How Elephants Have Been Used As Weapons In Warfare

People have ridden horses and camels into the heat of battle, but perhaps no cavalry in the history of warfare has been more terrifying than the use of war elephants. According to Articles On History, the first uses of the largest land mammals for combat purposes began around 6,000 years ago in the Indus River Valley, located in modern-day Pakistan and India. These fearsome animals continued to feature in battle, not just in India, but also utilized by the conquering armies of Alexander the Great and all the way across to Northern Africa, where the ancient Carthaginians used them against the Romans.

The terror was largely the point. One can only imagine what it must have been like to be one of the first soldiers to face an army of elephants — elephants! — charging ahead in a grey wave of death. The beasts were not only gigantic, but speedy, and to add to their fearsomeness, many of the elephants’ unfortunate opponents had never even seen one before, let alone fought against one. Horses would also get spooked, which could disrupt entire cavalry units before the archer or lancer on top of the elephant even had a chance to fire against his foes. When they weren’t fighting, elephants were more than capable as pack animals, carrying heavy loads of rations and materiel to the next battle.

Elephants still have military use

There were some pretty big drawbacks to using these pretty big animals in war, however. Despite their immense size and strength, war elephants were surprisingly fragile (via Articles On History). They’re not the type to shrug off an injury, and were difficult to control when wounded. It wasn’t uncommon for an army’s scared or injured elephant to wreak havoc on their own troops, injuring or killing dozens in a frightened rampage. Drivers carried a hammer and pick in order to swiftly kill their animal if it looked like it was about to lose control.

The introduction of gunpowder essentially made the use of elephants in war obsolete — they’re not exactly a hard target for a firearm. Yet according to a 2017 article posted at PRI, war elephants had not completely gone out of style. In the war-torn Kachi state of Myanmar (Burma), the guerrilla rebels of the Kachin Independence Army used a troop of around four dozen elephants in their fight against the Burmese military. They were mostly used for supply runs in the dense jungle that prevents the use of trucks or other vehicles. There are no reports of the KIA using elephants in combat — they were basically draft animals, rather than cavalry — but this brutal yet fascinating tradition of domesticated elephants in war refuses to die nearly 6,000 years later.

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