18th century engraving of Eleazar's exploit as described in the bible. Courtesy of Wiki-Commons

One of the most interesting and unusual uses of domesticated animals in history was the use of war elephants, which probably first began around 4,000 BCE in the Indus River Valley. Later, the largest land mammals in the animal kingdom were used in many battles including against Alexander the Great's forces, by Hannibal's Carthaginian army against the Romans and by the Sultans of India when fighting the Mongols. Working with animals on the battlefield had both advantages and disadvantages and this was particularly true of the war elephant, whose use down the ages has had varying degrees of success.

The Advantages of using War Elephants

Probably the biggest advantage of using elephants in battle was the terror caused in the opposing army’s ranks when they saw the giants stampeding towards them at speeds that could exceed 25 KPH. Sometimes more than a hundred would be used, not only potentially routing the men who may never have seen such beasts before, but horses unaccustomed to them would also be frightened, which could cause mayhem in the ranks.

In Asia, fighting towers were put on the backs of the elephants and occupied by an officer, an archer and an infantryman armed with a lance. Working with the animals in this manor gave a great height advantage, allowing the infantryman to bear down on the enemy and the archer to greatly increase his range. Added to this, in-between battles the elephants were used to carry heavy loads of equipment and supplies, making prolonged campaigns easier to execute as more food and other vital resources could be taken on a campaign.

An official seal of the Suphanburi province in Thailand. Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Disadvantages of using War Elephants

While the use of war elephants was often a very beneficial use of domesticated animals in history, it also brought with it risks for an army employing them and when things went wrong, the results could be dire. During a battle, they could easily be wounded by iron spikes that were either in heavy wooden frames or wound through chains. In modern warfare, the equivalent to working with these animals could be said to be the use of armoured vehicles however when they get damaged, they tend to just stop.

These ‘weapons’ from the animal kingdom on the other hand are a different story and when an elephant was injured or lost its driver, then it would often become uncontrollable. They could end up killing or wounding large numbers of men from the ranks they were supposed to be helping, indiscriminately trampling on anyone who got in their way. Sometimes, riders would carry large hammer and chisel type tools in order to kill the animal if it appeared that it might lose control; the chisel would be driven into a point on the back of the head, stopping the elephant in its tracks before it could run amok.

Examples of the use of Elephants in War – Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great came up against war elephants in 326 BCE when he fought against the forces of Porus in the Indus Valley region. Porus had around three hundred of the beasts at his disposal however this did not help him gain victory against the Macedonian forces, whose archers were able to kill many of the drivers and wound the animals. This caused mayhem in the ranks of the Indian army as the elephants ran wild.

16th century rendition of Porus’s elephant cavalry. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

However despite some degree of tendencies to run wild, the animals are very intelligent and could be trained relatively well. An early description of the war elephant as used in this battle is handed down to us from the Greek historian Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 CE), who stated in his work The Life of Alexander;
Most historians agree that Porus was four cubits and a span high, and that the size and majesty of his body made his elephant seem as fitting a mount for him as a horse for the horseman. And yet his elephant was of the largest size; and it showed remarkable intelligence and solicitude for the king, bravely defending him and beating back his assailants while he was still in full vigour, and when it perceived that its master was worn out with a multitude of missiles and wounds, fearing he should fall off, it knelt softly on the ground, and with its proboscis gently took each spear and drew it out of his body.

Hannibal of Carthage

Perhaps some of the most famous domesticated animals in history to be used in battle were Hannibal’s war elephants, used by his Carthaginian army against the Romans during the Second Punic War (218-202 BCE). However how much he relied on them tends to be exaggerated as most of his elephants died during the crossing of the Alps and even though he was able to replace many of them, they only really played an important part in one battle, the Battle of the Trebia River. By the time the two forces faced each other in their final conflict, the Battle of Zama, the Romans had learned to herd the animals through their ranks therefore nullifying the threat from them.

19th century depiction of Carthaginian war elephants at the Battle of Zama (202 BCE). Courtesy of Wikipedia

Timur Khan – Leader of the Mongol Hoards

The Delhi Sultanate used war elephants against the Mongol hoards led by Timur Khan in 1398; however the Indian forces were defeated. It is unknown exactly how Timur managed to solve the problems caused by the 120 elephants he encountered; one legend states that he attached straw to his camels so that when the giants of the animal kingdom got close, he could set the straw on fire, causing the camels to run forward.

This, so the story goes, routed the elephants causing them to crush many of the Indian soldiers. Whatever method he used to get passed the problem, Timur was so impressed with the elephant’s potential usefulness that he later obtained some for his own army and used them successfully in later battles against the Mamluks and the Ottomans.

The End of the use of Elephants in War

From the sixteenth century, the use of gun powder in battle made it considerably easier to bring down the animals, diminishing their effectiveness and bringing an end to their use on the battlefield. However they continued to be used for transportation and logistics in warfare right up to the Second World War, where they were used by Indian and Burma forces to transport guns and supplies, and to assist in engineering projects such as road and bridge building in remote areas where vehicles could not be used.

An elephant during World War I pulls ammunition in Sheffield, UK. Courtesy of Wikipedia


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