Battle of Könniggrätz Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Battle of Könniggrätz was a decisive Prussian victory in the Seven Weeks’ War between Austria and Prussia. Austria’s loss forced it to sue for peace and acquiesce to Prussia’s demands for suzerainty over the German states, while excluding Austria from the North German Confederation. The battle also demonstrated the superiority of rapid-fire, breech-loading rifles, rifled artillery, and open, flexible tactics.

Summary of Event

In June of 1866, Prussia maneuvered Austria into a war for dominance of the German states. Austria was able to achieve some successes in the brief war, now known as the Seven Weeks’ War, especially in battles against the Prussians’ Italian allies. The Austrians struggled, however, in the Bohemian theater. From June 27 to June 29, they lost three battles in three days at Nachod, Trautenau (Trutnov), and Gischin (Jicin), respectively. By early July, Austria was at a clear disadvantage in the war, both militarily and diplomatically. Austria;and Prussia[Prussia] Prussia;and Austria[Austria] Austria;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Prussia;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Seven Weeks’ War (1866)[Seven Weeks War (1866)];Battle of Kónniggrätz Könniggrätz, Battle of (1866) Moltke, Helmuth von [p]Moltke, Helmuth von;and Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Benedek, Ludwig August von [kw]Battle of Könniggrätz (July 3, 1866) [kw]Könniggrätz, Battle of (July 3, 1866) Austria;and Prussia[Prussia] Prussia;and Austria[Austria] Austria;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Prussia;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Seven Weeks’ War (1866)[Seven Weeks War (1866)];Battle of Kónniggrätz Könniggrätz, Battle of (1866) Moltke, Helmuth von [p]Moltke, Helmuth von;and Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Benedek, Ludwig August von [g]Germany;July 3, 1866: Battle of Könniggrätz[3980] [g]Austria;July 3, 1866: Battle of Könniggrätz[3980] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 3, 1866: Battle of Könniggrätz[3980] Frederick III Bittenfeld, Karl Eberhard Herwarth von Fransecky, Eduard von

Prussian Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke seized the initiative, wishing to finish off his opponents. He sent three widely placed armies into Bohemia to converge quickly on Austrian forces before they could respond. This stratagem risked each army being defeated separately, but Austrian North Army commander General Ludwig August von Benedek failed to respond decisively. Instead, he played right into Moltke’s hand by massing his forces north of Vienna and moving slowly northwest toward Josephstadt while he gathered reserves and supplies.

The Prussian forces converged quickly, and Benedek found his army enclosed by the enemy in a great arc from the northeast to the west. He retreated southward on July 1 to a position between Sadowa on the Bistritz River and Könniggrätz on the River Elbe.

Benedek’s Army of the North consisted of some 195,000 Austrians and 25,000 Saxons in eight corps, with five cavalry divisions and more than 700 guns. They deployed on a four-mile front facing the Bistritz River on a series of low hills running northeast to southwest. Benedek anchored his right flank by placing troops in the villages of Lipa and Chlum, which sat on hills astride the main road from Sadowa to Könniggrätz. Behind them, he placed two more corps of troops. He further spread troops in the center and left positions, while behind his left center he placed three corps, most of which had been mauled in previous battles. One cavalry division watched each flank, with the rest of the cavalry held in reserve.

Moltke accompanied the Prussian forces that approached Benedek from the northwest, consisting of the First Army of six infantry and two cavalry divisions and the Army of the Elbe of three infantry divisions, a total force of 140,000 troops, including some 400 artillery pieces. Approaching Benedek’s right flank from the north was the Second Army of some 115,000 troops and 300 guns, commanded by Crown Prince Frederick William. Frederick III

Moltke initially feared that Benedek had fallen back behind the Elbe River and its forts, which would have been a strong defensive position. He planned to instruct the Second Army to cross the Elbe in order to outflank the Austrians. To Moltke’s delight, however, he received intelligence on July 2 that Benedek had placed his back to the Elbe, exposing his right flank. Moltke quickly sent notice to the crown prince to turn his army southward and strike the exposed Austrian right flank. In the meantime, Moltke intended that the First Army should advance in a frontal assault to hold the Austrian Army in place, drawing in their reserves. To the south, he would have the Army of the Elbe under General Karl Eberhard Herwarth von Bittenfeld cross the Bistritz River and push back the Saxons holding Benedek’s left flank.

In short, with the Second Army attacking the exposed Austrian right flank and the Army of the Elbe turning the Austrian left flank, Moltke planned to surround and annihilate Benedek’s army. His plan relied on delicate timing, however, and depended as well on the Prussian commanders understanding Moltke’s strategy. When the battle began on the morning of July 3, 1866, the Second Army was still some twenty miles away. It would have to move quickly to fulfill its role in the conflict.

Benedek’s deployment invited disaster. He had placed his back against an unfordable river with few bridges, allowing little room for retreat. His troops were in an inverted “V” formation that practically invited the enemy to push in his flanks. He also failed to occupy several key positions. On his right front was a wood, the Swiepwald, that could threaten his right flank, while on his left, he had only a small force holding the forward crossing over the Bistritz River, three miles in front of the Saxon positions.

The Battle of Könniggrätz. From a painting by Anton von Werner (1843-1915)

(P. F. Collier and Son)

On the morning of July 3, Bittenfeld’s army overcame the small force on the Bistritz River and began moving on Benedek’s left flank. Around 8:00 a.m., the Prussian First Army’s artillery began exchanging fire with the Austrians’ artillery in a terrific cannonade. Around 9:00 a.m., the Prussian First Army began its advance along the Bistritz River line. The Austrian artillery was rifled, with superior range and accuracy over the smoothbores that composed much of the Prussian artillery. As a result, the Prussians were punished terribly. Conversely, Austrian troops were devastated by Prussian infantry armed with breech-loading rifles that had a greater rate of fire (five to six rounds a minute) than the Austrian muzzle-loading rifles (two to three rounds a minute). Austrian tactics emphasized bayonet attacks in densely massed columns, presenting ideal targets for Prussian fire. Prussian infantry tactics, on the other hand, emphasized gaining fire superiority utilizing skirmishers and open order formations.

Around 8:30 a.m., one of Benedek’s corps commanders decided on his own initiative to occupy the Swiepwald Wood and turn the Prussian left flank on the Bistritz River before the Prussian Second Army could arrive. The Prussian Seventh Division under Lieutenant General Eduard von Fransecky counterattacked, and there began a bloody seesaw battle in the Swiepwald Wood. It lasted all day, with Fransecky barely holding on against superior Austrian numbers. Moltke refused him reinforcements, as he wished to retain his reserves while the Austrians expended theirs. Fransecky understood Moltke’s plan, and his dogged defense of the wood was crucial. If Benedek had launched a general attack on the Prussian First Army at that time, he could have crushed it before the Second Army arrived, but he refrained.

About midday, the Prussian Second Army began to arrive and put pressure on the Austrian right flank. Austrian troops in the rear were stunned by the unexpected arrival of the Second Army and withdrew across the Elbe. In the south, the Saxons attempted to drive back Bittenfeld’s army, but they were outflanked and driven back by the Prussians, who now began to turn the Austrian left flank. Simultaneously, Moltke ordered the First Army reserves forward.

The Austrians were being squeezed in a tight box. In desperation, they launched a series of ferocious attacks against Lipa and Chlum, now held by the Prussians and forming a crucial link between their Second and First Armies. The Austrian attacks nearly succeeded in breaking the Prussian lines, but they were driven back. Prussian infantry, with their rapidly firing breechloaders, checked a final attack in the center by Austrian cavalry. By 3:00 p.m., the Austrian army began to disintegrate, and hordes of panicked troops began fleeing down the road to the bridge at Könniggrätz on the Elbe.

The Austrian army was utterly routed and demoralized, having lost some twenty-five thousand killed and wounded and another twenty thousand as prisoners, as well as hundreds of guns. The Prussians had lost around nine thousand troops total.

Significance

The shattering defeat of the Austrian army at Könniggrätz convinced Austrian emperor Francis Joseph I that his situation was hopeless. As a result, the Seven Weeks’ War was quickly brought to an end by the Treaty of Prague, signed August 23. The battle was the largest land battle to that date, involving 475,000 troops.

The sheer size of the armies involved called for a shift in strategies. The traditional strategy of massing armies together would constrict the movement and strategic options of such large forces and would make supplying them nearly impossible. Moltke’s strategy revealed the possibilities of widely placed but quickly converging armies, reacting flexibly to contingencies as they arose. This strategy, however, placed absolute importance on coordination and timing; despite Benedek’s failures, the Prussian victory at Könniggrätz had been far from assured. Moltke’s strategy was tested with apprehension by the Prussian high command against the Austrians in 1866. It would be fully embraced by the Prussians and used with devastating effect against the French in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War.

The rapidly firing breech-loading rifles used by the Prussians also signaled a change in warfare. These weapons allowed the Prussians to combine open, flexible formations with superior firepower to defeat massed columns of infantry using shock tactics. Such columns could now be shot to pieces before they had a chance to reach the enemy. Rifled artillery had proven itself as well, and by 1870, all of Prussia’s guns would be rifled. Cavalry, meanwhile, had shown itself hopelessly vulnerable to firepower and nearly useless as a shock weapon in battle. It was increasingly restricted to the role of reconnaissance, screening, and communications.

From a geopolitical perspective, this decisive battle in the Seven Weeks’ War resulted in Prussian domination of the German-speaking lands of central Europe. This set the stage for the unification of Germany under Prussian dominance in 1871.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Craig, Gordon Alexander. The Battle of Koniggratz: Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. A clear narrative of the battle, with a survey of the opposing armies, the campaign in Bohemia, its operational movements, and prior battles leading to Könniggrätz.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Showalter, Dennis E. Railroads and Rifles: Soldiers, Technology, and the Unification of Germany. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975. Illustrates the importance of changing technology in the period and how it affected military thinking on strategy and tactics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Wars of German Unification. London: Arnold, 2004. A study of the wars in the context of the transitions enacted by Otto von Bismarck and others in Prussian political and military policies from 1848 to 1871.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wawro, Geoffrey. The Austro-Prussian War: Austria’s War with Prussia and Italy in 1866. Rev. ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A study of the entire war, its political origins, and its consequences, with an analysis of period strategy and tactics in the light of changing technology.

North German Confederation Is Formed

Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War

Franco-Prussian War

German States Unite Within German Empire

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