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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.

  • 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 downvote with explanation has generally led to arguments in comments and personal abuse. Stackexchange was designed around the concept of anonymous (i.e. honest) feedback and minimizing discussion/argument. This has been debated repeatedly in meta and the consistent conclusion is that while there are solid arguments on both sides, the status quo will remain. Assume that every downvoter considered leaving a comment, but choose to not do so. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 23 '16 at 0:53
  • @MarkC.Wallace: Meh. It was an ancient question… – Sardathrion Aug 23 '16 at 7:04
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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.

  • 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
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    @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
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    @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
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    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
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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
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    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
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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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In the Battle of Heraclea (280 BC), Pyrrhus of Epirus used elephants decisively against the Romans. The trick for him was to use them as reserve forces.

This is from the Wiki article:

Unable to make any significant gains in action, Pyrrhus deployed his war elephants, held in reserve until now. The Roman cavalry was threatening his flank too strongly. Aghast at the sight of these strange and brooding creatures which none had seen before, the horses galloped away and threw the Roman legion into rout. (The Romans subsequently called elephants "Lucanian oxen", after the location of this first encounter.). Pyrrhus then launched his Thessalian cavalry among the disorganized legions, which completed the Romans' defeat. The Romans fell back across the river and Pyrrhus held the field.

It's the first time Romans saw elephants though :)

The Battle of Ipsus (301 BC) is also worth mentioning. Antigonus Monophthalmus and his son Demetrius Poliorcetes commanded a strong infantry army, but their 75 elephants were a bit short for Seleucus 400-480.

Again, from the Wiki:

Demetrius found himself unable to return to the battlefield because of the deployment of 300 elephants in his path. The ancient sources repeatedly emphasise the effect of elephants on horses, which are alarmed by the smell and noise of elephants and are loath to approach them. Demetrius would not have been able to take his horses through the line of elephants, nor manoeuvre around such a large quantity of elephants. This 'elephant manoeuvre' was the decisive moment in the battle, but it is not clear how it came about; Plutarch only says that "the [allied] elephants were thrown in his way". If the elephants had indeed been held in reserve, then it might have been relatively straightforward to deploy them, but as discussed, it is not clear why so many elephants would have been held in reserve. However, it is also possible that the deployment of the elephants was a piece of improvisation during the battle, though moving such a large number of elephants in such a coordinated manoeuvre in the middle of the battle would have been difficult. Since he was the only allied commander with significant experience of handling elephants, it has been assumed that Seleucus was responsible for this manoeuvre.

BONUS LINK:

List of battles involving war elephants (Wikipedia)

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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
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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
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    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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