While the battle raged in Svib Forest, shrapnel from a Prussian shell sheared off Festitics’s foot, and Mollinary immediately assumed command of IV Corps. By 10 am, Mollinary was feeding fresh troops into the fight in an effort to cut off Fransecky. General Carl Pockh’s brigade from IV Corps charged into the south end of the woods, while two more brigades from Thun’s II Corps attacked the north end of the woods. At 10:30, Fransecky ordered a general withdrawal toward Benatek. Exiting the woods to the south, Fransecky’s men were pursued by Pockh’s columns, but fresh Prussian battalions provided covering fire for their fellow soldiers. Altogether, Fransecky’s men had withstood 13 charges by the Austrians with a loss of more than 2,000 men.
Prussians on Hradek Hill
In a desire to try to retake Svib Forest, Fransecky sent a messenger to Dub Hill requesting reinforcements. Friedrich Karl prepared to commit his two remaining divisions, but Moltke was adamant that they be kept in reserve. The king listened to arguments on each side. “I must seriously advise your majesty not to send General Fransecky a single man of infantry support,” Moltke warned, adding that Fransecky’s situation could only be improved by the arrival of Second Army’s vanguard. Wilhelm overruled his nephew.
After Mollinary’s request for heavy cavalry from the reserve to help drive the Prussians back across the Bystrice was denied by Benedek, he rode to Lipa at noon to consult in person with the field marshal. Mollinary proposed an assault by three Austrian corps across the Bystrice that would drive a wedge between the Prussian First and Second Armies. Minutes before Mollinary’s arrival, Benedek had received a message informing him that the Prussian Second Army was marching south to the battle. Fearing that storming the Prussian positions would result in mass casualties, Benedek refused to take the offensive. He ordered Mollinary and Thun to break off their attack and fall back to their original positions. To further bolster the Austrian right, Benedek ordered Ramming’s VI Corps in the reserve to shift north to bolster the right flank.
To the south, Herwarth had two of his three divisions across the Bystrice by midday. Prussians armed with the deadly needle gun shattered Saxon battalions that put up token resistance before falling back to the relative safety of Prim Hill. The Saxon retreat left Hradek Hill, to the south of Prim and Problus, open for the Prussians to occupy. Canstein’s men swarmed over the key position, and the Prussians dragged guns up Hradek to enfilade enemy positions. General Joseph Weber, who had replaced Archduke Leopold as VIII Corps commander, sent two of his brigades to stabilize the Saxons and attempt to take Hradek back from the Prussians. The Prussians shattered the Austrian counterattack through a combination of artillery and rifle fire.
“We are Fighting for the Very Existence of Prussia”
By noon the mist had cleared from the valley floor, and the Prussian leaders atop Dub Hill had their first unobstructed view of the battlefield. The Prussian center was a scene of complete carnage, the landscape strewn with dead and mangled bodies that had absorbed the full fury of well-served Austrian batteries. In the distance, Ramming’s VI Corps was seen moving toward the front. Fearing the worst, King Wilhelm inquired whether Moltke had contingency plans for a retreat. “Here there will be no retreat,” Moltke said coolly. “We are fighting for the very existence of Prussia.” Observing the timely arrival of the Second Army’s vanguard, Moltke reassured the nervous monarch, “Success is complete; Vienna lies at your feet.”
Riding with the vanguard, Crown Prince Wilhelm and his staff reconnoitered enemy positions atop Masloved and Horenoves from a safe distance while Prussian guns unlimbered and began shelling the Austrian forces on the heights to the south. When sufficient numbers arrived to warrant an advance, a single Prussian fusilier battalion captured Horenoves from a small party from the Austrian II Corps, which surrendered without a fight. A short time later, the lead battalions of General Louis Mutius’s VI Corps crossed the Trotinka River east of Horenoves and brushed aside enemy pickets, occupying the villages of Racic and Trotina.
By 1 pm, Austrian troops of the II and IV Corps abandoned their forward positions and began retreating to their original positions. Prussian troops from the 1st Guard Brigade, supported by a portion of Fransecky’s 7th Division which had reoccupied the Svib Forest, advanced south at 2 pm through Cistoves. Dividing into smaller companies and platoons, the 1st Guard Brigade hurried south along a sunken road that offered a strong measure of cover toward the village and heights of Chlum. By then, Herwarth had all three of his divisions in action to the south. Shortly after seizing the twin hills, Herwarth’s guns began shelling Gablenz’s X Corps atop Langenhof Hill. Moltke’s envelopment strategy was going precisely according to plan.
Chaos in the Austrian Ranks
When the 1st Guards units arrived at Chlum, the village was in flames from Prussian artillery fire. Shaken by the continuous shelling of Prussian guns, several hundred Hungarians of Appiano’s Brigade promptly surrendered. Other battalions of Appiano’s brigade were mowed down by Prussian rifles as they attempted to retake the village. “The Prussians materialized in Chlum as if from thin air,” Baumgarten wrote.
Benedek realized by mid-afternoon that his army was in imminent danger of being surrounded and cut off. Even so, he had not realized the depth to which the Prussian Second Army had breached his right flank. From his position on the southwest slope of Lipa, he had just issued orders for Ludwig Piret’s I Corps brigade to march south and retake Problus when his adjutant, August Neuber, informed him at 2:45 pm that the Prussians had taken Chlum and were in the Austrian rear. Hoping to retake Chlum, Benedek issued orders through his staff for Ramming and Gondrecourt to take their reserve corps and assault Chlum. Benedek and his staff then rode south to assess firsthand the severity of the situation. After trying unsuccessfully to rally Austrian troops retreating from Chlum, Benedek and his staff turned south toward Langenhof.
Benedek never made it that far. Rather than setting up a new headquarters from which he might establish a rearguard to cover the retreat, the Austrian field marshal rode wildly about the field, vainly attempting to rally individual units. When the Prussians atop Problus and Chlum began shelling the position of the Austrian reserve units, a substantial number of soldiers dropped their muskets and packs and fled across the countryside to escape the surging enemy.
The sea of panicked Austrian troops fleeing from the front lines swept Benedek and his small entourage along with it toward the Elbe. Troops from seven corps and five cavalry divisions were squeezed into a pocket no more than a half mile wide, trying to reach the Elbe. Although Benedek had ordered four pontoon bridges constructed earlier in the day in case retreat became necessary, neither the troops nor their officers had been told how to reach them.
In the chaos unfolding in the Bystrice pocket, it was impossible for the two Austrian infantry corps commanders charged with counterattacking Chlum to coordinate their actions. Nevertheless, Ramming and Gondrecourt ordered their troops to change direction and attack. Ramming’s counterattack began around 3:15 pm, with General Ferdinand Rosenzweig’s brigade on the left sweeping aside a few companies of Prussian fusiliers stationed around the village of Rozberic. Among the Prussian officers who received a taste of combat at Rozberic was Lieutenant Paul von Hindenburg, who would obtain worldwide fame in the next century.
The Prussians retreated north on a sunken road from Rozberic toward Chlum, with Rosenzweig’s infantry in hot pursuit. Without realizing it, the pursuing Austrians ran into a trap. Prussian infantry hiding in the fields to the west sprang up and fired at point-blank range into the stunned Austrians. In an effort to support Rosenzweig, Ramming ordered General Georg Waldstatten’s brigade into action, but retreating Austrian cavalry rode through their own lines, severely disrupting the formations. Before they could realign, Prussian rifles and cannons ripped into their ranks. Realizing the futility of his situation, Ramming called off the attack. In a short time he had lost nearly 6,000 men.
Gondrecourt’s attack followed on the heels of Ramming’s attack. As he repositioned his three brigades to face north, the Prussians poured continuous rifle fire into the Austrian I Corps. Gondrecourt personally led a Slovenian regiment up the slopes of Chlum into a hail of enemy fire. After taking heavy losses, he broke off the attack, having miraculously survived the experience. Gondrecourt’s attack sputtered out before 5 pm, and the survivors fled east.
Two Austrian heavy cavalry divisions from the reserve formed up facing west just before 4 pm to relieve pressure on the Austrian center. Prince Wilhelm of Schleswig-Holstein’s 1st Cavalry Division and General Carl Coudenhove’s 3rd Division lined up on the north and south sides of the Koniggratz road. Prince Wilhelm intended to attack Langenhof, while Coudenhove aimed for Problus. Holstein’s troopers never reached their objective. Heavy fire from Prussian fusiliers on the valley floor forced the prince’s division to retire, while a wall of shrapnel and rifle fire shattered Coudenhove’s attack before his troops could reach their objective. In a half hour’s time, the Austrians lost more than 700 troopers in the suicidal charge.