Informed military opinion then expected Austria to win and several distinguished military historians can show convincingly that they ought to have done so. In spite of Moltke’s calm certainties, he too had reason to worry. He had to divide his forces with an army in the West which would have to deal with the Hanoverian and Hessian forces, three armies toward the East, one of which would need to subdue the Saxons and the other two had moved into Austrian territory to carry out the encircling movement on which his plans for victory rested. His armies had commanders of varying degrees of quality and equally varying amounts of esteem from the King. Fortunately two of the royal commanders, Prince Frederick Charles, the King’s nephew, and the Crown Prince Frederick proved to be outstanding field commanders. The Austrians had similar problems but with unfortunately reversed consequences. The commander-in-chief of the Austrian ‘North Army’ in Bohemia, Feldzeugmeister Ludwig von Benedek (1804–81), ‘the lion of Solferino’, had gained a reputation for boldness as one of the few Austrian commanders to come out of the 1859 war with credit. ‘The mere name Benedek means that he will come quickly, dealing blows left and right,’ Moltke said. Had he done so and caught the Prussian columns one by one, the outcome would have been different, but Benedek, who had done so well as corps commander, proved unable to control an entire army and hesitated at several crucial points. Whereas Moltke had to let the mediocre Eduard Vogel von Fackenstein command the West army because the King liked him, he had good commanders in Bohemia. Franz Joseph chose an obscure, near-sighted Archduke, the Archduke Albrecht, to command the Austrian ‘South Army’, who proved to be an outstanding and versatile commander. Aided by an accomplished chief of staff, a competent bourgeois officer, Franz John, the Archduke Albrecht achieved victory over the Italians.
Moltke faced another threat which he could not control: the problem of communications. The railroads made it possible to move large numbers of men and the telegraph made control of such movements significantly easier. In effect strategic mobility had greatly improved but once away from the railhead and especially in battle commanders had no way to contact each other. Moltke frequently had no idea where his troops were and no way of finding out. The age of the mobile telephone has so spoiled us that we tend to forget how impossible communications were for most of the nineteenth century.
‘Weaponry was the basic evil’, claims Frank Zimmer. The Prussian ‘needle gun’ was much superior to the Austria ‘Lorenz’ gun.
That the Austrian Army set its hopes on an obsolete model must rank as one of the most disastrous miscalculations in the history of the armaments industry … The Prussian model was simply the best. Oddly enough its very virtues made it suspect in Austrian eyes and a reason not to adopt it. Kaiser Franz Joseph and many officers thought that its rapid fire power would mislead the ordinary soldier into wasting ammunition.
Gordon Craig adds: ‘the Zündnagelgewehr … [was] a breech-loading rifle that was capable of firing five rounds a minute with 43 percent accuracy at seven hundred paces’ and quotes ‘the plaintive cry in the letter of an Austria Landser, “Dear Peppi, I guess I won’t see you anymore for the Prussians are shooting everyone dead”.’ In the main engagement the Austrians lost three times as many men on average as the Prussians. The Austrian tactics of bayonet charge simply made certain that, as General von Blumenthal, Chief of Staff of the Prussian I Army, put it, ‘we just shoot the poor sods dead.’
Both Bismarck and Moltke had become desperate. Their generals moved in a relaxed manner to their tasks. In exasperation Bismarck asked Roon on 17 June, ‘Is Manteuffel in Harburg nailed down by any sort of military order? I hoped, he would fly.’ Vogel von Falckenstein was worse. He had settled into the comfortable Hotel Zur Krone in Göttingen and seemed to be taking his time in dispatching the small and ill-organized Hanoverian army. He had a reputation for eccentricity and had once court-martialled a soldier for presenting him a glass of water without the serving tray. Moltke saw that his plan made the Prussian forces terribly vulnerable, deployed in relatively small contingents across hundred of kilometres, as one critic put it, ‘like beads on a string’.
After the war Stosch complained that many commanders had been too old and lacked inventiveness but the General Staff was:
fresh, active and, what was best of all, did not stick to formalities but to substance. General von Moltke is one of the most talented and sharp-thinking of generals and has the inclination to grand operations … There is a story that during the difficult hours at Königgrätz somebody asked Moltke what he had decided about retreat to which Moltke answered, ‘here it is a question of the entire future of Prussia, here there will be no retreat.’
If Benedek, who enjoyed the advantage of compactness, had launched an attack on the First Army alone before it combined with the two columns of the Elbe and Second Armies, the whole plan would have collapsed. If the Hanoverians or Saxons had fought more tenaciously then the West Army under Vogel and the Elbe Army under Karl Herwarth von Bittenfeld, who, as Wawro writes, ‘vied with Falckenstein for the distinction of most mediocre general in the Prussian army’, would not have arrived in time to join the other two columns. On 28 June General Vogel von Falckenstein and the Prussian Army of the Main defeated the Hanoverian army at Langensalza and Hanover capitulated. The first defeat prompted Franz Joseph to change his ministers. On 30 June a new government, the ‘Three Counts’ government—Belcredi, Esterhazy, and Mendsdorff—was formed in Vienna, which promised to be more resolute.
On 30 June the King moved the Great Headquarters to Jicin in Bohemia, where Moltke discovered to his dismay that all three Army groups had lost complete contact with Benedek’s North Army and had no idea where it was. Time was running out because a French envoy was expected to arrive at headquarters with a demand that the hostilities be halted. The long marches and rain had exhausted the advancing Prussian troops and eroded discipline. The great battle on 3 July 1866 was fought at the village of Sadowa, north-west of the Bohemian town of Königgrätz (now Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic) on the upper Elbe River. It began with an attack by the Prussian Elbe and First Armies. The Crown Prince’s Second Army had not yet arrived to close the encirclement. At 11.30 in the morning Benedek received intelligence that along the Elbe strong Prussian forces had been spotted (the Crown Prince’s Second Army). The provisional commander of the Austrian IV Corps, Feldmarschall Lieutnant Anton Freiherr von Mollinary, demanded permission to attack to the Prussian left flank while it lay exposed. ‘There I was, standing before the extreme left wing of the Prussian army. A determined attack would have snapped off the enemy’s left wing and put us on the road to victory.’ Zimmer believes that Benedek intended to attack but only in a conventional frontal assault. The moment passed and by the early afternoon the Crown Prince’s II Army ‘within a short time broke the Austrian flank, aided by difficult terrain and fog and by exploiting the needle gun and artillery … It all went so quickly that Benedek at first would not believe the report and replied to the officer who brought it, “Nonsense, don’t babble such stupid stuff”. It was 3 pm on the afternoon of 3 July, 1866.’
Later that afternoon Prince Friedrich Karl, Commander of the First Army, suddenly to his surprise met the Austrian Field Marshall Lieutenant von Gablenz, who had come to ask for terms of armistice. ‘But why are you asking for an armistice? Does your army need one?’ Gablenz: ‘My Emperor has no army left; it is as good as destroyed.’ Friedrich Karl wrote in his diary: ‘Through meeting Gablenz it was clear to me for the first time the scale of the defeat and the breadth of the victory.’ Prince Frederick Charles, whose First Army had borne the main burden of the battle, reflected afterwards what had given Prussia the victory and concluded that it was a certain reliable ordinariness:
It is our well-trained, well-oiled mechanism in which each knows his place, a place which even mediocrity is entirely ready to fulfill its tasks (for it is calculated on mediocrity) which has taught us how to win victories. The reorganization of the army has certainly not alone contributed to this outcome, but it was in its time a necessary perfecting of the mechanism. Geniuses in the proper sense of the word have not shown themselves.
In other words, on balance the Prussians had a more modern, bureaucratic attitude to war than the Austrians. The years of war games, theory, and repeated practice had paid off—but just. Had Benedek let Mollinary attack the Prussian left at 11.30 in the morning and thrown his ample reserves against them from the oblique position his own corps had gained, the Prussians, discipline, bureaucracy and all the rest, would have crumbled as rapidly as the Austrians did in the afternoon and the whole history of Europe would have been other than it became.
Bismarck’s own reaction does him credit:
He felt that he was playing a game of cards with a million-dollar stake that he did not really possess. Now that the wager had been won, he felt depressed rather than elated. And as he rode through fields with dead and wounded, he wondered what his feelings would be if his eldest son were lying there.
Stosch, now a general officer and first Quartermaster General to the Second Army, recorded the arrival of Field Marshall Lieutenant von Gablenz to ask for terms of armistice, to which Bismarck demanded the exclusion of Austria from Germany and the unification of the largely Protestant North German states as a first stage to the full unity. Except for the King of Saxony no sovereign should be deposed. Hessen and Hanover must be reduced to assure the necessary links between the eastern and western provinces of Prussia. The Crown Prince invited Bismarck to dine with the staff of the II Army and Stosch recorded his impressions:
It was the first time I saw Bismarck personally at a social occasion and I confess gladly that the impression that I got from him nearly overwhelmed me. The clarity and grandeur of his views gave me the highest pleasure; he was secure and fresh in every direction and unfolded in each thought a whole world.