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Stumbling to War:
The Battle of Jicin, 1866

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2016

In most popular histories, if it's mentioned at all, there's only one battle noted for the 1866 Austro-Prussian War: the huge clash at Königgrätz in early July. But before the Austrian, Saxon and Prussian armies could determine Germany's future, they had to maneuver onto the training ground where that battle was fought. And those clashes are the subject of our Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles game.


Battle is joined west of Jicin.

Although it was Austria that made the formal moves toward war, Prussia was the aggressor and it was the Prussian army that invaded Saxony and Austrian-ruled Bohemia in June 1866. King Wilhelm I held the titular command, but it was his chief of staff, Helmuth von Moltke, who actually determined strategy. Moltke sent two separate wings into Austrian territory, with the First Army led by Prince Friedrich Carl on the Prussian left and the Second Army of Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm on the right. The much smaller Elbe Army joined up with First Army after an uncontested occupation of Saxony.

The bulk of Austrian Feldzeugmeister Ludwig von Benedek's North Army had concentrated at Olmütz in southern Moravia: an overly conservative deployment, particularly given the long mobilization period that preceded the war, but at least he enjoyed good rail communication with the rest of the empire and could cover Vienna. One corps and one light cavalry division were stationed forward near Prague, with the other six corps and four cavalry divisions with the main army. When the Prussians showed their hand, Benedek moved his main force between the two Prussian armies.

For a brief period, the Austrians held a decided strategic advantage. Benedek had the opportunity to fall on either of the Prussian armies with his whole force, but fumbled his chance. As separate Austrian and Prussian corps fought several engagements at the mouths of the passes leading from Prussian Silesia into Bohemia in the last week of June, his intelligence chief urged him to strike. But his chief of staff counseled caution, and a constant stream of telegrams from Kaiser Franz Josef in Vienna apparently fogged his thinking. Unable to choose, Benedek sat in place.

The Austrian forces left in Bohemia joined up with the Saxon Army as planned, and fell back toward Benedek's position. The I Corps fought several sharp delaying actions, suffering heavy casualties in a bayonet attack at Hühnerwasser. First Light Cavalry Division evened the score by shooting up a Prussian brigade at Podol, and the combined Allied force executed a well-conducted delaying action at Münchengrätz on 28 June.

Though the combined Austrian forces greatly outnumbered the Saxon contingent, Benedek entrusted command to Saxony's Crown Prince Albert. This allowed him to avoid placing the incompetent Eduard Clam-Gallas of I Corps in command on the field. Albert performed well fighting for his former enemies during the Franco-Prussian War, and he handled the retreat at Münchengrätz deftly. He would be less impressive at Jicin.

Clam, in contrast, had a troubling tendency to retreat to the bottle when under stress. He had been drunk at least twice during battles of the 1859 war against France, and was widely known as the Army Drum, "because he was always being beaten." But he stood second only to Benedek on the Austrian Army's seniority list — a near-sacred document among the Imperial-Royal officer corps — and as the corps' peacetime commander he could not be easily removed. His ad latus general — an attached officer intended to serve as second-in-command or to lead a wing of the corps in combat — was the very aggressive Leopold Gondrecourt, enjoying nearly untouchable political standing as the former tutor to Crown Prince Rudolf.


The Army Drum in happier times, as a brigadier in Italy, 1848.

 

Clam's I Corps was the largest of the Austrian formations to take part in the 1866 war, with its standard structure reinforced by a fifth brigade when the pre-war garrison of Holstein arrived in Bohemia. It included Ferdinand Poschacher von Poschach's battle-tested "Iron Brigade." It also had North Army's least reliable regiment, the 38th "Haugwitz" Infantry Regiment from Venice. A standard Austrian corps with its four infantry brigades, cavalry regiment and brigade-sized artillery detachment was difficult for the best generals and staffs to control. With an extra brigade added, Clam and his staff — most of them drawn from his peacetime headquarters in Prague — were well out of their depth. With 41,000 men, 4,700 horses and 80 guns the corps was the size of some other nations' field armies.

The other major Austrian formation in Bohemia, 1st Light Cavalry Division, stood in sharp contrast and was probably the best large Austrian unit at the start of the war. Led by Austria's best-known cavalryman, Leopold von Edelsheim-Gyulai, the division's regiments had practiced scouting, screening and dismounted combat — missions unknown to most European cavalry units. Edelsheim had won the Military Order of Maria Theresa at Solferino in 1859, leading his regiment on a mad charge into a gap in the French lines and personally lopping off the arm of French Marshal Francois Canrobert.

While he had made his reputation as a fighting soldier, Edelsheim was one of the more forward-looking Austrian generals (and at 40, the youngest commanding a major formation) and had eagerly studied cavalry operations in the American Civil War. Frustrated by the army's immense bureaucracy, he had dipped into his massive personal fortune to buy Werndl repeating rifles for his men. The Cavalry School and its chief, the Prince of Thurn und Taxis (wartime commander of the 2nd Light Cavalry Division) still preached mounted combat as the cavalry's reason for existence. Edelsheim saw the cavalryman using his mobility to frustrate enemy movements and gather intelligence. An oversized division, 1st Light Cavalry had three brigades with 6,700 horsemen, plus 24 guns.

At Münchengrätz, Albert divided his forces, accepting his chief of staff's adamant suggestion to split the retreating army to avoid clogging the roads. The Saxons therefore headed southwards before turning to re-join the Austrians at Jicin. Albert rode to Jicin alone at dawn on 29 June to find word from Benedek that the North Army would arrive there on the 30th. Here the Austrian staff system showed its worst flaws. Benedek had spent the years prior to the war commanding Austrian forces in Italy, assisted by a brilliant chief of staff, Franz John. John (who would be raised to the service nobility for his actions in the 1866 war) had always translated Benedek's vague intentions into stark, blunt directives. But John had been retained in Italy to prop up the bumbling Archduke Albrecht. North Army's chief of staff, Alfred Ritter von Henikstein, sent out missives almost directly taken from his boss' mutterings. Clam and the crown prince had to translate for themselves, and decided that Benedek had ordered them to hold Jicin and that a firm decision had been reached to concentrate North Army there. It was a reasonable guess: Jicin stood roughly halfway between the two Prussian armies and had in fact been chosen by Moltke as the point where he would concentrate his own forces.

Gondrecourt, tasked with arranging the defense, had five brigades to hold a very strong position instead of the 13 that should have been available. Edelsheim's scouts reported Prussians advancing on the town from two directions, with what was thought to be the larger force coming from the north. Gondrecourt placed two I Corps brigades on the left, in good hilltop positions. Along the ridgelines running west to north he put another brigade, with one more in reserve. On the hills across the road coming from the north he set up 56 guns from I Corps and 1st Light Cavalry Division, creating a deadly killing ground. The fifth Austrian infantry brigade went to the right of the gun line, with the Austrian cavalry directly behind the batteries in support.

It was a very strong position, but the gun line desperately needed infantry support that I Corps could not provide. Gondrecourt begged the crown prince to move up one of his divisions, but instead Albert allowed it to bivouac after marching for seven hours. With the Saxons camped well to the south, Clam sent word to the nearest Austrian unit, Archduke Ernst's III Corps. Both Ernst's corps and Karl Maria Coudenhove's 3rd Heavy Cavalry Division were within easy reach of Jicin, but the archduke refused to allow either to move.

On the Prussian side, Friedrich Carl was finding army command much more difficult in wartime than on maneuvers. The prince had commanded Prussian forces in the 1864 war with Denmark. But as the Austrians and Saxons pulled out of Münchengrätz, the vaunted Prussian staff tried to jam the entire army through the small town — almost 100,000 men concentrated in less than a square mile. Massive traffic jams ensued and the prince was forced to extricate his divisions one at a time. Worse, though the prince had been assigned a cavalry division, they proved inept at scouting and screening and his chief of staff, Konstans Bernard von Voights-Rhetz placed them at the tail end of First Army's march order so that his infantry would not soil their uniforms plodding through piles of horseshit. The Prussians would stumble forward prettily, but blindly.

While the Prussian supply system broke down, Edelsheim's cavalry torched food supplies, slaughtered livestock and poisoned wells in First Army's path. Hungry and thirsty, the Prussians also suffered from poor staff work. Before the war began, Moltke removed the headquarters of First Army's III and IV Corps to provide staff assets for the two new army headquarters. That left the prince and Voigts-Rhetz struggling to coordinate individual divisions and a large array of support units - formations usually handled by the missing corps commands.

As First Army dealt with its staff crisis, Moltke began to send panicked telegrams urging him to move quickly westward to prevent the massive attack on Second Army the Prussian commander believed imminent. During pre-war planning exercises the Prussians had intended to execute complex maneuvers, using telegraph wires strung along behind their advancing forces to coordinate their movements. Now the messages came in only intermittently as Edelsheim's cavalrymen cut the wires and encouraged Bohemian peasants to steal them. Later in the war, the Austrian horsemen would realize that the Prussians used no codes and they could tap the lines and send their own contradictory orders.

Not until noon on the 29th did the prince manage to get two divisions moving towards Gitschin - Moltke's urgency led him to believe that he could not wait to untangle all of his forces. A few hours later he got a third one on the way. To speed their move he sent them all of them along different roads, and remained in Münchengrätz with his headquarters to sort out his troops and barrage Moltke with telegrams demanding more supply convoys.

From the north, Lt. Gen. Ludwig Karl von Tümpling's Brandenburger 5th Infantry Division came down the road from Kniznitz and made the first contact with the Austrians. Rather than wait for the other divisions, Tümpling reasoned it more likely that the Austrians would be reinforced first and lined up his batteries for a preparatory barrage. After 90 minutes of shelling, in which the Austrian batteries did greater damage than the attackers, the Prussians came forward for an infantry assault.

At the first sound of the guns, Albert rushed south to get his infantry moving while Clam nervously fretted that perhaps the Austrians should retreat. The Prussians drove back two of the Iron Brigade's battalions, but Poschacher's personal intervention saved the brigade. A Salzburger, Poschacher had risen through the army's elite 10th Feldjäger Battalion and now fell back on his light infantry experience. He ordered his jäger battalion to hold his front alone, while his remaining six battalions stood behind them, loading rifles as quickly as possible and passing them forward to the gray-coated marksmen. The Prussians ran into a wall of fire, and Tümpling's 9th Brigade collapsed. The general then personally led his 10th Brigade in a flanking attack that fell apart when Vincenz Abele's Austrian brigade struck it in its own flank in turn.


Prussians penetrate into Diletz, but where are the Saxons?

Things were going the Austrians' way, but Tümpling was not ready to quit just yet. Rallying his 9th Brigade, he now launched it at the break between the Austrian gun line and Ludwig Piret's Austrian brigade, the sector assigned to the Saxons. Piret tried to stop them, but the needle gun mowed down troops of the Venetian 45th "Sigismund" Infantry Regiment and the counter-attack crumbled. The Prussians swiftly entered the town of Diletz, flanking the gun line and imperiling the entire position.

As the Prussians moved into the town from the north, the Saxons finally arrived from the south and the Venetians resumed their attack, delivering devastating fire into the Saxon flank (the Saxons, like the Prussians, wore spiked pickelhaube helmets). Piret then gathered his brigade and launched a full-scale bayonet attack, only to see his assault columns shot to pieces by the needle gun. Routed, his troops fled in disorder. The Prussians had successfully broken the Austrian position, and repeated attacks by 1st Light Cavalry Division could not restore the situation.

About the time Tümpling's first attacks were being turned back, Lt. Gen August Leopold Graf von Werder's Pomeranian 3rd Infantry Division came up the west road from Sobotka. In the late afternoon they ran into Maj. Gen Josef Ringelsheim's Austrian brigade, waiting on the hills around Unter-Lochow. Repeated Prussian attacks fell apart; the much better-served Austrian guns dominated the battlefield. When the Prussians tried to close, they found that the Austrian muzzle-loading Lorenz rifles might be much slower to load than their own needle guns, but they had a much greater range.

Ringelsheim's men repelled three attacks with little difficulty, as an Austrian cavalry regiment on the far left flank frustrated Prussian efforts to work their way around the position and Vincenz Abele's brigade made a key counter-attack. But while Abele's attention was turned to Tümpling's advance, the Prussians stormed past without interference from Abele's troops and soon Ringelsheim had to pull back. Massive casualties ensued as the Austrians launched their own attacks to break contact.

By 1930 hours, the Austrian situation was dangerous but not yet out of hand. The cavalry division was still intact; Leiningen's Austrian brigade and three of the four Saxon brigades had seen no action. Fresh Austro-Saxon troops outnumbered the Prussian total, and the Prussians had been hurt badly themselves. The Prussian 4th Division was just beginning to appear to the northwest, but had not yet reached the Austrian lines.


The streets of Jicin. Leiningen's brigade holds off Pomeranians of the Prussian 3rd Division.

 

At that moment, a courier arrived from Benedek's headquarters with written orders telling Albert to join the North Army. Headquarters had a telegraph connection to Jicin, but chief of staff Alfred Ritter von Henikstein had chosen to send the orders on horseback more than seven hours previously. While Clam stood by, Gondrecourt and the crown prince fell into a shouting match, with the Saxon insisting that the orders had to be obeyed and the Austrian equally insistent that they did not reflect the current situation. And in any case, he shouted, flipping the order over to show its blank reverse, Henikstein had not bothered to include a location to which the combined force should march.

Albert would "brook no argument" from Gondrecourt or any of the Austrian staff officers who supported his case, one of them wrote later. The army would disengage from the Prussians and head to the east along separate roads. The shattered remnants ended up at the Königgrätz army maneuver area, well-known to the Austrian officers from peacetime exercises, and there they and the Saxons sorted out their intermingled commands.

A chance for a major Austrian victory, Jicin instead resulted in a stunning defeat as the outnumbered Prussians knocked the Austrians out of one of the strongest natural defensive positions in Bohemia. Benedek reacted by firing both Henikstein and Clam, while praising Albert — the crown prince had total job security, and any statement implying incompetence could only weaken the alliance.

Think you can do better? Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles is available NOW, with 14 scenarios: five of them covering the Battle of Jicin and several alternate possibilities. Click here and order it now!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.