“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.
“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.”
“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
“Any Irish among them?” and his Highness
again had recourse to his snuff-box.
“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
“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
“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
“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 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
“Why are you not at work, I say?” he repeated
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
“You were inside the gate?”
“Details. Briefly!” And the Prince rapped the
lid of his snuff-box sharply.
The Governor told what the reader has already
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
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 Governor bowed.
“But you told me there were no Irishmen in
“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.