The Pros and Cons of Ancient War Elephants

During World War I, elephants pulled heavy equipment. This one worked in a munitions yard in Sheffield.

Elephants are generally peaceful and majestic creatures but throughout history, their size and power were used with devastating results on the battlefield. With the adoption of gunpowder, elephants faded from the front lines (though they were used in vital logistical roles as late as WWII). In the ancient period with spears and arrows, however, war elephants were a fearsome force to be reckoned with, though not without some serious disadvantages. First, a look at some of the pros of utilizing elephants in battle:

Elephants were absolutely huge compared to anything else in the known world. Considering that the average height of people in the ancient period was several inches shorter than today and horses were not especially large by this time, elephants were quite simply towering imposing figures akin to heavy tanks today. Looking at a charging elephant one could wonder if there was even anything they could do to make a dent in the animal.

Having just one elephant in an army could win battles without even having to fight them as the Roman emperor Claudius did when he brought an elephant to Briton to the great awe of the local tribes. Generals such as Hannibal occasionally choose an elephant as their mount due to the greatly increased field of view that allowed them to better manage a battle. Even the elephant driver, who straddled the neck, was only exposed to missile fire, being too far above the reach of most infantry weapons.

They could be ferocious. Though it took a lot of time, elephants could be trained to effectively fight in battle lines and even against other elephants. The main function of elephants in battle was a headlong charge into an enemy formation to break the morale or break up the formation for a follow-up attack. While a wall of spearmen would decimate an enemy cavalry charge (if the horses could even be persuaded to charge), they had almost no initial impact on an elephant charge. At the battle of the Hydaspes, Alexander attempted to fight off King Porus’ elephants by creating dense “porcupine” formations of spearmen.

The elephants had no problems fighting straight to the center of these formations. Elephants would primarily use their body weight as the weapon but would also swing their tusks during the charge. In some instances, they would use their dexterous trunks to pick soldiers up and fling them or even deliver a crushing bite. Even if the charge was stopped it took amazing effort to bring the elephants down. Arrows would not pierce very deeply and it took a great amount of effort to hack through the tough skin.

War elephants depicted in Hannibal Barca crossing the Rhône, by Henri Motte. Made in 1878.

They could bring more than tusks to the battle. In addition to the elephant driver, elephants occasionally carried a platform known as a howdah on their back that functioned like a mobile tower. These howdahs could be simple wooden platforms that allowed a lone skirmisher to operate or they could long platforms with strong crenelated walls with two skirmishers a piece. In addition to carrying additional soldiers, elephants could also be heavily armored.

Armoring ranged from simple bronze tusk coverings to elaborate full body armor. Such armor could include full curtain armor protecting the vital flanks of the elephant and chain or scale armor protecting the trunk. Occasionally plate helmets complete with large, fanning crests served as ornamentation as well as protection for the driver. A fully armored elephant complete with a protected driver and skirmishers in a howdah would often dumbfound soldiers as there seemed to be few ways to kill them.

Despite their list of impressive features, war elephants are often remembered for their faults. The battles of Zama, Thapsus and Beneventum were all the more notable due to the triumphs over the elephants. Elephants were far from common throughout the Mediterranean due to a few major drawbacks

Elephants were a major investment in every sense of the word. To take an elephant into battle it had to be extensively trained as it is far from natural for an elephant to purposely kill masses of humans. Training took as much as a decade or more and as it was difficult to breed enough to sustain or grow a herd; wild elephants were constantly trapped and transported for training. The cost of trapping, transporting and training the elephants was enormous and the custom-made suits of armor were a fortune in their own right. If a leader was not mounting a campaign then whole generations of trained elephants could be essentially wasted.

The most famous pitfall of elephants is that they are skittish and temperamental. Despite years of training for battle, elephants could still panic under actual battle conditions. Concentrated missile fire could confuse and enrage an elephant and cause them to turn and flee. Elephants were often among the first troops to engage, and fought in the center or in front of cavalry wings, meaning that panicked elephants often ran through their own armies to escape.

At the battle of Thapsus, Caesar’s archers were able to rout a formation of King Juba’s elephants and cause the panicked trampling of their own soldiers. Panicked elephants were so concerning that it was common for drivers to carry a long spike and hammer to impale the brain of an elephant to lower allied casualties.

Cultures could learn how to deal with elephants after some time. It seems that civilizations with no experience fighting elephants in that period were often bested in the first elephant engagement. The Roman’s first encounter with Pyrrhus’ elephants at the battle of Heraclea resulted in the elephants routing the cavalry and the rest of the Romans soon after. At Asculum, the Romans tried to use flaming pots and chariots covered in spikes to combat the elephants but they were still overwhelmed. At Beneventum the Romans finally focused their attention on piercing the exposed flanks of the elephants and, after routing the elephants, were able to secure a victory.

At Zama, Scipio altered the traditional Roman checkerboard formation and created a formation with several large avenues leading through his army. When Hannibal’s elephants charged they instinctively followed the path of least resistance and were either killed by missiles or continued through the formation and remained behind the army and out of the battle. Scipio’s cavalry on the wings simply blew loud horns which scared the elephants and caused them to flee into their own troops.

Though their flaws often had catastrophic effects, the benefits of elephants had to have outweighed them as war elephants were used repeatedly throughout the ancient period. They were both a status symbol and a fearsome battlefield tool. It is important to remember the plight of the elephants, however, as it is a fascinating, though horrifying and abusive use of an otherwise peaceful and extremely intelligent animal.

By William McLaughlin for War History Online