Blood & Iron
Von der Tann’s War Plan

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2017

As relations between Austria and Prussia deteriorated in the spring of 1866, the smaller German states had to choose sides between the two German-speaking great powers. All four of the “middle states” – the kingdoms of Bavaria, Saxony, Hannover and Württemberg – aligned themselves with Austria. On paper this represented an enormous accession of military strength to the Austrian side of the argument; in the field, it would prove much less so.

Bavaria, the largest of the middle states, took on a very aggressive role in the weeks before open warfare broke out, pressuring the other South German states to line up alongside the Habsburgs. Bavarian diplomats offered bribes on the one hand, promising the Württembergers that they would acquire the Principality of Hohenzollern, a Prussian enclave almost entirely surrounded by Württemberg territory, at the conclusion of a successful war. And on the other they pointed out to the Grand Duke of Baden’s ministers that much of the duchy’s territory had been Austrian before the Napoleonic Wars and would be carved up between Austria, Württemberg and Bavaria should the grand duke choose the wrong side in the looming war.

By acting as Austria’s enforcers during pre-war diplomacy, Bavaria allowed Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and his ministers to claim that they had used no coercion. The German states lined up against Prussia because of the rightness of the Austrian position, despite the Austrians’ having signaled their willingness to throw out the German Confederation’s constitution. Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had picked the quarrel over territory seized from Denmark in 1864 by Austria and Prussia in the name of the Confederation; the Austrians answered that they would give it all to Prussia in exchange for acceptable compensation and happily leave the other Germans out of it altogether.

Bavaria’s willingness to act as Austria’s attack dog went beyond diplomatic efforts. The Bavarians also offered to march alongside the Austrians into the main theater of war in Bohemia.

The pre-war army of the German Confederation had been organized into ten very large corps: each would have four infantry divisions, each of two brigades (an Austrian or Prussian corps had a total of four brigades). Of these corps, Prussia was to provide three and Austria three. Of the other four, Bavaria provided one, the VII Corps. The VIII Corps came from other South German states, chiefly Baden, Württemburg and Hesse-Darmstadt. The IX would be made up of troops from Saxony, Nassau, Hesse-Kassel and some smaller states. And finally the X Corps would have the Royal Hannoverian Army and contingents from Oldenburg, Mecklenburg and the other North German states.

Bavaria mobilized about 70,000 men for war, with 42,000 of those intended for the field army. To coordinate strategy with the Austrians, the Bavarians dispatched their chief of staff, Ludwig Freiherr von der Tann, to first Vienna and then Olmütz, site of the Austrian North Army’s headquarters. Von der Tann laid out a very forward proposal: the Bavarians would march north into Bohemia and join the Saxons to form the left wing of the Austrian North Army. They would bring along the brigade from Nassau slated to join the IX Corps and, if they could be mobilized in time, the division from Hesse-Kassel.

At the time, the North Army’s commander, Ludwig von Bendek, did not intend to march forward into Bohemia. Olmütz provided a large, well-sited fortified camp that could shelter his entire army and set it astride the Prussian route to Vienna. Other strategists, von der Tann among them, believed that this plan threw away Austria’s greatest strategic advantage. The Prussians were clearly planning to move into Bohemia in two widely-separated wings, and North Army could move between them to seize an interior position and fall on each wing in turn.

Von der Tann’s plan would have brought another 40,000 to 60,000 troops to North Army, and allowed the two German oversized corps to protect Benedek’s flank while the bulk of North Army fell on the Prussians emerging into Bohemia at Trautenau and Nachod. Benedek rejected the offer, suggesting that the Bavarians instead operate in western Germany to support the Hannoverians.

Exactly why Benedek turned down von der Tann’s offer is not clear; the Austrians expected to win with the forces they had and perhaps he did not wish to share credit with a Bavarian. There’s also the ever-present financial issue; Austria struggled to meet its peacetime burdens and the war would explode the Austrian budget. If 45,000 Bavarians marched into Bohemia, they would expect the Austrians to feed them and provide their daily beer ration as provided in Bavarian law.

Arriving back in Munich after war had been declared, von der Tann relayed this disappointing news and the Bavarian staff made new arrangements. They would instead march north to join up with Hannover, while the Nassauers would join the VIII Corps along with the Hesse-Kassel division and an Austrian brigade scraped together from various fortress garrisons in western Germany

Once these plans were already in motion, Benedek received strong prodding from Emperor Franz Josef to follow a course more or less along the lines suggested by the Bavarian general: head for the northern border and interpose his army between those of the Prussians. The Austrians did so, and fought a series of actions along the border without the help of the Bavarians.

As an independent force, the VII and IX Federal Corps together would have had about 75,000 troops. They would not have been expected to defeat the Prussians outright, just occupy them while North Army dealt with the other half of the Prussian invasion. The most likely place for such a Bavarian stand would have been at Jicin, where the Austro-Saxons faced the Prussian First Army. Jicin occupied a vital crossroads and stood behind a semi-circular ring of hills. Austrian planners since the previous century had recommended the spot for a stand against potential Prussian invaders, with its naturally strong geography in front and good communications behind.

And that’s the essence of our Battles of 1866: Blood & Iron expansion book, which places von der Tann and the Royal Bavarian Army on the battlefield of Jicin in late June 1866. There are six new scenarios for Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles exploring the different ways that Bavarian intervention might have played out on the battlefield of Jicin. There are also 64 new silky-smooth, die-cut playing pieces: 24 of them huge double-sized ones representing infantry brigades (nine Bavarian, two Prussian) and 40 of them merely large.

While it’s an “alternative history” set, it’s one deeply rooted in historical probabilities; the battle as shown here is probably more likely to have occurred than that which actually happened. Once Austria made the decision for war, the time to pinch pfennigs should have been over. But that was never the Austrian way.

Click here to order Battles of 1866: Blood & Iron right 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.