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Modern representation of a Carthaginian war elephant.

War Elephants: The Military ‘Tanks’ of the Ancient World

“A few only of Ptolemy's elephants ventured to close with those of the enemy, and now the men in the towers on the back of these beasts made a gallant fight of it, striking with their pikes at close quarters and wounding each other, while the elephants themselves fought still better, putting forth their whole strength and meeting forehead to forehead.”

-Polybius, Histories, Book V

War elephants are elephants that have been trained and are guided by humans during times of war. According to Patrick Winn, a correspondent for The World , war elephants may be divided into two types: those which participate in battles and those used for logistical purposes. As a combat unit, the war elephant is known to have been employed by various cultures, from the Carthaginians of North Africa to the Mughals of India.

Elephant and driver, probably from the Mughal Emperor's stable with a hunting howdar, including pistol, bows and a rifle inscribed 'Maula Bakhsh' (in Persian, upper left) and further inscribed (centre left) pencil and watercolour heightened with bodycolour and gold. (Public Domain)

Elephant and driver, probably from the Mughal Emperor's stable with a hunting howdar, including pistol, bows and a rifle inscribed 'Maula Bakhsh' (in Persian, upper left) and further inscribed (centre left) pencil and watercolour heightened with bodycolour and gold. ( Public Domain )

These animals were formidable opponents on the battlefield, though they were far from indestructible. Whilst the use of war elephants in battle eventually ceased, they were still used for logistical purposes during war for some time.

Who Used War Elephants First?

It is believed that elephants were first used by human beings in India around 4000 years ago. Initially, the great strength of these animals was exploited for manual labor, such as clearing the ground for construction or agriculture, and transporting goods. It did not take too long for people to realize that these gentle giants could be prompted into more militaristic purposes as well. It is not entirely clear when elephants were first used for war, though it may have occurred around the 12th century BC.

It is certain, however, that war elephants were used by the second half of the first millennium BC. The military use of elephants spread from India westwards. As an example, during the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, the Persian king, Darius III, is recorded to have fielded as many as 15 war elephants against Alexander the Great. The Greek king encountered war elephants once more when he faced the army of King Porus at the Battle of Hydaspes, where the Indian king commanded about 85 0f these war machines.

Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes. (CC BY 3.0)

Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes. ( CC BY 3.0 )

War Elephants Go West

The Hellenistic successors of Alexander also used war elephants on the battlefield. This was especially true for the Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Seleucid Empire, both of which had access to this resource. It was also due to another of Alexander’s successors, Pyrrhus of Epirus, that the war elephant was introduced further in the west.

It was through their wars with Pyrrhus that the Romans came to know of such a fearsome war machine. It was also due to Pyrrhus’ campaigns in Sicily that the Carthaginians first encountered war elephants. Impressed by the prowess of these beasts, the Carthaginians began training their own war elephants. One of the most impressive episodes in Carthaginian military history is undoubtedly Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in 218 BC, which involved a number of war elephants.

Fearsome War Machines

Having defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars, the Romans too began using war elephants. As an example, the Roman emperor Claudius brought war elephants on his campaign against the Britons, which undoubtedly intimidated the native tribes.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, war elephants became a rarity in Europe and access to these beasts became much more difficult. The use of war elephants, however, continued in the east. As an example, Indian rulers continued employing these beasts, and so too did the Mughal, who invaded the subcontinent during the 16th century.

Battle at Lanka, Ramayana, by Sahib Din. Battle between the armies of Rama and the King of Lanka. Udaipur, 1649-1653. (Public Domain)

Battle at Lanka, Ramayana, by Sahib Din. Battle between the armies of Rama and the King of Lanka. Udaipur, 1649-1653. ( Public Domain )

A Change in Role

The days of the war elephant as a combatant on the battlefield were numbered. One of the war elephant’s strengths was the fact that conventional weapons such as swords and spears did little damage to the elephant’s hide. Many war elephants even had armor created for them, and some of these are still preserved in museums. The development of gunpowder weapons, however, made it easier to bring these creatures down, thus making them less valuable on the battlefield. This may be seen, for instance, in the campaign against the Burmese by the British during the 19th century. The Burmese war elephants did not stand a chance against the British rockets.

In due course, war elephants ceased to be used on the field of battle completely. Nevertheless, they were still employed for logistical military purposes. During the Second World War, for instance, the Japanese used war elephants to transport guns and supplies across jungle terrain. The British too were using war elephants for this purpose, as well as for engineering works.

An elephant pulling machinery during WWI, Sheffield. (Public Domain)

An elephant pulling machinery during WWI, Sheffield. ( Public Domain )

There is one known instance of war elephants being used today. They are used by the Kachin Independence Army, the military arm of the Kachin Independence Organization that is based in the Kachin State of Burma / Myanmar. Like the purpose for the Japanese and British of the Second World War, these war elephants are used in logistics.

Top Image: Modern representation of a Carthaginian war elephant. Source: CC BY SA

By: Wu Mingren  

References

Griffiths, A., 2013. The War Elephant Through History. [Online]
Available at: http://www.articlesonhistory.com/index/the-war-elephant-through-history

Guttman, J., 2016. Carthaginian War Elephant. [Online]
Available at: http://www.historynet.com/carthaginian-war-elephant.htm

Ison, D., 2016. War Elephants: From Ancient India to Vietnam. [Online]
Available at: http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/military-history/war-elephants-from-ancient-india-to-vietnam/

Leafloor, L. 2016. Dogs of War: Ancient History of Animals in Warfare. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/history/dogs-war-ancient-history-animals-warfare-006029

Mclaughlin, W., 2015. The Pros and Cons of Ancient War Elephants. [Online]
Available at: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/ancient-history/the-pros-and-cons-of-ancient-war-elephants.html

Patrick, N., 2016. Beautiful examples of elaborate War Elephant Armor. [Online]
Available at: https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/07/04/beautiful-examples-elaborate-war-elephant-armour/

Winn, P., 2017. War elephants still exist. But only in one forbidding place.. [Online]
Available at: https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-02-27/war-elephants-still-exist-only-one-forbidding-place

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