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Does anyone know of any battles where war elephants played either a major or decisive part in the victory of whoever had them? As far as I know, they were mostly used for the fear factor and were generally a liability rather than a benefit.

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They usually backfired on the Carthaginians/Hannibal's army, due to superior Roman tactics and the unreliability of the creatures in many case. However, perhaps en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Rhone_Crossing ? – Noldorin Oct 15 '11 at 11:15
Damn, I was thinking of Hannibal's army, too. Perhaps the Mughal empire? – Edwin Oct 15 '11 at 13:42
A down vote without a reason stops the original poster from improving their question. Please consider leaving a comment if you downvote. – Sardathrion Feb 18 '15 at 8:47
up vote 8 down vote accepted

There is some evidence that among the reasons for Alexander's army not wanting to march (and their subsequent widthdrawl) post their victory against King Porus was strong battalion of elephants (6000 as per one Plutarch's records) which Nandas could deploy. See Plutarch for example.

Elephants were also an important factor in military conquests of the Mauryan empire against local and foreign rulers. See here for example.

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All historical sources I have read suggest Alexander could have subdued the rest of the kingdom after defeating King Porus. However, his tactic had always been to create 'client states'. Much easier, less bloodshed, and he's still the high king. :-) – Noldorin Oct 15 '11 at 17:53
@Noldorin Apparently by that point most of his men had been serving for quite some time, were weary and longed for their homeland. While they likely held their commander and king in admiration, Alexander was warned by one of his generals (name escapes me) that his men had had enough and that the risk of mutiny, while low, was there. While Alexander won the battle against King Porus, it became evident that conquering India was not going to be an easy matter, and his men were not up for it. He turned around. Future plans (never executed) would have started with Arabia – Juicy Apr 26 '14 at 6:37
@Noldorin In other words is wasn't the desire nor the strategy to turn Porus into a client. It was just no longer feasible for Alexander's army to continue east. – Juicy Apr 26 '14 at 6:38
@Juicy: India's population even then was very sizeable, and moreover highly factional – there were many small warring kingdoms, since this was just before the period of the Mauryan Empire. If the Mauryans did it, I'm more than confident Alexander could have did it. That is, conquer basically all of northern and central India, though not the south immediately. Of course, the imminent problem to him was the mutiny of his army. – Noldorin Apr 28 '14 at 23:02
Yeah, I agree with you about Arabia by the way... it's geographical situation is perhaps the most advantageous thing. Also, perhaps just removing the threat of raiding Arab tribes. – Noldorin Apr 28 '14 at 23:04

Both of the following accounts are from Polybius.

At the Battle of Tunis, Xanthippus used his elephants to charge the Roman line. While some of the Romans avoided the elephants to charge the Carthaginian right and the formation held due to its depth, those at the front were trampled. The Romans were later flanked by cavalry and the elephants also accounted for the bulk of the casualties from then on.

During the period before the Second Punic War when Carthage was consolidating power in Spain, Hannibal defeated a combined force of the Carpetani and other neighbouring tribes in a battle in which the majority of the killing was done by elephants. However, the Carpetani had to cross a river to attack the Carthaginians, so it's quite possible that the battle could have ended the same way without the elephants.

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One interesting note is that Hanibal's elephants were of a now extinct North African variety. Supposedly they were smaller than the Indian variety Alexander would have come up against. – T.E.D. Apr 4 '12 at 22:32
Interesting. How reliable is this though? (The identity of the author would certainly suggest only partially) It's also well known, I might point out, that in the Battle of Zama (and possibly others late in the 2nd Punic War too), Scipio Africanus ordered the Roman cavalry to blow loud horns, which spooked many of the elephants, and they actually ended up running back and trampling the Carthaginian ranks. – Noldorin Apr 27 '14 at 23:46

Overall, I tend to concur with your estimate that the elephants usually proved to be more of a liability than an asset. However, they did have some successes. Two examples are: the Battle of Ipsus which was decided by a judicious deployment of an elephant reserve and the "Elephant Battle" in which Antiochus I routed the Galatians - I couldn't find a full-length description of it now on the web, but it's mentioned here.

An archaeology book somewhat unexpectedly has a very nice overview on elephant warfare in antiquity.

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War elephants were constantly used in south Asia for over 2000 years. the last use was by Thai and Vietnamese forces in the late 1800s. Use of elephants for logistics continued into the 20th century.

Some rulers had thousands of war elephants.

Either elephants made important contributions to victory for thousands of years or every southern Asian ruler was a fool for thousands of years.

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This does not answer the question. Could you provide a battle (or several) where elephants were a major part of victory. It could be thanks to a support train (something I did not think of) but you must show that the elephants did turn the tide. I hope this helps. – Sardathrion Mar 19 '13 at 7:55

According to Legend I think it is in Josephus Simon the last survivor of the five sons of Mattathias of the Maccabees falls in battle by thrusting a spear into the belly of war elephant on which he thought the king was riding, the elephant fell on him crushing him death.

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Do you have a reference for this? – Shog9 Oct 31 '11 at 14:59
This fact is true but rather irrelevant. The elephants contributed little or nothing to that battle. – Felix Goldberg Dec 5 '12 at 0:13

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