Works of Frederick Engels 1866

Notes on the War in Germany
No. II

Written: between June 19 and July 5, 1866;
First published: in The Manchester Guardian, No. 6194, June 25, 1866

People begin to grow impatient at the apparent inactivity of the two great armies on the Bohemian frontier. But there are plenty of reasons for this delay. Both the Austrians and the Prussians are perfectly aware of the importance of the impending collision, which may decide the result of the whole campaign. Both are hurrying up to the front whatever men they can lay their hands on; the Austrians from their new formations (the fourth and fifth battalions of the infantry regiments), the Prussians from the Landwehr, which at first was intended for garrison duty only.

At the same time, there appears to be on either side an attempt to out-manoeuvre the, opposing army, and to enter upon the campaign under the most favourable strategical conditions. To understand this, we shall have to look at the map and examine the country in which these armies are placed.

Taking it for granted that Berlin and Vienna are the normal points of retreat of the two armies, and that therefore the Austrians will aim at the conquest of Berlin and the Prussians at that of Vienna, there are three routes by which they might operate. A large army requires a certain extent of country from the resources of which it has to live on the march, and is compelled, in order to move quick, to march in several columns on as many parallel roads; its front will, therefore, be extended on a line which may vary between, say, sixty and sixteen miles, according to the proximity of the enemy and the distance of the roads from each other. This will have to be kept in mind.

The first route would be on the left bank of the Elbe and Moldau, by Leipzig and Prague. It is evident that on this route each of the belligerents would have to cross the river twice, the second time in the face of the enemy. Supposing either army to attempt to turn, by this route, the flank of its opponent, the latter, having the shorter, because straighter road, could still anticipate the turning force on the line of the river, and if successful in repelling it, could march straight upon the enemy's capital. This route, equally disadvantageous to both parties, may therefore be dismissed from consideration.

The second route is on the right bank of the Elbe, between it and the Sudetic mountain chain which divides Silesia from Bohemia and Moravia. This is almost on the straight line from Berlin to Vienna; the portion now lying between the two armies is marked out by the railway from Lobau to Pardubitz. This railway passes through that portion of Bohemia which is bounded by the Elbe to the south and west, and the mountains to the north-east. It has plenty of good roads, and if the two armies were to march straight at each other, here would be the point of collision.

The third route is that by Breslau, and thence across the Sudetic Chain. This chain, of no considerable elevation, on the Moravian frontier, where it is crossed by several good roads, rises to greater elevation and abruptness in the Riesengebirge, which forms the boundary of Bohemia. Here there are but few roads across; in fact, between Trautenau and Reichenberg, a distance of forty miles, the whole north-eastern portion of the range is not traversed by a single military road. The only road in existence there, that from Hirschberg to the valley of the Ires, stops short at the Austrian frontier. It follows, then, that this whole barrier of forty miles in length, is impassable, at least for a large army, with its innumerable impediments, and that an advance upon or by Breslau must pass the mountains to the south-west of the Riesengebirge.

Now, what are the relative positions of the two armies, with regard to their communications, if engaged on this route?

The Prussians, by advancing due south from Breslau, lay open their communications with Berlin. The Austrians might, if strong enough to command the almost absolute certainty of victory, leave them to advance as far as the intrenched camp of Olmutz, which would stop them, while they themselves could march upon Berlin, trusting to re-open any temporarily-interrupted communications by a decisive victory; or they might meet the Prussian columns singly as they debouch from the mountains, and, if successful, drive them back upon Glogau and Posen, whereby Berlin and the greater portion of the Prussian states would be at their mercy. Thus an advance by Breslau would be advisable for the Prussians in case of a great numerical superiority only.

The Austrians are in a far different position. They have the advantage that the bulk of the monarchy lies south-east of Breslau; that is, in the direct prolongation of a line drawn from Berlin to Breslau. Having fortified the northern bank of the Danube near Vienna, so as to shelter the capital from a surprise, they may, temporarily and even for a length of time, sacrifice their direct communication with Vienna, and draw their supplies of men and stores from Hungary. They can, therefore, with equal safety operate by way of Lobau and by way of Breslau, to the north or to the south of the hills; they have far greater freedom in manoeuvring than their opponents.

The Prussians, moreover, have further reasons to be cautious. From the northern frontier of Bohemia, the distance to Berlin is not much more than half of that to Vienna; Berlin is so much more exposed. Vienna is sheltered by the Danube, behind which a beaten army can find protection; by the fortifications erected to the north of that river; and by the intrenched camp of Olmutz, which the Prussians could not pass unnoticed with impunity, if the mass of the Austrian army, after a defeat, were to take up a position there. Berlin has no protection of any kind, except the army in the field. Under these circumstances, and those detailed in our first number, the part destined for the Prussians appears to be clearly marked out as a defensive one.

The same series of circumstances, and strong political necessity besides, almost compels Austria to act on the offensive. A single victory may ensure to her great results, while her defeat would not break her power of resistance.

The strategical plan of the campaign in its fundamental features is necessarily very simple. Whichever of the two attacks first, he has only this alternative: either a false attack north-west of the Riesengebirge, and the true attack south-east of it, or vice versa. The forty-mile barrier is the decisive feature of the seat of war, and round it the armies must gravitate. We shall hear of fighting at both its extremities, and a very few days afterwards will clear up the direction of the true attack, and probably the fate of the first campaign. Yet, with two such unwieldy armies opposed to each other, we feel inclined to think that the most direct route is the safest, and that the difficulty and danger of moving such large bodies of troops in separate columns on different roads through a difficult mountain country, will almost naturally draw both opposing armies on the route Lobau-Pardubitz.

The actual movements which have taken place are as follows:--The Prussians, in the first week of June, massed their army of Saxony along the Saxon frontier, from Zeitz to Gorlitz, and their Silesian army from Hirschberg to Neisse. By the 10th June they drew nearer together, having their right wing on the Elbe near Torgau, and their extreme left near Waldenburg. From the 12th to the 16th, the army of Silesia, now consisting of the 1st, 5th, and 6th corps and the Guards, were again extended to the east, this time as far as Ratibor, that is to say, into the extreme south-eastern corner of Silesia. This looks like a feint, especially the parading of the Guards, which are supposed to be always with the main army. If it be more than a feint, or if measures have not been taken to move these four corps back towards Gorlitz at the shortest notice and in the shortest time, then this massing of more than 120,000 men in a remote corner is a palpable mistake; they may be cut off from all possibility of retreat and certainly from all connection with the remainder of the army.

Of the Austrians we know little more than that they were concentrated around Olmutz. The Times correspondent in their camp states that their sixth corps, 40,000 strong, arrived on the 19th from Weisskirchen at Olmutz indicating a movement to the westward. He adds that on the 21st headquarters were to be shifted to Trubau, on the frontier between Moravia and Bohemia. This move would point in the same direction, if it did not look exceedingly like a canard sent on to London with the intention of being thence telegraphed to the Prussian headquarters in order to mislead them. A general who acts with such secrecy as Benedek, and who has such objections to newspaper correspondents, is not likely to inform them on the 19th where his headquarters will be on the 21st, unless he has his reasons for it.

Before concluding, we may be allowed to cast a glance at the operations in North-western Germany. The Prussians had more troops here than was at first known. They had 15 battalions disposable in Holstein, 12 in Minden, and 18 in Wetzlar. By rapid Concentric moves, during which the troops showed a quite unexpected capability of supporting forced marches, they took Possession in two days of all the country north of a line from Coblenz to Eisenach, and of every line of communication between the eastern and western provinces of the kingdom. The Hessian troops, about 7,000 strong, managed to escape, but the Hanoverians, 10,000 or 12,000, had their direct line of retreat towards Frankfurt cut off, and already on the 17th the rest of the 7th Prussian army corps, 12 battalions, together with the two Coburg battalions, arrived in Eisenach from the Elbe. Thus the Hanoverians appear to be hemmed in on all sides, and could escape only by a miracle of stupidity on the part of the Prussians. As soon as their fate will be settled, a force of 50 Prussian battalions will be available against the Federal army which Prince Alexander of Darmstadt is forming at Frankfurt, and which will consist of about 23,000 Wurttembergers, 10,000 Darmstadters, 6,000 Nassauers, 13,000 Badeners (only mobilising now), 7,000 Hessians, and 12,000 Austrians, now on the road from Salzburg; in all about 65,000 men, who may be possibly reinforced by from 10,000 to 20,000 Bavarians. About 60,000 men of these are now reported as already concentrated at Frankfurt, and Prince Alexander has ventured upon a forward move by re-occupying Giessen on the 22d. This, however, is of no consequence. The Prussians will not advance against him until they are well concentrated, and then, with 70,000 men of all arms, and their superior armament, they ought to make short work of this motley army.