War elephant

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Khmer campaign, Angkor, late 12th century

War elephants were a weapon in military history that was mainly widespread in India , but was also used at times in other parts of Asia, Africa and Europe . It was primarily about Asian , rarely African elephants ( Ptolemaic Egypt , Carthage , Rome ), which were manned and partly armed for war purposes . Male animals were preferred because they are considerably larger and, especially in the musth , more aggressive than the female animals, and in the case of the Asian species only the males have tusks. With a few exceptions, war elephants were not bred, but captured and tamed in the wild .



Elephant seal from the Indus Valley in the Indian Museum

About 4000 years old depictions of seals from the Indus culture , on which elephants with riding rugs may be depicted, are often cited as the earliest evidence of the taming of the animals. In the specialist literature, however, this interpretation is controversial, as there is no representation of a rider among the numerous elephant images from that time. In the battle stories of the Rigveda war elephants do not matter, and only in later Sanskrit -literature this invention is predated in mythical prehistoric times. Even if the exact beginnings of the war elephant are in the dark, they are no later than 500 BC. Established in North Indian armies. The elephants were imported from India into the Persian Empire and used by the Achaemenids in several campaigns .

Hellenistic world

It is considered likely that Europeans first met at the Battle of Gaugamela (now Tel Gomel in northern Iraq) on October 1, 331 BC. Encountered war elephants. Fifteen animals were posted in the center of the Persian lines . The elephants made such a big impression on the Macedonian troops that Alexander the Great felt compelled to sacrifice to the god of fear on the night before the battle. The war elephants then did not play a major role in the battle. In the course of his Persian campaign , Alexander recognized the usefulness of war elephants and also integrated them into his army . Five years later, in the battle of the Hydaspes on the Indian river of the same name, Alexander already had a great deal of experience in dealing with war elephants and was able to win the battle, albeit without his own elephants.

Knowledge of the military uses of war elephants quickly spread across the world at that time. The Diadochi already had hundreds of elephants in their wars: Seleukos I signed a treaty with King Chandragupta Maurya , who in return gave him 500 Indian war elephants for some disputed territories. In general, the elephants became a popular weapon in the Hellenistic world.

Ptolemy III boasted in an inscription that he and his father Ptolemy II personally captured elephants on the upper reaches of the Nile in order to train them for combat use for the first time. In the battle of Raphia in 217 BC The 102 Indian war elephants of Antiochus III. on 73 African war elephants of Ptolemy IV. From the traditional inferiority of the African animals, it is often concluded that the African animals used were the smaller forest elephants , but the taxonomic classification of the North African elephant is controversial. It is also discussed whether the animals used were Asian elephants, which Ptolemy III. had previously conquered during a campaign against Seleucus II . In fact, a genetic analysis of the last surviving elephants in the Barka area - the area from which the Ptolemaic elephants are likely to have originated - revealed that they were quite ordinary African elephants - there were no indications of a cross with forest elephants or even Asian elephants recognizable.

Roman Empire

Henri-Paul Motte : Hannibal's elephants at the Battle of Zama (202 BC). 19th century history painting .

In the following centuries, war elephants were also used in the war against the Roman Empire . Rome's first encounter with war elephants occurred at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC. Against Pyrrhus . The most famous general who used war elephants against Rome was the Carthaginian Hannibal . His crossing of the Alps with 37 mainly African, but also at least one Indian elephant in 218 BC has become famous . However, after the loss-making crossing of the Alps and the Battle of the Trebia , he only had one elephant left for the Battle of Lake Trasimeno . He commanded the battle from this Indian elephant named Surus , which was no longer mentioned during his further campaign in Italy. At the Battle of Cannae 216, elephants no longer played a role. His brother was supposed to bring some war elephants from Spain to reinforce, but was defeated en route in the battle of the Metaurus . It is unclear whether elephants from Africa again reached Italy by sea afterwards. In Hannibal's last battle, the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. BC, again on African ground, it became clear that the Carthaginian elephants deployed here and not yet fully trained shied away from the Roman fanfares . In addition, their use was ineffective, as the Romans apparently formed alleys for the elephants and therefore only a few soldiers were trampled down. 156 years later, in the Battle of Thapsus on February 6, 46 BC. BC, Julius Caesar armed his Legio V Alaudae with axes and gave instructions to hit the animals' legs. The Legion was victorious and from then on chose the war elephant as its heraldic animal . The battle of Thapsus is considered to be the last major deployment of war elephants in western culture.

In late antiquity , Ammianus Marcellinus , Prokopios of Caesarea and Arab authors, especially the Sassanids, used war elephants, among other things, in the battles against the Romans. In the Battle of Avarayr (451 AD) they were used by the Sassanids against the Armenians, in the Battle of Kadesia (636 AD) against the Arabs.

For the Aksumite Empire , located in the north of what is now Ethiopia, the use of war elephants until its fall in the 7th century is documented. Nonnosos came as Justinian's envoy from Constantinople to Aksum in the middle of the 6th century and estimated the number of wild elephants in the Ethiopian highlands to be around 5000. Sura 105 in the Koran (“The Elephant”) is based on a campaign by the Christian King Abraha , the Himyar in today's Yemen incorporated into the Aksumite Empire, with 13 elephants against Mecca in the " year of the elephant ", which in Arab tradition is equated with the year of Muhammad's birth .

middle Ages

Medieval depiction of a war elephant (British Library, 13th century)
Fresco of a war elephant in the Brixen cathedral cloister , 14th century

No war elephants were used in the European Middle Ages , as the Europeans hardly came into contact with troops equipped for this purpose. Frederick II was able to seize a war elephant during the Crusades , which later remained in the city of Cremona .

India and Southeast Asia

Mughal emperor Akbar I tames an elephant, picture around 1609/1610

On the Indian subcontinent , war elephants were used for a particularly long period of time well into the early modern period . The Indian army consisted of four departments: elephants, chariots, horsemen and infantry. In ancient Indian elephant medicine (Hasti- Shastra , cf. also Manasollasa ) the magical power of elephants is evoked, all of which are descended from the divine Airavata . At one point it is taught that a well-trained elephant is able to destroy 6,000 horsemen in battle. The combat value of an elephant was equated to that of five horsemen or 15 foot soldiers. They also carried the king in the midst of the army and the war chest to reward the troops. Iron spikes and fittings were attached to the outside of some Indian city, fortress and palace gates so that war elephants could not ram them.

The use of war elephants by Indian armies almost ended the series of Timur Lenk's conquests. In 1398, Timur faced an army of over a hundred war elephants and almost lost to the sheer fear of his troops. Timur could only win by a trick: he tied burning straw to the backs of his camels, which dashed into the lines of the Indians and panicked the elephants who trampled their own masters. Later Timur Lenk also used oversized crow's feet to defend himself against war elephants. But he also began to integrate his own war elephants into his army and used them in the war against the Ottoman Empire .

In Southeast Asia , too , war elephants were used in the armies of the historical empires of the Khmer ( Angkor ), the Thai ( Sukhothai and Ayutthaya ) and the Cham .

Monument of Thai King Naresuan on war elephant, Don Chedi , Thailand

Tactical use


Each elephant was guided by a man using a hooked rod. The guide is said not only to have been responsible for steering the animal, but also carried a chisel and hammer with him. If the elephant panicked dangerously and became uncontrollable, the iron could be knocked into the animal's spinal cord in order to kill it quickly.

Unarmed use

There were a number of tasks that war elephants were used for. Due to their size and strength, they were able to carry heavy loads. In addition to logistical tasks, they are therefore also used during sieges to tear down opposing defenses. In battle, they often formed the center of their own line, where they could be used offensively as well as defensively. The sheer mass of the elephant made it difficult to take them out with conventional weapons, while the riders were well protected by the height of the animals.

An attack with war elephants could reach a speed of 30 km / h and - in contrast to an attack with cavalry consisting of horses - was very difficult to stop by infantry with polearms . Elephant attacks were based on the sheer use of force: the animals burst into the enemy lines, trampled the soldiers and beat their trunks around. The men who were not trampled or thrown aside were at least pushed back, and the enemy's order of battle was severely disrupted.

The real main weapon, however, was probably its effect in the context of psychological warfare . Panic often broke out among soldiers who were not used to an elephant running towards them. Horses shied away because of the unfamiliar smell of the elephants. Against troops that were specifically prepared for use against elephants, however, their use rarely seems to have been effective. The topos of ancient historians is that war elephants were just as dangerous for their own ranks as they were for the enemy .


"The emperor Kublai Khan in a tower carried by four elephants on the day of the battle" French engraving from the 18th century.

In India in particular, war elephants carried soldiers with different equipment, such as archers , lancers or javelin throwers . For the elephants who fought in the armies of the Diadochi , a small "tower" made of wood and leather was designed, which was attached to the back of the animal. This originally took on two, later up to four fighters. War elephants from India, Persia and North Africa were partially upgraded with tusk swords .

Disadvantages of the war elephants


Above all, the disadvantages of elephants due to behavioral biology meant that they could no longer be used effectively in more modern wars. Their inability to differentiate between their own and foreign warriors made them unsuitable for battles in the late antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages, in which there were seldom clear phalanx orders and more agile small groups, since they can no longer be divided into a large collection of opponents steer and let rage. A quick change of location is also not possible with them, because their stamina is much less than that of horses when they are very active. An elephant can run for about two minutes and is slower than a horse.

In addition, elephants are generally not aggressive animals and can only be induced to behave in a destructive manner by being hectic and mistreated. For example, it is known from the Carthaginians that they mixed their elephants with wine in the drinking water before the battle to make them more aggressive and that they irritated them with light lance stabs in the legs or heels immediately before the attack. Cow elephants cannot be induced to trample people or hit them with their trunks, and even bull elephants calm down quickly after a fit of anger and then stop the fight, leave the crowd or run away.

Elephants are also prone to panic and run amok when injured or their rider killed. Then they often hurt their own ranks. Experienced Roman infantry often attempted to sever the elephants' trunks, causing the animals to panic immediately. Often attempts were also made to kill or panic the animals by skirmishing in advance of the battle.


The most important point for the disappearance of the war elephants can be seen as their low availability. Raising and training took years and, unlike horses, unusual animals could only be replaced to a small extent. Historical sources suggest that the elephants were gathered together when the armies were assembled in the country of origin, but that their number steadily decreased in the course of the battles.

Weapons technology

Elephants are also very susceptible to wound infections that occur after the battle in a temperate climate. Protective cloaks and armor therefore had to be manufactured more and more complex and still could not keep up with the development of more powerful long-range weapons. The use of war elephants became completely impossible with the use of black powder for military purposes in the late 15th century, as they could be easily defeated by a shot from an arquebus or cannon .


War elephants also have logistical disadvantages, as they have to be able to spend many hours a day eating undisturbed, during which they eat 150 to 300 kg of leaves and twigs to meet their energy needs. The food had to be available on site. In contrast to horses, elephants can only use concentrated feed such as meal or sugar fruits to a limited extent due to their digestive system, which is based on cellulose . It is therefore difficult to shorten the rest and eating times for elephants significantly.


High medieval depiction of an ancient war elephant

A list of major battles in which war elephants were used:


  • The jungle book by Rudyard Kipling contains two stories in which war elephants appear, Toomai, the darling of the elephants and servant of her majesty .
  • In The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien large war elephants appear, which are called Mûmak or Olifant and are larger than the real models.
  • A new variant of the war elephant can be found in the James Bond film Octopussy , where Bond is chased through the Indian jungle by killers on elephants.


The use of war elephants has always represented an outstanding, memorable event in history. For example, the birth of Muhammad is measured according to the year of the elephant - the year when African ( Aksumite ) war elephants migrated on the Arabian Peninsula to Mecca.

Pliny the Elder reports in his eighth book (VIII 1.27) that pigs are an effective weapon against war elephants, as the elephants can be frightened by the squeaking. A siege of the city of Megara was ended by the residents pouring oil over pigs, setting them on fire and chasing the burning, squeaking pigs into the opposing war elephants. This caused the elephants to panic.

War elephants have been compared in research with the tanks of the First World War , as they developed primarily psychological effects in a similar way.


Web links

Commons : War Elephant  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. However, several ancient authors report that cows with calves were also used in slaughter, cf. Howard Hayes Scullard: The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World 1974, p. 112 f.
  2. Thomas R. Trautmann. Elephants and Kings. An Environmental History, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2015, p. 53 f.
  3. Thomas R. Trautmann. Elephants and Kings. An Environmental History, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2015, pp. 87-95
  4. Thomas R. Trautmann. Elephants and Kings. An Environmental History, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2015, p. 97
  5. Thomas R. Trautmann. Elephants and Kings. An Environmental History, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2015, p. 112
  6. Thomas R. Trautmann. Elephants and Kings. An Environmental History, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2015, pp. 68 f.