150 years on – The Battle of Königgrätz, 3 July 1866

Konnigratz
‘The Battery of the Dead’ by Carl Röchling (1855 – 1920). This picture shows the Prussian Guard overrunning Captain August von der Groeben’s so called ‘Battery of the Dead‘ at the Battle of Königgrätz, on the afternoon of 3 July 1866.

This week the military history world has been focused on the centenary commemorations for the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.  Less well commemorated, or as well-known I suspect, is the fact that 3 July 2016 is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Königgrätz (or Sadowa), itself an important and significant event, and the culmination of the short Austro-Prussian War of 1866, a war that would have a crucial role in shaping the Europe we know today.

The Austro-Prussian War, which was also known as the Seven Weeks’ War, was fought between the Austrian Empire and its German allies, and Kingdom of Prussia with its own German allies.  At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 the German states were grouped in a loose confederation known as the ‘Deutscher Bund‘ and operating under Austrian leadership.  As the nineteenth century progressed the conditions developed for a unification of the German states into a single Germany. Two different views emerged as to what that unification might look like. The first was a ‘Grossdeutschland’ or greater Germany that would see a multi-national empire including Austria. The alternative a ‘Kleindeutschland’ or lesser Germany would exclude Austria and as a result would be dominated by Prussia, the largest and most powerful of the German states, unsurprisingly the latter was the preferred option in Prussia.

Bismark
Otto Von Bismarck (1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898) the architect of German Unification. This photograph was taken late in his life and had been beautifully colourised by Marina Amaral.

When Otto von Bismarck became Minister President of Prussia in 1862 he immediately began to develop a strategy for uniting Germany as a ‘Kleindeutschland’ under Prussian rule. He first raised German national consciousness by convincing Austria to join Prussia in the Second Schleswig War.  This swift and brutal conflict put the Danish provinces of Schleswig and Holstein under joint Austrian and Prussian rule. But very quickly after the conclusion of that war Bismarck provoked a further conflict over the administration of the conquered provinces, which resulted in Austria declaring war on Prussia and calling on the armies of the minor German states to join them, in what was ostensibly action by the German Confederation against Prussia to restore Prussia’s obedience to the Confederation.

The main campaign of the war took place in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic).  The Prussian Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, had decided that the key to success was to ignore the minor German states allied with Austria, and instead concentrate on decisively defeating Austria itself.  He planned the war in meticulous detail, rapidly mobilising the Prussian Army and advanced across the border into Saxony and Bohemia in June 1866 to confront the Austrian Army, which was concentrating for an invasion of Silesia. Moving rapidly, the Prussian forces were divided into three armies: The Army of the Elbe under General Karl Eberhard Herwarth von Bittenfeld, the First Army under Prince Friedrich Karl, and the Second Army under Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm. All were under the nominal command of Prussia’s King Wilhelm I, but in reality operational command sat with von Moltke.  As the armies advanced, each on their own axis, they overcame Austrian attempts to stop them and by 2 July the main Austria Army had been sighted, encamped on high ground between the towns of Königgrätz and Sadowa.

Von Moltke immediately saw the opportunity to encircle the Austrians. He gave orders for Prince Friedrich Karl and the First Army to move forward and in conjunction with the Army of the Elbe to attack the Austrian positions across the Bistritz River the following day, 3 July 1866.  He also ordered the Second Army, at this time some way off to the North East, to move in support with the aim of surrounding the Austrian forces.  

KG Map Morning
The morning’s actions at Königgrätz. Map taken from Gordon A. Craig’s excellent book ‘The Battle of Königgrätz: Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1964.)

Moltke had intended the battle to be a textbook ‘pocket battle’ in which he would encircle and destroy the Austrian Army, but the weather on 3 July almost ruined his plans.  As the First Army and the Army of the Elbe approached they were caught in the heavy rain and arrived wet and exhausted. Meanwhile the Second Army did not reach the field until late afternoon. The Austria commander, Ludwig von Benedek, therefore had the advantage of numerical superiority for much of the day with his 240,000 troops actually only facing 135,000 Prussians. Unfortunately for Austria he did not exploit this advantage.

Bayonet Charge by Prussians at the Battle of Sadowa
An etching showing Prussian infantry charging Austrian troops at bayonet point.

The initial Prussian attacks came from the Army of the Elbe in the West and the First Army in the North West.  In the West the early attacks were successful and the Saxon Army Corps holding this portion of the Austrian defensive line were pushed back.  They withdrew to new defensive positions and once there started to pour heavy fire on the Prussians bringing them to a standstill.  Further north the Prussian forces started well and made good progress and an hour into the battle the town of Sadowa was taken, but soon afterwards the advance began to slow down under heavy Austrian fire. A considerable amount of this was coming from a wooded area called the Sweipwald in which Austrian troops were concealed.  The Prussians attacked and the wood was cleared.  The Austrians counter-attacked but their efforts were uncoordinated and confused allowing the Prussians to decimate the disorientated columns of Austrian infantry moving in and out of the wood.  The Austrian position was not helped by paralysis, indecision and confusion amongst the Austrian command. Benedek stopped an attempt by a subordinate (General Anton von Mollinary) to swing the Austrian Army’s right wing forward to encircle the two Prussian armies at Sadowa before the arrival of the third, losing a valuable opportunity and creating chaos in the field.

KG Map Afternoon
The afternoon’s actions at Königgrätz. Map taken from Gordon A. Craig’s excellent book ‘The Battle of Königgrätz: Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1964.)

Aided by Benedek’s inaction, Moltke had time to wait for the arrival of the Prussian Second Army which he was finally able to commit late in the afternoon and it struck Benedek’s weak right flank.  With the assault now on all sides the Austrian Army began to disintegrate.  Gallant but futile rearguard actions took place to slow the Prussian advance.  One lone horse artillery battery, under the command of Captain August von der Groeben, tried to stem the Prussian advance. Its desperate salvos were answered with crippling Prussian fire from all sides and within five minutes Groeben, 53 men and 68 horses were all dead. This was followed by the Austrian cavalry which charged into the pursuing Prussians.  For half an hour the they succeeded in holding the Prussian cavalry and pushing their infantry back, which, combined with the continuing Austrian artillery fire, convinced Von Moltke that he may had underestimated Benedek.  With his reserves of infantry and cavalry stuck on muddy approach roads behind the lines, Moltke did not have the resources to complete the encirclement at Königgrätz and stopped the pursuit. The Austrian cavalry broke off at this point and the battle ended at 9pm.

Königgrätz - Hunten
‘Battle of Königgrätz 1866’ by Emil Hünten (1827-1902) The picture depicts King Wilhelm I awarding his son, the Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the Order Pour le Mérite after the Prussian victory under Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke, who can be seen on the left side. © Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

Most of Benedek’s army escaped across the Elbe in the night, but the Austrian losses were high – 44,000 men in the course of the day, compared with Prussian losses of just 9,000. The Austrian Army that retreated to Vienna was very weakened and the Austrian emperor had no option but to agree to an armistice on 22 July 1866, and three weeks later sued for peace. Bismarck used the victory to further his ambitions, abolishing the German Confederation and forming the North German Federation that excluded Austria and her allies in Germany. Its position as the dominant power in continental Europe was confirmed five years later with an emphatic victory in the Franco-Prussian War and the resulting unification into a united Germany.

Today Königgrätz is a fascinating battlefield to visit.  Situated 125km to the East of Prague in the Czech Republic, it is about an hour and a half drive from the centre of the Czech capital.  The battlefield is relatively undeveloped and one can very quickly gain an understanding of the terrain and the flow of the battle. There is a small museum and visitor centre that provides useful orientation and an observation tower.  These are both located together just outside the village of Chlum, right at the heart of the battlefield and on its highest spot. The tower affords panoramic views of the area and from which one can appreciate the scale of the battle and the influence of the terrain.

Panorama Lookimh East
A panoramic view from the Chlum observation tower looking East.  In the foreground is the museum and visitor centre.  In the centre, on the right edge of the woods, is the memorial to the ‘Battery of the Dead‘.  The attack of the Prussian Second Army swept in from the left hand edge of this view.

The actions of many regiments and individuals are marked with memorials across the battlefield.  These include a monument erected at the location where Captain August von der Groeben and his ‘Battery of the Dead‘ conducted their heroic but doomed rearguard action.

Dead Memorial
The Battery of The Dead Memorial unveiled in October 1893. Captain von der Groeben and his horse battery of eight Groeben’s guns were placed North-West of Chlum facing the Sweipwald. In mid-afternoon of 3 July 1866 the battery tried to hold off a flanking attack by the Prussian guards before rapid and heavy fire silenced the guns. Groeben, 53 other officers and men, and 68 horses were killed. 

The Sweipwald is full of memorials to both sides, placed here both by regiments in memory of fallen comrades and families for loved one.  As one walks through the woods it is easy to envisage how this part of the field became a bloody killing ground as the combat ebbed and flowed. But today it is peaceful and serene, and judging by my experience very little visited, as we were the only people in the woods on a fine July afternoon last year!

Sweipwald Memorials
Some of the many monuments and memorials in the now tranquil Sweipwald.

The impact of this battle was felt long after it finished.  Bismarck’s vision of a dominant and imperial Germany of course came to fruition, and ultimately led to Germany’s role in helping to start the First World War, the legacy of which had a continuing impact throughout the subsequent history of the twentieth century.  It is perhaps worth reflecting on what might have happened had there been an Austrian victory on 3 July 1866.  Would it have resulted in a ‘Grossdeutschland’ that would have joined the German states in a less aggressive and less martial multi-national Empire, leading to a more peaceful Europe and avoiding the two world wars of the twentieth century?  This is of course speculation but what is very clear is how important this short war, and the little known battle of Königgrätz were in actually shaping the European history we know today.

Review: Relics of the Reich – The buildings the Nazis left behind

Relics of the Reich

This book recently arrived on my desk to review and, as I am heading to Berlin for a short break this summer, I opened it eagerly.  As I read the following passage from the introduction I was immediately engaged:

“Studying this physical legacy makes for a fascinating journey, not out of some morbid curiosity for a dark period of history, but because a sense of place, wanting to be there, and wanting to tread where history was made are undeniable parts of the human psyche. Focussing on the places where the deadly Nazi story unfolded serves to remind us of the depths to which humanity sank. It can also act as a commemoration of mankind’s deliverance from a dark decade and serve as a renewal of our commitment to ensure history does not repeat itself.”

This was clearly a book written by someone who takes the same view as I do of what history is really all about – that interplay of events, people and places.

The overarching narrative is about the use of construction, structures and buildings as essential elements for creating and sustaining the Nazi Party and its vision for the Third Reich. Organised into eight themed chapters the book looks at a whole range of different examples. Broadly chronological, it starts by looking at those buildings that helped to ‘Establish the Faith’, that is those that were created or adopted as symbols of the Third Reich.  These were places that helped to create and strengthen the Nazi Party’s relationship with the German people.  It includes some examples with which, I suspect, many readers will be familiar such as the Nuremberg Rally Grounds (shown on the cover of the book – see above) and the Munich Hofbräuhaus.  Others are likely to be less well-known.  One of the latter that immediately attracted me was the Wewelsburg Castle, near Paderborn in northern Germany, a place I have visited a few times and know well.  As the author outlines, Himmler had identified this seventeenth century castle to become a centre for SS education and had lavish plans for it to be the ‘centre of the world’. Work did start on this project but was put in abeyance by the War.  Today it is open as a museum which, somewhat unusually for modern Germany, does not shy away from its Nazi history.

Wewelsburg
Wewelsburg Castle today ©KreisMuseum Wewelsburg

The next chapter examines the idea of ‘Strength through Joy’ and considers the buildings constructed to facilitate the Third Reich’s programme of providing organised sporting and leisure facilities for its people. These include the massive Prora-Rügen holiday complex on Germany’s Baltic Sea coastline (a complex that was then used by the East German Army post World War Two) and the Haus der Kunst in Munich, as well as the facilities built for the pleasure and recreation of Nazi leaders such as Goering’s Carinhall and Hitler’s Berchtesgaden.

Subsequent chapters move through structures built to show off the Third Reich to the wider world, in particular the massive investment made to stage the 1936 Olympic Games.  A large section is devoted to the Olympic Stadium (again featuring on the cover of the book  – see above) and the Olympic village in Berlin, but coverage is also given to the, again probably less well-known story, of the Winter Olympic Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen where extensive constructions were also made to host that event. There is a chapter that considers what are referred to as ‘Future Fantasies’ and looks at some of the great plans that never came to fruition.  The greatest of these was probably Germania, the so called Welthauptstadt (World Capital), which would have seen the redesign of Berlin to become a city to exceed London, Paris and Rome, and serve as the capital city of a world dominating Third Reich. Of course Germania and other such fantasies never happened, but it is fascinating to read and explore the plans.

Germania
A model of ‘Germania’, or the re-modelled Berlin, that was planned to serve as the ‘world capital’ of a world dominating Third Reich ©Bundesarchiv, Bild 146III-373 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Further chapters cover some of the darker aspects of Nazi Germany.  The infrastructure put in place to control the Reich, those necessary to fight a world war, and the chilling and clinical constructions that enabled the Holocaust. The final chapter considers the ‘Downfall of the Third Reich’ and examines amongst others, the structures to house and build the V (Vengeance) weapons, the Reich Chancellery and the Führerbunker.  Also in this chapter is a look at Dresden, not because of any structures built by the Nazis but rather to reflect on the destruction of this city and its role as a motif for the futility and pain that the Nazi regime brought on Germany.

This is undoubtedly a fascinating book.  The range of buildings it covers is wide and varied.  It looks at those that existed and were largely destroyed, those that were envisaged and never happened, and those that survived and still exist today.  There are some notable exceptions, for example there is only a passing mention of the Atlantic Wall defences that were built both in France and the Channel Islands, but it is recognised that a book of this length has to be selective. The conclusion, entitled ‘Coming to Terms with the Past’, pulls together the various strands and their legacy.  It considers how some buildings, or parts of them, have been destroyed to eliminate the memory of the Nazis, but how other places, especially military structures, were re-purposed through the Cold War and beyond by the German Military.  And of course other structures, such as the Olympic Stadium, have continued to play a role much as they were planned and built.

To conclude, this is a very well-produced hardback book, copiously illustrated with both modern and contemporary illustrations. It is well-written, engaging and accessible.  It serves equally well as a thesis on the buildings of Nazi Germany, as a practical guide to them.  It doesn’t shy away from the dark, brutal and horrific aspects of the Third Reich, but equally it is pragmatic about how these structures played a variety of roles within it. This will of course appeal to any students of the Nazi regime and its building, but I am sure that it will also attract a wider readership and anyone interested in the Second World War will find this a fascinating read.  In short I thoroughly recommend this book and it will most definitely be in my luggage when I travel to Berlin later this year, and undoubtedly be well-thumbed as I explore that city’s Second World War history.

Hardback
Pages: 202
Pen & Sword Military
Published: 11 April 2016

An uncertain future for the home of the ‘Secret Listeners’

Trent Park Camp, gefangene deutsche Offiziere
German Senior Officers at Trent Park, November 1944 ©Bundesarchiv

Wars produce innovation and ingenuity in all sorts of shapes and guises. During the Second World War this was particularly so, and as a result we have probably all heard of radar, bouncing bombs and swimming tanks.  Most people these days will also have heard, despite many years of secrecy, of the innovative approaches adopted at Bletchley Park to gather vital signals intelligence from Germany and its allies.  However, I suspect fewer people will be aware of another piece of unusual and innovative intelligence gathering that went on during the War.

Right at the start of the Second World War an organisation was set up that would become known as the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC).  Its purpose was to interrogate enemy prisoners of war.  It was run by an organisation called MI19 and led by a man with extensive experience in intelligence operations, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Kendrick.  The organisation was initially located in the Tower of London, but soon moved to Trent Park in Cockfosters in the north-west London suburbs. Initially any prisoner, regardless of rank, who the authorities thought might have useful intelligence was sent to Trent Park.  Whilst incarcerated, unbeknownst to them, they were being listened to via microphones ingeniously concealed about the property.  Encouraged by ruses such as manufactured magazines and newspapers with leading articles, the prisoners were induced to talk to each other whilst all the time being overheard by ‘secret listeners’ based in the cellars of the house.  These listeners were mostly German exiles (many Jewish) who then translated and relayed the content of the conversations.  These conversations in turn provided interesting and useful intelligence.

Trent_Park_House,_London_N14_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1671443
Trent Park today ©Christine Matthews

In 1942 the success of this operation meant that two further facilities were created, one at Wilton Park in Beaconsfield, the other at Latimer in Chesham.  This also brought a refined focus for Trent Park where the population became very high powered with the main inmates being senior officers and generals.  The activities undertaken in all three houses were of great value.  Lulled into a false sense of security by their comfortable surroundings, the prisoners revealed all sorts of intelligence.  But it was probably Trent Park, with its population of senior German officers, that revealed the most.  When they let their guard slip the conversations amongst themselves revealed secrets of invaluable use to the Allies.

secret listener 001
A wartime picture of a ‘secret listener’ at work in Trent Park. ©Helen Fry

They overheard conversations as early as May 1943, that confirmed that Germany was developing the V-2 rocket at Peenemünde and which led to the bombing of this site in August of the same year.  Other conversations gave clear evidence of the atrocities that were being committed against the Jews.  In short these facilities, and especially Trent Park, were a key elements in the complex and highly successful Allied intelligence gathering machinery developed in the Second World War.  And like most of its counterparts, such as Bletchley Park, the full story of what happened at Trent Park was not known until fairly recently. As a result, and again like Bletchley Park, those who occupied the buildings after the War had no idea of the historical importance of the places they were in.

Post-war Trent Park was taken over by the Ministry of Education and initially became a teacher training college, before becoming part of Middlesex Polytechnic (later Middlesex University).  It was then sold to a Malaysia education institution in 2013 which, shortly afterwards, went into liquidation.  Finally it was acquired by a property development company who are working on plans for the site.  These plans currently include an intent to turn over part of the site to a museum telling the story of the Second World War activities conducted at Trent Park, although there is concern that this museum will not do justice to the fascinating story.

This week I had the opportunity to meet with a couple of people, Dr Helen Fry and Councillor Jason Charalambous, who are spearheading the campaign to try to make sure that any museum at Trent Park does indeed fully represent and commemorate the work undertaken there during the Second World War.  Helen is an author and historian who has written about Trent Park (her book The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis in WW2 was published in 2012), whilst Jason is a local resident and councillor.

Trent Park Team
Councillor Jason Charalambous and Dr Helen Fry, standing outside the recently restored Hut 3, on their visit to Bletchley Park.

I met Helen and Jason at Bletchley Park in order to share with them the journey Bletchley Park had gone on in its transformation from a set of largely derelict buildings to the successful heritage attraction it is today.  It was clear that there are parallels between the process that Bletchley Park has gone through and that which they are on at Trent Park.  They updated me on their campaign to Save Trent Park, and they have made an impressive start.  There is a petition organised, a Facebook page and an active Twitter presence @SaveTrentPark.  There is also an ongoing dialogue with the developer to try to shape the plans to meet everyone’s needs.

But I wanted to understand what could be saved and how it could be made accessible and engaging to the public.  The campaign’s online petition states as its first aim:

 ‘…the establishment of a museum across the entire ground floor and relevant rooms of the basement of the mansion house highlighting the crucial role it played in WWII…’

Whilst the developer has indicated that they are prepared to accommodate some form of museum in the main Grade II listed building the current conflict is over how much of the building should be made available to the general public. The campaigners are arguing that the cellars (pictured below) where the ‘secret listeners’ operated should be preserved and interpreted for visitors.  This seems a relatively easy and non-contentious step, and it is not difficult to envisage how some imaginative and engaging audio-visual interpretation and set dressing could turn this area into an atmospheric experience.

Trent Park basement cellars
The cellars at Trent Park, where the ‘secret listeners’ worked in the Second World War, as they are today. ©Helen Fry

The more controversial element of the campaign is over control of the whole of the ground floor of the mansion house, as I suspect that will also be prime real estate for the developer.  As Helen and Jason very clearly articulated, the ground floor of the Trent Park mansion building also has great historic significance.  In one room Thomas Kendrick had his office, in others the German inmates lived and interacted, and in doing so revealed their secrets.  There are also other elements in the ground floor rooms that would merit saving such as some rare Rex Whistler murals. In short much more of the main building is of historic value than the developers currently appear to be willing to make available for use as a museum.

The passion of the campaigners is clear and the story they wish to tell is one that is well worth telling.  Like other Second World War sites such as the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall, Bletchley Park or the Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool, what Trent Park has is that sense of place.  That sense that you can stand somewhere and feel the history, and that you can walk in the footprints of the people who made it.  Thus whilst developers need to get a return on their investment, and as a nation we need more housing, it would be nice to think that an accommodation could be brokered at Trent Park. This might then allow important parts of the site to be preserved and interpreted so that generations to come can marvel at the innovation and ingenuity that this nation showed in gathering intelligence during some of its darkest days.

The battle that began the shaping of modern Europe

Danish 8th Brigade at the Battle of Dybbøl 1864 V2
The Danish 8th Brigade about to charge at the Battle of Dybbøl 18 April 1864 by Vilhelm Rosenstand

One hundred and fifty two years ago this week a battle was fought that brought to an end a month-long siege, and ultimately led to the end of a short and brutal war, the consequences of which were to have a profound impact on the future of Europe.  Indeed it could be argued that consequences of this little war were still being felt a hundred years later at the height of the Cold War.  The war in question was the Second Schleswig War (or Danish-Prussian War) of 1864, and the siege that of Dybbøl (2 – 18 April 1864).

I only became aware of this little war and the siege of Dybbøl a couple of years ago when I was researching the Austro-Prussian War and the Battle of Koniggratz (3 July 1866) ahead of a visit to the Czech Republic. I read Quintin Barry’s excellent book The Road to Koniggratz: Helmuth Von Moltke and the Austro-Prussian War 1866 in which he covers both the Second Schleswig War and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 in great detail. For a variety of reasons including the comparisons between these wars and my favourite period of military history, the American Civil War, I delved deeper and the more I looked the more I was intrigued.

The Second Schleswig War was the first of the three wars of German Unification, the others being the Austro-Prussian (or Seven Weeks War) of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. These together led to the formation of a strong and unified Germany in 1871.  A Germany which would then arguably become the central and dominant force in the shaping of modern Europe.

When the Second Schleswig War began in late 1863 to many it was just the latest episode in an ongoing issue known as the ‘Schleswig Holstein Question’. In his 1921 book Queen Victoria the British biographer Lytton Strachey referred to the situation as:

“…the dreadful Schleswig-Holstein question—the most complex in the whole diplomatic history of Europe…”

Whilst the great British statesman Lord Palmerston is alleged to have said:

“The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.”

Jutland_Peninsula_map
The Jutland Peninsula showing the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, the Danevirke and Dybbøl. – commons.wikipedia.org

The spark for this episode came just after the accession of King Christian IX to the throne of Denmark and, as was custom, his simultaneously becoming Duke of Schleswig and Holstein. Shortly after acceding to the throne he was persuaded by the Danish Parliament to sign a new Danish constitution (the so called November Constitution) that stated that the Duchy of Schleswig was part of Denmark.  This put Denmark squarely in conflict with the German Confederation who saw this as a breach of the London Protocol of 1852 that decreed that the Kingdom of Denmark and the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein would remain separate entities. Despite diplomatic efforts to reverse the constitutional changes no progress was made and on the instructions of Prussian Minister President, Otto von Bismarck, a combined Prussian and Austrian force crossed the border into Schleswig on 1 February 1864 with the intent of occupying the duchy and restoring its separation from Denmark.

Ahead of the invasion the Danish Army had taken up defensive positions along an ancient earthwork called the Danevirke.

Danevirke
A period view of the Danevirke drawn in 1863 – ©Rigsarkivet – Danish National Archives

But this position was untenable and therefore on 5 February 1864, just before they were about to be outflanked by the German forces, the Danes withdraw to new positions further north.  The army split into two smaller forces with one deploying to the northern end of the Jutland, whilst the other was ordered east to occupy the defensive forts on the peninsula opposite Sønderborg in the area of Dybbøl. The withdrawal was a miserable affair conducted through February blizzards, but in four days the larger part of the Danish Army was in its new defensive line at Dybbøl.

09_ny_strategi
The Danish withdrawal from the Danevirke. ©1864.dk

It is worth highlighting at this point that the German Confederation Forces had a significant technological advantage.  The Prussian forces, but not the Austrians, had adopted the next generation of rifle.  The Dreyse needle gun, one of the first breech loading bolt-action rifles to be used in combat, was introduced to the Prussian Army from 1848. The rifle allowed a soldier to fire five or more shots a minute from the prone position and not have to stand up to reload, therefore reducing the exposure to enemy fire.  In contrast the Danes were armed with muzzle-loading rifle that had to be reloaded in a vulnerable standing position and could probably only manage two shots a minute.  The Prussian were also superior to the Danes in artillery.  The Danes used old smooth bore cannon, whilst the Prussians had rifled artillery capable of much greater range.  

On arriving in the Dybbøl positions, work was immediately undertaken to reinforce the existing fortifications which, as can be seen from the map below, were extensive and effectively sealed off the peninsula opposite Sønderborg.  Fortunately for the Danes their surprise withdrawal had caught the Prussians off-guard and their follow up was somewhat tardy. But by mid-March the Prussians had decided that the Dybbøl position was to be their main effort and siege artillery was moved forward to start the bombardment of the Danish positions. At the same time they started to invest the position by digging their own entrenchments.  At the end of March an ambitious amphibious operation was planned and prepared, with the aim of taking the Danish fortifications from the rear, but this was called off at the last moment due to storms. Instead at the start of April the Prussians began to use their superiority in artillery to bombard the Danish positions, and at the same time began to dig forward from their own lines towards the Danish forts.

Dybbol Large
The Battle of Dybbøl 18 April 1864 ©Rigsarkivet – Danish National Archives

This parallel set of activities continued for over two weeks until the Prussian trenches were as close as possible to the Danish lines and the Danish troops had been worn down by an almost constant bombardment, during which it is estimated that about 65,000 shells were fired at the fortifications.  On 16 April 1864 the Prussians had almost 40,000 troops in the lines opposite the Danish positions and 10,000 were readied to be the first assault wave of an attack scheduled for 18 April.

At about 4am on 18 April 1864 a massive and intense bombardment of the Danish forts was launched which lasted for six hours.  Then at 10am the bombardment ceased and assault troops who had been moved forward t0 the Prussian front line trenches charged towards the Danish lines, in an attack that presaged the First World War some fifty years later.

The Prussians outnumbered the Danish troops in the frontline trenches and redoubts by two to one, and by 10.22am the forts were captured.  British Special Correspondent Edward Dicey who was covering the war for the Daily Telegraph was in a position to watch the Prussians force the Danes out of the fortifications and in his book on the war he reported:

‘I took my post of observation on a ridge commanding a full view of Dybbøl Hill. The facts that I have mentioned were not known to me then. All I could tell was that things were going badly for the besieged. The brow of the hill was lined with dark masses of troops too close and too serried to belong to the Danes. With my fieldglass I could see the Prussian flag waving gaily from the heights; and it was clear, from the crowds of soldiers standing on the bastions of Fort No. 4, that there, at least, the fighting had ceased. Along the broad, bare, shelter less roads, leading from the brow of the hill to the bridges, dark lines of infantry were retreating hastily, and their columns were raked constantly by shells thrown from the field batteries, which the Prussians were bringing up with all speed to the line of Dybbøl . It looked to me, standing there, as if their own guns had been turned against the Danes, but this I believe was not the case, as very few of those guns were left in a state to fire at all, and those few were spiked before the Prussians could enter. Meanwhile, the scene itself, apart from the interest of the struggle, had about it a strange beauty.’ [Edward Dicey, The Schleswig Holstein War, London, 1864]

Sturm_auf_die_Düppeler_Schanze_1864
A German wood cut illustration of Prussian troops storming the fortifications at Dybbøl.

In a vain attempt to retake the position the Danish reserve, the 8th Brigade, was launched in a counter attack at about 10.30am but this was to no avail and a full scale Danish retreat ensued.  The demoralised Danes streamed east to bridges over the Alsen Sound and back into Sønderborg.  At the end of this short and sharp battle the Prussian casualties amounted to 257 killed and about 950 wounded, whilst Danish casualties were 671 dead, 987 wounded and 3,131 prisoners.  This was a decisive victory for the Austro-Prussian forces.  

The war continued on until July 1864 during which time the Prussians and Austrians eventually gained control over the whole of the Jutland peninsula.  At the same time a peace conference was convened in London and managed to broker a short-lived ceasefire in May 1864. Ultimately once the German Confederation troops occupied all of Jutland the Danes were forced to come back to the negotiating table.  The final outcome of the war was a clear victory for the combined armies of Prussia and Austria. The prize for the two countries was control of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein which was agreed in the Treaty of Vienna, signed on 30 October 1864.

The details of how this war led inexorably to the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 is a story for another day.  Suffice to say that the occupation of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein by Prussian and Austrian forces was not a comfortable arrangement and enabled the arch manipulator, Bismarck, to engineer the second of the Wars of German Unification, and put in place the next step in the unification process.

For many years this little battle at Dybbøl, and indeed this small war, had been largely overlooked in the military history of Europe.  However, I suspect that the publication in 2015 of an English translation of Tom Buk-Swienty’s excellent book ‘1864: The forgotten war that shaped modern Europe‘ has gone some way renew interest in the subject. In addition the associated, and well produced, 2014 television series ‘1864’, which tells the story of the war through the eyes of some of its participants has also helped to make the story accessible to a wider audience.  I thoroughly recommend both the book and the series, and a trailer for this series is included below.

Today the forts are preserved and a museum has been built in one to tell the story of the  war and its battles.  I have to admit that I have not yet been able to visit but hope to do so at some point.  If there are any readers who have, perhaps you would like to comment below.

Düppeler_schanze_center
Dybbøl Museum and Memorial – ©Arne List

The Siege of Dybbøl, and the final battle to take it, are small in scale when compared to many other battles that dominate the military history of Europe.  However, as the crucial point in the Second Schleswig War, a war which started the process of German Unification and inexorably led to Germany playing a central position in the 20th Century’s bloody history, it deserves to be better known than it is.