Battle of Werbach, 24 July 1866

The battle of Werbach (24 July 1866) was one of two battles on the same day that saw the Prussians defeat an attempt by their German opponents to defend the line of the River Tauber (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 Prussian Army of the Main faced three opponents. The Hanoverian Army was isolated and forced to surrender on 29 June, leaving the Bavarian Army, then advancing north-west from Bamberg, and the 8th Federal Corps (Prince Alexander of Hesse), moving more slowly north-east from Frankfurt. The Allies intended to unite around Fulda, dangerously close to the Prussian position. This plan had to be abandoned when the Bavarians were defeated by the Prussians at Dermbach (4 July 1866) as they attempted to move west to Fulda. The two Allied armies were forced to retreat, with the Bavarians moving south and the 8th Corps moving south-west towards Frankfurt. On 10 July the Allies were forced further apart when the Prussians defeated the Bavarians at Hammelburg and Kissingen, forcing them to retreat towards Würzburg.

By this point the 8th Corps was back around Frankfurt. On 12 July Prince Alexander learnt that the Prussians were moving west to attack him, and began to prepare for a move south-east to join up with the Bavarians. His original plans were foiled by the rapidly advancing Prussians, who defeated his advance guard on 13 July at Laufach, then captured Aschaffenburg on the Main on 14 July. Luckily for Prince Alexander the Prussians then moved north-west down the Main to occupy Frankfurt.

This allowed the 8th Corps to escape towards the Bavarians. They moved south, then east, to get around a large bend in the Main. This brought them to the River Tauber, which flows north into the Main, and also allowed them to finally make contact with the Bavarians. Prince Alexander and Prince Charles of Bavaria then came up with a plan for a renewed offensive. However instead of uniting their forces and then advancing back along the Main, Prince Alexander insisted that the two armies used a more northerly route, across the Spessart Mountains. The Bavarians would have to move north-west from Würzburg, across another loop in the Main, to reach Lohr. The 8th Corps would move north-east, then north, and cross the Main south of Lohr. Neither Allied commander believed that the Prussians would leave Frankfurt and risk an attack on the much large united Allied army.

In order to cover the planned move north the Baden Division had took 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.

This was a seven mile long position. It was quite a strong defensive position, with the key to it a limited number of bridges over a river that ran through a steep sided valley. However the separate parts of the Federal Corps were too widely separated to support each other. As a result they ended up fighting two separate battles on 24 July. In the centre of the line the Württemberg Division lost Tauberbischofsheim, on the west bank of the river, just after 2pm, but then managed to hold onto a strong position on the east bank for the rest of the afternoon. The Prussians did get eventually get across the river, but the Federals were only forced to retreat when news reached them of a defeat at Werbach.

To the north the Federals had another potentially strong position at Werbach and Hochausen, two villages on opposite sides of the river. Hochausen was on the west bank, with Werbach a short distance to the north-east, on the east bank of the river. The railway passed to the west of Hochausen, running north-south along the valley. Here it ran through a deep cutting, and the bridge over this cutting had been destroyed. A footbridge suitable for infantry had been built across the river.

Werbach was defended by the Baden Division. They had two companies from the 2nd Regiment in Hochhausen. The 3rd Regiment was posted at Werbach, and the more sizable river bridge at that village was barricaded. There was a battery of 6-pounder guns and a squadron of Dragoons east of the village. Just to the south of Werbach was the valley of the Weizbach, which flowed west into the Tauber. The rest of the 2nd Baden Brigade was posted at Werbachhausen, about a mile up this valley. The 1st Brigade was further away from the river.

The first Prussian troops, from the Oldenburg-Hanseatic Brigade, arrived on the hills west of Hochhausen at about 1.30pm. General Weltzien moved his 6-pounder battery onto a hill south-west of Hochhausen. This triggered an artillery duel with a Federal battery posted at Impfingen, south of Werbach, but for once the Prussians had the best of this exchange. A second Prussian battery opened fire on Baden reinforcements advancing from Werbachhausen.

While the artillery duel was attracting attention, Weltzein formed his infantry up in some woods on the hills above the Tauber. He posted three battalions in the front line. On the right, facing Hochhausen, was the 1st Oldenburg Battalion. In the centre was the 2nd Oldenburg Battalion. On the left, facing Werbach, was the Bremer Battalion. The 3rd Oldenburg Battalion formed the reserve.

At 3pm the Prussian infantry attacked. They suffered some losses as they advanced down the open eastern slopes of the hills, but they quickly captured the railway line, and then the village of Hochhausen. The Federal troops abandoned their positions on the east bank of the Tauber to the north of Werbach, and instead formed a new line along the Welsbach, with Werbach now as an isolated bastion.

At about 4pm the Prussians attacked Werbach from three sides. The 2nd Oldenburg Battalion attacked across the river bridge. To the south the troops that had taken Hochhausen crossed the river and attacked the Baden left. Finally the Bremer Battalion waded across the Tauber downstream of Werbach, and attacked from the north. An extra battalion of Baden infantry were moved into the village as reinforcements, but all three Prussian attacks met with success at about the same time.

The Baden troops then retreated up the Welsbach Valley, staying under Prussian artillery fire for some time. They didn't rally until they had reached Unter-Altertheim, about two miles up the valley.

During the fighting the Federal troops lost 7 killed, 60 wounded and 16 missing, a total of 83 casualties. The Prussians suffered similar casualties. General Weltzien's Brigade lost 11 dead and 37 wounded, a total of 48 casualties. In addition the Fusilier Battalion of the 70th Regiment from General Beyer's Division, which also reached the battlefield, lost 1 dead and 22 wounded.

Further south the Prussians were also victorious at Tauberbischofsheim. These two defeats forced Prince Alexander to order a retreat towards Würzburg, and Prince Charles to abandon the Bavarian move up to the Main, and order a move back to Rossbrunn, west of Würzburg. On 25 July the two Allied armies would finally fight close, but still entirely separate battles, but once again the Prussians were victorious, winning the battle of Helmstadt against the Bavarians and Gerchsheim against the 8th Corps. 

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 Werbach, 24 July 1866 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_werbach.html

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