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Chapter XXI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 5


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The tidings of the actions of Soor and Skalitz must have convinced the Austrian commander that his plan of falling upon the separate corps of the Army of Silesia, as they issued from the mountain passes, and defeating them in detail, had failed of success. He resolved, therefore, to oppose their passage of the Elbe, and for this purpose to take up a position extending along that river in a northwesterly direction from Josephstadt. But it was a necessary element in this combination that Gitschin, on his left flank, should be firmly held by Count Clam Gallas, and that the army of Prince Frederick Charles should be temporarily detained in front of it. When, on the morning of the 30th, news came of the storming of Gitsehin by the Prussians the evening before, and of the rout of the 1st Corps and the Saxons, Benedek saw that by this disaster his left flank was uncovered, and that his dispositions must instantly be changed. While his army was still in a position to fight a great battle, he must interpose it between the enemy and Vienna, and accept battle on the most favourable and carefully prepared ground that he could select. He therefore sent out orders to his corps and divisional commanders to concentrate their commands in front of the fortress of Königgrätz, with its left resting on the little river Bistritz, and its right on the Elbe. These orders were issued on the 30th June. On the same day the Army of Silesia closed up to the First Army, so as to form with it and the Army of the Elbe a wide semi-circle, extending from the Elbe about Königinhof to Neu Bidsow, due west of Königgrätz. The retrograde movement of the Austrians along crowded' country roads was attended with considerable difficulty, and it was not till the night of the 2nd July that the whole of their army was assembled in front of Königgrätz. The Crown Prince left two corps and a half on the other side of the Elbe, both to observe the fortress of Josephstadt, and to be prepared vigorously to check any movement which might be made from under its cover against the communications of the army with Silesia. On the 1st July, Prince Frederick Charles pushed forward from Gitschin, and the bulk of the First Army lay that night between Gitschin and Horitz, but nearer to the latter place, on the line of road leading to Königgrätz.

The two main armies of Prussia being now in close proximity, while their commanders, the Crown Prince and Prince Frederick Charles, were independent of each other, it became urgently necessary that some general of superior rank should be on the spot, so as to co-ordinate, if necessary, the movements of both armies, in accordance with whatever plan for the further prosecution of the campaign might be resolved upon. But this officer- superior in rank to the commanders both of the First and of the Second Army - could be no other than the King himself. The King of Prussia accordingly left Berlin on the 29th June, and arrived at Gitschin on the 1st July, where he assumed the supreme command of the three Prussian armies. The importance of this proceeding we shall presently see.

The King decided that the troops should rest on the 2nd July, in consequence of the severe privations which they had undergone since the march through Bohemia began. A conference was held on that day at Gitschin to discuss the position of affairs, to which Prince Frederick Charles and the Crown Prince were summoned. The position of the bulk of the Austrian army being at that time imperfectly known, although the general belief at the Prussian head-quarters was, that Benedek meant to make a stand on the Elbe, facing westwards, between the fortresses of Josephstadt and Königgrätz, it was decided at the conference that strong reconnaissances should be sent out on the next day, in order to feel the enemy, and ascertain where his chief strength lay. Prince Frederick returned in the afternoon after the conference to his headquarters at Kammenitz, a farmhouse between Gitschin and Horitz. Here he received intelligence which completely changed the aspect of affairs. The skirmishers of the seventh division, advancing early in the morning a few miles beyond Horitz, had watched an Austrian column, which was estimated to number from 30,000 to 35,000 men, defiling for the space of seven hours along a country road leading southwards through Cerekwitz to Königgrätz. Two staff officers also, riding forward with strong escorts in the vicinity of the villages of Dub and Sadowa, in order to obtain information, were set upon by superior bodies of Austrian cavalry, and had to ride hard for their lives. That the Austrians were in great force a few miles off was abundantly clear from these facts; and it immediately occurred to Prince Frederick Charles that Benedek was concentrating his whole army between Horitz and Königgrätz, in order to fall upon and defeat him before he was in effective communication with the army of the Crown Prince. Whether this were so or not. Prince Frederick Charles resolved at once to move his army forward, ready either to receive or to deliver an attack according to circumstances. He sent an aide-de-camp to the Crown Prince at Königinhof, requesting him to send one corps of his army early the next morning to attack Benedek's right flank, while he himself, with the First Army, attacked him, or repelled his attack, as it might turn out. At the same time he sent his chief of the staff, General von Voigts Rhetz, to the King at Gitschin, to communicate the new movements which he contemplated, and to request the King's approval of them. And now the importance of the King's presence, and of his paramount authority was made evident. Prince Frederick Charles could only request the Crown Prince to assist him with one of his corps, for the two commands were independent; and he would probably hesitate to give to his request a greater extension, lest he should appear to be assuming the direction of both armies. But no sooner had the King learnt the Prince's plans, than he dispatched (it was then about midnight of the 2nd July) an aide-de-camp to the Crown Prince, ordering him to march to the attack of Benedek's right at daybreak, with his whole available force. " Who knows what might have happened on the 3rd July," asks Colonel Rustow, " had not the King been there to order the co-operation of the Crown Prince with Prince Frederick Charles, in such formidable strength as to render a victory for Austria the next thing to an impossibility? "

The position which Benedek had taken up, on a mass of rolling hilly ground, the highest point of which is marked by the village and church of Chlum, bounded on the west by the Bistritz, and on the east by the Elbe, and with the fortress of Königgrätz in its rear, would have been an exceedingly good one, had he had no other army but that of Frederick Charles to think of. As against the First Army, the line of the Bistritz, with its commanding ridge, its woods affording shelter for marksmen, and the difficulties presented by the (in places) marshy character of its valley, presented a defensive position of the first order. But Benedek had to reckon also with the army of the Crown Prince, and this he well knew; for an Austrian force had been driven out of Königinhof by the Prussian Guards on the evening of the 29th. In the interval between that date and the 2nd July, he could not doubt that communication had been opened between the two Prussian armies; and, therefore, since Königinhof is but ten miles from Horenowes, the village at the northern edge of the hills which formed the arena of battle, he ought to have been certain that he could not give battle to Frederick Charles, without the Crown Prince descending upon his right flank. For these and other reasons, it is the opinion of Colonel Rustow that Benedek did wrong in risking a great battle on the plateau of Chlum, and that he could have selected a far more advantageous position farther south, in which his army, facing slightly west of north, with the Bistritz in its front, would have had its right resting on Königgrätz, and its left covered by the network of lakes and swamps near Altwasser; yet, in case of defeat, would have had an excellent line of retreat open to it, by Pardubitz, across the Elbe.

In pursuance of his resolution to risk an immediate advance, Prince Frederick Charles put his columns in motion from Horitz before midnight on the 2nd July. Marching along the main road towards Königgrätz, the First Army, full 100,000 strong, arrived, soon after midnight, at a point where the road sinks into a deep hollow near the village of Milowitz. Here they were halted for some hours, hidden from sight in the undulation of the ground. Daylight broke on the eventful 3rd July, yet no Austrian scouts came up to the edge of the hill in front, no skirmishers could be seen stealing through the corn. The Prince began to fear that Benedek had altered his plans, and that he might be secretly withdrawing his army behind the Elbe. About four o'clock, therefore, he gave the order to advance, and the whole Prussian army, starting Antaeus-like from the ground, marched eagerly forward over the few miles of ground which separated them from the memorable battle-field of Königgrätz.

A chilly wind was blowing, and the rain fell steadily; the guns laboured heavily through the deep soil of the cornfields, and it was six o'clock before the main body reached the plateau of Dub. Here there was another halt for a short time, while the necessary dispositions were taken for deploying the columns into line. About seven o'clock Prince Frederick Charles sent some cavalry and horse artillery down the hill from Dub towards Sadowa, a village situated on the main road, where it crosses the Bistritz. Some Austrian guns posted in a field near the river opened fire upon them, and the battle was begun.

To understand the fluctuations which characterised this remarkable struggle, it is necessary that the reader should have an accurate notion of the Austrian order of battle. The ground occupied by Marshal Benedek may be regarded as divided into two nearly equal portions by the high road running across it to Königgrätz. The centre was about Lipa and Chlum, two villages, of which the former was upon the road, the latter, conspicuous by its church spire, stood on a hill above it to the right. Chlum was the highest ground, and manifestly the key of the position. From the high road, proceeding in a south-westerly direction, the villages of Langenhof, Problus, and Prim were successively met with. The two last-named were held by the Saxons as the extreme left of the army; they had thrown forward a detachment to Nechanitz on the Bistritz. On the other side of the road, proceeding north-east and then east, the line ran by the villages of Cistowes, Benatek, Horenowes, and Sendrasitz, beyond which it abutted on the Trotina, a small stream running into the Elbe. Here was posted the Schwarz-gelb brigade as the extreme right flank.

The position, naturally good, had been artificially strengthened on the side from which the attack of the First Army was expected. The villages of Sadowa Dohalitz, Dohalicka, and Mokrovous, bordering the stream of the Bistritz in the order in which they are named, at intervals of about three-quarters of a mile, starting from the high road, were strongly held by bodies of Austrian infantry, pushed forward from their respective corps. The hill-side above Sadowa, to the left of the road, was covered by a large wood, the trees of which, at the lower part of it, had been cut down to a height of ten feet from the ground, and the cut branches twisted in among the standing trunks, so as to make the entrance into the wood extremely difficult. In every favourable situation guns were planted, and in order to guide their fire, different ranges had been marked beforehand, by posts set up at the proper distances on the side of the hill down which the Prussians had to descend.

A slow artillery fire was interchanged for some time. Presently the King came on the ground, having driven up that morning from Gitschin; on the plateau of Dub he mounted his horse, and assumed the supreme command. More Prussian guns were then brought up, to the fire of which the Austrians were not slow in replying; and soon 500 pieces were thundering at each other across the Bistritz. The Austrian fire, from the precautions which they had taken, was rather the more deadly of the two; and soon after ten o'clock the King gave the order to form storming columns to attack the villages on the Bistritz. The Prussians suffered heavily as they advanced, for the Austrians were sheltered by the houses. Eventually they forced their way in, and the four villages just named, beginning with Sadowa, after a terrible hand- to-hand struggle in the streets and houses, were all in Prussian hands by eleven o'clock. But the defenders only retired a little way up the hill into a line with their batteries. Prussian guns were then brought across the Bistritz, and began firing at the main Austrian position. About this time the smoke of Herwarth's advance began to be seen on the Prussian right. That General had moved early in the morning from Smidar. At Nechanitz, which was held by the Saxons, he had considerable difficulty in getting his guns across the river under their fire. When this difficulty was surmounted, Nechanitz was carried, and the Saxons, fighting bravely, fell back upon Prim and Problus. Herwarth detached a division towards Hradek, thus threatening the Austrian line of retreat.

Between eleven and twelve Marshal Benedek was informed that the 6th Corps of the army of the Crown Prince was approaching the Trotina, and menacing his right flank. He gave orders that it should be firmly resisted, his intention being at this time, as is supposed, to cross the Bistritz in his turn, having called up a portion of his reserves, and attack Prince Frederick Charles, in the hope, perhaps, of disabling him, and so gaining time for an unmolested retreat. He could scarcely count upon more than this, with Herwarth pressing on towards his left, and the Crown Prince advancing with the whole strength of the Army of Silesia against his right. Desiring first to shake the Prussian line by a heavy artillery fire, Benedek concentrated sixty-four guns to the left of Lipa, and some of the reserves of cavalry and infantry were moved up to positions favourable for making the counter attack.

"At this time," says Captain Hozier, " the Austrian artillery were making splendid practice, and about one o'clock the whole battle-line of the Prussians could gain no more ground, and was obliged to fight hard to retain the position it had won. At one time it seemed as if it would be lost, for guns had been dismounted by the Austrian fire, and in the wooded ground the needle-gun had no fair field, and the infantry fight was very equal." Prince Frederick Charles then sent two fresh divisions forward to storm the wood above Sadowa. The men went forward, with cheers, across the bridge of Sadowa, and pushed the battle forward a few hundred yards; but the deadly Austrian fire was more than they could bear up I against, and they were obliged to fall back without reaching the enemy. The division under General Franzecky, holding the left of the First Army, though it had fought splendidly and driven the Austrians out of a large wood near Benatek, was, by this time, terribly cut up, and could make no farther progress. Herwarth was also, about one o'clock, checked in his advance. The First Army could do no more; it was even a question whether it could hold its ground; and the Prussian commanders on the plateau of Dub turned many an anxious glance to the left, wondering why the columns of the Crown Prince did not make their appearance. The King himself frequently turned his field-glass in that direction. The heavy rain that had fallen prevented the march of the Crown Prince from being marked by those clouds of dust which are the usual accompaniment of a moving army. Some Austrian guns about Lipa, it is true, appeared to be firing towards the north, but it was not certain that they were not directed against some movement of Franzecky's division. Yet all this time two corps belonging to the army of the Crown Prince had been in action since half-past twelve with the Austrian right, and one of them was pressing forward to the occupation of ground, the defence of which was vital to the continued maintenance of its position by the Austrian army.

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Pictures for Chapter XXI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 5

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Battle of Langensalza
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Frankfort-on-the-Main
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General Steinmetz
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Marshal Benedek
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The Battlefield of Königgrätz
The Battlefield of Königgrätz >>>>

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