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Victor of Königgrätz:
Friedrich Karl, Prince of Prussia
By David Hughes
May 2015

For many years writers assumed that the true Prussian hero of Königgrätz, whose calm intelligence and piercing evaluation of the enemy had almost alone ensured victory was Prussian chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke. The universal praise of the great strategist, in which his achievements were deemed comparable to those of Napoleon, proved very useful in reinforcing national pride as Prussia forced the amalgamation of the German states into the new empire. Moltke achieved such authority as to be able to dictate the contents of the Prussian official histories of the wars, insisting that they paid limited attention to strategy. This was certainly fortunate since the Prussian General Staff were well aware that a detailed examination both the 1866 and 1870 wars would show that the "magical strategy" was in fact filled with errors of judgment.

Friedrich Karl, date unknown.


Two examples of this can be found in the campaign whose battles are covered in Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles. Moltke’s assumption was that the Austrians would attack, at first he thought against Prussian Saxony, abandoning that when he determined that they would advance into Silesia. Both assumptions were wrong and eventually he was overruled by the King who ordered the Prussian armies to advance. Of course in the process the original mobilisation plans were thoroughly wrecked. The other example was very simple. Moltke completely misplaced the position of the Austrian Army before the great battle, placing it on the eastern side of the River Elbe, not the true location across the river and well to the south-west. Also the claims that Moltke was responsible for the famous Dreyse needle-gun and the appropriate tactics for using it are wrong. His Prussian Staff had no authority or influence over weapon design.

So why was Königgrätz won? From the Prussian side the essential factors were the needle-gun, careful training and above all excellent leadership at all levels. At the divisional level one example that stands out is the performance of the 1st Guard Infantry Division, which made a sustained two-hour attack, finally capturing decisive terrain at Chlum. At the very top stood Friedrich Karl, commander of the 1st Army.

He was of course royalty — in the Prussian and German systems it was normal and expected for the higher commands to be in such hands. A comparable example is on the Western Front of World War One, where one army group commander was Rupprecht, crown prince of Bavaria, another was led by the German crown prince. Friedrich Karl was born in 1828, his father the third son of King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. Naturally he went into the army, where his company of the 1st Guard Regiment was one of the first to receive the needle-gun. Karl became an expert, publishing an article on its value, notably against gun batteries. At age 20, with the rank of major, he served on the Prussian staff during the war with Denmark and was wounded in action.

When only 26 he was given the 1st Guard Cavalry Division, a clear indication that he was respected for his ability as well as birth. By 1860 he commanded the III Corps, which was a signal that, with his relative the Crown Prince of Prussia, he was being groomed for the highest command. As corps commander he led the training of regimental officers and men in the tactics that would defeat the Austrians, while in 1864 he received genuine battlefield experience when leading the Prussian contingent that invaded Denmark.

Friedrich Karl had four children with his wife, Princess Maria Anne of Anhalt-Dessau. The paragon of Prussian honor beat her for not producing a son, and she finally complied with their fifth and final child in 1865.


As the war of 1866 started Karl Friedrich led the 1st Army of three corps, his command participating in some of the battles, like Jicin covered in the first part of the new game series, Frontier Battles, though the prince himself was not present. Because of the failure of Moltke and his staff led by to identify the correct location of the Austrians, the Prussian armies entered the battlefield at Königgrätz well separated and with the 2nd Army much delayed. At 8 a.m., Moltke ordered the First Army to attack, the most decisive move being by its 7th Division, which seized the woods at Swiepwald.

It was not the advance that mattered but the headstrong Austrian reaction, which only finished with their II and IV Corps wrecked by the storm of needle-gun fire. It was not until seven hours later that the 2nd Army went into action and its 1st Guard Infantry Division made the other decisive attack mentioned above. To put all this in perspective, almost all the fighting was done by Karl Friedrich’s First Army with less than one-third of the Second Army seeing any serious combat. Without the needle-gun, this lack of coordination and the premature attack (opposed by Karl Freidrich) would have led to failure.

Friedrich Karl played an equally prominent role in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. With its close and his retirement from active service he recieved numerous honours, as when Czar Alexander II appointed him an honory Russian Field Marsha and when he was permitted to assume the position as the colonel-in-chief of regiments in the German, Russian and Austrian armies. When his father died. he assumed the prestigious title of Prince of Prussia, by which he was then known until he died in 1884, the most respected and successful Prussian general since the Napoleonic Wars.

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