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Battles of 1866: Blood & Iron
Bavaria at War, Part One

Stoked by Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, tension between Austria and Prussia over the future direction of the German Confederation moved irrevocably toward war in April 1866. In early April, Prussia and Italy signed a short-term offensive alliance against Austria, with Prussia to decide when war would begin, but would begin hostilities within the next three months. The new partners began to mobilize shortly afterwards.

Austria issued general mobilization orders on 27 April 1866, six days after calling up reservists for possible war against Italy alone. Austria would not fight by herself: while many of the tiny principalities among the Confederation’s 39 states sided with Prussia, all of the larger ones backed Austria. Chief among these was the Kingdom of Bavaria, a strong supporter of the Austrian cause during pre-war diplomacy.

Bavaria ordered general mobilization on 10 May; the Royal Army formed one oversized corps, style the VII Federal Corps in the German Confederation’s order of battle. Bavaria’s peacetime strength totaled sixteen infantry regiments, each of three battalions, as well as eight rifle battalions, a dozen cavalry regiments and supporting artillery, engineer, medical and service units. On paper, that numbered about 70,000 men for the field army, plus another 114,000 trained reservists who would form garrisons during wartime and fill replacement drafts for the field battalions.

The reality fell considerably short. Prussia declared the German Confederation dissolved on 14 June 1866 and invaded Hannover and Saxony two days later. Despite having declared mobilization over a month before operations began, the Bavarians could not even gather their nominal 70,000 regulars, many of whom had been furloughed to save money. As troops slowly filtered into Bavarian camps – each of the four infantry divisions, as well as the Cavalry Corps, maintained its own mobilization center – chief of staff Ludwig von der Tann ordered his units re-structured to reflect the reality.

Each infantry regiment would field two battalions rather than three, and in addition form a garrison battalion and, as more soldiers arrived, a depot battalion as well. Each infantry brigade would march to war with five battalions (four infantry, one rifle) rather than the seven foreseen in peacetime.

Problems went far deeper than numbers. Despite the growing tension within Germany, and Bavaria’s aggressive attitude, the Royal Army released the men due for furlough in April 1866 on schedule, about one-sixth of the total peacetime strength, and replaced them with raw recruits. Most Bavarian infantrymen only remained with the colors for 13 or 14 months of their supposed six-year term, leaving them only partially-trained when they returned to civilian life and when they resumed their place in the ranks. Others received no training at all, yet still were listed as reservists liable for recall.

Bavarian cavalry regiments usually kept their men for their full term or close to it, but financial shortfalls kept them from maintaining their full roster of horses. Colonels usually chose to retain their trained riders for the horses they did have. New recruits would take the formal oath and then be immediately sent home, yet these men still counted on the rolls of the supposedly-ready reserve as did men who had declined to be drafted and sent a substitute instead, an option still available to young Bavarian men of sufficient means in 1866.


Bavarian infantry pose during mobilization, June 1866. These men are true Bavarians: they have the unique Raupenhelm headgear, and every man clutches a pipe or cigar.

Bavarian infantry carried the M1858 Podewil rifled musket, a fairly standard muzzle-loading Minie rifle of the period developed at the Royal Army’s arsenal and exported to several other German states, including Saxony. The infantry fought in two ranks, in linear tactics little changed since the Napoleonic Wars. These actually availed them better against the breech-loading Prussian “needle gun” than Austria’s brutal Stosstaktik bayonet charges.

A Podewil carbine was issued to the rifle battalions, but the cavalry did not carry a long firearm. The cuirassiers retained their steel breastplates (Austrian cavalry had lost theirs in 1862, a move copied by several of the German states) and all of the cavalry carried the long Austrian-style pallasch as their weapon, relying on mounted shock with their sabers rather than dismounted fire action.

Bavarian artillery, like that of most armies of the period, was divided into light and heavy foot batteries and horse batteries. The heavy foot batteries had 12-pounder smoothbore howitzers, while the light batteries had C1864 Krupp-made steel breechloaders, the most modern artillery available in 1866. They lacked high-quality crews, however, thanks to the same cost-saving practice of releasing soldiers well before the expiration of their enlistment followed by the infantry and cavalry. Of the dozen horse-artillery batteries, half had received new C1864 guns when war broke out and half still had their outdated muzzle-loading smoothbores.

In command of the army would be 70-year-old Prince Karl, uncle of the young King Ludwig II and long-time peacetime army chief. Karl had led a brigade against Napoleon in the 1813 campaign, at the age of 18, but had shown no appreciable military talent then or in the decades that followed. His chief of staff, von der Tann, was a well-regarded professional soldier who had fought for Schleswig-Holstein against Denmark in 1850 and made an intense study of foreign armies, observing annual maneuvers in both Austria and Prussia, the French colonial war in Algeria and the 1864 Prussian campaign against Denmark. But Karl insisted on giving most of the army’s senior field commands to his old – with an emphasis on “old” – comrades from the 1813 and 1814 campaigns.

In early June von der Tann traveled to Vienna to present his plan for the Bavarian army to march directly eastwards into Bohemia and join the Austrian forces assembling there. That would, von der Tann argued, give the Allies many options, including marching into Saxony join with that kingdom’s well-regarded army and threaten an advance on Berlin. Von der Tann left unmentioned, but surely considered, that placing the Bavarian Army under the close operational control of the Austrians would also take Prince Karl out of the loop for strategic planning.

Von der Tann received a positive reception at the War Ministry, but when he went on to North Army headquarters to meet with Austrian commander Ludwig Benedek the “Lion of Solferino” turned him down, apparently concerned about the ability of his army’s logistical train to support an additional unexpected 40,000 to 60,000 troops. At the Bavarian general’s urging, Benedek agreed to send a high-ranking representative to Bavaria to continue discussions for possible joint operations.

Benedek may have also been prodded in that direction by Kaiser Franz Josef, who had encouraged King George of Hannover to align with Austria and the South German states against the Prussians and promised him support. After the war all of the Kaiser’s telegrams to Benedek were removed from the War Archive, so it’s impossible to say with certainty how the Emperor influenced his commander, but the idea does fit with other known instances of imperial interference in operational decisions. Von der Tann returned to Munich on the evening of 16 June, as Prussian troops were already crossing into German territory, making agreements for future planning moot. On the 18th the Bavarians informed the Austrians that they would not be marching into Bohemia but would follow their ally’s strategic direction.

King George’s hapless Hannoverian Army, meanwhile, had been fully mobilized for summer exercises when war began but had immediately abandoned its peacetime bases and left behind its stocks of food and ammunition. Urged by the Austrians to help Hannover, von der Tann now had to plan for a march directly north.

On 11 June the Bavarians began to concentrate along the Main River between Bamberg and Schweinfurt, peacetime garrisons of the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions. The division-sized Cavalry Corps did not arrive on the Main until the 19th; the 1st Infantry Division in Munich did not begin to move until the 17th; the 2nd Infantry Division from Augsburg arrived on the night of the 19th and 20th.

The Bavarians moved no faster once active operations began. Lacking solid intelligence on the Hannoverians’ status or position, the royal army tentatively sent one division and a cavalry brigade forward on the 22nd but quickly pulled them back as Prince Karl ordered von der Tann to keep the troops concentrated on Bavarian soil. The Bavarians would await the VIII Federal Corps, the contingents from southern and western Germany – Baden, Württemberg, Nassau and Hesse-Darmstadt – before making any forward moves.

Karl met with the VIII Corps’ commander, Prince Alexander of Hesse, on the 26th and on the 28th informed his own generals that he had assumed command of the “West German Federal Army,” the united forces of the southern and western German states. They would all concentrate in northern Bavaria and then advance through the Fulda Gap during the first week of July to assist the Hannoverians.

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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.