At one place, midway through the gorge, the track became so narrow and the walls of the cliffs closed in so tightly that Hannibal’s men were only able to walk three or four abreast, “with one foot on land and the other in the river.” The walls on either side were so high that even at midday they blocked the rays of the sun. The first attack came as the baggage train was passing through this section and the rear guard under Hannibal’s command had just entered the gorge. The Gauls had stockpiled small boulders and rocks at key points along the ledges, to be rolled down on the column. The tribesmen charged the rear of the column and Hannibal ordered the heavy infantry to turn in formation and face them. The attacking Gauls were stopped by a solid wall of extended spears and interlocking shields. While the heavy infantry under Hannibal’s command held the Gauls at bay, they could not help those who were already deep in the gorge as rocks and debris rained down on them from the cliffs above. The roar of the falling rocks blended with the terrified shouts and cries of those below who were powerless to shield themselves.
Unable to find shelter from the hail of death, soldiers and civilians alike pressed themselves against the walls of the gorge in desperation—walls which offered little or no protection. The cries of the wounded and dying were smothered by the noise and confusion around them. Officers in the line tried their best to maintain order and encourage the ranks to keep moving ahead as debris and the bodies of the crushed and mutilated, men and animals alike, blocked their path. As bodies and debris piled up, they choked the narrow river passage, yet the waters pushed their way through, indifferent to the slaughter going on as their color changed from the mineral green of pristine mountain streams to the blood-red of the wounded, dying, and dead.
After the boulders and rocks had done their damage, the Gauls let loose with an unrelenting barrage of arrows and spears. Wounded animals reared out of control, thrashing out and causing as much injury to those around them as the weapons of the Gauls. The slaughter in the gorge continued for hours, sometimes lighter in one area and heavier in another. In one place the attack was so concentrated that the tribesmen descended to the floor of the gorge and separated Hannibal and his heavy infantry from his cavalry and elephants at the front. The light infantry and the baggage train suffered the most, while at the front of the column many of the elephants became uncontrollable in the confined spaces as the Gauls from the heights above did everything in their power to torment them. Eventually their handlers regained control and used them to clear the pathway ahead of debris. The defile became a killing ground of unfathomable horror, a murderous gauntlet. Finally, the vanguard broke free onto a wide expanse in the valley ahead. When the tribesmen who were waiting for the survivors to exit saw the elephants emerge, they retreated in fright. Once the bottleneck was broken and cleared, the greater part of the column was able to extricate itself and regroup. By late in the day, only the last elements in the column were still being subjected to attacks, and Hannibal worked his way to the front, where he took command of the vanguard.
The losses resulting from the ambush raise questions about Hannibal’s ability as a leader. Why would an experienced commander have allowed himself to be drawn into such an obvious trap? Not once, but twice. Even some of the ancient commentators expressed surprise that a man of Hannibal’s experience and rank would have allowed his army to be placed in such a vulnerable position. Livy comments that Hannibal “nearly succumbed to the very tactics in which he excelled”—outthinking and outmaneuvering the enemy. Was Hannibal careless? Was he too anxious to get over the last barrier before the passes were sealed by snow and ice for the winter and thus allowed the Gauls to lure him in with the promise of a quick passage over the mountains? Did Hannibal underestimate the Gauls and their potential to mount such a sustained, fierce, and effective attack along the length of the gorge or did he find himself up against an exceptionally skilled rival commander who managed to get the upper hand? The Gauls were particularly effective in guerilla warfare, and after the Punic Wars ended, the Romans would engage them in a series of long campaigns that lasted until Julius Caesar pacified them in the middle of the first century B.C. Finally, Hannibal, because of his youth—he was not yet thirty at the time—might just have made a mistake, a tactical miscalculation that cost him almost half his army.
When the vanguard of Hannibal’s army broke out of the defile, they regrouped around a massive rock on the valley floor. They climbed over every part of it they could, hiding in its fissures and caves and building a crude defensive barrier against what they feared would be another attack. All through the night, soldiers, civilians, and animals, dazed and wounded, slowly made their way to the rock, and it was well into the next day before stragglers finally stopped coming. The location of that rock has figured prominently in efforts by historians and adventurers over the last two centuries to pinpoint the gorge and valley through which Hannibal passed. Only the dead and seriously wounded were left and there was nothing Hannibal could do for them. Unable or unwilling to risk sending a rescue force back into the gorge, he had no choice but to leave them behind. While the dead were beyond pain, it was the wounded who were to be pitied as the Gauls vented their anger on them over Hannibal’s escape.
By late in the second day, Hannibal had the column on the move once more and heading due east along the valley floor. There was no going back into the gorge and no way of knowing if there would be a way out of the valley ahead of them. For the moment, the Gauls were occupied in the gorge, stripping the bodies of the dead of any armor, weapons, or valuables they could find. As the column moved forward, smaller attacks against sections of the baggage train continued until a defensive perimeter was established using the elephants and the cavalry to protect the flanks of the main column. Hannibal was now moving blindly as the guides provided by the Gauls had either been killed in the fighting or run off. The hostages who survived the carnage were executed in retaliation. The column was now alone, hurt and demoralized, trapped in a valley from which they worried there might be no escape.
Where did the second ambush happen? The sources are clear it took place in “a steep and precipitous defile through which a river ran,” where the Gauls held the heights above, and the column was forced to march along a narrow track hemmed in by walls of rock. We know that Hannibal and his column marched for three days, probably thirty to forty miles, after he sacked the town of the first mountain tribe that had ambushed him. Hannibal could easily have covered that distance to the Comb du Queyras. At Mont Dauphin, the valley of the Durance divides. To the left, it continues past the fortified heights of Mont Dauphin, then Briancon, and by the Col du Montgenevre into Italy. To the right is the entrance to the Combe du Queyras, a treacherous, seven-mile-long gorge. The gorge opens into a small valley, which continues for another fifteen miles before it ends in a cul-de-sac framed by a ten-thousand-foot-high wall of precipitous rocks, snow, and ice dominated by Mount Viso, at fourteen thousand feet, the second highest peak in the French Alps.
A small but turbulent river, the Guil, flows through this valley into the Comb du Queyras, and finally reaches the Durance. It begins as a series of streams from the melting snows on the slopes of Mount Viso, which converge at the base of the mountain and form the river, which flows rapidly through the valley. When the river enters the gorge, it become a torrent until it exits, calms, and reaches the larger and slower-moving Durance at Mount Dauphine. This small river can suddenly turn so violent, that several times in the last century it has devastated the valley, destroying villages, bridges, and hamlets along its banks. The author witnessed its destructive power firsthand in the late spring of 2000 when the valley had to be evacuated. Avalanches, which can be equally destructive, are frequent and have made parts of the valley so dangerous that the French government has designated them zone rouge—meaning no one can live there during the winter months.
The valley floor is relatively level, and while not nearly as wide as the valley of the Durance, it has more than sufficient space for an army to pass. But once in, the only way out is by the highest and most difficult pass in the Southern Alps, a narrow ledge nestled in the arms of Mount Viso, known as the Col de la Traversette. The Traversette lies on the current border between France and Italy, and this is probably where Hannibal crossed into Italy.
As the column moved forward along the valley floor, the only resistance it now encountered came in the form of sporadic attacks against sections of the baggage train and the killing of stragglers who lagged too far behind to be protected. The Gauls avoided engaging the main body of the column, since Hannibal’s cavalry and elephants could easily reach any section under attack. Even the scouts who moved ahead of the column encountered only light resistance, and by late in the day they had reached the end of the valley and climbed to the top of the pass. Midway up the mountainside, between the valley and the pass, on a wide stretch of level ground fed by multiple streams, they established a base camp and waited for the remainder of the column to reach them. By the end of the day most of the soldiers had reached the camp and by nightfall the entire army was settled in. The ground on the side of the mountain had a light covering of snow, which was quickly cleared before the tents were erected and the fires started. For the next two days, the column remained in this makeshift camp, resting and tending to its wounds.
The army had suffered a terrible mauling in the gorge, soldiers were exhausted, many were wounded, and despair could be seen everywhere in the ranks. Provisions were in short supply, most having been lost in the fighting, and what remained was rapidly being consumed. Only water was plentiful since there were several streams on the mountainside and the snow, which was everywhere, could be melted. Starvation, coupled with exposure, now took over where the Gauls had left off—moving in first among the wounded and taking the weakest. Then it began to affect even the hardiest among the soldiers. Animals that had been wounded or died were quickly butchered and eaten. The suffering and hunger darkened the mood of despair, a despair that was reflected on the somber and gaunt faces of thousands huddled around the campfires.
Anxious to see the pass, Hannibal was among the first to reach it, taking in the view of Italy that unfolded before him—a view which even today takes the breath away. Visible below was the Po River and in the distance the vast plains of northern Italy. Over the last five months, Hannibal had led his army over a thousand miles, fighting for nearly every mile just to reach this spot—the last barrier to Italy. While his army was weak, it was still intact, and what now remained was to get the soldiers, horses, and elephants down from this mountain and into Italy as quickly as possible with a minimum of casualties.
The engineers began to prepare a pathway from the base camp to the summit and then to plan their descent. Because of the nature of the Alps, climbing to the pass from the French side is relatively easy compared to the descent into Italy. The climb, while steep in some sections, is generally gradual, with no difficult passages. The author has done it on multiple occasions, with a full pack, in less than three hours—admittedly under perfect conditions—while his close friend and guide, Bruno Martin, can do it in half that time. The descent into Italy is another matter entirely. There is nothing gradual about it—it is steep and treacherous, almost vertical in some sections. It is so treacherous that before Hannibal could reach the valley floor in Italy, he would lose nearly as many men as he had in fighting the Gauls.
The soldiers rested while the engineers worked on stabilizing the approach to the pass by widening it. When the grading was completed, they were gradually moved to the pass above. Hannibal was waiting for them with words of encouragement. He urged them to take heart and continue, pointing out the view of Italy below and describing the long-awaited rest that awaited them in the lush valley below. He inspired as many as he could with his optimism and explained to all who had the strength or the inclination to listen how close they were to the end of their ordeal. After this, he promised, it was “all downhill” and after “a fight or two,” the Romans would surrender, the war would be won, and they would all go home rich, famous, and contented.
The worst was far from over. The descent into Italy would be fatal to many, especially those worn out from the fighting, weak from hunger, drained by despair, or just unlucky. Men and animals would be lost in alarming numbers on the ledges before the army would once more feel level ground beneath its feet. Death was far from finished with them, and what the Gauls had not completed in their ambushes, nature would try to finish on this mountain. Periodically, small bands of Gauls appeared, seemingly from out of nowhere, to attack sections of the struggling column, and then withdrew just as quickly, disappearing into the rocks and crevices from which they had so unexpectedly emerged.
As the engineers worked on grading the descent, they discovered what appeared to be a narrow path just below the pass that was partly covered by snow. During World War II, sections of this track were purposely destroyed by the French to prevent its use by invading Italian and German soldiers, and after the war, to discourage smugglers. The going was slow and tedious, made worse by intermittent falling snow, wind, and numbing cold. A fresh layer had settled on top of the old snow from the previous winter, and while the first elements of the vanguard could pass easily over it, those who followed quickly found they were in trouble. The fresh snow, trampled by those who had passed first, turned into a slush that quickly froze into a layer of ice.
Soldiers began to lose their footing. A stumble could result in a slide, and a slide often could not be arrested because a falling body on the steep slopes gains momentum quickly. If a slide could not be arrested within seconds, there was little to be done to stop a man or an animal from going over the edge. At ten thousand feet, there is nothing to hold onto. The unlucky or careless ones who stumbled and slid clawed desperately around them to find anything that might stop their slide to the certain death that awaited them below. Pack animals, burdened with what remained of the supplies and equipment, would often drive their hoofs through the soft top layer of snow and become stuck in the layer below. As they struggled to free themselves, driven by their panic and whipped by their handlers, they would fall, snapping their brittle legs and sealing their fate.
With the engineers leading the way, the column worked its way slowly down the eastern face of the mountain. The farther they descended, the more difficult the pathway became, and accidents occurred with increasingly fatal frequency. Men and animals were swallowed by the yawning black chasms below them. For any who slid to the end of a precipice and teetered there, rescue was often impossible. They had to be left lying by the edge until, weakened by exposure or despair, they simply gave up and slipped into the abyss. After having descended only a few hundred feet below the summit, the column suddenly came to a halt. The track ended—destroyed by a landslide and taken away vertically for several hundred feet. Try as they might, the engineers could not find a way around. As word of what happened was passed back along the column, some soldiers began to panic while others lapsed into so deep a despondency that they simply gave up and, falling upon their packs, waited for death to come for them.
When word reached Hannibal, he worked his way to the front, reassuring the soldiers in line as he passed that it was only a temporary obstacle. When he reached his engineers, all agreed the only solution was to create a new ledge above the old one. Initially they made progress because they could obtain footing in the fresh snow, but they reached a point when the footing became too treacherous because of the angle of the slope, and the column was forced to settle in for the night. Each soldier had to make the best of where he stood. Some were able to turn back, going over the pass and then down to the base camp where the horses and elephants were kept. Nearly thirty thousand men were on the mountain, praying to their gods that the weather would not worsen or the Gauls attack. When temperatures fell that night, death came once more to carry off the weakest in body and spirit.
Construction of the new ledge came to a stop when the engineers encountered a large rock that blocked their progress. So much time and effort had been involved in chipping out the new track that they had no choice but to find a way to dislodge it. The size, weight, and position of the rock made moving it impossible, so they set about to destroy it, using a process which has been utilized by farmers for centuries to clear their land. The engineers would render the rock friable. A relay was set up that stretched back over the pass and down to the tree line. In the heavily forested slopes, dead wood was collected and trees felled. The wood was hauled as far as possible by elephant, horse, and mule and then passed along from there by human relay to the engineers working on the other side.
The engineers used the wood to build an enormous fire around the rock and fed it all through the night. Aided by a favorable wind which fanned the fire, the rock became hotter as the hours passed. When the rock was sufficiently heated, the soldiers passed along their rations of sour wine, which the engineers poured over it. Sour wine is essentially vinegar, and its acetic content caused the hot surface to develop multiple fissures. The engineers then set to work with iron picks and in short order destroyed enough of the rock to continue creating their ledge.
Once the rock had been disposed of, the work went quickly. Within a day, the vanguard of the column was able to safely reach the valley floor in Italy, and by the next day the track had been widened sufficiently to enable the horses and the supply train animals to be led down. It took three more days and nights for the main part of the column to reach the Po Valley below—a descent that under ideal weather conditions the author has done in less than two hours. When it was over, nearly thirty thousand men, horses, pack animals, and elephants had been taken over the pass and then brought down on the Italian side. But the cost was high. Hannibal’s army sustained more casualties than in any of the multiple river crossings and battles they had fought in the five months since leaving Spain. When the soldiers were assembled and a final count was made, the magnitude of the losses was shocking. Hannibal had crossed the Rhone River nearly a month earlier with thirty-eight thousand soldiers and eight thousand horsemen. Now he was down to twelve thousand Africans, eight thousand Spanish, and a small number of mercenaries. His cavalry numbered six thousand, but miraculously, all his elephants survived. The highest number of casualties occurred in the two ambushes and in climbing over the last pass—all this happening in the short space of approximately two weeks.
In Italy, everything was green, the climate was temperate, and the food plentiful. The inhabitants on this side of the Alps, according to the sources, enjoyed a better quality of life than their unfortunate cousins on the French side. Hannibal’s soldiers established a base camp at the foot of the mountain and turned the starving animals out to graze on its lower gentle slopes, lush with vegetation. Thousands of feet above the camp, work continued for two more days as the track was widened enough to lead the elephants down. The army remained in camp, but recovery was not easy for men who had endured weeks of deprivation. They found it, at least in the initial stages, to be difficult both physically and psychologically. Hannibal’s soldiers “had come to look more like beasts than men,” and the sudden change from hard labor and exhaustion at the higher elevations to leisure and rest on the lower slopes, from hunger to plenty, from filth to clean living, affected them in a multitude of ways, not all of them positive.
While the crossing of the Alps has been traditionally regarded as Hannibal’s greatest feat, or at least the one that placed him in the history books and immortalized him in the popular imagination, it can just as easily be classified as one of great failure. The fact that Hannibal made it over the mountains and to Italy tends to overshadow his losses. The Alps are a dangerous place—even today they claim on average some two hundred lives a year according to French authorities. But as this author has learned from firsthand experience, despite their imposing presence, they can be crossed quickly when weather conditions are stable. The author has gone over the Traversette, into Italy, and back to France well over twenty times during the last few years, admittedly under ideal conditions. It is possible to reach the pass from the French side in three hours, enjoy the view, descend to the Italian side in another two hours, have a substantial lunch of pasta and sausage at a nearby farmhouse, then reclimb the pass and return in time for a late dinner—all in one long but fulfilling day.
Hannibal’s losses crossing the Alps hobbled his army and perhaps even compromised his ability to defeat Rome in the end. He lost close to half his army, and to replenish their numbers he now had to recruit among the less dependable Gauls in northern Italy. Now the war between Hannibal and Rome would begin in earnest and in the end it was a war that would be decided not by ability and courage, but by the passage of time and the crunching of numbers—neither of which were in Hannibal’s favor.