Insurrection in the Tyrol
Workers’ Republic, 5th June, 1915.
In the course of the present war between Italy and the Central States, the Tyrol is likely to come once more into fame as the theatre of military operation’s. Therefore the story of the insurrection in the Tyrol in 1809 may be doubly interesting to the reader as illustrating alike the lessons of civilian warfare, and the nature of the people and the country in question.
The Tyrol is in reality a section of the Alpine range of mountains – that section which stretches eastward from the Alps of Switzerland, and interposes between the southern frontier of Germany and the northern frontier of Italy. It is part of the territory of Austria; its inhabitants speak the German language, and for the most part are passionately attached to the Catholic religion. They are described by Alison, the English historian, in terms that read strange to-day in view of the English official attitude to all things German. Alison says:– “The inhabitants like all those of German descent, are brave, impetuousus, and honest, tenacious of custom, fearless of danger, addicted to intemperance.” The latter clause was in itself not sufficient to make any people remarkable, as at that period heavy drinking was the rule all over Europe, and nowhere worse than in these islands. But the Tyrolese were also well accustomed to the use of arms, and frequent target practice in the militia and trained bands as well as in hunting had made excellent shots of a large proportion of the young men of the country.
After the defeat of Austria in 1805 by Napoleon, the Tyrol was taken from that Empire by the Treaty of Presburg and ceded to Bavaria, the ally of Napoleon. The Tyrolese resented this unceremonious disposal of their country, a resentment that was much increased by the licentious conduct of the French Soldiers sent as garrison into the district. Brooding over their wrongs they planned revolt, and sought and Obtained a promise of co-operation from the Austrian Emperor.
In the revolt, alike in its preparation and in its execution there were three leading figures. These were Andreas Hofer, Spechbacher, and Joseph Haspinger. Hofer, the chief, was an innkeeper, and of great local influence, which he owed alike to his high character and to the opportunities of intercourse given him by his occupation, a more important one before the advent of railroads than now. Spechbacher was a farmer and woodsman, and had been an outlaw and poacher for many years before settling clown to married life. Joseph Haspinger was a monk, and from the colour of his beard was familiarly known at Roth-Bart or Redbeard.
It will he observed that none of the three were professional soldiers, yet they individually and collectively defeated the best generals of the French Army – an army that had defeated the professional militarists of all Europe.
The eighth day of April, 1809 was fixed for the rising, and on that date the signal was given :by throwing large heaps of sawdust in to the River Inn, which ran all through the mountains, by lighting fires upon the bill tops, and by women and children who carried from house to house little balls of paper on which were written “es ist zeit”, “it is time”.
At one place, St. Lorenzo, the revolt had been precipitated by the action of the soldiers, whose chiefs, hearing of the project, attempted to seize a bridge which commanded communications between the upper part of the valley and Brunecken. Without waiting for the general signal the peasants in the locality rose to prevent the troops getting the bridge. The Bavarian, General Wrede, with 2,000 men and three guns marched to suppress this revolt, but the peasants hid behind rocks and trees, and taking advantage of every kind of natural cover poured in a destructive fire upon the soldiers. The latter suffered great loss from this fire, but pushed forward, and the peasantry were giving way before the disciplined body whcn they were reinforced by the advanced guard of an Austrian force coming to help the insurrection. The Bavarians gave way. When they reached the bridge at Laditch the pursuit was so hot that they broke in two, one division going up, the other down, the river. The greater part were taken prisoners at Balsano, amongst the prisoners being one general.
At Sterzing Hofer took charge. Here the peasants were attacked by a large force of soldiers, but they took refuge in thickets and behind rocks and drove off the attacks of the infantry. When the artillery was brought up the nature of the ground compelled the guns to come up in musketry range, and then the peasant marksmen picked off the gunners, after which feat the insurgents rushed in and carried all before them in one impetuous charge. Three hundred and ninety prisoners were taken and 240 killed and wounded.
A column of French under Generals Bisson and Wrede made an attempt to force its way up the Brenner. The peasants fell back before it until it reached the narrow defile of Lueg, where it suffered severely as the insurgents had broken down the bridges and barricaded the roads by heaps of fallen trees. The troops were shot down in heaps as they halted before the barricades and bridges whilst a part of their number laboured to open the way.
Meanwhile another large body of peasants had attacked and taken Innsbruck, the capital of the Tyrol, and when Bisson and Wrede eventually forced their way up the Brenner with the insurgents everywhere harrying on their flanks and rear, picking them off from behind cover, and rushing upon and destroying any party unfortunate enough to get isolated, as they advanced into the open it was only to find the city in possession of the insurgents, and vast masses of armed enemies awaiting them at every point of vantage. After a short fight Bisson, caught between two fires, surrendered with nearly 3,000 men.
Spechbacher took Hall in the Lower Tyrol. A curious evidence of the universality of the insurrection was here given by the circumstance that as none of the men could be spared from the fighting line 400 prisoners had to be marched off under an armed escort of women.
In one week the insurgents had defeated 10,000 regular soldiers experienced in a dozen campaigns and taken 6,000 prisoners.
In a battle at Innsbruck on May 28th-29th the women and children took part, carrying food and water and ammunition. When the insurgents had expended all their lead the women and children collected the bullets fired by the enemy and brought them to the men to fire back at the soldiers. Amongst the number Spechbacher’s son, ten years of age, was as active as any, and more daring than most.
After the total defeat of the Austrians and the capture of Vienna by Napoleon, the city of Innsbruck was retaken by a French army of 30,000 men. Hofer was summoned by the French General to appear at Innsbruck. He replied stating that he
At first the peasantry had been so discouraged by their abandonment by the Austrians that a great number of them bad gone to their homes, but at the earnest solicitation of their leaders they again rallied, and hostilities re-opened on August 4th.
A column of French and Bavarians were crossing the bridge at Laditch where the high road from Balsano to the capital crosses the river Eisach. The Tyrolese under Haspinger occupied the overhanging woods, and when the troops were well in the defile they rained bullets and rocks upon them without showing themselves. Men were falling at every step, and the crushing rocks tore lanes through the ranks. The soldiers pressed on until the narrowest point of the defile was reached when a sudden silence fell upon the mountain side. Awestruck, the column involuntarily halted, and amid the silence a voice rang out –
“Shall I? Shall I? Stephen.”
and another answered –
“Not yet, not yet.”
Recovering, the troops resumed their march in silence and apprehension, and then as they wound deeper into the path the second voice again rang out –
“Now, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, cut loose.” And at the word, a hinge platform of tree trunks, upon which tons of rocks had been collected, was suddenly cut loose, and the whole mass descended like an avalanche upon the soldiery, sweeping whole companies away and leaving a trail of mangled bodies behind it. Despite this terrible catastrophe the column pushed its way on towards the bridge, only to find it in flames, and a raging torrent barring their further progress. They retreated to their starting point harassed all the way by the invisible enemy and with a loss of 1,200 men.
On August 10th Marshal Lefebre, with 20,000 men, attempted to force a passage through and over the Brenner. He was attacked everywhere by small bodies, his progress checked, and his way barred by every obstacle that nature could supply, or ingenuity suggest, and eventually driven back, losing 25 cannon and the whole ammunition of his army.
On August 12th, with 23,000 foot, 2,000 horse, and 40 cannon, he was attacked at Innsbruck by the three insurgent leaders and defeated. Hofer had kept his promise to come to Innsbruck “with 10,000 sharpshooters”. The French lost 6,000 killed, wounded and prisoners.
This was the last notable success of the insurgents. The French having made peace with Austria, and having no other war on hand, were able to concentrate upon the Tyrol a force sufficient to make further resistance impossible. The insurgents returned to their homes, and resistance was abandoned.
The nature of the country lent itself to the mode of fighting of the insurgents. But their own genius also counted for much. They used every kind of cover, seldom exposed themselves, and at all times took care not to let bravery degenerate into rashness.
Every effort was made to tempt artillery into close range, the insurgents lying as quiet as possible until such time as their muskets could be brought into play upon the artillery men. To the same end positions were taken up which seemed often to be in direct contravention of military science, since they seemed to abandon every chance of a clear field of fire in front, and enabled the enemy to approach closely without coming under fire. But their seeming mistake was based upon sound judgment as the superior weapons of the enemy would have beaten down opposition from a distance, whereas being compelled to come close in before opening fire the regular soldiery lost their chief advantage over the insurgents and were deprived of the advantages conferred by discipline and efficient control by skilled officers.
Last updated on 15.8.2003