Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

The Peasant Hero of the Tyrol

"The land we from our fathers had in trust,

And to our children will transmit or die."

—Wordsworth (Tyrolese).

F ROM the pursuit of Sir John Moore, Napoleon was hastening to Austria, where a storm was gathering which threatened to be even more serious, than that which had already burst over Spain. To help in the conquest of Spain, Napoleon had removed numbers of French troops from Austria. This therefore was the moment, for that unhappy country to rise, and struggle from under the yoke of France. Nowhere was the appeal to arms answered quicker, than amid the mountains of the Tyrol. The Tyrol was a rugged country, which had belonged to Austria for 400 years, till Napoleon had taken it away and given it to Bavaria. The people might in name belong to Bavaria, but the Tyrolese hearts were faithful to Austria, for which country they were ready to do and to die.

One day in March 1809, the mountaineers were stirred by a proclamation from the Emperor of Austria.

"To arms! to arms! Tyrolese," it ran. "The hour of deliverance is at hand. Now is the time to draw your swords while Napoleon is away. Be faithful to Austria. Young and old, to arms for your Emperor and your country, for your children and your liberty!"

It was received with shouts of joy. They would cast off the yoke of Bavaria and belong to Austria once more, and the ever-growing power of Napoleon should be crushed. At their head was Andrew Hofer, a village innkeeper in the Tyrol. He was a very Hercules for strength, a tall, middle-aged man, wearing always the peasant dress of his country—a large black hat with its broad brim, black ribbons, and a curling feather; a short green coat and red waistcoat, over which he wore green braces; short black breeches and red stockings. To him the faithful peasants looked for guidance, and he did not fail them.

So that the rising should be secret and spontaneous, it was arranged that the signal should be made by throwing sawdust into the river Inn, which would float rapidly down and be understood by the peasants. Success depended on secrecy for Bavarians were at the capital of the Tyrol, Innspruck.

It was the 8th of April, that sawdust was seen to be floating on the river. Throwing off his broad-brimmed hat, Hofer shouted, "Tyrolese, the hour of deliverance is at hand!"

All through the night, the passes of the Engadine seemed alive with moving troops; the stillness was broken by the heavy tread of armed men and the rattling of waggons and guns. Fires blazed from the mountain-tops, and the Tyrol was known to be in open rebellion. A few days later, the main body, numbering some 15,000, had collected on the heights above Innspruck.

"Down with the Bavarians! Long live our Emperor!" cried the peasants, as they rushed to the attack.

After two hours' fighting, they had won their capital back from the Bavarians.

"Your efforts have touched my heart," wrote the Austrian Emperor. "I count you among the most faithful subjects in the Austrian dominions."

In a few days, Bavarian rule was destroyed, and by the end of the month no foreign soldier remained on Tyrolese soil. Many were the brave deeds done by the men and women of the Tyrol to free their country. During one of the conflicts, a young peasant woman came out from a farmhouse, with a cask of beer on her head for her fighting countrymen. Heedless of the enemy's fire she made her way to the scene of action, when a bullet struck the cask. Undaunted, she placed her thumb in the hole made by the bullet, and gave the weary peasants a drink in spite of the danger she was in.

Meanwhile Napoleon had reached Austria. On the morning of July 16, the two largest armies that had ever been brought face to face in Europe, met to fight. The great world-conqueror gained a complete victory over the Austrians at Wagram, entered Vienna once more in triumph, and dictated his own terms to rebellious Austria.

This was a terrible blow to the peasants of the Tyrol. Austria might make peace with Napoleon, but the men of the Tyrol determined to go on fighting under Andrew Hofer. In vain did the Emperor beg them to lay down their arms, and not prolong a conflict that was over and throw away their lives; in vain was Andrew Hofer bidden to appear before the Bavarians, who had retaken Innspruck.

"I will do so," was the obstinate answer; "but it shall be at the head of ten thousand men."

At the head of his peasant patriots, he once more posted his army on the heights above Innspruck. Below lay a road, along which the Bavarians must pass. Suddenly a cry rang out "For Tyrol strike!" and huge stones, trunks of trees, and stones were hurled down pitilessly on the heads of the bewildered Bavarians passing below. The destruction was complete; and on Napoleon's birthday, August 15, Hofer triumphantly entered his capital. He took up his abode in the imperial castle, and carried on the government in the name of the Emperor.

Then came another letter from the Emperor saying decidedly, "I have been obliged to make peace with France." This meant that the Tyrol had been given back to Bavaria. Then, at last, the Tyrolese threw down their arms and lost heart. Hofer hid himself in a lonely little Alpine hut with his wife and children, and here, one bitter January day, he was found by French soldiers, who marched him through the deep snow to his trial as a traitor. The trial was short, the verdict certain. He was to be shot in twenty-four hours, before the Austrians could hear of his capture. Bravely Hofer had fought, bravely he died. Arrived at the place of execution, the French guards formed a square around the peasant hero. A drummer boy stepped forward and offered to bind his eyes, and bade him kneel.

"No," cried Hofer firmly; "I am used to stand upright before my Creator, and in that posture will I deliver up my spirit to him."

Firmly he uttered the word "Fire!" Firmly he died.

Twenty years later, the Tyrol was restored to Austria, and in the cathedral church the Austrians erected a statue in white Tyrolese marble to the peasant, who had fought and died for his country.

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