Elephants? You can keep them. Hard to provision, arrogant overpaid mahouts, trumpeting keeps us awake all night. And as a fighting force? Questionable at best.
I’m not prejudiced against them. I fought for Hamilcar in Spain. You should’ve seen his elephants trample down the enemy when we surprised them from behind. But no good for frontal attacks, too precious to risk losing to organised spearsmen. They turned our battles from victories into massacres. Still, they’re over-rated. Historians and couriers brag about our elephants to make enemies tremble; good propaganda. Elephants are OK, in their place.
But these mountains aren’t their place, and those Romans don’t tremble much. It’s cold up here, paths rough and steep, food and fodder hard to come by. One elephant eats the weight of three men – each day, every day. We had forty elephants – I didn’t say that, it’s a military secret – and need a thousand men to supply them; two days to walk down the mountains, time to gather fodder from unwilling farmers, four or five days to carry it back up. A thousand men who could be fighting, being worn out like pack animals. Misuse of resources, I call it, and I’ve a-soldiered all my life.
Hannibal’s a great general, I’ll grant, but not what his father was. Green, needs more seasoning to understand the practicalities of campaigning. Like weather. It’s snowed for weeks, we’re not dressed for that. Everybody’s half-frozen, fingers numb, clothes wet, teeth chattering. Probably elephants feel the same. They’re bad-tempered, the mahouts too, mistakes happen. Like this one. Who’d put an elephant at the head of a marching column? No enemy to impress, no charge to lead. Send your dumbest infantrymen ahead to path-find, let the more valuable, more heavily-loaded troops follow. But no, this mahout wants to get down the mountain, out of fog and snow, back to the sunshine and a warm fire before nightfall. So he pushes ahead and what’s next? Elephant up to its neck in a snow-filled gorge, that’s what, then half the day lost trying – lots of hope and effort, no success – to get it out. Whole army held up, path blocked, getting dark and it’s another night on the mountain. No way to plan a march.
It’s not the only time it’s happened. I said forty elephants? That was after the Pyrenees, before these Alps. We’ve lost a fifth already, we’ll be lucky to get twenty down to the plain. Maybe only one – he’ll do anything for that Syrian brute, treats it like nobility, has artists draw it. It’s personal aggrandisement, making a cult of himself and his elephant.
We’ll never get this one out, not worth the effort. If it was dead instead of trumpeting its head off, I’d consider cutting it out in pieces for the meat. No, leave it, we’ve got a war to wage. Maybe in a millenium somebody will come by, find it frozen and wonder what in Hades an elephant’s doing buried in the snow.
Copyright 2016 Flight of Eagles