War Elephants in Asian History

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Elephants as Combatants

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Indian war elephant pursues horse cavalry. traveler1116 via Getty Images

For thousands of years, kingdoms and empires across southern Asia from Persia to Vietnam have used war elephants. The largest land mammals, elephants are also incredibly intelligent and strong.  Other animals, particularly horses and sometimes camels, have long been used as transportation for human warriors in battle, but the elephant is a weapon, and a combatant, as well as a steed. 

War elephants are taken from the Asian species, rather than from either the African savannah or forest elephant species.  Some scholars believe that Hannibal may have used African forest elephants to invade Europe, but it is impossible to definitively state his elephants' origins so long after the fact.  Forest elephants tend to be quite shy, and would be difficult to train for battle. The largest type, African savannah elephants, do not allow humans to tame or ride them. Thus, it has generally fallen to the medium-height and shorter-tusked Asian elephant to go to war.

Of course, any reasonable elephant would turn and run from the noise and confusion of a battle.  How were they trained to wade right in to the fray?  First, since each elephant has a distinct personality, trainers selected the most aggressive and combative individuals as candidates. These were generally males, although not always.  Less aggressive animals would be used to haul supplies or provide troop transport, but would be kept away from the front lines.

Indian training manuals relate that war elephant trainees were taught to move in serpentine patterns, and to trample or impale straw dummies. They also were lightly pricked with swords or spears while people shouted and pounded drums nearby, to accustom them to the noise and discomfort of battle.  Sri Lankan trainers would slaughter animals in front of the elephants to get them used to the smell of blood.

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War Elephants across Asia

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A Burmese prince on a white elephant attacks Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Martin Robinson via Getty Images

Records of elephants in war date back to about 1500 BCE in Syria. The Shang Dynasty in China (1723 - 1123 BCE) also used them, although the exact date of this innovation is unclear.

Elephants have played a key role in numerous Asian battles.  In the Battle of Gaugamela, the Achaemenid Persian army had fifteen Indian-trained war elephants in its ranks as it faced off against Alexander the Great. Alexander reportedly made special offerings to the God of Fear the night before his army went out to face the huge beasts.  Unfortunately for Persia, the Greeks overcame their fear and brought down the Achaemenid Empire in 331 BCE.

This would not be Alexander's last brush with pachyderms. At the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 BCE, the apex of Alexander's career, he defeated a Punjabi army that included 200 war elephants.  He wanted to push further south into India, but his men threatened to mutiny.  They had heard that the next kingdom south had 3,000 elephants in its army, and they had no intention of meeting them in battle.

Much later, and further east, the nation of Siam (Thailand) is said to have "won its freedom on the backs of elephants" in 1594 CE. Thailand was occupied by the Burmese at the time, who also had elephants, naturally.  However, a clever Thai commander, King Naresuan of Ayutthaya, developed a strategy of holding the elephants in reserve inside the jungle, then feigning retreat to draw the enemy in. Once the Burmese troops were in range, the elephants would rush out from behind the trees to overwhelm them.   

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Modern Uses for War Elephants

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Elephant battery in Burma, 1886. This elephant's eye is very oddly placed!. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

War elephants continued to fight alongside humans into the 19th and 20th centuries.  The British soon adopted the useful creatures into their colonial armies in the Indian Raj and Burma (Myanmar). In the late 1700s, the British East India Company's army included 1,500 war elephants. Elephants carried British troops and supplies around India during the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion. They also pulled artillery pieces and carried ammunition.

Modern armies tended to use the animals less as living tanks in the heat of battle, and more for transport and engineering. During World War II, the British used elephants in south Asia to help build log bridges and roads for truck transports.  Elephants trained in logging were especially useful for engineering projects.

During the Vietnam War, which is the last known example of elephants being used in war, the Vietnamese and Laotian guerrillas used elephants to carry supplies and soldiers through the jungle. Elephants even strode the Ho Chi Minh Trail carrying weapons and ammunition.  The elephants were such an effective means of transport through forests and swamps that the U.S. Air Force declared them an approved target for bombing raids.

Thankfully, in the last 40 years or more, humans have not impressed elephants into service as combatants in our wars. Today, elephants are waging a war of their own - a struggle to survive against shrinking habitats and blood-thirsty poachers.