“Mountain Retreat” by Gary Beck


We marched down from the mountains

in hedgehog formation,

long pikes over our shoulders,

eager to meet the landsknechts,

punish them for imitating us,

competing with us for gold

from kings and princes,

who hired us for our skill in battle.

 

Francis I, of Valois

was at war with the Hapsburgs,

and like the French kings before him,

hired Swiss pikemen

to fight in Italy.

When we had discussed the contract

at the soldier’s council

many of us laughed at Francis,

an unlucky king

more able in the bedchamber

than the battlefield,

but the pay was good,

so we elected to join him.

 

Our men had won great victories

at Ravenna, Navarro,

and we expected to do the same.

But fate and that cursed king

decided otherwise

on the field of Pavia,

where arquebuses and cannon

shattered our ranks,

followed by cavalry charges,

and the hated landsknechts,

who slaughtered us like sheep

in a bloody feasting.

 

When the fighting ended,

that fool Francis,

who threw our men away

when the day was already lost,

was captured by his enemies.

The vain and useless prince

would be a mockery in Europe,

his army and hope of glory

vanquished ignominiously.

 

A few small bands of us,

lucky enough to escape

vengeance of the hated landsknechts,

carefully made our way home,

hiding during the day,

traveling at night,

until we were safe

in our own mountains.

We did not get a hero’s welcome.

 

Before we returned

to our own Cantons

to face the shame of our fathers,

we were summoned by the council

and each of us told the story

of the disaster that befell us.

The elders looked at us scornfully,

until they heard about the cannon

that devastated our ranks.

After the last of us spoke

the council deliberated,

then told us their decision

that we were not to blame.

The fault was with the king

who wasted so many Swiss lives.

 

Vati greeted me solemnly

and for once didn’t toss in my face

the great victories he helped win

at Ravenna, Navarro,

but questioned me closely

about how we fought.

I was greatly relieved

when he told me we were not to blame

and I had done my duty

in the pikeman tradition.

Then he hugged me,

the first time since I was a child.

 

The next morning

the council sent word

that we would no longer

contract to serve French kings.

 

Our losses had been so great

that we couldn’t field an army.

So for the near future

we would hire out as guards

for kings and princes,

until we rebuilt our numbers

and once again dominated

the field of battle.