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Spears, Swords & Tusks: The Colossal History of War Elephants

Battle of Zama (202 BC) by Henri-Paul Motte, 1890

On the battlefield, few sights must be more blood-curling than a furious elephantry charge. War elephants have been wreaking havoc in Indian, Chinese, Persian, and Roman armies since Ancient times; however that practice remains shrouded in mystery. Let’s walk into the (large) footsteps of those colossuses.

Animals have been siding with armies for millenaries. From horses pulling chariots to messenger pigeons, from war bears to insect bombs, we have enlisted within our ranks numerous species ready for battle. The biggest terrestrial mammal is no exception to the rule.

Taming the elephant

The pachyderm was probably tamed at first by South-East Asian tribes, although the latter did not use it for warfare but rather for lifting heavy loads. In China, where the elephant has been domesticated since the 11th century BC, it is also a gala animal, parading through packed streets when local celebrations occurr. As proof of its complete integration, the (rather macabre) practice of execution by elephant – where the guilty person had his head crushed by a 5-ton mammal – spread across Asia from the 2nd century AD. Its executioner tasks would persist until the 19th century (yup, job security).

But where and when does the pachyderm really take up arms? Tricky question. In the 5th century BC, the Chinese state of Wu brutally attacked the neighboring province of Ch’u in what seems to be the first-ever occurrence of elephantry on the battlefield (torches had been tied to the pachyderms’ tails as a motivator, but the trick did not work out). Ancient India certainly democratized the enlistment of elephants: Chandragupta Maurya, leader of the Maurya Empire which occupied the northern half of India in the 3rd century BC, is believed to have spearheaded an army of 9,000 war elephants… Even the ‘invincible’ Alexander the Great was put in full rout when his soldiers faced elephants on the banks of the Indus River (or perhaps was it in Mesopotamia against the Persian legions of Darius III – sources are unclear).



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