The Battle of Skalitz

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The Battle of Skalitz, 28th June, 1866.

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The Battle of Skalitz, 28th June, 1866. 50.405892, 16.059952

The defeat of Bonin at Trautenau had left General Steinmetz’s V Corps in a rather exposed position, a fact that was compounded by the decision of Crown Prince Frederick William, the Prussian 2nd Army commander who, not knowing of I Corps retreat, was under the impression that Bonin was still in contact with Gablenz’s Austrians and therefore, rather than sending the Guard Corps to Steinmetz’s assistance, had ordered it to take the defile through Eypel, thence move towards Trautenau and from there come in on the flank and rear of Gablenz position while Bonin held his attention in front. This decision could have left the Austrian high command with a wonderful chance of destroying Steinmetz’s isolated corps before any help could arrive. Unfortunately the Austrian army commander, Feldzeugmeister Ludwig August von Benedek, was not the man to take advantage of such a marvellous opportunity.

Not slow in responding to the news of the battering that Ramming’s VI Corp had taken at Nachod, Benedek ordered Archduke Leopold’s VIII Corps to march on Skalitz, holding that town against any attempt by Steinmetz to take it while Ramming’s worn down brigades would act as a reserve. That commander had, at 6:00 p.m. on the 27th June, already sent off an appeal to Leopold stating that his corps was not in any fit state to hold out against a Prussian attack which he expected the following day, and that he would be grateful of Leopold’s assistance in maintaining his position.

After a bout of gastric incapacitation on the 27th June, Benedek was in the saddle and on the road early the following morning, riding to Skalitz to view the situation for himself. As he rode though the marching columns of troops he was cheered and greeted with enthusiasm as they thought that their leader was about to lead them to victory. After reviewing the tattered but still eager remnants of the VI Corps Benekek was briefed by Ramming who, despite the reduced size of his command, still considered, now that Archduke Leopold’s VIII Corps was in position, that an all out attack should be made against Steinmetz. Listening to what his subordinate had to say, Benedek then rode crossed the Aupa River to confer with Leopold who now had his corps in line along the river facing east. Viewing the Prussian position through his field glasses, Benedek came to the onerous conclusion that Steinmetz would not attack, and that he would in all probability move off to make contact with the Prussian Guard Corps. This being the case, then it was safe for his forces to withdraw, thereafter issuing orders for Leopold and Ramming to retire to the Iser, their fall back being covered by Festetics’s IV Corps acting as rearguard. Under the impression that these arrangements were being implemented, Benedek and his staff rode back to Josephstadt, letting slip arguably the best opportunity of altering the course of the campaign.

Steinmetz was not the type of general who would retire after a victory like Nachod, and besides what could the Austrians do even if they chose to attack him other than force him to fall back until he was well protected by the Guard Corps? Taking a risk (which he did once too often during the Franco – Prussian War) Steinmetz decided to attack, sending messengers off to the Guard and to General von Mutius commanding the Prussian VI Corps for help.

At 8:30 a.m., Steinmetz pushed eight battalions and three artillery batteries form his 9th Division to feel out Archduke Leopold’s left flank, while he led the 10th Division in person in a direct assault on Skalitz to hold the enemies attention while the flanking manoeuvre took place. When the sound of gunfire reached his ears while trotting down the road to Josephstadt, Benedek reassuringly informed members of his staff who were showing concern that it was only a rearguard action as the Prussians were retiring.

The monarchical hierarchy that plagued the Austrian army kicked in again when, rather than obeying Benedek’s orders to retire, Archduke Leopold (the son of the Emperor’s younger brother) took it upon himself to attack Steinmez’s 10th Division as it was moving to assault his lines. Not only was this a gross act of insubordination, but Leopold, showing an arrogance that seemed to be a birthright of many of the royals of Europe, failed to inform Benedek, army headquarters, and both Ramming and Festetics that he was about to take the offensive.

Map showing the Austrian (left) and Prussian (right) approach lines of attack at Skalitz. The Dubno wood is in the centre. The lake today has been greatly extended into a reservoir.
Map showing the Austrian (left) and Prussian (right) approach lines of attack at Skalitz. The Dubno wood is in the centre. The lake today has been greatly extended into a reservoir.

 

Leopold’s position was just tenable for defence if he had asked for support from either Ramming or Festetics, and then Steinmetz would in all probability have been defeated, the needle gun notwithstanding. On the Austrian left the Heavy Cavalry Brigade of Major General Schindlöcker held the line, at Zlitsch. To the right of the cavalry Colonel von Fragnern’s brigade stood on the high ground north of Skalitz while, to the right again Brigade Schultz (formally Roth) watched the south west approaches to Skalitz. Brigade Kreyssern was held in reserve behind the main line forming across the highway to Skalitz.1

The main problem with Leopold’s position was that his left flank was dangling in the air and owing to the nature of the terrain could be approached without detection to within 500 meters, the thick woods of the Dubno forest blocking visibility.

At 11:00 a.m., the Prussian 9th Division’s forward units came under fire from Fragnern’s brigade artillery, but without sustaining too many casualties, soon finding cover in the Dubno Forest, from where they forced the single battalion of 51st Infantry Regiment (Nassau) placed there like a ‘forlorn hope’ to break back in panic. On 9th Division’s left, the 10th Prussian Division under Major General von Kirchbach struck the Austrian centre.

Archduke Leopold of Austria.
Archduke Leopold of Austria.

It was at this stage of the battle that Leopold, not being the brightest button in the box, and maybe because he had never been in action before, allowed his brigade commanders to take over the action. With a total lack of communication and co – ordination between their respective units each brigade entered the fight piecemeal; the resulting carnage carpeting the ground with lifeless and twitching bodies. Once again the reliance on the bayonet attack in storm columns had proved disastrous. Leopold’s VIII Corps suffering 5,570 casualties, brigade commanders Kreyssern and Fragnern among them, to the Prussian loss of 1,365 officers and men. At 2:00 p.m. on the afternoon of the 28th June the Austrians were in full retreat, many of the units overtaking Ramming’s already retiring corps in their haste to get away.

Sources consulted:

Barry. Quintin, TheRoad to Königgrätz, Helmuth von Moltke and the Austro – Prussian War 1866, paperback edition. Helion & Company Limited, 2014.

Wawro. Geoffery, The Austro – Prussian War, Austria’s War with Prussia and Italy in 1866, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Craig. Gordon A, The Battle of Königgrätz, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965.

Prussian Official History, The Campaign of 1866 in Germany, translation reprint, Nashville Press, 1994.

Opposing Forces at Skalitz.

 

Austria.

VIII Corps.     Archduke Leopold of Austria.
Assistant.     Major General Weber.
Chief of Staff.     Lieutenant Colonel von Majnone.

  • Commander of Brigade. Colonel Fragnern.
    • 5th Field Jäger Battalion
    • 15th Infantry Regiment (Nassau)
    • 77th Infantry Regiment (Tuscany)
  • Commander of Brigade. Major General von Kreyssern.
    • 31st Field Jäger Battalion
    • 8th Infantry Regiment (Gerstner)
    • 74th Infantry Regiment (Nobili)
  • Commander of Brigade General Count Rothkirch.
    • 25th Infantry Regiment (Mamula)
    • 71st Infantry Regiment (Tuscany)
  • Commander of Brigade. Colonel von Roth.
    • 24th Field Jäger Battalion
    • 21st Infantry Regiment (Reishbach)
    • 32nd Infantry Regiment (Este)

Each brigade had attached one squadron of Archduke Charles’s Uhlan Regiment (No 3) and one 4 – pounder battery of artillery

Prussia.

V Corps Commanding: General von Steinmetz.
Chief of Staff: Colonel von Wittich
Commanding Artillery: Colonel von Kraewel
Commanding Engineers: Colonel von Kleist

 

9th Division. Major General von Löwenfeld.

  • 17th Brigade Major General von Ollech
    • 17th and 58th Regiments
    • 18th Brigade Major General von Horn
    • 7th Regiment
    • 5th Jäger Battalion

10th Division Major General von Kirchbach

  • 19th Brigade Major General von Tiedemann
    • 6th and 46th Regiments
    • 20th Brigade Major General von Wittich
    • 47th and 52nd Regiments
    • 5th Pioneer Battalion
    • West Prussian Uhlan Regiment No 1
    • Four Batteries of Artillery
  • Reserve Artillery of the V Corps
    • Seven Artillery Batteries

 

Skalitz Today.

With the exception of the extension to the lake, now a reservoir, the battlefield has seen no drastic changes. The Dubno Wood is probably not as large as it was in 1866, and some of the fields have been altered slightly, but one can still obtain a very clear impression of what these meadows looked like during the battle. The fighting in and around the Dubno Wood itself was the precursor to the far bloodier conflict that occurred in the Swiepwald Wood during the battle of Königgrätz. Bullet marks can still be seen on the Skalitz railway station and there are one or two old buildings dotted around the site that still retain their character and look as they were 150 years ago.

 

  1. There is a problem with just how many brigades Leopold had at Skalitz. Also, Brigade Roth is given as being commanded by a certain Schultz, who does not appear on the Austrian order of battle. That it was indeed Roth’s brigade is confirmed by the official Prussian account of the campaign which states that… ‘ the 24th Field Jäger Battalion posted in a sheltered position on a wooded hill…kept up a well directed fire.’ (page 119) This battalion was part of Roth’s brigade. What became of Brigade Rothkirch is not disclosed, but no mention of it is made in any of the sources. []
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