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The Seven Weeks' War Review

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Any book written in the 1860s must surely have aged a lot since its publication, and in its style and focus The Seven Weeks’ War: The Austro-Prussian Conflict of 1866, written by H.M. Hozier in the 1860s, belongs to a different age. But it has aged remarkably well, and despite the passage of multiple centuries still is a very readable, enjoyable, well written account of the diplomacy, campaigns, and battles leading up to and during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, one which has acquired a charming elegance with the steady march of time instead of the unsettling discomfort which many an older text dealing with military matters might carry. Although with some biases, it serves as a source written very close to the time of the events that helps to give them a feeling of immediacy, and which shows what the conceptions and focuses of the time were.

The author of the book, a British writer, H.M. Hozier, writes the book from the Prussian perspective for the most part, and his tone of admiration or the Prussians is incredibly strong throughout the book: this being said, his appreciation for the Prussians doesn’t merge into contempt for the Austrians, and he is consistently generous in his compliments towards the Austrians for their bravery, fighting spirit, and steadfastness. It makes it clear that the Austrians lost not due to any deficits of soldiery, as can be shown by scene after scene of incredibly fierce battles where the Austrians fought with great courage against Prussian forces, in pitched, close-range fighting, and their loss came about due to inferiority of weaponry with their muzzle loading rifles, and more aggressive Prussian operational art and more skilled maneuvering.

The needle gun is one of the best examples of showing how the war itself was perceived: French responses to the war were most concerned by the needle gun and its capability to put down a hail of fire during the advance: they failed to grasp many other elements of the Prussian system, only seriously evolving their own forces around the point of the Prussian needle gun. While a secondary source, The Seven Weeks War in many regards functions as a primary source in showing the concerns of period writers. It also provides for an examination of the Austrian mentality in defeat, where they thought that with their own needle rifles they could stand up against the Prussians. While logistics is certainly not ignored, as shown by attention paid to Prussian communications, and the fight for taking Prague to provide for using the railroads, they lack the quantitative analysis of later books, and artillery doesn’t receive sufficient focus, although perhaps this is due to its seeming relatively lack of effect, with it rarely playing a decisive role throughout the battle.

Battles illustrate this point to great effect: the best element of the book is its description of tactical battles. It has good operational overlook, but at the tactical level its descriptions of battles are very well done, giving a good feeling of what happened: the desperate close range fighting in small villages, the wall of Prussian needle gun fire that beat down Austrian resistance at close range, the heavy crash of cavalry that gave victory to the heavy and the big as they smashed over their weaker foes, the spitting musket balls in forests as soldiers tried to hide behind the trees and shoot down at their enemy. The conflict really does feel like it comes to life, in a way that doesn’t seek to deny the pain and the suffering of it, with the fields of injured or dead men and the tragedy of a war.

This being said, at times it feels rather artificial, talking about changes of emotion which perfectly suit the moment of the campaign, such as the feeling of reconciliation which suddenly overcame the Prussians at the time of the armistice – it seems to be a world, where other than the occasional lack of patriotism of the Bohemian civil population and their indifference to the Austrian soldiery, there is hardly an evil thought which could so much as enter the mind of man. This seems like, even in a rather civil and well conducted war, without great passions of hatred, a great exaggeration: there must have been some period when some element of negativity and passions other than simple patriotism and devotion to duty entered into the equation. Similarly, perhaps entirely understandable for a British-authored book in the 1860s, it entirely omits any discussion of sex or fraternizing between the Prussians and the women of occupied Austria, which almost inevitably happened in the context of large numbers of men on foreign territory, particularly amongst, as seems to have been the case, a rather friendly civilian population. It doesn’t hide the death and suffering of war, but it ultimately belongs to the pre-1914 mindset which could glamorize and heroize war.

Its rewriting to add on additional material, performed sometime 1871, also makes it rather teleological: the Austro-Prussian war inevitably leads to the Franco-Prussian War, and it shows how in historical mindset, the Austro-Prussian war is greatly overshadowed by the Franco-Prussian conflict: even in a book entirely devoted to the Austro-Prussian War, the Brothers War, it still has as its ultimate denouement the war against France.

Despite some of these shortcomings, and although necessary to read with other books that provide for additional context and operational perspectives of the war, The Seven Years War is a great accompaniment and overview of the war, combining a decent diplomatic perspective of the beginning of the conflict, a good overview of the armies involved, an excellent look at the fighting, and which provides for a feeling of what the focus and attention was of commentators looking at the war in the time. A surprisingly good and well done book.

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