Retreat of the Ten Thousand - F. Younghusband

An Armenian Winter

But now the Hellenes were brought face to face with a new difficulty. The winter had by this time set in, and the whole country was buried in snow. All around in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, was one vast stretch of snow, many feet in depth, and through this the Hellenes had to make their way. Any one who has tried to walk for even a quarter of an hour through snow into which he cannot help sinking above the knee at every step he takes, may imagine how tiring and painful it must have been to march thus for a whole day. Many of the slaves and horses perished, and also thirty of the soldiers.

On the third day after crossing the Euphrates, their sufferings were still further increased by a north-wind, whose bitter blast was torture, even to the stalwart Hellenes. One of the soothsayers suggested that a sacrifice should be offered to Boreal, the god of the north-wind, and when this had been accomplished, it seemed to them all that his fury abated to some extent.

When night came on, the Hellenes had to encamp in the snow. Those who first reached the camping-place found plenty of food, and soon had some big fires burning, round which the stragglers were glad enough to press as soon as they arrived; but the first-comers would only make room for them on condition of their giving them some of their bread, or anything else that they might have to eat, for food was now getting scarce. As the snow melted beneath the fires, the soldiers could measure its depth, and they found that it was no less than six feet.

All the next day, the Hellenes had to plough their way through this terrible snow, and many became so faint and ill that they threw themselves down upon the ground, unable to move. When Xenophon, with the rear-guard, came up to the place, and saw them lying there in such misery, he asked his men if there was nothing that could be done for them. One of the older soldiers answered that the poor fellows were merely suffering from exhaustion-caused by fatigue and want of food, and that if they could get something to eat, they would be able to march on again. Xenophon went himself to the transport to get what he could for them, and when the sick soldiers had taken some food, they revived, and were able to keep up with their comrades.

In the evening, Cheirisophus and the van reached a village which had a wall round it, and a gate that could be shut at night. When they arrived, they found some women and children drawing water at a well outside the village, who asked Cheirisophus where he came from. He answered that he was on his way from the King to the satrap; and they told him that the satrap was not in the village, but at a place about four miles off. The women then went home, and the Hellenes of the van went with them through the gate, and took up their quarters in the village for the night.

But the other soldiers, who were a long way behind, had to spend the night in the open air, with little or nothing to eat, and several of them died of cold and hunger. When, on the next day, they continued their march, some of those who had suffered most discovered a sheltered place where there was a warm spring, that had not been frozen over, nor covered up with snow. In a moment they threw themselves upon the warm black earth round the spring, and there they lay enjoying the hot steam that rose from it, when Xenophon, who always brought up the rear, came to the place and found them there. He told the men that they must not linger, as the enemy were close behind; and finding that mild words were of no avail, he spoke more and more sharply, and even beat some of them. But the men would not move. They said that if they must be killed they were ready to die, but they could not go a step farther.

Meanwhile the Persians were coming nearer and nearer. They had not failed to profit by the distress of the Hellenes, and had captured the fallen baggage animals, who had been left lying in the snow. Now they were disputing over their prize with great clamour, as they approached the spring.

Xenophon ordered some of the least exhausted of his hoplites to charge, and drive them back; and the sick men at the spring helped by shouting with all their might, and striking their spears against their shields. The enemy were soon routed, and fled as fast as they could, but were hindered by the snow. Xenophon then marched on, but before leaving the sick men, he promised that as soon as possible, he would send some of their comrades to fetch them.

That night, he again had to encamp with his men in the open, without either food or fire. When it was nearly morning, he sent some of his youngest soldiers back to the spring to fetch the sick men who had been left there the day before, and bring them on their way. Many had died during the night, and for these there was nothing to be done but to bury them where they lay; but others who were still living, though unable to walk, had to be carried by their comrades.

Going to see whether the men were performing their task faithfully, Xenophon was just in time to prevent a most barbarous action. One of the soldiers was digging a grave for a comrade who lay beside him, but as he watched him, Xenophon saw the dead man move, and called out to the soldier, "He is still alive." But the man answered, "He may have ten lives as far as I am concerned. I will not drag him any farther." And it was only after having been well beaten that he consented to take up his burden again.

Up to this time, the Hellenes, had preserved their courage through all the difficulties and privations to which they bad been exposed, or if for a moment their spirits had flagged, they had quickly recovered themselves. But now the trial of excessive cold seemed to have robbed many of them of all manliness.

It must be remembered that extreme cold has an exceptionally enervating effect, even upon men accustomed to it. But in this case, the sons of a country where frost and snow are unknown except in the mildest form, found themselves suddenly exposed to the terrible cold of the high Asiatic table-land in the month of December.

Moreover they were absolutely unprovided with clothing suitable for such weather. The Hellene soldier wore but one garment, and besides this had nothing whatever to protect him except that some of them, though by no means all, carried a great square of woollen cloth which they used as a cloak. We may rather wonder that so many kept up their spirits throughout this terrible march, than that the courage of some should have failed.