Denmark, Prussia and Austria at war—2 volumes in one special edition
Europe is familiar with wars which have ostensibly arisen from issues of succession among its monarchies. Most of these provided nothing less than a pretext for grasping advantages, and the Second Schleswig-Holstein War, fought in 1864 following the unclear succession of the Danish monarchy, can be seen as one of the several conflicts orchestrated by Prussia and Austria to establish themselves as dominant powers in Europe. This was not the first time the Schleswig and Holstein question had resulted in bloodshed. Originally affiliated to Denmark, the status of the duchies became more complicated, and the situation confrontational, as Denmark broke treaties in order to force integration. Outrage among the populations of the duchies escalated, since ethnic divisions had incrementally grown, making allegiances to one side or the other evident by trade, culture and language. Inevitably when the dialogue failed war was inevitable. Denmark was the underdog when it came to military might and proficiency, and the Battle of Dybbol resulted in Prussian victory. This in depth study of a lesser known European ‘small war’ was written by a journalist who was ‘on the spot’ throughout the conflict, and it benefits not only from an understanding of the causes of the war, but also from closely observed personal experience as events unfolded and escalated towards battle.
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About two o’clock the firing commenced, and gradually grew brisker. It seemed as if the Prussians were going to make up for lost time, and fire off their stipulated allowance of shells with greater haste than usual. I was riding in the island at the time, and paid but little attention to a sound which had become monotonous by repetition. Then, at last, the noise grew louder and louder, and the firing more close and constant; and I turned my horse’s head homewards, feeling certain that something of more than ordinary import was going on. I was then three miles or so from the town; but before I had got many yards upon my road I heard the bugles sounding the alarm amidst the farms where the troops were quartered, and I knew that the war had commenced again in earnest. I galloped back, but found the town scarcely moved from its ordinary apathy.
Everybody at Sonderborg had got so used to the crash of artillery and the sound of shells, that a little noise more or less created no extraordinary alarm. The officers I spoke to assured me that the firing had only been a little more lively than common, and that no serious attack was apprehended. Only half satisfied by these assertions, I strolled out to the shore, and, as soon as the Dybbol Hill was clear in sight, I could have no doubt that something very different was going on from the halting, hesitating fire to which we have hitherto been accustomed. The shells were flying to and fro at the rate, as I counted them, of twenty-five a minute; the roar of artillery was incessant; and the sides of Dybbol and Broager Hills were covered with dense masses of smoke.
The alarming fact was that, amidst this tremendous fire, the Wemming Bund batteries were almost silent. The question was, whether this noise was created by the fire of our own batteries, or by that of the new batteries which the Prussians have been some time erecting on the range that passes from Avn-Bierg on the Wemming Bund, through Dybbol and Rageböl villages, to Sand-Bierg on the Als-Sund.
It was not long before I learnt that the latter explanation was the correct one. The Prussians had at last opened fire from the position they acquired so fatally on the 17th, and the works of Dybbol were being thundered at with such a discharge of artillery as I believe has not been heard since the days of the Redan and the Malakoff.
Suddenly, amidst the roar and din of the distant cannon, I caught the sound of a near distinct crash, and I saw a white puff of smoke rise up from the castle of Sonderborg, which stands at the very entrance of the Als-Sund harbour. The first shot was put down by the bystanders to the deviation of a gun aimed at the Dybbol bastion. But then, hardly at a minute’s interval, shell followed shell more and more rapidly, and it became only too certain that the enemy were again bombarding the defenceless town of Sonderborg.
My own position was not exactly a pleasant one. The house where I have been so long and so hospitably sheltered looks, as I have mentioned before, straight upon the Wemming Bund, and stands on the edge of the sea, close to the castle. It was, therefore, exactly in the line of fire, and any return to it was for the moment unadvisable. So I worked my way through the outskirts of the town, trusting that the cannonade would slacken towards nightfall, and took up my position on a high hill, which rises at the back of Sonderborg. There I found a crowd of lookers-on collected, watching, like myself, the progress of the bombardment. The evening was coming on, and the light was fading in the west, but the constant discharge of cannon-shot kept on unabated.
The roar of the artillery is indescribable, except to those who have heard it. Not a sound seemed to pass without a flash and bang, and dull, deep rumbling. The whole western sky was covered with dark lurid clouds. Which was the smoke of cannon, which that of burning houses, it was impossible to discern. The centre batteries, Nos. 4 and 6, commanding the high road to Flensburg, against whose earthworks the fire was mainly directed, were enveloped in a mist of flame and haze. Every shot appeared to take effect. Great puffs, of earth-coloured hue, rose up towards the sky, as shell after shell hit the earthworks, and splashed the mud scores of feet into the air. But, though the fire was quickest against the centre, it extended all along the line from the Als-Sund to the Wemming Bund. Whether the Danish batteries were silenced—whether it was found impossible to man the guns beneath that pitiless, ceaseless fire—whether it was not thought advisable to respond—I cannot say.
This I know, that scarcely any response was made. The hail of shells and cannon-shot beat down mercilessly upon the Dybbol heights; and as the dusk grew on great blood-red patches of flame, like the lava-chinks on Mount Vesuvius, appeared on the hillside. Some barracks which had been run up to shelter the troops were burning, and the fierce cold winds fanned the flames into a devouring fire. Fancy Martin’s picture of “The Last Great Judgment Day,” coloured with the hues that Turner would have spread upon it, and you will have some notion of that weird, awful scene.
But I own that, for us, the bombardment of the town, though infinitely less terrible as a spectacle, had a much stronger fascination. The two Wemming Bund batteries, which stand on the extreme of the Prussian right, were shelling the lower part of Sonderborg with a cruel accuracy. Not an intimation had been given—not a warning of any kind—such as has been afforded of late in the most barbarous of wars. On the first bombardment of the 10th, we might charitably hope that the few shells thrown into the town were sent solely to clear the harbour, and not to destroy the dwellings of peaceful inhabitants.
No such excuse could be suggested at the present time. The bombs came whizzing towards the city with deliberate intent and aim. It is wonderful how soon you can tell the direction of a shell by its sound; and whenever a shot was fired in our direction the crowd of townsmen and soldiers amongst whom I stood cried out that the shell was coming long before it struck. we could see the dark puffs of smoke rising in dull succession from the houses near the port, and at last the smoke was followed by flame, and we saw that a house was set on fire.
With the fierce wind then blowing, it seemed probable that the whole city would soon be destroyed. Happily, the wind fell away suddenly, and the conflagration was extinguished. If the night were only here we knew there must be a lull in the shelling, but the night seemed endlessly long in coming.
At length, weary of waiting, I passed into the upper part of the town, where I had managed, luckily, to secure a shelter comparatively out of harm’s way. The sight which met me there was sad enough in all conscience. The people were flying from the town, as the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah may have fled from the accursed cities. There was little time to take anything with them in their flight. Women with scared pale faces, dragging little toddling children by the hand, were hastening away, God knows whither. Old men, bowed with age, were groping their way timidly up the long winding street. Some of the wayfarers had got bundles of bedding in their hands; others had articles of household furniture; long processions of carts, laden with every object that could be gathered together hastily, were rattling away as fast as the terrified horses could drag them; and the whole current of the population, which at this hour on ordinary evenings is coming homewards, was streaming out of the city. The wounded soldiers in the Caroline Amelia Hospital, which stands, or used to stand, close to the church, had been torn from their beds, and were passing in a file of carts up to Augustenburg.
And then, mixed up with the citizens and the soldiers, came in the wounded men from the front. No estimate can be formed yet of the loss beneath this afternoon’s deadly fire, but it must have been a heavy one. Dead bodies, half covered with the blood-stained straw in which they lay, were carried by in a dismal progress. File after file of soldiers moved on, bearing their wounded comrades on stretchers through the streets, and the moans of some of these poor wretches could be heard for hundreds of yards away; others lay senseless, and, to all appearance, lifeless, with their wounds half bandaged, and with dark streaks of blood marking their heads and breasts. I have no wish to describe to you the horrors that I saw; men with their legs blown off, their bodies ripped open with shells, and their faces battered into a mass of shapeless flesh, are sights not pleasant to see, or to think of when seen.