The Peasant Hero of the Tyrol
It is true that the name of Andrew Hofer is not very conspicuous in the pages of general history; but in his own country, in the hearts of the warm-hearted Tyrolese peasants, it is a name that will never be forgotten.
A simple, uneducated village innkeeper, dressed in his picturesque peasant dress, with no other object in view than to deliver his countrymen from oppression, this man opposed successfully, for a time, the enormous power of France and Bavaria, with his army of undisciplined peasants, till, forsaken by Austria, deserted by those he had thought his friends, the peasant hero died a patriot's death.
The Tyrol had belonged to Austria for over four hundred years, and to the House of Austria the Tyrolese people were devotedly attached. Amid wars and tumults, through evil report and good, their faithfulness to Austria remained unshaken. And so it was somewhat natural that when, by the Treaty of Presburg, the Tyrol was calmly handed over to Bavaria by the Austrians, the Tyrolese people should resent it sorely. The Tyrol, which had been called "The Shield of Austria," nay, even "The Heart of Austria," the Tyrol—ready at all times to do and die for its mother country—to be governed by a foreign foe, by strangers who neither knew nor cared for the mountain folk and their mountain homes!
The treaty had set forth that no change was to take place in the government of the Tyrol; but changes very soon did take place. The Bavarians did not understand the temper and character of their new subjects, and oppressed them till even Napoleon cried, "The Bavarians do not know how to govern the Tyrolese; they are not worthy to possess that noble country!"
And so it came to pass that the Tyrolese were irritated almost to madness; such a state of things could not be endured. They had one hope left. Where was the Archduke John? He had always loved them: surely he would help them now in their sore distress. A deputation of Tyrolese should go to the archduke and implore Austria's help once more—representatives from the chief valleys should go.
And it is at this moment that one Andrew Hofer comes upon the scene. He was chosen to represent the valley of Passeyr in the forthcoming deputation. He was a simple peasant; his father and his grandfather had kept the village inn before him, and at this time Andrew Hofer himself was proprietor.
Now, a village innkeeper in the Tyrol was a person of some importance. He combined the duty of banker and shopkeeper; he was a leading man in provincial assemblies; he had his part to play in the construction of mountain roads.
It was therefore no strange thing to choose Hofer to represent his native village to the Archduke John. A queer figure he was even in those days: he always wore the dress of the country, a large black hat with a broad brim, black ribbons, and a big, curling feather; a short green coat and red waistcoat, over which he usually wore green braces; a broad black girdle, with a border; short black breeches, with red stockings. He wore a small crucifix round his neck, and a large silver medal of St. George, to which was added, in later years, a gold chain and medal sent him by the Emperor of Austria.
Though a middle-aged man when he went on his mission to the archduke, he was a very Hercules in strength, a man in all ways fitted to become a leader of men.
The Archduke John had always loved the Tyrolese. He had hunted the chamois over their mountains; he had wandered through their passes and defiles to gain a knowledge of the country; he had adopted their habits and won their hearts. He agreed with the Emperor Maxmilian when he said, "The Tyrol is like a peasant's frock—coarse, indeed, but right warm."
He clearly saw at the present time—when Austria was being pressed on every side to raise more troops—that the Tyrolese would make splendid soldiers if well trained.
One March day then, in 1809, the Tyrol was stirred from end to end by the following proclamation, issued by the Archduke John:—
"To arms, Tyrolese! to arms! The hour of deliverance is at hand. The beloved Emperor Francis, who has for a time been separated from you, is again given to you and calls upon you to arm. Now is the time to draw your swords, while Napoleon is away, before he returns with renewed force against Austria. Look up to us. Be faithful to Austria. See on your frontiers Austria's well-known colours, black and gold. Again at your head you shall see the beloved Archduke John, who loves every inch of your land. The emperor gave up the Tyrol on condition that your ancient rights and liberties should be preserved as we had preserved them. How have they treated you? Where are your liberties now? Good, honest peasants, industrious citizens, your commerce is destroyed, your sons taken to fight against Austria—Austria whom you have loved. Tyrolese! Tyrolese! how can you bear it? Well, then, be brave! Powder and shot shall be the food of your enemies; we will oppose them with arms and the ancient Tyrolese courage! In the fields, the forests, the mountains which God has given you, we, your saviours, are at hand to receive you with open arms! Let the enemy never gain your heights; cut off their communications and their food! Young and old to arms, for the emperor and your country, for your liberty and welfare!"
The popular proclamation was received with shouts of joy by the Tyrolese. At last they should belong to Austria again, the Bavarian yoke cast off for ever.
The signal for this revolt was to be given by throwing sawdust into the river Inn, which would float quickly down that rapid river and be understood by the peasants. Their success depended on secrecy.
It was on the eighth of April that a mounted peasant rode hurriedly up to the inn at Passeyr and called aloud to Hofer that sawdust was floating down the river. The news was no surprise to Hofer. Throwing off his broad-brimmed hat, he addressed the little crowd of villagers that had collected:—
"Tyrolese, the moment of deliverance is at hand! Our emperor is ready to protect us, our friends at Innsbruck are in arms; shall our hands be weaponless?"
A great shout rose from the valley; men and boys begged to be allowed to fight; and before morning a little peasant army had been raised, with Andrew Hofer as leader.
The night was an anxious one. The Tyrol seemed alive with moving troops; the stillness of the night was broken by the heavy tread of armed men, the rattling of ammunition wagons and great guns. Before the break of day fires blazed on every mountain height, signals to the people that the work of deliverance had begun, and the whole country was in a state of insurrection from end to end. The Bavarians, overwhelmed at the suddenness of the rebellion, did not know which way to turn. A column of French troops, some three thousand strong, was taken by surprise, and after a short fight defeated by the peasants, and captured with their colours and guns.
Meanwhile Hofer was advancing through the valley of Passeyr. He had now nearly five thousand men, all peasants from neighbouring valleys, ever increasing in numbers as he passed through the country. His orders were to march to Sterzing; but on his way he met a detachment of French about the bridge of Laditch. Now this bridge was made of a single arch, suspended between two tremendous rocks, over which the road passed from Innsbruck, the capital of the Tyrol, into Italy.
It was all important that the Tyrolese should keep it. The French were well disciplined and superior in numbers, but in vain did they try to break the line of the Tyrolese; the mountaineers stood their ground bravely. As evening drew on the French were reinforced, and then only did the Tyrolese, overwhelmed by numbers, begin to give way. Suddenly on the heights above appeared some Austrians. Down the mountain side they charged, shouting as they came. They were just in time. Soon the enemy were in full retreat. As the firing ceased the peasants broke out into sobs of joy; some threw away their arms, some fell on their knees, while others embraced the Austrians with tears in their eyes, murmuring, "Brothers, brothers!"
Then Hofer, with his army of valesmen, pushed on to the heights above Sterzing. Here he was completely surrounded for a time by the enemy; but the Tyrolese sharpshooters hid themselves behind rocks and stones and made great havoc among them.
At last the exasperated peasants made a desperate charge. Armed with spears, pitchforks, and other rude weapons they had collected, they rushed madly on the Bavarians, while others stationed on the heights hurled down huge masses of rocks and trunks of trees on the foe beneath. In the thick of the fight a Tyrol peasant woman might have been seen urging on her countrymen and doing her best to help them.
The peasants won the day. After a. desperate struggle the Bavarians threw down their arms and fled. Six hundred of them were taken prisoners by Hofer, who had them mercifully treated and conducted to a great and safe castle not far from the field of battle. Scarcely had he provided for the safety of his prisoners and given directions for the care of his own wounded, than news arrived that the French and Bavarians had joined forces at Brixen.
With dawn of day, Hofer was heading his irregular troops over mountain roads and passes toward Brixen. Everywhere the Bavarians had laid waste the country, plundered villages, burned houses, and a mad longing for revenge urged the peasant army on.
Hofer realized their feelings.
"Tyrolese!" he cried, "you have proved yourselves worthy to be free; do not now become ungovernable. To injure the feeble is below contempt. Let no Tyrolese allow himself to be accused of such baseness. In the name of our beloved Archduke John, I shall treat the first person who creates disturbance as an enemy to his country. His strength shall be used only in her defence."
On the tenth of April, Hofer arrived in the Innthal just as the peasants of the capital were rushing to arms. The signal was given. Women and children ran about the valley distributing papers on which were written, "It is time."
In tremendous numbers the peasants collected on the mountains above Innsbruck; the roads by which the enemy could retreat were broken up or blocked by trees, and the bridges were destroyed.
"Long live Emperor Francis! Down with the Bavarians!" cried the peasants, waving their hats as they began the attack.
It was but nine o'clock in the morning. By eleven o'clock the courageous peasants had won their capital from the enemy. Their joy knew no bounds. With shouts and rejoicings they dragged the imperial eagle from the tomb of Maximilian, decorated it with red ribbons, and carried it through the streets, the peasants flocking in crowds to kiss it. Pictures of the emperor and Archduke John were placed on a triumphal arch, surrounded by lighted candles, and the people passed crying, "Long live the emperor!"
Overcome by the fatigue of the day, the victorious peasants had fallen asleep in the streets or in the orchards around the town, when they were awakened at three in the early morning by the sound of bells. The enemy were again marching on Innsbruck, but only to be defeated again. The prisoners were marched to strong places of confinement, escorted by a band of Tyrolese peasant women, as men enough could not be spared.
The emperor now wrote to congratulate his "faithful Tyrolese, his honest and affectionate children," as he called them.
"Your efforts have touched my heart," he wrote. "I know your courage. I am ready to meet all your wishes, and to count you amongst the best and most faithful subjects in the Austrian dominions. I trust in you, and you may rely on me, so, by God's assistance, Austria and the Tyrol will again be united."
And the peasants sent back a happy answer, assuring the emperor of their devotion. "We will persevere to the last extremity," they wrote, "and convince the whole world, as well as yourself, that it would be easier to extirpate the whole race of the Tyrolese from the face of the earth, than to diminish their affection and attachment to your Majesty and the House of Austria."
Hofer was now appointed to command the right wing of the peasant army, and the general of the Austrian forces presented him with a handsome sword and a pair of pistols, gifts well earned by the simple-hearted peasant who had inspired his men with his own patriotic enthusiasm.
While Hofer was carrying on the war in the open country, away from the capital, Innsbruck once more fell into the Bavarians' hands. At all costs it must be won back, thought Hofer.
On the twenty-eighth of May he wrote to the peasants "Dear Brethren of the Innthal, for God, the emperor, and our dear native country! To-morrow, early in the morning, is fixed for the attack. Come to our assistance.
All who heard it flocked to his standard. And the next day, for the second time, Innsbruck was won back for the Tyrol and by the Tyrolese themselves.
During the conflict a young peasant woman, living in a neighbouring farmhouse, brought out a barrel of wine to refresh her fighting countrymen. Regardless of the Bavarians' fire, she made her way to the scene of action, the cask upon her head, when a bullet struck it and compelled her to leave go. Undaunted by this accident, she placed her thumb in the hole made by the bullet, and gave the tired peasants a refreshing drink heedless of the bullets around.
Many brave things were done that day. And yet Hofer, as brave as any man in the army, refused to be in the action, but spent his day in one of the farmhouses, notwithstanding the entreaties of his men to come and lead them. The action over, he once more headed the men of the Passeyr Valley, and marched triumphantly into the capital.
But it was just as their liberty seemed within easy reach that the Tyrol was lost.
One July day the news arrived that Austria could no longer help them; she had been forced to make peace with France.
The Tyrolese had only themselves now to look to, and with one accord they turned to Andrew Hofer.
It was now the universal wish that Hofer should accept the supreme command of the motley Tyrolese army.
"My dear fellow-countrymen," he cried, "I have heard your wishes, and am ready to obey them; but I should say, choose rather one who has stronger claims than I have to be your chief, brave Tyrolese, and assure yourselves that your Hofer is prepared and willing to draw his sword as simple commander of the Passeyr valesmen. Whatever my station, whilst it pleases God to spare my life, the Tyrol will never want an arm or a heart devoted to her service."
This address was received with loud applause, and the mountain innkeeper was now proclaimed commander-in-chief of the whole of the South Tyrol. He was the idol of the army, and as soon as it became known that he was commander-in-chief, hundreds of peasants placed themselves under him—old men well advanced in years, young boys scarcely old enough to carry arms, chamois hunters and friars. Austrian soldiers deserted their own commanders to place themselves under the peasant Hofer.
In vain did the Archduke John write to the Tyrolese to beg them to lay down their arms and submit quietly. There was a ring of infinite sadness in this address of July, very different from the triumphant one of only three months before. They were still his "dear Tyrolese," but he was powerless to help them.
Still Hofer refused to submit. Accordingly, he was summoned by the Bavarians to appear at Innsbruck on the eleventh of August.
"I will do so," was his answer, "but it shall be at the head of ten thousand men."
And it was so. At the head of his peasant patriots he marched toward Innsbruck, and soon the Tyrolese were posted on the heights above the town overhanging a road along which the enemy were obliged to pass. Hofer had prepared huge stones and trunks of trees to be hurled down on the passing Bavarians.
The advance-guard was allowed to pass in safety; not a Tyrolese was to be seen. Not till the rear-guard was already marching along was the silence broken by a cry, "For Tyrol, strike!" Another instant and rocks, stones, trees, came tumbling down on the heads of the bewildered men below. "For Tyrol, strike!" From behind every cliff started forth an armed Tyrolese. Boys and girls joined in hurling down rocks on the enemy. The destruction was complete.
On the fifteenth of August—it was the birthday of the great Napoleon—Hofer made his triumphant entry into the capital, having delivered his country a third time out of the hands of the Bavarians. His presence restored order, his will was law. The power of the village inn-keeper was at its height.
He took up his quarters at the imperial castle, and assumed the title of imperial commandant of the Tyrol—a quaint commandant, still clad in the peasant dress of the Passeyr valley. In the name of the emperor he levied taxes to carry on the war, in the name of the emperor he carried on the government. On the fourth of October a great festival was held at Innsbruck in honour of Hofer, who was formally invested with the gold chain and medal sent by the emperor. And this was the end. Shortly after, a paper signed by the imperial hand was given to Hofer:—
"Tyrolese," it ran, "I wish you to be tranquil. I have been obliged to make peace with France.
That was all. Not a word of thanks for the years of fidelity to the House of Austria, not a word of hope for the future. The Tyrol was ceded to Bavaria for ever. Hundreds of peasants lost heart and threw down their arms; even Hofer felt there was nothing left but to resign his supreme command and go quietly home. He took a touching farewell of his devoted troops, and then—he changed his mind. Once more he urged the men of the Passeyr valley to rise.
"Fight!" he cried again, cried for the last time, "fight in defence of your native country. I shall fight with you and for you, as a father for his children."
In vain was he entreated to submit quietly, to give up this hopeless warfare, this uncalled-for slaughter of his fellow-countrymen. Defeat followed defeat, and suddenly Andrew Hofer disappeared. Some said he had gone to Austria, others said he had been seen at the court of Vienna, but those who affirmed he was hiding somewhere among his native mountains were in the right.
In a solitary Alpine hut, inaccessible from snow, alone with his wife and children, was Andrew Hofer to be found. From time to time his devoted friends secretly brought him food. From time to time messengers from the emperor stole to the hut to urge him to follow them to Austria, where he should be safe. He steadily refused all their offers. He would never forsake his family or his country, he assured them. But at last Hofer was betrayed, and that by a friend. A force of some sixteen hundred men was appointed to go and take him prisoner. The soldiers began their march at midnight over ice and snow, and at five o'clock on a bitter January morning they arrived at the hut. It was quite dark when they entered, but Hofer knew what the strange French voices meant. He came forward and submitted quietly to be bound. Together with his wife and children he was marched through the snow to Botzen amid the shouts of the French, the tears of the Tyrolese.
Under a strong escort he was hurried to Mantua to be tried. Three months in the miserable hut, with coarse food, had greatly altered his appearance. His hair had turned grey, and his long beard was ragged.
The trial was short. He was to be executed in twenty-four hours, so that Austria should not be able to interfere.
The fatal morning dawned. As the clock struck eleven the générale sounded, a battalion of grenadiers was drawn up in front of the prison, muffled drums were beaten, and the prisoner appeared chained among his guards in his simple Tyrolean dress. As he passed by the barracks in which his fellow-countrymen were confined, the sounds of sobbing fell on his ear. Those who were at large in the citadel thronged on to the road by which he passed, and throwing themselves on the ground implored his blessing.
"Dear countrymen, beloved Tyrolese!" he said, stopping for a moment, "you must feel as I do my undiminished love for the Tyrol, my heartfelt gratitude to you. Pardon whatever I have done or said amiss. And all of you, beloved Tyrolese, all will I trust forgive me for having been so active in a war so disastrous. The time, I think, is not far distant when you will return to the blessings of your ancient government, and cry aloud as I do now, 'Long live the Emperor Francis!"
Arrived at the scene of execution, the grenadiers formed a square around Hofer. A drummer boy offered him a handkerchief to bind his eyes, and told him to kneel down.
"No," said Hofer firmly; "I am used to stand upright before my Creator, and in that posture will I deliver up my spirit to Him."
Then firmly he uttered the word "Fire!" and so he died.
Some twenty years later, the Tyrol having been restored to Austria, his body was brought to Innsbruck and laid in the Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross. A statue of Hofer himself in white Tyrolese marble was erected by the Austrians. In relief are six Tyrolese, representing six districts of the Tyrol, binding themselves by an oath over the lowered banner.
But what is dearer far to the faithful peasants is the single stone put up in the valley of Passeyr, not far from his village inn, bearing only his simple name and the date of his death in 1810.