Elephants have been used for military purposes since antiquity, first in India and China. The Indian epic, the Mahabharata, from the fourth century BCE, mentions war elephants and elephants were employed by the Persians in their wars with Alexander the Great. [Read more: “The Mahabharata“] In one famous battle in 1539 CE, the king of Siam killed the king of Burma in one-on-one combat between their respective elephants.
An “elephantry” is a cavalry equipped with elephants instead of horses. In battle elephants with their enormous bulk are 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 the elephants’ backs from which they could assault the enemy. Both male and female elephants can be used in battle, but the male is more useful since female elephants tend to run away from males.
The standard tactic for fighting an elephantry is 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. 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. The Mughals continued to rely on them in their conquest of the sub-continent. Akbar had a famous elephantry. Yet the arrival of battlefield cannons in the nineteenth-century quickly made them redundant. Against cannons you need far better protection. To this day elephants are used for other military tasks such as transporting equipment and supplies.