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.”
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.