The Seven Weeks War in 1866 was chiefly fought between the armies of Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Prussian army was by far the superior and its generals had planned the war down to the smallest detail, making sure that Austria-Hungary’s defeat was both rapid and total.
MOLTKE AS FIELD COMMANDER
On June 2 1866, with the approval of War Minister von Roon, the King issued a brief but momentous order. Until further notice, the Chief of the General Staff was authorized to issue orders directly to subordinate units in the Prussian Army, without the delay of getting the approval of either King or War Minister.
It was a substantial command, stretched in an arc more than 300 miles long, from the Neisse River on the east to the Aller River in the west. In central Silesia was Crown Prince Frederick William’s Second Army of about 115,000 men. Based on southern Brandenburg, and now sweeping through eastern Saxony, was the First Army, 93,000 strong, under Prince Frederick Charles. Farther west, marching south from Torgau on Dresden, was the Army of the Elbe, 48,000 men under General Karl Eberhard Herwarth von Bittenfeld. General Vogel von Falckenstein’s Western Army, about 50,000 men, was concentrated in Prussian Saxony.
Vogel von Falckenstein’s mission was to knock Hanover out of the war, to turn south to repeat the process against Hesse-Kassel, then to advance in a southeasterly direction to attract the attention of Bavaria (and incidentally of Hesse-Darmstadt, Baden, and Wurttemberg) away from the main theater of operations in Bohemia. The three main Prussian armies were meanwhile to advance into Bohemia, converging east of Prague, then to march eastward toward Olmiitz, the expected concentration center for General Benedek’s Austrian Army.
During the mobilization and preliminary operations Moltke remained in Berlin, tied to the telegraph, making certain that his dispositions were going according to plan. It was fortunate that he did because the irrepressible Chancellor again interjected himself into the military picture.
On June 19 Bismarck, without notifying either the King, Roon, or Moltke, sent a telegram direct to Vogel von Falckenstein, now in southern Hanover, suggesting that an advance southwestward to Frankfurt would prevent the concentration of the Confederation armies and “would easily lead to a second Rossbach.” Vogel von Falckenstein had just discovered that the Hanoverian Army was moving south toward Bavaria, and had begun pursuit. While pondering over this message from Bismarck, he lost contact with the Hanoverians on the twenty-second. Never having been sympathetic to the General Staff, and holding a grudge against Moltke since the Danish War, when Moltke had taken his place as Chief of Staff of the Field Army, Vogel decided to follow Bismarck’s advice. He began marching toward the southwest. Not surprisingly he did not bother to inform Moltke.
Moltke soon realized, however, that something was seriously wrong in the area of the Western Army. The Hanoverians, taking advantage of Vogel’s disappearance, were marching southward unopposed, across the western tip of Prussian Saxony, toward a possible junction with either the Bavarians or the Austrians. Moltke rushed several contingents of garrison troops to delay the Hanoverians, and peremptorily ordered Vogel to return to carry out his assigned mission. The result was a battle at Langensalza just north of Erfurt, on June 27, where General Alexander von Arentschildt’s Hanoverians sharply defeated Vogel von Falckenstein’s advance guard. Before the day was over, however, the remainder of Vogel’s Army reached the field, blocking further advance by the outnumbered Hanoverians. On June 29 blind King George V of Hanover surrendered his Army to Vogel.
BATTLE OF LANGENSALZA
Also called the Austro-Prussian War, this brief conflict was a key step in Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s (1815–98) campaign to establish Prussia as the preeminent German power, the nucleus around which a genuine German nation would coalesce. Prussia’s archrival for dominance was Austria, and Prussia attacked it vigorously. Aside from the war’s crucial political significance, it would prove a tactical milestone as well, as the first European war in which railroads played a major role. Prussia used its extensive rail network to maneuver and advance quickly. This immediately gained Prussia the advantage, and the general in chief, the brilliant Helmuth von Moltke (1800–91), never let the advantage slip. Second only to the Prussian railroads in tactical significance was firepower. Prussia had advanced artillery and breechloading small arms. The Austrians had older artillery and still labored with slow, muzzle-loaded rifled muskets. Of the war’s eight major battles, the Prussians suffered a reversal only at the first, Langensalza (June 27–29, 1866), and this at the hands of the Hanoverians, not the Austrians. Even so, the Hanoverian victory was a hollow one; that state’s king was forced to surrender in the face of an overwhelming Prussian concentration.
Hanover began in an excellent position as the Prussian attack happened to occur during Hanoverian summer exercises and their army was already mobilized. Realizing the vast size of the total Prussian force, King George directed his 19,000 man army under General Alexander von Arentschildt to quickly withdraw and march south to link up with Bavarian allies.4 Prussia pressed 40,000 total troops into Hanover, which then split into four detachments under Generals Falckenstein, Goeben, Flies, and Beyer. General von Falckenstein, recognizing the absence of an army to fight, marched unopposed into the Hanoverian capital, north of the marching Hanoverians. General Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian theater commander, also ordered Goeben to the north, and in turn deployed Beyer to the Hanoverians’ south and Flies, with 9,000 troops, quickly marched around to the west. This formed a box around the Hanoverian army with Prussia itself forming the Eastern side.
Moltke ordered Flies to hold fast and intercept Hanoverians trying to break through westward as Falckenstein’s force performed the main Prussian assault from the north. In direct defiance of his orders, General Flies gathered his detachment and directly attacked the Hanoverian army. Following a feint toward Thamsbruck to the North, the Prussian forces under Flies made a concentrated assault toward Merxleben. The much larger Hanoverian force and artillery fire drove them back toward the actual city of Langensalza. Having a force more than twice the Prussian detachment’s size, Arentschildt severely routed Flies’ troops, capturing more than 900 men.
Although the Hanoverians attained a decisive victory in the actual battle, the fighting halted their movement and allowed the other Prussian forces from the north and south to converge on the battle site. Out of options, King George and the Hanoverians pulled back to the East, further from their Bavarian allies. Pinned down against the Harz Mountains and out of options, King George surrendered in Nordhausen two days after the battle
The Battle of Langensalza was a near disaster in the Hanoverian campaign for the Prussians. It wiped out Flies’ detachment of troops and could have allowed an avenue of escape for the Hanoverian army. At the same time, this battle provided just enough time for the northern and southern Prussian contingents to link up at the battle site, which ultimately forced Hanoverian surrender.
Langensalza was an important aspect of the Austro-Prussian War as it led to a quick Prussian occupation of Hanover, both taking the Austrians by surprise and greatly weakening their position in the war. The Prussians also quickly overran Kassel and Saxony at the same time they were attacking Hanover. All together these small states could have contributed more than 100,000 good troops to Austria’s cause, but they were destroyed before they could unite and fight jointly. If the Hanoverians had successfully reached other allies on the Austrian’s side, the Austro-Prussian War may have gone very differently.
Another long lasting result of the Battle of Langensalza is the use of the “Red Cross” by medical personnel. Created by the First Geneva Convention in 1864, the Red Cross began an international humanitarian aid group. This organization, which would later greatly expand in size, was originally very small. Involving just thirty trained volunteer nurses from Gotha, the first actual combat mission of the Red Cross occurred on the Prussian side at Langensalza. Although Austria and Hanover were not involved at the time, in 1866 Prussia was a member of the Red Cross Convention. Prussian medical personnel worked on the battlefield wearing the sign of the Red Cross on their arms and providing critical aid to wounded soldiers. Their legacy continues today in the form of the International Red Cross.