The Plans of Moltke vs Benedek
Bismarck saw the Austrian violation of the Gastein Convention as an excuse to expel Austria from German politics once and for all. He immediately dispatched a letter disbanding the German Diet. While this formality was ignored by Austria and its allies, it reflected Prussia’s desire to establish a new German political body in which it would be the prime authority. To carry out the political aims, Moltke set in motion a well-crafted plan. Three Prussian armies would converge on Saxony and Bohemia, trapping Austria’s North Army in a pocket where it would be forced to surrender or face destruction.
Prussia’s Army of the Elbe, led by General Karl Erhard Herwarth von Bittenfeld, numbering 46,000 men in three infantry divisions, was instructed to invade Saxony and occupy Dresden. Once Herwarth’s army had neutralized Saxony, Moltke’s plan called for the Army of the Elbe to join the 94,000-strong Prussian First Army under Prince Friedrich Karl. Together, the two armies would invade Bohemia from Lusatia. Friedrich Karl, a veteran commander who had led the Prussians in the Second Schleswig War, commanded three infantry corps and two cavalry divisions. Meanwhile, the 115,000-strong Prussian Second Army, led by untested Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, would march into Bohemia from Silesia. Moltke’s plan called for First Army to capture the Iser River crossings in Bohemia and advance toward the Elbe, where it would make contact with the Second Army. Once contact was made, the two armies would plot the final moves designed to squeeze the Austrians as in a vice.
The Austrians had no comparable plan in effect at the beginning of hostilities, and Field Marshal Benedek was less than brimming with confidence. Benedek had fought with distinction seven years earlier during the humiliating Austrian defeat at Solferino. During that decisive battle, he had disobeyed orders to withdraw the forces under his command in order to enable the remainder of the army to escape to safety across the Mincio River. His performance was hailed throughout the Austrian empire and earned him his dubious leonine sobriquet. But while Benedek exhibited bravery during battle, he lacked both strategic ability and arrogant confidence. Nevertheless, Franz Joseph promoted him to supreme commander of Austrian forces and charged him with defending the crown.
Austria’s Defensive Advantage
The conflict began with the Austrians benefiting from a strong defensive position behind a curtain of high mountains that separated Bohemia from Saxony and Prussia. Should the Austrians need to fall back to a second line of defense, the three 18th-century Elbe fortresses at Josephstadt, Konnigratz, and Theresienstadt, known collectively as the Northern Quadrilateral, offered the most logical place for a strong defensive line from which the Austrians could contest Prussian attempts to cross the river. Benedek began concentrating Austrian forces in Olmutz, east of Bohemia in Moravia, in late May.
Herwarth’s Army of the Elbe crossed into Saxony on June 16, forcing Crown Prince Albert’s smaller 32,000-strong Saxon army to retreat into Bohemia. As he made final preparations to lead his massive North Army west into Bohemia, Benedek sent a 28,000-man vanguard consisting of the Austrian I Corps and 1st Light Cavalry Division, under the command of General Eduard Clam-Gallas, ahead of the main army to join forces with the Saxons. Clam-Gallas’s orders were to take up a strong defensive position behind the Iser River and delay the Prussian advance as long as possible.
On the same day, Franz Joseph ordered Benedek to shift his base of operations from Moravia to Bohemia. Benedek drew up plans for a westward march that he estimated would take his large army two weeks to accomplish. The elaborate plans for the North Army’s march into Bohemia called for its six infantry corps, four cavalry divisions, and their supply trains to fan out over five roads.
Prussia’s Official Declaration of War
After the fall of Saxony, Moltke ordered the Prussian First and Second Armies to march from their staging areas to the Bohemian border on June 19. Two days later, the two armies arrived on the Prussian border and awaited final orders to cross into Bohemia. On that same day, Benedek received at his field headquarters an official declaration of war signed by King Wilhelm I. Moltke’s plan called for the two armies to advance into Bohemia from two different directions and establish contact with each other at the village of Jicin, a key crossroads on a plateau between the Iser and Elbe Rivers.
The Prussian First Army crossed unopposed into Bohemia on June 23 after Clam-Gallas chose not to block the mountain passes. The First Army occupied Reichenberg the following day. Despite Moltke’s clear orders to march as quickly as possible toward the town of Jicin to await the arrival of the Prussian Second Army, Prince Friedrich Karl camped for two days at Reichenberg to replenish his supplies.
Meanwhile, the Prussian Second Army, climbing through the mountains into Bohemia on June 26, found its way blocked by large detachments from Benedek’s North Army marching west from Olmutz. Moltke sent orders by telegraph on June 23 to Friedrich Karl urging him to press on to Jicin in order to draw off Austrian forces that might block the passage of the Prussian Second Army through the high mountains to the east.
Spurred into action by Moltke’s orders, First Army’s 7th and 8th Divisions reached the Iser crossings the evening of June 26. Clam-Gallas, by then united with the Saxons for a combined force of 60,000 men, received orders from Benedek imploring him to hold the Iser line at any price. The two sides clashed at Podol on June 26, and again on June 28 at Munchengratz. At Munchengratz, the Austrians slipped east through a foiled Prussian trap, but the following day were driven from Jicin by the Prussian 5th Division under General Ludwig Tumpling. When Friedrich Karl advanced beyond Reichenberg on June 26, Moltke lost contact with the Prussian First Army for 72 hours. Because of mounting frustration over communications between Berlin and the two Prussian armies in the field, Moltke, Bismarck, and King Wilhelm left Berlin on June 29 to join the First Army at Jicin.
When he learned that a large Prussian force was advancing on the right flank of his route of march toward Jicin, Benedek dispatched the VI Corps and X Corps to slow the Prussians’ progress. While the two corps delayed the Prussian army to his north, Benedek would continue west with the bulk of North Army to Jicin. The Austrian VI and X Corps attacked the Prussian Second Army’s left and right flanks, respectively. Prussian V Corps commander General Karl Steinmetz soundly defeated Wilhelm Ramming’s VI Corps on June 27 at the village of Vysokov, forcing Ramming to fall back to the village of Skalice, where his corps was relieved by Archduke Leopold’s VIII Corps.
“A Catastrophe is Inevitable”
The clash between Austrian General Ludwig Gablenz’s X Corps and Alfred Bonin’s Prussian I Corps at Trautenau Pass that same day brought strikingly different results. Despite heavy losses, Gablenz managed to drive the Prussians back into the mountains. Gablenz subsequently withdrew when the Prussian Guard, which had emerged unopposed from Eipel Pass, outflanked his position.
The last significant action in the sector occurred on July 28, when Steinmetz drove off the Austrian VIII Corps at Skalice. Following that action, Benedek issued new orders for the North Army to move upstream of Josephstadt and concentrate at Koniginhof on the Elbe, a short distance from Skalice. He held no council of war and gave no reason for his change of orders, leaving his corps commanders wondering which Prussian army he intended to fight first.
June 30 dawned with the Austrian North Army concentrated in the Dubenec Plateau between the upper reaches of the Bystrice and Elbe Rivers. Over a four-day period, the Austrians had lost more than 30,000 men as the two armies maneuvered for a set-piece battle. The losses weighed heavily on Benedek, who believed that his army stood little chance of defeating the Prussians in a large-scale encounter. Accordingly, Benedek decided to pull back behind the Elbe in the vicinity of the Koniggratz fortress. “Debacle of Iser Army forces me to retreat in the direction of Koniggratz,” Benedek telegraphed the emperor, laying the blame unfairly on Clam-Gallas, whom he replaced at the head of the Austrian I Corps with his second in command, General Leopold Gondrecourt. That evening, the Austrian North Army began marching south toward the Jicin-Koniggratz road, which passed through the small village of Sadowa on the Bystrice River.
Rather than push his corps commanders to get their troops to the east bank of the Elbe as quickly as possible, Benedek allowed his army to encamp on July 1 on a string of hills overlooking the Bystrice, a shallow tributary of the Elbe. While the stream itself posed no obstacle to foot soldiers, artillery had to be driven through fords or bridges. Benedek then sent a second telegraph to Franz Joseph from Koniggratz, urging him to sign an armistice with the Prussians. “Pray conclude peace at any price,” wrote Benedek, “a catastrophe is inevitable.”