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The Gun That Should Have Changed Everything

By Paul Lockhart 
Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: November 02, 2012 
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Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Regiment pose with their muzzleloaders sometime before the July 1864 Battle of Lundby. Only two of these men survived the ill-conceived bayonet attack. (Courtesy Lundby Museum)
Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Regiment pose with their muzzleloaders sometime before the July 1864 Battle of Lundby. Only two of these men survived the ill-conceived bayonet attack. (Courtesy Lundby Museum)

In the summer of 1864 the American Civil War raged on. The great powers of Europe had followed the conflict with interest. Since February, though, they had cast their gaze elsewhere, toward a short and bloody war fought much closer to home. And that July, a bayonet charge in a field just outside the remote Danish farming village of Lundby caught the attention of soldiers all over Europe. For it was there that Prussians fighting the Danes would wield a far deadlier rifle than had been seen in modern combat, essentially changing the art of war in the Western world.

 

LUNDBY WAS THE FINAL BATTLE in an all but forgotten conflict. The first of the so-called Wars of German Unification, the Second Schleswig War was fought between the kingdom of Denmark and a German coalition headed by Prussia and Austria. At the heart of the conflict were Denmark's ancient claims to the largely German duchies of Schleswig and Holstein and the desire of ethnic Germans in the twin duchies to break away from Danish rule. The Germans of Schleswig and Holstein had powerful friends in the German Confederation's Austria and Prussia, especially Prussia's as yet untested chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. The Danish crown clung desperately to its old territories despite great international pressure, and in February 1864 the confrontation escalated into open war.

The roar of 70 and more Dreyses rent the sweet morning air, as the wall erupted in smoke and flame from end to end

The Danish government had every confidence in its army, which had done very well in a previous war over the duchies (the First Schleswig War, 1848–1851). War fever seized the common people, and Denmark's citizen army was in high spirits. In General Christian Julius de Meza it had a tough, experienced, and practical—if aging—commander. It was a decent little army, reasonably well trained and equipped, but it simply couldn't hold a candle to the much larger and better Prussian and Austrian armies, which converged on Holstein in January 1864. Either of them could have overwhelmed the Danes, but the contrast between Danish forces and their Prussian adversaries was especially stark. After all, the Prussians fielded the army of Bismarck, Helmuth von Moltke, and Albrecht von Roon, fresh from its overhaul earlier in the decade. The Prussians weren't veterans, but no army in Europe was better trained.

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The Prussians also enjoyed immense technological advantages. In addition to the best artillery in Europe (made primarily by the famed Krupp arms manufacturer), they had the best service rifle, the Dreyse needle gun. The Prussians adopted this revolutionary new weapon, named after its creator, Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse, in 1841.

While most armies in the civilized world were just then transitioning from reliable flintlock muskets to muskets that used a percussion cap for ignition, Dreyse had much bigger ideas. His zündnadelgewehr—"needle rifle"—was a breechloader, a primitive bolt-action rifle that used a self-contained paper cartridge with bullet, powder, and percussion cap all in one unit. When it was fired, a long, thin firing pin—the needle—shot forward, through the bolt, to pierce the paper cartridge, detonating the percussion cap and igniting the main charge.

The Dreyse wasn't perfect. It suffered from most of the defects of black-powder weapons: low velocity, limited range, and susceptibility to moisture. It also produced clouds of acrid, white smoke that obscured battlefields once musketry got thick and heavy. The Dreyse mechanism was notoriously leaky; hot gases that hissed from the breech could become so uncomfortable for Prussian infantrymen, it was said they preferred to fire from the hip so as not to burn their faces. By the time of the 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian War, only six years after the Second Schleswig War, the Dreyse would verge on the obsolete, easily outperformed by breechloading firearms that used metal cartridges.

But in 1864 the Dreyse had no peer among general-issue military rifles. The Danish army, like its Austrian, British, and French counterparts, and like those slugging it out on American battlefields, relied on muzzle-loading rifled muskets. These were superior to earlier smoothbore muskets in range and accuracy but were still slow to load. An experienced infantryman could be expected to load and fire his rifled musket around three times per minute. Loading in any position other than standing was inconvenient at best; loading while prone required complicated gymnastic feats.

The Dreyse was a different story. Though no better than the rifled musket in range or accuracy, it had a far superior rate of fire. Prussians could, as a rule, load and fire five times faster than their Austrian comrades. The breechloading mechanism made it possible to load from any position—even lying down.

The Prussians started to rearm their infantry with Dreyse needle guns in 1848. By 1864, the entire army had them. The Dreyse wasn't a secret, but it had seen such limited use that few European soldiers knew just what it could do in combat. They would soon find out.

 

AFTER THE WAR COMMENCED in early February, it progressed just as one might expect given the huge disparity in the size and quality of the opposing armies. The Prussians and Austrians quickly took the duchies, and by spring had overrun Denmark itself, sending the Danes retreating up the Jutland peninsula.

The German Confederation quickly seized the duchies of Holstein and Schleswig, then drove up the Jutland peninsula to Lundby. (Baker Vail)
The German Confederation quickly seized the duchies of Holstein and Schleswig, then drove up the Jutland peninsula to Lundby. (Baker Vail)
A few months in, the war was essentially over. Everyone, even the Danes, knew it. The turning point had come in April, when a large Prussian force, following a monthlong siege of the Danish fort at Dybbøl, overwhelmed a Danish army half its size and seized the fort. All that remained was to make the appropriate diplomatic arrangements and settle the score. In the meantime, the Danish army withdrew grudgingly toward the northeastern port of Frederikshavn, where it would board transports to carry it to safety in the kingdom's eastern islands.

The task of covering the retreat fell to a small mixed force of infantry, dragoons, and artillery, under the immediate command of Lieutenant Colonel Hans Charles Johannes Beck of Denmark's 1st Infantry Regiment. Beck, though a 33-year veteran soldier, was an odd choice for the assignment. At 46 he was not physically robust, and though he had seen combat he was—by nature and by experience—a staff officer.

Beck's command took up a position near Aalborg at Nørresundby, on the Limfjord, the narrow, shallow sound that separates the northernmost Danish islands from the Jutland peninsula. On July 1, three Prussian patrols set out from camp farther inland at Hobro, marching northeast toward Aalborg. None of the Prussian forces was very large, but the Danes caught wind of their movements, and Beck immediately went on the offensive.

It was around 8 p.m. on July 2 when he got word that a Danish patrol had collided with one of the Prussian columns, just a few miles south of Aalborg. Sounding the alarm, Beck ordered out a patrol of 16 dragoons and the 184 officers and men of the 5th Company, 1st Infantry Regiment. The men were in such a hurry they neglected to pack rations. Colonel Beck joined them, and off they marched south into the twilight, cheered along by the citizens of Aalborg. Over the next day, Beck's troops twice marched into towns expecting to make contact, only to find that they had just missed the Prussians.

One of the three Prussian columns—two companies of infantry, totaling 144 foot soldiers and 92 hussars under the command of Major Krug von Nidda—came to a halt at the village of Lundby, not far from Aalborg, at about 4 o'clock in the morning on July 3.

Unaware that Beck's Danes were hunting him, Krug left most of his infantry, about 130 men, and continued north. Those staying in Lundby were going to have an easy time of it. Major Krug was covering the roads to the north; to the south, there was nothing standing between them and the main Prussian forces in Hobro. Battle was the furthest thing from their minds.

By the time Beck and his men arrived at Gunderup, a few miles south of Lundby, they had been awake for nearly 24 hours and on the march for the last eight, putting around 15 miles of road behind them, with no food and precious little rest. Charging into the town shouting and swinging sabers, they were chagrined to learn that again the Prussians had already come and gone. But the Prussians were now so close that the Danes weren't about to give up the chase.

As Beck prepared to push his men on to Lundby, locals in Gunderup offered timely advice: If the Danes approached Lundby from the west or east, the terrain would hide their march and afford them some degree of surprise. But Beck, they counseled, must under no circumstances come straight up the road from Gunderup to Lundby and attempt to hit the Prussians from the south. That road went over a gentle rise called the Kongehøj and then descended through open fields into Lundby itself. With such an approach, the Danes would be walking into a clear field of fire.

Beck had neither time nor patience for these warnings. With a wave of his hand, the colonel curtly rejected the advice, re-formed his men, and set off again on the road north. "We're the 5th Company of the 1st Regiment," shouted one of the soldiers as the column pulled out of Gunderup. "We'll eat the filthy Prussians for breakfast!"

Beck's column covered the two miles between Gunderup and Lundby in short order. The Prussians were wholly unaware of its presence. While the Danes paused at the southern foot of the Kongehøj, the Prussians—only 600 or so yards away—went about their morning routines, starting fires and cooking breakfast. They were camped in a field just north of the tiny farming village, their needle rifles neatly stacked nearby, and they had not posted sentries to the south.

The commander of their forces, one Captain von Schlutterbach, was gone for the moment, leading a patrol up the northern road. But then the Prussians thought they heard the sound of an infantry horn to the south. Turning to look, they saw a solitary Danish dragoon atop the Kongehøj.

Beck had been found out. There would be no surprise attack.

 

STILL, HE WAS AMBITIOUS AND EAGER to prove himself. The Prussians were well drilled but they were green, and they panicked, running around "like sheep pursued by a dog," said one Dane. As Beck watched them through his field glasses, the enemy scrambled to get their needle rifles and prepare some semblance of a defense. He would have to act fast. The Prussians wouldn't be disordered for very long.

Between Beck's position on the Kongehøj and the southern edge of the village was a small stone wall. If the Prussians manned it before the Danes could take it, then things might go very badly for Colonel Beck's boys.

Beck decided the men must go forward now, without delay, straight down the road toward Lundby. He barked his orders to Captain P. C. C. Hammerich, the 5th Company commander: "Fix bayonets and throw yourselves at the enemy!" A junior officer protested, tentatively, asking if the colonel might consider something less rash. Beck silenced him. "Let's not waste time with such things," he growled. Beck did not even allow Hammerich time to deploy his men from a marching column—a narrow and deep formation—into something more appropriate for a bayonet charge. Hammerich's men barely paused, coming up over the rise of the Kongehøj and surging toward Lundby in a column of half platoon, 10 men across, 16 ranks deep.

Such a move would appear, today, to be nothing short of suicidal. Since World War I, tacticians have considered the bayonet charge across open ground old fashioned and ill advised, a practice that was already obsolete, senseless even, in the 18th century. Yet even into the middle of the 19th century, experienced commanders knew that if conducted correctly by veteran troops, bayonet charges could succeed. They even worked against entrenched enemies armed with modern rifled muskets, as the French proved again and again while fighting the Austrians in Italy in 1859. The key was to keep the men moving forward quickly, without pausing to stop and load and fire.

That line of reasoning, though, was based on the slow rate of fire of muzzle-loading firearms. It did not take the Dreyse into account.

 

CAPTAIN HAMMERICH, at the head of his column with sword drawn, set off at a fast pace, down the Kongehøj and up the road toward Lundby. Hammerich hadn't gone very far when he realized he was losing the race to the stone wall; the Prussians were going to get there first. Fifty of them remained inside the village as a reserve. The remaining 75 or so men ran to the wall as if possessed, needle rifles in hand.

One by one they fell into a ragged line behind the wall, catching their breath as they drew back the bolts on their Dreyses, inserted fresh cartridges, slammed the bolts home, and leveled their rifles at the Danes.

The sight of the Danes was awe inspiring. Unlike the Prussians, they were veterans, having been bloodied in battle against the Austrians before the fall of Dybbøl several months earlier. They moved, one Prussian remarked, "as if they were drilling," fast and in perfect order. The raw Prussians, by contrast, were terrified. Captain von Schlutterbach, who had just returned from his patrol to the north, had a devil of a time calming his men, cajoling them into holding their fire until the Danes were closer, closer. From the stone wall, the Prussians could see the Danish column descend the Kongehøj, disappear briefly behind another, smaller rise.

As the 180 Danes came over this second hill, a deep "Hurrah!" roared from their throats. They were about 200 yards away.

Schlutterbach told his men to set their sights to the proper distance, and then he shouted the order they all longed to hear: "In the name of God, fire now!"

The roar of 70 and more Dreyses rent the sweet morning air, as the wall erupted in smoke and flame from end to end. The volley hit the Danes hard. "Almost all—both those who were hit and those who were not—threw themselves flat to the ground, but without [the benefit of] any real cover," a Danish survivor later recalled. They were on their feet again in a flash, and the column kept moving, shaken but intact, with visible gaps torn by musketry. Hammerich's men moved fast, but the Dreyse in the hands of well-drilled troops could be loaded quickly.

The Danes advanced another 50 yards, and another volley rang out. Then another. Hammerich's boys were bludgeoned but not broken. Not yet.

On the Danish right, a handful of men tried, on their own, to get around the Prussian left flank. The Prussians cut them down. Other Danes were so full of adrenaline, so battle-mad, that they advanced to within 25 yards of the Prussian line, loading and firing, dropping to take whatever cover they could find.

The field in front of the Lundby wall was dappled with blood and full of twisted, blue-coated bodies. Captain Hammerich, already lightly wounded, tried to rally his men, then went down with a Dreyse ball in his right arm. The Danes had fought valiantly. "God in heaven, how frightful was the action," one Prussian wrote. "But these brave men…did not become disordered as they fell….
They closed up tighter, and [with a] 'Hurrah!' they kept going."

It had all been for nothing. Even Colonel Beck had to admit that the attack had failed, and badly. He ordered a retreat, and the shattered remnants of the 5th Company limped back to the Kongehøj. Captain von Schlutterbach, to his credit, saw no reason to punish the Danes further. He ordered his men to cease fire and allow their enemies to fall back in peace.

For the Danes, the skirmish at Lundby had been an absolute slaughter. Thirty-one men had been killed outright. Another 44 were wounded, and 2 officers and 37 men were taken to Hobro as prisoners; one of those officers died of his wounds a month later. Hammerich's company had, in short, lost more than 50 percent of its strength in a scuffle that lasted less than 20 minutes. The Prussians, by contrast, suffered three men lightly wounded.

 

AT MOST, BECK'S AGGRESSIVE ACTIONS around Aalborg in the beginning of July 1864 reminded the Austrian and Prussian commanders to be careful as they pushed deeper into Danish territory. Lundby did not affect the peace negotiations. It did not change the outcome of the war; that was a months-old near certainty when Colonel Beck sent his men hurtling down the Kongehøj. As part of the Second Schleswig War, the skirmish at Lundby—it hardly merits the label "battle"—meant next to nothing.

Beck was not held responsible for the high loss of life. Indeed, he was celebrated in his homeland for his actions at Lundby and after the war was promoted to full colonel. Later, however, some would assert Beck's incompetence or negligence caused the slaughter of his men. Those critics had a point: There can be no question that Beck rushed to the assault without taking the precautions an attack with the bayonet demanded.

But more sophisticated observers focused on the technological issue at hand. They did not fault Beck for ordering a frontal assault; they faulted him for ordering a frontal assault against troops armed with breechloaders. It's unfair, perhaps, to castigate Beck for not recognizing the power of the Dreyse needle rifle. While the Danes had been fighting the Prussians for more than four months, they were not fully aware of the needle rifle's lethality. In many cases, Danish losses were more easily attributable to Prussia's overwhelmingly larger armies. No one, possibly not even the Prussians, really knew what the Dreyse could do.

But that, in the end, was the true significance of the skirmish at Lundby: It was an object lesson that a new day was dawning in the art of war, when a revolutionary change in firepower would destroy all the old assumptions about tactics. European tacticians studied Lundby in detail, blow by blow. A slew of articles appeared in professional military journals from Britain to Switzerland.

Overall, these experts fully understood the meaning of Lundby. Breechloaders were infinitely superior to muzzleloaders; rate of fire was more important on the battlefield of the late 19th century than accuracy or range; and bayonet charges against breechloaders, and soon machine guns, were essentially suicidal. It was a lesson that would be taught again and again, but not fully learned by the generals in charge before the slaughter of the Great War.

 

Paul Lockhart, a frequent contributor, is professor of history at Wright State University, specializing in Scandinavian and military history. His most recent book is The Whites of Their Eyes (2011).

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