Näfelser Fahrt (Näfels Ride)
Heinrich Speich, Lebendige Traditionen, Federal Office of Culture FOC, version June 2018
Translation into English by Patrick A. Wild 2023
On 9 April 1388, a group of about six hundred Glarner, supported by Uri and Schwyz, defeated a far superior Austrian army. This army was to return the territory of Glarus to its lords, the Dukes of Austria from the House of Habsburg, and to punish unlawful actions by the Glarner in the Linth plain. The army advanced far into Glarus territory, but the enemies were then overwhelmed and driven back at the cattle raid near Näfels. This victory is commemorated by the Näfelser Fahrt with a commemorative service, procession and political speech. The celebration is part of public life in the canton of Glarus and combines spiritual commemoration of the dead in the late Middle Ages with secular patriotic state celebrations in the tradition of 19th century battle celebrations. Up to a thousand people take part in the celebration each year.
The Näfelser Fahrt is a combination of a bank holiday and a religious celebration. The participation of wide circles and up to a thousand visitors each year underline the support of the population.
The Battle of Näfels on 9 April 1388
In the battle of Näfels on 9 April 1388, an army of about six hundred Glarner supported by Uri and Schwyz defeated a far superior army. This force, led by Count Donat of Toggenburg, was to restore the territory of Glarus to its rightful masters, the Dukes of Habsburg-Austria, and to punish unlawful actions by the Glarner in the Linth plain.
The plan went thoroughly wrong. The main force scattered the Glarus troops deployed to defend the Letzi, but did not pursue them. So, they were able to gather on the slope in Schneisigen south of Näfels, overpower the dispersed enemy in the cattle raid and drive them back across the Maag bridge near Weesen. In the process, 500 to 2,500 men were killed on the Austrian side, and fifty Glarner, two from Schwyz and two Uri men fell.
The course of the battle is described in the so-called Fahrtsbrief. This "official" account is contained, among other places, in the Old Country Book of Glarus of 1448 and was written between 1410 and 1440. Thus, the information in Aegidius Tschudi's Schweizerchronik seems possible, according to which the Fahrtsbrief was written shortly before 1426, while the so-called Jahrzeit as a commemorative celebration was probably already introduced one year after the battle was fought.
The celebration itself grew out of the ecclesiastical anniversary celebration and became state-run. The execution was subject to the partly handed down Fahrtsmandaten (official notices). The "Fahrt", as the people of Glarus call it in simplified form, still takes place today on the first Thursday in April (if it falls during Holy Week, it does not take place until Easter Week) and is thus the oldest state celebration in Switzerland that is still celebrated regularly.
Participation in the journey seems to have been obligatory for men even before the Reformation; those who did not attend were threatened with heavy fines. After the Reformation, tensions arose over the schedule, so that between 1655 and 1835 the Reformed stayed away from the Catholic celebration and celebrated the day as the Day of Prayer in their churches. Guests were always present: a delegation from Schwyz, from Rapperswil and from Weesen, sporadically the abbots of St. Gallen and Einsiedeln.
Today, its execution is subject to the "Law concerning the celebration of the Näfelser Fahrt", passed by the Landsgemeinde in 1835. The patriotic spirit of the 19th century made it possible to reintroduce a joint celebration of Protestants and Catholics under the direction of the state. It was meticulously recorded how the celebration was to proceed.
The Näfelser Fahrt is a partially secularised procession with an act of state. The schedule of the celebration is published in the official gazette the week before. At 7.15 a.m. the military company of honour with the harmony music, the tambourines and some club flags marches from the Glarus armoury along the closed main road to Netstal. More and more participants join the procession as the march progresses. At Büel, a hill north of the village, the victims of a mine-throwing accident in 1941 are commemorated and a wreath is laid.
The military and music march on along the main road to Schneisigen, a hillside south of Näfels, where the entire government soon arrives with women, who are driven in carriages from Glarus along the country road that has been closed for the occasion. Festival participants who do not want to or cannot walk the footpath from Netstal and Näfels use the regional train, which makes an extraordinary stop near Schneisingen.
While most of the participants continue along the rock face on the "Reformed Fahrtsweg" to Näfels, the Catholic procession follows the old paths, pausing for prayer, across the meadows to Schneisingen, from where they then follow the eleven memorial stones to the Fahrtsplatz, the battle memorial "bis gan Müllihüssern an dem brunnen" (to the Mülli houses at the fountain).
The first of the three official ceremonies takes place in Schneisingen. Shortly before 9 a.m., the government, the military and the participants in the procession arrive from the south, the processions of the people of the Lowlands from the north. The Landammann or the Landesstatthalter take turns to give a speech, which is musically framed by the Harmoniemusik and the Glarner Kantonal Gesangverein. Afterwards, the procession continues along the same route to the Fahrsplatz. The secular follows the ecclesiastical: the priests, the Franciscans of the Näfels monastery and the people praying at the memorial stones follow the lecture crosses and church flags. The route leads over worn paths and private properties and is specially made passable for the ride; watercourses are even spanned with temporary footbridges.
At 10 a.m., the second part will begin at the Fahrtsplatz in the old centre of Näfels. After the chorale "Grosser Gott, wir loben Dich" (Great God, we praise you), the historical Fahrtsbrief in 15th century German will be read out according to the original. The letter will be brought to the Fahrsplatz under police protection.
This is followed by the sermon. Since 1835, Catholic and Protestant sermons have again alternated, as was usually the case between 1532 and 1655. After another chorale, the crowd follows the music until the ceremony at the battle monument behind the Hilarius Church. At 11.30 a.m., two secular songs are performed there by the Kantonal Gesangverein and the Harmoniemusik, and the national anthem is intoned.
This concludes the journey for the Reformed participants and the military honour formation and they may visit the fair. In earlier times, Fahrtsmandate repeatedly forbade the participants to disembark before going to church, which indicates that the fair was already very attractive in earlier times. The Catholic service with High Mass and changing musical accompaniment takes place afterwards in the Hilarius Church.
The invited guests and the government then move to the banquet at the Hotel Schwert.
Commemoration and monuments
Battle celebrations have their origins in the medieval commemoration of the dead. According to Christian custom, masses were celebrated on the day of death so that the intercession of the saints could shorten the deceased's stay in purgatory. In the late Middle Ages, the collective commemoration of the fallen was often taken over by the towns or communities. In the case of Näfels, commemoration of the dead began soon after the battle. In 1389, the abbot of the Premonstratensian monastery of Rüti was allowed, with the permission of the people of Glarus, to take the fallen of the defeated party from the mass graves and bury them in the monastery of Rüti (Canton Zurich). There is no evidence of an actual battle celebration or regular commemoration before 1426, but it is probable. The first so-called battle chapel was probably built as early as 1389, renovated around 1470 and presumably demolished in the 16th century. The late Gothic successor building, consecrated in 1534, gave way to the present parish church in 1779. Since 1612, the ossuary of the then established cemetery has stood right next to the church. This was converted into a chapel between 1935 and 1938, and the building was henceforth called the Battle Chapel. The interior was painted with scenes of the battle, which were removed again in 1981 because they did not fit the use as a burial hall.
As at other Swiss battle sites, a memorial was erected for the Battle of Näfels. The eleven memorial stones may be seen as the original "monument" to the battle. They stand at unequal distances (between 123 and 261 metres) from Schneisingen across the Fahrtsplatz to the battle memorial located on the medieval Letziwall and mark stopping points in the procession. Their original function is unclear. If they really have a connection with the battle, it is conceivable that they lined the retreat route of the Austrians. Archaeological investigations revealed that the stones were replaced once or twice and partly moved.
Until the Reformation, Näfels belonged to the parish of Mollis. For this reason, the Glarus soldiers who died in the battle were probably buried in the Mollis cemetery. In 1838, the year after the abolition of the confessional division of Glarus, the names of the fallen from the Fahrtsbrief were inserted on cast iron plates in the gallery of the Reformed church in Mollis. At the inauguration of this "monument" on the occasion of the Fahrt of 1840, Landammann Dietrich Schindler arranged for the Catholic participants to hear the sermon in the Mollis church as an exception.
However, the commemorative plaques in Mollis were not an actual battle monument. In 1887, the district council refused to erect such a monument to mark the 500th anniversary. Leonhard Blumer, the spokesman for the opponents of the construction, argued that the (immaterial) Fahrt was the real monument to the battle. As a result, within two days 2,500 outraged Glarus citizens demanded an extraordinary Landsgemeinde to push through their wish for a monument. "The conservative gentlemen of the State Council do not want the people to be reminded too much of their freedom," was suspected to be behind the rejection - and the council relented. The site was bought and a contest announced. Fifty-one designs were received. The project of Alfred Romang from Basel was awarded the contract, the execution was the responsibility of C. Aebli-König from Ennenda. The delivery of the ashlars took place via specially built tracks in February 1888, and on 31 March the last bronze ornaments were put in place. Six months after the decision, the secular battle memorial was in place. It cost 29,000 Swiss francs and has been integrated into the Fahrt since its inauguration.
Still during the 15th century, a "battle song" was composed that reported on the course of the battle. The historian Aegidius Tschudi wrote his own version and embedded it in his "Chronicon Helveticum", while two other, independent versions appeared in the 16th and 17th centuries. These two songs in particular, printed as pamphlets, are likely to have had a wide circulation.
Today, the music societies take turns. In the odd-numbered years of the Catholic sermon, the Harmoniemusik Näfels plays, and on the "reformed journey" the Harmoniemusik Glarus plays. The songs performed are chosen by the Glarner Kantonal Gesangverein. For the past three years, the commissioned work "Mir Glarner fyred d Fahrt" (we Glarner celebrate the Fahrt) composed by the Glarus composer Franz Regli has been sung at the ride memorial. In the past, the songs were selected from the Fahrtsliederbuch(Fahrt song book). However, this songbook for male choirs has become obsolete since 1988, when women started singing.
The Näfelser Fahrt is accompanied by customs that underline the importance of the battle of Näfels for the population and provide evidence of its contemporary processing.
On this date, the alpine servants for the coming summer were recruited at the Restaurant Rössli, which is located at the Fahrtsplatz.
On the eve of the Näfelser Fahrt, which is a cantonal holiday in Glarus, the Fahrtschiessen (Fahrt shooting competion) is held in Mollis with pistol (50 metres) or assault rifle (300 metres mounted). In 2011 the shooting, organised by a specially founded association, took place for the 62nd time. Commemorative shootings have a long tradition in Switzerland. The best-known shootings on the occasion of battle celebrations are the Morgarten Shooting and the Dornach Shooting - which has not taken place since 1874 - in memory of the battle of 1499.
Somewhat less well known is the boys' custom of Elm, which reenacts the Battle of Näfels in the "Fährtlen". The boys - and only the boys - of the village gather on the afternoon of the Fahrt and re-enact the battle of 1388 with flags and wooden weapons. For this purpose, a "captain" is elected from the sixth-graders. After about two hours of fighting, the participants parade through the village on a stretcher with a posed wounded man and are each rewarded with a bottle of "Elmer Citro" at the Elm mineral springs. The origin of the custom is unclear. However, it seems to have been established around 1910. According to oral reports, individual flags and equipment come from the youth festival in Matt on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the Confederation in 1891.
The Reformed pastor in Linthal, Bernhard Becker, published a "Poem in Swiss Dialect" on the journey in 1852 under the pseudonym "Ander Linth", after he had already published a poem on the Landsgemeinde in 1849.
A comparable development to that in Näfels took place in Sempach, where a chapel was erected soon after the battle there in 1386, which was replaced by today's battle chapel in 1472/73. However, the traditional procession was cancelled in Sempach in 2011. It had increasingly been used for right-wing propaganda. Counter-demonstrations were held and the police had to intervene. In Näfels, political demonstrations or appropriations of the celebration have not occurred so far.
Further Literature (all in German)
Jürg Knobel, Steve Ellington: Eindrücke von der Näfelser Fahrt 8.April 2010 (DVD). Glarus, 2010
Kantonales Komitee "600-Jahr-Feier Schlacht bei Näfels" (Ed.): 1388-1988: Das Jubiläum. Glarus, 1989
Josef Schwitter: Zur Fahrtsfeier. In: Glarner Nachrichten, 9 April 1980
Fritz Stucki: Aus der Geschichte der Näfelser Fahrt. In: Varia zur Glarner Geschichte. By Fritz Stucki. Glarus, 1983, p. 11-21
Heinrich Stüssi et al.: Fry! Fry! Das Land Glarus und die werdende Eidgenossenschaft zwischen 1351 und 1388 (Neujahrsbote für das Glarus Hinterland). Schwanden, 1987
Ernst Tremp: Schlacht bei Näfels. In: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz. Bern, 2009