Herman and Thusnelda - George Upton

The Attack

It was in the year 9 after Christ, in the month of September, that Varus undertook to conquer the Germans. In eight days the army began its march and moved forward from the Rhine in proud array. On the morning of the ninth day no enemy had yet appeared. Here and there a wild ox stared at the strange and brilliant sight with startled eyes and then plunged wildly into the thickets; or a bear disputed the way until Roman arrows and spears had despatched it.

The soldiers were in high spirits. They had confidence in the strength of the army, which had been proven so many times. The vanguard placed the head of a huge bear they had killed upon a stake, for the amusement of those following after. Some of them greeted it derisively as a German Bruin; others called it "Herman "and regarded it as a good omen. The higher the sun rose, the higher rose their spirits. The woods rang with their shouts and war-songs. At noon a halt was ordered. Fires were lighted and camp kettles swung. Refreshed with food and drink, they resumed the march, and all around them the forest resounded with the martial din.

An hour or so later the sky was overcast with a cloudy veil, which finally became so dense that the sun could hardly pierce the dull, milk-white vapor. At last it passed off and was followed by heavy rain. The war-songs gradually ceased. Only here and there a voice was heard. The rain grew heavier, and the cold wind drove it into their faces. They plodded along in silence, and bitter execrations took the place of songs. It was hardly two o'clock in the afternoon, according to our time, and yet the dense cloud-masses, driven by the furious north wind, so darkened the air that they could see only a little distance ahead. Suddenly they observed moving figures upon a height nearby, but they could not make out whether they were men or bears or apparitions. The vanguard watched them anxiously. They longed for an open place where they could halt. Varus longed for it also and signaled a more rapid advance; but their progress was already hindered, and the hindrance grew worse every moment. The spongy soil was soaked with the rain, and the march grew more and more difficult.

At last they came to a morass which compelled them to stop. Trees were cut down, and a rude bridge of branches and stones was constructed. The advance became still harder. The soldiers, weighed down by their heavy armor, sank deep into the soft earth. The cavalry had to lead their horses by the bridles. The wind swept savagely through the tops of the century-old oaks, sounding to many a one like the voices of the angry gods of that land.

At last a somewhat higher spot, encircled by rocky heights, was reached. They breathed more freely at the prospect of finding a place where they could warm themselves by the camp-fires and dry their wet clothes. Suddenly arrows from the heights flew into the wings of the army. Some of them were well aimed, and soldiers fell. Horses reared and trampled upon foot soldiers. Other arrows struck helmets and armor and fell harmless to the ground. The Romans scanned the heights, but they could discern only a dark figure here and there. Some watched the tree-tops, imagining the German war-gods were attacking them from above. They were soon to learn who their assailants were.

Suddenly a thousand voices raised the war-cry on the neighboring hillsides. It sounded in Roman ears like the roar and rush of the sea. Many a heart trembled, and even the stoutest were disturbed in spirit.

When the lion has terrified the creatures of the wild with its fearful roar, and they stand trembling and looking about for their enemy, knowing that escape is impossible, it rushes from its lair with mighty leaps and seizes its prey. So rushed the Germans. As the Romans were standing in confusion, trying vainly to come to some decision, a swarm of powerful figures brandishing huge swords, iron-spiked clubs, and battle-axes, swept down the slopes and hurled themselves upon the enemy's ranks. Many Romans were killed in the onset, and some Germans also fell. The Romans, however, speedily rallied, charged the Germans in close order, and after a desperate struggle forced them back to the heights.

For the moment the Romans were greatly alarmed by the sudden attack, but their successful resistance re-encouraged them. They shouted the name of Herman derisively to the retreating Germans, for they thought they had encountered and vanquished his army. In this they were mistaken, for Herman was deep in the forest with a much larger force and had sent only a detachment against the Romans for the purpose, not only of deceiving them, but with orders to harass them on their march. These orders were faithfully executed, and the Romans soon ceased their taunts and insults, as one attack swiftly followed another. The attacking force could not break through the iron wall of the enemy, but it did much damage with comparatively little loss to itself, as the Romans stumbled along over the marshy ground. After almost incredible effort and repeated attacks the Romans reached an open spot just as evening was coming on. They were so exhausted that they entrenched themselves in order to get some rest, at least until the next morning.

A council of war was held that night. Some of the under officers advised falling back the next morning in view of the unfavorable weather. Others objected because the Germans would call it a flight, which would make them all the bolder and more confident. Varus would not hear of retreat. "We have met Herman's force and have seen it can be broken. One battle in the open," he said haughtily, "and his army will be annihilated."