For the last 3000 years, generals have found elephants to be useful in waging war. They have gored and stomped their way through infantry and cavalry units with great success and in return, have been cut, speared, shot and bombed for their efforts. Only the use of gunpowder in the 17th century reduced their utility as the equivalent of animal tanks, bulldozers, cargo haulers, and a cavalry substitute for horses.
History of Elephant Use in War
Elephant training for farming and later for warfare began about 4,000 years ago in the Indus Valley. These beasts were used for warfare in India for centuries before the Mughal invaders arrived. The practice spread west as western rulers discovered their use in India and brought them to Europe and the Middle East. In 264 B.C.E., the Carthaginian warlord, Hannibal, drove elephants against the Roman army, and Alexander the Great also used them in his empire’s wars in the same period. Later the Romans brought elephant force to bear on opposing armies along with their own legendary legions.
African elephants were also trained by civilizations in Ethiopia and Somalia. However Indian elephants were much more popular in this respect for their more non-aggressive tendencies toward their trainers and their intelligence.
Shock and Awe
Approaching the opposing army in the advancing lines, a herd of mounted elephants had a most effective shock value. Their sheer size was intimidating and awe inspiring. Horses would flee from elephants because they could not tolerate the stench and this would effectively eliminate the enemy cavalry. Archers and javelin throwers riding atop war elephants also had a distinct advantage over the army on the ground.
If men or horses did not retreat from a charging war elephant, approaching it in battle was a most daunting task. The beast could impale men with its tusks, stomp them with its hooves, or pick them up with their trunks and swing them into trees, boulders, or other elephants to smash their heads and bodies into a bloody pulp.
In spite of its size and strength, the war elephant was not invincible. The Romans devised an anti-elephant battle wagon which could drive an elephant off with slingers and make it turn and rush back into its own lines. It was also possible to hamstring the animals or cut off their trunks. Some armies threw buckets of rotten hog blood at them or used the sound of squealing pigs to frighten the animals. Another tactic was to use camels loaded with burning straw and send them into the foray. The flaming camels racing toward them frightened the elephants who reared up, swung around and trampled their own troops in their wild escape. The reek and noise attributed to elephant warfare was almost intolerable for humans and animals alike.
Utility of Elephant Warriors
Some military historians have dismissed the elephants as ineffective and even dangerous. But there is an argument for the other side too. They were strong beasts of burden and could carry heavy loads for great distances and they could charge full speed at up to 25 kilometers per hour. The problem was that they couldn’t easily stop due to their own massive inertia. So they often crashed through the opposing armies, crushing almost entire armies at times. Since they were very difficult to kill, the opposing armies often went scrambling for safety in front of a wave of attacking elephants.
Disadvantages of War Elephants
Severe wounds or the loss of the animal’s driver, could cause the elephant to lose control and become dangerous to its own army. Drivers were equipped with chisel blades and hammers and directed to drive them into the spinal cord between the vertebra of the animal’s neck or back should it become beserk, break ranks or flee.
During the Mughal era in India, “It was a common mode of execution to have the offender trampled underfoot by an elephant,” wrote General Alexander Hamilton in 1727. He described how the Mughal ruler, Shah Jahan, ordered a military commander carried “to the Elephant Garden and there to be executed by an elephant, which is reckoned to be a shameful and terrible Death.”
Crushing was not the only method used by the Mughals’ execution elephants. In the Mughal Sultanate of Delhi, elephants were trained swing their trunks at the the intended victim and slice prisoners to pieces “with point blades fitted to their tusks.”
A Weapon of War
It might be argued that those who say the war elephant was not a worthwhile weapon of war overlooked the fact that most times when the elephant failed, it was probably due to a poor driver. When the war elephant performed correctly, there was almost no force that could stand up to it.