Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland

The Battle of Morgarten

T HE Swiss people regard the battle of Morgarten as one of the noblest events in their stirring history. The small Swiss cantons, or Forest states, as they were often called, there successfully withstood the might of the powerful Austrians. It happened in this way: After the death of Henry VII, King of Germany, there was much confusion in central Europe, due to the fact that two men had been elected to succeed him, Louis of Bavaria, and Frederick the Handsome, of Austria. The Swiss canton of Schwyz began to attack the Abbey of Einsiedehn, which belonged to the Hapsburgs, of whom Frederick was the head. The Austrian ruler protested, and when he found that the rest of the Forest states sided with Schwyz, he vowed he would crush them. He gave command of his army to his brother, Duke Leopold, and the Austrians marched into Switzerland late in the autumn of 1315.

Duke Leopold divided his army, and sent one part of it, under Count Otto of Strasburg, to break into Unterwalden by the Brünig Pass. Two roads led from the town of Zug to Schwyz, and Leopold, probably through ignorance, chose the more difficult one for the troops of his own command. On November 15th he reached Ægeri, and marched along the shore of that lake, paying no attention to the enemy. He and his noblemen held the Swiss peasants in the greatest scorn, and his army was more like a hunting party than like troops ready for battle. They reached Haselmatt, and from there began to climb the steep, icy slopes of Morgarten, heading towards Schornen.

As soon as the Austrians were hemmed in by the lake and the mountains, an avalanche of boulders, rocks, and tree trunks came pouring down on the dense masses of soldiers. The Swiss peasants, few in number, knew that country well, and were posted on a mountain ridge that gave them complete command of the narrow pass of Morgarten.

While the confused Austrians tried to keep their footing the main Swiss army, from Schwyz and Uri, appeared on the other side of the pass, and rushed down upon their enemy. The Austrians were caught in a trap, and the Swiss mowed them down with their halberds, a weapon of their own invention.

In a short time the Austrian army was broken to pieces, many rushed into the lake, and those who were left fled back through the passes and out of the country. Otto of Strasburg, when he heard of the retreat of Leopold, turned back, and the forest country was soon free of all invaders.

The battle of Morgarten has sometimes been called the Swiss Thermopylæ, because a few men withstood such a great army. It was the first of a long series of great victories for the hardy mountain people, and showed them how they might maintain their independence from their vastly more powerful neighbors. The Swiss gave thanks to God for their victory, and declared that the anniversary of the battle should be a day of thanksgiving each year.

Morgarten itself is the name given to the pasture slopes that descend to the southern end of the lake of Ægeri in the canton of Zug. A monument to the victory stands near the Haselmatt Chapel, some two miles from the station at Sattel on the railroad line from Schwyz to Zürich.

The Battle of Morgarten

Felicia Dorothea Ihmans

The wine-month shone in its golden prime,

And the red grapes clustering hung,

But a deeper sound, through the Switzer's clime,

Than the vintage-music, rung.

A sound, through vaulted cave,

A sound, through echoing glen,

Like the hollow swell of a rushing wave;

—'Twas the tread of steel-girt men.

And a trumpet, pealing wild and far,

'Midst the ancient rocks was blown,

Till the Alps replied to that voice of war

With a thousand of their own.

And through the forest-glooms

Flash'd helmets to the day,

And the winds were tossing knightly plumes,

Like the larch-boughs in their play.

In Hasli's wilds there was gleaming steel,

As the host of the Austrian pass'd;

And the Schreckhorn's rocks, with a savage peal,

Made mirth of his clarion's blast.

Up 'midst the Righi snows

The stormy march was heard,

With the charger's tramp, whence fire-sparks rose,

And the leader's gathering word.

But a band, the noblest band of all,

Through the rude Morgarten strait,

With blazon'd streamers, and lances tall,

Moved onwards in princely state.

They came with heavy chains,

For the race despised so long—

But amidst his Alp-domains,

The herdsman's arm is strong!

The sun was reddening the clouds of morn

When they entered the rock defile,

And shrill as a joyous hunter's horn

Their bugles rung the while.

But on the misty height,

Where the mountain-people stood,

There was stillness, as of night,

When storms at distance brood.

There was stillness, as of deep dead night,

And a pause—but not of fear,

While the Switzers gazed on the gathering might

Of the hostile shield and spear.

On wound those columns bright

Between the lake and wood,

But they look'd not to the misty height

Where the mountain-people stood.

The pass was fill'd with their serried power,

All helm'd and mail-array'd,

And their steps had sounds like a thunder-shower

In the rustling forest-shade.

There were prince and crested knight,

Hemm'd in by cliff and flood,

When a shout arose from the misty height

Where the mountain-people stood.

And the mighty rocks came bounding down,

Their startled foes among,

With a joyous whirl from the summit thrown—

Oh! the herdsman's arm is strong!

They came like lauwine hurl'd

From Alp to Alp in play,

When the echoes shout through the snowy world

And the pines are borne away.

The fir-woods crash'd on the mountain-side,

And the Switzers rush'd from high,

With a sudden charge, on the flower and pride

Of the Austrian chivalry:

Like hunters of the deer,

They storm'd the narrow dell,

And first in the shock, with Uri's spear,

Was the arm of William Tell.

There was tumult in the crowded strait,

And a cry of wild dismay,

And many a warrior met his fate

From a peasant's hand that day!

And the empire's banner then

From its place of waving free,

Went down before the shepherd-men,

The men of the Forest-sea.

With their pikes and massy clubs they brake

The cuirass and the shield,

And the war-horse dash'd to the reddening lake

From the reapers of the field!

The field—but not of sheaves—

Proud crests and pennons lay,

Strewn o'er it thick as the birch-wood leaves,

In the autumn tempest's way.

Oh! the sun in heaven fierce havoc view'd,

When the Austrian turn'd to fly,

And the brave, in the trampling multitude,

Had a fearful death to die!

And the leader of the war

At eve unhelm'd was seen,

With a hurrying step on the wilds afar,

And a pale and troubled mien.

But the sons of the land which the freeman tills,

Went back from the battle-toil,

To their cabin homes 'midst the deep green hills,

All burden'd with royal spoil.

There were songs and festal fires

On the soaring Alps that night,

When children sprung to greet their sires

From the wild Morgarten fight.

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