Battle of Woerth - Conflict & Date:
The Battle of Woerth was fought August 6, 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).
Armies & Commanders
Battle of Woerth - Background:
With the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, both sides began moving troops to the frontier. Fighting began on August 4, when elements of the Prussian Third Army overwhelmed the French garrison at Wissembourg. As the Prussians pushed across the border, Marshal Patrice MacMahon deployed his forces in a line north of Hagenau and behind the Sauer Bach. With his left anchored in the woods northeast of Fröschweiler, MacMahon's line ran south along the heights of Woerth, through the Niederwald, and ended at the village of Morsbronn.
Having taken Wissembourg, Crown Prince Frederick directed Third Army south towards Hagenau. Moving parallel to the French lines, Prussian cavalry located the French position around noon on August 5. Keeping the enemy under observation, the Prussians engaged in a brief skirmish around 5:00 PM. Bivouacking during the night, the some French troops wandered into Woerth during the night and came under fire from Prussian artillery around dawn. As the men fell back, French guns were brought up and returned fire.
Battle of Woerth - The Fight Begins:
Hearing the artillery duel, the Bavarian II Corps, which had camped on the Mattstall-Langen-Sulzbach road, moved to the sound of the guns. Forming on the crest of ridge between the Sauer and Sulzbach, the Bavarians began advancing on Fröschweiler. Encountering a strong French position, their attacks were repulsed. To the south, the commander of the Prussian V Corps, General Hugo von Kirchbach, heard the firing. Seeing the Bavarians falling back, he ordered his corps to move from Dieffenbach to their aid.
Deploying to the south, von Kirchbach ordered up his 84-gun artillery reserve and alerted the Prussian XI Corps, which was to the south, of his intentions. As events were unfolding to the north, General Julius von Bose, leading XI Corps, also encountered the French. Turning east, XI Corps occupied Spachbach and Gunstett before crossing the Sauer. Coming under heavy artillery fire, the Prussians assaulted the French position in the Niederwald. Repulsed, the Prussians were soon counterattacked and driven back towards Gunstett. The French advance was finally checked by Prussian reinforcements and heavy artillery fire.
Falling back, the French reoccupied their position in the Niederwald. To the north, V Corps' artillery opened fire on the French lines. Shortly thereafter, the French withdrew from view. Seeking to draw the French out, von Kirchbach pushed four battalions across the Sauer. Attacking in two groups, one moved from Woerth towards Fröschweiler while the other advanced on Elsasshausen. In both cases, the Prussians were stopped and subjected to French counterattacks. Finally arriving on the scene, Crown Prince Frederick assessed the situation and directed V Corps to hold its position until XI Corps turned the French flank.
Battle of Woerth - The Tide Turns:
Aware of V Corps' setbacks, von Bose renewed his attacks in the south. While assaults moved forward on the Niederwald, he directed Major General Otto von Schkopp's newly arrived brigade to join with forces in Gunstett. Nearing the village, von Schkopp saw that his original line of advance would carry him against the extreme French right in Morsbronn. Rather than proceed to Gunstett, he took the initiative and overwhelmed the French flank. As the French fell back, a cavalry division charged forward to cover the withdrawal. This succeeded in driving the Prussians from the hills between Albrechtshäuserhof and Morsbronn.
French counterattacks in this area were soon contained and they were forced to fall back. Having gained the advantage on this part of the field, Prussian troops pushed though the Niederwald but became confused and lost cohesion in its rough, wooded terrain. Emerging from the northern edge of the woods, the Prussians were struck by the French infantry reserves which had arrived from Elsasshausen. Reeling under this new assault, the Prussians were rescued by von Schkopp's brigade which had remained intact during the advance.
To the north, von Kirchbach, seeing the success of XI Corps ordered an advance all along his front. He was joined in the attack by the Bavarians to the north who resumed their attacks on the woods around Fröschweiler. Though badly outnumbered, MacMahon sought to rescue the situation by moving forward his artillery reserve. These guns began to deploy as the counterattack in the Niederwald collapsed. As the French infantry began retreating north, a series of counterattacks were required to rescue the guns before the entire area south of the Fröschweiler-Woerth road fell to the Prussians.
Despite being driven back, the French retained control of Fröschweiler and the nearby woods. As MacMahon sought to regain control of the situation, Crown Prince Frederick advanced his artillery to the newly-captured Elsasshausen Ridge. Bringing Fröschweiler under a heavy bombardment, the Prussians launched a large-scale infantry assault which finally forced the French from the area.
Aftermath of the Battle of Woerth
In the fighting at Woerth, the Prussian Third Army suffered 9,279 killed and wounded as well as around 1,370 missing. French losses totaled around 8,000 killed and wounded along with approximately 12,000 missing and captured. The first major battle of the Franco-Prussian War, Woerth was the first in a series of French defeats which would culminate with the Prussian victory at the Battle of Sedan on September 1.