Nobody knows quite when elephants were first used in war. It probably began on the Indian sub-continent where Indian elephants were first tamed for use in agriculture around 4500 BC. The earliest mention we have of them being used in warfare is from Indian sources dating from the 4th century BC ( the Mahabharata and the Ramayana ).
From India they spread to China and Persia, with Europeans first encountering them at the battle of Gaugamela during the invasion of Persia by Alexander the Great. After the conquest his successors began to use them for warfare as well – the Seleucids gaining control of Indian sources, and the Ptolemies capturing and training African forest elephants.
The Romans first encountered them when Pyrrhus brought Indian elephants to his attack on Italy, also famously when Hannibal used them in his invasion. The Romans themselves rarely used them, keeping them mostly for the arena or ceremonial purposes.
The use of elephants in warfare continued right up until the 19th century, but the advent of gunpowder and cannons in the 15th century meant they were no longer the threat they once were. They still remained in use, but rather than fighting directly, they instead helped armies move supplies over difficult terrain.
Tactical uses of elephants
The obvious effectiveness of elephants in combat is their sheer size and mass. They can charge up to 30 km per hour and, unlike horse cavalry, will smash through and trample any enemy line. They could pick men up with their trunks and hurl them 30 feet in the air, and their thick skin made them hard to kill. The terror and panic of their charge often caused those troops not used to facing them to flee in terror. Horses also feared them, disrupting enemy cavalry operations.
Besides using the elephant itself as a weapon, the stable and high platform made it ideal for archers and spearmen who could shoot from a protective tower on the elephants back (called a ‘howda’). The driver, or mahout, sat on the animals neck and carried a spike and a hammer. If the elephant went out of control then he would drive the spike into the animals brain before it caused too much damage to friendly forces.
Weaknesses of elephants in war
While elephants do have thick skin, with accounts of them receiving and surviving up to 80 arrows, they were prone to panic if injured enough. Alexander the Great, and the Romans, used the tactic of cutting off an attacking elephants trunk. This caused instant alarm in the animal, and made it as dangerous to its own side as the enemy. The loss of the driver often lead to the same result, indeed he was rather exposed sitting so high up on the animals neck.
This alarming tendency of them to turn round and attack their own forces has sometimes led to armies being undone by their own elephants, and makes them a double-edged sword for combat purposes. There was also the problem of capturing, taming, and then training enough of them – since problems with breeding meant they had to be captured in the wild. Their actual value in war remains a contested issue, but there is no doubting the fear factor they could provide.
Photo credit: Flickr user Dey