The Battle of Sempach

Robert Walser (1878-1956) is regarded as one of the most influential writers of the modern era whose work has had a wide impact. However, during his lifetime he was largely ignored and struggled with poverty all his life, which resulted in a mental breakdown in 1929; he spent the remainder of hus life in insitiutions and anonymity. His work was rediscovered in the 1970s. The Battle of Sempach was published in Berlin, in 1908. It describes the deed of the Swiss legendary hero, Arnold von Winkelried, whose self-less deed brought victory to the Swiss confederates over Austria at the Battle of Sempach.

One day, in the middle of a hot summer, an army column slowly made its way along the dust-covered country road into the Lucerne region. The bright, actually more than bright, sun glared down on the dancing armor, on armor that covered human bodies, on dancing steeds, on helmets and bits of faces, on horses’ heads and tails, on ornaments and plumes and stirrups that were as big as snowshoes.

Meadows with thousands of fruit trees spread out to the right and left of the gleaming procession, up to the hills that waved and looked like softly and carefully painted decorations from the blue-scented, half-blurred distance.

It was an oppressive heat in the morning, a meadow heat, a grass, hay and dust heat, for dust was thrown up like thick clouds that sometimes wanted to envelop pieces and parts of the army. The heavy cavalcade moved forward, sluggishly, ploddingly and carelessly; it at times resembled a long, iridescent snake, at times a lizard of immense size, at times a large piece of cloth, richly embroidered with figures and colorful shapes and solemnly trailed, just as ladies, especially elderly and imperious ones, are accustomed to trailing trains.

In the whole manner of this army, in the stomping and clanking, in this sober, beautiful rattling, there was a single “Because of me” attitude, something cheeky, something very confident, something overpowering, something lazily pushed aside. All these knights conversed with each other, as best they could through their steely mouths, in a cheerful exchange of words; laughter rang out and this sound fitted in perfectly with the bright sound made by the weapons and chains and golden pendants. The morning sun still seemed to caress many a plate and fine metal, the sounds of pipes flew up to the sun; now and then one of the many servants on foot handed his riding master a delicate morsel, stuck on a silver fork, up to the swaying saddle.

Wine was drunk fleetingly, poultry was eaten and non-edible food was spat out, with a light, carefree disposition, for it was not a serious, chivalrous war, it was a matter of punishment, of breeding, of bloody, mocking, theatrical things; so everyone thought; and everyone could already see the mass of severed heads that were to color the meadow bloody. Among the warlords were many a wonderful young nobleman in splendid clothes, sitting on horseback like a manly angel flown down from the blue, uncertain sky. Some of them had made themselves comfortable and handed their helmets to a defiant boy to wear, thus showing the open air a strangely beautiful face marked by innocence and exuberance.

The latest jokes were told and the latest stories of gallant women were discussed. Those who remained serious were considered the best; a thoughtful expression seemed to be considered indecent and unchivalrous that day. The hair of the young men, who had taken off their helmets, shone and smelled of ointments and oil and fragrant water, which they had poured on themselves as if they were riding to a flirtatious lady to sing charming songs to her. The hands, from which the iron gloves had been removed, did not look warlike, but rather well-groomed and pampered, narrow and white like the hands of young girls.

One man alone in the frenzied procession was serious. Even his appearance, a deep black suit of armor interspersed with delicate gold, indicated what the man it covered was thinking. It was the noble Duke Leopold of Austria. This man did not speak a word; he seemed completely absorbed in anxious thoughts. His face looked like that of a man who is being bothered by a pesky fly around his eye. This fly must have been his evil foreboding, for a perpetual contemptuous, sad smile played about his mouth; he kept his head bowed. The whole earth, as cheerful as it looked, seemed to him to roll and thunder angrily. Or was it only the trampling thunder of horses’ hoofs, as they were now passing a wooden bridge over the Reuss? In any case, something ominous wove eerily around the Duke’s figure.

The army stopped near the little town of Sempach; it was now about two o’clock in the afternoon. Perhaps it was even three o’clock; the knights did not care what time it was; for their sake it might have been twenty o’clock: they would have found it all in order. They were already terribly bored, and found every slightest trace of martial measure ridiculous. It was a dull moment; it was like a mock maneuver, the way they now jumped out of their saddles to take up their positions. The laughter no longer wanted to resound; they had already laughed so much, a weariness, a yawn set in. Even the horses seemed to realize that all they could do now was yawn. The serving foot soldiers went after the remains of the food and wine, drinking and guzzling whatever was left to eat and drink. How ridiculous this whole campaign seemed to everyone! This ragtag town that was still defiant—how stupid it was!

Suddenly the call of a horn sounded in the terrible heat and boredom. A peculiar announcement that made a few more attentive ears prick up: What could be there? Listen. Again. There it sounded again. Yes. And you could have generally believed that this time it sounded less far away.

“All good things come in threes,” lisped a cheeky joker. “Sound again, horn!”

A while passed. They had become somewhat thoughtful; and now, all at once, terribly, as if the thing had got wings and was riding along on fiery monsters, flaming and screaming, it began once more, a long cry: “We’re coming!”

It was indeed as if an underworld had suddenly been given the air to break through the hard earth. The sound was like a dark abyss opening up and it seemed as if the sun were now shining down from a dark sky, even more glowing, even brighter, but as if from a hell, not a heaven.

People were still laughing even now; there are moments when people think they should smile while they feel gripped by horror. After all, the mood of an army of many people is not much different from the mood of a single, lonely person. The whole landscape in its brooding, whitish heat now only seemed to make more and more noise; it had become the sound of horns; and now, as if from an opening, the heap of people who had been preceded by the call immediately threw themselves into the sound space. Now the landscape no longer had a contour; sky and summery earth blurred into a solid; the season, which had disappeared, had become a place, a fencing ground, a warlike playground, a battlefield. In a battle, nature always perishes; the cube alone rules—the fabric of weapons, the heap of people and the other heap of people.

The throng of people rushing forward, apparently heated, came closer. And the knightly band was solid; they seemed to have suddenly merged together. Men of iron held out their lances so that one could have ridden a break-carriage over the lance bridge without breaking it; the knights were wedged in so tightly and lance after lance stabbed forward so stupidly, immovable, unshakeable, just something, one would have thought, for a pressing, rushing human breast to impale itself on. Here a stolid wall of lace; there people half covered with shirts. Here the art of war, of the most innate kind; there people seized by impotent rage.

Then one and then the other, boldly, in order to put an end to this disgusting displeasure, rushed into one of the spearheads, mad, crazy, thrown down by anger and rage. Onto the ground, of course, without even having hit the helmeted and feathered lout of iron with his hand weapon, bleeding miserably from the chest, rolling over, his face in the dusty horse droppings left behind by the noble steeds. So it was with all these almost unclothed men, while the lances, already reddened by the blood, seemed to smile mockingly.

No, that was nothing; on the side of man, one felt compelled to use a trick. When confronted with art, art became necessary, or some high thought; and this higher thought, in the shape of a man of high stature, came forward at once, strangely, as if advanced by a supernatural power, and spoke to his countrymen: “Take care of my wife and my children, I will make a lane for you;” and threw himself with lightning speed into four or five lances, so as not to weaken in his desire to sacrifice himself, and pulled down several more, as many as he could grasp while dying, to his chest, as if he could not embrace enough iron spikes and press them against him, so that he could really sink into the throng, and lay on the ground and had become a bridge for people who stepped on his body, on the high thought that just wanted to be stepped on.

Nothing will ever again resemble such a smashing as now the light mountain and valley men, pushed and lifted by the fury, smashed into the clumsy, wicked wall, and tore it apart and beat it to pieces, like tigers tearing apart a defenseless herd of cows. The knights were now almost completely defenseless, as they could hardly move to one side, wedged into their confines. Whoever was on horseback was thrown down like paper, so that it cracked like bags filled with air when they are smashed together between two hands. The weapons of the shepherds now proved terrible and their light clothing just right; the armor was all the more troublesome for the knights. Heads were grazed by blows; only seemed to be grazed but really had been bashed in. There was a constant thrashing; horses were overturned; the fury and strength increased; the Duke was killed; it would have been a miracle if he had not been killed. Those who struck shouted about it, as if it were the right thing to do, as if the killing was still too small a destruction, something only half done.

Heat, steam, the smell of blood, dirt and dust and the screaming and shouting mixed into a wild, hellish turmoil. The dying barely felt their deaths; they died so rapidly. They often suffocated in their boastful iron armor, these aristocratic flails. What good was an opinion now? Everyone would have gladly given a damn, if they could have given a damn at all. About a hundred beautiful noblemen drowned; no, drowned in the nearby Lake Sempach; they drowned because they were thrown into the water like cats and dogs; they tumbled over and rolled over in their elegant beak shoes; it was a real disgrace. The most splendid iron armor could only promise destruction and the realization of this premonition was terribly the right one.

What was the point of having a castle, land and people at home, somewhere in Aargau or Swabia, a beautiful wife, farmhands, maidservants, orchards, fields and forests, taxes and the finest privileges? That only made dying in these puddles, between the tightly drawn knee of a mad shepherd and a piece of ground, even more bitter and miserable. Of course, the magnificent steeds trampled their own masters in a wild flight; many gentlemen, too, in their haste to dismount, got caught in the stirrups with their stupid fashionable shoes, so that they kissed the meadows with the bleeding backs of their heads, while their terrified eyes, before they went out, saw the sky above them burning like a fierce flame. Of course, shepherds also collapsed, but for every naked and bare-chested one there were always ten covered and wrapped up in steel. The Battle of Sempach actually teaches us how terribly stupid it is to wrap oneself up like that. If they could have moved, these puppets—well, they would have moved; some of them did, as they had finally freed themselves from the most unbearable things they had on their bodies. “I fight with slaves, O the shame!” cried a handsome boy with yellowish curls streaming down from his head, and, struck in the dear face by a cruel blow, sank to the ground, where, wounded to death, he bit the grass with his half-shattered mouth. A few shepherds, who had lost their murder weapons from their hands, attacked their opponents from below with their necks and heads like wrestlers on the ring, or, dodging the blows, threw themselves on the necks of the knights and strangled them until they were choked off.

In the meantime, evening had fallen, the dying light glowed in the trees and bushes, while the sun sank between the dark foothills like a dead, beautiful, sad man. The grim battle had come to an end. The snow-white, pale Alps hung down their beautiful, cold foreheads in the background of the world. The dead were now being collected, and for this purpose they went about quietly, picking up the fallen men lying on the ground and carrying them to the mass grave that others had dug. Flags and armor were gathered together until it became a stately pile. Money and valuables, everything, was handed over to a certain place. Most of these simple, strong men had become quiet and good; they looked at the looted jewelry not without wistful contempt; walked around the meadows, looked into the faces of the slain and washed off blood where it tempted them to see what the guilty features might still look like.

Two young men with faces so young and bright, with lips still smiling in death, were found embraced on the ground at the foot of a bush. One of them had had his chest beaten in, the other had his body cut through. They had to work late into the night; then they searched with torches. They found Arnold von Winkelried and shuddered at the sight of his body. As the men buried him, they sang one of their simple songs in dark voices; there was no more pomp. There were no priests; what should one have done with priests? Praying and thanking the Lord God for the victory that had been won—that could be done without any ecclesiastical fuss. Then they went home. And after a few days they were scattered back to their high valleys, working, serving, farming, looking after the stores, doing what was necessary and sometimes saying a word about the battle they had experienced; not much. They were not celebrated (well, perhaps a little, in Lucerne at their entry). The days went by, for the days must have been harsh and rough even then, in 1386, with their manifold worries. A great deed does not erase the arduous succession of days. Life does not stand still for a long time on a battle day; history only takes a short break until it, too, has to hurry forward, urged on by imperious life.

Featured: Winkelried at Sempach, by Konrad Grob (1828-1904); date of the painting unknown.