The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.
Can Elephants Fight in War?
While horses have become ubiquitous as mounts, elephants can also be ridden into battle. Elephants have inspired terror around the world for their fearsome capability for destruction. Hulking massive grey beasts, elephants were used in warfare going back to Indian mythology and in battles since the 6th century. Few scenes invoke feelings of antiquity like Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants.
But were elephants as useful as the above painting might make you think? Maybe not. Here's an analysis of battles in which elephants fought that reveals that they were not as effective in practice as they are in theory.
East and West
Elephants were used in both the eastern and western worlds. Their purpose differed slightly in both areas due to the number of elephants available, their size, and the forces they faced. This means that elephantry, a division of war elephants, must be understood in two separate realms.
In the eastern world, where elephantry developed, elephants were larger, stronger, and had greater availability. This allowed towers to be mounted on top of elephants, giving them the ability to carry more soldiers than the western variations, as well as carrying heavy war machines, like giant crossbows. This meant that elephantry was able to act as an independent division with little support from other forces.
In the western world, elephants were smaller. They were also fewer in number and became over-harvested to the point that they went extinct. Western elephants could carry howdahs, small firing platforms for two to three infantrymen, but were rarely suited for large towers or war machines. Therefore in the west, elephantry was used primarily to shock and disrupt the enemy while the rest of the army moved into combat range.
Battles Involving Elephantry in the West
In the western world, elephants were primarily used in the wars between Carthage and Rome. The Punic Wars set Rome on the path to dominating the Mediterranean, while Carthage was obliterated. Carthaginian elephantry was used extensively in the First Punic War and to a lesser degree in the Second Punic War. Throughout both wars, the elephantry failed to provide any serious battlefield damage, but they terrified the Romans nonetheless.
In the First Punic War, the Carthaginian armies used elephantry extensively in all of the major land battles. Rome and Carthage were fighting over Sicily, a mountainous island, which meant that much of the war was fought in small skirmishes rather than battles of line infantry. At the Siege of Agrigentum in Sicily and the Battle of Adys in Africa, the Carthaginians fought on the mountainous ground, and their elephants were broken or captured with ease because they could not deploy in mass attacks.
At the Battle of Tunis, Carthaginian forces successfully deployed their elephantry, but it was the Carthaginian cavalry that actually broke the Roman lines. This is where the Roman fear of elephantry came from. Few Roman troops survived the Battle of Tunis, and when they returned to Sicily they spread fear of the elephants throughout the other consular armies. The elephantry became an easy scapegoat for the Roman armies to blame for their losses, even if it had only been a portion of the enemy force.
From the Battle of Tunis to the end of the First Punic War, the Roman armies refused to engage the Carthaginians on any terrain that was suitable for elephants, and they finally did engage a Carthaginian force with elephants at the Battle of Panormus. The Carthaginian elephantry panicked as a result of attacks by skirmishers with javelins, and the panicked elephantry smashed back through the Carthaginian line, resulting in the Romans carrying the day.
The last major battle with elephantry between Rome and Carthage was the Battle of Zama in the Second Punic War. Hannibal Barca led a large force of Carthaginian mercenaries, phalanxes, allied cavalry, and elephantry against Scipio Africanus's legions. Scipio was prepared for the elephantry and created special lanes inside his formation to funnel the elephants to points where the javelin throwers could hit their exposed flanks. Once again the elephants panicked and threw the Carthaginian forces into disarray, leading to another Roman victory.
Terror and Inspiration
Elephantry was a weapon of terror in the minds of its enemies, but their actual capability on the field of battle was negligible. It was a psychological weapon that could change the way an enemy general prepared. If the enemy general saw them as a nuisance that could be dealt with, they we ineffective. But an army that was unprepared for them could be shattered before even taking the field.
As a tool to inspire, they served very well. In the east and west, they were the mounts of kings and generals. They led triumphant parades and marches into enemy cities. Elephants are majestic creatures, but they serve better for their utility than for their military capability.
Goldsworthy, A. (2009). The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146 BC. London: Phoenix.
Henry, L. H. (2006). Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
KrisL from S. Florida on February 27, 2013:
Thanks for your prompt and full reply. It led me to "North African Elephant" on wikipedia . .. interesting reading there too.
A Anders (author) from Buffalo, New York. on February 27, 2013:
The Carthaginians, Egyptians, and Numidians used North African Forest elephants. These were elephants native to north Africa until they went extinct from loss of habitat, and overuse. African elephants were more difficult to tame and harder to get which is why they were not used.
I have also read that elephants were effective against cavalry as a result of the panic they caused. While this is the case, the only major battle we see the elephantry actually causing a cavalry panic is during the Battle of Zama when the Carthaginian elephantry rampaged and routed the Carthaginian cavalry.
From the major battles that I have studied it appears the elephantry was consistently deployed in the center of the line in an attempt to break the infantry lines of the enemy. The Roman consular armies rarely fielded large numbers of cavalry until the end of the Second Punic War, so the Carthaginians almost always had the advantage in cavalry forces anyway.
It is quite possible that Carthaginian generals employed the elephantry better against the Numidians or Spanish because both of those kingdoms had far more cavalry than the Romans. That is purely speculation on my part because we do not have many records left from Carthage about their other campaigns.
Thanks for stopping by!
KrisL from S. Florida on February 27, 2013:
Interesting! Two questions . . . I always wrongly assumed that the Carthaginians used African elephants, which are larger than Indian -- but if they didn't, where did they get their elephants?
Also, I had read that elephants were particular effective against cavalry that had not encountered them before, because they paniced the horses as well as the riders -- I think I read this in connection with Alexander. Did you find this in connection with Rome?
Wes from USA on February 26, 2013:
it's amazing how just a little psychological warfare can tear at enemy forces, voted up and interesting