Known as the Labe to the Czechs and Łaba in Poland, the river rises at an altitude of about 1400m. Of the numerous small streams whose waters compose the infant river, the most important is the Bílé Labe, or White Elbe. After plunging down the 37 miles of the Labský vodopád, the latter stream unites with the steep torrential Malé Labe, and thereafter the united stream of the Elbe pursues a southerly course, emerging from the mountain glens at and continuing on to Pardubice, where it turns sharply to the west. At Kolín some 27 miles further on, it bends gradually towards the north-west.
A little above Brandýs nad Labem it picks up the Jizera and at Melnik it has its stream more than doubled in volume by the Vltava, a river which winds northwards through Bohemia. Some miles lower down, at Litomerice, the waters of the Elbe are tinted by the reddish Ohre. Thus augmented, and swollen into a stream 140m wide, the Elbe carves a path through the basaltic mass of the Ceské Stredohorí, churning its way through a deep, narrow rocky gorge. Shortly after crossing the Czech-German frontier, and passing through the sandstone defiles, the stream assumes a north-westerly direction, which on the whole it preserves right to the North Sea.
The river roles rolls through Dresden and finally, beyond Meissen, enters on its long journey across the North German plain passing along the former border of East Germany, touching Torgau, Wittenberg, Magdeburg, Wittenberge, and Hamburg on the way, and gathering into itself the waters of the Mulde and Saale from the west, and those of the Schwarze Elster, Havel and Elde from the east. Soon the Elbe reaches Hamburg, and then passes through Holstein until it becomes merged in the North Sea off Cuxhaven.
The Elbe has been navigable by commercial vessels since 1842, and provides important trade links as far inland as Prague. The river is linked by canals to the industrial areas of Germany and to Berlin. The Elbe-Lübeck Canal also links the Elbe to the Baltic Sea.
The Elbe has long been an important delineator of European georgraphy. The Romans knew the river as the Albis; however, they only attempted once to move the Eastern border of their Empire forward from the Rhine to the Elbe, and this attempt failed in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, after which they never seriously tried again. In the middle ages it formed the eastern limit of the Empire of Charlemagne. The rivers navigable sections were also essential to the success of the Hanseatic League and much trade was carried on its waters. In 1945 a section of the Elbe was made a section of the border between East and West Germany.