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Volume 6623

Burroughs Battles:
The First Battle of Lustadt
by Alan Hanson

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Burroughs Battles:
The First Battle of Lustadt

The two battles of Lustadt are inseparable in history. The first, the result of dynastic struggles in the tiny Balkan municipality of Lutha, went virtually unnoticed in the international press. The second, although more prominent due to the participation of two larger nations at the center of the emerging world war, was nevertheless a mere extension of the first battle. The dynastic question was not settled by the first engagement in 1912, and tensions built again resulting in a second, larger and decisive battle two years later. Although the two battles were each quite distinctive encounters in the field, the causes of both were basically the same. 

Three Kings for One Throne

The first Battle of Lustadt developed from an unusual struggle for the throne between three men of Rubinoth blood. What made the struggle so unusual was that the contender with the strongest claim would not fight for the throne; he with the weakest claim wanted it the most; and the contender in the middle, while trying to avoid the throne, was instrumental in deciding who got it. Knowledge of the dynastic position and motivation of these three contenders is vital to understanding the cause of the First Battle of Lustadt.

Leopold was the contender with the strongest claim to the throne. In fact, he was the legal king of Lutha as the year 1912 and the events leading to the battle began to unfold. His father, latest in a line of Rubinoths who had ruled Lutha for generations, was on the throne at the turn of the century. However, when the king died in 1902, and the 13-year-old Leopold advanced to the throne, he was unable to assert his authority. 

When Barney Custer first saw Leopold in the hospital at Tafelberg, he readily observed that this man was not fit to rule. “While the king was evidently of sound mind, his was not one of those iron characters and courageous hearts that would willingly fight to the death for his own rights and the rights and happiness of his people.” Indeed, Leopold demonstrated that he was only willing to seek the throne if someone of stronger character was willing to do the fighting for him.

The son of a Rubinoth princess, Barney Custer had the second strongest claim to the throne among the three contenders. Princess Victoria was the sister of Leopold’s father. Late in the 1890s, Barney’s father, an American, fled from Lutha with the princess, never to return. Naturally, the existence of their unborn son and his place in the line of succession remained unknown until Barney came to Lutha in 1912. Barney never wanted the throne, and yet he was to be the central figure in both of the battles that determined the throne’s future.

He felt obligated to become involved in the dynastic struggle for several reasons. First, his adventures with Emma von der Tann soon after his arrival in Lutha created in Barney’s mind an obligation to her and her family. Emma had made it clear to Barney the fate that would befall her father and his house if Peter became king. Second, Barney felt an obligation to the boy Rudolph, who had helped him escape the camp of the brigand Yellow Franz. The boy was shot dead when the brigands tried to recapture Barney. Since Rudolph thought he was helping the true king of Lutha, Barney felt his death would have been without meaning if Peter were allowed to take the throne uncontested. Finally, his mother’s blood gave Barney some sympathy for the people of Lutha. He asked himself, “Were they to be further and continually robbed and downtrodden beneath the heel beneath Peter’s scoundrelly officials because their true king chose to evade the responsibilities that were his by birth?” Not wanting the throne, Barney found himself fighting to defend it for another against a third who was ruthless in pursuit of it.

Since his claim to the throne was weakest, Peter of Blentz had to be ruthless if he wanted to attain it. An uncle of Leopold, Peter’s great-grandmother had been a Rubinoth princess. Peter’s ambitions for the throne were sparked in 1902, when Leopold’s father died, leaving only a 13-year-old boy between Peter and the throne. Peter grabbed Leopold and ensconced him the caste at Blentz. Proclaiming Leopold insane, Peter had himself declared regent during the lifetime of the young King Leopold, “or until God, in His infinite mercy shall see fit to restore to us in full mental vigor our beloved monarch.” Peter knew the throne would be his if Leopold died, and that would have been easily affected had it not been for Ludwig von der Tann, minister of war under the old king. During the 10 years of Leopold’s detention, Von der Tann remained loyal to Leopold and was Peter’s greatest menace.

Three Roads to Lustadt

In early October 1912, two occurrences combined to create the dynastic crisis that led to the First Battle of Lustadt. The first was the escape of Leopold from the castle of Blentz, and the second Barney Custer’s arrival in his mother’s country on a vacation. The three contenders for the throne were, for the first time, in Lutha and free from control of each other.

At this time, no one, including Barney Custer, knew that the American possessed Rubinoth blood. This fact and Barney’s physical resemblance to Leopold were key factors in the subsequent events leading to the battle. After Leopold escaped Blentz, he was found and hidden by people in the mountains around Tafelberg. Meanwhile, Barney, mistaken for the king, had been captured by Yellow Franz’s brigands, who then attempted to ransom his release to Peter. Peter instead offered Yellow Franz 10,000 marks to kill his captive.

The ambitious Peter then made a mistake. Without waiting to have the king’s body in his hands, he announced Leopold’s death and struck an agreement with Von der Tann to put an end to the mounting civil tensions. Peter would be crowned king of Lutha in the cathedral at Lutha on November 3, 1912.

The Coronation Confrontation

The somber coronation ceremony was abruptly aborted when Lt. Otto Butzow led 20 troopers of the Royal Horse thundering to the foot of the chancel steps as Peter was about to be crowned. Entering the cathedral behind came the king, or so it seemed. Actually, it was Barney Custer posing as the king in order to halt the coronation. Barney had seen the real king alive in the hospital at Tafelberg and had been hurrying to Ludstadt when he met Butzow on the road. They royalist Butzow escorted Barney to Lustadt, where their arrival precipitated a crisis.

So close to the throne, Peter was not about to let it slip through his fingers. Knowing Barney to be an imposter, Peter ordered him arrested and the cathedral cleared. However, by displaying the royal ring of Lutha, given to him by Leopold, Barney was able to rally the support of Von der Tann and others at the ceremony. Fighting broke out, but when over half the palace guards supported Barney, Peter withdrew and Barney became dictator of Lutha for the next 48 hours.

Peter fled the city before he could be arrested and immediately went abroad in the lowlands to recruit followers to help him regain the throne forcibly. Peter worked fast, and his objective soon became apparent — he intended to seize the palace of Lustadt. On the evening of November 4, a cavalry officer reported to Barney that Peter had successfully raised an army. The imposter was quick to respond, and when the first rays of the new day’s sun shone through the valleys of the Black Mountains, they were greeted by the sound of booming canon. The First Battle of Lustadt began early on the clear, cold morning of November 5, 1912.

The Forces

The citizens of Lutha divided along geographic lines. Lustadt is a mountain town, and from its environs and from the mountainous country stretching north to Tafelberg came men to support the man they supposed to King Leopold. The mountain people had long supported the direct Rubinoth line. They remembered Leopold as a boy and loved his father and his grandfather before him. On the other side, Peter found good recruiting in the lowlands of the southern part of the country. Under Peter’s regency, the people there had grown fat in the corrupt executive, judiciary, and military offices that Peter had granted them.

In addition to the “fair-sized” army he had raised in the lowlands, Peter also brought to the field two regiments of government infantry and a squadron of cavalry, who had united with him in the belief that the true king was dead. The royalists were able to muster a thousand infantrymen under the direction of Von der Tann. Under Butzow’s leadership, the Royal Horse Guards remained loyal to the king, and Barney rode with them during the battle.

Position and Strategy

Peter advanced on Ludstadt from the south. This caused him a disadvantage on the field as it necessitated his troops making a slow advance up a slope toward the city. Peter also gave a visibility advance to the royalists, who had a commanding view of the entire southern exposure from the heights about the city. The land to the north of the city would have provided Peter with a better opportunity in the battle, but he probably chose to attack from the south due to the time factor. Peter had left Ludstadt after the aborted coronation on the afternoon of November 3. Within 40 hours he had recruited his army and was advancing up the slope toward Ludstadt. He must have thought his quick attack would catch the royalists unprepared and was willing to accept the disadvantage of the southern field rather than give the royalists 24 hours more to prepare. It would have taken that long for Peter to march his army around to the more advantageous field to the north. 

With Barney Custer having no previous experience in such matters, the original royalist battle plan was no doubt designed by Von der Tann. The old minister’s strategy was predictably conservative. The infantry was massed in lines outside the city walls ready to advance and meet the enemy’s infantry in the open field. The Royal Horse was positioned on the heights above the town. From this position, well above and behind their infantry, they would be sent into the battle as the crisis developed or an advantage presented itself.

The Action

The battle was decided by the actions of the two commanders in the field. Barney Custer was able to survey the field and alter the royalist strategy in mid-stream. Peter, on the other hand, was not imaginative and was out of position at the critical moment.

Peter’s strategy was based on what had proved effective in European battles ever since the English used it to destroy the vaunted highland charge of the Scots at Culloden over 200 years before. Artillery would be used to blast holes in the royalist infantry lines. An orderly advance through the weakened and demoralized enemy would follow. Peter had positioned his artillery on a wooded knoll southeast of the city, and the shells falling among the city’s southern fortifications caused the royalists much concern in the early going. Under the cover of the artillery fire, Peter’s infantry started its slow advance up the slope toward the city.

Peter’s plan had two fatal flaws, however. First, he did not envision an assault on his artillery and, therefore, provided no protection in its rear. Second, Peter held his cavalry too far behind his infantry lines for effective use when it was needed.

At the beginning of the battle, Barney Custer was with Von der Tann and the Royal Horse on the heights above the city. Having a clear view of both the enemy’s artillery and advancing skirmish lines, Barney quickly concluded that Peter’s artillery must be silenced. If the royalist infantry advanced into the open field, they would be cut to pieces. If they waited for the artillery to cease of its own accord, they would have to fight with their backs to the very walls of the city.

Barney knew the crisis was at hand even as the battle began. Ordering Von der Tann to take command of the infantry, Barney led the Royal Horse through the woods to the east of the city for an assault on the artillery on the knoll. Barney had instructed Von der Tann to begin a cautious infantry assault, and with the enemy’s artillery so distracted in repositioning their pieces to accommodate this advance, the Royal Horse reached their rear undetected. Barney himself led the charge the flooded through Peter’s caissons. A crisis occurred when Barney’s horse was shot under him. He survived the tumble and remounted another horse to find the knoll won and the regent’s artillerymen fleeing down the hill and spilling onto the battlefield.

The battle on the slope was then quick and one-sided for the royalists. The Royal Horse’s charge out of the wooded ridge to the east of the regent’s infantry was Von der Tann’s signal to order a torrid advance down the slope. Peter, with his cavalry a half-mile behind his own infantry line, was helpless. Before his cavalry could possibly reach the battle, his saw the right of his line crumbling. To avoid a complete route, Peter ordered a slow and orderly retreat to a suburb in the valley below the city. The First Battle of Lustadt was over.

The Aftermath

Peter’s decision to retreat was wise. It kept casualties to a minimum on both sides and left him one last chance to attain the throne through political intrigue. In a conference after the battle, Peter was able to raise doubts among Lutha’s nobles that it was the real Leopold who they were supporting. Peter was allowed freedom of movement within the country and a chance to prove his contention that the real Leopold was dead.

Peter, however, was unable to recover from his loss on the battlefield. The battle ended shortly before 9 a.m., and a king had to be crowned by noon the same day. In those three hours, Peter was able to put Leopold’s life in danger, but Barney Custer again proved to be more than a match for Peter. When Barney escorted Leopold into the cathedral at noon, the regency ended for good, and the boy king came into his own.

Accepted by all and secure in his kingship for the first time, Leopold aggressively sought to dispose of his two Rubinoth rivals. Peter was arrested and Barney Custer fled the country after learning he too was to be imprisoned. The dynastic struggles of Lutha seemed revolved forever.

However, there were other forces at work in the Balkans. Within two years they would cause coveting eyes to focus on Lutha. The assassination at Sarajevo and Leopold’s paranoid leadership conspired to bring another larger, bloodier battle to the city of Lustadt in less than two years.

(Source: The Mad King by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
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