By Issa Baluch
History books are full of inspirational stories for the current generation of logistics managers. In particular, Hannibal’s remarkable journey across the Alps in 218 BCE proves how a little logistical planning can overcome the most challenging hurdles.
Hannibal's march across the Alps has amazed students and confounded scholars for thousands of years. Many have heard of the great general who transported elephants and an army across the Alps, but few can imagine the lengths to which Hannibal went in order to bring his army to Italy, where they battled Rome, and how he brought with him an army of approximately 50,000 infantry, 9000 cavalry, and 37 elephants.
Hannibal's logistics innovations, in particular, present some interesting lessons for today's logisticians. The Punic Wars of 264-146 BCE were fought between Rome and the North African city of Carthage (near present-day Tunis), and it was in this context that Hannibal (fighting for Carthage) made this historic journey.
In the Spring of 218 BCE, Hannibal left southern Spain for Rome. It is possible that the army left in three groups in order to ease congestion and make supply easier. Hannibal marched through Spain, the Pyrenees mountain range, and the Alps, which presented a formidable physical obstacle, as their summits reached 4000 metres. The army faced narrow gorges, ice-covered trails flanked by sharp cliffs, and attacks by local tribes who knew the mountains very well. As a result, many men were lost both to skirmishes and to falls from the narrow ledges. When the army reached its camp in Italy on the other side of the pass, there were only 26,000 men left. It was the fall of 218 BCE, and nearly all of the pack animals had been killed or eaten along the way. Somehow, all of the elephants and some of the horses had survived the five-month journey.
It is possible that Hannibal chose this land route instead of attacking Rome from Sicily because of lessons learned from his father's logistical errors. During the First Punic War, Hannibal and his father (also a general) were stationed on Sicily, where they were utterly dependent on ships from Carthage for supplies and reinforcements. Due to the failure of the Carthaginian navy, the army lost their supplies and the war.
Though Hannibal learned from this mistake and avoided some logistical challenges by choosing the land route to Rome, he still faced the obvious problems of fixed resources, limited time and physical obstacles. Meeting these three challenges required a thorough logistics strategy.
One historian has estimated that the Carthaginian army would have consumed up to a tonne of food each day. Where would Hannibal obtain this much food? One of his generals proposed that the soldiers be conditioned to eat human flesh, but Hannibal refused. Without the aid of modern transport equipment, the only other option was to continually restock supplies along the way. Water was plentiful, as the army passed many rivers and streams, and food could be hunted and gathered from the countryside. Hannibal was careful to camp in areas where there were grass and grain fields nearby, providing for the pack animals as well as the soldiers. It is also likely that Hannibal sent out spies to secure allies and supplies along the route to Italy before the Second Punic War even began.
Hannibal wisely sent scouts into the Alps before he attempted the journey, and they discovered that an Alpine passage was possible only before snowfall. This, therefore, gave Hannibal a limited amount of time to cross. As a result, he had to save time along the way by carefully choosing his fights with warring tribesmen. He preferred bribing the tribes to let him pass rather than fighting with them and losing precious time, men, and other resources.
Clearly, Hannibal's army could rely only on their horses and other pack animals for transportation. One of the most famous challenges Hannibal faced was transporting his 37 war elephants. Though we cannot be certain how he got them safely every step of the way, records do explain how they were ferried across the Rhône River in France on a makeshift vessel, and how some simply walked across with their trunks raised above the water. To ferry his men across the river, Hannibal wisely purchased boats, rafts and canoes from local tribes.
Just like military logistics, today's logistics projects also require the management of fixed resources, risk assessment, careful timing and the flexibility to react quickly to changing circumstances.
Hannibal's passage through the Alps therefore makes a good example for logistics managers. He did not undertake his mission until he had planned and put in place a clear strategy for the transport of food, making calculations regarding how much to carry and how much to gather along the way. Before crossing, he would send scouts ahead to discover what resources awaited them on the journey to Rome, and then take provisions by force from the towns they passed.
Furthermore, Hannibal had the flexibility to quickly change his strategy depending on his situation. Obstacles arose without warning; they could not be overcome without the same calculated risk taking and creativity that is demanded of logistics managers today. It is essential to have a carefully planned strategy, but it is just as important to be ready to modify it in the face of unexpected challenges.
Finally, it is fascinating to see how Hannibal utilised multimodal transport in its most primitive sense. Multimodal transport today means incorporating transport modes such as sea, air, rail and road. Freight forwarders optimise these modes and create value for customers by finding the most cost-effective and timesaving route for their cargo. Hannibal, however, had a choice of only a few primitive transport modes: soldiers (who must have carried some goods), pack animals, elephants and rafts. He may not have had today's hi-tech transport resources readily available, but he succeeded because he possessed a combination of foresight, planning capabilities, skill in human resource management, strategy, leadership and determination.
Issa Baluch is chairman and CEO of Swift Freight International and immediate past president of FIATA. He is the author of Transport Logistics, Past, Present and Predictions (
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