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Reader's Companion to Military History

Königgrätz, Battle of

July 3, 1866

Königgrätz (Sadowa)—where 220,000 Prussians defeated a similar number of Austrians and Saxons—was the largest battle between Western armies before 1914. Its result determined the outcome of the Seven Weeks' War.

The battle developed out of a Prussian attempt to envelop their opponents, which failed because of poor coordination between two Prussian armies and the failure of a third to advance at all, its orders having gone astray. By early afternoon the Austrians regarded the battle as won; all Prussia's reserves had been engaged, while the Austrian cavalry remained largely uncommitted. The outcome was reversed in shocking fashion, however, when the Prussian Second Army finally arrived to drive in the Austrian right and force a retreat. Prussia lost 10,000 men, the Austrians and Saxons 45,000, including 20,000 prisoners.

Königgrätz captured the imagination of Europe: in a single day, the London Spectator reported, "the political face of the world has changed as it used to change after a generation of war." Contemporaries attributed this result to the superior firepower of Prussian foot soldiers, armed with breech-loading rifles far superior in range and rate of fire to the muzzle-loaders of the Austrians. Modern historians accept the importance of this advantage in demoralizing the Austrian infantry, but attribute the overall outcome to other factors: the superior organization and planning of the Prussians, who moved large forces rapidly and independently by rail against a passive opponent; and also to the ability of Prussia's battlefield commanders and its brilliant chief of staff, Helmuth Karl von Moltke, to improvise and persevere after all their plans had miscarried.

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