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November/December 2004 · Historically Speaking5 The Masque of Command: Bad Generals and their Impact Geoffrey Wawro In the predawn hours ofJuly 3, 1866, General Ludwig Benedek, the commander -in-chief of the Austrian North Army—240,000 well-armed troops— stamped about his headquarters (a room in the Gasthofder Stadt Prag) near Königgrätz dictating a letter to the emperor in Vienna. Historical spectators, aware thatJuly 3 was the date ofthe climactic battle ofKöniggrätz, would have expected the Feldzeugmeister(lieutenant general) to be dictating a detailed battle plan for the eight infantry corps and five cavalry divisions that he had arrayed on the Bystrice River around Sadova. They would have expected similar exertions from General Alfred von Henikstein, the chief of the Austrian imperial general staff, who was busy scribbling in another room of the Gasthof. While three Prussian armies—245,000 men in all—slithered through the mud ofan early summer downpour to attack the Austrian positions on the Bystrice, Benedek actually ignored them. Henikstein did too. The war, Benedekwrote the emperor, was going badly because Austria did not have enough railroads, did nothave sufficientintelligence capabilities, was badly served by its halfhearted allies, and insufficiently funded by its parliament. Undoubtedly all true, but was this the moment to be raising such points? To the emperor's demand that Henikstein return to Vienna for questioning by the military cabinet, Benedek replied: "it cuts me to the heart to see Baron Henikstein stripped naked in thiswayand indicted in the public eye." Instead ofHenikstein, Benedek offered the emperor the only man who was actually doing any work in headquarters, General Gideon Krismanic, who, at thatvery moment, was at his desk deploying the Austrian corps for what would shortly become known as the Battle of Königgrätz. "Krismanic ," not Henikstein, Benedek rather unkindly wrote, "is the real culprit in North Army's debacle." As the spatter ofoutpost fire spread along the Bystrice, where Prussian advance guards were colliding with Austrian sentries, General Henikstein began a letter to the emperor's adjutant general, Franz FolliotCrenneville . Surely the imperial general staff chief was arranging for a second line of defense to be prepared on the Danube. Wrong again: "I am in the tragic position of being held responsible before the whole world for errors and mishaps that are not my fault. I am the general staffchiefin name alonel Will there really be a court martial? Will it be in Vienna? Could we not hold it in a provincial fortress instead? Will I be allowed to wear my uniform? Will I be discharged from the service?" Henikstein laid the letter Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke.© Bettmann/CORBIS aside, then took it up again and scrawled in the margin: "my pension?" Without direction from the top, the Austrian army began the battle that would prove crucial—cruciallydisastrous—forits fortunes as a European great power in the worst possible position. Massedin muddy, low-lyingbivouacs between the Elbe and the Bystrice, theAustrians were easily flanked from either side and had no obvious line ofretreat other than asauve quipeut across the broad, fast-flowing Elbe. Until this point, the Austro-PrussianWar of 1866 had been Benedek's to win or lose. He had broughtmore troops into battle than the Prussians and, based on the Middle Elbe, had shorter lines of supply and friendly fortresses in the vicinity:Josephstadt, Königgr ätz, Theresienstadt, and Pardubice. Though the Prussians had a better rifle, the Austrians had better artillery and cavalry. Poised to win, the Austrians lost. Why? Historians have traditionally exonerated Benedek for the defeat and blamed others: Henikstein, Krismanic, reckless generals striving for the Maria Theresa Cross, the Prussian rifle, and so on. That traditionalview originated with the Austrian army's official history of the war, was then picked up by Heinrich Friedjungin his classic two-volume The Struggle for Supremacy in Germany, 1859-66 (first published in 1897), and then passed along to Gordon Craig, who wrote Königgrätz in 1964. Interestingly, none of those historians looked at personal factors in the Austrian defeat. Fixed on the mask of command—the public image crafted by famous generals and their partisans—they failed to consider the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 5-6
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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