War elephant

War elephant

A war elephant is an elephant trained and guided by humans for combat. Their main use was in charges, to trample the enemy and/or break their ranks. They were probably first employed in India, where the elephant corps served as one of the four classical wings of the Indian Army.

In the Hellenistic period of Greece, they were also used by the Diadochi to protect against cavalry attack. Their most famous use in the West was by the Greek general Pyrrhus of Epirus and in great numbers by the armies of Carthage. In the Mediterranean, improved tactics reduced the value of the elephant in battle while their availability also decreased. In India it was the cannon that finally brought the use of the combat elephant to an end, limiting them thereafter to engineering and labour roles.

It is commonly thought that all war elephants were male because of males' greater aggression, but this was not always true. However, female elephants were more commonly used for logistics. [John M. Kistler, War Elephants (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006), xi.]



The first elephant species to be tamed was the Asian Elephant; its first use was agricultural. Elephant taming (not full domestication, as they were still captured in the wild) may have begun in any of three different places. The oldest evidence of tamed elephants is in a Mesopotamian relief, around 4,500 years ago. Another possibility is the Indus Valley Civilization, also from approximately that date. Archaeological evidence for the presence of wild elephants in the Yellow River valley during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC) has also led to China's being suggested as a possibility. [Schafer, 289–290.] However, Mesopotamia's and China's elephant populations declined rather early dramatically because of deforestation and overpopulation: 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.


Because of the uncertainty about where elephants were first used, there is uncertainty as to where elephant warfare began. The earliest known military application of elephants dates from around 1100 BC in Vedic India, which is mentioned in several Vedic hymns from this era.

From India, military doctrines for using war elephants spread to the Persian Empire, where they were used in several campaigns.

The Battle of Gaugamela (October 1, 331 BC), fought against Alexander the Great was probably among the first confrontations of Europeans with Persian war elephants. The fifteen elephants, placed at the centre of the Persian line, made such an impression on the Macedonian troops that Alexander felt the need to sacrifice to the God of Fear the night before the battle.

Gaugamela was Alexander's greatest success, but the enemy elephants so impressed him that following his conquest of Persia, Alexander incorporated a number of the animals into his own army.

Five years later, in the Battle of the Hydaspes River against Porus, Alexander already knew how to deal with elephants. Porus, who ruled in the Punjab region of modern day Pakistan, employed 85 war elephants in this battle, presenting an enormous challenge to Alexander, who nevertheless eventually prevailed over Porus in a Pyrrhic victory. [Plutarch (75 CE), [http://history.boisestate.edu/westciv/grecult/alexander.txt "The Life of Alexander the Great"] , 62.1: quote|"But this last combat with Porus took off the edge of the Macedonians' courage, and stayed their further progress into India. For having found it hard enough to defeat an enemy who brought but twenty thousand foot and two thousand horse into the field, they thought they had reason to oppose Alexander's design of leading them on to pass the Ganges, too, which they were told was thirty-two furlongs broad and a fathom deep, and the banks on the further side covered with multitudes of enemies."]

At this time, the Magadha Empire further east on the Gangetic plain had 6000 war elephants, while Chandragupta Maurya years later acquired 9000. These numbers of war elephants were many times larger than the number employed by the Persians and Greeks, which discouraged Alexander's men and essentially halted their advance into India. [Plutarch (75 CE), [http://history.boisestate.edu/westciv/grecult/alexander.txt "The Life of Alexander the Great"] ]

The successful military use of elephants spread further. The successors to Alexander's empire, the Diadochi, used hundreds of Indian elephants in their wars, with Seleucus even selling the conquered part of India to Chandragupta for five hundred war elephants. ["The Classical World", by Robin Lane Fox, Penguin (2006)]

Later in its history, the Seleucid Empire used elephants in its efforts to crush the Maccabean Revolt. The elephants were frightful to the lighter-aremd Jewish warriors.

As recounted in Judeo-Christian accounts, including Midrash on the sixth chapter of the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, the youngest of the Hasmonean brothers, Eleazar the Maccabee, sacrificed his life to overcome this threat, sticking a spear under the foot of an elephant carrying an important Seleucid general, killing the elephant and the general at the cost of Eleazar's own life .

The Egyptians and the Carthaginians began domesticating African elephants for the same purpose, as did the Numidians and the Kushites. The animal used was the North African relict ("Loxodonta africana pharaohensis") population which eventually became extinct from overexploitation [ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/wildfacts/factfiles/3020.shtml BBC Science and Nature] ] .

These animals were smaller than the Asian elephants used by the Seleucids, particularly those from Syria ("Elephas maximus asurus"), standing 2.5-3.5 meters (8-10 ft) at the shoulder. The North African elephants of Carthage are not known to have carried howdahs, and were often too scaredVerify source|date=August 2007 to be used in combat.

The favorite elephant of Hannibal, on the other hand, was described as an impressive animal named "Sarus" ("the Syrian") and it is likely that at least some Syrian elephants were traded abroad.

The African Savanna Elephant ("Loxodonta africana oxyotis"), larger than the African forest elephant or the Asian elephant, proved difficult to tame for war purposes and was not used extensively. Elephants used by the Egyptians at the battle of Raphia in 217 BC were smaller than their Asian counterparts, but that did not guarantee victory for Antiochus III the Great of Syria.

Sri Lankan history records indicate elephants were used as mounts for kings leading their men in the battle field. [ [http://www.lankalibrary.com/wlife/elephants6.htm Sri Lankan Elephants] ] The elephant Kandula was King Dutugamunu's mount (200 BC) and "Maha Pabbata" the mount of King Elahara during their historic encounter in the battlefield.

Pliny the Elder (45 AD) one of the great Roman historians, in Book 6 of his 37 volume history, states that Megastenes had recorded the opinion of one Onesicritus that the Sri Lankan elephants were larger, fiercer and better for war than others. This superiority, as well as the proximity of the supply to seaports, made Sri Lanka's elephants a lucrative trading commodity.

Use of war elephants in Europe was mainly against the Roman Republic by Carthage. However, the first Roman encounter was at the battle of Heraclea (280 BC) where King Pyrrhus of Epirus prevailed, before the Romans had developed techniques to deal with them.

Their next use was when Hannibal led war elephants in a famous march across the Alps during the Second Punic War and terrified the Roman legions. As had Alexander, the Romans eventually developed tactics to neutralize the dangerous elephant charges.

In Hannibal's last battle (Zama, 202 BC), his elephant charge was ineffective because the Roman maniples simply made way for them to pass.

More than a century later, in the battle of Thapsus (February 6, 46 BC), Julius Caesar armed his fifth legion ("Alaudae") with axes and commanded his legionaries to strike at the elephant's legs. The legion withstood the charge, and the elephant became its symbol. Thapsus was the last significant use of elephants in the West. [The African Elephant in Warfare, William Gowers, "African Affairs", Vol. 46 No. 182]

A reportedly effective anti-elephant weapon was the war pig. Pliny the Elder reported that "elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of a pig" (VIII, 1.27). A siege of Megara during the Wars of the Diadochi was reportedly broken when the Megarians poured oil on a herd of pigs, set them alight, and drove them towards the enemy's massed war elephants. The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming squealing pigs (Aelian, "de Natura Animalium" [http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/L/Roman/Texts/Aelian/de_Natura_Animalium/16*.html#36 book XVI, ch. 36] ).

The Parthian dynasty of Persia occasionally used war elephants in their battles against the Roman empire, but elephants were of substantial importance in the army of the subsequent Sassanid dynasty.

The Sassanids employed the animals in many of their campaigns against their western enemies. One of the most memorable engagements was the Battle of Vartanantz, in which Sassanid elephants terrified the Armenians. Another example is the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah, in which elephants were used by the Sassanid army.

In China, the use of war elephants was rare.Schafer, 290.] [An earlier "isolated instance" (Schaefer 290), when "elephants with torches bound to their tail were sent into enemy ranks" does not comply to the given definition of a war elephant as a trained and guided war beast. Quite the contrary, the use of maddenend and guideless animal missiles indicates that the Chinese then had not yet mastered the complex skills necessary for training and guiding elephants into combat.]

The earliest recorded incidence took place as late as 554 AD when the Western Wei deployed in battle two armored war elephants from Lingnan, guided by Malay slaves, and equipped with wooden towers, and swords fastened onto their trunks. The elephants were turned away by archers' arrows.

In Southeast Asia, the Champan army employed in 602 elephant cavalry against the Sui Chinese. However, the Sui troops led the elephants into a trap of falling into deep pits dug by them.Ebrey, 90.] Also crossbow fire was used against the elephants.

Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, elephants were seldom used in Europe. Charlemagne took his elephant, Abul-Abbas, when he went to fight the Danes in 804 [ [http://www.teenspoint.org/reading_matters/columns2.asp?column_id=519&column_type=thistle His Majesty's Elephant] ] , and the Crusades gave Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II the opportunity to capture an elephant in the Holy Land, the same animal later being used in the capture of Cremona in 1214.

The use of elephants, again by an Indian Sultanate, almost put an end to Timur's conquests. In 1398 Timur's army faced more than one hundred Indian elephants in battle and almost lost because his troops were so frightened. Historical accounts say that the Timurids won by employing an ingenious strategy: Timur tied flaming straw to the back of his camels before the charge. The smoke made the camels run forward and scared the elephants, who crushed their own troops in an attempt to retreat. Another account of the campaign (that of Ahmed ibn Arabshah) reports that Timur used oversized caltrops to halt the elephant charge. Later, the Timurid leader used the animals against the Ottoman Empire.

It is recorded that King Rajasinghe the First, when he laid siege to the Portuguese fort at Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1558, had an elephant phalanx of 2200 (Peris 1913). The officer in charge of the Royal stables was called the "Gaja Nayake Nilame". His off-sider was the "Kuruve Lekham" who controlled the Kuruwe or elephant men. The training of war elephants was the duty of the Kuruwe clan who came under their own Muhandiram.

Burma (now Myanmar) and Siam (now Thailand) also used elephants in all their wars. One famous battle took place in 1591 when the Burmese army attacked Siam's Kingdom of Ayutthaya. The war ended when the Burmese crown prince Minchit Sra was killed by Siamese King Naresuan in personal combat on elephant back in Nong Sarai (Suphanburi) on what is now reckoned as January 18, 1593, and observed as Armed Forces Day, public holidays in Thailand.

In China, the Southern Han remained the "only nation on Chinese soil ever to maintain a line of elephants as a regular part of its army". This anomaly in Chinese warfare is explained by the geographical proximity and close cultural links of their region to Southeast Asia. The military officer who commanded these elephants was given the title "Legate Digitant and Agitant of the Gigantic Elephants." [Schafer, 290–291.] Each elephant supported a wooden tower that could hold ten or more men.Schafer, 291.] For a brief time, war elephants played a vital role in Southern Han victories such as the invasion of Chu in 948. However, the Southern Han elephant corps were soundly defeated at Shao on January 23, 971, decimated by crossbow fire from troops of the Song Dynasty. According to Schaefer, "thereafter this exotic introduction into Chinese culture passed out of history, and the tactical habits of the North prevailed."

With the advent of gunpowder warfare in the late 15th century, war elephants became obsolete for charging because they could be easily knocked down by a cannon shot. Non-battle-trained elephants were used for other military purposes as late as World War II [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/2800737.stm War Veteran Elephant Dies] ] , particularly because the animals could perform tasks in regions that were problematic for machinery.

Modern era

Elephants are now more valuable to armies for their ivory than as transport, and many thousands of elephants have died during civil conflicts due to poaching. They are classed as a pack animal in a U.S. Special Forces field manual issued as recently as 2004, but their use by US personnel is discouraged because elephants are an endangered species. [cite web
title=FM 3-05.213 (FM 31-27) Special Forces Use of Pack Animals
publisher=John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School
] The last recorded use of elephants in war occurred in 1987 when Iraq was alleged to have used them to transport heavy weaponry for use in Kirkuk.Fact|date=December 2007

Tactical use

There were many military purposes for which elephants could be used. As enormous animals, they could carry heavy cargoes and provided a useful means of transport before mechanized vehicles rendered them practically obsolete. 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. They were also extremely useful because of their sheer size and how terrifying they were to enemy troops once they were sighted. cite web |url=http://monolith.dnsalias.org/~marsares/warfare/army/m_elepha.html |title=Tactics of the War Elephant |accessdate=2008-05-02 |last= Moerbeck |first=Martijn |authorlink= |year=1997 |publisher=Monolith Community ]

An elephant charge could reach about 30 km/h (20 mph), and unlike horse cavalry, could not be easily stopped by an infantry line's setting spears. Its power was based on pure force: crashing into an enemy line, trampling and swinging its tusks. Those men who were not crushed were at least knocked aside or forced back. Moreover, the terror elephants could inspire in an enemy unused to fighting them (even the very disciplined Romans) could cause the enemy to break and run on. Horse cavalry were not safe either, because horses unaccustomed to the smell of elephants panicked easily. The elephants' thick hide made them extremely difficult to kill or otherwise neutralize, and their height and mass offered considerable protection for their riders. Besides charging, the elephants maintained a vital role in providing a stable and a safe platform for archers to fire arrows in the middle of the battlefield, from which more targets could be seen and engaged. The elephant mahouts and riders in the elephant carriages carried bows and arrows to attack oncoming cavalry and infantry and long spears for close-quarters combat. The archery evolved into more advanced weapons, and several Khmer and Indian kings used giant crossbow platforms (similar to the ballista) to fire long armor-piercing shafts to kill other enemy war elephants and cavalry. The late 1500s also saw the use of culverin on elephants, but the onset of gunpowder made the large and relatively slow war elephants obsolete.

Elephants also had a tendency to panic themselves: after sustaining moderate wounds or when their driver was killed they would run amok, indiscriminately causing casualties as they sought escape. Their panicked retreat could inflict heavy losses on either side. Experienced Roman infantry often tried to sever their trunks, causing an instant panic, and hopefully causing the elephant to flee back into its own lines. Fast skirmishers armed with javelins were also used to drive them away, as javelins and similar weapons could madden an elephant. The cavalry sport of tent pegging grew out of training regimens for horse mounted cavaliers to incapacitate or turn back war elephants. [ [http://www.maharaj.org/tentpegging.shtml Canada's National Tent Pegging Team] ]

Sri Lankan history recordsFact|date=February 2007 indicate that tied to the trunks of elephants were heavy iron chains with steel balls at the end, which elephants were trained to swirl menacingly and with great agility. This was a very efficient way to keep advancing troops at bay.

In the Punic wars, a war elephant was heavily armoured and carried on his back a tower, called a "howdah", with a crew of three men: archers and/or men armed with sarissas (six metre long pikes). [The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World, H.H. Scullard, "The International Journal of African Historical Studies", Vol. 9 No. 3] Forest war elephants, much smaller than their African or Asian relatives, were not strong enough to support a tower and carried only two or three men. There was also the driver, called a "mahout" who was responsible for controlling the animal. The "mahout" also carried a chisel-blade and a hammer to cut through the spinal cord and kill the animal if the elephant went berserk. Elephants have been compared to Second World War "tanks", but their tactical uses differ greatly.

Jayantha Jayawardhene in his "Elephant in Sri Lanka" (1910) opines that elephants were unreliable in battle except to intimidate the enemy. He says, "they have been found to be skittish and easily alarmed by unfamiliar sounds and for this reason they were found prone to break ranks and flee."

Professor J.G. Manning of Stanford University has posited that there is "an inverse relationship between war elephants and victory" in a number of lectures.

War elephants in popular culture

In literature

*Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" contains two stories in which war elephants appear: "Toomai of the Elephants" and "Her Majesty's Servants".

*J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" contained Mûmakil, which were massive four-tusked armored war elephants that trampled enemy cavalry and infantry as Haradrim rained down arrows from a structure upon their back.

In media

War elephants have been featured in many books and movies. See games section for more references.

In games

* Shatranj (Persian chess) - which Modern chess has gradually developed from it, same as Indian chess includes the war elephant with the name ("fil"),meaning elephant in Persian as the bishop. In spanish and Arabic the bishop piece is called al-fil.
* Chaturanga (Indian chess) - Includes the war elephant as a chess piece; the bishop piece was originally a war elephant ("Gaja"). In Russian, the bishop piece is still called an elephant (Слон).
* Chinese chess - Includes the war elephant (象 Xiàng) as one of the pieces; the bishop piece was also originally an elephant.
* In the Japanese Shogi version, the piece used to be known as the "Drunken" Elephant"; it was, however, dropped by order of the Emperor Go-Nara and no longer appears in the version played in contemporary Japan.

See also

* List of battles involving war elephants
* Tent pegging
* Crushing by elephant
* Sassanid army
* History of elephants in Europe
* List of historical elephants
* Military animals
* Cavalry tactics
* Persian war elephants



*Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, Anne Walthall, James Palais (2006). "East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History". Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-618-13384-4.
* Schafer, Edward H. "War Elephants in Ancient and Medieval China," "Oriens" (Volume 10, Number 2, 1957): 289–291.
* "Alexander the Great", by Robin Lane Fox, Penguin (2004) ISBN 0-14-102076-8
* "History of Warfare", by John Keegan, Pimlico (1993) ISBN 0-679-73082-6
* "The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146 BCE", by Adrian Goldsworthy, Orion (2003) ISBN 0-304-36642-0

External links

* [http://www.clickfire.com/viewpoints/articles/political/elephants.php Military Use of Elephants in the Greek and Roman Period]
* [http://www.artsrilanka.org/essays/elephants/index.html Elephants in Sri Lankan History and Culture]
* [http://horsesandswords.blogspot.com/2006/05/battle-of-khajwa.html The Battle of Khajwa]
* [http://radio.nationalreview.com/betweenthecovers/post/?q=NmFiYTUyNTViMzY5YjY3YmM2OGVhYzkzNGM1MGEzMTE= Audio interview with John Kistler on war elephants]

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