On the night of 17 August 1689, 900 men ferried across the Lake of Geneva to the village of Yvoire. From there they proceeded by forced marches, climbing hills and scaling mountains, across the 130 miles which separated them from the Waldensian Valleys.

Preceded and followed by hostages taken in the villages along the way so as to avert any resistance, the commando column moved forward relentlessly, the exhausted and wounded left lying in the road. The surprise and the daring itinerary made it possible to avoid an encounter with Savoy troops, their only clash with French soldiers being at Salberstrand in the Susa valley on the night of the 23rd.

In spite of heavy losses the Waldensians were victorious. Seeing this “foreign legion” descending upon them, the Catholic people in the valleys abandoned their homes and took flight toward the plains to the east. The Germanasca Valley was freed without a struggle.

At Prali it was necessary to regroup and count losses. Casualties to this point numbered 30%, including those killed in action, wounded left along the road, scouts captured by the enemy, and some French who deserted. Henry Arnaud then seized the occasion of the liberation of the former Waldensian Church from its Catholic “idols” to preach a sermon on a text from Psalm 129, in which he sought to interpret for his companions the significance of the venture they were engaged in. This Protestant rampart to which they had come thus far, he said, had to be fully reconquered in order that Gospel preaching might once more be present in Catholic Piedmont. Theirs was not a march of nostalgia, but a combat by soldiers doing the will of the Lord. As one soldier recorded in his diary:

It is not possible to recount all that we suffered in the mountains, but our zeal was rekindled by the thought of returning to our homeland, there to reestablish the reign of Jesus Christ while we destroyed the idols of the anti-Christ.

This same determination was reaffirmed high in the Alps, during the course of an assembly when a pact of union was signed [see “The Covenant of Sibaud]. It was appropriately called a “covenant,” an expression borrowed from the Puritans that well reflects the temper of the times.

Here was a Protestant mini-army, carrying out its mission in the great anti-French battle. But it was an army of Waldensians, nourished by that community conscience which had been created by centuries of intensive struggle and debate. Outwardly, the soldiers could be identified by the little orange ribbons on their caps or jackets, the emblem of the House of Orange, leader of the anti-French coalition.

The exchange of vows between officers and men in this little army, however, was far from routine, expressing that solidarity which characterized Waldensian spirituality. It was not by chance that of two written texts that were the guiding lights of the undertaking, one was the Bible and the other a book of instructions on guerrilla warfare by one of their most daring and successful fighters from the 1655 resistance, Josue Janavel.

This little popular militia thus hurled a considerable challenge to their opponent, Catinat, and his army: a military challenge, because it represented the danger of an insurrection; but above all an ideological challenge, because this non-professional guerrilla army was not fighting merely for conquest, but to make a reality of its ideals.

“Liquidate the Waldensians immediately!” was the response of Catinat. Things did not turn out as he had ordered, however, and by winter the guerrilla force was well established in Piedmont. It became necessary to leave the Waldensian bands in their strongholds—on the crags overlooking the village of Balziglia.

The Longest Day

Months of cold, solitude and guerrilla raids took their toll; the Huguenot commander himself abandoned the undertaking. There were only 300 Waldensians who remained and even they were deprived of means of escape. At this point Henry Arnaud assumed the leadership. He had already played a decisive role in organizing the expedition, but now he became both the religious and military leader of the little Waldensian band, even as Josue Janavel had been in 1655.

In a sense, these men symbolized the two aspects in the Waldensian communities of the 17th century: Janavel, a peasant farmer rooted in the soil, Arnaud, the sophisticated intellectual.

Henry Arnaud was a wholly remarkable figure. Not without pride and frequently authoritarian, he nonetheless accomplished his task, organizing his 300 men and maintaining contact with the Protestant League.

If this little band of desperates, now buried under the snow, suffering from hunger and anxiety, were not turned into a band of plunderers, but grew in sense of vocation as a true Reformed community, it was due entirely to him and to the pounding rhythm of his preaching, where there was no thought of uncertainty of their cause and no surrender. Everything was focused on the battle in the coming Shrine.

The fateful day arrived on May 2nd. 4,000 French dragoons under the command of the Marquis de Feuquiere were lined up along the valley in full battle array. On the craggy heights above were 300 men, in rags, manning their trenches. In the pre-dawn silence the Waldensians held their last worship. The hymn heard down in the valley had nothing churchy about it; it was the 68th Psalm sung to a martial beat:

Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered:
Let them also that hate Him flee before Him.
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away:
As wax melteth before the fire,
so let the wicked perish.

The first assault of the French took place in a blinding snow storm among the trees of an overhanging slope. After a day of fierce hand-to-hand fighting it was repulsed. Once again the marquis attacked, this time after having commanded the peasants to roll his cannons up the steep inclines so that his artillery could get at the Waldensian defenses. After this pounding the trenches had to be abandoned, and the last Waldensian survivors gathered on a buttress awaiting their death. Then the totally unexpected happened.

During the night, while they were tending their bivouac fires, a deep fog descended on the whole area, allowing the Waldensians to escape. In this the Waldensians saw God’s hand. Confident of his victory, de Feuquiere had already dispatched word to Paris announcing the capture of the “barbeti.” Instead, the survivors were now on farther mountains, out of reach.

Still another event—equally unforeseen, but of far greater significance—was taking place at almost the same time. The unpredictable Vittorio Amedeus II a few days later broke his alliance with France and joined forces with England and Austria.

The Waldensians were saved! An order went out to free the last prisoners and pastors in Piedmont. Refugees returned home from Germany and Switzerland. Around the surviving nucleus of the 300 soldiers the community could begin rebuilding. It had been decimated and exhausted, but, amazingly, it was saved.

Giorgio Tourn is a Waldensian pastor in Torre Pellice in the Waldensian Valleys. He is the chairman of the Society for Waldensian Church History, and has written several books. This article is excerpted and adapted from his book You Are My Witnesses.