Build-up to Battle - 1-2 July
The Battle - 3 July
The battle of Sadowa or Königgrätz (3 July 1866) was a decisive Prussian victory during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Although the Prussian commander von Moltke failed to achieve the total destruction of the Austrian army that had been his objective, the battle helped break the Austrian will to resist, and peace was made on Prussian terms by the end of July.
The Prussians formed up along the northern borders of Saxony and Austrian Bohemia. The Army of the Elbe (Karl Herwarth von Bittenfeld) was on the Prussian right, facing towards Dresden, then the capital of the kingdom of Saxony. The Prussian 1st Army (Prince Frederick Charles) was next in line, facing the border between Saxony and Bohemia. Further east was the Prussian 2nd Army (Crown Prince Frederick William), facing Bohemia from Silesia.
The campaign started on 16 June with the invasion of Saxony by the Army of the Elbe, supported by the 1st Army, which invaded the eastern tip of Saxony. Dresden fell on 18 June, and Saxony was occupied by 20 June. The Saxon army, under Crown Prince Albert, retreated to join with the right wing of the Austrian army.
Von Moltke's plan was to invade Bohemia on a wide front. His armies were to head towards Gitschin, an important transport hub about half way between the starting points of his right and left wings, but were only to concentrate on the eventual battlefield. He hoped to surround the Austrians just before the final battle, in order to win a new 'Cannae'. This was a major gamble - for several days the Prussian army would be split in two, and if the Austrians moved quickly they would have been able to defeat the two wings of the Prussian army individually.
The danger was even more acute than Von Moltke had realised. The Austrians decided to concentrate their main army, under Field Marshal Benedek, around Josephstadt, a major fortress on the eastern Elbe. This put them close to the exits from the limited number of mountain passes that the Crown Prince had to use to cross the Bohemian Mountains. The Austrians had two chances to defeat the isolated Crown Prince - either by blocking the mountain passes, or by using their superior numbers to attack once he had emerged from the mountains. Instead Benedek took the advice of his chief of staff and decided to move west to attack the Army of the Elbe and the Prussian 1st Army on the River Iser.
The Austrian plans began to collapse as soon as the Prussians emerged from the mountains. They only had one Austrian Corps on the Iser, commanded by Count Clam Gallas, although this was soon joined by the Saxon army. Clam Gallas's orders were to concentrate on the Iser, around the town of Müchengrätz, but he doesn't appear to have realised that his role was to defend the line of the river. He had some outposts on the north-western side of the river, but these were defeated by the advancing Prussians on 26 June. The Army of the Elbe defeated one Austrian post at Huhnerwasser, but the more significant victory came at Liebenau, where the 1st Army swept aside an Austrian force and then captured a key crossing point over the Iser. On the same day Clam Gallas and Crown Prince Albert received orders to hold the line of the Iser. They decided to try and retake the river crossings, but his attack was repulsed well short of its target (Action of Podol, 26-27 June 1866).
This left the Austro-Saxon forces dangerously exposed to Prussian attack, and to the very real chance that their line of retreat east towards the main army would be cut. Crown Prince Albert, who was in overall command, decided to retreat east to Gitschin. The retreat began early on 28 June. In the meantime Prince Frederick Charles had missed a chance to inflict a major defeat on the Austrians on 27 June and instead had spent the day planning for a set-piece attack, to be carried out on 28 June. The resulting battle of Müchengrätz was still a Prussian victory, but it was won over the Austro-Saxon rearguard, and the main army escaped. The Prussian pursuit wasn't well handled either. On 29 June two Prussian divisions ended up carrying out uncoordinated attacks on the Austrians and Saxons around Gitschin. By now Benedek had decided to concentrate further east. Crown Prince Albert was ordered to retreat east to join the main Austrian army, leaving the Prussians in possession of Gitschin.
In the east things had gone no better for the Austrians. The Crown Prince crossed the mountains in three columns. I Corps was on the right, the Guards Corps in the middle and V Corps on the left, nearest to the Austrian concentration. All three columns were able to emerge from the worst of the mountain passes unscathed, but on 27 June both I Corps and V Corps had to fight. On the Prussian right the I Corps suffered a defeat at Trautenau, and fell back to their starting point for the day. On the left V Corps defeated a series of Austrian counterattacks on the hills outside Nachod.
On 28 June V Corps advanced west, and inflicted a second defeat on a fresh Austrian corps at Skalitz. To the north the Guards Corps attacked the Austrian victors of Trautenau, inflicting a defeat on them in the countryside south of the town (battle of Soor or Berkersdorf). The defeated Austrians retreated west across the Elbe, while the fresh 4th Corps took over the defensive position.
On 29 June the Prussians advanced to the Elbe. In the north the Guards Corps pushed an Austrian garrison out of Königinhof, securing one crossing of the Elbe. To the south V Corps won a third battle in three days, pushing the Austrians out of Schweinschadel, before continuing on west to join up with the Guards Corps.
By the end of 29 June the Prussians were in a strong position. The Army of the Elbe and the 1st Army were half way between the Iser and the Elbe, with their main concentration around Gitschin. The 2nd Army was stretched out along the eastern bank of the Elbe north of Josephstadt, and the Crown Prince was contemplating a move to the west bank of the river. Von Moltke based his plans on the assumption that the Austrians would retreat to the east bank of the Elbe and take up a strong position between the fortresses of Josephstadt and Königgrätz, so he forbade that move. If the Austrians did move across the Elbe then the Crown Prince would be needed to hit their right flank.
At the start of 29 June the Austrians were still planning to advance west to Gitschin, but the various defeats on 28 June made that plan obsolete. Benedek decided to concentrate around Dubenetz, north-west of Josephstadt and close to the position of the defeated corps from Burkersdorf and Skalitz. Early on 29 June the Austrian HQ moved to Dubenetz, putting it out of touch with the telegraph system.
This plan had to be abandoned after news arrived of the fighting at Gitschin, and the Prussian occupation of that town. The survivors of Clam Gallas's corps were heading towards the main army, but the Saxons had moved south-east towards Smidar. As a result the Prussian western armies had an open road between them and Dubenetz. With the Prussians across the Elbe at Königinhof, north of Dubenetz, and up to the river to the east, this position was no longer tenable. Early on 30 June Benedek decided to retreat south towards Königgrätz, a fortress located on the eastern bank of the Elbe about eight miles south of Josephstadt.
When this news reached Vienna the Emperor Franz Joseph decided to send a personal envoy to the army to find out what was going on. This envoy, Colonel Beck, found Benedek on the morning of 1 July. After a long meeting Benedek sent a telegram to Vienna urging the Emperor to make peace at any price. Unsurprisingly Franz Joseph didn't agree with this pessimistic view. His answer included the question 'Has a battle taken place?' which Benedek appears to have interpreted as an instruction to fight. By the time this message arrived Benedek had recovered some of his poise. The Prussians had spent 30 June resting, and waiting for the King of Prussia's party (which included Von Moltke and Bismarck) to reach the front. This gave the Austrians an invaluable chance to recover from the defeats of the previous few days, and to begin to move into a good defensive position.
The Austrians took up a position between the River Elbe in their rear and the River Bistritz. The fortress of Königgrätz was to the south-east of the Austrian position, on the east bank of the Elbe, while the village of Sadowa was at the north-western corner of the battlefield, on the River Bistritz.
Benedek intended to use the high ground around Chlum, north of the road that ran north-west from Königgrätz to Sadawa, as the right flank of his army, facing north towards the Crown Prince's 2nd Army. The higher ground continued north, with another hill of similar height at Maslowed. To the west of this was the Swiepwald, a sizable area of woodland. Benedek didn’t intend to fight in these woods, but his subordinates would end up dragging the battle north here.
His front would face west, using the line of villages along the Bistritz as a defensive barrier, and taking advantage of the undulating hills east of the river.
The Austrians spent the two days before the battle preparing the battlefield. They placed large artillery batteries on the hills at Chlum and nearby Lipa, and built field defences.
The Austrian army had suffered significant losses in the first part of the campaign, and several of its corps were thus rather badly damaged on 3 July. Benedek arranged his army in a curved line. The Saxon Corps was on the left, at Popowitz. They would thus face the Army of the Elbe, which was heading towards Nechanitz, further to the south-west. The Saxons were to be supported by the 8th Corps (Weber), which was posted to their east.
Next in line was Gablenz's 10th Corps, which was to take up a position south of Sadowa, around Dohalitz and Mokrowous, close to the Bistritz.
The line then turned east, with the 3rd Corps (Archduke Ernest) on the key position around Lipa and Chlum. The 4th Corps (Festetics) and 2nd Corps (Thun) were to defend the line east from Chlum to Nedelist.
The reserve was made up of 1st Corps (now under Gondrecourt, who had replaced the defeated Clam Gallas), 6th Corps (Ramming), five cavalry divisions and an artillery reserve.
Overall the Austrians had 205,000 men with 600 guns. Their infantry were armed with muzzle loading muskets, but their artillery was more efficient than the Prussians.
The Prussian army was split into three separate forces. The First Army, under Prince Frederick Charles, kept part of its corps structure. II Corps, under General von Schmidt, contained the 3rd Division (General von Werder) and the 4th Division (General von Herwarth). III Corps and IV Corps were both split into their individual divisions for the 1866 campaign, so the 5th Division (von Tümpling), 6th Division (von Manstein), 7th Division (von Fransecky) and 8th Division (von Horn) operated under the direct command of the Army HQ. The First Army also contained the Cavalry Corps, made up of the 1st Cavalry Division (von Alvensleben) and 2nd Cavalry Division (General Hann von Weyhern).
The Second Army, under Crown Prince Frederick William, kept its corps structure. I Corps (von Bonin) was made up of the 1st Division (von Grossman) and 2nd Division (von Clausewitz). The V Corps (von Steinmetz) contained the 9th Division (von Löwenfeld) and 10th Division (von Kirchbach). V Corps spent the entire day marching towards the battlefield, but never got into combat. VI Corps (von Mutius) contained the 11th Division (von Zastrow) and the 12th Division (von Prondzynski). Finally the Guard Corps (Prince August of Württemberg) contained the 1st Division of the Guard (Hiller von Gärtringen) and the 2nd Division of the Guard (von Plonski).
The Army of the Elbe (General von Herwarth von Bittenfeld) was made up of three infantry divisions, two cavalry brigades and a reserve corps. The infantry consisted of the 14th Division (Count zu Münster-Meinhövel), 15th Division (von Canstein) and the 16th Division (von Etzel). The cavalry was made up of the 14th Cavalry Brigade (Count Goltz) and the Reserve Cavalry Brigade (von Kotze). Finally the I Reserve Corps contained the Landwehr Division of the Guard (von Rosenberg), the Combined Landwehr Division (von Bentheim) and the Landwehr Cavalry Division (Count Dohna).
The Prussians had 220,000 men. Their artillery was not as effective as the Austrian artillery, partly because it was poorly handled and partly because it was in the middle of rearming with modern Krupp guns. The cavalry was also badly used, often entering combat late. The main strength of the Prussian army was the excellent infantry, which was armed with the breech loading Dreyse needle gun. This had a longer effective range and much higher rate of fire than the Austrian muzzle loaders, and played a part in the Prussian victory and in the higher Austrian casualty figures.
Build-up to Battle - 1-2 July
Through the campaign the Prussians used their cavalry poorly. They tend to march with the infantry in front and the cavalry behind, and without any significant scouting forces out front. At the start of 1 July Moltke had no idea where the Austrian army was - contact had been lost on the previous day. This wasn't his only problem - although he had overall direction of the Prussian armies, both Prince Frederick Charles and Crown Prince Frederick William could be rather wilful. On 1 July Moltke was irritated and alarmed by a telegram informing him that the Crown Prince was about to move Bonin's I Corps to the west bank of the Elbe, followed by the rest of his army. This went entirely against Von Moltke's orders, and he dispatched two telegraphs to the Prince with orders to stop this movement.
The three Prussian armies made limited movements on 1 July. The 2nd Army stayed in place east of the Elbe, apart from Bonin's Corps, which completed the move to the west bank. The 1st Army moved east from Gitschin and took up a position on a line that ran from Miletin in the north, south to Gross Jeritz and then south-west to Milowitz. The 1st Army's left flank was thus close to the right flank of the 2nd Army, and the bulk of the army was facing east towards the undetected Austrian concentration at Dubenetz. Finally the Army of the Elbe was posted further west, along the road from Gitschin towards Smidar.
While the Prussians were deciding what to do, the Austrians began their retreat south. The first units moved off at 1am on 1 July and by the end of the day were almost in their final positions.
At the start of 2 July Moltke still didn't know where the Austrians were. He thus had to make his plans based on a best guess of what they were doing. He decided that the best move for the Austrians would be to retreat east across the Elbe, and take up a defensive position between Josephstadt and Königgratz. This would be protected by two major fortresses and by the Elbe. 2 July was to be a rest day for most of the Prussian forces, before on 3 July they would attempt to find the Austrian position. This time it was the Prussians who were lucky - if the Austrians had decided to retreat further, this pause would have allowed them to get quite a head start on the Prussians. Moltke's plans for 3 July were quite un-ambitious. The Army of the Elbe was to send patrols south to secure the crossing on the Elbe as it ran west towards Prague. The 1st Army was to move slowly east. The 2nd Army was to probe along the east bank of the Elbe, while Bonin's Corps was to move south.
The Prussians finally found the Austrians on the afternoon of 2 July. It took several hours to confirm that this was indeed a major Austrian concentration, and that they weren't about to retreat. The discovery was made by Prince Frederick Charles's 1st Army, and was confirmed by around 7pm. Although Moltke tends to be seen as the dominant figure in the Prussian army of the period, the Prince didn't immediately pass the news on to his superior. Instead he issued orders to his own army and the Army of the Elbe, and sent suggestions to the Crown Prince's Army. The Army of the Elbe was ordered to advance towards Nechanitz, an advance that would put it on the right of the 1st Army, and up against the far left of the Austrian line. The 1st Army was to concentrate on the road that ran north-west from Sadowa, ready to attack the Austrian position there. The 2nd Army was asked to send the Guards Corps across the Elbe to support the left flank of Prince Frederick Charles's army. I Corps, which had already crossed the Elbe, was believed to be too far north to arrive in time. Only after all of these orders had been issued, did the Prince send the news back to the Royal Headquarters.
The three Prussian armies began to move at different times on the morning of 3 July. 1st Army was first to move, leaving camp at around 2am. The Army of the Elbe was next, getting going at 3am. The situation in the Crown Prince's 2nd Army was rather different. His chief of staff had received Prince Frederick Charles's request for help soon after 2am, but had refused to commit the Guards Corps. There was no telegraph link between the Royal HQ and the Crown Prince, and so Moltke had to send one of the King's ADCs, on horseback, to deliver his orders. These orders reached the Crown Prince's HQ at around 4am. The necessary orders were issued at 5am, and the army began to move at around 7am. As a result of this time lag Von Moltke was faced with a dilemma. Prince Frederick Charles was bound to reach the battlefield well ahead of either of the other armies. The Army of the Elbe would arrive second, but the 2nd Army wouldn't appear for at least another four hours. One option was to delay the attack until 4 July, in order to give all three armies time to get into place, but Moltke realised that this would give the Austrians time to retreat once again, and confirmed the order to attack.
The Battle - 3 July
Prince Frederick Charles decided to make his main effort along the main road into Sadowa. Most of his army formed up on the road, but Fransecky's 7th Division was ordered to cross the Bistritz and concentrate at Cerekwitz, to the north of the main Austrian position.
The orders for the advance were issued at 6am. The 8th Division (Horn) was to advance down the road. The 4th Division (Herwarth) and 3rd Division (Werder) extended the Prussian line to the right (south of the road). The 5th Division (Tümpling) and 6th Division (Manstein) were to act as a reserve, and were to advance on either side of the main road, behind the leading troops. Once again the cavalry corps was posted behind the leading troops. The Army of the Elbe was expected to arrive to the right between 7am and 9am.
The battle began in the south, with a clash between the advance guard of the Army of the Elbe and part of the Saxon Corps that had been posted in Alt Nechanitz, on the west bank of the Bistritz. The Saxons were forced back, and attempted to destroy the bridge over the river as they went. The Prussian advance guard managed to put out the fire, and the leading Prussian unit, the 57th Regiment, was able to cross over, supported by the reserve artillery of the Army of the Elbe. The Saxons withdrew from Nechanitz and fell back on their main body.
Further north the 2nd Army was making slow progress towards the river. Horn's division finally began its attack on Sadowa at about 7.30. In response Fransecky launched his own attack. This would trigger some of the fiercest fighting of the battle. His division advanced south towards Benatek. After an artillery duel some Austrian artillery on the hills north of their main line retreated to Lipa. The Prussians advanced to the edge of the Swiepwald, where they became entangled in a fight with the Austrian 4th Corps (Festetics). Festetics had decided that the position he had been allocated was too weak, and he would be better off on the next line of heights to the north. Part of his corps was already in the woods, having spent the previous day on outpost duty along the river.
The advancing Prussians attacked the woods at around 8.30. They occupied the northern half quite easily, but then came under heavy fire from the east, where Festetics' artillery was based. Despite this heavy fire the Prussians were able to occupy the southern half of the woods as well.
The Austrian response was hampered by a change in command in the 4th Corps. A Prussian artillery shell hit the Corps HQ, wounding Festetics. Command passed to his deputy, General Mollinary, who decided to try and retake the Swiepwald. First he sent in Fleischhacker's Brigade, which recaptured the village of Cistowes, just south of the woods. The other two brigades in the 4th Corps then joined the attack, followed soon afterwards by a brigade from the 2nd Corps (Thun). This began a prolonged struggle, with both sides pushing more and more troops into the woods. By 11am the Austrians had retaken much of the forest, but the fighting distorted their entire right wing and sucked in large parts of two corps.
In the centre Horn's 8th Division began to attack at around 8am. His leading brigade (Bose's 15th Brigade) was soon over the river, and the Austrian troops in Sadowa retreated east to Lipa. This allowed Horn to cross the river unopposed. Bose was then ordered to take the Holawald, just south of the main road. The Prussians occupied the wood, but when they tried to emerge from its eastern edge came under heavy artillery fire from the main Austrian batteries around Lipa. Bose withdrew back into the woods, and by 10am most of Horn's division was close by in support. However the strong Austrian position made it difficult for the Prussians to make any progress here.
Next in line to the south was the 4th Division (Herwarth), which also came under heavy artillery fire. The 3rd Division (Werder) was moved up to support it. After another artillery duel the Prussians were able to cross the river, and occupied the area south of Sadowa. The Austrian 10th Corps (Gablenz) was forced to retreat from the river towards the main Austrian position, on hills south of Lipa and Chlum. This allowed the 3rd and 4th Divisions to cross the river, but the Austrians still held the crucial hills.
At the southern end of the battlefield the Army of the Elbe was slow coming into action. By 11 it had two divisions across the river and the third was crossing, but it had not yet been able to put any pressure on the Saxon Corps.
In the meantime the Prussian 2nd Army was on the march. It was advancing in three main columns, with I Corps on the right (west), Guards Corps in the centre and VI Corps on the left (east). V Corps was to follow two hours behind VI Corps. Most of the army was on the move by 8am, with the exception of Bonin, who despite having been alerted to the situation by Moltke's messenger on his way to the Crown Prince, refused to move until he had received official orders from the 2nd Army HQ. As a result the I Corps, which had the furthest to move, was last to set off, and didn’t get going until 9.30am. If all went well all three columns would advance into the gap between the Bistritz and the Elbe, and hit the Austrian right flank. However there was no communication between the Crown Prince and the Prussian High Command, so his progress was unknown.
The Austrians were better informed. The advancing Prussians had to pass the fortress of Josephstadt, and news of their progress was telegrammed to Benedek. He decided to pull the 4th Corps and 2nd Corps out of the fight in the Swiepwald and back into the defensive positions that had been built for them east of Chlum. By noon the fighting in the woods began to die down.
The middle part of the battle was perhaps the least active. From noon the fighting in the Swiepwald began to die down. In the centre the Prussians came under heavy artillery bombardment and were largely unable to respond. In the south the Army of the Elbe was still struggling to get across a single bridge at Nechanitz. On the Austrian side Benedek repeatedly considered launching a counterattack, but could never quite bring himself to issue the orders. This period was his last chance to take the offensive.
The Prussian 2nd Army finally began to enter combat at about noon, although at first it was only engaged with Austrian outposts. Finally, after 1pm, the 2nd Army launched an attack on the key Austrian position at Chlum. The village was defended by the 46th Regiment, from Appiano's Brigade of the Austrian 3rd Corps, supported by troops from the 4th Corps and the pre-positioned artillery. The initial Prussian attack was carried out by Hiller's Guards Division, supported by Hohenlohe's Guard Artillery Reserve. The advancing infantry came under heavy artillery fire, but the village had fallen to them by 2.45pm.
This was the key moment in the battle. There was now a hole in the Austrian front line, and the troops fighting further to the west, including the Army HQ at Lipa, were in danger of being cut off. The Austrians attempted to retake the village, but their counterattacks were repulsed. The Prussians were also able to begin an artillery barrage of the Austrian reserves, south of Chlum, and force the Austrians out of the their positions on the ridge east of the village.
On the southern side of the battle the tide was also turning against the Austro-Saxons. At around 2pm the Saxons launched a counterattack, but this came at the same time as the Army of the Elbe was finally ready to go onto the offensive itself. The Prussian attack was the more successful of the two. Part of the Austrian line in the south collapsed, leaving the Saxons in great danger. For the moment they still held their position at Problus, on the left flank of the Austrian army, but the Prussians were threatening to get behind them, and Crown Prince Albert could see the situation getting worse to his north. Soon afterwards the Prussians attacked again, and the Saxons were forced to retreat from Problus.
At this point Moltke was close to winning his 'Cannae'. On his right the Army of the Elbe was close to the main road, while on his left the 2nd Army had pushed the Austrians off the hills that ran east from Chlum. If the Prussians had had a few more fresh units, they might have been able to close the pincers behind the Austrians fighting around Lipa and to the south.
Back at Lipa Benedek didn’t discover how badly things were going until after 2.30. At first he refused to believe that Chlum had been taken, but when he confirmed the bad news he led a counterattack by the 52nd Regiment, which actually reached the edge of the village. He then ordered Ramming's unused corps to attack north towards Chlum. This was the reserve force that had been saved for a counterattack, but it now had to be committed in an attempt to save the army. The Austrian attack did clear the Prussians out of the village of Rosberitz, south of Chlum, but they were unable to make any further progress. Just at this moment the tardy I Corps (Bonin) finally began to reach the battlefield, just in time to help retake Rosbertiz.
By 3pm it was clear to Benedek that the battle was lost. Moltke also realised that the time was right to launch the 1st Army in a general offensive. All along the line the Austrians and Saxons began to retreat. The Prussian cavalry finally got into the action, and a series of large cavalry actions followed. These helped the Austrian infantry make progress towards the Elbe bridges. The Austrian artillery was still putting up some determined resistance. Eventually, at 6.30pm, Moltke called a halt to the battle, and ordered the army to prepare for a day of rest on 4 July.
Both sides suffered heavy losses during the battle. On the Prussian side the 1st Army lost 1,065 dead, 4,075 wounded and 120 missing. The 2nd Army lost 514 dead, 1,650 wounded and 101 missing. The Army of the Elbe lost 356 dead, 1,234 wounded and 57 missing. In all the Prussians lost 9,172 men.
The Austrians and Saxons recorded their losses as 44,200 officers and men, including 19,800 prisoners.
Moltke hadn't quite achieved his Cannae, but he had still won a crushing victory. The war wasn't quite won yet - 16,000 Austrians had escaped from the battlefield, and reinforcements were available from the Austrian armies in Italy - but von Moltke was able to keep up the pressure on the retreating Austrians. Benedek retreated east to Olmütz, but the Prussians moved further to the south, and were soon at Brünn, from where they could threaten the rail link between Olmütz and Vienna. The Prussians attacked the retreating Austrians at Tobitschau (15 July), nearly capturing Benedek. After this clash the Austrians retreated east across the Carpathian Mountains. This left Vienna weakly defended. Moltke prepared for a battle around Pressburg, where the Carpathians reached the Danube. The next clash came just to the north-west of Pressburg (battle of Blumenau, 22 July 1866). In the middle of this battle news arrived that an armistice had agreed, to come into effect at noon. After that the peace negotiations made rapid progress, and the Treaty of Prague was signed on 26 July. Bismarck gained all of his original objectives, and more. Prussia got Schleswig-Holstein (although a vote on whether to join Prussia or Denmark was promised for northern Schleswig), Hanover, Hesse, Nassau and Frankfurt. The German Confederation was dissolved, and was replaced by a North German Confederation led by Prussia. This was the first major step on the road to German unity, which would come during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.