Spears, Swords & Tusks: The Colossal History of War Elephants

On the battlefield, few sights must be more blood-curling than a furious elephantry charge. War elephants have been wreaking havoc in Indian, Chinese, Persian, and Roman armies since Ancient times; however that practice remains shrouded in mystery. Let’s walk into the (large) footsteps of those colossuses.

Animals have been siding with armies for millenaries. From horses pulling chariots to messenger pigeons, from war bears to insect bombs, we have enlisted within our ranks numerous species ready for battle. The biggest terrestrial mammal is no exception to the rule.

Taming the elephant

The pachyderm was probably tamed at first by South-East Asian tribes, although the latter did not use it for warfare but rather for lifting heavy loads. In China, where the elephant has been domesticated since the 11th century BC, it is also a gala animal, parading through packed streets when local celebrations occurr. As proof of its complete integration, the (rather macabre) practice of execution by elephant – where the guilty person had his head crushed by a 5-ton mammal – spread across Asia from the 2nd century AD. Its executioner tasks would persist until the 19th century (yup, job security).

But where and when does the pachyderm really take up arms? Tricky question. In the 5th century BC, the Chinese state of Wu brutally attacked the neighboring province of Ch’u in what seems to be the first-ever occurrence of elephantry on the battlefield (torches had been tied to the pachyderms’ tails as a motivator, but the trick did not work out). Ancient India certainly democratized the enlistment of elephants: Chandragupta Maurya, leader of the Maurya Empire which occupied the northern half of India in the 3rd century BC, is believed to have spearheaded an army of 9,000 war elephants… Even the ‘invincible’ Alexander the Great was put in full rout when his soldiers faced elephants on the banks of the Indus River (or perhaps was it in Mesopotamia against the Persian legions of Darius III – sources are unclear).

echecs elephants
The traditional Eastern-born game of chess had an elephant-riding cavalier for bishop. (Credit: BnF, Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques – Ivoire 313 à 315)

From Eastern howdahs to Hannibal’s tanks

Attesting the growing celebrity of elephantry on the battlefield, the animal has remained within Eastern and European ranks for at least a thousand years. War elephants’ tracks can be found amongst Persian, Chinese, Egyptian and even Roman armies. Across time and geography, however, its equipment changed: it is often crowned with a howdah, sort of Eastern palanquin that could be home to thirty archers (much alike the ‘oliphaunts’ in the LOTR series). Archeologists have also unearthed metal blades that were attached to its tusks to maximize havoc. Sometimes the mammal also wore an extra-large armor to protect its flanks and vital organs. Such weapon-carrying elephants had devastating effects, ripping open the enemy frontline at the average speed of 25 kilometers per hour (15 mph)…

Battle of Zama (202 BC) by Henri-Paul Motte, 1890.

Hannibal’s war elephants have gained incredible fame since the Carthaginian general had them to cross the Alps in 218 BC – an incredible tour de force that cost him dozens of elephants and hundreds of soldiers. Can you picture the colossal carcasses of pachyderms, frozen knee-deep into the snow? When Hannibal reached Italy, his starving and exhausted army could not keep pace with the fresh and well-trained Roman phalanxes. As a result, the Carthaginian leader was defeated, which (1) put an end to the Second Punic War and (2) convinced Rome to recruit elephants and deploy them later during the Macedonian and Syrian campaigns.

A great many elephant ‘blade tusks’ have been discovered by archeologists. This one dates back to 15th-17th century India: it is 24 inches long (61 cms) and weighs 4.5 pounds (2 kgs). (Credit: MET, 2015.103)

How To Train Your Elephant

Obviously, to enlist a 6-ton mammal into one’s army turns into a real logistical and technical hardship. The animal has to be tamed, fed (a mere 300 kilos of fodder on a daily basis, plus mangoes and sugar canes) and trained into the arts of battle. Pliny the Elder acknowledged the difficulty of the latter task (Natural History, Book VIII, 9):

“Elephants, when tamed, are employed in war, and carry into the ranks of the enemy towers filled with armed men; and on them, in a very great measure, depends the ultimate result of the battles that are fought in the East. They tread under foot whole companies, and crush the men in their armour. The very least sound, however, of the grunting of the hog terrifies them: when wounded and panic-stricken, they invariably fall back, and become no less formidable for the destruction which they deal to their own side, than to their opponents.”

So mice are okay, but pigs aren’t? Throughout the never-ending wars that broke out following Alexander The Great’s death, Greeks indeed smeared pigs with olive oil, resin, and tar before setting them on fire, leading the understandably screaming animals towards elephant lines… According to Ancient authors, this cruel strategy proved efficient at the siege of Megara (266 BC) since it terrified Macedonian elephantry which fled from the BBQ-smelling battlefield.

elephants vs pigs gallica
Illustration extracted from a 14th-century manuscript (Histoire ancienne: Les Faits des Romains) written by Wauchier de Denain. (Credit: Gallica – BnF, Département des Manuscrits)

Moreover, war elephants are not physically able to cross trenches or ditches (apart from the very small ones) which makes them particularly vulnerable when mounting an assault on enemy fortifications. The besieged would then counter-attack with arrows and spears and ultimately decimate those easy targets. As Pliny explained, the wounded animal can turn as dangerous to its enemies as to its allies… Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s brother, usually gave the elephants’ mahouts – “drivers” – a hammer and a chisel to drive through the animal’s spine in case it got out-of-control.

Ultimate trumpetings

After centuries of stable employment in both Western and Eastern armies, war elephants started to fade away from the battlefield. The advent of gunpowder signed their death warrant, as those big targets could easily be knocked out with a single cannon blow. Nevertheless, elephants still worked for the military – carrying ammunition or heavy material throughout the major conflicts of the 20th century. (Green Berets notably employed them in Vietnam where roads were too impracticable and foliage too thick for motor vehicles.)

An elephant pulling ammunition on Sheffield dockyards (England), 1916.

Today the pachyderm is considered an endangered species, so it is no longer used as a workhorse; it seems like it is now our turn to come to its defense…





Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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