Swiss Heroes - George Upton

Saint Jacob's Day

On the twenty-sixth of August, in the year 1473, a lively party passed out through the gate of the old city of Basle and briskly took their way along the road to Saint Jacob, following the course of the river Birs. First came two sturdy burghers, Councillor Hans Irmy, a merchant of some consequence, and the head of a large and wealthy house, the revenues of which were constantly being increased by agents in Venice, Genoa, Augsburg, and Nuremberg; and Ulrich Iseli, landlord of The Bears of Basle, the largest tavern in the city. Iseli was a good customer of Irmy's in foreign wines and provisions. Following them was a band of youths, led by a young apprentice of the house of Irmy, Heini Sussbacher of Aarau. Walter, the Councilor's only son, was the central figure of this group, the others crowding closely about him. He was a lad of some sixteen years, with a frank, good-natured countenance, and of a size and strength beyond his years.

Up hill and down dale they went, till perspiration streamed from the brow of the corpulent Councillor and he could scarcely keep pace with his more youthful companion Iseli, who, unlike the most of his calling, was tall and spare and had preserved much of the elasticity of youth.

"Gently! gently! my friend," said Irmy at length. "Make haste slowly. We shall still reach our journey's end before night."

"As you please," replied the other, "but I would fain be home again in good season. The dignitaries of the town will mark my absence from the guests' room and, doubtless, distinguished persons will have arrived by the time we return. Methinks you are wont to be quick enough in other respects."

"That indeed," returned Irmy, "and well has my quickness served me in life; wherefore it troubles me the less that I can no longer follow you either with my legs or with my hopes and thoughts."

"Nay, let us not return to the French," said the innkeeper, "for on that point we shall never agree. I maintain that Switzerland cannot do better than to place herself under the protection of the French crown. Never has the house of Austria dealt fairly by us, nor should we forget what Tell and his companions did for their country."

"True," replied the magistrate; "but I greatly doubt if we should meet with any better treatment from France than we did from Gessler and his accomplices in those days. Moreover, you must remember 'tis but thirty years since Austria and France formed an alliance against us that might have proved our destruction. You should be ashamed to speak the word 'France' on this day, the anniversary of the battle of Saint Jacob. Those who sleep here would turn in their graves, could they hear you talk so. Think you I bear these scars in vain? Never can I forget the wrongs France has inflicted upon our Confederation, and if need be I will prove to her that my arm is still of use, not only to keep account books and handle pepper sacks, but also to smite French helms till the sparks fly."

"Methinks that will scarcely be needful," answered his companion; "your Walter here is already quite capable of taking your place should occasion demand."

"I should be glad to have him at my side," said Irmy; "he is a good lad, and it pleases me not a little that he seems to take as kindly to the use of arms as I did in my younger days."

The youths by this time had overtaken them.

"Father," called Walter, "are those vineyards we see over yonder on the hill?"

"Truly, my son; and they yield a wine more precious to us Swiss than any in all the world, for upon that hill some of the noblest sons of Switzerland lie buried. From the vines that grow above them is made a wine we call 'Switzer's blood' and drink in remembrance of the battle of Saint Jacob, to honor the fallen and as an inspiration to the present generation to emulate their fathers in courage and devotion to the Fatherland."

"You have often promised to tell us," said Walter, "what happened thirty years ago, when you were so sorely wounded by the French."

"Come then; let us go up the hill and seat ourselves; from there we shall have a better view of the battle-field," replied the Councillor. When this had been done he began as follows:

"Thirty years ago matters stood with us much as they now do. The Confederates were never in harmony: cities and cantons conspired against one another, and the nobles were the enemy of both. Schwyz was at strife with Zurich over some hereditary question; and Zurich, being powerless to cope single-handed against the older cantons, did not scruple to ally herself with Austria, the hereditary foe of the Confederation. Civil strife, the worst of all wars, broke out; many towns and castles were destroyed. One of our most formidable enemies was Thomas von Falkenstein, who from his stronghold at Farnsburg committed constant depredations upon us Confederates, and at last seized upon one of my father's pack-trains going from Genoa to Basle, laden with Indian spices. This roused the people to fury, and together with a force from other cantons we young men of Basle camped before Farnsburg, toward which we sent salute after salute with our carbines.

"Then a report reached us that the Dauphin of France was approaching with a vast army, some said of a hundred thousand, others a hundred and fifty thousand, and still others two hundred thousand men, fierce marauders who had grown wild and lawless during the Thirty Years' War between France and England. 'Arme Gecken,' or miserable beggars, the people called them, because though they subsisted on pillage and plunder they still looked ragged and half starved. Wild confusion arose in camp at this news, and all were eager to rush at once against the foe. There were six thousand of us stout Switzers; why should we fear one hundred thousand Frenchmen? The leaders had hard work to make us listen to reason and consent that the main part of our force should remain before the beleaguered castle, while twelve hundred of us went down into the valley of the Birs to learn the truth of the report.

"Hemmann Seevogel was placed in command, and we rode briskly off down the hill. When we reached the Birsthal we were warned that the enemy was much too strong for us, but we laughed to scorn all caution, and the mighty herdsmen of Schwyz and Uri smote the trees as they passed with their iron-spiked clubs till great pieces flew from them, to show how much stronger they were than any foe could possibly be. A few of the leaders would have turned back, but the scoffs and jeers of their comrades forced them to keep on.

"At Pratteln we found the vanguard of the enemy posted, eight thousand strong, under Count von Dammartin, but it was not long before they abandoned the position and took to their heels, leaving a thousand dead and wounded on the field. They fled to Muttenz, where ten thousand Armagnacs were waiting to receive the fugitives. But we were close behind, and our gigantic herdsmen laid about them with their heavy weapons so lustily that the hearts of the Frenchmen sank into their tattered hose. Out of Muttenz we twelve hundred drove these eighteen thousand so easily there was little pleasure in it.

"Our leaders now were for making a halt, declaring we had won enough and should only lose by a further advance, for the Dauphin with the main army was stationed beyond the Birs at Saint Jacob; and as the bridge over the river had been destroyed, it would be foolhardy to attempt to cross. But intoxicated with our previous successes, we were determined to push on.

"'We will sup in Basle to-night, cost what it may!' we shouted. 'The Evil One with all his legions shall not keep us from the town. He who hangs back is a traitor! No commands shall turn us from our duty to the Fatherland!'

"The Armagnacs had long since disappeared from view. We reached the Birs unmolested, waded through the stream, and gained the further bank. There, however, we were met by such a hail of iron from the French guns that it was impossible to keep our ranks, while all attempts to rally the scattered forces were quickly defeated by the enemy's heavy horsemen. Many now repented their rash determination, but there was no help for it—retreat was no longer possible with honor. Forward we must go to meet the forty thousand men opposed to us. They offered a stout resistance. German knights fought in their front ranks, and there were traitorous noblemen of our country among the enemy; but they did us no harm.

"Five hundred of our number retreated to a meadow which was protected by the river from attack by horsemen, but they were shot down one by one. Another five hundred took refuge in the leper hospital of Saint Jacob, which was over yonder where the little chapel now stands. About the building lay a large orchard surrounded by a wall, which would check for a time the enemy's assault. I was with this party, and glad enough to find myself safe, as I thought, behind this barrier. Soon, however, the muzzles of their guns were pointed toward us; the garden wall and building were quickly demolished, and when the firing had ceased we were attacked by the German knights, who had sworn to slay us all, burgher and peasant. Thrice indeed we repulsed them, and many a high-born lord lay weltering in his blood; but our number was fast diminishing, and as I received the blow on the head to which this scar still bears witness, the enemy burst into the burning hospital over the bodies of the five hundred Switzers.

"When I came to my senses again it was dark; above me shone the stars, and all was silent save for an occasional groan from one of the wounded, or the crackling of flames, which still fed upon the heavy timbers of the building. The night was cold, but by good fortune I lay in such a position among the ruins of the garden wall that I was somewhat sheltered from the wind and almost hidden from sight. Gradually the events of the past day came back to me, and my bosom swelled with pride. We had shown how men should fight who are guardians of their fatherland, their homes, and their families. Not a man lay there that was not covered with wounds: each had fought as long as strength remained in him to smite the foe. Had I not been so weak and faint I could have shouted aloud because of the victory won by the Swiss burgher-folk over the political craft and power of princes. The overwhelming odds had been too much for us, but even in death and defeat we had shown that something higher than the Armagnacs' lust for spoil, or the pride and ambition of the knights, had urged us to battle.

"I had plenty of time to indulge these thoughts, for I was not disturbed for many long hours. At last, toward morning, it seemed to me I heard stealthy footsteps among the debris. Nearer and nearer they came, till in the dim light I saw quite near to me the figure of a man stooping down to give water to one of my wounded comrades. Parched with fever from my wound, I also feebly besought him for a drink. He took a few steps to the angle of the wall where I lay, and stopped short, unable to suppress a low cry of astonishment. 'You here, young sir,' he exclaimed, 'and in such a plight?'

"'Quick! give me some water,' I begged; 'my father will reward you for it. Greet him for me and tell him I died as all true citizens of a free State should die—on the tottering bulwark of freedom and justice.'

"'Nay, you are a long way yet from death,' replied the man; 'with good fortune I shall fetch you safely back to Basle this very night.'

"'Who may you be,' I asked, 'that talk of such impossibilities?'

"He laughed. 'That, methought, you would have known long since, for we have met many times in your father's house. 1 am Gerard, the smuggler of Neuchatel, and have carried many bales of merchandise to him. Indeed I have a pack with me now, which I have just brought through the French camp; but perchance he will not take it amiss if I leave that here and carry you to Basle in its place. Once under your mother's wing you will soon forget these thoughts of death.'

"By this time I had satisfied my thirst, and Gerard stole softly away to reconnoitre, as he said. It was now light, and from my corner I could look over all the surrounding country. The battle-field was deserted save for a few scattered hands of horsemen moving hither and thither. Three of them at length drew near my hiding-place, whom I quickly recognized as Swiss nobles, traitors to their country, and rejoicing in the sufferings of their fellow-countrymen. One, named Werner von Staufen, laughed scornfully as he surveyed the ruins piled with corpses, when suddenly one of my mortally wounded comrades started up, seized a stone from the shattered wall, and with a last effort flung it full at the knight, hurling him to the ground, where he expired together with his assailant.

"The others now began to pry about among the debris to see if there might be other Switzers still alive. Burghard Monch, of Landskron, stepped forward and, pointing to the crimson blood-stains, cried to his companion, 'Look at the roses that have blossomed in the night!' At this, Captain Arnold Schick of Uri lifted himself painfully, a heavy stone in his right hand. 'Here—take this rose!' he cried, and dashed it at the head of the knight, who fell headlong, his armor clanging sharply against the stones. The third quickly abandoned the pleasures of a search for still breathing foes, and, mounting his horse, galloped away so swiftly that the sparks flew.

"Scarcely had he disappeared when Gerard returned. 'We must be quick, young sir,' he said, 'for in another half-hour the whole army will be back again to avenge the death of yonder knights, I have hidden my pack and will come for it again in a few days. Quickly, now, and hold tight to my neck, for I must needs run if we are to reach the Birs in safety.'

So saying, he lifted me carefully upon his back and started off, picking his way cautiously over the stones. He must have been about thirty years old at that time, and was as strong as a giant; yet I doubted much if we should escape, for a couple of horsemen not more than a thousand paces away caught sight of us and gave chase. Luckily the Birs was not far, and Gerard wellnigh flew over the ground with me. Almost swooning, I still heard clearly the thundering hoof-beats behind us, as even now after all these years I often hear them in my dreams. Suddenly Gerard stumbled, and I fell heavily to the ground and rolled down a short declivity into the river. I thought all was over, but the cold water instantly restored me to consciousness. I was dipping it up with both hands and pouring it over my fevered brow and wounds, when my pursuer appeared above me on the bank. Finding his horse unable to clamber down the steep incline he dismounted. Again I took to flight and struggled on till the water rose to my breast; but by that time Gerard was once more at my side. Gaining the farther shore we looked back and found that our pursuer had not ventured into the water at all, but had already remounted and was making his way back to the camp. But my last remnant of strength was exhausted. My senses left me; and when I awoke to consciousness some days later under my father's roof, my mother told me how Gerard had borne me along the river bank to a thicket, where he had waited till darkness fell; then, crossing the stream once more, he had brought me safely to the gates of the town.

"The French had experienced quite enough of Swiss valor, and the Dauphin ordered a retreat, having no wish to sacrifice his people in a war which brought them small thanks from Austria, in whose behalf it was undertaken."

"Father," asked Walter thoughtfully, "why did not the people of Basle come to your aid? Surely there were enough men there to help you, and together you could have defeated the enemy."

"At first," replied the Councillor, "they did not know of our approach, and when the news reached them the Burgomaster and Council hastily met to decide what should be done. But some of the Councillors at that time were not of the bravest, and their first thought was for the safety of their own town. The report of our victories at Pratteln and Muttenz was said to have been spread by the enemy to draw away from Bask all who were capable of defending it. The burghers sat too long in debate, however. A workman in the public square snatched the banner of the town from the banneret's hand in the corn market, shouting to the assembled throng, 'Follow me, all who are true citizens of Basle! '

"More than three thousand burghers hastened to join him, and the rest soon followed. Hans Roth, the Burgomaster, placed himself at the head of this valorous band, each of whom had stuck a wisp of straw in his belt as a badge, and away they marched through the Saint Alban's Gate to attack the foe. Anxiously the magistrates and remaining citizens watched their departure, for none were left within the walls that could wield a weapon or had courage enough to look the enemy in the face. Who was there to protect the town in case of sudden attack? Scarcely a quarter of an hour had passed, when one of the Councillors galloped madly after the champions, with word that an assault had been made on the city and an ambuscade laid for them by the enemy. Thereupon they turned back, only to learn, when too late, that the faint-hearted Council had deceived them. Truly it was no great honor in those days to be a Councillor in the good city of Basle, and it is only within a few years that they have earned the right to he held in respect once more.

The Battle of Saint Jacob.


"Shame on them!" exclaimed Walter. "Father, if the French should come now, I do not believe you would hold the burghers back. You would let me go with them."

"Aye, and go myself withal," said Hans Irmy.

We have that within us which time cannot destroy or change. They thought to tear away a portion of our Confederation, and not the worst part either; but we kept faith with the German Empire and held fast to the soil from which we sprung. No Frenchman shall take that from us, not even our language, which like ourselves has been German from the beginning."

"Do not be too hard upon the French," interposed Iseli; "the French language is by no means to be despised, while French wines and manufactures suit us very well. Nor should we scorn the profit that comes to us therefrom."

"That may all be," said Irmy; "everything in its proper place and manner; but as to your liking for the French, it does not please me. We are still citizens of the German Empire; and deeply as the house of Austria has injured us, we should not forget from what stock we spring, and that cat and dog will sooner be friends than a German and a Frenchman. In individual cases it might happen,—there are good men in both countries,—but in our hearts and in our politics we shall never be one with France."

"Something may he said on that point also," replied Iseli. "What of the Duchy of Burgundy? Are not French and Germans united there under one rule?"

"True, my friend; but if you think it is a voluntary union you greatly err. Nothing but the iron hand of Charles the Bold holds them together. They would separate in an instant, should the powerful Duke chance to close his eyes."

"Well—at least," said Iseli, "I am glad to find you are an admirer of this great man, who appears to me like a rising star in the firmament of the world's history."

This conversation had brought them back to the gate of the good city of Basle, and at the first turning the friends took a kindly leave of each other, their difference of opinion having no effect upon a friendship which had united them for years. Walter was full of curiosity and interest. He wanted to hear more of Charles the Bold, and besieged his father with questions till he could stand it no longer and sent the boy to bed.