The Sacrifice of Arnold Winkelried
After the dreadful disaster at the Morgarten pass, seventy years went by during which Switzerland enjoyed its liberty. Austria had learned her bloody lesson and did not care to disturb the liberty-loving mountaineers. In the meantime the Swiss Confederacy had grown into considerable proportions and other towns were joining it and throwing off the yoke of their Austrian oppressors. It seemed as if all Switzerland would be free.
There was now another Leopold, Duke of Austria, the successor to him who had had the disaster at Morgarten. When he heard of the action of his remaining Swiss subjects, he vowed, "I shall teach those Swiss a lesson about obedience. I am tired of dealing with these rebels. I shall raise an army to subdue the whole country and put an end to their confederacy."
He called together all of his Austrian nobles, and they decided to send imperious demands to the people of Switzerland to lay down their arms and acknowledge their dependence upon the Austrian government.
"Let us fill their hearts with terror by sending them orders, one from each of us."
This agreement was made and warlike letters were immediately sent by couriers to the Swiss Assembly. It was expected that this avalanche of warlike declarations would fill the Swiss people with dismay.
One day a messenger arrived, bearing fifteen declarations of war; in a few days another messenger arrived, bearing nine more declarations of war; the next day other messengers arrived, bearing equally threatening letters. Hardly a day passed that one or more messengers did not arrive and warlike messages were not received from the Austrian nobles.
The Swiss were astonished at the demands made upon them, but they were not dismayed. It seemed as if all Austria was about to rise to crush the little mountain republic. The Assembly could do no business on account of the letters which kept on coming. The members sat breathless with the number and terror of the threats that poured in. But the hearts of the Swiss were not to be overwhelmed in this way. One of the members rose and said, "If they carry out these threats we shall all be slaves for life. I, for one, would rather be in my grave than in an Austrian dungeon, which would be the same thing. Therefore, if the Austrians will have war, let them remember the pass at Morgarten."
The cry of war resounded throughout the mountains; fires were lighted, according to the ancient custom of the people, and there was much gathering of troops and sharpening of weapons for the expected conflict.
Now there were Austrian nobles and castles still in some parts of Switzerland. Around them the armed patriots swarmed with resistless energy and in a short while most of them were captured and leveled to the ground. Leopold had not counted upon the Swiss beginning the war, but learned to his dismay that his threats had not overcome them at all, but had enraged them beyond restraint. Duke Leopold now appeared with his army. He was attended by many distinguished knights and nobles, and advanced against the little town of Sempach, which was noted for its rebellious subjects. He sent word to the people, saying, "I shall punish you with a rod of iron for daring to join in this rebellion. As you have done to the Austrian nobles, so shall I do to you."
The Austrian cavalry came on in advance of the foot soldiers. It was a splendid army, well equipped and consisting of trained soldiers.
The Swiss army was a little more than a thousand men who were poorly armed and untrained. It looked more like a mob than like a body of soldiers. Some of the patriots even had no shields to defend their bodies, but carried small boards fastened to their arms. Their leader said to them, "Yonder is the Austrian cavalry, but they are on Swiss soil. They are better armed and better trained than we, but back of us are our town and our wives and children. Shall we let them pass?"
Immediately there was a great cry among the Swiss peasants, "No! No! We shall die, to the last man, before the Austrians shall reach our town."
When Leopold looked upon the handful of Swiss peasants that dared to stand before his imperial host, he smiled disdainfully. He said to those around him, "Let us sweep these peasants like so many clods from our path. They are too insignificant to give us concern. Why wait for the foot soldiers to arrive?"
He therefore ordered his entire force to dismount and attack the peasant army on foot. Each of his soldiers was armed with a long, pointed lance, so that when they dismounted and stood in battle array their front presented a wall of iron. Leopold counted upon driving the Swiss peasants before him with these sharp spears through which he knew they could not penetrate.
The horses were left in the rear. The knights stood in their armor and with their lances in front, and began to march steadily forward. It was a closely knit line of spears, each spear ten to twelve feet long, and with a sharp point.
The plan of battle was not without its danger. In the first place the knights were in heavy armor and the day was very hot and sultry. Then again, the Swiss peasants were upon high ground and there was danger of repeating the disaster at Morgarten.
A veteran soldier said to the Duke, "I fear the nimbleness of these uncovered peasants. They have but to run, and we shall exhaust ourselves on the march. Besides that, they know these passes and we are ignorant of them. We had better wait until the infantry comes up."
There were others of his nobles who gave the same advice, but there were many more who heard their words with shouts of derision. Leopold himself replied with much impatience, "I see no reason why we should delay our victory. I myself shall lead these knights and within an hour this town shall be ours." So saying, he placed himself in the front of his knights.
The Swiss, from the hills surrounding the town, had watched the oncoming of the Austrian knights. Seeing that the knights had dismounted, and were coming afoot, with loud cries the peasants descended to the plain below and formed in battle line the best they knew how. The sun arose and beat upon the Austrian troops with oppressive heat, but the mountaineers were dressed in their ordinary garb and were as nimble as the goats which leaped about their own hills.
Soon the battle was engaged between the two forces. The Swiss were armed with clubs and tried to beat the lines of spears aside. Many of them with impetuous fury leaped upon the spears and did bloody execution upon the helmets of the Austrian knights, who could not use their swords for fear they would drop their lances.
Many of the Swiss were impaled upon the sharp points of the Austrian spears. Many of the Austrian knights fell beneath the weight of their armor and the heavy blows of the Swiss peasants who managed to get beyond the iron points. Many of the mountaineers lay dead or wounded, and it seemed as if the Swiss could not stay the oncoming of the Austrian knights. Leopold ordered his men to form in the shape of a semicircle and enclose the body of the Swiss troops within this circle of bristling spears.
The Swiss soldiers, armed with heavy clubs, knew that they would be a match for the Austrian knights if they could get beneath the bristling spear-points. Hand-to-hand they had no fear of the result, but how to press through that bristling array was the question. Slowly the Swiss soldiers retired, and it looked as if their town would be captured and Switzerland would no longer be free.
It was at this time that Arnold of Winkelried called a number of the bravest and strongest of the Swiss men around him, and said, "Follow me. I shall make a passage through the spears. Tell the others to follow close behind. I shall be dead, but Switzerland shall be free."
With a loud cry they advanced in close body towards a certain section of the Austrian line, Arnold in the lead. Behind them was a body of picked men, and behind these came the remaining strength of the peasant army. In front of Arnold stood the bristling spears and a dozen or more were pointed at his breast. He rushed forward with his arms outstretched, bearing no weapon of defense. "Make way for liberty!" he cried in a loud voice, and immediately a dozen spears were thrust into his body.
Before the Austrian knights could detach their spears, the bold peasants behind Arnold had rushed over his body and over the spears into the gap that had been made and were pushing aside other knights that were advancing against them. A breach had been made in the wall of iron and now the mighty clubs of the Swiss peasants fell upon the helmets of the Austrian knights. The fearless peasants poured through the gap in ever-increasing numbers. The knights became confused, crowded and disordered. Overcome with the heat, many of them fell to the ground from exhaustion and died without a wound. Leopold had made the mistake of requiring armed men to fight on foot on a hot summer day.
The Austrian banner was in the hands of Ulrich, who defended it desperately till a mortal blow cost him his life. "Save the flag of Austria!" he cried with his dying breath.
Leopold, who was trying to bring order out of his confused throng, heard the words of the dying knight, and caught the banner. He waved it over his head, all stained as it was from the blood of those who had tried to defend it.
The Swiss, resolved upon capturing the banner, pressed upon the duke with the spears which they had taken from the ground or from the knights who had fallen at their hands. "Yield us the banner!" they cried, as they surrounded the duke and his few remaining knights.
"I shall not yield the flag of Austria to such a rabble," cried the duke. "Let me follow my brave knights to a worthy death." Saying this, he rushed into the midst of his assailants. A dozen Swiss clubs descended upon his iron mail. He fell to the earth, and for a minute the tide of battle passed over him, while the banner which he had tried to defend was carried off in the hands of the Swiss.
Shortly afterwards a Swiss soldier approached the prostrate duke, who had raised himself upon his arms. The soldier drew his sword, whereupon the duke cried out, "Hold thy hand! I am a prince of Austria!"
But the soldier replied, "And in being such, you are the curse of Switzerland!" Whereupon his weapon descended and Duke Leopold of Austria was dead.
The defeat of the Austrians was complete. With their leader slain and their ranks disordered, they began to retire in terror and dismay. Those who could, staggered back to their horses, but they found to their consternation that the attendants who had been left in charge of their steeds had mounted them and fled in terror: The Swiss pursued the Austrians relentlessly and remorselessly. They remembered the seventy years of oppression and they were now resolved that all of Switzerland should be free. The knights fought desperately, but without avail. In a short while the heavy blows of the Swiss clubs had laid the last Austrian knight upon the ground and not one was left alive upon that fatal field.
When it was all over they returned to find the body of Arnold Winkelried. It had been pierced with many spears and was bloody with many wounds. He lay dead upon the field with a smile upon his lips, as if he knew that he had opened the way for his Swiss companions to penetrate the steel points of Austria and save the town of Sempach from destruction. He had made the way for liberty.