The Second Battle Lustadt
On November 6, 1912, Leopold Rubinoth was the unchallenged
King of Lutha. That morning, Barney Custer, whose Rubinoth blood made him
a possible claimant for the throne, fled Lutha with no plans to return.
Peter of Blentz, Leopold’s other rival, had been imprisoned the preceding
day after being defeated at the First Battle of Lustadt. Leopold seemed
firmly secure on the throne. Still, less than two years later, another
battle would occur involving these same three men.
A World at War
After the First Battle of Lustadt, Leopold ruled unchallenged
for 22 months. His rein was marked by arrogance, haughtiness, and petty
tyranny. The king’s days were spent in bed and his nights in excessive
drinking and carousing. Meanwhile, the machinery of government was grinding
to a halt, as taxes rose even higher than they had been in the corrupt
days of Peter’s regency. Still, Leopold might have kept his throne for
years had the country not been caught up in the grip of the irresistible
forces that swept out of the Balkans to engulf the world.
June 28, 1914, was a fateful day for Lutha. The assassination
in Sarajevo began a series of events that was to erase Lutha from the map
forever. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia a month after the
assassination, Lutha was destined to become involved. The tiny municipality
tried to retain its neutrality, but its location, nestled in the mountains
between the two Balkan powers, made keeping out of the war virtually impossible.
The Austrians coveted the strategic advantage that operating from Lutha’s
soil would give them, and the Serbians could not afford to allow their
enemy that advantage.
The Austrians were prepared to take Lutha by force, but
first made an effort to earn Leopold’s favor through political intrigue.
The job of winning over Lutha to the Austrian side was entrusted to Count
Zellerndorf, whose strategy was based on manipulation of Lutha’s insecure
king. First, the count convinced Leopold that if he did not side with Austria
in the war, he would not have a country to rule after the war. It would
be part of Austria. Second, Zellerndorf planted the suggestion in Leopold’s
mind that the anti-Austrian Ludwig von der Tann, long a staunch supporter
of the Rubinoth line, had designs on the throne. Leopold was assured that
Austria would protect his throne should the “envious” Von der Tann attempt
a coup. The paranoid Leopold weakened under the count’s manipulations,
and Austria would not doubt have had her way had not Barney Custer made
a sudden and unforeseen return to Lutha.
The Contenders Gather
The neutrality struggle indirectly caused the return
of Peter of Blentz and Barney Custer to Lutha. Imprisoned after the First
Battle of Lustadt, Peter had been able to escape the fortress at Lustadt
and cross over into Austria-Hungary. Without a power base, Peter probably
would have remained harmless to Leopold, except that the Austrians saw
their own advantage in the ambitions of the former regent. If Leopold could
not be convinced, he could be disposed of, and Peter put in his place as
an Austrian puppet. With that in mind, Zellerndorf convinced Leopold to
grant Peter a pardon, reasoning that the king needed Peter in Lutha to
counter the growing influence of Von der Tann. In August 1914, Peter again
crossed into his native country, free to renew his efforts to gain the
Peter’s impatience, however, resulted in the return to
Lutha of Barney Custer, who had thwarted Peter’s designs two years before.
In an effort to ingratiate himself with Leopold, Peter sent a man to America
to assassinate Custer, who had enraged the king by stealing the affections
of Emma von der Tann. When the assassination attempt failed, an angry Barney
decided to track down the assassin. On August 23, 1914, Barney drove a
stolen Austrian staff car across the border into Lutha. The three Rubinoth
contenders were once again within Lutha, and the Second Battle of Lustadt
was little more than a week away.
Crisis Builds to Battle
A crisis developed and moved quickly to force of arms
in Lutha. Zellerndorf convinced Leopold a show of solidarity with Peter
was necessary to slow Von der Tann’s ambitions. After the duped Leopold
was safely isolated at Blentz, an Austrian army crossed the border and
occupied Lutha. Denied access to Leopold at Blentz by Austrian soldiers,
Von der Tann rode to Lustadt and within 15 minutes of reaching the city,
ordered the mobilization of Lutha’s army. Four days later, on August 29,
Barney Custer was captured, taken to Blentz, and ordered executed the next
morning by Leopold. Taking advantage of his familiarity with the castle
(having been a captive there before) and his physical similarity to the
king, Barney was able to exchange places with the king and escape from
Blentz. As he had two years before, he decided to ride to Lustadt, hoping
to save Leopold’s throne for him. “For Leopold, Barney did not give the
snap of his fingers; but what Leopold, the king, stood for in the lives
and sentiments of the Luthanians—of the Von der Tanns—was very dear to
the American … and possible, too, it was dear to him because of the royal
blood his mother had bequeath him.”
Barney Custer, posing as Leopold, reached the palace in
Lutha’s capital city of Lustadt on the morning of August 30, 1914. After
receiving a report on the crisis from Von der Tann, Barney summoned General
Petko, the Serbian minister to Lutha. The two men struck a deal. In exchange
for Serbia loaning Lutha an army corps until the Austrians were chased
from Luthanian territory, Lutha promised to loan Serbia an army corps until
the war between Austria and Serbia ended. Barney then issued Zellerndorf
a demand that every Austrian soldier in Lutha be withdrawn by noon the
following day. “It will mean war!” the count replied. The Second Battle
of Lustadt was just hours away.
The Action on the First
The Austrians had been quartered in the north and eastern
portions of Lutha, and on the morning of August 31, 1914, they moved swiftly
down the road from Blentz to attack Lustadt from the north. In this encounter,
geography gave neither side an advantage. Unlike its sloping southern exposure,
Lustadt opened up onto a large, level plain to the north.
The first action occurred many miles from Lustadt. Barney
had sent his cavalry north toward Blentz to meet the advancing enemy. Along
the road, the first fighting was done, and the king’s horsemen fell back
slowly toward the capital, delaying the enemy’s movements. Finally, the
Austrians came within sight of the city and the long, thin lines of trenches
that stretched east and west to the north of Lustadt. The trenches were
manned by the Luthanian infantry, who, although fewer in numbers than the
invaders, fought heroically to hold their ground the first day. Artillery
fire from the forts on the heights to the north of the city helped to keep
the Austrians in check for hours.
Clearly Barney’s intention the first day was to hold his
ground and give the Serbians a chance to reach Lustadt sometime the next
day. However, when the enemy succeeded in bringing up its artillery to
a ridge just three miles north of Lustadt’s forts, in caused a panic in
the city. Shells exploding in the trenches, the forts, and the city, sent
a stream of frightened refugees fleeing southward. When Fort No. 2 was
put out of action and the infantry began falling back on the city, Barney
realized the battle could be lost before the Serbians arrived.
Hoping his presence would inspire Lutha’s soldiers, as
it did in the battle two years before, Barney rode to the front with his
staff. For the remainder of the day, he rode back and forth along the lines.
Although two horses were shot from beneath him, and three of his staff
were killed, the Luthanian line stopped wavering. Several trenches, previously
abandoned to the Austrians, were retaken. The enemy’s charges were repeatedly
repulsed until nightfall put an end to the first day’s action.
The Action on the Second
The first sun of September found the Luthanian lines
still holding, though greatly weakened. Again Austrian artillery fire began
to take a devastating toll in the Luthanian trenches, and the defenders’
reserves were nearly depleted. Barney decided that he could wait no longer
for the Serbians to arrive. He positioned his troops for a bold counter-attack,
which would decide the day one way or the other.
Barney’s plan involved a concentrated attack against the
enemy’s left side. When the Austrians rushed their reserves to bolster
their left, Barney planned to sneak through the trees to the west of the
plain with the last remaining fresh troops at his disposal and assault
the enemy’s unprepared right flank. However, just minutes before Barney
was to give the order to advance, he received word that the advancing Serbians
were only three miles away. The Luthanian attack was then launched, with
the cavalry and Colonel Kazov’s infantry making a determined assault on
the Austrian trenches. Luthanian Forts No. 3 and No. 4 were also ordered
to concentrate their fire on the enemy’s left. Meanwhile, Barney led his
reserves at a trot around the extreme left wing of his infantry and into
the cover of the trees.
Barney’s force emerged from the wood and was upon the
enemy almost before being noticed. “With hoarse shouts and leveled bayonets,”
the Luthanians charged the enemy and engaged in the bloodiest fighting
of the two-day battle. With the encouragement of their “king,” the Luthanians
slowly drove the Austrians from their trenches and pushed them back upon
the center of the invaders’ line. Here the Austrians made a determined
stand, but just before dark, all those fighting on the plain heard a great
shouting from the right where the Austrian artillery was stationed. What
they saw were Austrian artillerymen and infantrymen running down the slope
in a disordered fashion, pursued by soldiers firing under the Serbian battle
Closed in by the two allies, the Austrian forces were
helpless. With their artillery captured and their retreat closed off, surrender
was the only alternative to a massacre. A few regiments positioned closer
to Blentz were able to escape across the border, but the vast majority
of the Austrians went into captivity in Serbia. Ecstatic soldiers and citizens
lined the path of the king’s return to Lustadt. For the second time, Barney
Custer had led Luthanians to a great victory on the battlefield. The Second
Battle of Lustadt ended as had the first — in triumph for Leopold Rubinoth,
who was not even there.
The next few days were decisive in settling the dynastic
question that arose two years earlier. Both Leopold and Barney were wounded
in a shootout at Blentz caste the day after the battle. Leopold returned
to Lustadt as king the following day, but on that day, September 3, 1914,
was shot and mortally wounded by Captain Maenck, who thought he was fulfilling
his mission to kill Barney. The ambitions of Peter of Blentz ended forever
when he was tried by Lutha’s highest court, found guilty, and hanged. When
the story of Barney Custer’s involvement in the two battles was revealed
to the assembled houses of the Luthanian legislature, they voted unanimously
to offer the throne to Barney Custer. What he sought to avoid for so long,
now fell to him as a duty. Barney Custer became King of Lutha and took
Emma von der Tann as his queen.
Unfortunately, Lutha’s greatest victory on the battlefield
could not ensure her future existence. The voice of Lutha was too weak
to be heard when diplomats redrew the map of Europe after the world war.
Lutha was swallowed up, and today not even one of cities is large enough
to be marked on a map of the Balkans as a reminder that the municipality
of Lutha once existed there.
The village of Tafelberg is still there, however, as is
the store once kept by Herr Kramer. And the mountain people who gather
there early on summer evenings still remember the story of the Second Battle
of Lustadt. “Ah, it will be told and retold, handed down from mouth to
mouth and from generation to generation to the end of time,” thanks to
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “historical” account in The Mad King.
— The End —
(Source: The Mad King by Edgar Rice