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´╗┐Title: The Battle of Sempach
Author: Walser, Robert, 1878-1956
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Battle of Sempach" ***

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The Battle of Sempach

A Story
Robert Walser (1878-1956)

The Future Press.

One day, in the middle of high summer, a military expedition was
advancing slowly down the dusty country road that led towards a
district of Luzern.  The bright, actually more than bright, sun
dazzled down over swaying armour serving to cover human bodies,
over prancing horses, over helmets and parts of faces, over equine
heads and tails, over ornaments and plumes and stirrups as big as
snowshoes.  To the right and to the left of the shining military
expedition spread out meadows with thousands of fruit trees in them
up as far as hills that, looming up out of the blue-smelling, half-hazy
distance, beckoned and had the same effect as light and carefully
painted window dressing.  It was before noon and the heat was already
oppressive.  It was a meadowy heat, a heat contained in grass, hay
and dust, for thick clouds of dust were being thrown up that sometimes
descended like a veil over parts and sections of the army. Sluggishly,
ploddingly, carelessly the long cavalcade moved forward. Sometimes
it looked like a shimmering and elongated snake, sometimes like a
lizard of enormous girth, sometimes like a large piece of cloth,
richly embroidered with figures and colourful shapes and ceremoniously
trailed as with ladies, elderly and domineering ones as far as I'm
concerned, accustomed to dragging trains behind them.  In all this
military might's method and way of doing things, in the stamping of
feet and the clinking of weapons, in this rough and ready clatter
lurked an "as far as I'm concerned" that was uniform, something
impudent, full of confidence, something upsetting, slowly pushing to
one side.  All these knights were conversing, as far as their iron-clad
mouths would allow them, in joyful verbal banter with each other.
Peals of laughter rang out and this sound was admirably suited to
the bright tones emitted by weapons and chains and golden belts. The
morning sun still appeared to caress a good deal of brass and finer
metal.  The sounds of tin whistles flew sunward.  Now and again one
of the many footmen walking as if on stilts would tender to his
mounted lord a delicate titbit, stuck on a silver fork, right up to his
swaying saddle. Wine was drunk on the move, poultry consumed
and nothing edible spat out, with an easy-going, carefree amiability,
for this was no earnest war involving chivalry they were riding to, but
more of a punitive expedition, a statutory rape, bloody, scornful,
histrionic things.  Everybody there thought so and everybody saw
already the heap of cut-off heads that would redden the meadow.
Among the leaders of the expedition was many a wonderful noble
young man splendidly attired, sitting on horseback like a male angel
flown down from a blue uncertain heaven.  Many a one had taken
off his helmet to make things more comfortable for himself and given
it to an attendant to carry.  By doing so he displayed to the air a
peculiarly finely drawn face that was a mixture of innocence and
exuberance.  They were telling the latest jokes and discussing the
most up-to-date stories of courtly women.  The serious ones in their
company they tolerated as best they could; it seemed today as if
a pensive expression was deemed to be improper and unchivalrous.
The hair of the young knights who had taken their helmets off, shone
and smelt of oil and unguents and sweet-smelling water that they had
poured on it as if it had been a matter of riding to visit a coquette to
sing her charming love songs.  Their hands, from which the iron
gauntlets had been taken off, did not look like those of warriors,
but manicured and pampered, slender and white like the hands of
young girls.

Only one person in the wild procession was serious. Already his
outward appearance, armour that was deep black broken up with
tender gold, indicated how the person it covered thought.  He was the
noble Duke Leopold of Austria.  This man did not speak a word and
seemed completely lost in anxious thoughts.  His face looked like that
of a person who is being pestered by a fly that is impudently flying
round his eye.  This fly may well have been a presentiment that
something bad was going to happen for a smile that was permanently
both contemptuous and sad played over his mouth. He kept his head
lowered.  The whole world, however cheerful it looked, seemed to him
to roll and thunder angrily. Or was it just the thunder of the
trampling hooves of horses as the army was now passing over a wooden
bridge that spanned the river Reuss?  Nevertheless something
foreshadowing misfortune hovered horribly around the duke's bodily

*             *              *

The army stopped near the little town of Sempach. It was now about
two o'clock in the afternoon.  It may have been three o'clock.  It was
a matter of indifference to the knights what the time might be. As far
as they were concerned it could have been eight o'clock at night--they
would have found that quite in order. They were already terribly bored
and found even the slightest trace of military discipline laughable.  It
was a dull moment.  It was like a parade ground manoeuvre how they
jumped from their saddles to take up a position. No-one wanted to
laugh any more.  They had already laughed so much.  Yawning and
exhaustion had set in.  Even the horses seemed to understand that
all one could do now was yawn.  The servants on foot tucked into
the remnants of the food and wine, quaffed and scoffed what there
was still left to scoff and quaff. How ridiculous this whole
expedition appeared to all concerned!  This shabby little town that
was still holding out: how stupid it all was!

The call of a horn rang out suddenly through the frightful heat and
boredom.  It left one or two more attentive ears particularly inquisitive
as to what it might be.  Listen: there it is again.  It really did
sound out again and it could generally have been believed that it
was now ringing out from not so far away.  "All good things come
in threes," lisped a facetious fop. "Sound one more time, horn!"
And time marched on. People had become somewhat pensive--and
now, in addition, frightened, as if the thing had grown wings and was
riding on fiery monsters in that direction, consumed by flames and
shouting, setting up a long cry:  We're coming!  It was in truth as
if a subterranean world had suddenly received a breath of fresh air,
breaking in through the hard earth above.  The sound was like the
opening up of a dark precipice and it seemed as if the sun were
shining down now out of a darkened sky even more glowingly, even
more harshly, but a light coming down out of hell and not out of
heaven. People laughed again--there are moments when man thinks
he ought to smile when really what he feels is the icy grip of terror.
The mood of a military expedition made up of many men is, at the
end of the day, not very different from the mood of a single and
solitary individual. The whole of the landscape in its stifling white
heat now seemed to be still making a hooting noise.  It had turned
into the sounds of horns and now there entered without any more
ado into the range of horns being blown, as if from an opening, the
crowd of men from whom the sound had gone out.  Now the landscape
was featureless. The sky and the earth in summer came together as
something solid. The season disappeared. A geographical location,
a tilting yard, a bellicose play area had become a battlefield.
Nature plays no part in a battle.  Everything depends on luck, the
calibre of the weaponry, one crowd of people and another crowd
of people.

The rushing forward, to all appearances heated, crowd drew nearer.
And the crowd of knights stood firm seeming for once to have knit
together.  Lads of iron held their lances out in front of them so that
you could have driven a coach and four over the resulting bridge so
densely packed were the knights and so unsurprisingly lance after
lance stuck out, immobile, unmovable, just the thing one might have
thought for one of the pushing, pressing, human chests opposite to be
spitted by. Here a stupid wall of sharp points, there men in shirts, only
half dressed. Here the art of war practised in the most narrow-minded
of ways, there men in the grip of inarticulate anger. One after another
they ran forward boldly just to put an end to this despicable lack of
enthusiasm and threw themselves onto the tip of a lance, crazy, mad,
driven by rage and fury.  They ended up, of course, falling over one
another on the ground without having been able even to inflict a wound
with their hand-held weapons on the plumed and helmeted louts
of iron opposite. They fell face down into the dusty horse dung left
behind on the ground by noble mounts.  And so it befell nearly all
these men in a state of undress while the lances, already reddened
by their blood, seemed to smile at them disdainfully.

*             *              *

No. That was nothing. One saw oneself compelled to make use of
a trick in order to be on the side of humanity.  Confronted by art,
either art or some lofty thought was called for and that lofty thought,
in the shape of a man of lofty face, immediately stepped forward as if
pushed there by a supernatural power and addressed his countrymen:
"Look after my wife and my children.  I'll make a path through for you."
And he threw himself forthwith so as not to let cool his desire for
self-sacrifice onto four or five lances and pulled down several more,
as many as he could force to his chest in the act of dying.  It was as
if he could not embrace these iron points enough and drag them into
himself to be able to die with unlimited resources and to lie on the
ground and turn into a bridge for men who then trampled over his
body, on the lofty thought that wanted to be trampled on. Nothing
will ever again compare with such a thrashing and the way in which
those lightly-clad valley and mountain folk smashed that clumsy,
despicable wall and tore it and beat it to bits like tigers ripping to
pieces a defenceless herd of cows. The knights had become almost
totally defenceless since, being hemmed in, they could hardly move
to the side.  Mounted knights were popped from their horses like
paper bags filled with air pop when you clap your hands on them.
The herdsmen's weapons now proved frightful and their light summer
clothing just right.  Armour to the knights was that much more
burdensome.  Heads were stroked by side-swipes, only stroked
apparently, and turned out to have been severed. More and more
knights were being struck down, horses overturned and the power
and rage of the onslaught kept increasing.  The duke was killed
outright.  It would have been a miracle had he not been killed.
Those who were raining down blows shouted as they did so,
as if it were appropriate, as if just killing were too slight an
annihilation, only a half measure.

Heat, steam, the smell of blood, dirt and dust and the shouting and
yelling merged in a wild, diabolical turmoil.  The dying hardly even
felt the onset of their death, they died so quickly.  They suffocated
in droves in their showy iron armour, those threshing flails.  What
further comment need be made?  Each of them would gladly have
given a damn, had they still been able to. Fine noblemen drowned
in their hundreds; no, they were drownded in the nearby Lake of
Sempach; they were drownded because they were pushed into the
water like cats and dogs. They overbalanced and fell over one
another in their elegant pointed shoes--it was a real shame. The
most splendid armour plating could only vouchsafe to its wearer
oblivion and the realisation of this frightening presentiment was not
contradicted. What did it matter now that at home, in the Aargau
or in Swabia, knights owned land and people, had a beautiful
wife, servants, maidservants, fruit trees, fields and woods and
collected taxes and enjoyed the finest privileges?  That only made
dying in these pools of water between the pressing down knee of
a crazy herdsman and a piece of earth more bitter and more wretched.
The warhorses in their uncontrolled flight naturally stamped on their
own masters.  Many knights, in the abruptness of their desire to
dismount, got caught up in the stirrups with their silly but fashionable
footwear and were left hanging from them so that they bumped
themselves over the grass bleeding from the backs of their heads.
Their shocked eyes in the meantime, before they closed for good,
saw the sky burn above them like an angry flame.  Herdsmen also
died, of course, but for every one bare-breasted and bare-armed
combatant who died there were always ten armour-plated and
wrapped up ones.  The battle of Sempach teaches us, in fact, how
dreadfully stupid it is to wrap up well.  If only those puppets had
been able to move, yes, they would have done.  Some did manage
to do so, so that they were finally able to free themselves from that
totally unbearable thing they were carrying on their body.  "I am
fighting with slaves.  How disgusting!"  cried a handsome youth with
yellowish hair falling down to his shoulders and sank to the ground,
hit full in his fair face by a vicious blow, where he, fatally wounded,
bit the grass with his half-smashed teeth.  A few herdsmen, whose
deadly weapons had gone missing from their hands, pulled
down like wrestlers in a wrestling ring their opponents from below by
the scruff of the neck and head or threw themselves, avoiding counter
blows, at the throat of a knight and throttled him, strangling him to

*              *               *

Meanwhile it had started to go dark.  The dying light still glowed in
trees and bushes while the sun went down among the dusky foothills
of the Alps like a dead, sad and handsome man.  The grim battle was
over. The snow-white, pallid Alps let their fine, cold brows hang down
and in the background was the world. Burial details gathered up the
dead, went around quietly doing this, lifted up the fallen who were
lying on the ground and took them to the mass grave that other men
had dug. Standards and armour were piled up together till they formed
an imposing heap.  Money and treasure together. Everything was set
down in a certain place. Most of these strong and simple men had
grown silent and well-behaved.  They were observing the captured
valuables not without a melancholic contempt, walking up and down
the meadows, looking at the faces of the slain and washing off the
blood when it pleased them to see what the sullied facial features
looked like. Two youths were found at the foot of some shrubs with
young, bright faces, lips still smiling even in death and with their arms
around each other as they lay on the ground. One of them had suffered
a blow to the chest while the other had had his body ripped open.
There was work for them to do till late at night.  After that torches
were used to find corpses.  They came across the body of Arnold
von Winkelried and beheld him with reverence.  When the men buried
him, they sang with deep voices one of their simple songs. There was
no more pomp under the circumstances. There were no priests there.
What would one have done with priests?  Praying and thanking God
for the hard-fought victory had to happen quietly without church
candles.  Then they went home.  And after a few days they were
scattered back again in their high valleys.  They were working,
serving, saving, looking after businesses, doing what needed to be
done and still spoke occasionally of the battle they had lived
through, though not much. They were not hailed as heroes (well,
perhaps a little in Luzern on their triumphal entry to that town). No
matter. The days glided over it, for the days, with their multiplicity
of cares, were harsh and raw even then, in 1386.  A great deed
does not strike from the calendar the arduous sequence of days.
Life does not stand still for long on the day of a battle.  History
just pauses a short while until it too, forced on by life's imperious
demands, has to hasten forward.

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