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History of War Elephants

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Usage and Ancient History

In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, war elephants were a formidable force due to the awesome effect they had on the enemy, but with the advent of firearms and, in particular, artillery, the role of elephants began to decline.

There is no exact data on the beginning of combat employment of elephants. It is known that war elephants were used in ancient China during the Shang dynasty (1600-1027 BC). Battle elephants are mentioned in the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata. In the armies of Ancient India , where a large number of elephants lived, they were used regularly, and the elephant was considered the main heavy fighting unit. Moreover, such use was often due not so much to the combat effectiveness of the elephant, as to the psychological effect of one species of this animal, managed by man.

Gradually the tactics of using elephants changed. In antiquity and the Middle Ages, individual elephant connections, who with weak support of infantry attacked the enemy lines, not only breaking through their system, but also having a significant psychological impact. Subsequently, the situation changed , in the High Middle Ages fighting elephants played the role of strongholds for infantry, a kind of mobile fortresses. In this case, the fighting elephants were lined up with a barrier line, interspersed with closed rows of infantry and occasionally, at critical moments of the battle, sent them into a short counterattack. The elephant was also used as an observation commander’s point.

In ancient times, fighting elephants were used mainly against cavalry, as horses were afraid of elephants and the attack of cavalry was choked. Elephants, having a speed comparable with cavalry, but at the same time incomparably greater in mass, turned any cavalry into flight, as, for example, it was in the battle of Heracleia: King Pyrrhus, seeing the actual defeat of his army from the Roman cavalry, threw In the battle reserve forces of elephants and this drew the outcome of the battle in their favor.

By VI century BC. fighting elephants began to carry up to four people, several more soldiers on the ground protected the legs of the animal. On the back of the elephant was fastened a wooden platform or wicker basket, where there were three shooters armed with darts or bows. The walls of the basket served as a defensive barrier. On the backs of elephants towering above the battlefield, drums or signal flags were also installed to send commands to the soldiers.

Alexander the Great and Hannibal

European civilization met with fighting elephants during the campaign of Alexander the Great. In the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. The Persian army had 15 Indian elephants. The Persians, who were not accustomed to battle elephants, hoped to use them to push through the formidable Macedonian phalanx and to intimidate the enemy. However, the elephants did not participate in the battle, they were captured by the army of Alexander and then used in the course of the further march of the Macedonian army to the east.

The Battle of Hydaspa took place in 326 BC between the armies of Alexander the Great and the Indian king Pora. In analyzing this battle, one can determine the tactics of using elephants by Indians. At first chariots enter confusion in the ranks of the enemy, the enemy loses combat formation, and then the elephants break through the front of the enemy’s army and introduce disorder into its ranks. Cavalry completes the general rout. However, in this battle, the chariots were put out of action by the army of Alexander at the beginning of the battle, and the elephants against the battle-hardened and disciplined Macedonian infantry could not do anything. When the breakthrough of the Macedonian system failed, the elephants turned back and agitated the ranks of the Indians, who were completely routed.

The Battle of Zama, which occurred in October 202 BC. e. between Hannibal and Scipio of Africa , is the last battle of the Second Punic War , which ended in the defeat of Hannibal’s army. The battle was started by the Carthaginians, who threw elephants into the attack. But because of the actions of Roman metal workers and the noise produced by the Roman army, the elephants turned back and crumpled the first rows of Carthaginian infantry and cavalry. Then the cavalry of the Roman army began to pursue the Carthaginian cavalry, temporarily leaving the battlefield. This decided the outcome of the battle, Hannibal was defeated, which became his only defeat in the whole career of the commander.

Modern Use

After the widespread use of gunpowder (XV-XVI century), virtually all the advantages of combat elephants were minimized. Muskets could not cause significant harm to the animal, but already light artillery disarmed the fighting elephants. Despite this, elephants have long been widely used as mobile observation and command posts.

Despite the known shortcomings, combat elephants were used in Southeast Asia until the XIX century due to the difficult terrain cross-country of the region, which made it practically unsuitable for cavalry use.

In the XX century, elephants were used in armies not as combat units, but only as draft power. Thus, they were often used in the First and then in the Second World War, since they could often move around the areas where the movement of motorized equipment would be difficult.


Hammond P. Royal Armories Offial Guide

Nicolle D. Mughul India 1504-1761

Richardson T., Stevens D. The Elephant Armor

John M. Kistler. War Elephants

Konstantin Nossov. War Elephants

Kazarov S.S. Elephants of Pyrrhus

Arrian . Alexander’s campaign

John M. Kistler, Richard Lair. War Elephants


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