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Chapter 12: The Austrian war: Work in the hospitals

WE come now to the outbreak of the war with Austria, which arose directly out of the war with Denmark, and which, as we now look back upon it, seems to fall naturally into its place as part of Bismarck's politique de longue haleine for the unification of Germany.

The Royal personages of his time were to Bismarck only pawns in the great game on which he was ever engaged. It is impossible to read his life and other literary remains without being struck by the contempt which he entertained for at any rate the great majority of those belonging to the Royal caste, though the management of them sometimes tried all his powers. It is significant that at one moment Bismarck had practically made up his mind to espouse the cause of the Prince whom he habitually called "the Augustenburger" in the Elbe duchies, and it was only after a prolonged interview with the Prince himself that he changed his mind, finding him to be, from his point of view, quite impracticable.

As a rule, however, those Royal personages whom Bismarck looked upon as pawns were actually not only content but proud of the position; the capital exceptions were of course the Crown Prince and Princess, who steadily resented and fought - sometimes successfully - against Bismarck's efforts to relegate them to a position in which they would not count at all.

It is curious to observe how Bismarck always managed to turn to account even circumstances which seemed at first sight most prejudicial to his designs. Thus in June 1865 the Budget, which included the payment of the bill for the Danish War, was rejected by the Liberal Deputies in the Chamber, but it was this which enabled Bismarck to take the plunge and govern without the constitution.

This rejection of the Budget was followed by the Convention of Gastein in August, by which Austria was to have the temporary government of Holstein, and Prussia that of Schleswig. Such an arrangement contained no element of permanence, and was indeed an obvious step on the way towards annexation. To the hereditary claims of "the Augustenburger," which the Crown Prince had most loyally continued to support, it dealt a fatal blow, and it is particularly interesting to note that Bismarck implored the King to keep the negotiations which led up to the Convention absolutely secret from the Crown Prince. He frankly told his sovereign that if a hint should reach Queen Victoria, the suspicions of the Emperor Francis Joseph would be aroused, and the whole negotiations would fail, and he added, "Behind such failure there lies an inevitable war with Austria."

The secret was duly kept from the Crown Prince; he received the news of the Convention with amazement, and it served to increase - if that was possible - his detestation of Bismarck's policy.

The year 1866 therefore began with the gloomiest prospects from the point of view held by the Crown Prince and Princess. The Chambers were opened, but quickly prorogued, and Prussia openly prepared for war. Bismarck saw that the moment was most favourable, for Austria was in want of money, and was also beset with domestic difficulties in Hungary, while he himself had already practically arranged for the support of Italy. Austria was thus driven to demand the demobilisation of Prussia, and this was supported in the Federal Diet by Bavaria, Saxony, Hanover, Hesse-Cassel, and other States. Thereupon, on June 14, Prussia declared the Germanic Confederation dissolved, and war began on the 18th.

We have become so much accustomed to the conception of a united Germany that it seems now extraordinary that in this war Prussia, with the Northern States, should have been ranged against, not only Austria, but Hanover and Hesse-Cassel, with Saxony and Bavaria.

It thus fell out that the Crown Princess and her sister, Princess Alice, were on opposite sides - a singular penalty which Royal personages are liable to pay for the privileges of their rank. The circumstance naturally increased the maternal anxiety of Queen Victoria. There is no doubt that she believed that Austria would win, and when the result proved that she was wrong, her distrust of Bismarck was increased, not by his success, but by the use which he made of it.

Princess Alice's correspondence with her mother reveals how much she was affected by the prospect of this civil war, as she calls it. There are constant references to "poor Vicky and Fritz." On the eve of the outbreak she told her mother that her husband, Prince Louis of Hesse, intended to go to Berlin for a day just to see Fritz and explain how circumstances now forced him to draw his sword against the Prussians in the service of his own country.

We have already noted the extent to which the Crown Prince was excluded at this time from State policy, but as far as he possibly could, even up to the eleventh hour, he continued to oppose the idea of war. The moment, however, that the die was cast and war was declared, he became the simple soldier, intent only on his military duties and ardently desiring a victory for Prussia.

The Crown Princess's second daughter was born on April 12, and was christened Frederica Amelia Wilhelmina Victoria.

In May, the Prussian Army was divided into three Corps, of which the second was placed under the command of the Crown Prince, who was also appointed Military Governor of Silesia during the mobilisation.

Immediately after the christening of the little Princess, the Crown Prince joined his staff at Breslau. But he left under the most mournful auspices. Just before his departure the baby Prince Sigismund, whom Princess Alice had described as "that beautiful boy, the joy and pride of his parents," fell suddenly ill, and, what seemed particularly cruel and unnecessary, even the doctor in attendance on the sick child had to leave for the front.

There is a very sad reference to the illness of her little nephew in a letter written by Princess Alice on June 15: "The serious illness of poor little Sigismund in the midst of all these troubles is really dreadful for poor Vicky and Fritz, they are so fond of that merry little child."

Prince Sigismund's disease was at first difficult to diagnose. As a matter of fact it was meningitis, and very soon it became clear that there was no hope. On June 19 the child died, at the very moment when his father was addressing his troops at Niesse, and the Crown Princess found herself alone, without anyone near or dear to her to share her bitter grief in this, the second great loss of her life.

Queen Augusta journeyed to the front to tell her son of his bereavement. He, however, more fortunate than the Crown Princess, had much to absorb every moment of his time and thoughts. But after the war was over, in a speech made to the Municipality of Berlin, the Crown Prince alluded briefly to his loss. "It was a heavy trial to be separated from my wife and my dying boy. It was a sacrifice which I offered to my country."

In the Reminiscences of Diplomatic Life published by Lady Macdonell, widow of Sir Hugh Macdonell, a fact is revealed which shows how the mother's heart must have hungered for Prince Sigismund.

Lady Macdonell became on terms of considerable intimacy with the Crown Princess, who was evidently impressed by her sympathetic nature. One day, when they were going down a corridor in the New Palace, the Princess suddenly unlocked a door, and in the room to which the locked door gave access was preserved surely one of the strangest and most pathetic forms of consolation to which a bereaved mother ever had recourse. Lady Macdonell writes:

"I saw a cradle, and in it a baby boy, beautiful to look upon, but it was only the waxen image of the former occupant, the little Prince Wenceslau [a mistake for Sigismund], who had died when the Crown Prince went to the war of 1866. How pathetic it was to note the silver rattle and ball lying as though flung aside by the little hand, the toys which had amused his baby mind arranged all about the cradle, his little shoes waiting, always waiting - at the side."

When, five years later, Prince and Princess Charles of Roumania lost their only child, Princess Marie, at the age of three and a half, the Crown Prince wrote a letter of condolence to Prince Charles, who was Prince Sigismund's godfather, in which he said:

"May the grace of God give you strength to bear the hopeless grief, the weight of which we know from our own knowledge! In imagination I place myself in your attitude of mind, and realise that you must both be benumbed with sorrow at seeing your sweet child dead before you, knowing that you can never again see a light in her dear eyes, never again a smile on her face! Certainly it is hard to say: 'Thy will be done!' I put this text on the tomb of my son Sigismund, your godchild, because I know of no other consolation; and yet I cannot overcome that pain to-day, though many years have already gone by, and though God has given me a large family. Time does undoubtedly blunt the keenest edge of a parent's anguish, but it does not take away the weight of sorrow which goes with one for the rest of one's life. That my wife is united with me in these sympathetic thoughts you know."

The course of the war of 1866 is well known, and there is no need to trace it in detail. The operations of the Crown Prince with the Second, or Silesian, Army exercised a crucial influence on the whole campaign. Field-Marshal Count von Blumenthal, who, as Chief of the Staff, saw the whole of the operations, bears testimony to the brilliant strategic dispositions of the Crown Prince, which were particularly exhibited in the defeat of the Austrians at Nachod and the subsequent engagements. Von Blumenthal notes that the Crown Prince possessed, not only an extraordinary power of self-control and coolness, but also, what is not always found even in the greatest military leaders, an instinctive perception of how much he could leave to subordinates, while himself keeping a firm hand on the general course of action. The soldiers themselves adored him, for he always managed to find time to visit the wounded in the field hospitals, as well as to encourage by his inspiring utterances the troops in line.

The manner in which the Crown Prince effected a junction with Prince Frederick Charles and the First Army was most masterly; he came up exactly at the right moment and at the right place. Unfortunately, as generally happens, politics intervened, and the Crown Prince was prevented from following up the victories with as much energy as he desired - indeed, it seemed to him that there was a conspiracy to tie his hands and control his movements. He even dropped a hint in the sympathetic ear of von Blumenthal that if this treatment continued he would ask the King to relieve him of his command. Happily this was not necessary. The King himself assumed the supreme command on July 1, and two days later there came the crowning mercy of Königgrätz, or Sadowa, when the Austrians, under Benedek, were totally defeated. It was for his services at this great battle that the Crown Prince was decorated with the Order "Pour le Mérite."

Of Bismarck's exertions in this war, an English observer who was with the Prussian Army has left the following striking picture:

"Bismarck believes in himself and fully so. He believes he was called on to do a certain work, and that he is quite able to accomplish it. His poker of endurance is very great. He often sits up night after night working hard. During this campaign he has never slept more than three hours out of the twenty-four: this is less than the great Napoleon, who under similar circumstances took four hours' sleep. But constantly continued work has had an effect upon him: his face is seamed all over, he has dark lines under his eyes, and the eyes themselves are bloodshot. He looks like a man who is knocked up by overwork, and yet he is gay and jovial, pleasant and cheery. What surprised me most was his thorough openness in conversation. Without the least reserve he spoke of his intentions, of the future of Prussia and of Germany. For an hour and a half he thus went on. His resolve is indomitable, and he also feels certain of going through with the work before him. The King is of course a mere tool in his hands; but it shows his great skill and dexterity in turning such an instrument to serve his purpose. I do not think him Liberal in the sense that you or I are Liberal. There is no doubt but what he thinks best he will enforce, and that what he does is, he believes, for the good and glory of Prussia."

Further Prussian victories followed, and the negotiations for peace exhibited a curious rearrangement of the three personalities concerned.

Bismarck was strongly in favour of concluding peace very much on the terms offered by Austria, partly because he feared French intervention, and partly because he saw the imprudence of pressing home her defeat so deeply upon Austria as to leave her with a burning desire for revenge. He wanted to look forward, in the diplomacy of the future, to a friendly Austria. The King, however, could not bear to sacrifice, as it seemed to him, the result of the expenditure of so much blood and treasure, and he wished to follow up the Prussian victories, without having any very clear idea of what further gains could thereby be made.

In these circumstances it was the Crown Prince who came forward as the mediator between the King and his Minister; it was the Crown Prince who supported Bismarck against his father. What really clinched the matter with the King was Bismarck's threat to resign. At the critical Council of War there was a dramatic scene. The King turned to the Crown Prince and said, "You speak, in the name of the future;" and when he found that his son agreed with Bismarck he gave in, and consented, as he himself described it, to bite into the sour apple.

Nevertheless, the terms of peace were not at all bad for Prussia. Her great object, namely, the dissolution of the Germanic Confederation, was secured; she obtained a considerable accession of territory, including Schleswig and Holstein, Hanover, the Electorate of Hesse, and other territories, which covered more than 1300 square miles, with a population of over four millions. Moreover, in August, 1866, on the invitation of the King of Prussia, the Northern States of Germany concluded a treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive. Thus was established the North-German Confederation, which was joined by Saxony in the following October, and formed an important step on the way to a united German Empire. Altogether the Confederation consisted of twenty-two States, and the first meeting of the Deputies was held at Berlin on February 24, 1867.

It was suggested that the Crown Prince should become Governor-General of Hanover, thus newly annexed to Prussia. It was thought that this plan would to a great extent console Hanover for losing her status as a kingdom, especially as the Crown Princess was closely related to the dispossessed monarch, King George V. The Crown Prince, however, insisted on arrangements which would have made Hanover altogether too independent to be agreeable to Bismarck, and so the idea was not carried out.

On the close of the war of 1866, the Crown Prince and Princess proceeded to Haringsdorf, a little village on the shores of the Baltic, to which the Princess and her children had been sent on account of the cholera, which was then very prevalent in Potsdam.

While there the Princess still busied herself with plans for the care of the wounded in the war. She had already assigned a great part of the palace at Potsdam for the nursing of wounded officers, and a little later on she proceeded with her husband on a long visit to Silesia. There they greatly improved the organisation of the war hospital at Hirschberg. Everything was under their personal supervision, and, thanks to their energy and kindly encouragement, the work was undoubtedly much more efficiently done than it would otherwise have been.

The Crown Prince had ridden with his father over the stricken field of Königgrätz, doing what they could to succour the wounded and the dying. How deeply the horrors of war had been impressed on the Prince's mind is shown by the words he wrote in his diary on the night of the battle "He who causes war with a stroke of the pen knows not what he is calling up from Hades."

As for the Crown Princess, though she had been spared the sight of the worst horrors, she had nevertheless seen enough to enable her, with her eager, imaginative sympathy, to share in the fullest degree her husband's intense feeling. She never felt she could do enough to mitigate the sufferings of the soldiers, both on the battlefield and afterwards in the weary months of convalescence in hospital. This autumn she organised an enormous bazaar at the New Palace in aid of the wounded, to which contributions came from all over the world. The Crown Prince himself went round collecting money for the soldiers, and the whole enterprise brought in a large sum for the fund.

The years that followed up to the outbreak of the war with France were not very eventful.

At the beginning of 1867, the Crown Prince and Princess stayed a while at Dover, where they met Princess Alice and her husband, who went back with them to stay for a few weeks in Berlin. They afterwards went together to Paris, at the invitation of the Emperor and Empress of the French, in order to visit the great International Exhibition then being held there. The Crown Prince had served as president of the Prussian Committee for the Exhibition. Their stay in France gave great pleasure to the Crown Princess; the two sisters visited many philanthropic centres, and made an exhaustive survey of French art. It was on this visit to Paris that the Crown Princess first conceived the idea of the School of Design in Berlin which now bears her name, for she was greatly impressed by the imaginative fertility of the Parisian craftsmen, and by the perfection of their work.

The Crown Princess left Paris before her husband. Princess Alice wrote to her mother on June 9: "Dear Vicky is gone. She was so low the last days, and dislikes going to parties so much just now, that she was longing to get home. The King [of Prussia] wished them both to stop, but only Fritz remained. How sad these days will be for her, poor love! She was in such good looks; every one here is charmed with her."

The Crown Prince had induced his father to visit the Exhibition, and the King, who brought Bismarck with him, had a magnificent reception from the Imperial Court. The Crown Prince and Princess did not abate their interest in politics, and they certainly shared Bismarck's view at this time that an arrangement with France was in every way desirable in order to avert war and to consolidate the gains of 1866.

In the autumn a terrible scarcity, almost amounting to famine, in East Prussia afforded a fresh opportunity for the practical sympathy of the Crown Prince and Princess. Together they organised a relief fund and relief works by which the sufferings of the population were much mitigated.

It was on February 10, 1868, the anniversary of Queen Victoria's wedding, and of the Crown Princess's christening, that another son was born, who seemed sent to fill the terrible gap which the death of Prince Sigismund had made two years before. The child was christened on the King of Prussia's seventy-first birthday, at Berlin, receiving the names of Joachim Frederick Ernest Waldemar. The Princess's fourth son was a beautiful and clever child, and his death, which was to follow when he was only eleven years old, was perhaps the deepest grief that fell on his parents. It is significant that when the Emperor Frederick chose his last resting - place, he desired to lie by the side of this child.

In the spring of 1868 the Crown Prince paid a visit to Italy in return for the visit paid to Berlin by Prince Humbert the year before. The Crown Princess did not go with him, but she followed with deep interest and pleasure the accounts of his reception, which were remarkably enthusiastic, and also politically useful, for it prevented the accession to power of a Ministry hostile to Prussia.

In 1869 the Crown Princess received a long visit from Princess Alice at Potsdam, and the two sisters spent their mother's birthday, May 24, together. Princess Alice spoke in a letter to Queen Victoria of the delightful life "with dear Vicky, so quiet and pleasant, which reminds me in many things of our life in England in former happy days, and so much that we had Vicky has copied for her children. Yet we both always say to each other that no children were so happy, and so spoiled with all the enjoyments and comforts children can wish for, as we were." Again, on June 19, "Vicky was very low yesterday; she has been so for the last week, and she told me much of what an awful time she went through in 1866 when dear Siggie [Sigismund] died. The little chapel is very peaceful and cheerful and full of flowers. We go there en passant nearly daily, and it seems to give dear Vicky pleasure to go there."

The two sisters spent a happy time together at Cannes in the late autumn of 1869, while their respective husbands were abroad. The Crown Prince, with Prince Louis of Hesse, visited Vienna, Athens, Constantinople, and the Holy Land, and went on thence to Port Said for the opening of the Suez Canal. In Jerusalem the Crown Prince took formal possession in the name of his father of the ruined convent of St. John, ceded by the Sultan for the erection of a German Protestant Church. The two Princes joined their wives at Cannes shortly before Christmas.

On their way home the Crown Prince and Princess spent a week in Paris, staying at an hotel. The Crown Princess was surprised to see how changed the Emperor Napoleon was since they had seen him last. She thought him ailing and dejected. In the course of conversation, the Emperor mentioned that he had a new Minister, a certain M. Ollivier.

The Crown Prince and Princess returned to Berlin on the morning of the New Year, 1870. The next time the Crown Prince met Napoleon III was on the morning after the capitulation of Sedan.

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