Battle of Gerchsheim, 25 July 1866

The battle of Gerchsheim (25 July 1866) saw the Prussians defeat the retreated Federal 8th Corps as it attempted to retreat from the line of the River Tauber towards the Main near Würzburg. On the same day the Prussians also defeated the Bavarians at nearby Helmstadt, the nearest the Bavarians and 8th Corps came to fighting as a united forced during the entire campaign (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 Bavarians (Prince Charles of Bavaria) and the 8th Corps (Prince Alexander of Hesse) had been faced with two tasks - unite their corps, which began the war at Bamberg and Frankfurt respectively, and rescue their Hanoverian allies, who were the first target of the Prussian Army of the Main. They failed in both of these aims. The Hanoverians were forced to surrender on 29 June, before either of their Allies had made any real progress north. Their first attempt to unite, at Fulda to the north-west of the Hohn Rhön Mountains ended after the Bavarian were defeated at Dermbach, at the northern end of the mountains, on 4 July. A Bavarian attempt to defend the line of the Saale River, east of the mountains, ended after the Prussians moved quicker than expected and along a different route, and won victories at Hammelburg and Kissingen (both 10 July). The Prussians then turned west to occupy Frankfurt. As they moved west across the Spessart, a range of low mountains south of the Hohn Rhön, the 8th Corps was preparing to move south-east up the Main to join up with the Bavarians. On 13 July the Prussians defeated the Federal Advance Guard at Laufach, and on 14 July they captured Aschaffenburg on the Main. This forced Prince Alexander to take a longer route to get around them.

On 15 July the 8th Corps began to move south across the Odenwald. By the end of 16 July they were close to Miltenberg, wher the Main turns north after flowing west past the Spessart. They rested on 17 July and then moved east. By the end of 22 July the 8th Corps was in a new position on the River Tauber, which flows north into the Main. They were also finally in contact with the Bavarians.

On 16 July the Prussians occupied Frankfurt. They then turned south-east to pursue the retreating Federal troops. In the meantime the Allies were finally close to uniting their forces. The Bavarians were around Würzburg. From there the Main flows north-west towards the mountains, then turns south to run around the edge of the Spessart. The Main turns west just south of Wertheim, where the River Tauber flows into it from the south. The 8th Corps was in the area west of the Tauber and south of the Main. At this point the Allies best option was for the Bavarians to move west to join up with the 8th Corps, and for their combined force to advance down the Main back towards Frankfurt. Prince Alexander objected to this, and instead insisted on his own plan, for an advance across the Spessart. This meant that the Bavarian would have to move north-west from Würzburg to Lohr, cutting across the northwards loop in the Main, while the 8th Corps moved north up the Main and crossed it somewhere south of Lohr.

Once again the Allies had underestimated the Prussians, and had dismissed the idea that they might advance south-east along the Main. This was just was Manteuffel, the newly appointed Prussian commander decided to do. By 22 July the Prussians were close to Miltenberg, where the Main finished its southern loop around the Spessart and began to flow north-west towards Frankfurt. On 23 July the advancing Prussians defeated the 8th Corps outposts (combat of Hundheim, 23 July 1866). Prince Alexander retreated across the Tauber, but his attempts to defend the line of the river crumbled on the following day when the Prussians defeated him at Tauberbischofsheim and Werbach. The 8th Corps retreat continued, this time with Würzburg as their destination. At the same time the Bavarians had abandoned their march on Lohr, and were heading south.

At 11am on 25 July the 8th Corps began to retreat towards Gerchsheim. The Hessian and Württemberg Divisions marched north of the high road, while the Austrian-Nassau Division and the Reserve Artillery followed the road. The Baden Division used a road a little further to the north, and ended up at Steinbach, just to the south-west of the planned Bavarian positions.

Manteuffel decided to try and get around the 8th Corps's right flank and prevent them from reaching Würzburg. General Beyer was given the key task, to advance towards Neubrunn and then Unter-Altertheim, to get behind the Federals. General Goeben was to advance up the main road to Gross Rinderfeld and then Gerchsheim, but he wasn't to move off until 1pm, in order to give Beyer time to get into place. This part of the plan didn't pay off - the Bavarians had moved unexpectedly far south, and General Beyer spent the day fighting around Helmstadt instead.  

The Prussians advanced in two main columns. Kummer's Brigade formed the advance guard, on the high road through Gerchsheim. Weltzien's Brigade was next in line, followed by Tresckow's Brigade, which formed the reserve. Wrangel's Brigade advanced on the right, through Grünsfeldhausen to Ilmspan (two miles south of Gerchsheim).

Prince Alexander posted his corps across the main road at Gerchsheim, in a strong defensive position. He posted the Combined Division as his advance guard, with the Nassau Brigade in the front line and the Austrian Brigade behind. This was posted about a mile in front of the main line.

The main line had the Baden Division on the right, the 2nd Württemberg Brigade in the centre and the Hessian Division on the left. The right flank stretched out to Ober-Altertheim, about one mile north-west of Gerchsheim. The centre was around Gerchsheim, the left stretched out across the high road.

The reserve (1st and 3rd Württemberg Brigade) was two miles to the north east, at Kist.

In theory this was a very strong position. Prince Alexander had around 40,000 troops, defending a line of high ground, against 10,000 Prussians. However the Federal troops knew that the war was lost, and the campaign had taken them further and further away from the states they were attempting to defend.

In mid-after the leading troops of General Kummer's Brigade emerged from some woods and discovered the Federal position. General Goeben ordered Kummer to form inside the woods and prepare to attack. Orders were sent to General Wrangel to move around the Federal left by advancing from Ilmspan towards Gerchsheim.

The fighting began with an artillery duel. Kummer moved the 3rd 6-pounder and 4th 4-pounder gun batteries out of the woods and opened fire. They came under immediate fire from three Federal batteries, soon joined by two more. After about three-quarters of an hour the Prussians withdrew behind the woods to recover.

Encouraged by this success, the Nassau Brigade, the Federal advance guard, advanced to the attack. This attack got to within 400 paces of the woods before being repulsed. Prince Alexander attempted to renew the offensive, but the commanders of the Hessian and Württemberg Divisions both claimed that their troops were too exhausted to attack. This was another sign of the poor morale in the Federal army, and forced Prince Alexander to stay on the defensive.

The Federal position began to unravel when Wrangel's leading troops began to appear from the direction of Schönfeld, north of Ilmspan. His leading artillery battery opened fire on the Federal left. The Federal guns turned their attention to the new threat.

This gave Goeben a chance to resume his attack. His artillery had recovered from its earlier battering, and had been reinforced by the Oldenburg Battery. The three Prussian batteries emerged from the woods and opened fire, this time with some success. This allowed Kummer's Brigade to launch a successful attack on the heights west of Gerchsheim. Prince Alexander ordered a retreat north-east towards Irtenberg. 

Prince Alexander put in place a plan that should have led to an orderly retreat, covered by the Hessian Division and 2nd Württemberg Brigade, but order soon began to break down as the army attempted to make its way along a narrow road through the woods. However the woods also saved the retreating Federal troops from a more determined pursuit. The Prussians couldn't see the disorder inside the forest, and General Goeben decided to camp for the night around Gerchsheim. This allowed the 8th Corps to rally around its reserves at Kist.

The Prussians lost 8 dead, 51 wounded and 1 missing during the fighting, a total of only 60 casualties. Federal losses are less clear. The Nassau Brigade lost 4 dead, 25 wounded and 13 missing, a total of 42. The Württemberg Brigade lost 1 dead, 11 wounded and 5 missing, a total of 18 casualties. The casualty figures for the other contingents aren't known - the corps fell apart soon afterwards.

In the aftermath of this defeat Prince Alexander continued to retreat towards Würzburg, with the aim of crossing the Main. This forced the ever-optimistic Prince Charles to abandon yet another plan for an offensive, and instead focus on keeping his own army intact.

To the north-west of Gerchsheim the Prussians ran into the Bavarians around Helmstadt. This battle also ended as a Prussian victory. The Bavarians retreated north-east towards Rossbrun. There they suffered another defeat on the following day. By this point the war was clearly coming to an end. There was some artillery fire on 27 July, but then news arrived that a formal truce was to come into effect on 2 August. A local ceasefire was arranged. On 1 August Manteuffel threatened to cancel the ceasefire unless Würzburg surrendered, and on 2 August the Prussians occupied 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 (17 November 2015), Battle of Gerchsheim, 25 July 1866 ,

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