Battle of Königgrätz

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Battle of Königgrätz
Part of the Austro-Prussian War
Image:Battle of Königgrätz by Georg Bleibtreu.jpg
The Battle of Königgrätz by Georg Bleibtreu. Oil on canvas, 1869.
Date 3 July 1866
Location Sadová, Bohemia, present-day Czech Republic
Result Decisive Prussian victory
Prussia Austria
Wilhelm I
Helmuth von Moltke
Ludwig von Benedek
140,000 90,000 Austrians
25,000 Saxons
10,000 dead or wounded 25,000 dead or wounded
20,000 captured
Austro-Prussian War
CustozaTrutnovLangensalzaMnichovo HradištěJičínKöniggrätzLissaBezzecca

In the Battle of Königgrätz (or Hradec Králové) or Battle of Sadowa (or Sadová) of July 3, 1866, the Austro-Prussian War was decided in favour of Prussia. It was an excellent example of the battlefield concentration, a convergence of multiple units at the same location to trap and/or destroy an enemy force between them.


[edit] Preliminary campaign

At the outset of the war in June the Prussian armies were gathered along the Prussian border: the Army of the Elbe under Karl Herwarth von Bittenfeld at Torgau, the First Army under Prince Friedrich Karl between Senftenberg and Görlitz, and the Second Army under Crown Prince Friedrich in Silesia west of Neiße (modern Nysa). The Austrian army under Ludwig von Benedek was concentrated at Olmütz (Olomouc). The campaign began with Bittenfeld's advance to Dresden in Saxony, where he easily defeated the Saxon army of 25,000 and joined with the First Army. Benedek meanwhile began moving his army to Josefov.

On June 22, Prussia's Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke ordered both armies under his command to Jičín near the Austrian positions, a daring maneouvre undertaken to limit the war's duration despite the risk of one army being overtaken en route. Fortunately for Prussia, Benedek was relatively unprepared, and by June 29 Friedrich Karl had reached Jicin despite weak resistance and the Crown Prince had reached Königinhof an der Elbe (Dvůr Králové) despite stiff resistance. On June 30 Friedrich Karl advanced to within one day's march from the Crown Prince. However, for the next two days the Prussian cavalry lost sight of the Austrians entirely, although Moltke's guess as to their actions -- a retreat to the Elbe River -- proved correct.

[edit] The eve of battle

The Austrian forces were finally sighted on the eve of July 2 near Sadová, and Friedrich Karl planned to attack the next morning. Moltke ordered the Crown Prince to advance at once, but the telegraph lines to the Second Army's positions were out, necessitating the dispatch of two mounted officers at midnight to ride the twenty miles' distance in time. They arrived at 4 a.m..

Benedek was intimidated by the heavy losses his army had suffered so far and uncertain of his capability. He desired peace, but Emperor Franz Josef ordered him to fight a battle first. He also dismissed his chief of staff and operations officer for incompetence and chose a defensive position between Sadová and Hradec Králové (Königgrätz in German). He planned to delay the Prussians until he could retreat across the Elbe.

[edit] The battle

Image:Karte zur Schlacht bei Koeniggraetz (3. Juli 1866).jpg
Historical map of the Battle of Königgrätz

The Austrian army of 205,000 faced the Prussian Army of the Elbe (39,000) and First Army (85,000) on July 3. The Austrian infantry was partially fortified and supported by cavalry in the rear and artillery units with firing range across hilly, wooded terrain. The battle began at dawn in subsiding rain and mist as Prussia took its position west of the Bystřice River. Shortly before 8 a.m., the Austrian artillery opened fire, pinning down the German right flank under Bittenfeld. The Saxons on the Austrian left fell back in good order, and proceded to rain down fire on the advancing Prussian right from higher ground. Bittenfeld hesitated to order a full attack, and instead the advance guard of seven battalions, under Brig. General von Schöler pulled back to the river around 1000 and took a defensive stance.

The Prussian center, with the Prussian 7th Division under General von Fransecky, having secured the Prussian rear earlier, led the advance into Swiep Forest, where it was met by two Austrian corps. The 7th Division had to both clear out the forest, and cover the Prussian left until the Third Army, under the Crown Prince, arrived. The Prussians methodically cleared the villages of Austrian defenders. King Wilhelm ordered the First Army across the river to support Fransecky. Sadová (German: Sadowa) was captured, but a fierce battle ensued in a nearby forest. The Austrian artillery held off the Prussians firing into the smoke of the Prussian advance. The Prussians were slowed, and although the river was easy to wade, transporting artillery across it was extremely difficult. The Prussian attack was halted as the advancing Prussian 8th and 4th Divisions were cut down by the Austrian artillery as soon as they emerged from the smoke. However, the Austrian leader, Benedek, refused to call for a cavalry charge which later commenters have written might have won the battle. Reserve units were deployed at noon, but the battle was still uncertain and Prussian commanders anxiously waited for the Crown Prince.

To this point the Austrian superiority in numbers and position had held the day. Their weapons had longer range, which meant that the outnumbered Prussians could neither advance against the artillery barrage, nor effectively engage the Austrian infantry. The Prussians had attempted to bring three armies together for the battle, but problems with sending orders by telegraph and moving men by railroad had meant that only two of the three armies had arrived in time. The Prussian center, in the cover of the forest, was able to hold its position, and discourage a mounted charge by the Austrians, who were thought to have superior cavalry. However the close contact of the fight in the forest began to negate these advantages, the Austrians could not train their artillery on the close fighting, the damp weather made a cavalry charge risky, and Austrian IV Corps was committed piecemeal to the fighting. At this point the relative strengths of the two armies were beginning to reverse. The shorter range of the Prussian "needle-gun" rifle, and artillery was moot, while the vastly higher rate of fire from the Prussian breech-loading weapons, compared to the Austrian muzzle-loading small arms and cannon were paramount. In addition the needle gun could be operated while prone in defense, and while moving quickly on the advance, while the Austrians had to stand up after each shot to reload their rifles.

At 1100 came the deciding moment of the battle, the Austrian center began a maneuver to flank the Prussian 7th Division, which had pushed back and held off nearly a quarter of the Austrian army. Colonel Carl von Pöckh was sent to drive the Prussians back, and with a fierce infantry charge managed to force the 7th Division back to the outskirts of the forest. However, within moments the tide of battle turned, as flanking fire raked Pöckh's battalion, annihilating it as a fighting force and killing its commander. The fire came from the first elements of the Crown Prince's army as they arrived, and the 8th Division stiffened the Prussian center to hold off the Austrian thrusts. While divisions from the Austrian II and IV Corps were committed to the fighting, there was no decisive infantry charge, nor did the Prussians present a flank that could be attacked with cavalry. The Austrians were caught having moved from their defensive position to attack, and their right flank was hanging in the air exposed to the arriving Prussian infantry.

At 1430 Crown Prince finally arrived with the main bulk of his almost 100,000 men, having marched with all possible haste all morning, and hit the Austrian right flank retiring from Swiep Forest while the Prussian artillery pounded the Austrian center. The last individual counter-attacks by the Austrians were broken, even as Benedek ordered a withdrawal. Lt General Friedrich Hiller von Gärtringen's 1st Prussian Guard reached the Austrian artillery, forcing them stop reforming an artillery line and pull back. He had attacked because he saw the artillery as holding together the Austrian position, and his attack destroyed the lone cavalry battery that stayed to fight, and forced the others to flee, along with their reserves.

At this point, having taken severe casualties, lacking artillery and cavalry cover, the high ground in enemy hands and the center being rolled up, the position for the Austrians deteriorated rapidly. The Second Prussian Army completely broke through the Austrian lines and took Chlum behind the center. The Army of the Elbe, which had merely held position after the early morning blooding by the Austrian artillery and the Saxon infantry, attacked and broke through the Austrian left flank. It seized Probluz, and proceeded to destroy the Austrian flank. The Prussian king ordered all remaining forces into the attack all along the line, which had been slowed by the final counter-attack from the battalions of Brigadier General Ferdinand Rosenzweig von Dreuwehr’s Austrian brigade. The arriving reinforcements joined the fight just as the Austrians had forced the 1st Prussian Guard back to Chlum. The result was a decisive shock of fire power which collapsed the Austrian line. The Prussian advance was so rapid that Benedek ordered a series of cavalry countercharges to back up his artillery and cover the general retreat he ordered at 1500. These were successful at covering the Austrian rear, preventing pursuit by the Prussians, but at a terrible cost: 2,000 men and almost as many horses were killed, wounded or captured in the action.

The battle, already involving the largest number of combatants in Europe until that time, ended with one of the highest casualty rates for a major battle. The Prussians lost 360 officers, 8,812 men killed, wounded or missing - the Austrians and allies 1,372 officers and 43,500 men killed, wounded or missing, with 20,000 of these being prisoners. What made the losses for the Austrians higher was that Austria had refused to sign the Geneva convention. Hence their medical personnel were regarded as combatants, and withdrew from the field with the main bulk of the forces, leaving wounded to die on the field.

[edit] Aftermath

The Königgrätz/Sadowa campaign was the central one of the Austro-Prussian War, and an armistice was agreed to three weeks later. It was a great victory for Prussian statesmen, whose path to German unification had now been cleared.

[edit] References

  • Craig, Gordon The Battle of Königgrätz : Prussia's Victory Over Austria, 1866 Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1975, 1964.
  • Creasy, Sir Edward S., & Mitchell, Joseph B. Twenty Decisive Battles of the World. Chapter 17 ("The Battle of Sadowa, A.D. 1866").cs:Bitva u Hradce Králové

da:Slaget ved Königgrätz de:Schlacht von Königgrätz eo:Batalo ĉe Hradec Králové fr:Bataille de Sadowa it:Battaglia di Sadowa he:קרב קניגרץ nl:Slag bij Sadowa no:Slaget ved Königgrätz pl:Bitwa pod Sadową pt:Batalha de Königgrätz ru:Битва при Садовой sv:Slaget vid Königgrätz

Battle of Königgrätz

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