Long before firearms, tanks and other motorised vehicles were deployed in military conflicts, war elephants were used. They could be trained and guided by humans for combat. The main use was to charge at the enemy, break their ranks and instil terror and fear.
The Battle Tanks of Antiquity
Elephants were tanks of antiquity. When correctly used, these enormous animals, the largest on Earth, were a formidable weapon that struck fear and terror in the enemy’s hearts. From our school days, most of us remember that the most famous event from history involving war elephants was in 218 BC when the Carthaginian (Tunisian) general Hannibal crossed the Alps with war elephants and invaded Roman Italy.
Besides Hannibal’s army, the armies of Alexander the Great (a king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon) and Tamerlane (a Muslim Turk who became the most powerful ruler of the 14th century) included war elephants.
But it was from as early as the 6th century BC that the ancient Indians began to use elephants for war. From India, the war elephants spread to Persia and then to Greece, Carthage, and Roman Empire.
Most armies used Indian elephants, but there were instances of usage of other species such as African savanna elephants, which while even bigger than Indian elephants, were much more difficult to train. The elephant’s driver and keeper (called a mahout) was armed with a chisel and a hammer. If the elephant panicked and began attacking his own troops, the mahout killed him by thrusting a chisel into its head. Elephants were trained to trample the enemy and stab soldiers with their tusks. The elephants themselves carried armour to protect their bodies. Their tusks were armed with special blades, called elephant swords. Sometimes these elephant swords were coated with poison to make them even deadlier. Sometimes, war elephants had an iron chain with an iron ball at the end attached to their trunk and used to kill enemy soldiers.
War elephants in battle during the Carnatic Wars (between 1746 and 1763)
Attribution: Paul Philippoteaux, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons [Recoloured]
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/Death_of_the_Nabob_of_the_Carnatic_by_Paul_Philippoteaux.jpg
Ancient armies quickly realised it was relatively easy to make war elephants panic. They stabbed the elephants with spears, especially into their unprotected legs. They cut off their trunks, or they made loud noises. The scarred and wounded elephants tried to run away and trampled their own troops.
Another tactic was to make lanes in formations, and the war elephants, trying to avoid contact with soldiers, usually just passed through. The most unusual tactic was the use of war pigs. The armies of antiquity learned the elephants were afraid of the high-pitch squealing of the pigs. To make sure the war pigs squealed enough, they coated them in tar, resin, or oil and set them on fire before dispatching them towards the enemy elephants.
War elephants played a critical role in several key battles in antiquity, especially in Ancient India. While seeing limited and periodic use in ancient China, they became a permanent fixture in armies of historical kingdoms in Southeast Asia. During classical antiquity, they were also used in ancient Persia and in the Mediterranean world within armies of Macedon, Hellenistic Greek states, the Roman Republic (and later Empire), and Carthage in North Africa. In some regions, they maintained a strong presence on the battlefield throughout the Middle Ages. However, the use of war elephants declined with the spread of firearms and other gunpowder weaponry in early modern warfare. After this, the use of war elephants became restricted to non-combat engineering and labour roles, as well as being used for minor ceremonial uses. They continued to be used in combat, however, in some parts of the world, such as in Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam, well into the 19th century.
Capture and Handling
Mahouts were responsible for capturing and handling elephants. To accomplish this, they used metal chains and a specialised hook called an ankus, or ‘elephant goad’. According to Chanakya, as recorded in the Arthashastra, the mahout would first get the elephant accustomed to being led. The elephant would have learned how to raise its legs to help a rider climb on. Then the elephants were taught to run and manoeuvre around obstacles and move in formation. The elephants would learn how to trample and charge enemies systematically.
Taming the Beasts
The first elephant species to be tamed was the Asian elephant for use in agriculture. Elephant taming – not full domestication, as they are still captured in the wild, rather than being bred in captivity – may have begun in one of three different places. The oldest evidence comes from the Indus Valley Civilisation, in c. 2000 BC. Archaeological proof of the existence of wild elephants in the Yellow River valley in Shang China (1600–1100 BC) may suggest that they also used elephants in warfare. The wild elephant populations of Mesopotamia and China declined quickly because of deforestation and human population growth: by c. 850 BC, the Mesopotamian elephants were extinct, and by c. 500 BC, the Chinese elephants were seriously reduced in numbers and limited to areas well south of the Yellow River.
Capturing elephants from the wild remained a difficult task, but a necessary one given the difficulties of breeding in captivity and the long time required for an elephant to reach sufficient maturity to engage in battle. Sixty-year-old war elephants were always prized as being at the most suitable age for battle service, and gifts of elephants of this age were seen as particularly generous.
Today, an elephant is considered in its prime and at the height of its power between the ages of 25 and 40, yet elephants as old as 80 are used in tiger hunts because they are more disciplined and experienced.
It is commonly thought that all war elephants were male because of their greater aggression. But, not so. A female elephant in battle will run from a male; therefore, only males were used in war, whereas female elephants were more commonly used for logistics.
When were War Elephants first used?
When elephant warfare first started is uncertain, but it is widely accepted that it began in ancient India. The early Vedic period did not extensively specify the use of elephants in war. Elephants were commonly used in warfare by the later Vedic period by the 6th century BC and the practice of riding on elephants in peace and war was common among Aryans and non-Aryans, royalty or commoner, in the 6th or 5th century BC.
War elephants depicted in Hannibal crossing the Rhône (1878), by Henri Motte
Attribution: Henri-Paul Motte, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9e/Hannibal_traverse_le_Rh%C3%B4ne_Henri_Motte_1878.jpg
The ancient Indian epics Ramayana and Mahābhārata, dating from the 5th to 4th century BC, elaborately depict elephant warfare. They are recognized as an essential component of royal and military processions. In ancient India, initially, the army was fourfold (called ‘chaturanga’), consisting of infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots. Kings and princes principally rode on chariots, which was considered the most royal, and seldom rode on the back of elephants. Although viewed as secondary to chariots by royalty, elephants were the preferred vehicle of warriors, especially the elite ones. While the chariots eventually fell into disuse, the other three arms continued to be valued.
The use of elephants in the Maurya Empire is recorded by Chanakya in the Arthashastra. Catching, training, and controlling war elephants was one of the most important skills taught by the military academies. Chanakya advised Chandragupta to set up forested sanctuaries for the wellness of the elephants. The Maurya Empire would reach its zenith under the reign of Ashoka, who used elephants extensively during his conquest.
Elephants were used for warfare in China by a small handful of southern dynasties. The state of Chu used elephants in 506 BC against Wu by tying torches to their tails and sending them into the ranks of the enemy soldiers, but the attempt failed. In December 554 AD, the Liang dynasty used armoured war elephants, carrying towers, against Western Wei. A volley of arrows defeated them. The Southern Han dynasty is the only state in Chinese history to have kept a permanent corps of war elephants. These elephants could carry a tower with up to ten people on their backs. They were used successfully during the Han invasion of Ma Chu in 948. In 970, the Song dynasty invaded Southern Han, and their crossbowmen readily routed the Han elephants on 23rd January 971, during the taking of Shao. That was the last time elephants were used in Chinese warfare.
Achaemenid Persia, Macedonia and Hellenistic Greek states
From India, military thinking on the use of war elephants spread westwards to the Persian Achaemenid Empire, where they were used in several campaigns. In turn, war elephants came to influence the campaigns of Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia in Hellenistic Greece.
The first confrontation between Europeans and the Persian war elephants occurred at Alexander’s Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC), where the Persians deployed fifteen elephants. These elephants were placed at the centre of the Persian line and made such an impression on Alexander’s army that he felt the need to sacrifice to Phobos, the God of Fear, the night before the battle – but the elephants ultimately failed to deploy in the final battle owing to their long march the day before Alexander won resoundingly at Gaugamela, but was deeply impressed by the enemy elephants and took these first fifteen into his own army, adding to their number during his capture of the rest of Persia.
The first use of war elephants in Europe was made in 318 BC by Polyperchon, one of Alexander’s generals, when he besieged Megalopolis in the Peloponnesus during the wars of the Diadochi. He used 60 elephants brought from Asia with their mahouts. A veteran of Alexander’s army, named Damis, helped the besieged Megalopolitians to defend themselves against the elephants and eventually, Polyperchon was defeated. Those elephants were subsequently taken by Cassander and transported, partly by sea, to other battlefields in Greece.
Although the use of war elephants in the western Mediterranean is most famously associated with the wars between Carthage and the Roman Republic, the introduction of war elephants there was primarily the result of an invasion by Hellenistic era Epirus across the Adriatic Sea. King Pyrrhus of Epirus brought twenty elephants to attack Roman Italy at the battle of Heraclea in 280 BC, leaving some fifty additional animals, on loan from Ptolemaic Pharaoh Ptolemy II, on the mainland. The Romans were unprepared for fighting elephants, and the Epirot forces routed the Romans.
The Ptolemaic Egypt and the Punics began acquiring African elephants for the same purpose as Numidia and the Kingdom of Kush. The animal used was the North African elephant (Loxodonta africana pharaohensis) which would become extinct – probably from over-exploitation. These animals were smaller, harder to tame, and could not swim deep rivers compared to the Asian elephants used by the Seleucid Empire on the east of the Mediterranean region, particularly Syrian elephants, which stood 2.5–3.5 metres (8.2–11.5 ft) at the shoulder. The favourite and perhaps last surviving elephant of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps was an impressive animal named Surus (“the Syrian”), which may have been of Syrian stock, although the evidence remains unclear.
During the Second Punic War, Hannibal famously led an army of war elephants across the Alps, although many of them perished in the harsh conditions. The surviving elephants were successfully used in the battle of Trebia, where they panicked the Roman cavalry and Gallic allies. The Romans eventually developed effective anti-elephant tactics, leading to Hannibal’s defeat at his final battle of Zama in 202 BC; his elephant charge, unlike the one at the Battle of Tunis, was ineffective because the disciplined Roman maniples simply made way for them to pass.
Although the use of war elephants in the Mediterranean is most famously associated with the wars between Carthage and Rome, the introduction of war elephants was primarily the result of the Greek kingdom of Epirus. King Pyrrhus of Epirus brought twenty elephants to attack the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC, leaving some fifty additional animals, on loan from the Pharaoh Ptolemy II, on the mainland. The Romans were unprepared for fighting elephants, and the Epirot forces routed the Romans. The next year, the Epirots again deployed a similar force of elephants, attacking the Romans at the Battle of Asculum. This time the Romans came prepared with flammable weapons and anti-elephant devices: these were ox-drawn wagons, equipped with long spikes to wound the elephants, pots of fire to scare them, and accompanying screening troops who would hurl javelins at the elephants to drive them away. A final charge of Epirot elephants won the day again, but this time Pyrrhus had suffered very heavy casualties—a Pyrrhic victory.
The Romans brought back many elephants at the end of the Punic Wars and used them in their campaigns for many years afterwards. The conquest of Greece saw many battles in which the Romans deployed war elephants, including the invasion of Macedonia in 199 BC, the Battle of Cynoscephalae 197 BC, the Battle of Thermopylae, and the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BC, during which Antiochus III‘s fifty-four elephants took on the Roman force of sixteen. In later years the Romans deployed twenty-two elephants at Pydna in 168 BC. The role of the elephant force at Cynoscephalae was particularly decisive, as their quick charge shattered the unformed Macedonian left wing, allowing the Romans to encircle and destroy the victorious Macedonian right. A similar event also occurred at Pydna. The Romans’ successful use of war elephants against the Macedonians might be considered ironic, as it was Pyrrhus who first taught them the military potential of elephants.
Parthia and Sassanian Persia
The Parthian Empire occasionally used war elephants in their battles against the Roman Empire, but elephants were of prime importance in the army of the subsequent Sassanid Empire. The Sasanian war elephants are recorded in engagements against the Romans, such as during Julian’s invasion of Persia. Other examples include the Battle of Vartanantz in 451 AD, at which the Sassanid elephants terrified the Armenians, and the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah of 636 AD, in which a unit of thirty-three elephants was used against the invading Arab Muslims in the conquest of Iran, in which battle the war elephants proved to be “double-edged sword”.
The Sassanid elephant corps held primacy amongst the Sassanid cavalry forces and was recruited from India. The elephant corps was under a special chief, known as the Zend−hapet, literally meaning “Commander of the Indians”, either because the animals came from that country, or because they were managed by natives of Hindustan. The Sassanid elephant corps was never on the same scale as others further east, and after the fall of the Sassanid Empire, the use of war elephants died out in the region.
War Elephants in Battle
There were many military purposes for which elephants could be used. In battle, war elephants were usually deployed in the centre of the line, where they could be useful to prevent a charge or to conduct one of their own.
Their sheer size and their terrifying appearance made them valued heavy cavalry.
Off the battlefield, they could carry heavy equipment, and with a top speed of approximately 30 km/h (20 mph), provided a useful means of transport before mechanised vehicles rendered them mostly obsolete. Numerous cultures designed specialised armour for elephants, like tusk swords and a protective tower on their backs, called a howdah. See pictures on the next page.
Indian elephant sword on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two feet (61 cm) long
File URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_sword#/media/File:Elephant_sword_at_Met.jpg CC BY-SA 3.0
Picture Credit: [Cropped] “Cannon (Bastard Culverin) Made for Henry II, King of France” is marked with CC0 1.0.
The late 16th century saw the introduction of culverins, jingals and rockets against elephants, innovations that would ultimately drive war elephants out of active service on the battlefield.
The value of war elephants in battle remains a contested issue. Aside from the advent of more efficient means of transportation and weaponry, war elephants had clear tactical weaknesses that led to their eventual retirement:
- After sustaining painful wounds, or when their driver was killed, elephants tended to panic, often causing them to run amok indiscriminately, causing casualties on either side.
- Experienced Roman foot soldiers often tried to sever the opposing elephants’ trunks, causing instant distress.
- Fast skirmishers armed with spears were also used by the Romans to drive elephants away, as well as using flaming objects or a stout line of pikes, such as Triarii.
- Another method for disrupting elephant units in classical antiquity was the deployment of war pigs. Ancient writers believed that elephants could be “scared by the smallest squeal of a pig”.
Nonetheless, the continued use of war elephants for several thousand years attests to their enduring value to the historical battlefield commander.
‘Recent’ use of War Elephants in Battle
When gunpowder warfare entered the battlefield in the late 15th century, the balance of advantage for war elephants began to decline. Muskets had limited impact on elephants, which could withstand numerous volleys, but cannon fire was a different matter entirely – an animal could easily be knocked down by a single shot. Even so, in south-east Asia, the use of elephants on the battlefield continued until the end of the 19th century. One of the major difficulties was the terrain: elephants could usually cross difficult terrain far more easily than horse cavalry:
- Burmese forces used war elephants against the Chinese in the Sino-Burmese War, where they routed the Chinese cavalry.
- The Burmese used them again during the Battle of Danubyu during the First Anglo-Burmese War, where the elephants were easily repulsed by Congreve rockets deployed by British forces.
- The Siamese Army continued utilising war elephants armed with jingals until the Franco-Siamese War of 1893, while the Vietnamese used them in battle as late as 1885, during the Sino-French War.
- During the mid-to-late-19th century, British forces in India possessed specialised elephant batteries to haul large siege artillery pieces over ground unsuitable for oxen.
- Into the 20th century, military elephants were used for non-combat purposes in World War II, particularly because the animals could perform tasks in regions that were problematic for motor vehicles. Military elephants were used as late as the Vietnam War.
- The last recorded use of elephants in war occurred in 1987 when Iraq allegedly used them to transport heavy weaponry in Kirkuk.
Over the centuries, the use of war elephants has left a deep cultural legacy in many countries. Many traditional war games incorporate war elephants:
- Chaturanga, the ancient Indian board game from which modern chess has gradually developed, calls its bishop Gaja, meaning elephant in Sanskrit; it is still called an elephant in Chinese chess.
- Also, in Arabic – and derived from it, in Spanish – the bishop piece is called al-fil, Arabic for “elephant”.
- In Russian, too, the bishop piece is an elephant.
- In Bengali, the bishop is called hati, Bengali for “elephant”.
- In the Japanese game shogi, there used to be a piece known as the “Drunken Elephant”; it was, however, dropped by order of Emperor Go-Nara and no longer appears in the version played in contemporary Japan.
Elephant armour, originally designed for use on the battlefield, is today usually only seen in museums. A particularly fine set of Indian elephant armour is preserved at the Leeds Royal Armouries Museum, while Indian museums across the sub-continent display other fine pieces. The architecture of India also shows the deep impact of elephant warfare over the years. War elephants adorn many military gateways, such as those at Lohagarh Fort, while some spiked, anti-elephant gates remain to this day – as the gateway at Kumbhalgarh Fort.
Hathi and Kala-Nag
Hathi from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is a former Indian war elephant who pulled heavy artillery for the British Indian Army. Kala-Nag (meaning ‘Black Snake’) from Rudyard Kipling’s short story Toomai of the Elephants performed similar duties to Hathi during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839 to 1842).
Toomai Of The Elephants – Poem by Rudyard Kipling
“I will remember what I was, I am sick of rope and chain–
I will remember my old strength and all my forest affairs.
I will not sell my back to man for a bundle of sugar-cane:
I will go out to my own kind, and the wood-folk in their lairs.
I will go out until the day, until the morning break–
Out to the wind’s untainted kiss, the water’s clean caress;
I will forget my ankle-ring and snap my picket stake.
I will revisit my lost loves, and playmates masterless!”
Sources and Further Reading
- Glossary: https://www.asesg.org/PDFfiles/Gajah/23-01-Glossary.pdf
Hannibal’s celebrated feat in crossing the Alps with war elephants passed into European legend: detail of a fresco by Jacopo Ripanda, c. 1510, Capitoline Museums, Rome.
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/Hannibal_in_Italy_by_Jacopo_Ripanda_-_Sala_di_Annibale_-_Palazzo_dei_Conservatori_-_Musei_Capitolini_-_Rome_2016_%282%29.jpg
Attribution: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0
- The term for specific military units using elephant-mounted troops, is Elephantry. ↑
- Source: Mostly from https://historyofyesterday.com/war-elephants-9c978dbcafdc ↑
- Tamerlane’s armies killed 17 million people — 5% of the 14th century world population. Source: https://historyofyesterday.com/war-elephants-9c978dbcafdc and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timur↑
- Classical antiquity (also the classical era, classical period or classical age) is the period of cultural history between the 8th century BC and the 6th century AD centred on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilisations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome known as the Greco-Roman world. It is the period in which both Greek and Roman societies flourished and wielded huge influence throughout much of Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia. ↑
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Mediterranean_region ↑
- In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages or medieval period lasted approximately from the 5th to the late 15th centuries, similar to the post-classical period of global history. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and transitioned into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages. ↑
- An elephant trainer, rider, or keeper is called a mahout. Source: Koehl D, Elephant Encyclopediaat http://www.elephant.se/mahout.php ↑
- The elephant goad, bullhook, or ankus is a tool employed by mahout in the handling and training of elephants. It consists of a hook which is attached to a 60–90 cm handle, ending in a tapered end. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_goad ↑
- The Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC), also known as the Indus Civilisation, was a Bronze Age civilisation in the northwestern regions of South Asia, lasting from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE, and in its mature form from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE. Together with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was one of three early civilisations of the Near East and South Asia, and of the three, the most widespread, its sites spanning an area stretching from today’s northeast Afghanistan, through much of Pakistan, and into western and northwestern India. ↑
- See; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logistics ↑
- Source: Mostly from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_elephant ↑
- Ancient India is the Indian subcontinent from prehistoric times to the start of Medieval India, which is typically dated (when the term is still used) to the end of the Gupta Empire. Ancient India was composed of the modern-day countries of Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, India, Nepal and Pakistan. ↑
- The Vedic Period (c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE), is the period in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age of the history of India. ↑
- Source: Singh, Sarva Daman (1989). Ancient Indian Warfare: With Special Reference to the Vedic Period. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 81. ISBN 978-8120804869. ↑
- Source: Peers, C.J. (2006), Soldiers of the Dragon: Chinese Armies 1500 BC – AD 1840, Osprey Publishing Ltd ↑
- Source: Chinnock, E. J. The Anabasis of Alexander: The Battle of Gaugamela by Arrian (trans), P38. ↑
- Source: Levy, Dawn. “Speedy elephants use a biomechanical trick to ‘run’ like Groucho”. Stanford News Service. Retrieved 28 October 2020. ↑
- An elephant sword, also called a tusk sword, is an edged weapon designed to be attached to the tip of an elephant’s tusk, normally used in pairs.
War elephants were used for centuries, primarily from India to the Middle East, and were often armored. Made of iron or steel, elephant swords were probably used from a relatively early date. Over a thousand years ago, elephants equipped with steel-tipped tusks were reportedly effectively used in battle. An elephant could toss an enemy in the air and cut him in two. Sometimes the blades were coated with poison. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_sword ↑
- A howdah, or houdah (Hindi: haudā), derived from Arabic – hawdaj), which means “bed carried by a camel”, also known as hathi howdah is a carriage which is positioned on the back of an elephant, or occasionally some other animal such as a camel, used most often in the past to carry wealthy people during progresses or processions, hunting or in battle. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howdah ↑
- A culverin was a relatively simple ancestor of the musket, and later a medieval cannon, adapted for use by the French as the “couleuvrine” (from couleuvre “grass snake”) in the 15th century, and later adapted for naval use by the English in the late 16th century. The culverin was used to bombard targets from a distance. The weapon had a relatively long barrel and a light construction. The culverin fired solid round shot projectiles with a high muzzle velocity, producing a relatively long range and flat trajectory. Round shot refers to the classic solid spherical cannonball. ↑
- In the Far East, a jingal, gingal or gingall (from Hindi janjal)was a type of large matchlock gun, usually a light piece mounted on a swivel. It fired iron bullets 1.25 inches in diameter and was classified as a form of wall gun either by design or use. It sometimes took the form of a heavy musket fired from a rest, and usually required a crew of two men. The weapon was used by the Chinese in the 19th century, such as by the Taiping armies, imperial forces during the Opium Wars, and Chinese rebels in Hong Kong during the Six Day War of 1899. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jingal ↑
- Source: De la Garza, Andrew (2010). Mughals at War: Babur, Akbar and the Indian Military Revolution, 1500-1605. Columbus, Ohio. pp. 103–132 ↑
- Triarii (singular: Triarius) were one of the elements of the early Roman military manipular legions of the early Roman Republic (509 BC – 107 BC). They were the oldest and among the wealthiest men in the army and could afford high quality equipment. They wore heavy metal armour and carried large shields, their usual position being the third battle line. They were equipped with spears and were considered to be elite soldiers among the legion. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triarii ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_elephant ↑