Although best known for his dispatches from the Crimea, William Howard Russell began his career during the closing stages of the First Schleswig War, when he covered the battle of Isted. In so doing he not only supplied one of the few English-language accounts of the conflict but also an eyewitness account of the battle.
Russell had joined the Schleswig-Holstein army soon after the commencement of the campaign of 1850, and he had become quite close to the members of its high command. He was thus in an excellent position to see the battle as it unfolded. However, before his account is considered a little background material is in order.
The year 1850 saw the Schleswig-Holstein army standing alone against the Danes, since their German allies, with the encouragement of several of the great powers, had thought better of continuing to support the insurrection. The duchy government was, however, determined to continue the war no matter the cost, and to this end it had obtained the services of the Prussian General Willisen and raised the army to some 30.000 men.
The campaign began when the insurgents advanced to just north-west of the town of Schleswig, where they erected fortifications and awaited the Danes. On the 23rd the latter decided to assault the Schleswig-Holstein position two days later, and with this in mind moved forward to a middle position on the 24th. This movement produced the actions which Russell witnessed.
Before we consider his account one final thing must be remembered. This is the battle as he saw it and should not be taken as necessarily accurate or complete. This is one mans view of a conflict which covered many square kilometers and involved over 60,000 men. It gives us therefore an idea of what the battle was like and an idea of what happened but only that. To understand the battle it is then necessary to consult a full history of the struggle
Report of the Battle on the 24th (which appeared in the Times on 30th July 1850)
"The first engagement between the Danes and the army of the Duchies since the commencement of hostilities took place this morning about two miles and a half in advance of General Willisen's main position. His center has been for some days at Idstedt; and expecting a movement forward on the part of the Danes he yesterday occupied a thickly wooded height called Popholz, stretching east of the high road to Flensburg, and something more than two miles from ldstedt, with a body of Chasseurs, but with no intention of holding it. It was known that the Danes intended to send forward part of their forces to reconnoiter the ground, if not to attack the main body of the Holstein army.
This morning at an early hour the infantry remaining in the town of Schleswig were sent to the front; the last battalion left the town between 8 and 9 o'clock. By that time it was reported that the Danes were advancing, and everybody was on the alert. The General and his staff were some half mile further forward than Idstedt, in the middle of the plain, to the right of the Chaussée. A large mound, one of the many tumuli that are scattered over this part of the country and are called the "Huns' graves" was the only elevation that commanded a good view of the wood directly in front, and upon and around the headquarters for the time was placed. The spot is a hard hour's ride from Schleswig.
I again made
use of the permission to follow headquarters, and arrived
at the mound about 10 o'clock. All was quiet, though every
moment the commencement of the firing was expected. The Danes
had sent forward two or three guns and a body of infantry
and riflemen through Siverstedt and Stendrup, and they were
advancing by the Chaussée to Popholz; the woody hill
that bounded the horizon to the north was the point to which
all the glasses were turned. The staff had been out since
7 in the morning and by 11 o'clock the day had grown oppressively
warm though a smart breeze from the east cooled the air a
Most of the officers were sitting or lying on the heath with which the mount is grown over; some score of dismounted dragoons and orderlies in attendance were walking their horses up and down the level field. The General was standing half-way up the mound conversing with the officers last arrived from the front, and those who had nothing to do had lit their cigars and prepared for another hour of inaction.
suggested a glass of wine from a supply at hand, and we were
just drawing the cork when the report of a cannon from the
end of the wood nearest the highest road brought us to our
feet. The head of the Danish column had shown itself and was
diverging from the road towards the wood; the balls from the
Holstein guns, of which them were but two, must have crossed
the Chaussée obliquely, but at the distance we could
not see the Chaussée itself, there being some rising
ground between us and it.
The Danes returned the fire from apparently an equal number of guns, and for about 20 minutes the cannonade was very sharp; no great harm was done, though the parties were within good shot range of each other; we could distinctly see the Danish cannonballs strike the ground and throw up clouds of dust as they bounded along the light sandy soil. In the meantime the Chasseurs in the wood had opened an irregular fire on the Danish skirmishers; but as the latter attacked from the other side of the wooded ridge and the Holsteiners were posted in the wood itself, we could see nothing but the smoke rising in white clouds at every shot from between the dark green beech trees.
The cannonade ceased, and the Chasseurs, according to their orders, withdrew from the woods towards us, firing as they retired, but not so rapidly. The guns were brought back to our left and posted so as to sweep the high road northwards; a squadron of cavalry that had been sent forward, but had not been engaged,. took up its position in front of us and to our right, but the Danes made no attempt to advance beyond the wood, and after an hour's silence the officers decided that nothing more could be done today.
Could the Danes have been drawn forward into the plain south of Popholz, and in front of the real main position of the Holsteiners, the action might have become general. But they advanced no further than the edge of the wood. The whole affair did not last more than half an hour. In that time, the Holsteiners army lost eight men, killed and wounded, as far as, is the hurry of the moment could be ascertained.
The prediction that all was over for the day was not verified. It was reported in Schleswig at 3 o'clock that the engagement had been resumed, and I rode out again to the mound or head-quarters at Idstedt, and in the way met but too many proofs that the fighting had been more severe than this morning in the carts conveying the wounded to the hospital prepared in the Schloss in Schleswig itself.
In order to ascertain what force the Danes had thrown into the wood of Popholz and the hills about Helligbek, a little village to the west of it, a Holstein battery and some infantry were ordered forward, the village was cannonaded, and in a short time the engagement became more serious than was intended, owing, it is said, to the impatience of the troops.
But the Danes held both positions against the attack, and the infantry were recalled. The second engagement was over about 6 o'clock. The battery, that commands the village or rather hamlet of Helligbek, was relieved, and I rode back with it on the road to Schleswig as far as the point where it turned off to join the brigade of the main body to which it belongs. The battery had fired almost 30 shots into the village and had sustained no loss, the infantry having ventured in and about the wood.
More to the west
the Danes have advanced along the river Treene towards Ballingstedt,
and in this direction, too, there has been a cannonade all
the afternoon that did not quite cease till 7 o'clock. From
the sound it was evident there were heavier guns in action,
and it is stated the Danes have some 18 or 24 pounders in
their batteries. Here, too, the outposts only have been engaged,
and the Danes have advanced no further than north of Ballingstedt.
The country in this direction is open and level, and as the Holsteiners are weak in cavalry they will probably not attempt any attack on the Danes there tomorrow. On every other part of the line the decisive battle is expected to commence at daybreak. The Danes have a superiority in force, it is calculated, of about 4,000. The Holsteiners are in good spirits, and the officers say they are cool and steady under fire. No one here appears to doubt that the Danes must be beaten, but any anticipation of military events is very hazardous.
The general result
of the operations of to-day is, that the Danish force has
advanced, and has been allowed to occupy a post in front,
whence an attempt was afterwards made to drive them that did
not succeed; and that they have also advanced considerably
on the left flank and with some hard fighting. On the other
hand, the Holsteiners have lost none of their chief positions,
all the skirmishing having been in advance of them."
Hovedkampen d. 25. juli
(trykt i the Times d. 31. juli 1850)
"The general engagement expected after the skirmish of the outposts. described in my last letter, took place this morning. it was long and obstinately fought. was attended by great loss on both sides, and terminated with the total defeat of the Holstein army under General Willisen, which is at this moment (3 o'clock pm.) retreating through the town in tolerably good order to take up a position between here and Rendsburg.
It was known that the Danes would
begin the attack at daybreak. or soon after: but they harassed
the posts to the right of the Holsteiners by an irregular
fire soon after midnight which kept the men under arms, and
in some degree fatigued them before the battle itself' commenced.
The morning was cloudy, at half past 2 [am.] it began to rain
violently, and continued to pour without intermission till
nearly 9; so far from the weather being so sultry, as for
the last 10 days, it was even cold, and all that had been
suffocating dust the day before was soon converted into mud.
At half-past 2 I rode out towards ldsted,. on the high road to Flensburg, where the center of the Holstein army was placed, holding a ridge of thickly-wooded hill and having in front a wide plain, stretching away almost in a level to the north as far as the village of Heligbeck, and west to Bollingstedt and the little river Treene on which the left wing of the army rested in the neighborhood of Gammelund. A quarter of a mile in advance of the ridge the Holstein batteries had been already placed, and awaited the attack of the Danes.
They pushed forward their guns, infantry, and chasseurs from
their position between Heligbeck and Bollingstedt in the direction
of the Chaussée; and after some skirmishing opened
a heavy fire from their field pieces just at 3 o'clock; the
Holsteiners replied from their batteries, and for nearly two
hours it was a battle of artillery alone, the balls sweeping
the plain to the right and left of the high road. The Danish
infantry, as it advanced in heavy columns, suffered severely
during this time, particularly from a well served battery
of 24-pounders, which, when they struck ploughed completely
through the ranks.
The infantry retired to form again, and the fire on both sides slackened on this point. By this time, 5 o'clock, the right of General Willisen's position at Unter Stolk and Wedelspang was attacked, but the Holstein chasseurs, who fought with the utmost determination throughout the day, held their ground in the woods and enclosed grounds against every attempt to dislodge them. They had not to contend with so heavy a cannonade, and the men are generally good marksmen: thus they at times even followed the Danes as they retired but were frequently obliged to fall back on their former position: if anything, they advanced during the action: later in the day it became apparent that the main attack of the Danes was not intended to be on that wing.
The roar of the heavier cannon, and the rush and hiss of the balls through the air, were the only sounds that fell on the ear; the irregular firing of the Riflemen and infantry was like the rattle of a toy compared to the clash of an enormous steam engine.
Another hour passed with little movement of the troops, but a continual cannonade. All that was visible, except the flash and smoke of the guns, were the batteries galloping across the field from point to point, appearing for a few minutes on a rise of the ground, or under the canopy of smoke when lifted or driven aside by the wind. In the meantime, the usual scene presented by the immediate rear of an army in action was becoming more and more deplorable; troops of men carrying or supporting a wounded comrade, scarcely able to drag himself along: others carrying the dead, and laying them down with singular care, as if they were only asleep, and might be awakened by too rough a motion.
The thought crossed the mind involuntarily that the attention had been better bestowed on the living of whom too many were in sore need of it. There was a deficiency of wagons to carry the wounded back to Schleswig and moreover, the peasants did not relish the task of driving so close up to the firing. It required something like threats from the soldiers to get the Boer, as they call him, who in any circumstances moves but slowly. under the present ones to move at all: but it was generally done at last, though for the scarcity of vehicles there was, unhappily, no remedy. The wounded horses, if the case is hopeless, are shot, and every now and then the report of a merciful musket putting an end to the agonies of some poor animal, is another of the many episodes of the conflict that a spectator has leisure to observe: but they are but episodes: the great rush of battle goes on, perfectly reckless of life or suffering in any form.
At 7 o'clock the effect of the firing began to appear all over the field: scattered huts and farm-houses that had been set on fire by the shells. and were burning unheeded. In a Holstein battery placed to the left of the Chaussée a powder wagon, struck by a shell, exploded and killed four horses and two men. I crossed a subaltern officer attached to this battery later in the day, while he was describing to some comrades his furchthar pech. or terrific bad luck, at this point. He said he had had three guns dismounted, his horse shot from under him, and a powder-wagon blown up, within a quarter of an hour. I thought his own escape might have been considered a piece of good luck to balance the opposite. The battle went on, still without apparent result the Danes had not advanced either on the right or left and it was becoming evident that the center was the point on which all their strength would be directed.
To the left of the Jagers of each army had been engaged on the open ground towards Bollingstedt and Heligbeck but their fire was hardly noticed amid the thunder of the cannonade on the center: but at 7 oclock straggling parties of Danish prisoners began to be brought to the rear, most of them wounded. In the latter case they were treated as well by their late opponents as any of their own comrades could have been. They were sent on to Schleswig as quickly as possible, and often side by side on the same bundle of straw with a German. In the midst of national hatred, displayed in its fiercest form, there was no trace of individual animosity to be discovered, nor did a word of insult or reproach pass between any of the hundreds of rival races thus brought into contest. it seemed as if they both submitted silently to some overwhelming destiny with which neither could contend.
The changes of the line of battle from
8 o'clock till between 10 and 11 were scarcely perceptible.
The Danes had again retired, and the conflict was continuing
on the right and left wing with the same result: the Holsteiners
were holding their ground. But the hours that had elapsed
since daybreak, and the exertions made in repelling the repeated
attacks, had told on the physical strength of the Holsteiners,
and it was beginning to be seen that they had to deal with
an enemy that would grant then no respite. Other signs of
disorder, and of that state of matters for which there is
no better name than "something wrong," also began
to appear, even to an unprofessional eye.
The number of officers had always been two small, and now whole companies had with them only a few sergeants or corporals, who have not the influence of their superiors: the Danish rifles had disposed of most of the latter Several of the infantry were mere recruits, young, and brought into fire for the first time. They wavered, and became unsteady. Large groups of soldiers of different regiments were seen gathering in the rear, with no one to rally them; others were straying away in the fields and woods or going further to the rear; the staff were too few in number, and, like the troops, had been too hard worked; most of them had ridden down three or four horses each, and still the officers at distant points were heard complaining of the want of orders.
The ammunition had begun to grow short, and although a supply was instantly sent up from Schleswig, the wagons got mixed up with the straw and forage carts that covered the high road, and were not extricated with sufficient celerity. The Danes had as yet gained no ground, but it was just as certain they were not beaten, and at midday, when they made their last and successful attack, it was seen why it had been impossible to beat them. They had a strong reserve, which, fresh and vigorous, was sent against the Holstein force, of which almost every available man had been for many hours engaged.
The advance was covered by a larger number
of guns than had yet been brought into action, and by a strong
body of cavalry. The firing was now for an hour heavier than
ever, and at last the Holstein center gave way and retreated
on Schleswig the right wing bent back and retired towards
the town; the left fell back through the open ground to the
west. By a quarter past 2 the army was m full retreat, but
not in disorder; nor were they molested in retiring by the
The members of the Holstein Government,
who were in Schleswig, fled immediately to Kiel, on hearing
that the battle was lost; all the officials also left the
town; the Post-office was shut, the doors locked, and all
business suspended. A train of carts, wagons, tumbrils, and
cannon passed slowly through the town from 3 till 5 o'clock;
the inhabitants brought out refreshments for the troops, which
they distributed as they went along.
Of the loss in killed and wounded no accurate
notion can be formed; about 400 Danes and Germans lie in the
Schloss of Gottorp, part of which is converted into a hospital.
But those who can bear transport are sent on to Kiel and Altona,
while those who fell in the last and most fierce attack have
not been brought in; in the range of woods to the right. and
the wild heaths to the left, there must also be hundreds who
have not been picked up, but who lay on the field probably
all last night.
To the west, beyond Gammelund. a Danish prisoner stated that a battalion of his corps. Chasseurs, got among the bog and morass of what is called the Moor, and were nearly all shot down by the Holsteiner Riflemen before they could extricate themselves.
The Holsteiners retreated by the Chaussée
along the south bank of the Schlei towards Eckernforde. Colonel
von der Tann covered the retreat and before quitting the town
threw up a barricade in the main street to impede the march
of tile Danes.
The action was fought on both sides with
great obstinacy, and the Holstein troops generally behaved
gallantly for so young an army. The Danish soldiers are on
the average much older men. The Holsteiners must have underestimated
the force of the Danes, for they cannot even now explain how
the enemy could have brought up fresh troops after three attacks.
The victory, that may be called the battle of Idstedt, is
decisive for the present of the fate of the duchies."