The Schleswig-Holstein campaign: General Gablenz


Austrian illustration of the battle for Königshügel.


Almost before any of the lessons of Solferino could be digested, more pressing challenges arose to the north where, in the dual duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, the Habsburg armies would confront a new enemy: the Danes.

The story of the Schleswig-Holstein question was aptly summed up by Palmerston, who apparently said: ‘The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, ony 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.’

Less than three years after Solferino, Austria, whose pre-eminence in Germany was resented by Prussia, confronted the dilemma of these duchies. In essence the challenge was relatively straightforward. The duchies, whose population was overwhelmingly German in language and character, had attempted to sever their links with Denmark in 1848. Denmark had acquired them as a small legacy of their interference in German affairs in Wallenstein’s day. The issue was complicated by the differences in legal and constitutional status of the two duchies and the fact that there were also some differences in their ethnic composition. Unsurprisingly, Denmark resisted a breakaway and moved to absorb the duchies totally. Because this technically breached the London Protocol of 1852, the German Diet in Frankfurt voted for intervention. In 1864, Austria agreed to cooperate with Prussia should the affairs of the duchies require intervention, and a corps under Gablenz was sent to Holstein to liaise with the Prussians.

Gablenz, whose reputation was made by driving the French out of Ponte Nuovo, was the son of a Saxon general. Born in 1814, Gablenz had been trained in the so-called military ‘Knights’ Academy in Dresden and had initially served in the Saxon army. But in 1833 he found his ambitions thwarted in Saxony and transferred to the Imperial Royal Army where he was appointed to Radetzky’s staff. There he distinguished himself in the 1849 Hungarian campaign. Ten years later he demonstrated his exceptional capabilities at Magenta and Solferino, and was widely regarded as one of the most conscientious, decisive and able commanders in the Habsburg army. Above all, he was notable for his calmness, even under extreme pressure. His open and fair nature made him the object of considerable affection among his troops, though some complained that he was rather too partial to costly frontal assaults. After Benedek, he was the most popular soldier in the Habsburg army.

On 18 January 1864, as the Austrian corps marched off to Holstein, Franz-Josef dismissed the departing officers with the following words: ‘I know that you will bring honour to our arms and that you will compete with the Prussian troops in your bravery and endurance’.

The Austrian corps that was sent to Schleswig under Gablenz contained some of the finest infantry regiments in the Imperial army at that time. It consisted of four brigades. These included the so-called ‘Black and Yellow’ (Schwarzgelb) brigade under Count Nostitz, so called because it consisted of two infantry regiments which together made up the Imperial colours: ‘Hessen’, the ‘House’ regiment of Linz with black facings; and ‘King of the Belgians’ the elite ‘House’ regiment of Graz with yellow facings. In addition to these formations the expeditionary force included the Gondrecourt brigade, which distinguished itself earning the nickname ‘the Iron Brigade’.

The conditions for the campaign were icy and bitter. The Danes fell back and, as the Austrians seized the villages of Over and Niederselk, the Danes were forced to retreat to Oeversee. Here they dug in, easily dispersing a Hussar regiment Gablenz had sent with one of his staff officers, Gründorf, to test their position. Gablenz’s infantry had not yet arrived when Gründorf returned to report on the formidable strength of the Danish position. Gablenz’s Chief of Staff advised against further action that day. The time was 3.30 in the afternoon.

Styrian success

But Gablenz was not a man to be so easily discouraged. Turning to Gründorf he asked which regiments were due to arrive. Gründorf told him that the Graz ‘House’ regiment and the Upper Styrian Jaegers were about to come up, whereupon Gablenz caught the young staff officer’s eye and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. ‘I think we should attack as soon as they arrive,’ Gablenz insisted.8 Half an hour later the two Styrian regiments arrived and attacked despite the sub-zero temperatures and a howling snowstorm. From the well-defended Sankelmarker wood a hail of bullets and artillery shot opened up. The Austrians, whose rifles had frozen, could not fire a shot, but the first bayonet charge went in and the Danish fire began to slacken. At the same time the Danish guns were silenced by Gablenz’s artillery.

The Prussian officers attached to Gablenz’s command watched with astonishment as the Styrians drove the Danes out of their strong positions at the point of the bayonet with their regimental band playing the ‘Radetzky March’ throughout, even in the snow and ice. Three counter-attacks by the Danes were beaten off. As a momentary lull in the storm allowed another counter-attack, Gablenz rode to the head of the Graz regiment’s second battalion and with flags flying and bands playing led them with sword drawn at the Danes who were regrouping around the so-called ‘Krug von Billschau’.

The music and Gablenz’s cries of ‘Kinder drauf, es muss sein!’ (‘Children get up there! It must succeed!’), mingled with the rapid fire of the Danes and wild cries of the Styrians, brought the ‘Belgians’ to the summit.

Their regimental colonel, the Duke of Württemberg had his horse shot from beneath him and fell wounded, his sword broken. As the rifles’ metal parts froze in the cold, the Styrians used the butts as clubs to beat back their opponents when their bayonets broke. Three bayonet attacks had been necessary to drive the Danes off their positions. After an hour the Danes fell back, streaming from the heights towards Flensburg. The temperature was just below minus 22 degrees Celsius. As a cart carried off the ‘Belgians’ wounded colonel, he dictated a note to his victorious troops which would become the treasured dispatch of this regiment for decades to come:

Never have troops fought with such endurance and heroism as the regiment ‘King of the Belgians’. I call to all soldiers who recognise in these countless examples of manly courage a noble heart that there are no better soldiers anywhere in the world than the knightly and good Styrians.

Prussians note the Austrian tactics at Oeversee

Having so far distinguished themselves only by their reluctance to risk casualties, the Prussians noted their ally’s success. Barely two years later, some of these same Prussian officers would be fighting against the Austrians at Königgrätz, and would draw more practical lessons from this display of bravura. The victory at Oeversee cleared Schleswig of the enemy. A few days later, at Apenrade, the Austrians again proved the value of their storm tactics, and carried away their opponents at the point of the bayonet. Prussian blue, as Crankshaw noted, had still not ‘arrived’.

The Austrians could not disguise their losses, and when on 8 March Gablenz crossed the so-called Koenigs-Au, his Anstoss-taktik (frontal attack tactics) drove the Danes beyond Veile, but with fearful losses. As a Prussian observer noted: ‘While our troops would not move forward without covering artillery fire, the Austrians sought no cover, always marching forward accompanied by their skirmishers who suffered terribly in the face of the Danes’ well-dug-in defences. We were astonished at the bravery and élan of the Austrians but these charges with the “arme blanche” resulted in our losing quickly any superiority in numbers we might have enjoyed.’

On 26 April, the Danish fortress at Fredericia surrendered to the Austrians, and with it all of Jutland. Meanwhile the Prussians had finally discovered their confidence and had stormed the Duppel heights so tenaciously held by the Danes. The Peace of Vienna signed later on 30 October delivered the two duchies to Austria and Prussia.

These costly victories in Denmark underlined how the reforms mooted after Solferino needed further refinement. A rapid series of hierarchical changes was swiftly implemented. In October 1862, the Adjutant Korps and the Generalquartiermeisterstab had already been combined into a single General Staff. The monarchy was now divided into 80 military districts. Each of these districts possessed a regiment of four battalions each made up of six companies, totalling 4,090 men. The long-standing intimacy between the military district and the local ‘House’ regiment was reinforced by these arrangements.

But as so often, these administrative reforms were not accompanied by any radical change in tactics. The battalion remained the principal tactical unit and its deployment in ‘Mass’ was the dominant theme. Though some companies were trained to engage the enemy in open order, they were not encouraged to display initiative. They were expected to base their open-order formation on the requirements of the battalion as it advanced shoulder to shoulder against the enemy. The ‘blank’ weapon remained the principal armament to decide any engagement. Musketry was perceived as drawing out the conflict unnecessarily. The French example at Solferino remained, mistakenly, the tactic of choice. Resistance was to be overcome by entire brigades, if not larger formations, advancing with flags flying and bands playing. On the parade ground and exercise fields these tactics were perfected so that no onlooker could fail to be impressed. Oeversee was the proof. If the Austrian bayonet charge could triumph there, it must surely triumph anywhere.

In addition to these mistaken ideas, the military budget was almost halved between 1861 and 1865. The General Staff might have imagined it had 850,000 men with whom to hold down Venetia, intimidate Prussia and keep Hungary acquiescent but by 1865 the maximum number of troops available was less than 380,000. Company strength theoretically put at 146 was now only 54. Well might the war minister Feldmarschallleutnant Frank observe that ‘the vital organs of the army are being amputated.’

Bismarck, shrewd and observant, saw the effects of these constraints. At the same time his generals drew a lesson from the Danish campaign that although the Austrians were currently enjoying prestige and victories, they might be vulnerable in the event of new tactics and technology.

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