Caught on the hop by Bavaria’s impetuous attack in the south, Prussia felt herself compelled to act too. Although only the 1st Korps was assembled (at Frankfurt), Wilhelm IV directed it to cross the River Main and invade the Grand Duchy of Baden. Once over the river the two divisions took parallel roads south through the forested hills towards the important town of Darmstadt.
On the morning of the 3rd July, the 1st Division encountered a few companies of Baden Landwehr Jager a mile to the north of the town of Sprendlingen, which had been occupied that very day by the rest of the Grand Duke’s army. Although he had orders to watch the border, the Baden commander, General Kimpfen, was a man known for his love of comfort. When he arrived in Sprendlingen the day before and saw its fine hotel, he had declared the march complete and ordered encampment for his men, and a large dinner for himself.
On hearing sporadic fire from the north, the Baden troops stood-to and prepared for battle. The Landwehr Jager played for time, retreating slowly, until a regiment of regulars joined them on a small hill blocking the Prussians’ advance. Out in front of their main force, the lone regiment lacked support but was determined to hold its ground.
Within half an hour the Prussians had formed up from their column of march and launched a brigade-sized attack on the hill, while the other brigade and the artillery marched around to approach the town head-on.
Despite their numbers the Prussians wilted in the face of the defenders’ fire, and were repulsed from the hill. Their Brigadier was wounded while leading from the front. As they reformed and prepared for a second attack, the division’s 2nd brigade assaulted Sprendlingen itself.
With a 4,000 man garrison and 2 batteries of artillery, the town was a very tough nut to crack. Despite its own artillery support, which was later augmented by the 24 guns of the Korps reserve, the Prussian charge was stopped at the edge of town and thrown back. A second regiment followed up, and made some ground, but the defenders held and once again the Prussians fell back in disorder.
To their left the small hill was the scene of further dramatic action as the assault intensified. Both sides threw in their respective cavalry brigades but, despite their casualties, eventually Prussian numbers prevailed and the high ground was theirs. Despite his earlier wound, their brigadier led the subsequent attacks and fell at the moment of success. Similarly, the Baden infantry and cavalry brigadiers were killed in the fierce fighting. With the troops of both sides in disarray, and largely leaderless, the action in this sector of the field was to die down for a time.
While the fight for Sprendlingen settled into an artillery duel, events to the west began to give the battle a new dimension. Arriving a little later than the 1st Division, the Prussian 2nd Division had been held up by another small contingent of Baden Landwehr Jager. A battalion of line infantry had to deploy in support of the Division’s own Jagers, to ensure the offending picket line was swept away as efficiently as possible. Although accomplished in a text-book manner, it all took time and resulted in 10,000 men halted in depth along the road. When the Prussians finally resumed their march there was some further disruption due to units becoming inter-mixed. As they fled south, the surviving Badeners could at least congratulate themselves on achieving their orders to delay any invaders.
The Prussians picked up their pace again but soon became aware of a new enemy ahead of them. The fast-marching French from the 1st Division of II Corps, had arrived and were taking up defensive positions on the left flank of their Baden allies. A direct clash was inevitable and once again the Prussians would be attacking uphill.
The Prussians attempted to combine a frontal attack with one from the flank, but the French managed to pre-empt them and their 2 regiments of cavalry sent an entire Brigade of infantry tumbling back. The frontal assault, left to attack on its own, continued valiantly but suffered severe losses. Further fighting took place but the Prussian 2nd Division was a spent force and the French had successfully shored up the allies’ left flank.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the battlefield the Prussians gathered themselves for one last attack and managed to drive off the remnants of the Baden right flank. Now somewhat isolated, the Sprendlingen garrison was subjected to concentrated Prussian artillery fire and losses started to mount. However, the Prussian Korps commander, General Zonhoff, realised that with his infantry in no fit state to attack again on either flank it was time to pull back.
Casualties had been heavy all-round, but for now Darmstadt was safe. Both sides would now have to decide whether to take a bit of time to gather their forces for a more measured campaign, or to try to seize the initiative while the enemy was still relatively unprepared.