January 7, 2013

Needle gun article

Note from the author: This article of mine was originally published in Danish and Swedish in October 2011, I bring a slightly altered version in an English translation here, for those who do not speak Danish.


Title page from the original (Danish) version of the article printed in Militærhistorie’s October issue 2011

THE PRUSSIAN NEEDLE GUN MAKES ITS DEBUT – THE SKIRMISH AT LUNDBY 1864
By Benjamin T. Christensen

The village of Lundby near Aalborg, Denmark 3 July 1864 – early morning.
Heymann, a young Prussian corporal, is nervous. For the first time in his life, he is facing the enemy, and his heart is beating fast. A few minutes ago, a Danish company appeared on the top of a hill south of the small Danish village of Lundby where Heymann was enjoying a cup of breakfast coffee together with the rest of his company. Hastily, his company was assembled and sent on a forced march; first to collect their rifles which had been arranged in pyramids in a field to the north of the village, then hurried back to a low drystone wall at the southern outskirts of the village.
Behind this drystone wall, Heymann is now watching the enemy, trotting straight towards him. The Danish soldiers quickly approach the nervous Prussian soldiers, quickly closing the gap between them – now they are only 500 paces away … 450 paces … 400 paces. In a strained voice, Heymann asks his superior, Hauptmann (i.e. Captain) von Schlutterbach, “Herr Hauptmann, may we serve them some breakfast?”, but von Schlutterbach shakes his head, “Wait – let them get closer; I shall let you know when to fire at them”. Von Schlutterbach has full confidence in their new weapon, the needle gun which can be re-loaded considerably quicker than the rifles of the Danish soldiers. Coolly, he therefore lets the Danish soldiers advance till they are only 250 paces away, and then in a firm and calm voice commands his soldiers, “250 paces rear sight, but aim true and well, my children; now, in the name of God, “ Fire!”

The needle gun was invented by the German gunsmith Johann Nicolaus von Dreyse in 1827. The use of a complete cartridge: bullet, black powder charge and percussion cap in a paper case, was its greatest advantage. Contrary to the ammunition used for contemporary rifles, the complete cartridge was inserted into the barrel from the rear part (the breech) of the gun, and the needle gun was hence also known as the breach-loading gun. When the trigger was pulled, a needle pierced the paper case, ignited the black powder charge, and the bullet was discharged. Loading a needle gun was much quicker than loading other guns, among these the muzzle-loading rifle applied by the Danish army which was loaded by inserting a powder charge followed by a bullet into the top of the barrel and stamping these to the bottom of the barrel with a ramrod. This lengthy and laborious loading process for the muzzle-loader meant that a rifleman with a breach-loader could load and fire about four shots while a rifleman with a muzzle-loader loaded and fired one shot.

Furthermore, the needle gun could be loaded while lying down, whereas handling the long ramrod for the muzzle-loader meant that the rifleman had to more or less stand upright while loading, thus presenting a much better target for enemy bullets.

Despite the above-mentioned advantages of the needle gun, most countries decided not to make use of Dreyse’s invention in the mid-19th century. The first versions of the needle gun were too inaccurate and loading them could be dangerous. When Dreyse appeared at a presentation to the Prussian military of his new type of gun with one arm in bandages after an accident where a bullet exploded during loading, he was asked to leave and not return until he had improved his invention. After a number of improvements had been made to the gun, the Prussian army finally accepted his new gun and starting 1840, it was gradually implemented as their new standard weapon. At the beginning, the Prussian army tried to keep the new gun type secret, referring to it as “the light percussion rifle model 1841” instead of the more revealing name “needle gun”.


The Dreyse needle gun.

Austria, Prussia’s major rival inside the German Confederation, had shown some interest in the needle gun but had rejected it for various reasons. First and foremost, many Austrian officers considered their men too poorly trained to be able to use the sights of the needle gun correctly – the ability to load and shoot quickly was no advantage to an undisciplined soldier who was unable to assess the distance to the enemy correctly and thus might fire all his bullets before the enemy was within the optimum firing distance. Furthermore, the needle gun had not proved its worth in battle – as had the shock tactics developed and used by the French army against the Austrian army during the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859. The tactics of the French army were quite simply to avoid long exchanges of fire, instead they stormed the enemy lines with fixed bayonets, either defeating him in close combat or scaring his soldiers to flee in panic. This tactic had proved very efficient towards Austrian soldiers, and was quickly adopted by the Austrian army. It also appealed to conservative Austrian officers who feared that infantry armed with needle guns would have to fight in scattered formation, no longer being deployed in the more easily controlled tightly packed columns and battle lines. Using the shock tactics, quick-firing guns like the needle gun were superfluous, and the Austrian army hence decided to save the huge expense of changing their weaponry to needle guns.

Austria was not alone in her decision. The high commands of most European armies decided to adopt the French shock tactics – including Denmark, where Lieutenant Carl Irminger in his assessment of the training of his regiment provides us with a vivid description of the tactics around 1862, “We all agree that this firing is of no particular importance in battle. We approach the enemy till we are at a distance of about 700 to 600 feet, and then we storm straight at him with our bayonets. All his bullets fly right over our heads.”

New weaponry in the Prussian army and new tactics in the Austrian army in place, the two high commands now only waited for an opportunity of putting them to a test against a manageable enemy – and this presented itself on 1 February 1864 as the second Schleswig war broke out between Denmark and Prussia/Austria, representing the German Confederation. The war primarily derived from a controversy over the status of the duchies Schleswig and Holstein in relation to Denmark and the German Confederation, fuelled by the clash between Danish and German nationalism in these areas. However, to Austria and Prussia, it was a most welcome opportunity to test their new tactics and new weapons, and not least: to determine which of these two countries held the leadership position within the German Confederation.

From the very first day of the war, the Prussian and Austrian armies competed in winning the most battles and securing the most spectacular victories. The Danish army had been deployed along the dilapidated and outworn fortification Dannevirke (i.e. a system of linear defensive earthwork fortifications stretching across the duchy Schleswig, north of the duchy of Holstein) , and in front of this, a number of outpost skirmishes took place initially. On 2 February, the Prussians attempted to assault the village of Mysunde, but were beaten off by the Danish defenders. The following day, the Austrians engaged Danish troops near the hill Kongshøj (near Dannevirke), pressing the Danish outpost back to Dannevirke, and a few days later, when the Danish army abandoned the Dannevirke fortifications, Austrian troops engaged the Danish rear guard at the village of Sankelmark to the north of Dannevirke. Armed with identical weapons and using the same tactics, the Austrian and Danish units threw themselves into intense close combats, fighting hand-to-hand. The battle of Sankelmark ended without a winner as night fell, and the Danish army continued its orderly retreat to the north. In the friendly rivalry between Austria and Prussia, the Austrian army was clearly in the lead at the beginning of the war. Twice they had succeeded with their shock tactics, whereas the Prussians had yet to produce a victory.


Austrian troops attacking Danish positions at Kongshøj in front of the Dannewirke line on February 3.

After its retreat from the Dannevirke fortifications, the Danish army split into two: the main part of the army entrenched itself at Dybbøl, a series of Danish fortifications and trenches near the town of Sønderborg, about 50 km north of Dannevirke, and a small section of the army was ordered to retreat further north. Subsequently, the Prussian army besieged the Dybbøl fortifications. After prolonged bombardments and lengthy digging of trenches, the Prussian army was finally ready to storm Dybbøl on 18 April 1864. A total of 10,000 Prussian troops stormed the fortifications, defended by 2,200 Danish troops, and the fight was over in a few hours. The Dybbøl fortifications had been captured by the Prussians, and the Danish army retreated to the island of Als, east of Dybbøl. A couple of weeks of fruitless negotiations in London followed, and then the war was resumed at the end of June. Meanwhile, the Prussian army had prepared what was a new type of offensive to them: an amphibious assault on the island of Als via the narrow strait between the island and the Danish peninsula. The Prussians launched an attack on the island in boats during the night of 28 June, and took the Danish defenders completely by surprise.


An artist’s depiction of the storming of the Dybbøl fortification.

The Prussian army had now won two big victories, and they were leading their friendly rivalry with the Austrians. However, they had still not had a chance to prove the superiority of their needle guns. At the battle of the Dybbøl fortifications, their rifled cannons had proved decisive, and in their amphibious attack on the island of Als, the element of surprise had gained them their victory. In a military sense, Denmark had been defeated, and it was generally agreed that it was now only a question of time before the war would end – and the Prussians had still not had a chance to prove the worth of their needle gun. However, in the evening of 2 July, the commander of the Danish forces north of the fjord Limfjorden (separating the northern part of the Danish peninsula Jutland from its central part), Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Charles Johannes Beck received a report which would change this.

The report contains alarming news. Lieutenant-Colonel Beck learns that his outposts south of the Limfjorden had earlier that day been in a firefight with a patrol of Prussian soldiers. He has also received reports of sightings of other Prussian patrols in his area. After having lost the island of Als to the enemy, the Danish high command has decided to withdraw all their soldiers from the peninsula of Jutland, and in this connection, Lieutenant-Colonel Beck has been charged with the task of covering the retreat of the last Danish troops from the northern part of Jutland with his small force deployed near the town of Nørresundly on the northern brink of the fjord Limfjorden. If the Prussian army is sending patrols northwards, towards the towns of Aalborg (on the southern brink of the fjord) and Nørresundby, there is a great risk that they will discover exactly how exposed his position is. Lieutenant-Colonel Beck sees only one solution: The Prussian patrols must be deterred from approaching the fjord of Limfjorden.

Consequently, in the evening of the 2nd of July Lieutenant-Colonel Beck leads about one fifth of his troops on a march from the town of Nørresundby through Aalborg towards the village of Ellidshøj a couple of kilometers to the south of the town of Aalborg. He is bringing about 180 men from the 5th company of the 1st regiment including some dragoons and volunteers. He intends during that night to stage an assault on a Prussian patrol which should be in Ellidshøj and capture the whole patrol. However, when Lieutenant-Colonel Beck’s troops reach Ellidshøj, the Prussians have vanished. The locals inform him that the enemy which had been in the village earlier that day, have withdrawn to the south again, but that another enemy patrol is camped for the night in the small village of Gunderup to the east of Ellidshøj.

Instead of setting off towards the village of Gunderup, Lieutenant-Colonel Beck to the great surprise of his men decides to halt his troops in the village of Ellidshøj. Not until he has spent several hours in the company of the local priest and his aide, Albert Peter Carl Abrahams, is Lieutenant-Colonel Beck ready to lead his troops towards the village of Gunderup. But by now, the night is almost over – the sun will rise soon. He shall miss his chance of an attack in the darkness of the night unless he hurries. Still, Lieutenant-Colonel Beck does not make haste. A few days earlier, he had received a general command from his superior, the brigade commander, that should he encounter the enemy, he was ordered to “fall on him, exploiting our superior handling of the bayonet”. Lieutenant-Colonel Beck makes a brief speech to his men, encouraging them to follow this advice. His plan of attacking and capturing a sleeping enemy has been abandoned. To Lieutenant-Colonel Beck, the objective is now to seek out the enemy, attack him in a frontal assault, bayonets fixed – an honourable attack, following the spirit of chock tactics.

At long last, the Danish troops break camp, leaving Ellidshøj. The Danish soldiers march through the warm summer night towards the village of Gunderup in silence, but when they reach the village, the Prussians have left it, moving further north. They are just half an hour late. Had they set out from Ellidshøj just after having been informed that the Prussian patrol had left this village, they would have caught up with their enemy while he was camped for the night in Gunderup. Now they have to continue their march northwards, following the tracks of the Prussian patrol which has by now probably reached the small village of Lundby.

Between the villages of Gunderup and Lundby is a high hill, and the road from the top of this runs through Lundby, bending left just before reaching the southern outskirts of the village. The long stretch of road down the hill slope is quite exposed, but before the bend there is a low drystone wall encircling a garden to the left of the road. Local farmers repeatedly advise Lieutenant-Colonel Beck to lead his men around Lundby, through a hollow, enabling him to get quite close to the Prussian soldiers without being discovered by them. But Lieutenant-Colonel Beck refuses to follow their advice – “My men are not to be guided by a peasant”, he explains the local farmers, angrily. The Prussian troops camped in Lundby are still unaware of the presence of Danish troops near the village. They suspect no arrival of Danish troops from the south – not until a Danish dragoon unintentionally shows himself at the top of the hill.


View from the hill overlooking the village of Lundby. The painting is from 1890, but not much had changed in the years since the war.

About half (65 men) of the Prussian patrol hastily assemble behind the drystone wall at the southern edge of Lundby, while the rest is kept in reserve in the village. From the top of the hill, Lieutenant-Colonel Beck orders his captain to lead a frontal attack against their position – there is no time to deploy the men in skirmish lines. “Just fix bayonets and fall on the enemy!”. Lieutenant-Colonel Beck’s aide is speechless: “That brigade command was etched into his mind … down that hill – on the exposed road – run 1000-1200 feet straight towards a couple of hundred rifles – in an excellent position with ample support for their rifles – madness!”.

At the foot of the hill, in Lundby, the Prussian corporal Heymann has trouble believing his own eyes. To him, the Danish frontal attack on the Prussian position behind the drystone wall seems insane: “These people must have been out of their minds to run like that, straight into our fire. Did they think we were firing blanks at them?”. But the Prussian needle guns are not loaded with blanks. The first volley of shots cuts down a number of Danish soldiers. The Danish troops expect to receive only one volley of shots – believing the enemy to have time to fire only one volley before they close in on him. But the Danish commander has not taken the Prussians’ quick-loading needle guns into account. A few seconds after the first volley of shots, another volley rings out from the drystone wall. Corporal Heymann is appalled: “Dear God in Heaven, how terrifying an impact!”. But the Danish soldiers continue their attack, still running down the hill in a column formation. When they are close to the drystone wall, the third volley of shots hit them. The column breaks up completely; most Danish soldiers throw themselves into the fields of corn on both sides of the road, a few continues forward but are mowed down. At the same time, a small group from the corn field trying to attack the Prussian flank is overpowered and taken prisoner. Other Danish soldiers attempt to retaliate against the Prussian fire from their positions in the corn fields but having to stand up to reload their muzzle-loaders, they are quickly shot down.


Danish depiction of the attack on Lundby.

Lieutenant-Colonel Beck has observed the attack of his soldiers. Within a few minutes, his forces have been annihilated. Of the about 160 soldiers of the 5th company of the 1st regiment participating in the attack, 95 have been killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Three Prussian soldiers have been wounded. Shocked, Lieutenant-Colonel Beck lets his trumpeter sound the retreat.

The skirmish at the village of Lundby was a brief and brutal lesson in the superiority of the Prussian needle gun. For the first time, its protagonists were able to present a fighting where a Prussian force armed with needle guns had crushed an enemy outnumbering them.
In 1866, two years after the skirmish at Lundby, Prussia and Austria fought each other for dominance in the German Confederation – a war which the Austrian General Gablenz later described as “one long series of Lundby skirmishes”. In the battle of Königgrätz, Prussian troops armed with needle guns annihilated the Austrian army which still stuck to its shock tactics.
After 1864, the skirmish at Lundby was discussed ardently by European armies’ high commands, and the skirmish was mentioned in Prussian and Austrian instruction books for officers as a prime example for imitation. Within 20 years, almost all European armies had abandoned their old muzzle-loaders and had implemented rifles based on the needle gun instead.

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