War elephants were important, although not widespread, weapons in ancient military history. Their main use was in charges, to trample the enemy and/or break their ranks. War elephants were exclusively male animals, as they are faster and more aggressive.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Tactical use
3 Battles
4 References
5 See also


Elephant taming began in the Indus valley around 4,000 years ago. Taming is not used here as a synonym of domestication. Domesticated animals, such as cows or dogs, are born in captivity and eventually subjected to selective breeding. Elephants, probably due to their bad temper, expensive feeding and small growth rate (15 years to adulthood), were, with very few exceptions, always caught in the wild and subsequently tamed for several purposes. The first species to be tamed was thus the Asian elephant, for agricultural ends. It took a few millennia for the inhabitants of India to grasp their military uses. The first military application of elephants dates from around 1100 BC and is mentioned in several Sanskrit hymns.

From the East, war elephants migrated to the Persian empire where they were used in several campaigns. The battle of Gaugamela (October 1, 331 BC), fought against Alexander the Great was probably among the first confrontations of Europeans with war elephants. The fifteen animals, placed at the centre of the Persian line, made such an impression on the Macedonian troops, that Alexander felt the need to sacrifice to the god of fear in the night before the battle. Gaugamela was Alexander's greatest success, which he won by carefully placing his cavalry away from the elephants. Following his conquest of Persia, Alexander recognised the use of the animals and incorporated a number of them in his army. Five years later, in the battle of Jhelum, although without his own, Alexander already knew how to deal with elephants.

The elephant's military successes spread across the world and soon, Carthaginians and the Egyptians started to tame African elephants for the same purposes. Later on, the Numidians used the Forest elephant for this purpose.

In the next centuries, further use of war elephants in Europe was mainly against the Roman Republic. From the battle of Heraclea (280 BC, Macedonian wars) to the famous march across the Alps by Hannibal during the Second Punic war, elephants terrified the Roman legions. Like Alexander, the Romans found a way to cope with the dangerous elephant charges. In Hannibal's last battle (Zama, 202 BC), his elephant charge was ineffective because the Roman maniples simply made way for them to pass. More than a century later, in the battle of Thapsus (February 6 46 BC), Julius Caesar armed his fifth legion (Alaudae) with axes and commanded his legionaries to strike at the elephant's legs. The legion sustained the charge and the elephant became its symbol.

In the Middle Ages, elephants were seldom used. Charlemagne took his elephant, Abul-Abbas when he went to fight the Danes in 804, and the Crusades gave Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor the opportunity to capture an elephant in the Holy Land, later used in the capture of Cremona in 1214.

It was the use of elephants, again by an Indian Sultanate, that almost put an halt to Timur's conquests. In 1398 Timur's army faced more than one hundred Indian elephants in battle and almost lost by pure fear of his troops. Historical accounts say that the Mongols won due to an ingenious strategy: Timur set straw on fire on the back of his camels before the charge. The smoke made the camels run forward and scared the elephants, who crushed their own troops in an attempt to retreat. Another account of the campaign also reports that Timur used large caltrops to halt the elephant charge. Later, the Mongol leader used the animals against the Ottoman Empire.

With the advent of gunpowder warfare in the late 15th century, war elephants became obsolete as a charging element because they could be easily knocked down by a cannon shot.

Tactical use

There were plenty of military purposes for which elephants could be used. As enormous animals, they could carry heavy cargoes and provided a useful means of transport. They could also be used as executioners, by crushing the condemned to death. In battle, war elephants were usually deployed in the centre of the line, where they could be useful to prevent a charge or start one of their own.

An elephant charge could reach about 30 km/h and was difficult to stop by an infantry line. Its power was based on pure force and the fear that a charging 10-ton animal could inspire in the enemy lines. Mounted units were not safe either, because horses unaccustomed to the smell of elephants panicked easily, shattering the cavalry efficiency. Elephants were also extremely difficult to kill or neutralize in any way. Their darker side was a tendency to panic themselves, after several wounds or when their driver was killed, and to retreat in a disorganised way that could inflict heavy losses on their own side.

In the Punic wars, a war elephant was heavily armoured and carried in his back a tower with a crew of three men: archers and/or men armed with sarissas (a pike with 6 m). Forest war elephants, much smaller than the African or Asian relatives, where not strong enough to support a tower and carried only two or three men. There was also the driver, called mahout and usually Numidian, responsible for controlling the animal. The mahout also carried a chisel-blade and a hammer to cut through the spinal cord and kill the animal if the elephant went berserk. Despite this possibility, elephants were the ancient world equivalent of a Second World War Panzer.


Some notable battles including war elephants include:


  • Alexander the Great, by Robin Lane Fox, Penguin
  • History of Warfare, by John Keegan, Pimlico
  • The Fall of Carthage, by Adran Goldsworthy, Cassell

See also