3 July 1866

Few major battles have been affected so decisively by a single new weapon as the confrontation that took place near the small town of Königgrätz in Austrian Bohemia in early July 1866, at the climax of the contest for supremacy in Germany. The weapon in question was the Prussian needle-gun, a breech-loading rifle capable of delivering ten to twelve shots a minute, much faster than the muzzle-loaded guns still used by most of Europe. Its effect was devastating against the standard Austrian tactic of the storm attack. Within minutes, whole battalions were reduced to a fraction of their strength, the ground littered with corpses in gruesome heaps so dense that at the end of the battle Prussian horsemen had to dismount to cross the battlefield.

At the Battle of Königgrätz (Sadowa) on 3 July 1866, the major difference between the Prussian forces, pictured here, and their Austrian opponents was the effective firepower of the new Prussian needle-gun, capable of firing ten to twelve rounds a minute.

The needle-gun was the invention of the Prussian gunsmith Johann von Dreyse. Developed from 1836, it was finally adopted by the Prussian Army in 1848 and was standard issue by the 1860s. The paper cartridge was inserted by bolt action, and its paper construction meant that the cartridge case did not have to be unloaded before reloading, increasing the speed of fire. The failure of the Austrian Army to adopt the needle-gun was not based simply on a lack of imagination. It was a far from perfect weapon. Its 600-metre (2,000-feet) range was shorter than conventional muzzle-loaded rifles, and after a few shots the escaping gas from the explosion of the cartridge caused burns, forcing troops to fire the gun from the hip. The needle that pierced the paper cartridge when the trigger was pulled was also prone to break or wear out. The one advantage of the new weapon lay in the rate of fire, which exceeded that of anything else until the first machine guns. But even this advantage might not have been fully exploited had the Austrian army not chosen the massed frontal assault as its principal battlefield tactic.

The long struggle to determine the future of the German area, dominated for centuries by Austria, and organized since 1815 as a loose German Confederation, was always going to be a contest between northern Protestant Prussia and the multi-national, mainly Catholic, Habsburg Empire, with Austria at its heart. German patriots wanted a single German nation, but the Habsburgs were solidly opposed to it because their multi-national dynastic empire would collapse if nationalism succeeded. The Prussian monarchy was not particularly enthusiastic about a German nation either, but it became clear that promoting a unitary state separate from Austria would only be to Prussia’s benefit as the most powerful kingdom in Germany. A clash was not inevitable, though likely. In 1866, the Austrian government decided to test the question of who dominated Germany. A Prussian–Italian treaty signed in April, designed to support Italian efforts to remove Austria from its remaining Italian territories, proved enough. The Austrian emperor, Franz-Joseph, ordered mobilization first in Italy and then, in late April, of the Austrian Northern Army under commanding general Ludwig von Benedek. The Austrians prepared to concentrate their forces in the Bohemian plain where they could use their storm tactics effectively.

The Prussian chief-of-staff, General Helmuth von Moltke, divided his army corps into three distinct forces, all of which converged on the Bohemian plain: the 2nd Army was based in Silesia, the 1st Army in Prussian Saxony, and the Army of the Elbe, which included forces from Prussia’s German allies, based in Saxony once it was occupied. By the third week of June, the Prussians had invaded Saxony and deployed the last of their armies in a wide 400-kilometre (250-mile) arc around Bohemia. This was a risk, since the larger Austrian forces could defeat the Prussian enemy one army at a time if they moved quickly and boldly. However, when Moltke ordered the invasion on 22 June, a pessimistic Benedek dithered over his strategic options until he finally decided to move initially against the Prussian 1st and Elbe armies and, having defeated them, to turn east again to defeat the 2nd Army marching from Silesia. The first major engagements at Podol and Stralitz were a disaster, the needle-gun mowing down advancing Austrian infantry. Benedek changed his mind and decided to retreat in order to deal with the Silesian threat first. His armies converged on the banks of the River Elbe, in front of the town of Königgrätz, where he hoped they could rest and nurse their early wounds. The long marches in difficult weather with poor logistical support undermined the Austrian forces and Benedek recommended suing for peace. Franz-Joseph would not hear of it, and on 3 July the Austrians faced the prospect at last of a major battle against the encircling Prussians.

The Prussian forces had their own difficulties. Although the battle is often remembered as one decided by the more efficient Prussian railways, the two sides arrived at the same time in June, while the Prussians suffered from problems of supply once the troops had been transported. The 124,000 of the 1st and Elbe armies were outnumbered by the 265,000 Austrian soldiers and 650 cannon, and needed the 100,000-man Silesian Army to march to their help as quickly as they could. On 3 July, Moltke ordered the Prussian 1st Army to attack Benedek’s larger force, but the troops were tired and hungry and the early engagements found the Prussian front held down by heavy and accurate Austrian artillery fire. The new Krupp 2.7- and 1.8-kilogram (6- and 4-pound) guns had shorter range and were poorly concentrated; artillery innovation was not, as is sometimes suggested, a key to Prussian victory. The answer was the needle-gun. On the left of the Prussian 1st Army, the commander of the 7th Division occupied the Swiepwald, a small area of forest. The Austrian right decided to clear the forest in order to attack the Prussian flank, but after four hours of attacks by much larger Austrian forces, twenty-eight out of forty-three Austrian battalions had been decimated by needle-gun fire. The forest was in Austrian hands but no flank attack was possible. Instead, Benedek found that a large hole had developed in his front at a critical moment.

The Prussian 2nd Army, commanded by Crown Prince Friedrich-Wilhelm, had made its way slowly over muddy roads and awkward terrain. It debouched onto the battlefield by mid-day with the whole Austrian flank exposed before it. Helped by the geography of small ridges and tall crops, the Prussians filtered forward under heavy artillery fire. The needle-gun was a lethal advantage and soon the Prussians overwhelmed the defences around the town of Chlum, threatening the whole Austrian army with encirclement and annihilation. A fierce Austrian counter-attack to retake Chlum was stopped in its tracks by volleys of fire. The roadway to the small town was quickly nicknamed ‘Dead Man’s Way’. When the Prussian 1st Corps arrived, the Austrian assault died out. Benedek ordered his one remaining reserve corps to attack the oncoming Prussians, but within half an hour 10,000 of them were dead or wounded by needle-gun fire, half the strength of the corps. Before the Prussians could snap the jaws of their trap shut, Benedek ordered a general retreat across the still-intact Elbe bridges. Not a single infantry unit was any longer combat effective. The Austrians left 22,000 dead or wounded and 9,200 prisoners, against Prussian losses of 9,172, including 1,935 dead. Three weeks later the Austrians sued for an armistice. The future of a German nation was now to be determined by Prussia.

The outcome of the battle was not inevitable, since Prussian strategy had been at risk if any one element of its elongated line had been defeated quickly by the greater Austrian numbers. For most of the day, Moltke was uncertain about whether his side was winning, and there were moments when Prussian commanders thought retreat might be necessary. Prussian artillery performed poorly compared with Austrian. The needle-gun gave the outnumbered Prussian Army the edge it needed. Austrian forces took terrible casualties as they were propelled forward against the Prussian firing lines. The fact that they continued to attack even when experiencing such losses compounded the problem. An older form of battlefield practice, based on élan and aggression, was giving way to a battlefield dominated by fire.