In mid-March of 2022, a video spread virally across social media platforms: an elephant with its trunk wrapped around the top bar of its enclosure, its eye casting an anxious look out. A keeper pats his cheek and holds an apple, trying to comfort the distressed animal. The elephant was trapped in his enclosure in a zoo during the Russian bombardment of Kyiv. Animals are victims, transportation, weapons, mascots, heroes, and soldiers in human conflicts – and have been for as long as humans have made war. But perhaps the most dramatic has been the elephant, the massive, intimidating, trumpeting beast of ancient warfare. Elephants are the largest land animals on earth, but not only are they huge and powerful, they have experience human-like emotions, are extremely intelligent, and have long memories. The combination of their extreme power and deep intelligence have long made them valuable to humans, especially as military machines. Today, we’re talking about the history of war elephants in ancient and modern warfare.

Transcript for War Elephants from Ancient India to World War II

Written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Recorded by Sarah Handley-Cousins and Averill Earls, PhD

Sarah: In mid-March of 2022, a video spread virally across social media platforms: an elephant with its trunk wrapped around the top bar of its enclosure, its eye casting an anxious look out. A keeper pats his cheek and holds an apple, trying to comfort the distressed animal. The elephant was trapped in his enclosure in a zoo during the Russian bombardment of Kyiv. In Borodyanka, hundreds of dogs were left to fend for themselves in an animal shelter when Ukrainians were forced to flee the Bucha region as the Russians laid waste to the city. When volunteers returned, the vast majority of the dogs had died of dehydration and malnutrition. In one social media post, a Ukrainian man described opening the gates of his horses’ stalls to let them free, knowing they would have a better chance at survival if they weren’t left locked up when he escaped from the encroaching Russians.

Averill: Animals are often unwitting victims in times of war – vulnerable to bombs and IEDs and trapped in war zones when their people must evacuate. But animals can have different roles in war, too. Animals have been used to move soldiers and equipment and even as weapons themselves. Horses, mules, oxen were critical to the movement of soldiers, weapons, and supplies in nearly every European war across time. Armies in Nigeria used bees as a weapon. In 1941, the United States military began a military unit just for dogs – Dogs for Defense – that trained dogs for use on and behind the front lines. Around two hundred thousand dogs were trained for by the Nazis for use in death camps. Animals also served ideological functions in times of upheaval and war: in fascist Japan and Germany in the 1930s, specific dog breeds became symbols of national and ethnic identities. In the United States and across Europe, zoo animals have been used to underscore narratives of sacrifice in times of war, helping to emphasize to humans that they, too, should give things up in the name of victory. And animals have served purely practical purposes, used as test subjects in military weapons testing, stand-in patients in combat medic testing, and as suicide bombers.

Sarah: Animals are victims, weapons, mascots, heroes, and soldiers in human conflicts – and have been for as long as humans have made war. But perhaps the most dramatic has been the war elephant, the massive, intimidating, trumpeting beast of ancient warfare. Elephants are the largest land animals on earth, but not only are they huge and powerful, they have experience human-like emotions, are extremely intelligent, and have long memories. The combination of their extreme power and deep intelligence have long made them valuable to humans, especially as military machines. Today, we’re talking about the history of war elephants in ancient and modern warfare.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Averill

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Sarah: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that each of our episodes relies on the research and writing of historians and other scholars. This episode was written using the brilliant work of historians Thomas Trautmann, John Kinder, and Vicki Constantine Croke, among others. You can find a full bibliography, plus footnotes and links, for every episode in our show notes on our website,  And don’t forget, if you’re interested in something you heard today, please check out these excellent books and articles!

Averill: The use of elephants in war originated in the late Vedic period in India, probably somewhere between 1000 and 500 BCE. This is a little contested – there are historians and classicists that suggest that various North African, Chinese and Indian societies may have domesticated elephants before this period – but the evidence is thin that they were actually used in any lasting and important way. There are two young African elephants buried in a cemetery at Hierakonpolis, in Upper Egypt, that were buried in the pre-dynastic period (some time around roughly 3000 BCE). But these elephants are sort of outliers in Egyptian history. Elephants weren’t key symbols in Egyptian art, and only appear in writings when Egyptian kings encountered them in other kingdoms, such as Syria. They also appear in ancient Assyrian NS Chinese texts and art, but references to actually using elephants in warfare are few and generally vague.

Sarah: The Indus civilization, located in the Indus River valley in what is now area northwest India and eastern Pakistan, was far more familiar with elephants than the other civilizations, likely because Asian elephants they were indigenous to the area. Elephants appear often on seals and images, and even children’s toys. Historian Thomas Trautmann writes in his environmental history of elephants in Indian kingdoms that the use of elephants for war was influenced by the arrival of Arya people (ancient people from the Central Asian Steppe) in India, bringing their culture of horseback riding into a land with no horses – but lots of elephants. In the Mahabharata, an Sanskrit epic poem compiled sometime between 3rd century BCE and 3rd century CE, there are numerous references to elephant warriors, almost all of them kings or skilled warriors, who are said to come from regions known to have large populations of elephants (‘elephant forests’). The Ramayana, another Sanskrit epic, gives this description of a battle scene featuring both horses and elephants:

Averill: “Like a cave filled with lions, [the city Ayodhyā] was full of fiery warriors, skilled, unyielding, and accomplished in their art. It was full of the finest horses, bred in the region of Bāhlīka, Vanāyu, Kāmboja, the great river Indus, the equals of Hari’s steed. It was filled with exceedingly powerful rutting elephants, like mountains, born in the Vindhya hills and the Himalāya. The city was always full of bull elephants, looking like moutains and always in rut, elephants of the bhadramandra, bhadramrga, and mrgamandra breeds, descended from the cosmic elephants Añjana and Vāmana.”

A detail from the Mughal epic, Padshanama | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: We’re going to talk about a couple things that we see in this quote, one now, and another in a couple minutes, so keep it in your brain. But first, I want to point out again that we see horses and elephants being used together. The king of this city has the “finest horses” and the “powerful rutting elephants,” along with fiery warriors. This is all a demonstration of his wealth and power, of course, but also should make us think of the kingdom’s location. Elephants and horses require very difficult environments: elephants in the forest, horses in the open grasslands. India has both environments. To quote Thomas Trautmann: “The fact that this region straddled the separate yet reasonably contiguous habitats of elephants and horses meant that Indian kings could have both animals in their cavalries. Countries further west, including Afghanistan and Persia and the Middle East, had horses but no wild elephants. Southeast Asia had wild elephants, but few horses. India’s rulers had both.”[1] We’ll discuss later the lengths that some of those kingdoms and leaders outside India went to acquire elephants to use in their armies.

Averill: So let’s talk a little bit about war elephant practicalities. The ideal war elephant in the Indus kingdoms was an adult male, the bigger and more intimidating the better. (We should mention that obviously, the elephants that were used in the Indus kingdoms were Asian elephants, which are generally smaller and built a bit differently than African elephants…we’ll come back to this later.) Their hugeness means that they’re difficult to care for and control. First, if you’re going to have elephants to use in war, you need to have a supply of elephants. Partly because of the immense amounts of food they require, and because it’s just difficult to breed elephants in captivity, Indian kingdoms obtained war elephants by capturing young adult males from the forests they lived in. This was … super not easy. Elephants are huge, and young male elephants are dangerous. Capturing them required large numbers of ‘elephant hunters,’ which also speaks to the wealth and influence of the kings that set these hunts into motion. The need to regularly replenish the herd with new young elephants also meant that Indian kingdoms were tied to the elephant forests in a way; it was in the interests of the kingdom that those forests, and the elephants in them, be protected. This link to the forest was reflected in the ways that Indians wrote about the elephants’ own relationship to the forest. One Indian text on elephants described the way that elephants ‘remembered’ the forest, mourned for its freedom, and resisted domestication: “Forest elephants who dwelt there [in the forest] happily and by the power of fate have been brought to the village in bonds, afflicted by harsh, bitter, cruel words, by excessive grief, fear, bewilderment, bondage, etc., and by sufferings of mind and body, are quite unable for long to sustain life, when from their own herds they have come into the control of men. On mountain ridges, in the water of the mountain torrents, in lotus pools and rivers, ever remembering how he played freely with female elephants in the midst of the forest, the elephant, dejected and beset with manifold troubles, is unwilling to eat stalks of white sugar care, though repeatedly placed before him. Thinking on the pleasure he formerly experienced in the forests, constantly brooding, restraining the flapping of his ears and his tail, becoming very haggard from the hardships of the village, in a few days the newly caught elephant comes to death.”

Sarah: So elephants are difficult to catch, and difficult to keep in captivity because of their size and, according to Indian texts anyway, their longing for the freedoms of the forest – but they’re also incredibly difficult to keep adequately fed. Elephants are grazers and eat constantly, and consume something like 330 pounds of grasses and leaves daily. Captivity changes their diet, digestion, and energy needs drastically. An elephant is captured and put into training will require even more nutrition-dense food, because it won’t have the freedom to constantly forage and it will be kept ‘working.’ Indians took this very seriously, even writing a scientific treatise on captive elephant management, called the Mātangalīlā.  The author of the text detailed how the transition a newly captured elephant has to be carefully transitioned to a captive diet to avoid illness. According to the Mātangalīlā, a freshly captured elephant should be fed increasing amounts of boiled rice, rice grits, and other cooked foods mixed with grass.

Averill: That excerpt from the Ramayana (the one we said to hang on to in your brain?) references elephants like ‘mountains’ and being ‘in rut’ refers to the ideal state of a war elephant: an adult male in the prime of life, with large tusks, and in a state called ‘musth.’ Musth is essentially the period when elephants are ready to breed – they experience a rush of testosterone, which primes them to fight other male elephants for females, so they get very aggressive and dangerous. Today, for those working with elephants in modern contexts, such as in zoos, musth is considered a potentially dangerous problem that must be controlled. But the entire point of a war elephant is to have a giant, intimidating, aggressive, trumpeting beast to fight scare the shit out of your enemies. Musth only happens once a year, though, which isn’t exactly ideal, considering that war can’t always align with that ‘season,’ so to speak. Indian elephant-warriors induced a musth-like state using substances, wine, and even war drums to get the bull elephants worked up. This is from Ain-i-Akbari, a history of the Mughal Empire during the reign of Emperor Akbar in the 1500s: “Elephant drivers have a drug which causes an artificial heat; but it often endangers the life of the beast. The noise of battle makes some superior elephants just as fierce as at the rutting season; even a sudden start may have such an effect. Thus His Majesty’s elephant Gajmuktah; he gets brisk as soon as he hears the sound of the Imperial drum, and gets the above mentioned temporal discharge.” (The discharge refers to a fluid discharge that elephants get at their temples when they’re in this state of musth.)

Sarah This raises an important point about war elephants: in general but especially during musth, bull elephants are extremely difficult to domesticate and control. When they’re ready to fight, they’re in a frenzy and impossible to control. So this really underscores the fact that the purpose of war elephants wasn’t to ride as transportation (like a cavalry horse) or carry equipment (like oxen), even though you could also use them for those tasks. Instead, like I mentioned before, their entire purpose is to terrify troops and fight other war elephants, and maybe stomp or gouge a few humans in the process. Essentially, they use the same method of fighting that they would use in the wild, but turn it against the war elephants of the opposing army, shoving and gouging with their tusks until one is vanquished.

Averill: Elephants and elephant warriors (called mahouts) made up an organized unit alongside the infantry and cavalry in a king’s army. Outside of battle settings, the elephant corps was managed within the military bureaucracy. In massive Mauryan Empire, an ancient empire that stretched across most of India between 321 BCE and 185 BCE, the military was overseen by a kind of ‘war office with superintendents overseeing various branches; the gajadhyaksha was in charge of the keeping, training, and deployment of elephants. Not all elephants were all that trainable. The ancient text Arthashastra, which is kind of an Indian version of the “Art of War”written by Chanakya, a Maurya prime minister, has a chapter detailing the training of elephants for use in the army. Chanakya separated elephants out into several groups based on how trainable they were – ones that were rideable, ones that would move when tapped with a staff, ones that would trot when encourage by a staff or whip, those that would only more when pulled with a hook staff, etc. The elephant corps had its own staff, according to Chanakya, tasked with the day-to-day work on keeping the elephants healthy, including watchmen, sweepers, cooks, trainers, and grooms, in addition to their trained warrior-riders. They also had their own elephant doctors, who ensured that the creatures were kept healthy, and poor treatment, defined as dirty stalls, poor food rations, poor bedding, beating, and endangering the elephants, was punishable by fines.

An Indian depiction of an elephant in battle, c. 1750 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Chanakya and other texts, including the Mahabharata, detail the kinds of equipment that elephant handlers used, including leather and metal armor and girths and necklaces used to go around the elephant for a warrior to hold on to. Depending on the time period and the kingdom, there could be anywhere from three to seven riders on each war elephant, each with a separate tst – some armed with bow and arrows or swords, others carrying the hooks to help direct the elephant, some carrying a lance and banner. If you’ve seen images of war elephants, chances are you’ve seen an elephant carrying a large structure, almost like a kind of tower, on its back, ostensibly where a person sat. Sometimes today you’ll also see images of elephants wearing an actual castle turret – and elephant and castle is the nickname of a busy intersection in London because the image of the elephant with a castle on its back had been used as a symbol or name of a pub in the area since at least the 18th century. The ‘castle’ is an interpretation of a howdah, which was a platform used on the back of an elephant, often with a structure on it, for a person to sit in. Howdahs were not used in very ancient elephant warfare, and it’s not clear when they came into common use. Greek historians Diodorus and Pliny the Elder both mention them, but not until the 1st century CE, and they don’t really appear in ancient Indian art or in the Arthashastra.[2] They were definitely in use by the medieval period, but were usually used to carry kings and other noblemen rather than warriors. It certainly looked imposing and regal to roll in on a royal visit on an elephant in a lushly appointed howdah!

Sarah: The first non-Indian to write about Indian war elephants was a Greek physician named Ctesias, who had encountered elephants in the Persia during the Persian [Achaemenid] empire, which existed from 553 BCE to 330 BC. Ctesias wrote about watching an Indian elephant, commanded by an Indian mahout, topple a palm tree, in Persia. Today, scholars believe that this singular elephant and its handler were gifts to the Persian king from an Indian kingdom. Ctesias recorded other Persian stories about elephants, although it was mostly second-hand stories about Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid empire, encountering them in battle when Indian kings came to fight as allies to Cyrus’s enemy, the Derbices. (located roughly where Turkmenistan is today) The Derbices used their elephants to ambush a cavalry. During the attack, Cyrus himself fell from his frightened horse and was killed by an Indian soldier. So the Persians encountered war elephants but didn’t have them in their own armies.

Averill: There is cuneiform evidence of elephants in Persia dating much further back, but only as occasional displays of wealth and power, not used in war. The use of war elephants in Persia didn’t come til much later. However, what’s really interesting is that Ctesias, the physician-scholar who wrote about Cyrus’s encounter with the Indian war elephants, also write several books of Assyrian ‘histories’ (later study showed that they were totally fictional) that feature Persians using war elephants. [side note: Assyria was a region within the Persian empire that outlasts the larger empire] Ctesias’s “histories” include the story of Semiramis, an Assyrian queen who never really existed. Semiramis was incredibly beautiful, and used her beauty as a tool to seize power. According to Ctesias, one of the Assyrian king’s lieutenants fell deeply in love with Semiramis, who was raised by the king’s cattle herder, took her back to the royal court, and married her. I just have to read this quote, because it is incredible: “As Semiramis had other qualities in keeping with her facial beauty, it so happened that her husband was completely enslaved by her, and because he did nothing without her advice, was successful in everything.”[3] (I mean, honestly, relationship goals.) Anyway, Semiramis is so smart and beautiful and brave – she like, helps her husband win a big battle – that the King eventually wants her for himself, and threatens to kill her husband if he doesn’t get out of the way. (He actually threatens to like, bang his head against stuff until his eyeballs pop out or something.) Her husband goes bonkers with his desperate love and kills himself, Semiramis marries Ninus (the King) and then the king obligingly dies too, leaving Semiramis to rule as queen.

Sarah: Wasn’t this episode about elephants and not ancient Assyrian romantic dramas? Yes. So after Ninus dies, Semiramis takes it upon herself to build an massive empire, traveling all around the Middle East, Greece, and North Africa bringing those kingdoms to heel. When that’s settled, she looks to India, which is incredibly wealthy. Ctesias describes the wealth of India in part by describing the army of Semiramis’ Indian enemy, Stabrobates: “[he] reigned with countless soldiers and an incredible number of elephants, brilliantly adorned with the terrifying instruments of war.”[4] She amasses a huge army and navy, but she knew that against the Indian king, her army would still be at a disadvantage without war elephants. According to Ctesias, “seeing that she was at a great disadvantage owing to her lack of elephants, Semiramis planned to build a peculiar kind of these animals, hoping to frighten the Indians who thought there were no elephants at all outside of India.”[5] So she called for the slaughter of 300,000 black cows, and ordered her craftsmen to stitch the hides together and fill them with straw to make fake cows. Ctesias writes that “each of these [fake elephants] had a man inside controlling it and a camel carrying it along, providing the illusion of a real beast to anyone looking on from afar.”[6] Then, she had her cavalry train their horses around the elephant models so they wouldn’t be afraid of elephants when they encountered them in battle. When Stabrobates learned about Semiramis’s massive army, he freaked out, and sent out his elephant hunters to gather even more elephants, and according to Ctesias, “equipped them all splendidly with such things as cause terror in war. And in consequence, when they attacked, because of their large numbers and the towers on their backs, they looked like something no human being could withstand.”

Averill: Semiramis won the first battle against Stabrobates’ men, and then continued her invasion of his kingdom with the model elephants out in front, so that “the enemy spies would announce to the King that there was a large number of wild beasts with her.” The Indians were “baffled” about where the queen had gotten so many elephants. When Semiramis’s and Stabrobates’ armies finally met, the King’s horses freaked out because the elephants didn’t smell or look like the war elephants they were accustomed to, and they were thrown into “utter confusion.” But Stabrobates real war elephants were too strong for the fake ones: “since the animals were incredibly strong and confident in their peculiar powers, they easily destroyed anyone who resisted. Consequently, there was considerable slaughter of all kinds, some men falling under their feet, others torn apart by their tusks and a number thrown into the air by their trunks.”[7] The carnage made it clear that Semiramis couldn’t keep up the fight, and she and her army escaped by cutting a pontoon bridge after her army had crossed a raging river.

So the story of Semiramis and the fake elephants is definitely fiction (although it’s really fun). But it tells us something really important: that the Persians, and we can probably assume, other Mediterranean powers, understood that the Indian armies were more powerful because of their war elephants – and, maybe even more importantly, because of their ability to always get more when needed.

Sarah: So there was knowledge of war elephants outside of India for sure, but not much use – this changed significantly, though, with Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Indus Valley in the 300s BCE. Alexander was a king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia, who ascended to the throne by age 20 and by 30 had created a massive Greek empire across the Mediterranean world. Although there are, of course, no elephants in Greece, Alexander most likely knew elephants existed and were used in battle because his tutor was Aristotle, who had written a surprisingly accurate description of elephants in his treatise, The History of Animals.

Alexander encountered war elephants in his invasion of India in 326 BCE. When one army’s elephants broke ranks and ran away, Alexander sent elephant hunters out to gather them for him. When they were caught, Alexander took not only the elephants, but their riders, meaning that he not only had the elephants, but also people with the knowledge and skill needed to actually use them. During the Battle of Hydaspes, Alexander’s biggest battle in India against King Porus, Alexander’s Macedonian soldiers saw that not only were the elephants fearsome, but they were also intelligent and trainable. Plutarch, in his biography of Alexander the Great, wrote that Porus’s own elephant was enormous but also “showed remarkable intelligence and solicitude for the king, bravely defending him and beating back his assailants while he was still in full vigor, and when it perceived that its master was worn out with a multitude of missiles and wounds, fearing he should fall off, it knelt softly on the ground, and with its proboscis, gently took each spear and drew it out of his body.” But while the purpose of the war elephants was to terrify opposing troops into submission, Alexander had prepared his troops to expect elephants, and even equipped them (somehow?) with weapons crafted specifically for attacking them. Alexander’s soldiers attacked the elephants with spears and speciality swords and axes that they used against the animals’ legs. Alexander defeated Porus, and later, as the army continued to move through the region, other kings gifted Alexander elephants, so by the end of his invasion he was reported to have hundreds, used mostly for their intimidating visual grandeur. But despite all the appearances of power, the rest of the invasion didn’t go well for Alexander. His soldiers, fed up with the difficulties of campaigning through India, mutinied, forcing the general to retreat from his invasion of the Indus valley. Alexander died not very long after. But Alexander’s successors hung on to the use of the elephants, and in the power struggle that followed his death, the supposed ‘successors’ all used Alexander’s elephants in their armies against each other.

Averill: Alexander’s original elephant corps couldn’t last forever, though, so his successors had to find their elephants for themselves eventually. Increasingly, Greeks waged war on Indian kingdoms in their attempts to seize elephants – one of Alexander’s generals, Eudamus, actually murdered Porus and seized his elephants. Seleucus, another of Alexander’s generals, who managed to acquire five hundred elephants from the Maurya kingdom, which was one of the ones we mentioned before that had access to those elephant forests. This influx of elephants helped Seleucus rise to power during the succession squabble and eventually found the Seleucid Empire, which stretched over modern-day Turkey and the Middle East to India, where it bordered the elephant-rich Maurya Empire. It seems likely the Seleucids established diplomatic relations with the Mauryans to maintain access to Indian elephants and their handlers. Another of Alexander’s successors was Ptolemy, whose son, Ptolemy II, reigned over Egpyt and the Levant. Ptolemy II (we’re just going to call him Ptolemy) was obsessed with getting his own elephants, but lacked the land access to India that the Seleucids had. So instead, Ptolemy focused on gathering elephant handlers (mahouts) from India, who could bring their skilled knowledge of handling the animals to North Africa. Once he had the mahouts, he worked to gather the elephants –this time, not from India, but from what today would be Eritrea and Ethiopia.[8]  This wasn’t easy – the local people hunted and ate elephants, and they really didn’t want to stop to appease some king they didn’t care about. Either way, Ptolemy did end up with some African elephants.

Sarah: We mentioned earlier that African elephants are generally larger than Asian elephants. But this isn’t universally true. There are two kinds of African elephant: the savannah elephant and the forest elephant. The ones that Ptolemy had access to were forest elephants, which are actually smaller than their Asian counterparts. This became a problem with the Seleucids and the Ptolemies (that’s actually what they’re called, I guess) met in battle, the Seleucid’s Asian elephants were much, much more powerful. According to Greek historian Polybius, “most of Ptolemy’s elephants were afraid to join battle, as is the habit of the African elephants; for unable to stand the smell and the trumpeting of the Indian elephants, and terrified, I suppose, also by their great size and strength, they immediately run away from them before they get near them.”[9]

Averill: We’re going to move away from the ancient world to talk about the use of elephants in modern wars in a second, but we can’t move on without addressing the … ahem … elephant in the room: the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossing the Alps with his war elephants to attack Rome during the Punic Wars. Even if you know nothing about war elephants, this is the image you likely have when you hear the phrase. The Carthaginian empire ringed the western end of the Mediterranean Sea, with holdings in what is now Spain and North Africa – not exactly a region full of native elephant populations. But they had proximity to the Ptolemaic empire, and most likely got African elephants and mahouts through Numidia (Algeria) and Mauretania (Morocco). The Carthaginian empire was spread out and included several islands like Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia, making sea travel really important. Somehow, not only did the Carthaginians build an impressively large elephant corps, but were also able to transport it by water, making it possible for them to get their elephants to their territory in modern-day Spain. That was no small feat (one that didn’t always go smoothly, as I’ll talk more about in a second) but it was critically important during the Punic Wars, which Carthage fought against the Romans.

Sarah: The invasion of the mainland of the Roman Empire was led by Hannibal, a Carthaginian general and political leader. In 218, during the Second Punic War, Hannibal lead some 40,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, accompanied by 37 war elephants, along the Mediterranean coast of Spain and France. When they reached the Rhone, Hannibal was faced with the problem of how to get the elephants across the river. Historian Polybius says that “the question that caused him [Hannibal] the greatest embarrassment was how to the get the elephants, thirty seven in number, across.” Here he is with dozens of the most powerful military weaponry imaginable, and he might not be able to get them across a river – just goes to show how logistics can make and break a military manuever! Eventually, he tasks some men with coming up with a plan to get the elephants across – by floating them on rafts towed by boats. The next problem was getting the elephants on to the rafts. The elephants were trained to follow their handlers up to the water, but were also trained to never go into the water – so they had to figure out a way to get them to keep going onto the rafts. So they literally lured them onto the rafts with female elephants. (Apparently the females had no problem getting on the rafts??) But when the raft was cut free from its mooring and started to float away from the shore, the elephants freaked out. Polybius says this: “Hereupon the animals becoming very alarmed at first turned round and ran about in all directions, but as they were shut in on all sides by the stream they finally grew afraid and were compelled to keep quiet. In this manner, by continuing to attach two rafts ot the end of the structure, they managed to get most o them over on these, but some were so frightened that they threw themselves into the river when half-way across. The mahouts of these were all drowned, but the elephants were saved, owing to the power and length of their trunks they kept them above the water and breathed through them, at the same time spouting out any water that got into their mouths and so held out, most of them passing through the water on their feet.” Well then.

Averill: That was not the biggest hurdle. Once across the Rhone, Hannibal’s troops, including the elephants, had to cross the Alps, which was no small feat. Throughout their journey through the mountains, Hannibal’s army was attacked by “barbarians,” or tribes living in the region – in this case, the elephants came in handy, because the tribal warriors were too afraid to attack the army when the elephants could be seen. The crossing was extremely hard on the elephants. It was bitterly cold, the path required the elephants to walk on narrow passes and through heavy mud and ice, and the highest areas had no leafy trees or grasses for them to eat. Amazingly, he managed to get all 37 elephants through the mountains, and used them in his initial battles against the Romans. At the Battle of Herdonia, Hannibal deployed the elephants against Roman general Fulvius, and instructed them basically to create chaos, stomping around and shouting false orders. The elephants were also used in the much larger battle at Trebia, which was a Carthaginian success but came at the cost of several elephants, and over time, all but one elephant died of exposure and hunger. The Carthaginians, however, continued to rampage through Italy with Hannibal himself riding the last elephant. This elephant, according to lore anyway, was named Surus, had one broken tusk, and is still common in Italian imagery. The Second Punic War continued until the Romans attacked Carthage (unable to defeat Hannibal himself) and forced the rest of Carthage to surrender. One of the surrender terms was the complete surrender of all war elephants, and a promise that they would not obtain more in the future.

Sarah: That’s not exactly the end of the use of elephants in warfare – after all, according to Thomas Trautmann, “for three centuries from Alexander to Caesar, there was scarcely a war among the countries surrounding the Mediterranean that in which elephants did not have a great influence.”[10] They continued to be a vital part of warfare in India into the gunpowder era, with records indicating that even as late as 1720 elephants were used in combat, carrying small cannons on their back. The latest date that Thomas Trautmann could find of elephants in combat was in Cambodia in 1833, when a Siamese (Thai) army came to invade Vietnam with “a multitude of enormous elephants.” But elephants did continue to play a role in warfare. In 1942, as the Japanese invaded Burma during World War II, a British expat named James Williams (sometimes called Elephant Bill) who lived in Burma (now also called Myanmar) working with elephants in the teak lumber industry, used his herd of 110 elephants to evacuate the wives and children of the Bombay Burma Corporation (the teak company he worked for). The only way out of the country was on foot, and the main roads were either clogged with desperate refugees or being kept open for troop movements. The company decided that they could use their working elephants to aid in the evacuation, carrying supplies as the humans marched to safety in India, where the British Fourteenth Army could provide protection and they would have access to rail travel. It was an extremely difficult journey, with immense stress for the humans, of course, but also for the elephants who were very accustomed to a routine – including a certain amount of freedom to forage after they’d completed their work. At one point, the stressed elephants bolted into the jungle and had to be forced back. After weeks of hiking, they made it to the Indian border and safety of British Army convoys.

Averill: With the women and children in relative safety in India, Elephant Bill joined the Fourteenth Army as a lieutenant colonel. He was a huge asset: he spoke fluent Burmese and knew the local terrain intimately. But mostly, Williams was concerned about his elephants, and wanted to get to them before the Japanese did. He also was convinced that the elephants could help the British cause: they could build bridges and clear pathways for armies to move on, making it possible for the British army to combat the Japanese in Burma. He made the case to the command of the army, and they trusted him – he was given special status in Burma within the British Force 136, a kind of special operations unit in the South East Asian theater. Williams and his elephants built bridges ahead of the moving army, helping make it possible for the British to keep fighting in the country instead of surrendering it to the Japanese. The Japanese were also using elephants, and Williams wrote that the struggle for elephants had become a war within a war. Elephants became a target for air defenses, trying to keep them out of the hands of the Japanese. A journalist wrote that American pilots “machine-gunned elephants, and when that failed to drop or even halt the beasts, the flyers dumped fire bombs, hoping to start a stampede.”[11] Once, when Williams tried to bring in a group of elephants that had been hidden by mahouts (called uzis in Burma), they were ambushed by Japanese soldiers while trying to getting to the elephants. Several elephant handlers and Indian soldiers were killed, and the elephants seized by the Japanese.

An elephant working in the teak lumber industry | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: The war was obviously difficult for the elephants. They were hit with shrapnel and explosives, and often when they were seized from the Japanese they were suffering chemical burns from the batteries in the radios they carried.  One of the Elephant Corps best elephants, named Pagoda Stone, was killed by a land mine. Things got much more complicated in 1944, when Williams was tasked with another evacuation – this time of the elephants themselves. The animals were immensely valuable to the British cause, but the Allies were preparing a massive assault against the Japanese in Burma, and they could not risk harming the elephants or allowing them to fall into Japanese hands. There’s no easy way to move elephants out of the way. Williams and his men, joined by several dozen refugees, made an extremely difficult journey, this time taking a different, one that would keep them hidden and take them through the mountain ranges. The changes in altitude and bad weather made everyone (human and elephant) sick. Eventually, as Williams scouted the route ahead of the moving elephant convoy, he found himself faced with a sheer stone wall, absolutely impossible for the elephants to traverse. They were stuck, and terrified of falling into the hands of the Japanese. Williams, with no other choices, gathered every able person in the group and had them saw away at the ridge until they had built a staircase. A massive, elephant staircase.

Averill: There was absolutely no telling whether it would work – Williams was pretty sure at first that it couldn’t work. The only example he could call on of elephants traversing that kind of terrain was literally Hannibal crossing the Alps. But there was just no other option. Williams had his favorite, most trusted elephant, Bandoola lead the rest to the staircase. When they arrived, Williams’ trusted elephant handler Po Toke commanded Bandoola “thwar,” or “climb.” This was a command he was familiar with from his days logging teak. The elephant climbed up the first step, then stopped for several minutes, and seemed to think about the task at hand. Finally, he made a decision and started to climb the staircase. It took Bandoola three hours to get to the top of the wall, followed by the rest of the elephant corps. It was a just mind boggling achievement – but they couldn’t stop. In all, they hiked for three weeks before they reached the safety of India. The elephant corps’ work didn’t end there – they did eventually go back to Burma to keep up their vital work building bridges – but for the time being, humans and elephants enjoyed a long rest in the tea fields of India.

Sarah: Hundreds of elephants were killed in Burma during World War II, most of them working on behalf of humans in a war they didn’t understand. Other elephants also paid the ultimate price for the whims of humans: during the 1943 Battle of Berlin, the Allies bombed the Berlin Zoo, destroying the elefantepagode, or Elephant Pagoda, the elephant house. All seven of the elephants that lived in the bombing were killed. Imagine the terror these elephants experienced as the bombs fell around the zoo, unable to escape in their cages.[12] The elephants in the Berlin Zoo, just like the elephants in zoos around the world, were used by humans during the war effort, just not in the same way as generals Hannibal, Alexander, and Ptolemy: instead, they served as symbols of sacrifice, of patriotic war work, or the of brutality of the enemy, designed to inspire humans. Zoo elephants worked crop fields in Great Britain; images of their suffering in the Berlin Zoo bombing offered Germans a safe opportunity to remember their losses to the Allies negatively. But when the reality of having large, dangerous animals that require massive amounts of feed in captivity outweighed their symbolic usefulness, elephants – among many other zoo animals – were abandoned, or even killed.

The history of elephants in war is dramatic and interesting; today, war elephants are mostly the province of fantasy media and games, which makes them seem fantastical and mythical. But one thing I was forced to think about in researching this episode was the reality of using elephants in warfare – that elephants are thinking beings, with their own needs and wants. To use them in war in any capacity means forcing them to sublimate that to human needs that they don’t necessarily understand or care about. One thing that surprised me about the scholarship on animals used in warfare was how much it seemed skewed toward animal liberation – a condemnation of ‘speciesism’ and ‘human chauvinism,’ or the idea that humans are the dominant and superior species on earth, and their human rights supersede the rights of other animals. I was a little weirded out by that – I didn’t expect it and it’s not something I’m super familiar with. But as I read more about elephants, the more that approach made sense to me. The history of war elephants is absolutely about human chauvinism, and the assumption that humans can, and should, use other animals for human ends, even when it means extreme stress, sickness, and even death for the animals. Averill, what are your thoughts on this?


[1][1] Thomas Trautmann, Elephants & Kings: An Environmental History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 21.

[2] Konstantin Nossov, War Elephants (Bloomsbury, 2012).

[3] Ctesias’ History of Persia, Tales from the Orient, trans. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones and James Robson (new York: Routledge, 2010), 117.

[4] Trautmann, Elephants & War, 222

[5] Ctesias, History of Persia, 126.

[6] Ctesias, History of Persia, 127.

[7] Ctesias, History of Persia, 129.

[8] Trautmann, Elephants & War, 239

[9] Trautmann, Elephants & War, 242.

[10] Trautmann, Elephants & War, 228

[11] Vicki Constantine Croke, Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of An Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II (New York: Random House, 2014), 236

[12] John Kinder, “Zoo Animals and Modern War: Captive Casualties, Patriotic Citizens, and Good Soldiers,” in Animals and War: Studies of Europe and North America, Ryan Hediger, ed. (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 46.


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