Here's What You Need to Know: The creation of the German empire substantially altered the balance of power on the European continent and set the stage for two catastrophic world wars in the coming century.
The Prussian soldiers had been awake long before sunup on the morning of July 3, 1866, and were marching downhill to the Bystrice River in the rolling countryside of Bohemia, 65 miles east of Prague. A heavy rain fell from low-hanging clouds, turning farm fields and dirt roads into seas of ankle-grabbing mud. The soldiers’ mood reflected the morning gloom. Hunger and lack of sleep were their unwelcome companions.
Forming on high ground across the Bystrice was the 240,000-strong Austrian North Army, commanded by Field Marshal Ludwig von Benedek. The 62-year-old Hungarian-born commander, nicknamed “Lion of Solferino,” had been entrusted by Emperor Franz Joseph with vanquishing the Prussian invaders. The day before, Prussian scouts had located Benedek’s massive army encamped behind the Bystrice, where it blocked the main road to the Koniggratz fortress on the Elbe River. When the scouts reported their findings to the Prussian First Army commander, Prince Friedrich Karl, orders were issued for a general advance to begin at sunrise. On hand for the battle were Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke, mastermind of the modernized Prussian war machine, and King Wilhelm I. Not to be outdone, Minister President Otto von Bismarck also was in attendance, taking advantage of his position as a major in the Landswehr.
Von Moltke’s Army
Moltke’s plan was relatively simple. The First Army’s 140,000 troops would pin the Austrians in place, while the 105,000-strong Second Army, encamped a half day’s march to the north, would sweep down on the Austrian right flank. The Prussians were clad in dark-blue uniforms, and most had left behind their spiked Picklehaube helmets for flat, nondescript field caps. They carried breech-loading Dreyse needle guns (named for their needle-shaped firing pins), wore bedrolls slung over their shoulders, and marched in hobnail boots.
In contrast, the Austrians “blazed all the splendor and variety of the old empire,” wrote London Times correspondent W.H. Russell. Austrian infantry were dressed in white coats and blue pants, sharpshooters wore forest-green greatcoats and sported broad-rimmed hats topped with feathers, hussars were clad in yellow-trimmed jackets, and black-booted cuirassiers wore crested helmets. The mood of the Austrian rank and file also contrasted sharply with that of the Prussians. Russell captured the spectacle that unfolded when Benedek rode forth from Koniggratz amid martial music from regimental bands to the cheers of his troops: “Despite the rawness of the day and the cold rain that fell on already sodden fields, Benedek’s progress toward the front brought color, music and a momentary gaiety to the army as if a festival were anticipated rather than a battle.”
It was a festival that had been in the works for quite some time. When Wilhelm I ascended the Prussian throne in 1861, he surrounded himself with ministers who shared with him a desire to elevate Prussia to the position of a great power, one that could successfully contest Austria for domination of the other German states. The king lacked the military acumen of his ancestor Frederick the Great. Aware of his shortcomings, Wilhelm relied heavily on Bismarck to orchestrate Prussian foreign policy and on Moltke to strengthen his kingdom’s military power to a point that would put it on par with the continent’s great powers: Austria, France, and Russia.
Austro-Prussian Competition Over the German Confederation
At the time of Wilhelm’s ascension, Germany remained subdivided into 35 small states and four free cities. One of the strongest of these was Prussia, which had gained the key territory of Silesia under Frederick the Great and other lands in central and western Germany in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat. The German Confederation, established at the Congress of Vienna, was meant by the great powers to replace the Holy Roman Empire, which had been dissolved in 1806.
The Prussians deeply resented the continuing domination of the German Confederation by Austria, and Wilhelm set about to unseat the Austrians as the first among equals of the German states. Misfortune befell the Austrian Empire when it was defeated by a French-Sardinian alliance in the Second War of Italian Independence in 1859. Moltke studied in great detail the lessons of that war and set about implementing a series of reforms intended to put Prussia ahead of its rivals in the areas of armaments, tactics, logistics, and military organization. During the period between Wilhelm’s coronation and the outbreak of hostilities with Austria, Prussia tripled the size of its army from 100,000 to 300,000 men. The logistics involved in supplying, transporting, and leading an army of this size into battle required a professional general staff.
Prussia and Austria, as defenders of German interests, went to war together in 1864 to expel the Danes, who were attempting to annex the duchy of Schleswig. This duchy and Holstein, to the south, were caught in the middle of the nationalist desires of both the Danish kingdom and the German Confederation. The Second Schleswig War provided the Prussians a chance to test their new weapons and tactics. After four months of fighting, the combined Prussian-Austrian Army drove the Danes out of the Elbe duchies. The subsequent treaty signed August 14, 1865, known as the Gastein Convention, called for Prussia to govern Schleswig and Austria to administer Holstein.
Bismarck felt that possession of both Elbe duchies would substantially augment Prussia’s holdings in central Germany, and he proceeded to meddle in Austria’s affairs regarding Holstein. By early 1865, relations between the two powers had deteriorated to the point that both sides were on the verge of mobilizing their armies. In a deft diplomatic move, Bismarck signed a mutual support treaty with the Italians in April 1865 to counteract the support Austria enjoyed with the German middle states. If war broke out, the Austrians would find themselves in the difficult position of fighting a two-front war.
As early as February 1866, the Austrians had shifted troops from far-flung eastern garrisons to Bohemia in preparation for war with Prussia. Aware that the Italians were moving troops to the Austrian border, Franz Joseph ordered a full mobilization of Austrian forces on April 27. Despite the urging of Bismarck and Moltke that he respond immediately by mobilizing Prussian troops, Wilhelm I was reluctant to order a countermobilization, for fear of appearing the aggressor in the eyes of Europe. As the days went by, his resolve waned under pressure from his ministers, and on May 12 he authorized the army to call up and equip its reserves. Moltke ordered the Prussian Army to make use of multiple railroad lines to move troops to the Saxon and Bohemian borders.
The Schleswig-Holstein crisis came to a boil the following month. Exasperated by Prussian interference in its administration of Holstein, the Austrians put the matter before the German Diet on June 1. By putting the matter before the German princes, the Austrians violated the Gastein Convention, which instructed that all matters regarding Schleswig-Holstein were to be settled between Prussia and Austria without the involvement of the other German states. A week later, the Prussians invaded Holstein with a sizable force. The small Austrian garrison at Kiel withdrew by rail to Bohemia without firing a shot. In a meeting of the German Diet at Frankfurt on June 14, the German middle states threw their support behind Austria.
Prussia’s Advantages in Mobile Warfare
Although Prussia’s population of 18 million was about half of the population of the Austrian Empire, Prussia’s mandatory service requirement ensured that the two powers had roughly the same number of men under arms. The coming conflict would give Prussia its first chance to employ new transportation and communication technologies in a large-scale campaign. Moltke intended to use the railroad to speed Prussian mobilization and employ the telegraph to connect war planners in Berlin with Prussian armies in the field. Once the armies had crossed the border, they would converge on the Austrian main army from different directions and surround it in what Moltke called a Kesselschlact, or pocket battle. He arranged for the military to use five different railway lines to move troops to the Austrian border at the outbreak of hostilities. For their part, the Austrians had only one line running north from Vienna.
New advances in rifled artillery and the development of the breech-loading rifle, with which the Prussian infantry would be armed, also would play an important role in the conflict. Prussian infantry entered the conflict armed with the Dreyse needle gun. Loaded at the breech rather than the barrel, the rifle could be loaded more rapidly and fired from a standing, kneeling, or prone position, unlike muskets, which were best loaded while standing. The ability to load and fire kneeling or lying down meant that soldiers could conceal themselves in the terrain and present a smaller target to the enemy. The Prussians had experimented in the Schleswig War of 1864 with new rifle tactics in which infantry battalions broke into smaller companies and platoon formations that allowed them to make maximum use of the tremendous firepower of the needle gun. In contrast, the Austrians clung to more traditional shock tactics in which tightly packed masses of men stormed enemy positions with fixed bayonets, seeking to overwhelm them with the sheer shock of their charge.