Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Jun 10, 2006 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

War Elephants – Book Review

By Richard N Story

warelephants.jpgBook Review: War Elephants.
Praeger Publishers, 2006, Hardback.

Animals have gone to war as long as man has. Most people are familiar with the use of dogs, horses, camels and elephants when used as beasts of burdens, but few people have studied systematically the use of elephants as weapons of war. Elephants are unique in how they interact with humanity. Elephants are not domesticated, but enter into working ‘agreements’ with humans. In exchange for food, scrubbings (parasites can be so annoying) and mutual protection from certain other animals like tigers; elephants agree to act as porters, engineering vehicles and more rarely warriors for humans. Elephants are the only ‘wild’ animal that can be trained after reaching adulthood. But who was the first to use elephants as combat vehicles? Who wanted to strike terror in the enemy and to dominate with the ultimate heavy cavalry?


It is unknown when humanity discovered that not only could elephants co-exist, but actually reach mutually beneficial relationship. Nor can it be certain where this relationship actually started. Elephants have roamed in the wild from the Savannahs of Africa to the Middle East and as far east as China. One of the first depictions of an elephant/human interaction came from Mesopotamian plaque from around 2000BC showing an Asian elephant being ridden by a man. Even murkier is when did an act of desperation lead to elephants being used as warriors? The Sanskrit epic Mahabharata mentioned war elephants and is thought to date from about 3000BC, but that date is now being questioned by modern scholarship. There is also evidence that war elephants were used in China by the Shang Dynasty (estimated to be around 1723-1123 BC) and in Syria around 1500 BC, but these dates are conjectural. There is a story from India where a war elephant was killed by a charioteer with an iron weapon. Ironmongery was developed in India around the first century before Christ so it makes a firm estimate of at least 1000BC. And it was in India and the near east that the war elephants were most popular.

By why use war elephants? What did they bring the leader able to use them? What were their drawbacks? War elephants are the shock troops of the ancient world. The elephant could use his (war elephants were all males) trunk to grab and bash an enemy against the ground or other hard surfaces. The trunk can also be equipped with blades to swing back and forth amongst its enemies. The tusks can gore an enemy or be equipped with iron spikes to impale an opponent. Finally an elephant can kneel and crush an opponent. It is a misconception that elephants use their feet to trample enemies. Elephant’s feet are comparatively soft and vulnerable to injury. But the elephants also bring another advantage to the crafty commander. Horses that are not used to being amongst elephants are driven to panic by the huge beasts. In fact, people unused to elephants are also panicked as well. One of the lesser known chapters in the military history of the elephant was that when Roman Britain revolted; all it took to suppress the revolt was the appearance of a single war elephant. The second revolt in Roman Britain took all of five war elephants to suppress it.

But if the war elephants were so good than why didn’t they dominate the battlefield? Firstly the war elephants fought best when in Musth (sexual excitement brought about by female elephants in heat). Musth could be stimulated by drugs, alcohol and other means, but it also meant the mahout had an animal that was on the verge of uncontrollability. Also being social animals they can be prone to panicking and retreating through friendly lines causing mass disruptions to the battle formation and plan. In fact the real downfall of the war elephant was because they did tended to panic and were disruptive to the friendly forces. Finally maintaining elephants is not cheap. In India the aristocracy used to bankrupt other nobles by presenting them a gift of a white elephant which is considered an auspicious and beautiful animal. But the daily upkeep of an elephant requires between 200-300 pounds of fodder and fruits and grains during a campaign. Then there is the equipage, mahout services, veterinary services and even dung removal to consider. Not many rulers could afford to have a lot of elephants that might be more destructive to his forces. Thusly their use as engines of war declined except as supply porters and engineering servants. And unfortunately for the elephant this had made the legitimate targets of war in the modern age.

John Kistler, the author, got his mahout certification while assisting consultants for the film Alexander. Using his mahout training, John Kistler brings a depth and understanding to the role of elephants in warfare. War Elephants is flawlessly written and researched. While the illustrations are a bit sparse this is not surprising given the subject matter. While this would not be a book I would have normally picked up; I am very pleased I was given a chance to review a copyh. With a list price of $44.95 the book is not cheap, but it is worth every penny. If you are interested in reading about ancient warfare, or the role of elephants in war, then this book is highly recommended.