“Worse than Cremona” by Edmund Leamy

(A Story of the days of the Irish Brigade.)

Towards the end of October, in the year 1704, a man of middling height, with a face rather thin and long, was seated at a table on which were spread some military maps. Over these he had been poring for some time. When he looked up from them, his dark, eager eyes revealed a nature alert, resourceful and vigorous. One glance at him, as he looked straight before him, was sufficient to convince every observer that here was a man accustomed to command by the right of genius. The military costume in which he was dressed betrayed no evidence of high rank. It was, it must be confessed, plain almost to the verge of sloveliness, and the breast of his doublet was stained with snuff. Beside him on the table was a golden snuff-box, on the lid of which, set in brilliants, was a portrait of the Emperor Leopold I. of Austria, and to this he frequently had recourse, even while studying the maps most carefully.

He was alone. The room in which he was sitting looked in the direction of the camp of the allies, then besieging Landau, and from it a good view could be had of the fortress. The siege had lasted longer than had been anticipated, and no one chafed more at the delay than the subject of our sketch. His one desire was to be for ever rushing from battlefield to battlefield. Rapid in action as in decision, he found the time hang heavily on his hands. While the siege was in progress he had been considering the possibility of engaging in some other enterprise which might redound to the honour of his Emperor, and at the same time add to his own glory.

He pushed the maps away from him, rose from his chair, and taking a large pinch of snuff, moved towards the window and stood a while watching the operations of the siege. A knock at the door attracted his attention.

“Enter!”

“The Governor of Freiburg awaits the pleasure of your Highness,” said the person who entered, evidently an officer of rank, who was, in fact, an aide-de-camp to his Highness.

“I am ready to see him,” was the reply.

His Highness took another heavy pinch of snuff.

A tall, military looking man, somewhat over middle age, and of resolute countenance, entered. He made a low bow and then drew himself erect.

“Be seated,” said his Highness, as he himself resumed his chair. The Governor of Freiburg obeyed.

“You bring news of Brissach, Governor?”

“Yes, your Highness.”

“Your informant?”

“My valet, your Highness. He has been a soldier, and possesses a keen power of observation. He succeeded in getting into the Old Town several times on the pretence of purchasing wines. The French are busy strengthening the fortifications, but discipline is lax, and as there are over twelve hundred labourers employed in the works there is considerable disorder in the town.”

“Good. What is the strength of the garrison?”

“Only four battalions, your Highness, and six independent companies.”

“Any Irish among them?” and his Highness again had recourse to his snuff-box.

“None, sir.”

“Sure?”

“Certain, your Highness.”

“So much the better. Those fighting devils upset the best laid plans, as I learned to my cost at Cremona. And pardieu, they can fight!” And Prince Eugene of Savoy, for it was he, shook his head, causing some of the snuff he was taking to fall down, and increase the stain on his doublet.

“But, let me see. Four battalions and six independent companies. What time are the gates open in the morning?”

“At daybreak, your Highness. Many of the labourers live outside the town.”

Prince Eugene remained silent for a few moments.

“Then,” he said, as he rapped the lid of his snuff-box, “you should be able to surprise Brissach Old Town. We may also make an attempt on the New Town. You will command the expedition—” a slight flush of pleasure exhibited itself on the Governors face—“I shall place at your disposal 4,000 picked men from the German and Swiss infantry, and 100 cavalry; with that force you should be able to possess yourself of Old Brissach and hold it.”

The Governor of Freiburg bowed as if in assent, but could not help remembering that only the year before, King Louis of France had employed 40,000 men and 160 guns in the reduction of the two Brissachs.

“You shall have under you,” continued the Prince, dabbing at the same time his nostrils with snuff, “some capable officers, including the Lieutenant-Colonel of the Regiment of Bayreuth and the Lieutenant-Colonel of the Regiment of Osnabruck, who shall be Governor of the town.”

“He regards it as good as taken,” thought the Governor, and he did not feel too happy at the thought. There is so much chance in war.

“These mornings lend themselves to such an enterprise,” continued the Prince, again resorting to the snuff-box, for it had become a habit with him to punctuate, as it were, his sentences with a pinch of snuff. “The fog lies low upon the river until some hours after sunrise.”

“He thinks of everything,” said the Governor to himself.

“And,” added the Prince, “you will hear from me by to-morrow as to the time for your attempt.”

The Governor of Freiburg accepted this as a dismissal, and saluting Prince Eugene, passed from the room.

The morning of the 10th of November was fixed for the attempt on the town. That day had been selected because it had come to the ears of the Governor of Freiburg, whom we know was to command the expedition, that a large quantity of hay requiring many carts to convey it, was to be brought into the magazine at Brissach. The hay was to be coming from a considerable distance, and the carters in charge would travel all night, and endeavour to arrive at the town as soon as, if not earlier than, the gates would be opened.

That this was their intention the Governor, who was well served by his spies, had also learned. The opportunity was too good to be lost. Over 50 waggons had been requisitioned, and each would be attended by at least two peasants. The entering of so many waggons into the town would necessarily cause some distraction, and if it were possible, under the cover of darkness, to follow close on them, the Germans and Swiss, might hope to pour in after them without let or hindrance of any kind, as discipline had become very much relaxed.

When the day came, fortune proved even kinder than the Governor of Freiburg had hoped. A thick, dark fog was over the river, and hung like a pall over the two Brissachs, so that those in the new town, on the French bank of the Rhine, could not see their neighbours on the German bank, nor could their neighbours see them. And it was through this fog, that what might be called the advance guard of the waggons made their way into the town.

It was then eight o’clock in the morning. The reveille had sounded long before. The garrison were preparing for breakfast, and the labourers had gone to work in the fortifications. There were, however, owing to the thick fog, but few people about the streets, and the sentries at the gate were watching, with no very keen interest, the lumbering hay waggons passing in.

Several of the peasants who had followed them, other than the drivers, stood inside the gates in an aimless fashion as if their task had been completed.

Attracted by the rumble of the carts, the Overseer of the workmen on the fortifications, a tall, brawny looking fellow, came towards the gate, and seeing the group of idle peasants mistook them for some of his labourers, and asked them why they were not at work. He received no answer. He then addressed himself particularly to one who was a little in advance of the others, and who had a keen eye and appeared to be a man of intelligence.

“Why are you not at work?”

The man accosted, did not at once answer, and the Overseer had to step back and make way for an incoming waggon.

“Why are you not at work, I say?” he repeated angrily.

Still no answer, and the Overseer thought he detected in the faces of the other peasants something like a grin. His temper at the best was not angelic, and this suspicion proved too much for him.

“By G——, I’ll teach you how to talk,” and before the astonished peasant could lift a hand to defend himself, down came the blackthorn on his shoulders with a rapidity that showed that the Overseer was well versed in the argumentum baculinum. Instead of answering, the peasant rushed to the nearest hay waggon, and crying out some word in German, thrust his hand into the hay, drew out a loaded musket, aimed at the Overseer, fired point blank and missed. A blow of the blackthorn sent the peasant down. In the meantime others of the peasants had crowded round the Overseer, who, while with every blow he felled an assailant, kept crying, “To arms, to arms!”

But suddenly the hay was swept from the waggons, and from each a number of armed men sprang out. The Overseer, unable to withstand so many foes, having succeeded in getting round one of the carts, made a rush for the sedge on the river.

The enemy, in an excess of folly, fired at the sedge, and the bullets whizzed through it, cutting it just above his head, but the report of the muskets was heard through the town, and the whole garrison turned out. A rush was made for the gate, inside of which there were now some hundreds of the enemy. The Overseer, seeing the troops coming out, quitted his retreat and joined them, and threw himself into the midst of the desperate hand-to-hand conflict, in which both sides were at once engaged. Many a stout German went down with a cracked skull before the wielder of the blackthorn. At length, after a stubborn resistance, the enemy were driven out and pursued some distance, the Governor of Freiburg covering their retreat with the cavalry. They left behind them nearly two hundred dead, including the Lieutenant-Colonel of the regiment of Osanbruch and the Lieutenant-Colonel of the regiment of Bayreuth, and several majors and captains.


Bad news travels fast, but the Governor of Freiburg determined that he himself would be the bearer of it to the Prince. It was an unpleasant task, but he thought it better that he should be the first to carry it, so that rumour might have no time to make out a worse case against him than his conduct of the affair warranted.


On the following day he found the Prince alone, as on the former occasion, and in the same apartment.

“You have taken Brissach?” said the Prince, with an eager glance.

The Governor flushed.

“After a stubborn fight we were driven out, your Highness.”

“You were inside the gate?”

“Yes.”

“Details. Briefly!” And the Prince rapped the lid of his snuff-box sharply.

The Governor told what the reader has already learned.

Several times during the brief narrative the Prince’s thumb, dipped into the box, and small showers of snuff fell on his doublet.

“How many were inside the gate when the rascal with the stick came up?”

“About forty, your Highness.”

“And they were unable to disarm him, or take him without firing and raising the garrison?”

The Governor did not reply.

“Who was the idiot who fired the first shot?”

“The Lieutenant-Colonel of the regiment of Bayreuth.”

The Prince looked hard at the Governor, who almost shrank before the fierce gaze.

“Where is he?”

“Dead, your Highness. He fell fighting.”

“The fate was too good for him.”

The Prince made a gesture of dismissal. The Governor bowed, and was on the point of withdrawing.

“Stay,” said the Prince. “Did you chance to hear the name of the prodigy whose single blackthorn foiled the attempt made by four thousand of the best troops in the Imperial service?”

“He is called, your Highness, the Sieur O’Byrne.”

“O’Byrne! O’Byrne! an Irishman!” exclaimed the Prince.

The Governor bowed.

“But you told me there were no Irishmen in Brissach.”

“There was only one.”

“Only one!” The Prince arrested his thumb as he was lifting up a pinch of snuff. He made a gesture of dismissal and the Governor retired.

“Only one,” the Prince repeated when he was alone. “If there had been a hundred it is more than probable the Governor of Freiburg would never have found his way back from Brissach.”

The Prince made up for his interrupted pinch, and dabbed at both nostrils as he moved to the window. The cannonade, which had been going on for some hours, had ceased, but a puff of smoke from the trenches, followed by a report, showed that the firing was kept up in a desultory fashion. The Prince’s eyes rested for a second on the portrait of the Emperor on his snuff-box. “The loss of Brissach,” he said half aloud, “was a severe blow to the Emperor. I had recovered it for him if it were not for that infernal Irishman with his blackthorn. Pardieu, but it is worse than Cremona!” And the Prince, of whom it has been written that his “passion was for glory and his appetite for snuff,” flicking up the lid of the precious box, scooped up between finger and thumb what was left, and as he sniffed the fragrant but strong powder, “I must get more snuff,” he said.