(11TH AND 12TH OCTOBER 1535.)
WHAT road should this little army take? There seemed to be no other than that through the Pays de Vaud. But that country was occupied by the captains of the duke of Savoy, who separated Wildermuth’s band from Geneva, and could easily oppose him with four or five thousand men.
Besides, if the Swiss auxiliaries followed that road, they would have to pass near Yverdun and other strong towns capable of stopping them. ‘I undertake,’ Wildermuth had said, ‘to lead my companions secretly and promptly to Geneva.’ But how could he lead four to five hundred men secretly? With that intent he had formed a bold strange plan, by means of which he hoped to clear the distance between Neuchatel and Geneva, without its being known what he was doing, and would present himself to the Genevese in distress, and to the Savoyards, their enemies, at a moment when neither of them expected him. The old captain intended to turn the Jura, and for that purpose to cross the Val de Travers, enter Franche Comte, make for Sainte Claude, and thence, by the pass of the Faucille, he would descend directly upon Geneva.
His troops began their march: they passed through Couvet, Motiers, and other villages in the valley; but they had hardly crossed the last meadows, when they found the mountainous and steep roads, which separated them from Les Verrieres and Pontarlier, entirely closed by the Savoyards. Wildermuth, after taking counsel with the other chiefs, resolved, instead of turning the Jura, to march by the upper valleys. Some objected the season, the precipices, the absence of beaten roads; but the leaders saw no other means of escaping the armed corps which desired to stop them. The troop was so small that, if it fought two or three battles before reaching Geneva, scarcely a handful of men would enter the beleaguered city.
Turning, therefore, to the left, in a southerly direction, and passing the village of Butte, the volunteers painfully climbed the steep path which, winding between Mont Chasseron and the Cote-aux-Fees, leads to Sainte- Croix. They passed through this village, descended towards Vallorbe, and then climbed again into the high valleys of Joux.
These heroic adventurers were two days (Friday and Saturday) on those cold and desert heights. Everything was already covered with snow, which was knee-deep, and forced them to clear the way with unheard-of labor.
We must not forget that there were women among them. It was the coldest period of the year, says Froment, the winter being early and severe. Thick flakes of snow fell and covered those brave men with a white mantle, and obliged them to move slowly. But Wildermuth, notwithstanding his age; Baillod, notwithstanding his small stature; and Savoye, notwithstanding his fatigues, were fearless. One of them always marched in front; and when they had to encounter difficult passages, they sprang forward with fiery ardor upon those icy bulwarks, as if mounting to the assault.
At that time there were only twenty families in the valley, and some monks of the order of the Premonstrants, who had been settled in the twelfth century at a place still called the Abbey . At the approach of this unexpected body of ‘men in white,’ the inhabitants of the heights fled in terror, with such valuables as they could carry; and those noble champions of independence and the Gospel could find nowhere either men or provisions, so that famine ‘pressed them sorely.’ They went into the poor gardens, but could gather nothing to appease their hunger except ‘a few cabbage stalks and some turnips and very little of these,’ adds the chronicler. However, they did not lose courage: they were going to help Geneva, and every step carried them nearer. This idea stimulated them: the drifted snows, which often blocked up the road, were crossed with renewed courage.
On Saturday afternoon these warriors reached the wild lake of Les Rousses, where they turned to the left, to make for the valley of the Leman, marching slowly beneath long ranges of pine-trees. At length the troop, overwhelmed with fatigue, arrived at Saint Cergues, on the heights of the Jura overlooking Nyon, 2,800 feet above the lake. The valiant men conducted by Wildermuth expected to find provisions in this village; but there were no inhabitants, and no victuals. However, as there were houses and beds too, the chiefs determined to pass the night there, and posted sentinels all round. What were they to do next day? They might, indeed, continue their painful road over the mountain as far as La Faucille, whence they could descend by way of Gex to Geneva: this, as it appeared, was Claude Savoye’s first plan; but most of his comrades, pressed by hunger, fatigued by the snow and the difficult roads of the Jura, proposed to descend at once into the beautiful valley of the Leman. It was useless to represent to them that they would infallibly fall in with the ducal troops near Nyon; they answered that they had been two days without eating; how could an army, weakened by starvation, deliver Geneva? Nothing was decided, when the advanced sentinels brought in three young men whom they had taken near the village. Wildermuth and the other chiefs questioned them: they were the first human beings who had approached them since they had plunged into the Jura. ‘We have been sent by the people of Geneva,’ said one of the three, ‘to serve you as guides. The ducal troops are assembled not far from the mountain, to the number of four to five thousand, horse and foot, and are preparing to surround you, take you prisoners, and hang you. Follow us, and we will lead you to Geneva safe and sound.’ Claude Savoye did not know these men, which was not a good augury; but Wildermuth and his followers had those upright hearts which do not easily suspect treachery in others. Too happy to find guides, they resolved to follow the young men next morning. It was night, and the troop prepared to take the necessary repose.
There was, however, one man in that valiant band who was not to rest.
The Genevan , as he is generally called in this narrative, believing that the destiny of his country was about to be decided, could not sleep. Just at that moment a native of the district presented himself mysteriously at the outposts and desired to see him. Savoye at once went to speak with him.
The messenger told him that he had come from the Seigneur d’Allinges, one of the noblemen then collected round Monseigneur de Lullin, governor of Vaud. D’Allinges had quitted the castle of his family, situated on a steep hill near Thonon, whose beautiful ruins are still the admiration of travelers, and had joined the Savoyard gentlemen. Being a personal friend of Savoye’s, he sent to tell him that Louis de Diesbach and Rodolph Nagueli, the envoys of Berne, had arrived at the castle of Coppet, in order to act as mediators in the affair. This news troubled Savoye; did Bernese diplomacy wish to neutralize his exertions? He might have waited until the morning, but his character always carried him forward. He determined to depart alone, and instantly. D’Allinges had sent him a paper signed with his own hand, which was to serve as a safe-conduct. After conferring with Wildermuth, Savoye quitted Saint Cergues at the moment when the others were about to seek the repose of night. He descended the mountain hastily, though not without difficulty; and, crossing rocks and penetrating thickets, he reached the foot of the Jura at last. He found there a fine Spanish courser, which D’Allinges had sent for him. Savoye sprang into the saddle, and galloped off to Coppet. On the other hand, the Swiss who had slept at Saint Cergues lost no time.
Stirring early on the Sunday morning, they departed under the conduct of the three young guides. Geneva was in imminent danger; it was necessary to hasten to its assistance. The band passed near the castle, whence on a sudden a world sparkling with beauty opens before the eyes of those who have been long shut up in the gorges of the Jura: the lake, its rich valley peopled with smiling villages; the magnificent Alps, in the bosom of which Mont Blanc uplifts his kingly head; Geneva, and the towers of its antique cathedral. Delighted to perceive the city to whose succor they were hastening, these generous men hailed it with joy. They descended and marched to within a league of Nyon, at Gingins, whose castle was then occupied by the Seigneur de Gingins, brother to the vicar-general of Geneva. Wildermuth’s followers, tired and hungry, hoped (according to what their guides had said) to find there in abundance the provisions of which they stood so much in need.
Behind a coppice between the village and the mountain was a ravine, worn by the waters which descend from the hills during the heavy rains; it would scarcely hold two persons abreast, a streamlet flowed along the bottom, and thick underwood bordered it on both sides. The guides of these valiant men said that they must be careful not to go near the village, for fear the enemy should hear of their arrival, and desired them to hide in the ravine and wait until their return. ‘We will run to Gingins,’ they said, ‘and bring you back refreshments; and then we will all set out for Geneva.’ ‘Go,’ said the troop; ‘we will pay fairly for all you can bring us.’ The Swiss drew up noiselessly in the hollow way, and their guides quitted them.
At Gingins there was a body of the enemy composed of Italians, Savoyards, and gentlemen and men-at-arms of the bailiwicks of Nyon, La Cote, Gex, La Sarraz, and other localities. The priests had preached a crusade in these parishes. They had done more: they had armed themselves and marched at the head of their villages, saying that they would not lay down their arms until heresy was extirpated from the valley of the Leman. They were all waiting for the Swiss, impatient to fall upon that little band of four to five hundred ill-armed soldiers, which they had seen descending the mountain. The duke of Savoy, according to the official report, had on foot to stop them three to four thousand men. Froment, who often exaggerates numbers, speaks of four to five thousand, and reckons Spaniards among them. This force was divided into corps, one of which was then at Gingins.
This first division, composed of fifteen hundred men, was commanded by the Sieur de Lugrin, chief of the Gex contingent, and an Italian, according to a chronicler. Devoted to the Romish Church and to his master the duke, Lugrin detested Geneva and the Reform. Towards him the three guides had made their way; and, being received into the castle, they informed him of the results of the stratagem to which they had had recourse, and told him that the Swiss were shut up in a narrow place, where it would be impossible for them to move, and where it would be easy to kill them all.
Lugrin immediately marched out at the head of his men, confident of crushing at the first blow these adventurers, exhausted by hunger and fatigue, and of staining with heretics’ blood that deep mountain ravine.
The Swiss volunteers were waiting, without suspicion and in silence, for the provisions that had been promised them. Presently they fancied they heard a noise: Captain Erhard and one or two others raised their heads.
Great was their surprise when, instead of the three pretended friends bringing them food, they saw a numerous and well-armed body of cavalry and infantry advancing and preparing a very different sort of banquet for them. Wildermuth without hesitation issued from the ravine; at the same time the Sieur de Lugrin came forward, and the two chiefs, each accompanied by an officer, met between the two forces. ‘What is your intention?’ asked Lugrin. — ‘To go to Geneva,’ answered Wildermuth. — ‘We will not grant you the passage.’ — ‘Very well; then we will take it.’
At this the officer who attended Lugrin dealt Wildermuth a blow with the butt-end of his arquebuse and knocked him down. But the Neuchatelan who was with him struck the Savoyard back again and killed him. Wildermuth sprang up immediately, and ran eagerly towards his followers to give them orders to charge.
The soldiers who composed the troop of the duke of Savoy were brave men, burning with enthusiasm for the cause of Rome. They occupied a hill situated between the ravine and the castle; they were set in motion, and, on coming within gun-shot, discharged their muskets; but as the Swiss were still in the ravine, the bullets passed over their heads. ‘Forward!’ cried Wildermuth at this moment. In an instant his followers, exasperated at being fooled and betrayed, issued from the hollow way, rushed through the hedge, drew up boldly in presence of the enemy, and fired a volley which brought several to the ground. Excited by rage and hunger, the valiant Switzers did not give themselves time to reload their arms, but rushed impetuously upon the Savoyards. They were like bears or wolves whom hunger drives from the mountains, to seek food in the plain. Those who had swords fought with them; those who had muskets used them as clubs; it was a struggle man to man, and the conflict was frightful. In the very middle of the fight was the heroine of Nidau, with her husband and three sons, ‘all fervent in the Gospel.’ Wielding her two-handed sword, she confronted the Savoyards. ‘This family of five persons,’ says Froment, ‘father, mother, and children, made a great discomfiture of persons.’ The husband was killed, the sons were wounded, but the mother was unhurt, which was a wonderful thing to see, says the chronicler, for nobody attacked the enemy with more intrepidity. Another woman, according to Stettler, rivaled her in courage, and four Savoyards had already bitten the dust when she fell, struck by a mortal blow. The men did not remain in the background. Fired with martial fury, they drove their swords through their enemies’ bodies, or brained them with their arquebuses, or else, quickly reloading their guns, brought them down from a distance. Being skillful marksmen, they picked out their victims; forty nobles, most of them Knights of the Spoon, bit the dust; and the priests paid a large tribute to death. The fanatical anger of the clergy, who marched courageously to battle, was met by the avenging anger of the Swiss, who were irritated at seeing men of peace on the field of strife.
Wildermuth had pointed out ‘the false priests’ to his men. ‘There they are now; we must sacrifice them as did Elijah of old.’ The cures, who had not expected such a resistance, found themselves cut down by those terrible Helvetians, to whom two days of suffering and the perfidy of their enemies gave a sort of transport. An excited imagination could alone, perhaps, secure victory to the Swiss. One of them in particular seemed like the angel of death. The indignation he felt at seeing the servants of God wielding the sword, carried him away, and twenty of them fell beneath his blows — a terrible fulfillment of the words of Christ to Peter: They that take the sword shall perish with the sword . A hundred of these ministers of peace, turned ministers of war, remained dead or wounded on the field. The noise was frightful, and was heard a long way off. ‘During the battle,’ says Froment, ‘there was fierce lightning in the air and loud thunder.’ Was there a storm or are these words only figurative?
Perhaps persons at a distance took the flashes of the guns and the noise of the battle for thunder and lightning.
The defeat seemed total and decided. Wildermuth and his followers thought they would have nothing more to do than march into Geneva, when an unexpected circumstance forced them to begin again. Another corps d ’armee of Savoye, that which was nearest, summoned by the noise of the battle, hurried forward to Lugrin’s help. It was commanded (as it would appear) by Michael Mangerot, baron of La Sarraz; he is indeed the only chief of his party mentioned by some historians. Mangerot, a Frenchman by extraction and owner of the barony of La Sarraz, had been, since the Sieur de Pontverre’s death, the most formidable of the Knights of the Spoon. Despite his efforts, none of his men could stand before the ardor of the Swiss, and intrepidity triumphed over numbers. Those ‘tall foreigners,’ as the German chronicler styles the Savoyards, were alarmed and discouraged; they threw away their arms, turned their backs, and shamefully took to flight, leaving the field of battle covered with firelocks, breastplates, lances, dead horses and men, among whom (says the catholic Pierre-Fleur) were many goodly personages . The loss of the Savoyards has been variously estimated from five hundred to two thousand. In the first rank of the victims of the fight the Swiss recognized their perfidious guides. The latter had lost only seven men and one woman. The hill on which these terrible blows were dealt is still called, in memory of this battle, the Molard or the mound of the dead . The valiant band of the Jura, at the sight of the victims of the day, halted on the terrible battle-field, and piously bending their knees amid the scattered arms and blood-stained corpses of their enemies, returned thanks to God for the great and unexpected victory He had granted them. The feelings which animated them have been expressed by a Swiss poet of the time in a Song of the Bernese Soldier after the Battle of Gingins , of which we give a few verses:
Rejoice, O Berne, rejoice!
Right joyful shouldst thou be, for when our grief was sorest God sent us victory.
By all the world we’re hated, Because the glory due We render to His name alone.
Hail to the Bear, the brave old Bear, Who, to uphold our right, Has armed his sons, and covered them With his broad shield in the fight.
With haste they marched to succor Geneva, round whose wall Raved fiercely the mass-worshippers, All eager for its fall.
But hunger did not stop them, Nor mountains bar their way, Nor the sight of the sudden foemen Could strike them with dismay.
One man to seven we stood, With weapons rude and few ; But ‘God will be our spear,’ we said, Sprang through the hedge, and undismayed On their steel-clad ranks we flew.
Yes! the Lord was on our side that day, In our hearts we felt His might, And Belial’s dainty champions Were scattered in the fight. See how the bear-cubs taught them To tread a merry dance!
And the priests, how well we shrived them With the pricking of a lance!
Ours is the victory! Forward then!
For aid Geneva calls, Haste to the help of those whose shame Is to love God’s Word and Christ’s dear name — Haste! yonder are her walls!
Meanwhile the report of the battle had spread through the whole district; all the neighboring villages were in commotion; couriers, dispatched by Lugrin, hastily ordered up the various corps, stationed at intervals, to the support of their unhappy commander. These troops hurried forward at the top of their speed. When the Swiss had finished their thanksgiving, they looked before them and perceived that the hostile chiefs were busied in filled up their thinned ranks, and that fresh bands were joining the Savoyard army. The Sire de Lugrin and the Baron of La Sarraz at the head of these fresh troops, supported by the old ones, were about to attack the terrible battalion, posted on the Molard. The Savoyards were much superior in number, and their leaders were determined to do everything to recover their honor and crush liberty in Geneva. The Swiss did not hesitate; they moved forward and descended the hill to scatter their enemies once more. The struggle was about to be renewed. Could these famished and exhausted men sustain the shock of soldiers burning with desire to avenge the deaths of their comrades?
That was the question: a few hours would probably answer it; but an unexpected circumstance occurred to give a new turn to affairs.