Man, I remember sitting at my old Dell laptop for hours on end playing Age of Empires 2. I was a wee lad and loved reaching the point of War Elephants. At that age, the only Hannibal I knew liked Chianti and gave me nightmares, but I also knew that these powerful pachyderms could help me destroy my opponent’s meek little villages.
War elephants always carried a certain kind of mystique. Horse-bound calvary was boring, you put some mahouts (elephant riders) on elephants, though, and now you’ve got my attention.
There were, of course, real war elephants these fictional Age of Empires beasts were based on. I mean the war elephants used in India, by Alexander the Great, by the Romans at times, and the Carthaginians. The context of these ages and the conflicts that littered them warrant entire books, so we can’t cover that all here. Instead, let’s take a serious look at war elephants and discuss how they really were historically used, along with the pros and cons of adding them to your wartime arsenal.
The Use of War Elephants
War elephants worked a lot like modern armor units in some ways. For instance, they required infantry support to function correctly. A tank is a mighty beast, but it can’t fight in an urban environment without infantry nearby to protect its weak spots and prevent it from being flanked and isolated. In these ancient battles, infantry would often follow the war elephants just as today’s troops stick with their tankers.
Before long, armies started building mounts for elephants. These allowed archers to rain down arrows on the infantry from close range. It was almost like a designated marksman with infantry forces. Riding archers would also help protect the elephant in battle. Ultimately if the elephant went down, they didn’t stand much of a chance, so their lives depended on it.
In terms of survival, there is lots of evidence that elephants wore some form of armor in most military situations. This armor helped protect their flanks as well as their trunks, which was not only a particularly vulnerable area, but also an important appendage for the elephant’s prolonged survival. Enemy forces, knowing this, would attack the trunk and try to cut it off. Other fighters with spears and javelins would attack the massive flanks in drive-by-like attacks in an attempt to isolate the elephants. The various armors employed with war elephants throughout the ages helped resist these sorts of attacks.
Elephants could certainly cause casualties, but they weren’t the most efficient tool for that job. One animal can only stomp, tusk, and gore so much at a time. What war elephants really excelled at was causing chaos on the battlefield. They created disorder in the phalanx system and infantry lines. These beasts cut off units from each other and allowed allied infantry to fill the gaps left by war elephants as they slaughtered and maimed their way through the crowd. They didn’t often inflict battle-winning casualties, but they did often enable the infantry to do so.
The Strengths of War Elephants
Imagine being an ancient soldier. You’ve likely seen very little of the world. Just the villages or maybe the cities in which you grew up. You’re on campaign, tired, underfed, with a fate that’s incredibly uncertain. You’re holding a spear as the enemy approaches, and then you see a beast you can’t explain.
It’s 9 feet of gray skin, with a crazy face and massive tusks. It weighs four tons, and it’s barreling towards you. Well, if you can picture that, then you can see one of the biggest strengths of the war elephant. It’s a beast that was as exotic as it was massive and, as you might expect, created fear in the enemy. Imagine if a dragon just popped into a modern battlefield. It would be nuts. So too was fighting an elephant near the ancient Mediterranean.
The psychological aspect is certainly one strength, but that fear of the weight and size of these creatures was for a good reason, and elephants could easily cause lots of casualties. They could also tear down fortifications or destroy them through brute force. It’s essentially a living battering ram that weighed 8,000 pounds and was self-propelled.
Humans weren’t the only things on the battlefield who carried a healthy fear of war elephants. It turns horses don’t care for them much either. Calvary was massively valuable to a fighting force, but if the horses found themselves facing elephants, things fell apart quickly.
War elephants’ strength wasn’t only valuable in the fight. Between battles, they could carry massive loads, move things, and could even cover ground pretty quickly. They easily forded rivers and could carry supplies and equipment across with them.
These elephants served as more than beasts of war and could help literally move an army when necessary. Like a Humvee, they can carry you to war with your weapons, but also deliver water, carry mail, and get you where you need to go a fair bit faster and far better rested than you would be on foot.
There is no such thing as a free lunch, and it’s not terribly easy to see why war elephants had a relatively brief existence in antiquity tactics. First, logistics win wars and elephants are logistical nightmares. These things consume up to 300 pounds of food per day. Imagine trying to keep an elephant full using the supply lines of the ancient world–meaning every ounce of material has to be carried by people and animals over great distances at a painfully slow pace.
Beyond that, it takes years for an elephant to mature to full size and tons of time invested in training it, outfitting it, and training specialized mahouts to drive the elephants. Imagine spending a couple of decades raising an elephant for war and it dying due to some random disease. That’s a huge expenditure of time, manpower, and resources all for naught.
Once an army learned the tactics required to take down an elephant, they went from terrors of the battlefield to easily defeated nuisances. It’s tough to invest all that time, training, and food into a creature just to have it easily taken down by a savvy commander and a bunch of inexpensive infantry soldiers.
Maybe worst of all, war elephants could be panicked, and it happened many times. Fire, in particular, seemed to panic them. One military commander covered pigs with oil and set them ablaze, herding them in the direction of war elephants. The flaming pigs caused the elephants to panic, and guess what happens when 4-ton creatures panic? Everyone loses, including the army who brought the elephants.
For these reasons, and you know, the development of things like rockets, cannons, and the like, war elephants were largely abandoned by the close of the 18th century. Although they did last longer in some parts of the world thanks to their brute strength and ability to move things over tough terrain. Heck, Burmese elephants saw some use in World War II in the fight against the Japanese, and the French used them to carry soldiers into Laos, Cambodia when fighting the Vietnamese Guerrillas in the late 1940s.