War elephants

2:22 PM


It was the arrival of the cannon in the 16th century that finally heralded the end of elephants being used as an instrument of war. Until that time, from as early as 1000BC, they trampled across battlefields around the globe, through wars in places as far flung as Yemen and Sri Lanka. 


The use of elephants in battle spread from India to Persia, and the first encounter between European forces and pachyderms took place in what is now Northern Iraq, with Alexander the Great winning a decisive victory against Darius III of Persia.
Evidently, the fifteen elephants deployed by the Persian forces were not enough to secure victory – Alexander left the battlefield having conquered Babylon and most of Persia.


The impact of the giant beasts of war did not go unnoticed by the legendary Macedonian king, who took them into his own army. The terror that the unfamiliar smell and sight of the elephants had on the cavalry proved to be a useful tool for Alexander in further battles, and he went on to control as many as 100 war elephants.

War elephants were introduced to the Mediterranean by King Pyrrhus of Epirus. He brought twenty to attack the Romans at the battle of Heraclea in 280BC and won decisively because the Roman’s were unprepared for the war elephants. 

An elephant sword, these were attached to the tusks of war elephants. India 15-17th C.
Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest military leaders in history, the Carthaginian general Hannibal famously invaded Italy from the north in 218 B.C., crossing the Alps from Gaul with an army of foot-soldiers, cavalry and a handful of north African forest elephants, smaller than the Asian and African elephants familiar to today’s zoo-goers. Of the six elephants that survived the arduous mountain trek, five died the following winter. The sixth, a one-tusked elephant named Surus, became Hannibal’s mount and mobile viewing platform in the marshes of the Arno. Over the next 15 years, Hannibal won significant battles and occupied much of Italy, sometimes with reinforcement elephants shipped directly from Africa. In a 209 B.C. battle with the Roman consul Marcellus, Hannibal’s war elephants created havoc until the Romans managed to wound one, touching off a cascade of panic among the pachyderms.

The Delhi Sultanate used war elephants against the Mongol hoards led by Timur Khan in 1398; however the Indian forces were defeated. It is unknown exactly how Timur managed to solve the problems caused by the 120 elephants he encountered; one legend states that he attached straw to his camels so that when the giants of the animal kingdom got close, he could set the straw on fire, causing the camels to run forward. 

From the sixteenth century, the use of gun powder in battle made it considerably easier to bring down the animals, diminishing their effectiveness and bringing an end to their use on the battlefield. However they continued to be used for transportation and logistics in warfare right up to the Second World War, where they were used by Indian and Burma forces to transport guns and supplies, and to assist in engineering projects such as road and bridge building in remote areas where vehicles could not be used.

Illustration of a lion, leopard, rabbit, and elephant from memory/description,
taken from Tractatus de Herbis (Italy ca. 1440)
Ancient roman bed decoration depicting war elephant. 1st century AD 


This fabulous 17th century armour is composed of 5,840 plates and weighs 118kg, some plates are missing and originally the total number would be 8,439 and weigh 159kg! The tusk swords that accompany this armour (not on display) weigh in at 10kg.




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