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The Battle of Dybboel
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by Gert Laursen
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The Danish Army had been withdrawn from the Dannevirke positions to prevent the Prussian-Austrian army outflank and destroy it. After an exhausting march, which included a bloody rearguard action the army arrived at the Dybbol positions. The enemy, as exhausted as the Danes, followed only slowly, and for some days all was quiet. The Danes prepared to defend the redoubts, and also took up positions in the terrain before them.

On the 17th of February the Prussians began their attack and in the following weeks, heavy fighting took place in the forward positions in which the Danes were slowly forced back, by superior numbers. On the 17th of March, a Danish counterattack towards Rageboel forest was repulsed, and the Danish army was forced back to the redoubts themselves.

Now the siege of the Dybbol positions began. The Prussians had collected 126 guns and mortars, which now began the heaviest bombardment in history. For weeks thousands of shells rained down on the Danish positions, to which the Danish artillery was unable effectively to reply. Guns and fortifications were destroyed and men killed or wounded.

The wooden blockhouses, which had been constructed as cover for the soldiers, were easily penetrated by the 12 and 15 cm guns. In one instance, a shell penetrated a cover and exploded inside, killing or wounding 42 men. In the daytime, the soldiers stayed down in their positions, trying to get some rest, while at night they worked frantically to repair the damage done by the bombardment. But the Danish strength was dwindling day by day.

While the Prussians guns were thundering against the redoubts, the Prussian infantry were digging closer and closer to the Danish positions. An attack on the 5th of April was beaten back, but on the 18th of April 1864 the enemy was ready for a major assault. This day, which would go down in Danish history as "Dybbol Day" would be one of the bleakest days in Danish history. However it was also a day on which the courage and the will of the Danish soldiers to fight, despite the odds was dramatically displayed.

The final attack
At 4:00 am on April 18th the bombardment commenced, in a few hours nearly 8000 shells fell on the Danish redoubts, trenches and the area behind the redoubts. The bombardment continued for 6 hours, in which the fortifications were shot to rubble, a large number of the few working guns were destroyed, and the defenders suffered heavy casualties.

To defend the Dybbol position there were 5000 Danes in the redoubts, trenches and the area behind the redoubts. Another 6000 were in reserve behind the front line. 11.000 tired Danes against 37.000 well equipped Prussians. There were no doubt about the outcome of the battle.

At 10:00 am the artillery fire moved further back towards the bridgehead. The enemy outposts opened up a heavy rifle fire at the redoubts. The Prussian soldiers got up from there trenches, and to the sound of the York melody they charged towards the Danish positions. In a race with the Prussians, the Danish reserves behind the lines tried to reach the redoubts before the Prussians. Unfortunately the heavy fire, caused them to arrive to late to stop the German assaults on several places, and it was left to the few defenders to try and hold the positions.

Kort over kampen ved Dybbel
Map of the battle area

Redoubts No. I - III (22nd regiment)
Redoubt no. I was quickly surrounded by the Prussian troops in column 1 and forced to surrender. Redoubt no. III, defended by 19 men, was attacked by a column of 1000 men. Despite the overwhelming odds, the Danes refused to surrender. Smidth, their 23 year old commanding officer, was hit and badly wounded but not before he had shot down with his revolver the soldier who attempted to plant the Prussian flag. The Germans entered the redoubt but the fight continued in the interior, and in the powder magazine before the Danes finally surrendered. By that time half of the defenders were dead or wounded. The German losses were no less than 10 officers and 138 men.

Redoubt no. II received the Prussian column 2 with artillery fire, and forced them to the sides against the trenches. Here, they were met with a heavy fire from the Danes, and stopped or even forced back. But now column 1 and 3 attacked the trenches from the sides and rear. The first attack from the south on the redoubt were repulsed. Corporal Rasmus Nellemann broke the pole of a German standard, which had been planted at the breastwork, and threw the remains at the advancing Prussians soldiers.

The second attack came from the rear, and was stopped by shots from a gun which had been placed there to secure the rear. The third attack came from all sides. Once more, a standard was placed at the breastwork, but again Nellemann tore down the standard, but this time he was killed by several bullets. An attempt, by the commander Lieutenant Ancker, to blow up the powder magazine, failed.

The 22nd regiment had been almost completely destroyed. Only two officers and 160 men escaped to the bridgehead.

Redoubts No. IV-VI (2nd regiment)
The Prussian attack column 4 whose task was to take redoubt No. IV, was met with such a heavy fire from the redoubt and the area behind, that the column fell into disarray. A part of the column attacked the trenches to the left, and broke through the Danish lines. The redoubt was now attacked from the front and rear, and fell after some very hard fighting.

The artillerists in redoubt no. V managed to fire some shot into the advancing Prussian columns, which took heavy causalities.

A Prussian soldier participating in the attack on redoubt No. V wrote:

"Our task was to attack redoubt No. V. The Danish artillerists were ready and we were met by grapeshot. The heavy fire caused so many losses that our column became disordered, but there was no time to stop and sort out the ranks. "Forward, forward", the officers shouted, and while they swung their sabres over their heads, they ran forward to show us an example. It helped. We stormed onwards without hesitation, treading down the small sharp-pointed poles, like blades of grass and jumped harrows and other obstacles. Once again the enemy fired grapeshot at us. Then we were safe, the dead angle was reached, we stood by the edge of the trench of the redoubt.

"Pioneers, forward with the scaling ladders!". There was only one when there should have been ten. The carriers were most likely lying dead on the field. Over this single scaling ladder, which formed a bridge from the edge of the trench, over the palisades to the other side, we pushed on, as many as possible and jumped down on the escarpment of the redoubt.

Others jumped down into the trench, cut down the palisades and made an entrance to the escarpment . Others tried to avoid the redoubt through the trenches on the sides.

The Prussian attack on one of the Danish redoubts
The Prussian attack on one of the Danish redoubts

On the parapet, the enemy received us with fixed bayonets. Those in front had to turn back but others pushed on, so that the upper slope of the parapet was captured at last. There now followed a vicious and terrible melee, man against man. The bayonets rattled against each other, heavy thrusts and blows were dealt out. Adding to the din was cursing, shouting, the moaning of the wounded, the cracks of the rifles, and the exploding shells. It would have been unbearable if not each man had been in the greatest state of excitement.

To the left, the sergeant from the 12th company from the 64th regiment planted the black-white "assault" standard on the parapet. He is brutally cut down. Two or three others are also cut down. When a group of infantrymen had gathered around the Prussian standard they finally succeed in raising it, and pulling down the Dannebrog. The enemy cannot prevent it. His infantry were forced back everywhere, and were trying to get out through the passage in the rear. But the artillerists have not yet been defeated. They can’t take their guns with them, and they won’t leave them either nor will they surrender. They are defending with the sabre, until they lying bleeding and dying on the ground. The redoubt is finally at our hands."

Two Danish counterattacks against redoubt no. V, involving two or three platoons, succeeded in pushing the enemy back for a while, before they themselves, were forced to retreat after heavy fighting.

Redoubt no. VI. fired twelve shots against the advancing Prussian attack column No. 6. This did not stop it, however, and before the Danish infantry reached the redoubt, it had fallen. The artillerists kept on firing until the end, and because of this, they had not had the time to spike the guns which the enemy now turned against the trenches and redoubt No. VII. and No. VIII.

Redoubt no. VII
As soon as the shooting was heard, the companies of the 17th regiment moved forward, to take up their positions by redoubt no. VII and VIII. Although suffering heavy casualties on their way they arrived before the Prussians and open fire on them. The Prussians worked around redoubt No. VII and it soon fell. A counterattack by the 1st company broke down, and the regimental commander colonel Bernstoff was killed. The 7th company made another attempt to retake the redoubt, but was surrounded and, after a short bayonet skirmish, was forced to surrender.

Counterattack of the 8th Brigade.
The time was now 10:45, the redoubts I - VII had fallen and the Prussians continued their advance towards the rear area and the bridgehead, where the 8th Brigade was in reserve. At first, it wasn’t realised that it was a major attack and some vital minutes were lost.

At 10:30 the Brigade was finally ordered forward to retake the redoubts, and assist the 1st and 3rd Brigade.

The 8th Brigade makes it's famous counterattack. In the background, the Vemmingbund, from where the armoured ship, the Rolf Krake, supported the attack.
The 8th Brigade makes it's famous counterattack. In the background, the Vemmingbund, from where the armoured ship, the Rolf Krake, supported the attack.

The initial onslaught of the 8th brigades counterattack was so violent, that the Prussian companies were briefly forced back.

Wilhelm Dinesen, who was a company commander in the 8th Brigade, wrote:

"Dead and wounded Prussians and Danes covered the field. Some of my men picked up Prussian guns, which they thought were better than ours, but I ordered them to use their own. When we reached a fence, we made a stop, but soon we went forward again driving the enemy before us, until we reached the Dybbol Mill. Redsted with the 1st and 4th platoons to the Mill itself, I with the rest in line with him, close to the mill. Captain Knauer with the 2nd company, attacked the mill from the south. It was stormed with the bayonet and loud "hurrahs", despite the devastating rain of bullets. Knauer fell close to the mill, but his men joined Redsted’s and stormed the mill from all sides, shooting, trampling and cut down everyone who resisted, then followed the terrified enemies into the building.

Here, there was no room take aim or use the bayonet; You dropped your gun, drew your sabre and used fists. Redsted, standing outside the mil, raised himself on his arms to look through a window, a Prussian put a gun to his head and fired. Smoke and blood, the noise of weapons and screaming filled the air; But the Danes went forward. At that time the (Prussian) Canstein brigade threw 4 fresh battalions into the line of fire soon followed by the Raven brigade. The assault that hit the mill was overwhelming. Everything was destroyed. I know of only 2 men from the first company, corporal Blinkenberg and lance corporal Vestesen, who survived of those men that entered into the mill. And both were badly wounded.

...The enemy pressed forward. On our left flank they threatened our retreat which began slowly but soon accelarated. But still the enemy closed in on us. Some men from scattered platoons had joined me, but the group crumbled continuously because of the enemy fire. Until now I had carried a stick, now I dropped it and drew my sabre...

Dybboel Mill after the fighting
Dybboel Mill after the fighting

For a moment I kept lying where I was and counted my men, I had 33 men. Those Prussian who were facing us didn’t shoot and neither did we. They put down their caps and their guns on the ground, presumably as a sign of surrender, but we felt we couldn’t accept it. After a short rest, I ordered the men to crawl low so that they had cover. Thereafter I went somewhat back, and after ordering the men to fire, commanded them to follow me down the road.

Dead and wounded were lying on the road and the field. Some were lying quiet, other sitting looking around bewilderedly. Others dragged themselves to a fence or other hideout. The enemy reached the barracks at the same time as us. Here we stopped, and resisted for a last time.   

When we left the barracks it was a rout. I was only thinking of keeping my men together, to do this I held back some, and animated others. But their fighting power was exhausted and my prayers and threats only made them run a small distance, then they walked again. And the enemy fire from both rifles and the newly set-up batteries by Dybbol Mill killed one man after the other..... We followed the road that ran between the northern and southern bridgehead, but it was blocked by "chevaux de frise", which some men from the 18th regiment moved.

We went in behind the parapet and fell to the ground. At that time I had two NCO’s, eight men of my own men and three strangers.....With the garrison of the bridgeheads, we crossed the bridges, passed through Sønderborg, where it rained down shells, and met the remains of the 9th regiment in a field outside the town. After a while the remnants were gathered. The regiment looked terrible. The last three hours at Dybbol had been rough. The regimental commander was wounded and had been captured, one battalion commander and the six company commanders had fallen, the other two company commanders were badly wounded and captured. Half of the men remained on the field of Dybbol."

The end of the battle

Redoubt no. VIII, IX and X
While the counterattack was going on, redoubt no. VIII. was still being held by the 5th company of the 17th Regiment. Twenty-eight enemy guns were hammering away at it. Twice the Prussian infantry tried to storm it, but twice their attack were beaten back. However their third attempt at 11.30 met with success and they took the redoubt. By this time the Danish defenders was down to a few men.

Redoubt no. IX was attacked by nine enemy companies. It was defended by the 6th company and only after most the company was destroyed did the fighting stop. A Swedish volunteer, Lundgreen, refused to surrender his sabre to the enemy and was shot and killed.

Redoubt no. X was abandoned, when the order to retreat came, and all the guns were spiked.

Skanse I efter kampen. Skaderne efter det preussiske bombaredement ses tydeligt

Redoubt no. 1 after the fighting. The damage af the bombardment is clearly seen.

The counterattack of the 8th Brigade, had not been in vain, although it had been extremely bloody. The attack helped the remains of the 1st and 3rd Brigade in escaping to the bridgehead. The Prussians continued their advance towards the Danish positions at the bridgehead, but artillery fire from the field batteries, the gun positions at the other side of the sound and from the armoured ship, the" Rolf Krake" stopped them.

The remnants retreated in good order to the island of Als, and the pontoon bridges were disconnected. The fight was over and the last Danish soldier had withdrawn from Dybbol to Als. The causalities had been heavy. About 700 killed, 554 wounded, and 3.543 taken prisoners. In all 4834 men. More than half of the commanders who took part in the battles were lost; One general, one brigade commander, 5 regimental commanders, 8 battalion commanders and 37 company commanders were killed, wounded or captured. The Prussian losses were 1201 killed or wounded.

© 1997 Gert Laursen | Optimised for IE 7 | design by Advice|360