Battle of Rossbrun, 26 July 1866

The battle of Rossbrun (26 July 1866) was the final significant fighting during the German campaign of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and saw the Prussians inflict a defeat on the Bavarian army just to the west of Würzburg.

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

At the start of the war the Prussians had been faced with three opponents in western Germany - the Hanoverians in the north, the Bavarians in the south and the Federal 8th Corps in the west. The Prussian Army of the Main, under General Falckenstein, surrounded the Hanoverians and forced them to surrender on 29 June, before the other two German forces had even agreed a plan. When they did finally decide to move north it was thus too late. They also underestimated how quickly the Prussians would turn on them. Their first attempt to unite ended after the Bavarians were defeated at Dermbach (4 July 1866), and the two German corps were forced to retreat away from each other. The Prussians continued to press, and on 10 July defeated the Bavarians in separate battles at Hammelburg and Kissingen. The Bavarians were forced to retreat to Würzburg, while the 8th Corps returned to Frankfurt. Both forces were thus on the River Main, but were separated by at least 90 miles, and the Prussians were between them. The Prussians turned west after their defeat of the Bavarians. As they moved west they defeated the Federal troops at Laufach (13 July 1866) and Aschaffenburg (14 July 1866). By this point the 8th Corps was already preparing to abandon Frankfurt and move east to join the Bavarians. For once the 8th Corps was one step ahead of the Prussians. As the Federal troops moved south and then east to get around a big loop in the River Main, the Prussians moved north-west to occupy Frankfurt. As a result the 8th Corps was able to take up a new position on the River Tauber, south of the Main, and was finally in close contact with the Bavarians.

The 8th Corps was only given a couple of days to enjoy its new position. After taking Frankfurt, the Prussians, now commanded by General Manteuffel, advanced up the left bank of the Main. On 23 July they defeated the 8th Corps's outposts west of the Tauber at Hundheim, and on 24 July they fought two separate battles on the Tauber (at Werbach and Tauberbishofsheim). This forced the Bavarians to abandon a plan to move onto the offensive, and early on 25 July the Bavarians began to move south to unite with their Federal allies.

On the same day the Prussians advanced east from the Tauber. They were only expecting to find the 8th Corps this far south, and did indeed run into them at Gerchsheim (25 July 1866). The Federal troops were in a strong position, but they were outflanked and forced to retreat.

On 25 July the Bavarians fought around Helmstadt and along the routes north to Uettingen. At the start of 26 July they hadn't moved too far. Feder's Division, Hartmann's Division, the Reserve Infantry and part of the Reserve Artillery was at Rossbrunn, east of Uettingen. The rest of the army was spread out between Hettstadt, east of Rossbrunn, and Waldbrunn, south-east of Rossbrunn. The Federal 8th Corps was a little further to the south-east of Waldbrunn, around Kist, but at the start of the day it resumed its retreat towards Würzburg.

At the start of the day Prince Charles of Bavaria had still hoped to go onto the offensive now the two parts of his army were united, but news of the 8th Corps retreat forced him to abandon this plan. Instead he decided to occupy the plateau of Waldbüttelbrünn (the village of the same name is south-east of Hettstadt, north-east of Waldbrunn.

On the Prussian side Beyer's Division and Goeben's Divisions remained in the positions they had reached at the end of 25 July. Beyer formed the Prussian centre around Helmstadt, while Goeben was on the right, south-east around Gerchsheim, General Flies, whose division hadn’t been involving in the two battles of 25 July was on the left, and he was given the task of securing Uettingen. Further orders would follow once the Bavarian positions were clearer.

The Prussians already had some troops in Uettingen. General von Korth's Brigade had occupied the village late on 25 July. He had two battalions in the village, and posted a detachment on the Obere-Mühle, one of the hills around Rossbrunn.

Prince Charles ordered his men to advance west to occupy some key hills around Uettingen. To the north these were the Kirchber, due north of the village and the Hessnert, a little further to the north. To the east and south were the Leite (probably the hill that runs west from Rossbrunn) and the Brunschlag. General Hartmann was given the task of occupying the northern hills, General Feder the southern hills.

At about 3am General Flies ordered the rest of his division to move up to Uettingen to support Korth's isolated troops. Flies moved ahead of the main body of his troops. On the way he learnt of the Bavarian advance, and ordered two battalions to occupy the Kirchberg.

One battalion from the 11th Regiment and one from the 59th Regiment advanced towards the Kirchberg. They ran into the Bavarian 8th Rifle Battalion who had already reached the summit, but the Prussians were able to push the Bavarians off the hill. They retreated north to the Hessnert, but the Prussian continued to press them, and the Bavarians ended up retreated east across the Mühlbach, a minor stream that flows from north to south east of the Hessnert. This brought them back to General Hartmann's main body, which was arranged between Rossbrunn and Greusenheim, the next village to the north. The Prussians stopped at the eastern edge of the woods on the Hessnert and prepared for a further advance.

In the centre Uettingen came under artillery fire from a Bavarian gun battery located at the Rossbrunn post house. Feder's Division. Another Bavarian gun battery was pushed west into some woods on the Schlehrberg, a hill to the south-east of Uettingen. At about 5am the next Prussian troops to arrive, the 2nd Battalion of the 36th Regiment, reached the fields south of the village and came under fire from this gun battery. The Bavarians quickly withdrew from this exposed position, but they still held a line of hills west and south of Rossbrunn - the Leite west of Rossbrunn, the Vogelberg south of Rossbrunn and the Brunschlag, south of the Vogelberg and east of the Schlehrberg. A minor side valley ran south-east between the Schlehrberg and the hills still in Bavarian hands.

These Bavarian positions were attacked by Freyhold's Brigade. He sent the 2nd Battalion, 36th Regiment to attack the Brunschlag and the 3rd Battalion, 36th Regiment, to attack the Leite. On their right the Prussians had some success, getting onto the western slopes of the Brunschlag, but on the left the attacking troops were hit by artillery from the Vogelberg and drifted south, bunching up with the 2nd Battalion. 

General Freyhold was determined to take the Leite. He ordered the 1st Battalion of the 36th Regiment to attack the hill. This attack was led by Colonel von Thile, commander of the 36th Regiment and by General Freyhold. Both men had their horses shot out from unde them, before the attacking force managed to reach shelter in the low ground below the hill.

On the Prussian right the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, supported by the Magdeburg Fusiliers, finally reached the top of the Brunschlag. This forced the Bavarian guns to retreat from the Vogelberg, which was in Prussian hands by 7am.

This increasing Prussian pressure forced the Bavarians to withdraw from the Rossbrunn post house. As a result the Prussians were able to deploy their own guns north of Uettingen. General Flies then committed the three remaining battalions at his disposal into the fight. The Fusilier and 1st Battalions of the 59th Regiment and Fusilier Battalion of the 11th Regiment advanced east from Uettingen, crossed the Aalbach (the stream that ran along the Uettingen-Rossbrunn valley), and attacked the northern slopes of the Leite. These reinforcements finally forced the Bavarians to abandon the hill.

Further south the first troops from General Beyer's Division were beginning to arrive on the Prussian right, having marched to the sound of the guns. Beyer sent part of his force to attack Mädelhofen, south-east of Rossbrunn, while his main force advanced further to the left.

The Bavarians now began to retreat. Hartmann's Division moved east towards Hettstadt, east of Rossbrunn. The Reserve Infantry Brigade and a powerful force of artillery defended the hills between Rossbrunn and Greusenheim to the north.

At about 8am the Prussians attacked along most of their line. The Bavarians were forced to abandon Greusenheim, and these troops joined the retreat to Hettstadt. In the centre Rossbrunn was secured by mid-morning, along with the hills between Greusenheim and Rossbrunn. On the right a mixed force from Flies's and Beyer's Divisions attacked from the Brunschlag hill and Mädelhofen village. The Bavarians were forced back into the Himmelreich Wald, but this was then attacked from three sides and the Bavarians were forced to pull back east to Hettstadt. At this point the Prussian advance was stopped by the Bavarian artillery, which was deployed around Hettstadt.

This ended the main part of the battle. The last major action was a cavalry action that was fought on the Prussian left, in the area north of Greusenheim and Hettstadt. The Prussians had a Combined Cavalry Brigade on their left, made up of three squadrons of Dragoons, three of Hussars and a battery of horse artillery, under Colonel Krug von Nidda. They were later joined by two more squadrons of dragoons.

This force advanced to within a mile of Hettstadt. The Prussians then spotted two Bavarian gun batteries, supported by the bulk of the Bavarian cavalry. The Bavarian skirmishes found the Prussian force, and the artillery opened fire. This had little effect, and so the Bavarian 6th Chevauxlegers were sent to attack. The Prussians won this small cavalry clash, but advanced too close to the Bavarian guns and were forced to retreat. Both sides committed more men, until eventually the Bavarians sent in a fresh brigade of Cuirassiers. The Prussians were forced back towards their own guns, but the Bavarian attack was repulsed by short-range artillery fire.

This pattern of events was repeated once more, with the Prussians pushing the Bavarians back, coming under artillery fire and being forced to retreat. Yet more Bavarian cavalry then appeared, and this time Colonel Krug decided to withdraw back to the main body of Flies's Division.

The war was now coming to its end. The Prussians went into camp on the afternoon of 26 July. By the end of the day the Federal 8th Corps had retreated across the Main. The Bavarians concentrated around Waldbüttelbrunn in the early afternoon, but then also joined the retreat across the Main.

The battle of Rossbrunn was a costly fight by the standards of the German campaign. The Prussians lost 102 dead, 715 wounded and 40 missing, a total of 857 casualties. The Bavarians lost 39 officers and 821 men in the fighting at Rossbrunn.

On 27 July the fighting was limited to an artillery duel close to Würzburg. News then reached the Prussians that an official truce was to come into effect on 2 August, and a local ceasefire was agreed. Manteuffel was then told that he had freedom of action until 2 August, and to try and occupy as much ground as possible. On 1 August he threatened to end the ceasefire unless Würzburg was surrendered, and on 2 August the Prussians marched unopposed into the city.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (8 December 2015), Battle of Rossbrun, 26 July 1866 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_rossbrun.html

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