War elephants

Elephants have been used for military purposes since Antiquity, and as one would expect, they were first used in India and China. Only Asian elephants after all, not African, can be trained. The Indian epic, the Mahabharata, from the fourth century BCE [read more: the Mahabharata] mentions elephants that were used in battle, and they were employed by the Persians too in their wars with Alexander the Great. In the third century BCE, elephants were introduced in the Mediterranean and used by Carthage in north Africa in its wars against Rome. In 218 BCE, in a particularly daring manoeuver, Hannibal, the Carthigian general, took an army which included 38 elephants around the Mediterranean, across the Alps, and attacked Rome from the north. Elephants were used by the Sasanian empire in Persia,[ read more: the Sasanian empire] and extensively by kings in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. In one particularly famous encounter, the Great Battle of Yuthahatthi, in 1539, the king of Siam killed the king of Burma in one-on-one combat between their respective elephants.

In battle elephants with their enormous bulk were useful for charging the enemy, for breaking the enemy’s ranks, and in general for instilling terror. Generals would often place themselves on top of an elephant in order to get a better view of the battlefield, and archers would sometimes put platforms on elephants’ backs from which they could assault the enemy. Both male and female elephants could be used in battle, but the male was more useful since female elephants tend to run away from males. An “elephantry” is a cavalry equipped with elephants instead of horses.

The standard tactic for fighting an elephantry was to dodge their charge and attack the mahout, the elephant-keeper, with arrows and javelins from behind. The Mongols, who never used elephants themselves, would fight the elephantry of their enemies by setting light to straw tied to the backs of camels. When the burning camels charged, the enemy’s elephants would get scared and turn on their masters. In general, elephants have their limits as a military force since they have a tendency to panic, especially when wounded.

The introduction of muskets in the sixteenth century had only a limited impact on elephants who were protected by their thick hide. However, the arrival of battlefield cannons in the nineteenth-century quickly made them redundant. Against cannons you need far better protection. But elephants have been used for transporting military equipment and supplies to this day.

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