The Battle of Jicin, 1866
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.