The elephant is a large and imposing animal. Its natural habitat is south East Asia and Africa. The Asian elephant is slightly smaller in size than the African elephant and thus more suited for combat role. The earliest reference to an elephant as an instrument of war is in the Mahabharta. This epic mentions the war elephant. Sanskrit hymns composed about 1100BC, also mention the use of the elephant for military purpose. An elephant trained and guided by humans in battle is referred to as a war elephant. The basic use of war elephants was to make a massed charge against the enemy and sow confusion and fear in the opposing ranks.
The elephant soon became a standard part of the Army of the Hindu Kings. In fact they occupied pride of place in the Hindu armies. The assets of the elephants were their strength and terrifying appearance. Alexander the great faced the Hindu King Porus at the battle of Hydaspes in 326 BC. In addition he also faced a force of about 200 elephants. It was a terrifying battle as the Greeks were confronted by this formidable force of elephants. Selecus the Greek general who led the assault against the elephants was suitably impressed and later incorporated large elephant forces in his army. After the battle Alexander calculated that in case he advanced further he would face about 6000 elephants of the Magadh kings and thus gave up his plans to proceed further. Thus the war elephant became the mainstay of the Armies of that period in India. From India, the practice of using war elephants spread westward to Asia Minor, Greece and Africa. Their most famous use of elephants was made by the Greek general Pyrrhus of Epirus and Hannibal against the Romans.
The strategy of the generals of that period centered on the elephants who were placed in front. This was essential as they were to lead the charge. They were flanked by other components like cavalry and infantry.
Elephants had a pride of place in Hindu Armies. Great care was taken to equip the elephants. Elaborate armor made of steel was specially made for elephants. Specialized training was given to the elephants that moved into battle to the accompaniment of drums, trumpets and conch shells. The idea was to over awe the enemy and scare him.
The commander-in-Chief normally mounted an elephant and directed the battle. This gave him a panoramic view of the battle field but also made him vulnerable to personal attack as he could be easily identified. An example is the king of Debal, King Dahir who mounted an elephant against the Muslim invaders in 712AD. Dahir fell from his elephant and as if taking a cue the Army disintegrated.
The elephant continued to have pride of place In Indian Armies. Generally the war strategy of the Magadha Kings revolved around a large elephant force. Chandragupta had an estimated 9,000 elephants while chroniclers mention Harsh the Hindu king as having a force of 60,000 elephants. Irrespective of the figures the fact remains that large forces of elephants operated as part of Hindu armies. These elephants normally carried the day if battles were fought with set positions as on an even field and jungle areas.
A prohibitive number of elephants have died fighting in the various wars during India’s history. It’s important to remember that a massed charge by elephants could have terrifying results as it could reach speeds of about 30 km/h. Such a charge was also difficult to stop by any infantry line up as it would by pure force crash into enemy soldiers, trampling and creating confusion. Not forgetting the shock effect. Men who escaped being crushed were just knocked aside or forced back. It will not be wrong to say that the elephant was in the olden days the equivalent of the modern Tank/Panzer divisions.
The introduction of muskets in mid-1700 and cannon put an end to the military superiority of the elephant. However, their importance for use was not diminished because they could still transport soldiers, ammunition and supplies over extremely rough terrain where men could not go alone. The real end of elephants as a potent force occurred in the first battle of Panipat in 1526. Babur had cannon and his opponent Ibrahim Lodhi a large force of elephants. The gun powder noise and smoke did not allow the elephant charge to take place with the result Babur carried the day. It also marked the end of the elephant as a mainstay of the armies in India. But their use continued in other ways to help the war effort. Even during WWII in Burma against the Japanese the British commandeered all private owned elephants for war duty. It was only the advent of the jeep that the role of the elephant ended once for all.