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Do they just run breaking phalanx? Do they pull their front food and then crush enemies below?

What do elephants do?

Or are the fighters on top of it just shoot arrows?

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-1: This is explained in depth in Wikipedia. –  Wladimir Palant Nov 22 '11 at 9:39
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wikipedia doesn't specify how. What is trample damage? Does the elephant actually step on soldiers or just push push push –  Jim Thio Nov 22 '11 at 10:17
    
Elephants can do a lot of very nasty things with their heads, trunks and tusks - and even with their ears and their tails. An elephant that was armored and trained to attack would be a rather terrifying foe to face. (Although elephants are very intelligent and perhaps they are smart enough not to take to such training...) –  Vector Oct 1 '13 at 8:25
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1 Answer

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Generally they were used as as shock and awe (read: point and charge) cavalry would have been. Of course, (horse) cavalry is much more versatile but did not have the same fear factor as elephants. They would sit on one flank and move to attack the side of the enemy's phalanx where they would do the most damage. Clearly, this was a dangerous tactic since elephants were prone to panic and run amok. Another formation, like at Zama, they were used in the initial phase of the battle to try to shatter the formations of the enemy's army.

Mostly, they were fear factors against the enemy army and not that useful in the battle -- although, there are a few battles where they were decisive in winning.

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Horses tended to really dislike being around elephants, so they were pretty effective against cavalry. –  David Thornley Nov 25 '11 at 2:56
    
Elephants are slow. Also why Hannibal send Elephant early? He should have let the infantry fight and then use the elephant to screw enemies formation. –  Jim Thio Oct 1 '13 at 9:05
    
@JimThio: As I said: to try to shatter the formations of the enemy's army. –  Sardathrion Oct 1 '13 at 9:19
    
Because Elephants were much harder to control, they really weren't used "as cavalry would have been". They're more of a blunt instrument, point them at a target of opportunity and charge, once the chaos of battle got to them they'd be impossible to control, unlike horses. –  Odysseus Dec 5 '13 at 1:06
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@Sardathrion Cavalry can be point and charge but it's also capable of flanking, baiting, skirmishing, withdrawing, and a host of other complicated maneuvers. Cavalry was also a common element in most armies, war elephants were always a novelty, that was part of their power. The answer is pretty solid but given that "War Elephants == Big Cavalry" is an extremely common misconception I think more emphasis needs to be put on their unique role and varying utilization rather than conflating them with cavalry. –  Odysseus Dec 5 '13 at 18:57
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