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Seven Weeks' War - 1866

The Austro-Prussian-Italian War of 1866 paved the way for German and Italian unification. The Seven Weeks' War, the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, was the name given to the war of 1866 between Prussia on the one side, and Austria, Bavaria, Hanover, Saxony and allied German states on the other. The Seven Weeks War of 1866, was also known as the Austro-Prussian War, the German War, the Unification War, the German Civil War and the Fraternal War-and when considered as part of the process which brought about the unification of Italy, the Third Independence War.

The war grew indirectly out of the long-continued rivalry of the rising power of Prussia and the declining power of Austria, and was finally precipitated by the Schleswig-Holstein controversy. Prussia's support came from the majority of North German states, and from Italy, while the South German states, and Nassau, Frankfort, Hanover, etc. gave their assistance to Austria. But even some Southern Germans were ready to unite with Prussia, because she was the champion of German unity, and was in condition to make her championship effectual.

Concurrently with this war another was fought in Venetia between the Italians and the Austrian army of the South, the Italian Wars (1848-1870). As Prussia would not have made war in 1866 without having secured the assistance of Italy, so was it impossible for Italy to form an alliance with Prussia without the consent of France being first had and obtained. Napoleon III. possessed an absolute veto on the action of the Italian government, and had he signified to that government that an alliance with Prussia could not meet with his countenance and approval, no such alliance ever would have been formed, or even the proposition to form it have been taken into serious consideration by the Cabinet of Florence. Victor Emanuel II. would have dared no more to attack Francis Joseph, without the consent of Napoleon III, than Carthage durst have attacked Masinissa without the consent of Rome.

In 1850 Prussia, realizing from the breakdown of her mobilization for the war then impending with Austria that success was impossible, submitted to the Austrian demands, but her statesmen saw from the first that the “surrender of Olmütz,” as it was termed, rendered eventual war with Austria“a military necessity.” Preparation was begun in earnest after the accession of King William I., who selected Bismarck as his chancellor, Moltke as his chief of staff and Roon as his minister of war, and gave them a free hand to create the political situation and prepare the military machinery necessary to exploit it. Within six years the mobilization arrangements were recast, the war against Denmark in 1864 proving an opportune test of the new system.

The animosity between Prussia and Austria which led to the outbreak of hostilities in 1866 had been the gradual growth of many years, but the immediate causes of collision were the consequences of the war waged by Germany against Denmark in 1864. The results of this contest were embodied in the Treaty of Vienna of that year, by which King Christian of Denmark surrendered all his rights to the Elbe duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, and the duchy of Lauenburg, in favor of the Emperor of Austria and of the King of Prussia.

The Danish war had been undertaken in the first instance by the Germanic Confederation, in consequence of a decree of Federal execution against the King of Denmark as Duke of Holstein, and, in virtue of that duchy, a prince and member of the Confederation. The Diet which passed this decree had intended that the execution should be carried out by amalgamated detachments of such troops of all the States included in the Confederation as might be determined by the Diet. Some of these troops actually marched into Holstein. But the occupation of the Elbe duchies by troops of the Confederation, and the consequent establishment of these districts as an independent State, would not have suited the political purposes of Prussia.

The object of this Power was not so much to free Holstein from the dominion of the Dane as to secure the harbor of Kiel for the new fleet which was to be formed in order to carry the black eagle of Brandenburg into a forward place among the naval ensigns of the world. But the Diet was determined to carry out the execution; and, if the troops of the Federal powers were once allowed to declare Schleswig Holstein independent, the subjection of the duchies to the domination of Prussia would require a display of force and a violation of public opinion for which Count Bismark did not at that time consider himself strong enough.

As regards Austria, her share in the occupation of Schleswig-Holstein and in the war with Denmark was a case of sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind; she had nothing to gain by it at all adequate to the cost it involved, and the supposition that it was necessary to prevent Prussia from acquiring an overwhelming influence over the minor and South German Powers was, if not entirely a mistaken one, something very like it.

Considering the nature of the interests involved, it seemed that as much might have been reckoned upon from repulsion as attraction. Austria could have had no difficulty in finding a pretext for refusing to share in the invasion of the Duchies; and if Prussia had acted under those circumstances as she has done, the fear of her ascendancy would have had a greater effect in repelling Bavaria and Saxony, and with still greater reason the minor States, from her, than they would have been attracted towards her by the vigor she had previously displayed in carrying out what was an undoubtedly favorite enterprise among Germans generally, namely, the liberation of the Duchies from Danish control. Austria would, consequently, have stood where it was, and whatever isolation it had incurred from its abstinence from intervention would have been swept away before interested considerations.

Having, however, from the fear of Prussia gaining an ascendancy over the other German Powers been induced to share in the invasion of the Duchies, her interests were so clearly in favor of supporting the policy of those Powers that her co-operation with Prussia in opposing them was imprudent in the highest degree, and could not fail to bring upon her an unpopularity that the subsequent withdrawal of her support from the annexation schemes of Prussia in the Duchies could not obliterate.

Even after all these things had passed, the Federal contingent ejected, and Austria had withdrawn, leaving Prussia to work her will in the liberated Duchies, as they were termed with more apparent than real truth, Austria might still have avoided sinking still deeper in the mire by accepting the proposition of Prussia to pay her a compensation for the expenditure incurred in assisting that Power in carrying out its schemes subsequent to the ejectment of the Danes, or, as it has been roughly put, for her share of the plunder.

The refusal of Austria to accept this offer led to the war between the two Powers which has so greatly changed the relations of the German states towards each other. Austria was convinced that Prussia meant war, but the evil of divided councils made itself felt, and though it had this knowledge, the arrangements for entering upon it were still incomplete when Prussia had raised its army to nearly half a million within an incredibly short time. At the end of fourteen days the 490,000 men who formed the strength of this army stood in parade, armed, clothed, equipped with all necessities for a campaign, and fully provided with transport trains, provision and ammunition columns, as well as field hospitals, was in a position to enter on Austrian territory; and if it delayed doing this it was probably from the feeling that greater precautions were needed against an armed intervention of the minor States than had yet been taken.

In contemporary military opinion, the Austrians were greatly superior in all arms to their adversary. Their rifle, though a muzzle-loader, was in every other respect superior to the Prussian racedle-gun, and their M.L. rifled guns with shrapnel shell were considered more than sufficient to make good the slight advantage then conceded to the breech-loader. The cavalry was far better trained in individual and real horsemanship and manoeuvre, and was expected to sweep the field in the splendid cavalry terrain of Moravia.

Austria fell into the usual error of all proud egotists — that of estimating the capacity of a foe by her own. The opinion held by the generality of observers was so much in favor of the Austrian army, that, unless greatly overmatched, it was assumed that it would be victorious. Events soon proved that this was a mistaken idea. The blundering of the Austrian commanders fumbled away key strategic advantages and ultimately lost a war crucial to the fortunes of the Habsburg Monarchy.

Austria must have known that war was at hand, and she should have prepared for its coming. Probably she did make all the preparation she thought necessary, she supposing that Prussia would be as slow as herself, because believing that her best was the best thing in the world. This error was the source of all her misfortunes. She applied to the military art, in this age of railways and electric telegraphs, principles and practices that were not even of the first merit in much earlier and very different times. She was not aware that the world had changed.

Prussia was thoroughly aware of it, and acted accordingly. She was all vivacity and alertness, and hence her success. The Prussians by their conduct in the field, as well in pitched battles as in skirmishing, showed that they were not in bravery, skill, or in any respect inferior to any troops whatever; while as marksmen, they were superior to the Austrian army taken altogether. The Prussians having studied their allies in the war of 1864 knew the weakness of the Austrian staff and the untrustworthiness of the contingents of some of the Austrian nationalities, and felt fairly confident that against equal numbers they could hold their own.

The occasion for war was engineered entirely by Bismarck; and it is doubtful how far Moltke was in Bismarck's confidence, though as a far-seeing general he took advantage of every opening which the latter's diplomacy secured for him. The original scheme for the strategic deployment worked out by Moltke as art of the routine of his office contemplated a defence of the itingdom against not only the whole standing army of Austria, but against 35,000 Saxons, 95,000 unorganized Bavarians and other South Germans, and 60,000 Hanoverians, Hessians, &c., and to meet these he had two corps (VII. and VIII.) on the Rhine, the Guard and remaining six in Brandenburg and Prussia proper. Bismarck diverted three Austrian corps by an alliance with Italy.

Under Moltke the Prussians won victories in rapid succession, and in an astonishingly short period had outfought the Austrians. Eight significant battles on land and sea were fought between the 24th June and the 22nd July 1866.

Moltke brought the VIII. corps and half the VII to the east and thus made himself numerically equal to his enemy, but elsewhere left barely 45,000 men to oppose 150,000. The magnitude of the risk was sufficiently shown at Langensalza. The direction of the Prussian railways, not laid out primarily for strategic purposes, conditioned the first deployment of the whole army, with the result that at first the Prussians were distributed in three main groups or armies on a front of about 250 miles. As there had been no money available to purchase supplies beforehand, each of these groups had to be scattered over a wide area for subsistence, and thus news as to the enemy's points of concentration necessarily preceded any determination of the plan of campaign. This was one of the gravest crises in Moltke's career.

The strict discipline maintained in the Prussian Army, together with the feeling common among the men that the people of the States through which they marched were friendly to them, even when their rulers had on foot an army to resist their advance, caused them to respect the villagers; so that in fact the people benefitted by their presence, in consequence of the purchases they made ; an unusually large proportion of the men being well-supplied with money.

What picture of the progress of an invading army into a state at war with them could be more beautifully described. In most of the villages and hamlets of Saxony, certainly in all those which lay on roads leading to the frontier, Prussian soldiers were billetted; cavalry and artillery horses filled the farmsteadings of the border farmers, and field guns and artillery carriages were packed on many a village green. But the Saxons had no complaints to make, and as far as could be judged from appearances, seemed highly to approve the occupation of their country by the Prussian soldiery. The Saxon peasantry and the soldiers were on the most friendly terms, and a stranger who did not know the Prussian uniform, in passing through the villages, would have supposed that the troops were quartered among the people of their own country.

There was a fundamental disagreement in Prussia in the tactical ideas of the senior and those of the junior officers. The former, bred in the tradition of the Napoleonic battle, looked for the decision only from the employment of “masses”; the latter, trained with the breech-loader and without war experience, expected to decide battles by infantry fire only. Both overlooked the changes brought by the introduction of the longrange rifle (muzzle- and breech-loading alike), which had rendered impossible the “case shot preparation” which had formed the basis of Napoleon's tactical system. The men were trained for three years in the infantry and four years in the cavalry and artillery, but the war was not popular and many went unwillingly.

While the armies of Prince Frederick Charles, the Crown Prince, and General Herwarth were being supported in Bohemia, Moravia, and Saxony, General Falkenstein, with a number of Line regiments and a force of Landwehr, was driving the war forwards to the Main; and the Prince of Mecklenburg, with the second reserve corps, was pushing on against Bavaria. Nor was Prussian territory left without its garrisons: Landwehr battalions were in Kosel, Neisse, Berlin, Torgau, Magdeburg, Konigsberg, and all the other garrison towns of the country, while under their shelter recruits were being drilled, and more Landwehr embodied to march forward into the conquered countries. The armies which were on the Marchfeld in front of Lundenburg and in Bavaria did not form a thin front line, which, once broken or turned, would have been driven back even to the Elbe; their rear was guarded and supported by large forces of strong and firm battalions, lately embodied, but from their nature quickly trained, and composed of well-grown old soldiers who were thirsting to be sent against the enemy, and on whose well-knit frames disease or the hardships of war could make little impression.

In nineteen days, counting from the morning of June 15th, Prussia had accomplished that which almost all men in other countries had deemed impossible. While foreigners were speculating as to the number of days Benedek would require to reach Berlin, and wondering whether he would proceed by the Silesian or the Saxon route, the Prussians were routing him, taking Prague, and marching swiftly toward Vienna. The contending armies first "felt" one another on the 26th of June, in a small affair at Liebenau, in which the Prussians were victorious. The next day there was another "affair," of larger proportions, at Podal, with the same result; and two more actions, one at Nachod and at Skalitz, in which Fortune was consistent, adhering to the single-headed eagle, and the other at Trautenau, which was of the nature of a drawn battle. On the 28th of June there was another fight at Trautenau, the Prussians remaining masters of the field; while the Austrians were beaten at other points, and fell back to Gitschin.

At Gitschin, on the 29th of June, and not at Sadowa, on the 3d of July, the event of the war was decided. Had the battle then and there fought been fortunate for the Austrians, the name of Sadowa would have remained unknown to the world; for then the battle of the 3d of July could not have been fought, or it would have had a different scene, and most probably a different result. Austrian defeat at Gitschin made the battle of Sadowa a necessity, and made it so under conditions highly favorable to the Prussians.

The battle of Koniggratz or Sadowa (now Hradec Kralove in Czech Republic) was fought on 03 July 1866, the third anniversary of the decisive day of our battle of Gettysburg. At a moderate estimate, four hundred and twenty thousand men took part in it, of whom one hundred and ninety-five thousand were Austrians and Saxons, and two hundred and twenty-five thousand Prussians - a larger army than even Napoleon I ever led in any battle. This made the action rank almost with the battle of Leipzig, the greatest of all battles then to date [the entire force of the Allies at Leipzig is generally stated to have been 290,000 men; that of the French at 175,000, — making a total of 465,000].

It is satisfactory evidence of the real greatness of Prussian generalship, that it had succeeded in massing much the larger force on the final field, though at a distance from the Prussian frontier and far within the enemy's territory. There seldom has lived a general capable of handling an army two hundred thousand strong. The Prussians, to be sure, were stronger, and they were splendidly handled; but it must be observed that they were divided into two armies, and that those armies, though having a common object, operated apart . In this respect, though in no other, Sadowa bears a resemblance to Waterloo, the armies of the Crown Prince and of Prince Frederick Charles answering to those of Blucher and Wellington. The Prussian force engaged far exceeded that of all the armies that fought at Waterloo. The armies of Grant and Lee, in May, 1864, probably were not larger than the Prussian army at Sadowa.

In spite of heavy losses the Austrians were perhaps better in hand and more capable of resuming the battle next morning than the victors, for they were experienced in war, and accustomed to defeat, and retired in good order in three organized columns within easy supporting distance of each other. On the other hand, the Prussians were new to the battlefield, and the reaction after the elation of victory was intense; moreover, if what happened at Hühnerwasser affords a guide, the staff would have required some days to disentangle the units which had fought and to assign them fresh objectives.

After their grand victory, the Prussians pushed rapidly forward toward Vienna; and names that are common in the history of Napoleon's Austrian campaigns began to appear in the daily journals, — Olmutz, Briinn, Znaym, Austerlitz, and others. Nothing occurred to stay their march, and they were in the very act of winning another battle which would have cut the Austrians off from Hungary, when an armistice was agreed upon. The negotiations at Nikolsburg, 26 July 1866, were confirmed by the Peace of Prague and other acts of formal settlement. The prestige of Prussia, greatly increased, was made dominant in the Franco-German war which soon followed.

The terms of the treaty of peace were moderate; but it should be understood that what Austria loses was very inadequately expressed by these terms, and what Prussia gained not at all ; and what Prussia gained at the expense of Austria, important as it may be, was less important than what she gained from France.

The moral blow fell with greater severity on France than on Austria. From Austria she took the first place in Germany; from France, the first place in Europe, which is the same thing as the first place in Christendom, or the world, — meaning by the world that portion of humanity which had power and influence and leadership, because of its knowledge, culture, and wealth. Few would have said there can be anything offensive in a French primacy of Christendom. Objection may be made to any primacy; but if primacy there must be, as mostly there had been, France had the best claim to it of any country. Prussia, therefore, by conquering for herself the first place in the estimation of mankind, who always respect the longest and sharpest sword, unhorsed France.

Austria had no right to the first place in Germany. There was something monstrous, something highly offensive, in the Germanic primacy of an empire made up of Magyars, Poles, Bohemians, Italians, Slavonians, Croats, Illyrians, and other races, and not above a fourth of whose inhabitants were Germans. Prussia had that June twice as many Germans as Austria, though her entire population was not much more than half as large as that of her rival. When Prussia turned Austria out of Germany at the point of the needle-gun, she simply asserted her own right to the leadership of Germany.

There was much noise made over the needle-gun - that famous and fascinating slaughter weapon: yet it is by no means an arm of tender years. It had been known thirty years when the war began, and it had been amply tested in action seventeen years before it was first directed against the Austrians, not to mention the free use that had been made of it in the Danish war.

It was a disputed point during, and since the war, how far the Prussian successes were due to the superiority of the needlegun over the muzzle-loader. The friends of the Prussians, and the Prussians themselves very naturally maintained that overmuch credit had been assigned to their breech-loaders, whereas the Austrian soldiers just as naturally asserted that they were beaten by the needle-gun. The accounts they give of the performance of the rifle, are, however, sufficient to show that accuracy of fire must have had as much to do with the havoc it made among them as the greater rapidity with which it could be discharged. The Austrians speak of the effects of the fire as terrible. Whenever a body of them came within range, the Prussian bullets poured among them as thickly as hailstones during a storm, they pattered on their rifles so fast that they were bewildered by the noise, as well as by the disasters caused.

England, in fact, in 1866, hardly wakened up to realize that the Prussian army then was very different from that which at the beginning of this century was destroyed on the fatal day of Jena, or that then it only resembled the army which marched so well to our aid at Waterloo, in patriotic feeling and in the rudiments of its organization. Prussia seems now about to spring into the position she held one hundred years ago, when Frederick had made her the first military Power in the world, and England was introducing her military system into the germs of the army which marched through the Peninsula, and at Waterloo shattered the legions which Bliicher annihilated. Would that England now would take some hints for the organization of her army from the victors of Koniggratz, and would adopt the experience which had been won on the plains of Bohemia, before military progress is forced upon her by a disaster more fatal, perhaps, than that of Klostersevern.

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Page last modified: 05-06-2016 20:46:50 ZULU