Battle of Gitschin or Jicin, 29 June 1866

The battle of Gitschin (or Jicin), 29 June 1866, saw the western wing of the Prussian army invading Bohemia inflict a significant defeat on the retreating Austrian and Saxon troops who had been unable to stop them on the River Iser. This was the last clash between the western wings of the two armies before the Austrians concentrated their troops west of Königgratz on the Elbe, where the decisive battle of the war would be fought (Austro-Prussian War of 1866).

Battles of the Austro-Prussian War 1866: Bohemian Front
Battles of the
Austro-Prussian War 1866:
Bohemian Front

At the start of the war the Prussians had three armies, spread out along the Saxon and Bohemian borders. The two western armies were the Army of the Elbe, which had the task of invading Saxony, and the 1st Army (Prince Frederick Charles), which occupied the far eastern tip of Saxony. The two armies then crossed into Bohemia, and headed for a union on the River Iser.

The Austrians and their Saxon allies had a rather less clear plan. General Benedek, the overall Austrian commander, had originally planed to attack the isolated Prussian 2nd Army (Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm), but he was then talked into making his main effort against the two western Prussian armies. At the start of the campaign the Austrian army was split in two. Benedek and the main force were in the east of Bohemia, forming up around Josephstadt. I Corps (Clam Gallas) was further west, on the lower Iser, with the Saxon army under Crown Prince Albert of Saxony approaching from the west. I Corps was concentrated around Müchengrätz, on the south/ east side of the river (at this stage the Iser flows partly to the south-west and partly to the south, so at different points the Prussians reached the river from the west or the north).

The first clashes came on 26 June. The Army of the Elbe pushed back an Austrian outpost at Huhnerwasser, while the 1st Army defeated an Austrian brigade around Liebenau. The 1st Army then went on to occupy Turnau, on the Iser, gaining a crucial foothold across the river. At about this point Clam Gallas and Prince Albert received orders to hold the Iser at all cost, as Benedek was hoping to reach Gitschin, half way between the Iser and his concentration point. Turnau was to be held at all point. The Allied commanders decided to launch a counterattack towards Turnau, but they ran into Prussians advancing downstream, and were defeated in a night battle at Podol (26-27 June 1866).

At this point the Austrians and Saxons were in a rather vulnerable position. The Prussian 1st Army was in a position to cut off their lines of retreat east towards Gitschin, while Army of the Elbe was approaching from the west. Fortunately for them Prince Frederick Charles wasn't a fast moving commander. Instead of attacking on 27 June when the Allies were at their most vulnerable, he spent the day planning a full scale attack for 28 June. The Army of the Elbe was to attack from the west, pinning the Austrians in place around Müchengrätz. The 1st Army would then attack the Austrians from the north and east, trapping them against the Iser and hopefully destroying their entire force. Prince Albert, who had overall command of the Saxon and Austrian forces on the Iser, realised how much danger he was in after receiving news that the main army was still at Josephstadt. He decided to retreat east towards Gitschin.

The Austrian and Saxon retreat began early on the morning of 28 June. By the time the Prussian attack began, only a rearguard was left behind. Although the Prussians did inflict a serious defeat on this force (battle of Müchengratz, 28 June 1866), the bulk of the Austrian and Saxon army escaped. By the end of the day the Austrians had some troops in Gitschin, with the rest of the force spread out to the west and south. The Prussian Army of the Elbe was still at Müchengratz, and much of the 1st Army was near the Iser. Some troops from the 1st Army had been sent east towards Gitschin, led by Lt Gen Ludwin Karl von Tümpling's 5th Division.

On the morning of 29 June Clam Gallas was in command of the Austro-Saxon army, as the Crown Prince was briefly absent. He was still expecting to be reinforced, at least by III Corps, and so decided to make a stand on a line of hills west and north of Gitschin.

The Austrian left (Ringelsheim's brigade) was at Lochow, west of Gitschin, on the main road to Münchengrätz.

The Austrian centre, Abele's brigade and Poschacher's brigade, was posted on the heights of Prachow and Brada, north-west of the town. This was a strong defensive position, with very difficult ground facing towards the Prussians.

The Austrian right (Piret's brigade) was at Eisenstadtl (north/ north-east of Gitschin). Leiningen's brigade was in reserve behind Brada. The cavalry division and the reserve artillery was posted at Diletz, between Brada and Eisenstadtl.

The Saxon corps left Unter-Bautzen at 3am, and reached Podhrad, south-west of the town, at noon. Two brigades were then ordered to move to Diletz if the Prussians attacked.

Prince Frederick Charles issued orders for a general advance on 29 June, largely in response to increasingly urgent demands from Moltke for urgent action to lift the pressure on the Crown Prince.

The Prussian 1st Army's left, with Tümpling's 5th Division in the lead and Herwarth's 4th Division following, was to follow the road from Turnau to Rowensko (north-west of Gitschin). Tümpling was ordered to capture the town, and then advance beyond it. Typically for the Prussians during this campaign Alvensleben's Cavalry Division was to move at the rear of this column.

The 1st Army's centre was to move from Podol to Gitschin along the main Müngengrätz road, with Werder's 3rd Division in the lead and Fransecky's 7th Division behind.

The 1st Army's right (Manstein's 6th Division, Horn's 8th Division and Hann's Cavalry) was to move to Ober-Bautzen, further west of Gitschin.

The Army of the Elbe was to march to Unter Bautzen and Libau, also placing it west of Gitschin.

As a result of these orders the upcoming battle would be fought by only two of the available divisions (Tümpling and Werder), attacking on different lines.

The Prussians began to move at around noon, with Werder underway about then, and Tümpling leaving Rowensko at around 1.30pm.

Tümpling had the shorter distance to move, and his advanced guard was in contact with the Austrians between 3 and 3.30pm. Even though he was outnumbered Tümpling decided to attack. He used three battalions fro the 10th Brigade to hold the Austrians in place at Prachow and Brada, and sent the 9th Brigade to attack Diletz and Zames (to the north of Diletz), in the gap between the Austrian centre and right.

Tümpling decided to attack to the left of the Austrian position on the heights of Prachow and Brada. Three battalions from the 10th Brigade were ordered to attack towards the heights to pin the Austrians in place, while the 9th Brigade moved left to attack the villages of Zames and Diletz.

Both villages were captured by the Prussians, but the attacking troops were exposed to artillery fire from Podulsch, to their west. The Prussians attacked and captured most of the village, but couldn't entire push the Austrians out of it. An attack by Piret's brigade at Eisenstadtl was defeated at about this time.

The Prussian position was by no means secure. Diletz fell to them at about 6.30, but it was then retaken by three battalions from the Saxon 1st Brigade. Tümpling committed his last reserves to this battle, and by 7.30 Diletz had been retaken.

At this point Major Sternberg from the Austrian HQ Staff arrived with fresh orders. The Austro-Saxon force was to avoid any battle with superior forces, and was to move east to unite with the main army near Horiz and Miletin. At this point the Prussians were outnumbered by almost two-to-one by the troops engaged, and could have been outnumbered by three-to-one if their opponents had committed all of their forces. However Prince Albert, who had now returned to command, was well aware that this was just the advance guard of a much larger Prussian force, and that the troops around Lochow were under heavy pressure. He decided to order a retreat, abandoning the chance for at least a minor victory.

There had also been heavy fighting to the west, on the Münchengrätz road. Here Ringelsheim's brigade was attacked by the Prussian 3rd Division (Werder). The first fighting was west of the village of Lochow, and began at around 5.30pm. The Austrians riflemen held on until Prussian artillery came up to support the attack. The Prussians then launched a bayonet attack on the first Austrian position and cleared them out of some woods. The Austrians made a stand on the far side of a hollow, but this exposed them to rapid fire from the Prussians and they were forced back into Lochow.  However they still had a good position and so Werder decided to outflank them. A Prussian force was sent to attack Wostruschno, south of the road, and this position fell by 8.00. Ringelsheim had now received the order to retreat, and at 8.15, in order to create a gap between the two sides, he launched a counterattack against Lochow. This was repulsed with heavy losses, but it did achieve its purpose, and allowed the rest of his brigade to reach Gitschin safely.

At this stage the Saxon Life Brigade was ordered to defend the town. They took some time to arrive, and weren't in place until 11.30, having had to push a leading Prussian unit out of the town. By this point the main force had begun its retreat. Piret's brigade had retreated to a nearby Carthusian monastery, while the survivors from Poschacher's and Abele's brigades had reached the town. The Saxon division had retreated south-east from Diletz to Zebinberg.

The retreat became somewhat chaotic. Clam Gallas himself abandoned his corps when the Prussian reached the centre of Gitschin, and his corps dissolved into chaos as it fled east. The Saxon Corps did better, and made for Smirdar in reasonable shape.

Once again the Prussians suffered much lower casualties than their opponents in the battle. They lost 71 officers and 1,482 men, 329 killed and 1,212 wounded. The Austrians lost 184 officers and 4,704 men, the Saxons 26 officers and 566 men, for a total of well over 5,000 casualties. 3,300 of these were prisoners, leaving 1,700 killed, wounded or missing.

After the battle Prince Frederick Charles greeted the wounded General Tümpling with a rather stupid comment - 'It is fine when a Prussian general bleeds. It brings the army luck' - easier said when you aren't the wounded officer.

In the aftermath of the battle the battered remnants of the Austrian I Corps retreated east towards the main army. The defeat meant that Benedek had to abandon his plan to concentrate at Dubenetz, and on the following morning Benedek decided to retreat south towards Königgrätz instead. His morale was shattered by a series of defeats on both flanks, and on 1 July he informed Emperor Franz-Joseph that he would have to make peace. He was firmly told that this wasn't possible, and with his morale recovering decided to make a stand to the west of Königgrätz. The result was the decisive battle of the campaign, and a great Prussian victory.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 August 2015), Battle of Gitschin or Jicin, 29 June 1866 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_gitschin.html

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