A Wide Austrian Deployment
On June 30, Bismarck, Moltke, and King Wilhelm arrived at I Corps headquarters east of Jicin. Moltke immediately ordered scouts to comb the countryside along both banks of the Elbe to locate the North Army’s exact position. Moltke assumed that Benedek would withdraw east and set up a defensive line behind the Elbe with his right flank anchored on Josephstadt and his left flank anchored on Koniggratz.
Rather than order the Prussian Second Army to shift west to link up with the Prussian First Army, Moltke ordered it to remain in place. At Koniginhof, the Second Army controlled the upper Elbe crossings and was in a position to march south on either bank, depending on the strategic situation. By keeping a day’s march between the two Prussian armies, Moltke was confident that he would be able to outflank Benedek, regardless of where the Austrian chose to make a stand.
Unsure whether the main Prussian attack would come from the west or north, North Army operations chief, General Gideon Krismanic, had drafted orders for the Austrian infantry to deploy on a wide arc that stretched for four miles from the Bystrice to the Elbe. The Austrian center was situated directly opposite the village of Sadowa on the west bank of the Bystrice, straddling the Koniggratz road. Located on the east bank of the Bystrice were about a half dozen hamlets. Adjacent to the road on the south side was the Hola Forest and on the north side the much larger Svib Forest. Austrian engineers set to work clearing trees in front of the Austrian center to provide clear fields of fire and constructing abatis from the logs. They also sited their guns and marked the ranges to ensure effective artillery fire.
On the left flank, atop the hills of Prim and Problus near the village of Nechanice, Krismanic placed the Saxons, the Austrian VIII Corps, and the 1st Austrian Light Cavalry Division. In the center, on the hills of Lipa and Chlum, he positioned the Austrian III and X Corps. On the right flank, anchored on Nedelist, were the Austrian II and IV Corps and the 2nd Light Cavalry Division. The Austrian reserve, placed in the center of what became known as the Bystrice pocket, consisted of I and VI Corps, three heavy cavalry divisions, and 16 batteries.
The plan had several key disadvantages. The flanks were not well anchored, and the entire position was in the form of a salient that made it difficult for the wings to support each other and would make withdrawal difficult if the battle went against the Austrians. Krismanic received orders recalling him to Vienna to explain North Army’s questionable state of affairs to the emperor, and he relinquished his authority on the eve of the battle to his replacement, General Alois Baumgarten.
“How Long is This Towel Whose Corner We’ve Grabbed Here?”
Following the capture of Jicin, the Prussian First and Elbe Armies had camped at Horice, a short distance east of Jicin. Moltke instructed Karl Friedrich to wait there until Prussian scouts were able to report the exact location of the Austrian North Army. When the scouts located the enemy’s position on the evening of July 2, Karl Friedrich immediately issued orders for his troops to begin a general advance to the Bystrice at 2:30 am. His orders included no instructions for the Second Army, as he hoped to defeat the Austrians on his own and hoard the glory. When a staff officer showed Moltke a copy of the orders, the chief of staff promptly issued revised orders that included instructions for the Second Army to make a forced march south and deliver a sledgehammer blow to the Austrian right flank.
By 4 am, Friedrich Karl’s six divisions were ready for battle. Four divisions formed the main battle line above and below the village of Sadowa, ready to advance across the Bystrice, with two more in reserve. An hour later, Crown Prince Wilhelm received orders from Moltke to march swiftly south. Meanwhile, Herwarth’s three divisions marched south to Nechanice, where they would attempt to turn the Austrian left flank.
The first shots of the battle were fired at 6:30 am by fusiliers from General Philipp von Canstein’s 15th Division of the Army of the Elbe. The Prussian riflemen drove off Saxon pickets attempting to dismantle the plank bridge over the Bystrice at Nechanice. Hearing the firing, Austrian and Saxon troops nearby formed for battle.
King Wilhelm I, accompanied by Bismarck, arrived on horseback at 7:45 am at the Prussian command post established by Prince Friedrich Karl atop Dub Hill overlooking the Bystrice. There they joined the prince and Moltke, who were doing their best to survey the enemy position through a thick blanket of mist that clung to the valley. An artillery duel between the two sides had begun just 15 minutes before. As if on cue, an Austrian shell exploded 20 yards from the king, causing brief alarm but failing to harm the Prussian monarch.
Spurring his horse, the king rode to Moltke’s side. “How long is this towel whose corner we’ve grabbed here?” the king demanded, wanting to know whether they faced the entire Austrian army or simply a determined rear guard. “We don’t know exactly; it’s at least three corps, perhaps the whole Austrian Army,” replied Moltke calmly.
Prussians in the Svib Forest
At 9 am, Friedrich Karl ordered a general advance across the Bystrice. The Prussian Pomeranian II Corps, comprising the 3rd and 4th Divisions, forded the stream with relative ease and drove the Austrian jaegers from the X Corps back to Langenhof Hill. Austrian shells crashed among the advancing Prussians with devastating results. Efforts to unlimber Prussian guns were unsuccessful as the Austrians zeroed in on the gun crews, smashing them before they could bring their guns into action. The shelling was so intense that the troops from the 4th Division sought shelter in the Hola Forest.
“The bombshells crashed though the walls as if through cardboard. Finally, raging fire set the village ablaze,” wrote one Prussian soldier. “We withdrew to the left, into the woods, but it was no better there. Jagged hunks of wood and big tree splinters flew around our heads.”
To the north, the lead battalions of hard-fighting Eduard Fransecky’s 7th Division crossed the Bystrice and cleared the village of Benatek of enemy pickets. Following closely behind 7th Division was General Heinrich Horn’s 8th Division. To the north of the sprawling Svib Forest was Benatek, and to its immediate south was the village of Cistoves. Before the Prussians could put troops on unoccupied Masloved Hill, they would need control of the Svib Forest to protect their lines of communication. At 8:30 am, Fransecky personally led his battalions into the wooded tract.
The Fight For the Svib Forest
Fearing that his troops might be left out of the fighting, Austrian IV Corps commander, General Tassilo Festitics, rode west to Masloved at 7:30 am to reconnoiter enemy troop positions. He believed that if his troops occupied Masloved, they would be in a position to counterattack Prussian infantry and possibly drive them back across the Bystrice. Festitics dispatched messengers to both his second in command, General Anton von Mollinary, and II Corps commander General Karl Thun, directing them to march west and occupy Masloved and Horenoves. While Festitics rightly assumed that enemy possession of the two hills would endanger the right flank, he failed to consider that the Prussian Second Army, whose location was still unknown to the Austrians, might be able to slip around the right flank.
Benedek broke off a meeting with Krismanic and Baumgarten at the Koniggratz fortress when informed that the Prussians were attacking in force. Passing through cheering ranks of soldiers, Benedek rode west on the high road toward the sounds of battle. Arriving at Lipa around 9 am, he assessed the situation with Archduke Ernst, commander of the Austrian III Corps. Benedek learned that the archduke had sent two brigades forward to engage the Prussians in violation of Krismanic’s orders, which called for the units to hold the high ground and await Prussian attacks. Benedek immediately called them back. It was not the last time that the field marshal would have to countermand subordinates’ faulty orders.
For close to three hours the fighting raged in the dark confines of Svib Forest. Shells from 50 guns atop Lipa Hill roared into the forest. When the Prussians emerged from the woods, General Karl Appiano’s brigade from III Corps at Cistoves counterattacked, forcing the Prussians to fall back to the protection of the forest. This assault was followed by a flank attack from the east by General Emerich Fleischacker’s brigade of the IV Corps.
The Austrian columns made easy targets for the Prussians, who had divided into smaller, platoon-sized formations more suitable to the forested terrain. “We attempted a bayonet attack first on the northeastern edge of the wood, and then several times inside,” an Austrian officer wrote. “Each time the enemy refused to stand his ground. Instead he kept up a steady fire until we had closed to within 80 paces, then dropped back using the terrain for cover.”