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  • An Elephant Invades Italy in 1936 July 24, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary , trackback

















    Night four of Beachcombing’s Elephant week extravaganza is taken up by Richard Halliburton’s attempt to cross the Alps in 1936 on the back of an African elephant. Halliburton, a fun kind of fellow, managed to hire (and insure!) an elephant named Elysabethe Dalrymple (aka Dally) from Paris zoo – her greatest love was to play a giant harmonica – and booked a place on a freight train going to Switzerland.

    ‘The zoo-keeper said that he frequently took six children at a time for a ride on Dally’s back along the quieter paths about the park. The children’s saddle I could use for myself and baggage.’ 75

    But the truth is that Halliburton’s greatest challenges were not those that had faced Hannibal in 218 BC.

    We left the Bois in perfect order, Dally stepping along gaily at four miles an hour. But outside the zoo we entered the Porte Maillot – a typical Paris square seething with motor traffic, and Dally, brought up in the quietness of the Bois, had never seen such a bewildering sight. She began to tremble and shy like a timid horse. One experimentative taxi-driver, approaching from behind, sounded his electric horn, full blast, within two feet of Dally’s tail. The poor beast leaped panic-stricken into the air, and then with trunk turned skyward, and trumpeting in terror, she bolted wildly and blindly down the Avenue de la Grande Armée at what seemed like forty miles an hour. I was the first of her burdens to be flung off – then the typewriter, then the suitcase and camera. One final toss of her head got rid of the yelling mahout… and some six thousand pounds of elephant went hurtling along the street, scattering pedestrians and cyclists, banging into taxi cabs, oblivious of ever obstacle. Frenchmen shouted and Frenchwomen screamed. Gendarmes and urchins ran after her as she plunged on, leaving consternation and destruction in her wake. A solid mass of motors halted by the traffic light finally blocked her course, but not till she had bolted nearly half a kilometre. Jammed in the middle of this tangle of motor-cars, Dally, still squealing frantically, found herself trapped. The chauffers in the surrounding cars, once they got over their surprise, had the good sense to hold their places and keep Dally imprisoned till the pursuers overtook her. (76)

    Dally was led back to the zoo by her trainer and was given months of traffic training: Halliburton reasoned correctly that they would be meeting rather a lot where they were going… When Halliburton came back, after some japes in the USSR, then Dally was ready. Their adventures began in Martigny in French-speaking Switzerland.

    By the time that we got clear from Martigny darkness had set in. However, that was my plan, for there would be less traffic and less heat for our first day’s march. Our little truck, loaded down with hay and meal, went ahead to warn approaching motorists. The warning had to be repeated at least three times before they grasped the fact that there was an elephant coming up the road. A hundred boys on bicycles offered sufficient protection from behind. But there was, at first, no warning for the Swiss peasants along the way. They looked up from their cottage doors to half-see, in the darkness, the shadow of an enormous, unearthly beast hurrying past – the first elephant most of them had ever beheld. Some of the women and children screamed and fled. Some of the men stood in their tracks too astonished to move or to speak. No elephant had come this way since Hannibal’s herd of thirty-seven struggled up this same road more than twenty-one hundred years ago. 296

    After several days travel they finally arrived at St Bernard’s monastery and passed down into Italy. It was though the year of Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia and Dally was about to meet her greatest test.

    With every step forward into lower altitudes Dally’s spirits rose. Only for the first hour did the rarefied air make our progress slow. After that Dally no longer stopped to get her breath, but scampered along downhill in the Alpine sunshine, ready, apparently to break all records on her march to Rome. With the crest of the mountains behind us, Harel [Dally’s handler], who ran beside the elephant, and I, who bounced on her shoulders, were in a gay mood. No more freezing winds, no more mountain sickness, only sunshine and wine and singing days ahead. We let Dally have her beloved harmonica, and the valley rang with happy elephant music

    But we gave ourselves over to rejoicing too soon. At about five thousand feet we rounded a curve and ran head-on into the mountain manoeuvres of the Italian Army of Northern Italy. Forty thousand soldiers sprang up all around us. The slopes and woods suddenly swarmed with them; they filled the road, they and their military trucks, and their artillery, and their tanks and cavalry. The Roman legions were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Most of the soldiers were youngsters, who stood in astonishment, at the sudden appearance, right in the midst of their war-game, of an elephant – especially an elephant playing a harmonica. Discipline went to pieces. Whole companies came running up from all side with shouts of ‘L’elefantessa, l’elefantessa!’ as we lumbered by. Some of them no doubt thought we were the Abyssinians attacking from the rear.

    Through this military scene we had ploughed our way on down the road for perhaps half a mile, when disaster fell upon us. The heavy artillery, firing real shells at an imaginary enemy in a Government range across the valley, suddenly let go fully blast with six or eight guns from a hidden battery not two hundred yards away. The concussion coming so unexpectedly was ear-splitting. The whole earth shook, and the very air, caught between two mountain walls, vibrated with the echo.

    Poor Dally! The bombardment had found her weak spot. Being a musician she had a horror of blasting noises. An especially raucous motor-horn had been the cause of her runaway down the Paris boulevard. This fear I thought she had outgrown. But I was wrong. It was only automobile noises she had become used to – not artillery fire. When this terrifying, deafening explosion went off just ahead, the startled elephant rose on her hind legs her eyes wild with fear, trumpeted frantically, wheeled about in a flash, and dashed back up the congested road in an even more uncontrollable panic than that which had seized her in Paris. This paroxysm had come so suddenly neither Harel no I was prepared. I was thrown from the elephant’s back as she wheeled, and landed clumsily in the dust. The guide-rope which Harel used to lead her through the masses of troops and baggage trains was jerked from his hand, trod upon and ripped to shreds, as the three-ton animated tanks charged the armies of Rome. (312-13)

    Dally was eventually calmed but her invasion of Italy was effectively over. Halliburton, one of life’s nice guys, gave Dally a brand new harmonica as a parting gift and headed back to the States for new adventures.

    There is a far more earnest book about Hannibal’s transalpine experience by a British engineering student, John Hoyte, another one of life’s nice guys, in 1960. But Hoyte’s Jumbo (who came from Turin zoo), is not, to Beachcombing’s mind, the equal of Dally.

    Beachcombing has been looking for photos of Dally: do any readers have any others? drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom


    1 Oct, 2010: Finally Beachcombing has links to photos of Dally and, thanks to Fernando FS, a link to a film as well! Beachcombing’s eyes glistened. Fernando has a fascinating article on Halliburton’s route in Spanish. For some reason this link is dead this evening but Beachcombing presumes/hopes it will be back up in a jiffy: btw don’t mention homeopathy to Fernando, he has strong feelings.