Works of Frederick Engels 1866
Written: between June 19 and July 5, 1866;
First published: in The Manchester Guardian, No. 6204, July 6, 1866
The campaign which the Prussians opened with a signal strategic blunder has been since carried on by them with such a terrible tactical energy that it was brought to a victorious close in exactly eight days.
We said in our last note that the only case in which the Prussian plan of invading Bohemia by two armies separated by the Riesengebirge could be justified was that in which Bohemia was unoccupied by hostile troops. The mysterious plan of General Benedek appears to have mainly consisted in creating a situation of that sort. There appear to have been but two Austrian army corps-the 1st (Clam-Gallas) and the 6th (Ramming)--in the north-western corner of Bohemia, where, from the beginning, we expected the decisive actions would be fought. If this was intended to draw the Prussians into a trap, Benedek has succeeded so well that he got caught in it himself. At all events, the Prussian advance on two lines, with from forty to fifty miles of impassable ground between them, towards a point of junction two full marches from the starting points, and within the enemy's lines,--this advance remains a highly dangerous manoeuvre under all circumstances, and one which would have been followed by signal defeat but for Benedek's strange slowness, for the unexpected dash of the Prussian troops, and for their breech-loading rifles.
The advance of Prince Frederick Charles took place with three corps (the 3d, 4th, and 2d, the latter in reserve) by Reichenberg, north of a difficult range of hills, on the southern side of which General Herwarth advanced with a corps and a half (the 8th and one division of the 7th). At the same time, the Crown Prince stood, with the 1st, 5th, and 6th corps, and the Guards, in the mountains about Glatz. Thus the army was divided into three columns--one on the right, of 45,000, one in the centre, of 90,000, and one on the left, of 120,000 men--none of which could support either of the others for at least several days. Here, if ever, there was a chance for a general commanding at least an equal number of men to crush his opponents in detail. But nothing appears to have been done. On the 26th Prince Frederick Charles had the first serious engagement, at Turnau, with a brigade of the Ist corps, by which he established his communication with Herwarth; on the 27th, the latter took Munchehgratz, while, of the army of the Crown Prince, a first column, the 5th corps, advanced beyond Nachod, and beat the 6th Austrian corps (Ramming) severely; on the 28th, the only slightly unlucky day for the Prussians, Prince Frederick Charles's advance guard took Gitschin, but was again dislodged by General Edelsheim's cavalry, while the 1st corps of the army of the Crown Prince was checked with some loss at Trautenau by the 10th Austrian corps of Gablenz, and only disengaged by the advance of the Guards towards Eipel, on an intermediate road between the 1st and 5th Prussian corps. On the 29th, Prince Frederick Charles stormed Gitschin, and the army of the Crown Prince totally defeated the 6th, 8th, and 10th Austrian corps. On the 30th, a fresh attempt of Benedek's to re-take Gitschin by the Ist corps and the Saxon army was signally foiled, and the two Prussian armies effected a junction. The Austrian loss represents men to the number of at least a corps and a half, while that of the Prussians is less than one fourth that number.
Thus we find that on the 27th there were only two Austrian army corps, of about 33,000 men each, at hand; on the 28th, three; on the 29th, four, and if one Prussian telegram be correct, part of a fifth (the 4th corps); while on the 30th the Saxon army corps only had been able to come up in support. There were, then, two, if not three, corps absent from the contested ground during all that time, while the Prussians brought every man down into Bohemia. In fact, up to the evening of the 29th, the whole of the Austrian troops on the spot were barely superior in numbers to either of the two Prussian armies, and being brought into line successively, the supports arriving after the defeat only of the troops first engaged, the result was disastrous.
The 3d army corps (Archduke Ernst), which fought at Custozza, is reported to have been sent to the north by rail immediately after that battle, and is, in some accounts, set down among Benedek's available forces. This corps, which would make the whole force, including the Saxons, nine corps, could not have been up in time for the battles in the latter days of June.
The Prussians, whatever the faults of their plan of operations were, made up for them by their rapidity and energy of action. No fault can be found with the operations of either of their two armies. Short, sharp, and decisive were all their blows, and completely successful. Nor did this energy forsake them after the two armies were joined; on they marched, and already on the 3d they met Benedek's combined forces with the whole of theirs, and gave them a last crushing blow.
It is hardly possible to suppose that Benedek accepted this battle of his own free will. No doubt the rapid pursuit of the Prussians compelled him to take a strong position with all his army, in order to reform his troops, and to give a day's start to his retiring army train, expecting not to be attacked in force during the day, and to be able to draw off during the night. A man in his position, with four of his corps completely shattered, and after such tremendous losses, cannot have desired, there and then, to deliver a decisive battle, if he could draw off in safety. But the Prussians appear to have compelled him to fight, and the result was the complete rout of the Austrians, who, if the armistice be not granted, will now be trying to make towards Olmutz or Vienna, under the most disadvantageous circumstances, for the slightest out-flanking movement of the Prussians on their right must cut off numerous detachments from the direct road, and drive them into the hills of Glatz, to he made prisoners. The "army of the north", as splendid a host as there was in Europe ten days ago, has ceased to exist.
No doubt the needle-gun, with its rapid fire, has done a great part of this. It may be doubted whether without it the junction of the two Prussian armies could have been effected; and it is quite certain that this immense and rapid success could not have been obtained without such superior fire, for the Austrian army is habitually less subject to panic than most European armies. But there were other circumstances co-operating. We have already mentioned the excellent dispositions and unhesitating action of the two Prussian armies, from the moment they entered Bohemia. We may add that they also deviated, in this campaign, from the column system, and brought their masses forward principally in deployed lines, so as to bring every rifle into activity, and to save their men from the fire of artillery. We must acknowledge that the movements both on the march and before the enemy were carried out with an order and punctuality which no man could have expected from an army and administration covered with the rust of fifty years peace. And, finally, all the world must have been surprised at the dash displayed by these young troops in each and every engagement without exception. It is all very well to say the breech-loaders did it, but they are not self-acting, they want stout hearts and strong arms to carry them. The Prussians fought very often against superior numbers, and were almost everywhere the attacking party; the Austrians, therefore, had the choice of ground. And in attacking strong positions and barricaded towns, the advantages of the breech-loader almost disappear; the bayonet has to do the work, and there has been a good deal of it. The cavalry, moreover, acted with the same dash, and with them cold steel and speed of horse are the only weapons in a charge. The French canards of Prussian cavalry lines first peppering their opponents with carbine fire (breech-loading or otherwise) and then rushing at them sword in hand, could only originate among a people whose cavalry has very often been guilty of that trick, and always been punished for it by being borne down by the superior impetus of the charging enemy. There is no mistaking it, the Prussian army has, within a single week, conquered a position as high as ever it held, and may well feel confident now to be able to cope with any opponent. There is no campaign on record where an equally signal success, in an equally short time, and without any noteworthy check, has been obtained, except that campaign of Jena which annihilated the Prussians of that day, and, if we except the defeat of Ligny, the campaign of Waterloo.