Königgrätz 1866

The operations between 22nd June and 3rd July 1866

Thorsten Loch/Lars Zacharias

 

As has been perceived unanimously up to this day, the Battle of Königgrätz decided the “Question of Germany” which had existed for decades. Because of the fire superiority of their sparking pin rifles and the brilliant leadership of Field Marshal General Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian armies defeated the troops of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy led by General Ludwig von Benedek. In their history-political apologetics not only the “victors”, but the “losers” as well, concentrated on the arguments weapons technology and leadership failure of their general, who was even branded as “dope” by his commander-in-chief. Obviously Austria lost the war of 1866 for the ascendancy over Germany in this battle. On superficial examination, better weapons and superior military skills of the Prussians were responsible for this outcome. Are these superior military skills really evident, however, or was not Moltke only lucky because his adversary made operational and tactical mistakes? Behind the obvious one can see that Benedek certainly knew what he did and that he acted according to the situational picture he had at disposal. The events prompted Benedek to order his troops from the area of Gitschin - where they had slowed down the enemy successfully, thus preventing an accumulation of Prussian forces - to Königgrätz. Here he wanted to force a decision by defence because of tactical reasons (morale among the troops, better impact of his firearms on the defensive). Not everywhere the situation seemed promising for the Prussian forces, as the firearms of that time definitely favoured the defender. Only the right flank, which had originally been positioned in order to safeguard against the North, and was now deployed against the 2nd Prussian Army expected at noon, disobeyed and slipped out of Benedek’s command. Thus, the right flank was exposed and worn out in the Swiep Forest. Only this insubordination rendered realizing Moltke’s intent possible. Without the unauthorized acts of two corps commanders at this place the Prussian crown prince would have suffered the same fate as his cousin, Prince Friedrich Karl, and his 1st Army: staying down in the fire of the Lorenz Rifles and the rifled barrels of the Austrian muzzle-loader artillery. In this situation an Austrian counter-attack with reserves of about 60.000 (including three cavalry divisions) could have carried out a massacre among the exhausted Prussian formations. Instead, Benedek was forced to order the counter-attack against Chlum, because - after realizing the flank threat - he had missed the right moment for deploying his reserves for defending the right flank. Thus, the decision of Königgrätz was neither based on Moltke’s genius, nor on the availability of trains, nor on the efficiency of the sparking pin rifle, nor on Benedek’s incompetence. Dealing with the course of the operations shows that the deployment against orders on the right flank (a command problem) and the deployment of the Austrian reserves (a commander’s decision) decided over victory and defeat.