On the 30th the King of Prussia, with General Moltke and Count Bismarck, left Berlin; on July 2d they were at headquarters at Gitschin.
Continuing The Austro-Prussian War,
our selection from History of Modern Europe by Charles A. Fyffe published in 1890. The selection is presented in four easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Austro-Prussian War.
Time: July, 1866
Napoleon’s diplomacy had been successful in so far as it had assured Venetia to Italy whether Prussia should be victorious or overthrown, but as regarded France it had landed him in absolute powerlessness. He was unable to act on one side; he was not wanted on the other. Neutrality had become a matter, not of choice, but of necessity; and until the course of military events should have produced some new situation in Europe, France might well be watchful, but it could scarcely gain much credit for its disinterested part. *
[* ‘On May 11th Nigra, Italian ambassador at Paris, reported that Napoleon’s ideas on the objects to be attained by a congress were as follows: Venetia to Italy; Silesia to Austria; the Danish duchies and other territory in North Germany to Prussia; the establishment of several small States on the Rhine under French protection; the dispossessed German princes to be compensated in Romania. Napoleon III was pursuing in a somewhat altered form the old German policy of the republic and the empire—namely, the balancing of Austria and Prussia against each other, and the establishment of a French protectorate over the group of secondary States.]
Assured against an attack from the side of the Rhine, Bismarck was able to throw the mass of the Prussian forces southward against Austria, leaving in the north only the modest contingent that was necessary to overcome the resistance of Hanover and Hesse-Cassel. Through the precipitancy of a Prussian general, who struck without waiting for his colleagues, the Hanoverians gained a victory at Langensalza on June 27th; but other Prussian regiments arrived on the ﬁeld a few hours later, and the Hanoverian army was forced to capitulate the next day. The King made his escape to Austria; the Elector of Hesse-Cassel, less fortunate, was made a prisoner of war. Northern Germany was thus speedily reduced to submission, and any danger of a diversion in favor of Austria in this quarter disappeared.
In Saxony, no attempt was made to bar the way to the advancing Prussians. Dresden was occupied without resistance, but the Saxon army marched southward in good time, and joined the Austrians in Bohemia. The Prussian forces, about two hundred ﬁfty thousand strong, now gathered on the Saxon and Silesian frontier, covering the line from Pirna to Landshut. They were composed of three armies: the ﬁrst, or central, army under Prince Frederick Charles, a nephew of the King; the second, or Silesian, army under the Crown Prince; the westernmost, known as the Army of the Elbe, under General Herwarth von Bittenfeld. Against these were ranged about an equal number of Austrians, led by Benedek, a general who had gained great distinction in the Hungarian and Italian campaigns. It had at first been thought probable that Benedek, whose forces lay about Olmuetz, would invade Southern Silesia, and the Prussian line had therefore been extended far to the east. Soon, however, it appeared that the Austrians were unable to take up the offensive, and Benedek moved westward into Bohemia. The Prussian line was now shortened, and orders were given to the three armies to cross the Bohemian frontier and converge in the direction of the town of Gitschin. General Moltke, chief of staff, directed their operations from Berlin by telegraph.
The combined advance of the three armies was executed with extraordinary precision; and in a series of hard-fought combats, extending from June 26th to the 29th, the Austrians were driven back upon their center, and effective communication was established between the three invading bodies. On the 30th the King of Prussia, with General Moltke and Count Bismarck, left Berlin; on July 2d they were at headquarters at Gitschin. It had been Benedek’s design to leave a small force to hold the Silesian army in check, and to throw the mass of his army westward upon Prince Frederick Charles and overwhelm him before he could receive help from his colleagues. This design had been baffled by the energy of the Crown Prince’s attack, and by the superiority of the Prussians in generalship, in the discipline of their troops, and in the weapon they carried; for though the Austrians had witnessed in the Danish campaign the effects of the Prussian breech loading rifle (called the needle-gun), they had not thought it necessary to adopt a similar arm.
Benedek, though no great battle had yet been fought, saw that the campaign was lost, and wrote to the Emperor on July 1st recommending him to make peace, for otherwise a catastrophe was inevitable. He then concentrated his army on high ground a few miles west of Koeniggraetz, and prepared for a defensive battle on the grandest scale. In spite of the losses of the past week he could still bring about two hundred thousand men into action. The three Prussian armies were now near enough to one another to combine in their attack, and on the night of July 2d the King sent orders to the three commanders to move against Benedek before daybreak.
Prince Frederick Charles, advancing through the village of Sadowa, was the first in the field. For hours, his divisions sustained an unequal struggle against the assembled strength of the Austrians. Midday passed; the defenders now pressed down upon their assailants; and preparations for a retreat had been begun, when the long-expected message arrived that the Crown Prince was close at hand. The onslaught of the army of Silesia on Benedek’s right, which was accompanied by the arrival of Hewarth at the other end of the field of battle, at once decided the day. With difficulty, the Austrian commander prevented the enemy from seizing the positions that would have cut off his retreat. He retired eastward across the Elbe with a loss of eighteen thousand killed or wounded and twenty-four thousand prisoners. His army was ruined; and ten days after the Prussians had crossed the frontier the war was practically at an end.
The disaster of Koeniggraetz was too great to be neutralized by the success of the Austrian forces in Italy. La Marmora, who had given up his place at the head of the Government in order to take command of the army, crossed the Mincio at the head of a hundred twenty thousand men, but was defeated by inferior numbers on the fatal ground of Custozza, and compelled to fall back on the Oglio. This gleam of success, which was followed by a naval victory at Lissa off the Istrian coast, made it easier for the Austrian Emperor to face the sacrifices that were now inevitable. Immediately after the Battle of Koeniggraetz he invoked the mediation of Napoleon III, and ceded Venetia to him in behalf of Italy. Napoleon at once tendered his good offices to the belligerents, and proposed an armistice. His mediation was accepted in principle by the King of Prussia, who expressed his willingness also to grant an armistice as soon as preliminaries of peace should be recognized by the Austrian Court.
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