Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Trained to kill - Elephants and War

Nelly the Elephant may have packed her trunk and said goodbye to the circus, but if she thought SHE had it bad, her ancestors had a much harder time of it. For centuries, elephants have been used for their strength and resilience in many major battles, sometimes forming whole battalions of war elephants which are known as elephantry.


Image By: Nils Rinaldi
The word sounds a bit like the word “infantry” but there’s no way you called this one “light”!

Originating from India , the elephants were captured and trained by humans for combat, mainly to charge the enemy, trampling them and breaking their formations. Male elephants were favoured for their size and their innate greater aggression, but this was also because female elephants tend to run from a male – not very handy when you‘re going into battle!

A potted history of the elephant in war

The very earliest reference to the use of these brave pachyderms was made way, way back in stories from the 4th century BC, relating to ancient Indian teachings of Mahabharata and Ramayana, both Sanskrit epics. Indian kings certainly valued their part in warfare.

Alexander the Great of Persia brought elephants to the fore.  After capturing the enemy elephants into his own herd as he raged war across Persia, he accumulated more and more of them. However, the wise old Indians were prepared, and it is said that Alexander was faced with 85 to 100 trained war elephants when he arrived in India.That was peanuts next to the vast armies further east, such as the Nanda Empire, with between 3,000 and 6,000 of the beasts in their ranks!

African versus Indian

The Egyptians started getting elephants from Africa to compete with the east. In fact, the preferred species, the North African Forest Elephant, tragically became extinct because of over-exploitation. Further south, the African Savanna Elephant could be used, but they were much larger than the African Forest or the Asian Elephant and its sheer size meant that it was much harder to capture and tame.

Luckily for them, this meant their survival to this day, although of course they had to face further battles against poachers and hunters in more recent times. Great general Hannibal’s favourite elephant is thought to be the Syrian type, a gruesome beast with aggressive stance and bravery like no other. Oh, and they were massive – some 8 to 10 feet to the shoulder.

However, Sri Lankan elephants were considered fierce and better for war than its African or Indian cousins. They were even traded across the Indian Ocean to the west, and were a good little earner for the former country of Ceylon.


Image via screen capture
Spot the elephant – sightings through the ages

Throughout the 13th Century, elephants have been depicted in battles including those for Burma, Mongolia, Vietnam and India. Genghis Khan was another famous war lord who used elephants in his battalions. There is recounting of elephants used in many famous wars, such as that for the Ottoman Empire, and the Khmer Empire.

Hannibal marched his war elephants over the Pyrenees and into Italy in 218 BC! That must have been an awesome sight. There are depictions of the elephant at war in Victorian paintings and photographs exist of elephants being used to tow ammunitions in Sheffield, England, during the First World War.

World War II also featured elephants, used for their great transportation skills, in Burma, acting as big grey labourers to Sir William Slims forces building bridges over there towards the war effort. Even up to 1987, Iraq was suspected of using them to move around heavy ammunition and weaponry for use in Kirkuk!

So Nelly might want to think of her forefathers as she trumpets back to the jungle– like us, she owes the brave soldiers a debt she can never repay.

Do you know of any other animals that used to fight wars here are or abroad?

Sarah O’Neill is an animal lover and also loves history. She writes blogs for Petmeds, an online shop selling cat products and dog medication, to ensure your pets stay healthy and happy.

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