Today we’re starting the first part of our three part series on War Elephants (by reader request!). In this first part, we’re going to talk about how elephants performed in battle: how did they fight and what was their battlefield purpose? The second two parts will focus on the (as we’ll see) far more important question of how elephants performed in war: part two will focus on the drawbacks which limited (and eventually ended) the use of war elephants in the ancient Mediterranean, while part three will look at the continued use of war elephants in India.
But first – Dear my students (and also my colleague’s students): this is a blog post. Yes, yes, I think I am a cool, knowledgeable fellow too. And I know you are thinking about writing about war elephants for that paper (because someone always is). But this is a blog post. Do not use a blog post – even one so handsome as this one – as a source for your college (or high school) paper. I will make references to books and articles: go to the library, read those, and cite them (also, for that paper, war elephants are actually not a great topic (for reasons we will touch on in a moment) – consider something else). Thank you.
In particular, I’ll be leaning quite heavily on T. Trautmann’s Elephants and Kings (2015), one of the better works on the topic I’ve seen – particularly for the war elephant in India, where I am less well versed myself.
The Trunk of the Problem
The interest in war elephants, at least in the ancient Mediterranean, is caught in a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, war elephants are undeniably cool, and so feature heavily in pop-culture (especially video games). In Total War games, elephants are shatteringly powerful units that demand specialized responses. In Paradox’s recent Imperator, elephant units are extremely powerful army components. Film gets in on the act too: Alexander (2004) presents Alexander’s final battle at Hydaspes (326) as a debacle, nearing defeat, at the hands of Porus’ elephants (the historical battle was a far more clear-cut victory, according to the sources). So elephants are awesome.
On the other hand, the Romans spend about 200 years (from c. 264 to 46 B.C.) mopping the floor with armies supported by war elephants – Carthaginian, Seleucid, even Roman ones during the civil wars (Thapsus, 46 B.C.). And before someone asks about Hannibal, remember that while the army Hannibal won with in Italy had almost no war elephants (nearly all of them having been lost in the Alps), the army he lost with at Zama had 80 of them. Romans looking back from the later Imperial period seemed to classify war elephants with scythed chariots and other failed Hellenistic ‘gimmick’ weapons (e.g. Q. Curtius Rufus 9.2.19). Arrian (a Roman general writing in the second century A.D.) dismisses the entire branch as obsolete (Arr. Tact. 19.6) and leaves it out of his tactical manual entirely on those grounds.
This negative opinion in turn seeps into the scholarship on the matter. This is in no small part because the study of Indian history (where war elephants remained common) is so under-served in western academia compared to the study of the Greek and Roman world (where the Romans functionally ended the use of war elephants on the conclusion that they were useless). Trautmann, (2015) notes the almost pathetic under-engagement of classical scholars with this fighting system. Scullard’s The elephant in the Greek and Roman World (1974) remains the standard text in English on the topic some 45 years later, despite fairly huge changes in the study of the Achaemenids, Seleucids, and Carthaginians in that period.
All of which actually makes finding good information on war elephants quite difficult – the cheap sensational stuff often fills in the gaps left by a lack of scholarship. The handful of books on the topic vary significantly in terms of seriousness and reliability.
So we’re going to take this discussion in three parts: Part I (this one) is going to look at how the elephant functioned in battle: how did it work as a weapon-system and why would anyone want to have it? Part II (next week) will then turn and ask the question: if elephants are such awesome weapon systems, why did the Romans defeat and then abandon them (and why did the Chinese never meaningfully adopt them)? Part III (the week after that) turns this question on its head: if elephants were as useless as the Romans thought, why did Indian kings keep using them?
The Elephant as Weapon
The pop-culture image of elephants in battle is an awe-inspiring one: massive animals smashing forward through infantry, while men on elephant-back rain missiles down on the hapless enemy. And for once I can surprise you by saying: this isn’t an entirely inaccurate picture. But, as always, we’re also going to introduce some complications into this picture.
Elephants are – all on their own – dangerous animals. Elephants account for several hundred fatalities per year in India even today and even captured elephants are never quite as domesticated as, say, dogs or horses. Whereas a horse is mostly a conveyance in battle (although medieval European knights greatly valued the combativeness of certain breeds of destrier warhorses), a war elephant is a combatant in his own right. When enraged, elephants will gore with tusks and crush with feet, along with using their trunks as weapons to smash, throw or even rip opponents apart (by pinning with the feet). Against other elephants, they will generally lock tusks and attempt to topple their opponent over, with the winner of the contest fatally goring the loser in the exposed belly (Polybius actually describes this behavior, Plb. 5.84.3-4). Dumbo, it turns out, can do some serious damage if prompted.
Elephants were selected for combativeness, which typically meant that the ideal war elephant was an adult male, around 40 years of age (we’ll come back to that). Male elephants enter a state called ‘musth’ once a year, where they show heightened aggressiveness and increases interest in mating. Trautmann (2015) notes a combination of diet, straight up intoxication and training used by war elephant handlers to induce musth in war elephants about to go into battle, because that aggression was prized (given that the signs of musth are observable from the outside, it seems likely to me that these methods worked).
(Note: In the ancient Mediterranean, female elephants seem to have also been used, but it is unclear how often. Cassius Dio (Dio 10.6.48) seems to think some of Pyrrhus’s elephants were female, and my elephant plate (seen above) shows a mother elephant with her cub, apparently on campaign. It is possible that the difficulty of getting large numbers of elephants outside of India caused the use of female elephants in battle; it’s also possible that our sources and artists – far less familiar with the animals than Indian sources – are themselves confused.)
Thus, whereas I have stressed before that horses are not battering rams, in some sense a good war elephant is. Indeed, sometimes in a very literal sense – as Trautmann notes, ‘tearing down fortifications’ was one of the key functions of Indian war elephants, spelled out in contemporary (to the war elephants) military literature there. A mature Asian elephant male is around 2.75m tall, masses around 4 tons and is much more sturdily built than any horse. Against poorly prepared infantry, a charge of war elephants could simply shock them out of position a lot of the time – though we will deal with some of the psychological aspects there in a moment.
A word on size: film and video-game portrayals often oversize their elephants – sometimes, like the Mumakil of Lord of the Rings, this is clearly a fantasy creature, but often that distinction isn’t made. As notes, male Asian (Indian) elephants are around 2.75m (9ft) tall; modern African bush elephants are larger (c. 10-13ft) but were not used for war. The African elephant which was trained for war was probably either an extinct North African species or the African forest elephant (c. 8ft tall normally) – in either case, ancient sources are clear that African war elephants were smaller than Asian ones.
Thus realistic war elephants should be about 1.5 times the size of an infantryman at the shoulders (assuming an average male height in the premodern world of around 5’6″), but are often shown to be around twice as tall if not even larger. I think this leads into a somewhat unrealistic assumption of how the creatures might function in battle, for people not familiar with how large actual elephants really are.
The elephant as firing platform is also a staple of the pop-culture depiction – often more strongly emphasized because it is easier to film. This is true to their use, but seems to have always been a secondary role from a tactical standpoint – the elephant itself was always more dangerous than anything someone riding it could carry.
There is a social status issue at play here which we’ll come back to in the third post. The driver of the elephant, called a mahout, seems to have typically been a lower-status individual and is left out of a lot of heroic descriptions of elephant-riding (but not driving) aristocrats (much like Egyptian pharaohs tend to erase their chariot drivers when they recount their great victories). Of course, the mahout is the fellow who actually knows how to control the elephant, and was a highly skilled specialist. The elephant is controlled via iron hooks called ankusa. These are no joke – often with a sharp hook and a spear-like point – because elephants selected for combativeness are, unsurprisingly, hard to control. That said, they were not permanent ear-piercings or anything of the sort – the sort of setup in Lord of the Rings (pictured below) is rather unlike the hooks used (you can see one of the actual hooks shown on the Etruscan plate at the top of this post).
In terms of the riders, we reach a critical distinction. In western media, war elephants almost always appear with great towers on their backs – often very elaborate towers, like those in Lord of the Rings or the film Alexander (2004). Alexander, at least, has it wrong. The howdah – the rigid seat or tower on an elephant’s back – was not an Indian innovation and doesn’t appear in India until the twelfth century (Trautmann supposes, based on the etymology of howdah (originally an Arabic word) that this may have been carried back into India by Islamic armies). Instead, the tower was a Hellenistic idea (called a thorkion in Greek) which post-dates Alexander (but probably not by much).
This is relevant because while the bowmen riding atop elephants in the armies of Alexander’s successors seem to be lower-status military professionals, in India this is where the military aristocrat fights. We’ll talk more about this in the third post – indeed, it will be the focus on that post – but this is a big distinction, so keep it in mind. It also illustrates neatly how the elephant itself was the primary weapon – the society that used these animals the most never really got around to creating a protected firing position on their back because that just wasn’t very important.
In all cases, elephants needed to be supported by infantry (something Alexander (2004) gets right!) Cavalry typically cannot effectively support elephants for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. The standard deployment position for war elephants was directly in front of an infantry force (heavy or light) – when heavy infantry was used, the gap between the two was generally larger, so that the elephants didn’t foul the infantry’s formation.
Infantry support covers for some of the main weaknesses elephants face (which we’ll get into more next week), keeping the elephants from being isolated and taken down one by one. It also places an effective exploitation force which can take advantage of the havoc the elephants wreck on opposing forces. The ‘elephants advancing alone and unsupported’ formation from Peter Jackson’s Return of the King, by contrast, allows the elephants to be isolated and annihilated (as they subsequently are in the film).
Tusk or Terror?
But – and you knew this was coming – the main impact of war elephants is psychological. The Battle of the Hydaspes (326 BC), which I’ve discussed here is instructive . Porus’ army deployed elephants against Alexander’s infantry – what is useful to note here is that Alexander’s high quality infantry has minimal experience fighting elephants and no special tactics for them. Alexander’s troops remained in close formation (in the Macedonian sarissa phalanx, with supporting light troops) and advanced into the elephant charge (Arr. Anab. 5.17.3) – this is, as we’ll see next time, hardly the right way to fight elephants. And yet – the Macedonian phalanx holds together and triumphs, eventually driving the elephants back into Porus’ infantry (Arr. Anab. 5.17.6-7).
So it is possible – even without special anti-elephant weapons or tactics – for very high quality infantry (and we should be clear about this: Alexander’s phalanx was as battle hardened as troops come) to resist the charge of elephants. Nevertheless, the terror element of the onrush of elephants must be stressed: if being charged by a horse is scary, being charged by a 9ft tall, 4-ton war beast must be truly terrifying.
Yet – in the Mediterranean at least – stories of elephants smashing infantry lines through the pure terror of their onset are actually rare. This point is often obscured by modern treatments of some of the key Romans vs. Elephants battles (Heraclea, Bagradas, etc), which often describe elephants crashing through Roman lines when, in fact, the ancient sources offer a somewhat more careful picture. It also tends to get lost on video-games where the key use of elephants is to rout enemy units through some ‘terror’ ability (as in Rome II: Total War) or to actually massacre the entire force (as in Age of Empires).
At Bagradas (255 B.C. – a rare Carthaginian victory on land in the First Punic War), for instance, Polybius (Plb. 1.34) is clear that the onset of the elephants does not break the Roman lines – if for no other reason than the Romans were ordered quite deep (read: the usual triple Roman infantry line). Instead, the elephants disorder the Roman line. In the spaces between the elephants, the Romans slipped through, but encountered a Carthaginian phalanx still in good order advancing a safe distance behind the elephants and were cut down by the infantry, while those caught in front of the elephants were encircled and routed by the Carthaginian cavalry. What the elephants accomplished was throwing out the Roman fighting formation, leaving the Roman infantry confused and vulnerable to the other arms of the Carthaginian army.
So the value of elephants is less in the shock of their charge as in the disorder that they promote among infantry. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, heavy infantry rely on dense formations to be effective. Elephants, as a weapon-system, break up that formation, forcing infantry to scatter out of the way or separating supporting units, thus rendering the infantry vulnerable. The charge of elephants doesn’t wipe out the infantry, but it renders them vulnerable to other forces – supporting infantry, cavalry – which do.
Elephants could also be used as area denial weapons. One reading of the (admittedly somewhat poor) evidence suggests that this is how Pyrrhus of Epirus used his elephants – to great effect – against the Romans. It is sometimes argued that Pyrrhus essentially created an ‘articulated phalanx’ using lighter infantry and elephants to cover gaps – effectively joints – in his main heavy pike phalanx line. This allowed his phalanx – normally a relatively inflexible formation – to pivot.
This area denial effect was far stronger with cavalry because of how elephants interact with horses. Horses in general – especially horses unfamiliar with elephants – are terrified of the creatures and will generally refuse to go near them. Thus at Ipsus (301 B.C.; Plut. Demetrius 29.3), Demetrius’ Macedonian cavalry is cut off from the battle by Seleucus’ elephants, essentially walled off by the refusal of the horses to advance. This effect can resolved for horses familiarized with elephants prior to battle (something Caesar did prior to the Battle of Thapsus, 46 B.C.), but the concern seems never to totally go away. I don’t think I fully endorse Peter Connolly’s judgment in Greece and Rome At War (1981) that Hellenistic armies (read: post-Alexander armies) used elephants “almost exclusively” for this purpose (elephants often seem positioned against infantry in Hellenistic battle orders), but spoiling enemy cavalry attacks this way was a core use of elephants, if not the primary one.
Elephants in popular culture are often shown all on their own, smashing through formations of enemies. The smashing is accurate, but the all-alone is not: elephants existed within tactical systems which combined them, particularly with infantry. Trautmann (2015) notes that in India itself, the ‘fourfold’ army, with cavalry, chariots, foot and elephants, became a poetic paradigm for the correctly structured army, even after chariots had largely fallen out of use.
Nevertheless, elephants were potentially extremely powerful weapon-systems. Their key value lay not in the ability to shatter enemy formations off the field (although they could do that) or inflict massive casualties (but they can do that too), but in the disorder they caused an enemy. Against infantry, elephants were extremely disruptive to the tightly-packed formations required for success. Against horses, the natural aversion of horses to approach elephants could spoil cavalry charges and scatter horseman.
Thus the war elephant wasn’t a ‘battle winner’ so much as a dangerous complication thrown in the way of the enemy’s plan of attack. And at that, they were awesome.
Next week, we’ll look at the drawbacks. Why didn’t the Romans – or the Chinese for that matter – make much use of these awesome, awesome animals?