Demoralized Austrian infantry milled around the west bank of the Elbe before the palisade guarding the causeway leading to Koniggratz. Shortly before 5 pm, a large body of Austrian and Saxon soldiers smashed through the gates and swarmed over the causeway. The garrison inside mistook the Saxons for Prussians and fired on the mob. Ramming arrived and attempted to restore order. Meanwhile, Benedek and his small escort gave up trying to rally individual units. With tears of sorrow and rage streaming down his face, the defeated field marshal rode away from the field.
When he reached the fortress, Benedek ordered the pontoon bridges destroyed for fear the Prussians would capture them intact. His decision left large numbers of Austrian and Saxon infantry and cavalry stranded on the west bank. Many refugees unwilling to wait for the bottleneck at the causeway to subside plunged into the river and drowned. That night Benedek telegraphed Franz Joseph: “The catastrophe I warned you of two days ago happened today.” Refusing to accept responsibility for the disaster, Benedek blamed foul weather and disloyal subordinates for the debacle.
The Prussian cavalry, which had ridden into battle behind the infantry, was not in a position to pursue the retreating Austrians. A large portion of the Prussian Second Army was still en route to the battlefield and would not arrive until after nightfall. For these reasons, Moltke decided against a night pursuit.
The Peace of Prague
Austrian casualties from Koniggratz totaled 24,000 killed and wounded and 20,000 captured, while the Prussians lost 9,000 killed and wounded. Moltke’s decision not to push Prussian units across the Elbe the next day gave Benedek and his generals time to reorganize and begin the long retreat to Olmutz. When the Prussians finally crossed the Elbe on July 5, Moltke sent the Second Army east to pin the North Army at Olmutz while First Army occupied Prague and marched on Vienna.
The Austrian situation in the Seven Weeks’ War continued to deteriorate. The Italians launched a fresh offensive against the Austrians in the south, and the Prussian First Army pillaged Austrian crown lands in Bohemia and Upper Austria. The remaining German states surrendered to Prussia, and France showed no interest in assisting the Austrians. With no help in the offing, Franz Joseph surrendered to King Wilhelm on July 22.
The Peace of Prague signed on August 23 called for Austria to cede Holstein and withdraw from German politics altogether. In addition, Franz Joseph had to pay 30 million silver florins in compensation for Prussia’s wartime expenses. As a result of its triumph over the German middle states, Prussia greatly expanded its territory through the annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, Nassau, and Frankfurt. 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.
This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons