Starting in September 2020, once a month Switch (on Paper) will publish an excerpt from Jean-Yves Jouannais’ Encyclopédie des guerres (The Encyclopedia of Wars). What started out as an experiment in oral literature is gradually taking the form of a book, scheduled for release in 2030. Until then, we would like to bring you a few excerpts, published here in alphabetical order like the entries in a vast atlas of wars. Today’s entry is M for Mountains.
“After three hours of fighting, the mountain was won.”(Euclides da Cunha, Hautes Terres, La guerre de Canudos, translated from the Brazilian by Jorge Coli, Antoine Seel, Éditions Métailié, Paris, 2012, p. 288)
In his memoirs, Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer recounts the day he heard that a German mountain squad had climbed Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in the Caucasus. The German flag was now flying atop its 5 600m-high summit. This was mid-year, 1942, as the Wehrmacht was pushing toward the oil fields of Baku. The squad in question, a detachment from the Edelweiss division, thought it an achievement worthy of the highest feat of arms. But higher-ups considered the operation useless to say the least, a simple display of mountain-climbing acrobatics by adventure-craving fanatics. Albert Speer, who had witnessed many of Hitler’s angry outbursts, admits to having never seen him engage in such an outpour of invective. He could not stop ranting and raving about those “mountain-climbing morons.” He threatened to court-martial their commander, General Martinek, for risking the lives of his men in order to capture some idiotic mountaintop.
1/ Despite his success against the cohorts commanded by praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber, Spartacus renounced his initial project to march on Rome. He felt he still needed experience in the art of war, he knew his troops were not sufficiently armed, and no other city supported him. He preferred to conquer the mountains neighboring Thurii and overlooking the Gulf of Taranto. He defeated their heights. Some saw this as a lack of ambition. On the contrary, he wanted to gradually acclimate his men to the feeling of heights and therefore of success.
On October 30, 1938, the Nationalist counter-offensive began on Ebro. Lieutenant-colonel Garcia Valino launched his entire army into the last range of foothills north of the Sierra de Caballos. He defeated the first enemy entrenchments. On the summits, the battle continued the entire day. When night fell, the Nationalists were masters of the Caballos, and of the entire Republican defense network. The loss of these mountains was a terrible blow to the Republic, for they not only dominated the entire region, but were also considered beautiful, and those who possessed them felt an inexplicable pride.
On November 26, 1941, six Japanese aircraft carriers and their armada, under orders from Admiral Nagumo, left the discrete waters of the Kuril archipelago. The course was set for the Hawaiian Islands. On December 3, the official attack order arrived on the bridge of the Akagi aircraft carrier. The Imperial Council has chosen war. The attack on Pearl Harbor, in code, was called “Niitaka Yama Nohore” (“climb Mount Niitaka”).
The Indians, with their weapons, taunted Alexander from the top of a rock named Aornos. Large at the base, the rocky peak ended in a sharp point. At its foot pooled the Indus river; and on the other side, terrible ravines. According to legend, Hercules besieged it in vain. There was no other route of attack than by filling in the abysses. Alexander had the forest cut down and tree trunks piled into the ravine. After seven days the precipices were filled, and Alexander ordered his archers and the Dacians to climb the steep, craggy cliff. He asked thirty young people from his company to march with them. In the meantime, the Indians had fled and abandoned the rock. Alexander, having conquered nature rather than the enemy, nevertheless paid his debt to the Gods through sacrifices they would have received even with a brilliant victory. Altars to Minerva and Victory were erected. And he counted this victory, like all others, as one due solely to his military cunning.
“Better is Kabul without gold than without snow”
The highest summits of the Hindu-Kush, perpetually covered in snow, exceed 7 000 meters. The snow on their peaks is the main source of water for a country where it almost never rains. An Afghan proverb says: “Better is Kabul without gold than without snow.” The Battle of Maravar Pass was an operation led by the 1st Company of the 334th Group of Spetsnaz against the Afghan villages Sangam and Daridam in Kunar Province on April 21 and 22, 1985, during the Soviet-Afghan War. The Soviet units dangerously engaged at the foot of steep peaks, more precisely, limestone ridges perched at discordant angles along ancient folds and leveled schisms. The heavy machine guns of the mujahedeen set up along the summits rained bullets on the 1st company, preventing the 2nd and 3rd from joining them. It was a massacre. Captain Nikolay Tsebruk, who was in command, fell from a bullet to his throat. Of this defeat it would be said on the Soviet side, as a euphemism or out of superstition, that “the mountain was too high, the gold beyond reach,” in order to avoid saying that the enemy proved to be stronger.
Alps (Surrender of)
The German historian Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) is the author of the monumental A History of Rome. On the verge of his 6th volume, the first chapter entitled “The Northern Borders of Italy”, while discussing the campaigns led by Cesar’s successor, Claude, to bring peace to the Alps, he entitles one of the paragraphs: “Surrender of the Alps”.
When Titus-Livius gives voice to Hannibal in his History of Rome, as the Second Punic War is beginning, he expresses pride at having been raised in his father’s tent, conquered Spain and Gaul, but above all at having been “the conqueror not only of the peoples of the Alps, but of an even more magnificent exploit, the Alps themselves.”
Formed in 1938, the 10th Mountain Infantry Brigade consisted of a core of two mountain infantry regiments, one from Vaud, the other from Valais, as well artillery support, motorized and on horseback, and engineer, medical, provisions and transport formations. Initially 11 000 men strong, it grew up to 35 000 men. During the Second World War, it was subordinate to the 1st Army Corps and tasked with protecting the southern passes of the Alps in the Lower Valais and Chablais regions. It covered a sector that stretched from the Anniviers valley to Lake Geneva, thus defending two fronts, one facing French Haute-Savoie and another facing Italy. It executed its mission admirably and steadfastly safeguarded the summits that no one would ever dream of attacking. It was transformed into the 10th Mountain Division in 1961. Following the Army XXI reform, it was given back its name of 10th Mountain Infantry Brigade in 2004 before being permanently dissolved in late 2017. For the great units of the Swiss army, it retained the illustriousness and glory of its long and patient alpine war until the very end.
A certificate from the Marshall Duke of Aumont recognizes Jean de Berment as a “man of heart and dedication to serving the King,” having on one occasion seen him prove his worth. It was during Battle of the Black Mountain in Fribourg-en-Brisgau in 1644, “where in the heat of battle, throwing himself into enemy camp, he took the standard of Gaspard von Mercy’s regiment and retreated gloriously, loaded with enemy remains. Everyone witnessed how, had he not been ordered to retreat, Jean de Berment would have taken captive the Schlossberg and Kandel mountains themselves, along with their entire forest of black firs.”
The Battle of Mang Yang Pass
A karst is a geomorphological structure that results from the dissolution of limestone rock. The Central Highlands, which are the highest plateaus in the Gia Lai province, are part of the largest karst space in Vietnam. These landscapes evolved between 900 and 1 500 m in altitude following the rise of the Neogene and Quaternary periods. The karst’s surface hydrosystem only works during the rainy season, following violent precipitation. However, as a result of fracturing, there is infiltration throughout the entire endokarst. Multiple formations are thus created by water: canyons, dry valleys, steephead valleys, sinkholes, ponors… In fact, this runoff contributes to the loss of the red soil cover. On June 24, 1954, the French Chief of Staff ordered the 100 Mobile Task Force to abandon its defense position at An Khê, a central highlands pass, and withdraw to Pieiku some 50km west. The column fell in a series of ambushes. This mountain, which the French troops could not manage to hold, was the site of their heaviest and final defeat. The Battle of Mang Yang Pass had all the characteristics of a young mountain current, born from a violent storm, attempting to open its bed, striating the limestone and which, due to its weak current and lack of slope or momentum, wound up dead as soon as it entered the valley. In five days of fighting, the G.M. 100 lost 85% of its vehicles, 100% of its artillery, 68% of its transmission equipment, 50% of its lightweight weapons. Only 84 of 222 men remained in the company. Of the 43rd Colonial, the 1st and 2nd Korean Battalions, which counted about 834 troops each, only 452, 497, and 345 men remained, respectively. The 2nd Group of the 10th Colonial Artillery, reduced to fighting like an infantry company after losing its cannons, only counted 215 of an initial 475 men. Slowly moving away from the heights, the torrent had turned into a trickle, a dribble of asthmatic water. It was Homer who, in Book XV of the Iliad, was the first to use the word asthma to describe the atrocious suffocation that Hector suffered, deprived of air, lying in the plains.
Cover: Swiss soldiers at the border, during World War I (photographic postcard) © Swiss Foundation of Photography