The Battle By Which Prussia Asserted Her Right To First Place Among The German-Speaking Nations
The battle of Königgrätz was the great conflict in the Seven Weeks' War between Prussia and Austria, fighting for the possession of Schleswig-Holstein and for first place among the German-speaking nations. Of the progress of events which led to the war and the early episodes in the struggle it is not our intention to speak. On June 18th, 1866, Prussia declared war; the die had been cast, and Moltke, the master-soldier of his day, had moved the Prussian troops into Bohemia, where Austria was massing her strength.
Moltke had sent his warriors forth in three great armies: the first army, about ninety-three thousand strong, under command of Prince Frederick Charles, the king's nephew; the second, numbering one hundred thousand, commanded by the Crown Prince, son-in-law to Queen Victoria; and the third, totalling some twenty-eight thousand men, under General Herwarth von Bittenfeld. Starting from different points, the three forces converged on Gitschin.
Meanwhile the Austrians, two hundred and five thousand strong, under command of Marshal Benedek, had not been idle. Great efforts had been made to stop the advance of the various Prussian armies, but all without avail. Steadily, relentlessly, the stolid Prussians marched on their way, and Benedek, realising that it was impossible to escape a great decisive battle in which the three sections of the Prussians would take part, fell back on Königgrätz, beneath the shelter of whose guns he waited for the foe. Among his troops he had those of Saxony and Hungary, men who would give a good account of themselves—the latter especially, their cavalry being reckoned the best in the world.
On June 30th King William I., Moltke, Bismarck, and von Roon left Berlin for Gitschin, where they arrived on July 2nd. Six miles on the right of Gitschin lay Prince Charles Frederick, the Red Prince, as his men called him, from the colour of the uniform of the Zieten Hussars, in which he usually dressed; to the left, at Koniginhof, lay the Crown Prince. Herwarth was on the extreme right, some ten miles from Milowitz.
It was Moltke's first idea to allow his force a day's rest before beginning the battle—a decision all the more readily come to because the precise whereabouts of the Austrians was then unknown. It was thought that they were on the left side of the Elbe, their right and left flanks respectively resting on Josephstadt and Königgrätz, two fortresses which made a strong position.
In the evening, however, a messenger arrived, bringing news that the main body of the Austrian army was, after all, massed at Königgrätz, on the right side of the Elbe, and on the further side of the brook of Bistritz, running parallel with the Elbe. It was a strong position, but by no means as strong as the one Moltke had thought they occupied, and so, instead of carrying out his first plan, he determined to attack the enemy first thing in the morning, bringing his three armies into operation in the endeavour to inflict a crushing blow and end the war at once.
Lieutenant von Norman was sent off to the Crown Prince telling him to bring his army up. His was a perilous journey. It lay through the ranks of the Austrian outposts, and ere he had gone far a squadron of cavalry espied him and set out in pursuit. Putting spurs to his horse, von Norman raced away, followed hard by the Austrians, who, however, failed to stop him. The Crown Prince received his orders and Herwarth his, which were to attack the flanks of the enemy while the Red Prince assailed their centre with his batteries.
Little sleep had the Prussian soldiers that night, for as soon as the plan of campaign had been decided upon, orders were issued for the troops to move on toward the Austrian position, and the morning, which was wet and dismal, found them waiting for the order to begin. Moltke and his staff had joined the Red Prince at Dub before five o'clock, to be joined later by the veteran king and his retinue. In his greatcoat, with goloshes over his boots, and his field-glass round his neck, King William, mounted on his mare, moved among his troops, to be received everywhere with enthusiasm and devotion.
Though, as has been said, the Austrian position was by no means as strong as the one which it was supposed they had taken up, yet it was far from being a, weak one. In front of them ran the Bistritz brook. All around them were woods, villages, and farmsteads, which afforded admirable cover for their infantry; while beyond the brook rose a ridge which formed a base for their artillery. It was a natural fort, as also was the rising ground near the village of Chlum, in which the Austrians had hidden further batteries, blocking the road with trees and branches.
The army of the Red Prince, of course, was the nearest to the Austrian position, and, fearing that Benedek might attempt to fall back over the Elbe, he decided to begin operations at once without waiting for Herwarth and the Crown Prince to come up.
The battle therefore began, the Prussian batteries pouring in their deadly hail. Battery after battery was brought into action, concentrating upon the Austrian centre, which replied just as effectively. Really Benedek, knowing the country, had the best of it, and as the batteries in every village opened fire almost simultaneously, concentrating well, his cannonade did terrible damage to the Red Prince's force.
So far it was but a battle of the guns; but at last the Red Prince put his infantry into motion, sending them down towards the brook for the purpose of charging the villages in which the Austrians had taken up strong positions. From Sadowa the road crosses the Bistritz, and, Sadowa taken, there would be little trouble in getting over the brook and striking right into the heart of the Austrian army. Sadowa, therefore, and Dohalitz and Dohalicka, on the right, were the points of attack.
While the infantry was thus moving towards these villages, the hamlet of Benatek, on the Austrian right, caught fire, and Prince Charles dispatched the 7th Prussian division to effect its capture. With a rush they poured in on the burning village, but the Austrians, scorning to fly from the fire, stood their ground and made a stubborn resistance. Volley after volley was poured into the Prussians from behind the burning buildings. Then at last a second Prussian division attacked in the rear. The foes met in the midst of the flames, and there ensued a terrible hand-to-hand fight, the first in the battle.
Meanwhile Sadowa and the other two villages had been attacked. It was at the first place that the fiercest fight raged. The immediate vicinity of the village was well wooded, and here the Austrians had taken up a strong position. The road was narrow, and the village sheltered the Austrians, who were thus able to execute dreadful damage. The Prussians, however, boasting the new breech-loading needle-gun, poured in a hail of bullets. The Austrians returned it with interest. The infantry made a bold stand, and being helped by the tremendous fire from their batteries above and behind them, mowed down rank after rank of the advancing Prussians; but nothing could stop their wild onrush. They meant to come to grips, and with bayonets fixed they pressed forward over the writhing bodies of comrades and through the death-dealing shower of shells and bullets. At last! The combatants had met, and then, with few shots but many thrusts of the blood-stained bayonets, the hand-to-hand conflict began, and a melee such as seldom happens in the days of modern warfare ensued. The wood of Sadowa was turned into a shambles; rain and blood fell together, soddening the ground and making it slippery and difficult to keep a foothold. For an hour or more the battle raged, and at last the Austrians were driven back. Sadowa was won. It was the first-fruits of the victory that was to come. It was a hard-won victory, for of one Prussian regiment of 3,100 but 400 remained in line after the battle.
What had happened at Sadowa had been repeated in measure at Dohalitz and Dohalicka, and by eleven o'clock, after a frightful carnage, the three villages and the wooded slope above Sadowa were in the possession of the Red Prince.
Shortly after this, and while the Austrians were forming a new line in the woods near Lipa, the Prussian artillery crossed the Bistritz and opened fire upon the new position, causing tremendous damage. Prussian infantry also crossed the brook and attacked the wood. Man after man fell before the raking fire of the Austrians, but, like a relentless wave of human passion, the Prussians swept on, and charged the wood at bayonet point. Back into the centre of the wood they forced the Austrians; then the fight became stationary. The Austrian artillery came into play, dismounted most of the Prussian guns, and almost drove them back. Reinforcements were quickly pushed forward; across the river they rushed, into the wood, passing through a destructive fire which threatened to drive them back. Torn, battered, mangled out of all recognition, the men fell, but still their comrades pushed on and kept the fight going.
Meanwhile, what of the Crown Prince; what of Herwarth? The Austrian flanks still remained to be assailed, and Bismarck and the Red Prince were apprehensive that if the reinforcements did not soon arrive the battle must even now be lost. Moltke, however, had faith in his generals and in his well-laid plans. He had no doubt as to the result. He had, indeed, assured the king of victory. His majesty, speaking of the prospects of the fight, had been told, "To-day, your majesty will win not only the battle, but also the campaign!"
Bismarck, it is said, became infected with the quiet confidence of Moltke through an apparently insignificant incident. Offering his cigar-case to Moltke, he noticed that the latter carefully and deliberately made his choice, taking the best.
"H'm!" said the man of the "blood-and-iron" policy to himself, "if he is calm enough to do that, we need not fear after all." Events justified that reflection.
Nevertheless, Bismarck kept his glass trained on the direction from which the Crown Prince must come, and after a while pointed to certain lines afar off, suggesting that they were the lines of the Prince's advancing troops. Those to whom he communicated this information refused to believe them anything but furrows.
"No," replied Bismarck, "the spaces are not equal; they are advancing lines."
Bismarck was right, and just as the Austrians were driven out of the wood of Sadowa the Austrian right batteries opened fire, sufficient evidence that the Crown Prince was coming.
The news ran like wildfire through the Prussian force: "The Crown Prince is coming!"
It was the signal for a more vigorous onset by the Prussians, for it was necessary to keep the fight going until the Crown Prince arrived. The reserves were therefore called upon, and for six miles, from centre to left, there was a general engagement of the opposing artilleries. It was an awful, awe-inspiring scene; overhead, the clouds hung low, and the rain still continued; below, death and destruction were being dealt on all sides; the shrieking shells hurtled through the air; the cries of mangled, crushed men made the air hideous; while here and there terrible conflicts were being waged by the infantry at close quarters; and Sadowa wood was finally carried and the battery beyond stormed and captured.
The Austrian troops were hopeful of victory, however. They regarded the calling of the Prussian reserves into action as a sign that Moltke was finding his task no easy one, and as Benedek passed through the 6th Corps, which had not yet taken part, ringing cheers were sounded and the Austrian National Anthem burst forth from the bands. But Benedek had other thoughts; he knew that the battle had but just begun, that the end was not yet. Hence it was that he gave his exulting men the following advice:
"Not yet, my children; wait till to-morrow."
Up to now, except that the three little villages and the wood had been captured, the Austrians were showing a steady front; but suddenly Benedek noticed that something untoward was happening at the village of Chlum. What was it? He soon found out. Hastening to inquire, he discovered that the Prussians under the Crown Prince had made a forced march from Königinhof, and, coming upon the rear of the Austrian right, had engaged them with such vigour, that it was soon turned, despite the gigantic efforts of the Austrians to withstand the shock of the impact of the Prince's hundred thousand men.
Benedek's fears had been well founded. The right was turned; the left, where the Saxons were posted, attacked by Herwarth with relentless vigour, very quickly suffered the same fate.
Crushed and broken, the Austrians now began to give way in all directions before the steady advance of Moltke's great united force, which, forming a semi-circle, closed in upon the retreating foe.
The cavalry of the Red Prince's army now moved en masse and charged and completely overthrew the Austrian cavalry.
Benedek fought for every inch of the way to Königgrätz, on which he was now falling back, and his cavalry did some splendid work, but all in vain. Once, indeed, the 3rd Prussian Dragoons were driven back by a Cuirassier brigade, led by an English officer, Beales, who charged them in the rear. The Austrian squadron smote the dragoons hip and thigh, and but for the fact that the Prussian Uhlans came to their assistance with couched lances, the dragoons must have been totally destroyed. As it was, the Cuirassiers were compelled to fall back in turn, seeing that the Red Prince's Zieten Hussars also attacked them in the rear.
Meanwhile the King, with his suite, was following his victorious army—not out of the danger zone, but, like the brave old man that he was, riding into the places of peril, taking his share of the risks he had asked his soldiers to face. Once, indeed, he became exposed to such a counter-fire of bursting shells that Bismarck had to remonstrate with him—fruitlessly, however, for the King refused to regard his position as dangerous.
"Does your majesty think they are swallows?" said Bismarck, referring to the shells.
A bold speech of a subject to a king, but Bismarck was a bold man always. Finding that the King would not budge, he brought his own horse up behind his majesty's, "gave her a sly kick with the point of his foot, and made her bound forward," taking her precious rider out of the fire-zone.
The meeting of the King with the Crown Prince was most affecting. The latter rode up, reported his presence on the field of battle, kissed his father's hand, and was embraced. Then, almost overcome by emotion, his majesty congratulated him on his success, commended him for his ability, and presented him with the order "Pour le Merite."
Meanwhile the retreat was proceeding. Step by step the Austrians fell back, and at last the battle was over, lost and won. Lost at the cost of twenty thousand killed and wounded and as many taken prisoners; won at the sacrifice of about ten thousand of the flower of Prussia's manhood. But it was worth it: Prussia had proclaimed her supremacy.