Battle of Hradec Králové: a turning point in European history

Reenactment of Battle of Hradec Králové, photo: archive of Garda of Hradec Králové

July 3 is the 150th the anniversary of the Battle of Hradec Králové (Köninggrätz in German) the decisive battle of the short-lived Austro-Prussian war of 1866. It’s probably true to say that history has not been kind to this battle –actually the biggest battle ever fought on Czech soil.

Reenactment of Battle of Hradec Králové,  photo: archive of Garda of Hradec Králové
One thing is that there is often a fair bit of confusion about the name of the battle, Hradec Králové is one name for the battle, but the titles of Köninggrätz ,Sadowa, Sadová, are other options, as is the battle of Chlum, the nearest village to where the fighting took place.

The battle was also overshadowed by the earlier Napoleonic campaigns and the Franco-Prussian and First World War that followed. But the battle clearly did signpost Prussia on the way to becoming the main power in Central Europe and the rest of Europe, first overshadowing the Hapsburg Empire and later France, and the break- up of the so-called Congress System that had kept the peace in Europe, more or less, for 50 years.

In this special to commemorate the anniversary, we speak to Geoffrey Wawro, professor of Military History at North Texas and the author of one of the basic books about the Austro-Prussian war of 1866. He was recently at Hradec Králové for a conference about the meaning of the war and its aftermath.

I asked him first of all whether the Prussians had been fancied to win the war after the Austrians were provoked to declare it by Otto Von Bismarck, the German Chancellor.

“In retrospect we look back and see the Prussian army as a very well-oiled machine that swept all before it. But in 1866 it was really the unveiling of that Prussian army that was so different from the Prussian army that staggered through the Napoleonic Wars and then got its act together at the very end and then basically fired and replaced all the people who had got the act together, like Clausewitz, for being too uppity. Then they go back into a period of stagnation but [Helmuth] von Moltke comes along and revamps the Prussian army from the early 1850s onward as chief of the general staff. And basically he creates this war machine that is extremely well organized. And yet it is not appreciated by contemporaries.

“Von Moltke in Berlin looks at these new Austrian tactics and he has no fear whatsoever.”

“So contemporary pundits at the time thought of Austria as the better power because it had more recent military experience in the campaigns of 1848 and then of course in the campaign of 1859 against the French and Piedmontese. Even though they lost that war, it was understood that they had adopted some things that would make them much better. For example, they adopted the French tactics of 1859 and they adopted this cult of the offensive that made appear to be very hard hitting and aggressive. They had this celebrity general, general Ludwig von Benedek. And Benedek was a guy who was very much a celebrity figure, but much like [Achille] Bazaine in France in 1870, he was a celebrity for all of the wrong reasons. He was very gruff and plain spoken and beloved by the Emperor because he gave the monarchy a common touch. He was seen as the second [Joseph] Radetsky, this guy who was a kind of truppen vater, father to the troops. So this combination of Benedek and this reform of the Austrian army gave people pause for thought. They thought this is the better army. And the Prussians… they have had these theoretical changes under von Moltke but they have not been tested in battle, essentially since the Napoleonic Wars. And so people gave the edge to the Austrians. This was really a foolish impulse, if you look, and this was in my first book ‘The Austro-Prussian War,’ which was an outgrowth to a dissertation, where I looked at the Austrian army from the inside, and it was so utterly bureaucratized and stagnant and devoid of any critical inquiry compared with the Prussian army. You could very clearly see that this army would have very real problems fighting with Moltke’s army.”

Helmuth von Moltke
The Austrians did push some reforms through, they had not performed particularly well in the Italian campaign against the French. Some of the battles weren’t decisive but cosmetically at least did the reforms that were pushed through mean they were heading in the right direction or not?

“Well, the reforms, they appeared to be dramatic but they weren’t dramatic at all. They revamped their tactics. In 1859 they had used a sort of fire tactics where they had deployed their companies in line and used their rifled musket to bring accurate fire on the enemy. And then they saw how the French, using these storm columns, these battalion columns of infantry that would just like form into a ruck and run at the enemy with a bayonet and take advantage of the fact that these were muzzle loading rifles and it took a while to load. And so you would probably absorb the first volley but then you would get there and overrun them. They adopted these French tactics.

“Well, von Moltke in Berlin looks at these new Austrian tactics and he has no fear whatsoever. He sees their vulnerability against the Prussians which have a breech loading rifle and can get off four to five times the rate of fire of the muzzle loading rifle. And he realizes that they are going to shoot these things down. Add to that the threat posed by the artillery, and von Moltke doesn’t really worry about these Austrian tactics at all and in fact identifies their key vulnerability and seeks to exploit it.

“In theory the Austrians could pounce on these armies as they come out of the mountains and defeat them singly.”

“You know, the other change is that they begin to promote non-noble people like Benedek to the high command to show that they are not an army of old princes and aristocrats as happened in 1859. They are going to have competent middle class types in positions. But if you look closely this does not happen at all. True, you have guys like Benedek but he was slavishly devoted to the upper classes in Austria, he knows on which side his bread is buttered and does not really shake anything up. The army is not really run like that. There is a general staff and there is a chief of the general staff but he has no real power. All the power is wielded by the Emperor and his military cabinet. Also, most of them are high ranking aristocrats with outmoded ideas about warfare and resolved to maintain their power over the power of these middle class strivers, of which there are many besides Benedek. Some of these guys are good generals but they are blocked in a lot of what they want to do by the unshakeable social snobbery of Austria.”

Let’s move on to the run up to the battle. Coming up to the battle, the two armies were moving towards each other and there were quite a lot of skirmishes in the days before the big battle. Did those skirmishes say a lot about what was happening and the abilities of the two armies to move, the logistical support, or suggest how the final battle might go?

“The initial battles on the frontier, like Trautenau [Trutnov] and Skalice, they tell a lot about what is going to happen in the war because the Austrians are able to take advantage of their interior lines and the fact that they lie between the various Prussian armies. They are able to march up to these mountain passes where the Prussians are coming out of the mountains and debauching into Bohemia and Moravia. And yet even there where they are in these ideal defensive positions, they attack in these storm columns. And so the Prussians who expect to get through a lot of Austrian rifle fire, instead they see the Austrians charging at them in these attack columns and so they just deploy, shake out into skirmish lines and shoot them down. And they start to exact these very high casualties that will be a characteristic of the war.”

Ludwig von Benedek
And the choice of the battlefield site itself, was that a good choice from the Austrian point of view?

“That was one of the things in my book that I discovered that had never been mentioned in any of the other literature, and certainly not in the Austrian official history of the war, and that was that the battlefield of Köninggrätz was not a deliberately chosen battlefield. It was shaped into that subsequently by Austrian officials and historians who did not want to admit the cold hard fact that Benedek was simply retreating. He had gone out to meet the Iser army at Jičín and then he had heard about the defeats on the frontier and then he had been routed at Jičín. So he was beginning a retreat all the way back to Olomouc where he had begun. He was going to try and get everyone back and reorganize and then come after the Prussians from there. In the meantime, he would have delivered Prague and who knows how many towns and cities over to them. He was retreating and he stopped on the banks of the Elbe in front of Köninggrätz as their first halt. They were going to get together the corps that Benedek had with him, the Iser army, and the corps he had sent out to those frontier battles, there are two corps he had sent out and had to make it back to him. So he has halted there at Köninggrätz and plans to haul these armies in and march all the way over to Olomouc. And there in those positions he is surprised by Moltke who finds him. Moltke then loses contact with him and scours the intervening ground and then on the evening of July 2nd some of his cavalry scouts see Benedek's ’encampment above Köninggrätz and they go back and Moltke plans the battle for the next day. And Moltke is ecstatic, he cannot believe that Benedek has deployed for a major battle with the Elbe river behind him. I mean they are not even using the Köninggratz fortress, it was obsolete, it was an obsolete fortress, but it had been designed to defend from that side of the Elbe. So why on earth would you camp your field army beyond the Elbe with your back to the river so if it is defeated it has nowhere to retreat. The undiscriminating position is just proof that he did not plan to be there as was subsequently alleged. So, when the battle happens, he has got the two Prussian armies in front of him and then the other Prussian army coming in from his flank. And he has some great opportunities during the battle to actually win it because the late arriving Prussian army actually give s him all day to polish off the other Prussian armies but he does not take it because of his own innate cautiousness.”

The early line-up up of forces, number wise was in favour of the Austrians then?

“Benedek pulled them back and it is in the midst of this retreat going back to the original position when the Prussian second army arrives and routs the whole army.”

“It was very favourable. Just remember, Moltke’s great innovation is that he fights like Napoleon. What made Napoleon so great is that he did not wait for all the ducks to be in a row. There is always going to be fog and confusion with armies fighting in the field. There could be rain, the roads turn into a quagmire, the army turns up a day late. That sort of thing happens all the time in every epic. And most generals always plan for the worst case scenario so that they don’t basically get caught with their pants down and screw up. And Napoleon was the guy who just said everybody just has to be there, one way or another and you have just got to be there. And he chose his generals for this purpose.

“So this is how Moltke fights. He says, you know I will be really vulnerable but I have to get these armies quickly into Austria to win the war on their turf. So I split them up and march them through mountain passes that are far apart. So in theory the Austrians could pounce on these armies as they come out of the mountains and defeat them singly. But he counts on his own speed and he counts on the Austrians’ own caution. And the gamble works out alright.

“But, at the battle of Köninggratz on July 3 the gamble very nearly went al wrong because Benedek with his whole army finally all together at Köninggratz has the opportunity to fight against less than two-thirds of the combined Prussian army. And he has a numerical advantage and he has an interior position where he can split off these two armies off from each other. But most of all he has a preponderance on his own right so that he can envelop Moltke’s left. And actually the guys on the right wing, this was always treated as a case of insubordination that they attacked against Benedek’s orders and then he pulled them back to position and they were too late to stop the arriving Prussian second army. That is not actually what happened. Those guys saw that they had a chance to win the battle. And so in very Napoleonic fashion first and actually marched to the sound of the guns and were going to beat the Prussians’ first army. Then Benedek pulled them back and it is in the midst of this retreat going back to the original position when the Prussian second army arrives and routs the whole army and it has nowhere to retreat because they are on the wrong side of the Elbe. So the whole army is very nearly destroyed in that battle. It’s just that the Prussians have been marching all day from various points, they are exhausted and they cannot adequately pursue.”

Museum of Eastern Bohemia in Hradec Králové,  photo: Ivana Vonderková
Going back to the weapons being used, what I’ve read says that the Prussian muskets were faster but those of the Austro-Hungarians were a lot more accurate and the Austrians, as you say, did not play to their strengths by the tactics they used. Also, I think the Austrians had a preponderance of artillery on the field as well…?

“Yes. the key Austrian strength in the war was the artillery. That was a lesson they took from the war with France in 1859 is that the French had the superior artillery so the Austrians go over to a rifled field gun in time for 1866. So their artillery fire is much more accurate than the Prussian artillery fire. And the artillery arm just appears to be more professional than the Prussian which has taken time to get better. It will perfect itself in 1870. So they have that, but that’s really just about it. The business about being better shots, absolutely not. The Jäger units for sure, because they had extra rifle training. The regular line infantry, absolutely no way. They got hardly any rifle training because they had gone to the French tactic of charging with bayonets and deliberately eschewing rifle fire. So no they were not better at that. Everything hinged on whether these new tactics really worked. And people know because they had fought a war with the Prussians against the Danes in 1864 where the Prussians had used their tactics and the Austrians theirs. And Prussian tacticians like Moltke look at what the Austrians did and said ‘These guys are really vulnerable.’ Besides the artillery and this highly theoretical tactic of the elan of the storm attack with bayonets would cause the enemy to psychologically crumble, that was an untested proposition and when it got tested in 1866 it was game over for the Austrians.”

And the casualties on the Austrian side were massive compared with the Prussians?

“The Austrians persisted in those storm columns and they presented easy targets to the Prussians who were in line shooting at these huddled masses.”

“Yes, because the Austrians persisted in those storm columns and they presented easy targets to the Prussians who were in line shooting at these huddled masses. And the Prussians also had a much higher rate of fire, that Dreyse needle rifle that could be fired four times a minute versus one time a minute. So, they were just getting off more shots. There’s that saying in Vienna “Zo schnell schiessen die Pressen nicht.” The Prussians no, they don’t fire that fast. It’s just a note of skepticism about anything I guess, oh the Prussians don’t fire that fast.”

But they did…

“They still use that…you hear that expression in Vienna to this day among young people as well as old.”

The long term result, the Austrians lose the battle and effectively lose the war. Longer term, what lessons were learnt and did this historically confirm the Prussians more or less as the leaders in Germanic Europe? And on military technology what lessons were taken away, if any?

“I will answer both, political and military. Politically, Benjamin Disraeli, who is the leader of the Tories in Britain at the time says after Köninggratz – after the Austrian and Franco-Prussian war – that this is the German revolution and that it is a bigger revolution than the French revolution of the last century because it has utterly destroyed the balance of power. So, politically this is the big outcome of this war - that Bismarck demonstrates that Prussia has the power to defy the European Congress system where if you wanted to alter the borders of 1815 you had to convene a European congress of great powers and had to put your proposals on the table and get buy-in from all the great powers or else you could not get the changes.

Photo: Ivana Vonderková
Bismarck had been trying to get more power for Prussia and reform the obsolete practices of the German Confederation created in 1815 and had been blocked every time by the Austrians for whom the status was just fine because it made them the president of the German Confederation. It gave them their outposts in Italy and confirmed the borders of the Austrian empire and made the other great powers liable for its defence. That was clear to the Austrians, they did not want to make any changes. So Bismarck finally says ‘We are going to have to provoke a war with Austria. defeat them in battle and finally have to dictate new terms to the German Confederation.’ So, when all this happens and Prussia absorbs all of north Germany and brings the southern German states, such as Bavaria, into this loose confederation dominated with by this larger north German confederation ruled by Prussia, when all this happens all the other great powers protest and say ‘Ýou cannot do this. You need the consent of the other powers to make such radical changes to the borders and constitution of Europe’ And Bismarck just says ‘You guys are just a bunch of big talkers.’ And Bismarck does not act with arrogance. He does not really say this but he thinks ‘You guys just talk a lot but don’t do anything.’ And so he makes these big power grabs and gets away with it. So its this policy, what the Italians call sacro egoismo, sacred egotism, that any power can nakedly pursue its own self interest. If the other powers want to stop it they are going to have to do something militarily about it. And Bismarck games that they won’t. He games correctly in 1866 and then again in 1870-71.

“Bismarck demonstrates that Prussia has the power to defy the European Congress system.”

“Military take-aways, well that’s interesting because for the French, just as the Austrians look at 1859 and make changes, the French look at 1866 and they make changes. What do they do? Well they say that the reasons that the Austrians lost is that they used our old tactics against the Prussians and the Prussians, with a superior rifle, just mowed them down. So we are going to change our tactics and we are going to go totally defensive. We are going to make the Prussians attack us and we are going to take advantage of the fact that we have the best rifle in Europe. The French now have the best rifle in Europe, the chassepot. It’s a breech loading rifle like the Prussians. But the Dreyse rifle was mass produced and dates from 1848 and has had no real significant updates since. The chassepot was introduced between the Austrian and Franco-Prussian wars, brand new technology; much better accuracy, range, higher rate of fire. A much better rifle that does not jam all the time like the Dreyse rifle. So the French just think we will deploy into these long lines, we might even lie prone behind our backpacks, wait for the Prussians to attack and then we will take advantage of the rifle and shoot them down. We won’t be like the Austrians.

“What happens in fact is that in the Franco-Prussian war Moltke just adapts. He sees what the French are doing and just outflanks them. He has a bigger army because they have conscription and the French don’t so he has more divisions to work with. He just sends divisions round the French flank. He takes some casualties pinning down the front, but by the end of the day outflanks them and beats them in all of these battles of the Franco-Prussian war. So that just goes to show that it never does to slavishly imitate whatever worked in the last campaign. You have to look how your enemy might respond and counteract that change and anticipate that. And the French never did. If you look at records of their maneuvers in the foreign press and everything they did these very, very, formalized maneuvers where they are always on the defensive, they never learn how to attack or counterattack because they assume they will always lie-up behind their back packs and shoot the Prussians down. The Prussian adapt and the Prussians defeat them. This shows the constant dynamism of warfare.”

Museum of Eastern Bohemia in Hradec Králové,  photo: Ivana Vonderková
Okay, Prussia did well but most people probably did noit think Prussia would do that well in the Franco-Prussian war?

“That’s true. It’s assumed that the French army is better than the Prussian army. They are very different. The Prussian army was based on conscription and would have one or two years on active duty and then a long spell in the reserves. So in a war, even the core of the army was not that well trained because it had only been one or two years with the colours and then you would vastly expand this army by calling in this horse of reservists who had not been back for some serious military training for years. So it was very speculative what this hard core profession hard core French army [could do]. They had 65-year-old privates in that army, guys that had joined in their teens and just re-enlisted for the bounty every so many years and they arrived in their mid-60sstill a private in the French infantry. And these guys were amazing shots and all had combat experience. So the French would probably beat this Prussian army of lawyers and oculists, as someone said. There are all these civilian guys that have been called back. And what they did not reckon on was the German genius for war. You take these guys, who are largely civilian, you put them back in uniform and they just exhibited tremendous, tremendous, aptitude and strength. And they would undertake all these trails that other societies might not handle as well. You put these things together and the Prusso-German package was pretty formidable.”

And the Austro-Hungarians, did they take away much?

“So the army that goes to war in 1914 is actually a lot like the army that went to war in 1866 – only much worse trained.”

“Well, much like after the war of 1859 they asked what happened and we need to do the same thing. So just as they gave new emphasis to the general staff, in theory after 1859, in practice nothing really changed. The general staff grew, turned out more paperwork, but all the big decisions were still taken in the military cabinet. So something similar happened, although they did give the general staff a much bigger role. If you look, like my last book was about the Austrian war effort in World War 1, it’s called A Mad Catastrophe, and there are two big Titanic figures after the war of 1866. There is Friedrich Beck, who is the Emperor’s friend and boon companion. He makes him chief of the general staff and he runs that. And he runs the army for 25 years. And then comes in a decade before World War 1 Conrad von Hötzendorf. These are the two big military figures and they are both chiefs of the general staff. You see an attempt in Austria to imitate this all powerful general staff idea which made the Germans so formidable. But in fact they end up bureaucratizing the military severely, which was always the case in the Habsburg Empire. They were always using military jobs to let off ethnic political and social tensions, giving everybody an opportunity to work for the government. So they never really hardened into the military machine of the Germans, plus they did not have the funding. German military budgets were much bigger and it was a richer country. They were also heavily endowed with artillery, heavy and field artillery, and lots of machine guns and everything else. That was not the case with the Austrians. They scrimp on all of those expensive technologies like machine guns and artillery in order to put more men in uniform. But they have the lowest proportion of men serving in the military of all the great powers. And this ludicrously small force is not even equipped with good technology. So, yes, they study these wars and attempt to make changes but for all the reasons mentioned they never implement them. So the army that goes to war in 1914 is actually a lot like the army that went to war in 1866 – only much worse trained.“