The mountains loom over the terrain.
Grey rocky slopes, newly green with the grass of spring.
The land is always watching.
A massive explosion reverberates around the stone, carrying from valley to valley. Then another. And another.
Huge chunks of rock rain from the slopes as the mountains themselves are shaken by cannon fire.
Dust and smoke drift through the pass carrying with it the screams of the dead and dying.
In the fading light of the day the dust brings with it silhouettes, shadows of men carrying one another, tripping and falling; dragging comrades to the safety of the valley.
The bloody mess of a man emerges from the dust, his face caked in grime. Thick crimson streaks scar his face; some of it is his own blood. A bandage has been haphazardly applied to his forehead; already it is crimson from his wounds.
His uniform is tattered and torn, his feet bare. He wears the blue and white colours of France but there is neither pride nor bravery in his expression. With a great effort he lifts himself and his rifle over a pile of rock and slides down the short, gentle slope the other side.
He comes to a rest and lets his rifle fall by his side. Others soon join him.
He closes his eyes and succumbs to exhaustion. His thoughts lead to home, to his village in the west. Would that he were there, not here. Anywhere but here.
Here is the northernmost tip of Italy, the land that bore the Roman Empire forth to crush the barbarians, the land that saw the armies of Caesar tame the world.
Here is the now forgotten war.
Looking to his left he sees a group of men huddled, trying to start a fire amidst the ash of the ground and the sparse vegetation of the Italian spring.
They can’t get the kindling to light and night is approaching. They look emaciated.
He has been here for too long. Fighting the enemies of the revolution, fighting for the ‘glory’ of France. And nobody in France even notices, nobody even cares. The war in Germany consumes the militaries resources and the nation’s attention. They are the forgotten few. The broken band that is the Armee d’Italie.
Another defeat like today’s at the hands of the joint Austrian-Piedmont force and this campaign will have no men left to fight it.
He hates the Austrians enough to know he will die here. To know he will die fighting them. The old order of France has been swept away and Europe’s kings, emperors and aristocrats fear it. They fear the great revolution that equalises all men and gives title to none other than those who earn it.
He had thought to earn his here.
To fight and win glory for the new world that France will create.
But looking now he is unsure. They have barely any men, and their commanders are no better than the aristocratic generals of old. Leading them into seemingly senseless blunders day after day. They simply hold. They go no further and retreat not a foot. They are content to die here.
Amongst these damned mountains.
There is a spark and he sees the men to his left smile as the first lick of flame begins their small fire.
Today sees the arrival of a new General, yet another erstwhile commander from Paris. A nobody who has nothing of himself, either in personal stature or indeed in renown.
“I heard he stopped the royalist revolts in the south.” Whispers one soldier as he warms his hands over the growing fire.
“Stories. He will arrive, do little, say much and abandon us.” Remarks another, cynically.
His hands are blackened from soot and grit as he extends them, palms out, to the fire.
“He doesn’t look like much of a soldier.” Sighs the first figure.
The fire pops loudly and sends an ember into the sky.
With that he turns from the group and looks to the tents that house the officers. They too are torn and in poor repair.
With effort he pulls himself to his feet, resting on his rifle to do so. He must command his small unit, what remains of it, and he needs information on the supply situation. If they cannot eat, they cannot fight.
He barely registers the pain in his feet as he steps over razor like stones and rocks. Walking in the fading light to the closest tent. Ready for more bad news and ill received words.
He coughs politely, then enters.
Before him is a man, short in stature, with his back to the entrance. He pours over a map of the position, identifying the Austrian cannon positions and asking questions of his officers.
He recognises Massena, much famed for his victory at Loano. He knows also Pierre Augereau. The officer peasant.
He stands straight as Augereau slams his fist onto the table and remarks in characteristically blunt terms that the situation here is dire.
Finally the remaining figure turns to face him.
He is momentarily lost for words. He is struck by some quiet confidence, by some, power.
There is something about him.
He stammers…“General, the men are injured, tired and unfed. We must withdraw to more fertile ground and find provision.”
The General regards him for a moment. A youthful, soft face with piercing eyes. Dark hair swept over his brow.
He feels like the man is looking into him, like he is somehow reading the fear and failure he portends.
“I will see to it you are fed. And I will see to it we crush the Piedmont Austrian alliance on these very slopes.”
This young upstart from Paris looks at him flatly as he delivers the words.
It is at that moment that he realises. This General really believes he can do it. He honestly believes he can drive the mighty Austrian army from the very doorstep of southern France.
He feels something he hasn’t in a long time. Hope.
This man can do it. This man can actually change things here.
“Go and tell your men to be ready to assemble, for I will inspect the army, I will feed it, and then we will engage our enemies and defeat them utterly.”
The General turns back toward the map, ready to move the first of his armies against the first of his nation’s foes.
History is about to be written.
“You will not die here soldier. You will be born here.”
The officer takes a step back, regarding the generals back as he does so.
“I am General Napoleon Bonaparte. And I will lead you.”
The war for Italy has begun.