenz rifles (the Prussian firing needle rifles had a range of 600 meters, but were practically inaccurate above 300 meters; the Minié type muzzleloaders, on the other hand, had a range of about 900 meters).

In addition to the higher cadence of the breechloader, another advantage, for example in the Battle of Königgrätz, was that the gunner could reload the weapon lying down. He was thus less exposed to enemy fire than the gunner equipped with a muzzleloader, who had to stand or kneel to reload and was usually uncovered during the reloading process. Against an onrushing enemy, however, Prussian soldiers usually fired standing up.

Peter Aumüller compiled the following factors:

Thorsten Loch and Lars Zacharias argue similarly.

The Prussian 1st Army under Frederick Charles pursued the Austrians to Brno; the 2nd Army under the Crown Prince on Olmütz, and the Elbarmee followed the Austrians through Iglau to Znojmo. The Prussians reached the Danube area in mid-July and advanced without much resistance on the Stockerau and Gänserndorf line in the northern outskirts of Vienna. On July 26, 1866, the preliminary peace of Nikolsburg was concluded, followed by the final peace treaty of Prague on August 23.

The battle also had far-reaching political consequences for the Habsburg Empire of Austria. Despite the successful battles at Custoza (June 24) and Lissa (July 20) against the Italians who had entered the war on the side of the Prussians, Emperor Franz Joseph was forced to capitulate and cede Venetia to Italy in the Peace of Vienna after the devastating defeat at Königgrätz.As a result of the Austrian defeat, the previous German Confederation dissolved; Prussia annexed Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, Kurhessen, Nassau and the Free City of Frankfurt and created the North German Confederation. Domestically, too, Emperor Franz Joseph came under intense pressure from the aspirations of his peoples for autonomy. The Austrian monarchy was very weakened in terms of foreign policy; on December 21, 1867, the Compromise with Hungary and the December Constitution had to be approved in the Imperial Council.

The importance of the battle did not go unnoticed by foreign contemporaries. In Paris of the Second Empire, people feared that a powerful, united neighbor under Prussian supremacy was forming on the eastern border. To prevent Prussia from further unifying German states, the battle cry Revanche pour Sadowa! (“Revenge for Sadowa!”) emerged. The aim was to “nip the new neighbor in the bud.” As one of the armament measures, the Chassepot rifle was introduced as late as 1866, although it was clear in Paris that a rifle with a metal cartridge would have been desirable, because the Chassepot system was afflicted with various disadvantages. However, the Chassepot rifle was quickly available at a comparatively low price.

The Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, after being informed of the outcome of the battle, is said to have scolded his commander in an un-imperial manner: “Benedek, the fool! Benedek was relieved of his office, replaced by Archduke Albrecht of Austria-Teschen and tried before a court martial. However, under imperial pressure, the proceedings were discontinued and Benedek was ordered to remain silent about the battle for the rest of his life, which he did.

Today”s historians believe that while Benedek had some mishaps, the defeat was the fault of Hungarian officers who, contrary to Benedek”s orders, counterattacked in the Swiep Forest, thus tearing the Austrian front apart and being caught off guard by the “late” Prussian 1st Guards Regiment on foot. However, Benedek was quite well informed about the superiority of the firing needle rifles, not least because the head of military intelligence, Georg von Kees, was on his staff. Therefore, he usually chose dense forest terrain (as in Swiepwald) for the Austrian positions in order to force the Prussians into close combat, where their more modern rifles were of little use to them. This tactic also worked quite well, until that fateful counterattack for the Austrians.

In the numerous anecdotes that have been preserved about this memorable confrontation between Prussia and Austria, the saying “The Prussians don”t shoot that fast!” can be found again and again. This is supposed to be an allusion to the Prussians” firing needle rifles, which gave them a great advantage, albeit not one that was decisive for the battle or even the war.

Sebastian Haffner contradicts this derivation in his book Prussia without Legend:

Whatever the interpretation, the saying remains associated in the eyes of posterity with the Battle of Königgrätz and the final rise of Prussia as the dominant power in German politics.

Another interpretation derives from the fact that, following the French model, the inscription “Ultima ratio regis” = “the king”s last resort” had been engraved on all Prussian cannons since 1742 and developed in popular parlance into “Prussians don”t shoot that fast”.

Among the observers of the battle was the most famous war correspondent of the time, William Howard Russell of the London-based The Times, which also had another correspondent at each of the two headquarters of the opposing armies. Russell observed the battle with a telescope from the church tower at Königgrätz.

Wilhelm I allowed the then already 80-year-old Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau to join the royal entourage. On the day of the battle, however, they failed to wake the old gentleman. Although he slept through the events, he was later decorated for his participation.

In Theodor Fontane”s novel Effi Briest, the title character gives birth to daughter Annie, her only child, on the day of Königgrätz, July 3. Quote from the 14th chapter: “… and on the morning of July 3, a cradle stood beside Effi”s bed. Doctor Hannemann patted the young woman”s hand and said: ”Today is the day of Königgrätz; it”s a pity it”s a girl. But the other one can follow, and the Prussians have many victory days.””

Königgrätz was the first battle in Europe before which large contingents of troops were moved by rail. Moltke had to have troops brought to four fronts (Austria, on the other hand, had the advantage of the inner line). Moltke credited the railroad with a part in his victory; Clark puts this in perspective. Saxon locomotive engineers drove numerous Saxon locomotives to Eger to take them away from the Prussians. Prussia may have been using insights from its military observers during the War of Secession (1861-1865) in the United States. Compared to the muzzle-loaders in use until then, the Prussian firing needle rifle could not only be reloaded faster, but also while lying down, i.e., under cover. Paul von Hindenburg, who took part in the battle as a second lieutenant, later described the effect of the firing needle rifles as “terrible”.

The Prussian military musician Gottfried Piefke composed the Königgrätzer Marsch to commemorate the battle, allegedly while still on the battlefield (it is very rarely performed in Austria for an obvious reason.

In the Museum of Military History in Vienna, the Battle of Königgrätz is documented in detail using a wide variety of objects. For example, several firing needle rifles by Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse are on display alongside Austrian Lorenz rifles. An M 1863 field gun documents the superiority of Austrian artillery in 1864 to 1866 in terms of firing accuracy and mobility. The monumental painting (8×5 meters) by Václav Sochor shows the end of a cavalry battery of the k.k. Field Artillery Regiment No. 8, which covered the retreat of the defeated Austrian army across the Elbe River, sacrificing itself in the process. This sacrifice was also the subject of Rudolf Otto von Ottenfeld”s painting Ein Ruhmesblatt der österreichischen Artillerie.

The commemorative cross for the victorious Prussian army bears the inscription: GOD WAS WITH US, HIM BE THE HONOR.The cross is made of light bronze with raised rim and has a multiple grooved eye with band ring. Between the four cross arm angles is a wreath of laurel all around. On the front, in a round central shield, is the letter cipher WR with an arched inscriptionPREUSSENS SIEGREICHEM HEERE.The upper arm of the cross shows the royal crown, the other three arms of the cross bear the inscription “God was with us, to him be the glory”. On the reverse is the Prussian eagle in a round central shield, on the four arms of the cross the inscriptionKÖNIGGRÄTZ DEN 3. JULI 1866.

50.297222222215.7402777778Coordinates: 50° 17′ 50″ N, 15° 44′ 25″ E

Sources

  1. Schlacht bei Königgrätz
  2. Battle of Königgrätz
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