Lucerne's most poignant, almost heartbreaking, sight is the Löwendenkmal (Lion Monument), a memorial to the 786 officers and men of the Swiss Guards who, in 1792, died at the hands of a Parisian revolutionary mob while protecting Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

In dying agony, his heart pierced by a lance, the lion holds a protecting paw over the shield of the Bourbon kings. It is difficult to describe the emotional impact of this work, sculpted in rock out of a quarry wall. Mark Twain called it the "most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world."

So why did Swiss soldiers die defending a French king?

From the beginning of the 14th century, and for several hundred years, the Swiss, in defending their land against invaders, became known as the best fighters in Europe. However, after a significant defeat at Marignano, Italy, in 1519, they adopted a policy of neutrality and thereafter rented their famous warriors to other countries.

One customer was the French king, Louis XVI, who hired them as bodyguards. Louis, however, was most unpopular and the French revolutionaries detested the Guards. Still, the Swiss had given their oaths and were determined to obey his commands.

When things began to heat up and the crowd was asking for his head, the King tried to give up the guard and save his own life. He sent a message to the Swiss barracks for the guard to disband. It was misunderstood and the soldiers, prepared to die to save the King's life but outnumbered 100 to 1, fought their way to his side, losing 50 men in the process. With the mob at his gates, Louis ordered the guardsmen to lay down their arms. Aghast, they vehemently protested, finally complying with tears of frustration. Unarmed and helpless, they were engulfed and torn apart by the mob. The Lion Monument depicts their death.

Sources: One Million Mercenaries: Swiss Soldiers in the Armies of the World, by John McCormack, Leo Cooper, London, 1993.

The Swiss at War 1300-1500, by Douglas Miller and G.A. Embleton, Osprey Publishing Ltd, London, 1979.