Wood Brothers Expeditions Blog
Episode 4 - Over the Alps
Probably the most famous part of Hannibal’s invasion march to Italy was his crossing of the Alps. Getting a huge army and herd of war elephants across the mountains in autumn was a phenomenal feat – even though he did lose a substantial portion of his men. In episode 4 of the series tonight (8:30pm, BBC4, UK only, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00td4n6/On_Hannibals_Trail_Over_the_Alps/) we attempt to find out which way he went over these huge mountains.
One of the crossings we were interested in is called the Col de Clapier. I reached it by riding over the Col de Galibier (a climb often included in the Tour de France) and heading up the Marienne Valley. If Hannibal had used Clapier to get to Italy he probably wouldn’t have come this way but rather from Grenoble. Somewhere near modern day Bramans he would’ve headed south east towards the pass. This valley is initially fairly steep and wooded. A one lane road winds up it now which passes a chalet built in the 1920’s by an English Archaeologist and Hannibal fanatic Mark Antony Lavis-Trafford. He spent much of his life here trying to prove Hannibal used this pass to cross the Alps. His chalet is now a lodge which was closed when we passed – between the summer hiking and winter ski seasons. After some scrambling you get up and out of the forest and into rocky highlands. According to our guide the valley has been fought over for centuries and only since World War II has it been safe for farmers to move in so the area still has a very isolated feel. Five more hours of steady hiking and you get to the top of the pass. It's difficult but not impossibly hard and very easy to imagine Hannibal and his men doing the same thing all those years ago.
BBC Breakfast News from Monday 19th July:
Anniversary: The Battle of Cannae
August 2nd is the anniversary of the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal's greatest victory against ancient Rome. It's one of a handful of ancient battles that still gets frequently mentioned outside military history books. The clash took place on the wide coastal plain near the modern town of Barletta (known for its symetrical Swabian Castle and the Colossus of Barletta) on Italy's eastern, Apulian coast. When we cycled into the area, it was easy to get the sense that an epic conflict had taken place here. Visible from the saddles of our bicycles and extending for miles in either direction, stood thousands of fleshy grape-vines, resolute in their rows, like well drilled soldiers waiting for battle. If you ride up to the hilltop of Cannae and visit the museum there, you can wander through the ruins of a medieval village to a column that marks a viewing point over the battlefield. If you can't take a trip right now, you'll see all that in episode 5 of On Hannibal's Trial when it airs on BBCFour and on BBC i-player on 16th August!
Here are some reasons why the Battle of Cannae is not forgotten...
Bloodiest Day of Battle Ever
The death toll from this horrific clash is often hailed as the bloodiest single day of battle ever. Polybius estimates that close to 70,000 Romans died and modern historians generally accept a figure approaching that. A quick check of internet discussion groups on this topic and you'll read that battles like Borodino and Panipat are mentioned as possible competitors with Cannae for this gruesome glory, but usually Cannae comes out on top.
The Pincer Movement is Born
Cannae is also remembered because Hannibal is credited with, if not inventing, at least being the first we know about in detail to successfully carry out a new military tactic: double envelopment or the pincer movement. Hannibal's use of this tactic at Cannae is still seen as a perfect example of how a smaller army can destroy a larger one. In short, Hannibal allowed his centre line to give, the Romans followed and then Hannibal crushed the Romans from the sides with his heavy infantry and from the rear with his cavalry. We try to recreate this in episode 5 of On Hannibal's Trail by running around the battlefield pretending to be the two contending armies. I'm not sure that we explain what happened very well, but we had fun doing it.
The Generals Still Love it
General Norman Schwarzkopf, Commander of the Coalition forces that invaded Iraq in 1991 said, "I learned many things from the Battle of Cannae which I applied to Desert Storm." Given that General Schwarzkopf had other advantages during operation Desert Storm, like massive technological and air superiority over the Iraqis, it would be hard to assess how much Hannibal helped him, but commanders including Napoleon and Rommel have all paid tribute to the Carthaginian's tactics at Cannae and tried to emulate him. Military Colleges still mention Hannibal in their training manuals and often those same instructors, like Robert L. O'Connell (The Ghosts of Cannae) and John Keegan (A History of Warfare), are writing some of the books we read about Hannibal and the Punic Wars.
Cannae is regarded by military historians as a sign of Hannibal's genius because he not only effectively invented a new tactic, but he perfectly carried it out. Perfectly because he totally destroyed the Roman armies opposing him. Scholars say this battle set new standards for speed of movement, manoeuvrability and flexibility of command. The Carthaginian probably had a degree of luck but there is little doubt that he had incredible control over his army's movements. Not only was Hannibal on campaign in a foreign land, fighting an army twice his size, just communicating simple orders to his mulit-ethnic force, let alone demanding Olympic standard manoeuvres, would have been very complicated. In that light, victory at Cannae was all the more amazing. But so was Rome's recovery in the years that followed, perhaps the main reason we remember Cannae.
Has anyone visited the battlefield at Cannae? What did you think?
Does anyone know which author started the reference to Cannae as the bloodies single day of battle ever?
Has anyone attended a military college somewhere and heard Hannibal mentioned?
Tonight, On Hannibal's Trail, Episode 3, 'Crossing the Rhone', broadcasts at 830pm on BBCFour and the BBC i-player:http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t6skb
Dweeb surfer types
A very funny review from the Independent:
The programme is on the BBC website here too:
Blog of a blog
This is a blog about a blog I wrote for the BBC TV blog blog:
Just in case we hadn't told you already the first episode of the documentary airs in the UK tonight at 8:30pm on BBC4.
The Press Reaction...
"Tour de Warrior" The Sunday Times, 18th July
"The story's a cracker...Part-travelogue, part-history lesson" Timeout, 15th July
"Well-informed and surprisingly engaging" The Observer, Sunday 18th July, 'Picks of the Day'
"You can feel their pain." The Guardian, Saturday 17th July, 'Pick of the Day'
"...a jolly and informative ride." Daily Mail, Weekend, Saturday 17th July.`, 'Pick"
"The idea...is a good one. The result is enjoyable too." Telegraph, Review, Saturday 17th July, 'Digital Choice'
BBC Programme page is live
The BBC have just published a page on their website about the documentary:
The first episode is called Hitting the Road and you can view a clip (UK only) from it here:
July 19th on BBC Four...Hannibal!
The BBC has confirmed a broadcast date for the series and it's very soon! The six episodes of On Hannibal's Trail will transmit in the UK on BBC Four starting in less than two weeks time: Monday July 19th at 830pm!
Jama Charity Fund
We have started up a charity fund to help the village of Jama. This is possibly where Hannibal fought his last great battle against Scipio, known as the battle of Zama and it was where we ended our journey following Hannibal's Trail.
We are aiming to raise 3000 US dollars which will be used to improve living conditions in the village, possibly either the school building or the water supply. We saw the current water system which was a well about 500 metres from the village which kids on donkeys would regularly go to to fill up from.
It was amazing to see 2000 year old Roman water works right next to this village which were more sophisticated than the village's current system.
Please have a look at http://woodbrothers.tv/page/Jama-Charity-Fund.aspx or click on the link on the right - Donate to find out more.
Sam, Danny and Ben
Danny walking in front of the Roman ruins at Zama /Jama. Behind these are rows of vast barrel vaulted Roman water cisterns.
Off to the well for water
First clip from the series is on YouTube - race up Mont Ventoux
The BBC guys have just put a clip from the series on the internet. It shows our race up Mont Ventoux and is on YouTube here:
Visiting the New Rome
I was recently in Las Vegas where I called in on a modern reincarnation of Hannibal's old enemy. As you probably know, Caesars Palace is one of those incredible hotel and casino complexes along the city's 'Strip', this particular one attempts to recreate the grandeur of ancient Rome with statues, temples, a forum and plenty of excess.