Works of Frederick Engels 1866

Notes on the War in Germany
No. IV

Written: between June 19 and July 5, 1866;
First published: in The Manchester Guardian, No. 6197, July 3, 1866

Suppose a young Prussian ensign or comet, under examination for a lieutenancy, to be asked what would be the safest plan for a Prussian army to invade Bohemia? Suppose our young officer were to answer,--"Your best way will be to divide your troops into two about equal bodies, to send one round by the east of the Riesengebirge, the other to the west, and effect their junction in Gitschin." What would the examining officer say to this? He would inform the young gentleman that this plan sinned against the two very first laws of strategy:--Firstly, never to divide your troops so that they cannot support each other, but to keep them well together; and, secondly, in case of an advance on different roads, to effect the junction of the different columns at a point which is not within reach of the enemy; that, therefore, the plan proposed was the very worst of all; that it could only be taken into consideration at all in case Bohemia was quite unoccupied by hostile troops; and that, consequently, an officer proposing such a plan of campaign was not fit to hold even a lieutenant's commission.

Yet, this is the very plan which the wise and learned staff of the Prussian army have adopted. It is almost incredible; but it is so. The mistake for which the Italians had to suffer at Custozza, has been again committed by the Prussians, and under circumstances which made it ten-fold worse. The Italians knew at least that, with ten divisions, they would be numerically superior to the enemy. The Prussians must have known that if they kept their nine corps together they would be at best barely on a par, as far as numbers went, with Benedek's eight corps; and that by dividing their troops they exposed the two armies to the almost certain fate of being crushed in succession by superior numbers. It would be completely inexplicable how such a plan could ever be discussed, much less adopted, by a body of such unquestionably capable officers as form the Prussian staff--if it was not for the fact of King William being in chief command. But nobody could possibly expect that the fatal consequences of kings and princes taking high command would come out so soon and so strong. The Prussians are now Sighting, in Bohemia, a life-and-death struggle. If the junction of the two armies at or about Gitschin is prevented, if each of the two, being beaten, has to retire out of Bohemia, and, by retiring, to get further away again from the other then the campaign may be said to be virtually over. Then Benedek may leave the army of the Crown Prince unnoticed while it retires towards Breslau, and follow up, with all his forces, the army of Prince Frederick Charles, which can hardly escape utter destruction.

The question is, Will this junction have been prevented? Up to the moment we write we have no news of events later than Friday evening, the 29th. The Prussians, beaten out of Gitschin (the name of the place, in Bohemian, is spelt Jicin) on the 28th by General Edelsheim, claim to have stormed the town again on the 29th, and this is the last information we possess. The junction was not then effected; at least four Austrian and parts of the Saxon army corps had then been engaged against about five or six Prussian corps.

The various columns of the army of the Crown Prince, as they descended into the valley on the Bohemian side of the hills, were met by the Austrians at favourable points where the valley, widening out, allowed them to offer a larger front to the Prussian columns, and to attempt to prevent them from deploying; while the Prussians would send troops, wherever practicable, through the lateral valleys, to take their opponents in flank and rear. This is always the case in mountain warfare, and accounts for the great number of prisoners that are always made under such circumstances. On the other side, the armies of Prince Frederick Charles and Herwarth von Bittenfeld appear to have got through the passes almost unopposed; the first engagements took place on the line of the Ires river, that is almost midway between the Starting points of the two armies. It would be idle to try to disentangle and bring into harmony the fearfully contradictory, and often totally unauthenticated, telegrams which have come to hand these last three or four days.

The fighting has been necessarily very much chequered in its results: as new forces came up, victory favoured first one and then the other side. Up to Friday, however, the general result appears to have been, so far, in favour of the Prussians. If they maintained themselves in Gitschin, no doubt the junction was effected on Saturday or Sunday, and then their greatest danger would be passed. The final fight for the junction would probably be fought with concentrated masses on both sides, and decide the campaign for some time, at least. If the Prussians were victorious, they would be at once out of all their self-begotten difficulties, but they might have obtained the same, and even greater, advantages without exposing themselves to such unnecessary dangers.

The fighting appears to have been very severe. The very first Austrian brigade which met the Prussians in battle, was the "black and yellow" brigade, which, in Schleswig, stormed the Konigsberg, near Oberselk, the day before the evacuation of the Dannevirke. It is called black and yellow after the facings of the two regiments composing it, and was always considered one of the best brigades in the service. They were, however, beaten by the needle-gun, and above 500 men of one of its regiments (Martini) were taken prisoners after they had charged the Prussian lines five times in vain. In a later engagement, the colours of the 3d battalion, of the Deutschmeister regiment were taken. This regiment, recruited in Vienna exclusively, is considered the best in the whole army. Thus the very best troops have been already in action. The Prussians must have behaved splendidly for an old peace army. When war was actually declared, a totally different spirit came over the army, brought on, chiefly, by the clearing-out of the small fry of potentates in the north-west. It gave the troops--rightly or wrongly, we merely register the fact--the idea that they were asked to fight, this time, for the unification of Germany, and the hitherto sullen and sulky men of the reserve and Landwehr then crossed the frontier of Austria with loud cheers. It is owing to this chiefly that they fought so well; but at the same time we must ascribe the greater portion of whatever success they have had to their breech-loaders; and if they ever get out of the difficulties into which their generals so wantonly placed them, they will have to thank the needle-gun for it. The reports as to its immense superiority over the muzzle-loaders are again unanimous. A sergeant from the Martini regiment, taken prisoner, said to the correspondent of the Cologne Gazette:

"We have surely done whatever may be expected from brave soldiers, but no man can stand against that rapid fire.

If the Austrians are beaten, it will be not so much General Benedek or General Ramming as General Ramrod who is to blame for the result.

In the north-west, the Hanoverians, brought to a sense of their position by a sharp attack from General Manteuffel's advanced guard under General Flies, have surrendered, and thereby 59 Prussian battalions will be at liberty to act against the Federal troops. It was high time, too, that this should be done before Bavaria had completed all her armaments, for otherwise much stronger forces would be required to subdue South-western Germany. Bavaria is notoriously always slow and behindhand with her military arrangements, but when they are complete, she can bring into the field from 60,000 to 80,000 good troops. We may now soon hear of a rapid concentration of Prussians on the Main and of active operations against Prince Alexander of Hesse Darmstadt and his army.