Battle of Tauberbischofsheim, 24 July 1866

The battle of Tauberbischofsheim (24 July 1866) was a Prussian victory that prevented the Federal 8th Corps from defending the line of the River Tauber, and that ended any chance of a coordinated Federal and Bavarian counterattack against the Prussian Army of the Main (Austro-Prussian War of 1866).

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 faced three opponents in western Germany. In the north were the Hanoverians. In the south were the Bavarians, with their army around Bamberg. To the west was the Federal 8th Corps, made up of contingents from the smaller states of the German Confederation and an Austrian brigade. The Bavarians were commanded by Prince Charles of Bavaria and the 8th Corps by Prince Alexander of Hesse, with the two armies under the overall command of Prince Charles.

The Prussians allocated three divisions to this campaign, forming them into the Army of the Main, commanded by General Falckenstein. His orders were to eliminate the Hanoverians and then turn south to deal with the 8th Corps and the Bavarians. While Prince Charles and Prince Alexander tried to decide what to do the Prussians concentrated against the Hanoverians, and on 29 June they were forced to surrender.

By this point the Allies had decided to unite at Hersfeld, south of Cassel, following routes on either side of the Hohn Rhön Mountains. As a result their forces would be divided for most of the campaign, and would only finally come together once the war was almost over. News of the Hanoverian surrender made the march north unnecessary, but Prince Alexander insisted on continuing with it. He did agree to make for Fulda instead of Hersfeld, but even this plan relied on the Prussians moving very slowly. On 3 July it became clear that this was a dangerous assumption when the Bavarians found Prussian troops in Dermbach, at the northern end of the mountains. On 4 July the Prussians inflicted two separate defeats on the Bavarian (battle of Dermbach), and also occupied Fulda. The Allies had to abandon their plan, and began to retreat south. The Bavarians hoped to defend the line of the Saale, east of the mountains, but again underestimated the Prussians. On 10 July the Prussians emerged from the mountains and defeated the Bavarians at Hammelburg and Kissingen. In the aftermath of these defeats the Bavarians retreated east and south in some confusion, but they were saved from further defeats when Falckenstein was ordered to turn west to occupy Frankfurt and the area north of the Main.

Falckenstein chose to cross the Spessart, an area of low wooded mountains to the south of the Hohn Rhön and surrounded by the Main on three sides. As he advanced across the Spessart his advance guard defeated a Federal force at Laufach (13 July), and then captured Aschaffenburg on the Main (14 July).

This disrupted the plans of Prince Alexander. He had learnt that the Prussians were heading his way on 12 July and decided to abandon Frankfurt and head around the southern end of the Spessart to join up with the Bavarians somewhere near Würzburg. This was why there was a Federal force at Laufach. The Prussian victory at Aschaffenburg meant that he had to abandon the idea of a march along the line of the Main and instead move further west, across the countryside south of Frankfurt.

At the end of 14 July the 8th Corps was spread out to the south and east of Frankfurt. At this point it was only opposed by a single Prussian Division, but the Federal commanders didn’t know this. On 15 July 8th Corps began to move south across the Odenwald, and by the end of 16 July they were close to Miltenberg, where the Main turned north after flowing west past the southern side of the Spessart. After a rest day on 17 July they began to move east on 18 July and by 22 July they were in a new position on the River Tauber.

The Baden Division was in the north, with its right flank at Wertheim on the Main. The Württemberg Division was in the centre, around Werbach. The Austrian-Nassau Division was on the left, around Gerlachsheim. The Reserve Artillery was just to the east of Gerlachsheim, at Zimmern. The Cavalry Reserve was posted west of the river, spread out between Hundheim in the north and Hardheim in the south.

The two Allied corps were finally close enough together to act in unison, and they still outnumbered the Prussians. The Bavarians were at Würzburg. From there the Main flowed north-west towards the mountains, where it turned south to run around the Spessart. The river turned west just before reaching Wertheim, where the Tauber flowed into it from the south. Prince Alexander's corps was in the countryside west of the Tauber and south of the Main. The river then flowed west to Miltenberg, where it turned north-west to flow towards Aschaffenburg and then Frankfurt. Prince Charles wanted to advance back along the Main. This would have allowed the two corps to unite safely, and then operate as one. Prince Alexander didn’t want to retrace his steps and instead insisted on an advance across the Spessart. The Bavarians would move north-west from Würzburg and cross the area inside the loop of the Main to reach Lohr. The 8th Corps would move north-east around the corner of the Main, then north up the river and cross somewhere to the south of Lohr. As ever the Allied plan underestimated the Prussians.

On 16 July Falckenstein occupied Frankfurt, but soon afterwards he was replaced by Manteuffel. The new commander visited Frankfurt on 20 July, and then ordered his troops to turn south-east to chase the 8th Corps. His old division, now under General Flies, was in the lead, moving south-east along the left bank of the Main. By 22 July Flies had reached Laudenbach, just north of Miltenberg, where the Main turned north-west after flowing along the southern side of the Spessart. Beyer was on the same route, but was further north at Wallstadt. Goeben had been sent via Darmstadt, and by 22 July had reached König, to the west of Laudenbach. 

In order to cover the planned move north the Baden Division had taken up a position at Hundheim, west of the Tauber. On 23 July the Prussians threatened this position (combat of Hundheim, 23 July 1866), and the Baden Division retreated to Kulsheim, east of Hundheim, but still west of the Tauber. That night Prince Alexander moved his troops into a new position along the Tauber. The Baden Division formed the right flank, between Werbach and Werbachhausen. The Württemberg Division was in the centre, at Impfingen and Tauberbischofsheim. The Combined Austrian-Nassau Division was on the left, between Paimar and Grünsfeld.

In theory the position at Tauberbischofsheim was a strong one. There were bridges across the river, but the river crossings could have been covered by artillery on the hills to the east. The town was on the western side of the river, with the railway line running past it on the western side, running north-south along the river valley.

The town was defended by two battalions from the 2nd Württemberg Brigade. The 2nd Regiment was in the town itself. Seven companies of skirmishers were along the western end of the town, spread out from a churchyard in the north to the railway embankment to the south. One company was posted to defend the river bridge, with two more companies in reserve. Two guns were posted on the high road to Dittigheim, also on the western bank of the river. The rest of the 2nd Brigade (three infantry battalions, one cavalry squadron and six guns) were a few miles further down the river, at Impfingen. The 1st and 3rd Württemberg Brigades were posted on the far side of the heights east of the town, with two artillery batteries in a good position to support the fighting on the Tauber.

On the Prussian side General Goeben had Wrangel's and Weiltzien's Brigades at his disposal. Weiltzien was sent to attack Hochhausen and Werbach, leaving Wrangel to move against Tauberbischofsheim. Wrangel had already lost some of his troops to guard the division's right flank, but he took his remaining troops

At about 2pm the Prussian 3rd 4-pounder Battery opened fire from the Immberg, a hill to the north-west of the town. The 5th Company, 15th Regiment, followed by the 1st Battalion, 55th Regiment, then advanced towards the town while the rest of the brigade remained behind the Immberg. The Federal troops didn’t defend the town with any vigour, and after a brief skirmish retreated across the bridge to the east bank of the Tauber. The Württemberg infantry then took shelter in vineyards opposite the town.

The Federal artillery was now dominant, with eighteen guns against five Prussian guns. The Prussians withdrew their artillery, while the units that had captured the town took shelter within in. They were later joined by the skirmishers from the 15th Regiment. 

The behaviour of the Federal commanders during this campaign was often rather illogical. Having abandoned the town without much of a struggle, the Wurttemberg Division now launched a series of counterattacks in an attempt to recapture it. These saw elements of the 1st and 3rd Brigades drawn into the battle, but each attack was made in battalion strength only. The Prussian official history records a series of attacks that lasted from 2.30pm to 5pm, with an attack every 15 to 30 minutes. Each attack was made by a single battalion, supported by detachments of survivors from the previous attacks.

These attacks did force Lt Colonel Böcking, the commander within the town, to call for reinforcements, as his supplies of ammunition began to run short. The 55th Regiment, under Colonel Goltz, was sent forwards. His Fusilier Battalion moved up to the river, while his 2nd Battalion formed a reserve at the market place.

In an attempt to end the series of Federal attacks, Colonel Goltz decided to advance across the river. He led his 5th and 6th Companies across the bridge, followed by the 11th and 12th and with the rest of the Fusilier Battalion providing covering fire. This gave the Prussians a foothold in the houses on the east bank of the river, and a buffer against further attacks. More reinforcements crossed the river further to the south, wading or swimming across. They occupied the Lorenz Kapelle, on the lower slopes of the hills south-east of the bridge.

When news of the fighting reached Prince Alexander of Hesse, he moved to the front, and ordered up a series of reinforcements, starting with artillery and ending with the 4th (Austrian-Nassau) Division. At their peak the Federal artillery batteries contained 40 guns that could reach the battlefield.

At around 6pm Prince Alexander was forced to order a retreat after news arrived of the Prussian victory downstream at Werbach. The 4th Brigade was ordered to cover this movement, and their left wing began to threaten the isolated Prussians at the Lorenz Kapelle. Wrangel responded by moving up his last reinforcements, the 'Lippe' Battalion, but the crisis was soon over. The Federal infantry slowly withdrew from the area, covered by the artillery.

Although the Prussians were outnumbered throughout the battle, they suffered much lower casualties than the Federal troops. The Prussians lost 16 killed, 107 wounded and 3 missing, a total of 126 casualties. The Württemberg Division lost 45 dead, 533 wounded and 92 missing or prisoners.

In the aftermath of the defeats at Tauberbischofsheim and Werbach the 8th Corps began to retreat east towards Würzburg. At the same time the Bavarians had abandoned the move of Lohr and were heading south towards their allies. On 25 July both forces ran into the Prussians, and both were defeated, the Bavarians at Helmstadt and the 8th Corps at Gerchsheim. After these battles the 8th Corps was in full retreat, heading for the Main around Würzburg. The Bavarians stayed in the field, only to suffer another defeat at Rossbrun (26 July 1866). The war was now coming to its end. News arrived that an official truce was to come into effect on 2 August and a local ceasefire was put in place. On 1 August Manteuffel threatened to end the ceasefire if the Bavarians didn't surrender Würzburg, and on 2 August, just before the start of the Truce, the Prussians entered the city.

The Road to Königgrätz: Helmuth von Moltke and the Austro-Prussian War 1866, Quintin Barry . Looks at the events of the war that saw Prussia become the dominant power in northern Germany, a key step on the road to German unification. Focuses on the military campaigns, the role of von Moltke in the war, the Austrian reaction and the clashes between the Prussian military and political establishments. [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 November 2015), Battle of Tauberbischofsheim, 24 July 1866 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_tauberbischofsheim.html

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