I often hear stories about enemies defeating elephant riders by axing the legs of the elephants.
Does this mean that the commander of the elephant army did not put enough armor on the elephants' legs?
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An elephant is a very large animal. Putting the whole animal in armor would cost more in armor than the whole unit would be worth in warfare. (The same armor could be used to protect a large number of men.)
Therefore armor was used, if at all, to protect only the most vital parts of the animal, e.g., the temples. Most of the animal was unprotected. Of course, having men try to cut off their legs subjected the MEN to great risks.
Elephants proved not to be terribly effective in combat because they weren't as easy to control as horses, and would often "rebound" against the attackers. At the battle of Zama, for instance, Hannibal relied on elephants to break through the Roman lines, without success.
Elephants were mostly used in war in South Asia. Use of elephants in the Mediterranean and Europe was much rarer and more amateurish.
It was written that when King of Kings of Iran Ardashir I, founder of the Sassanid Empire, fought the Romans he had 700 armored elephants. South Asian war elephant used in battle (instead of for transportation) before cannons became very dangerous were often highly armored. They also often had sword like blades attached to their tusks and swung large swords or chains with their trunks.
Acutally sometimes they were quite armoured. Yes you can pay upto 10-15 men's worth of armour with the same expenses but elephants were extremely costly and required enormous amounts of effort to train and maintain. They were often large targets and were susceptible to spearmen and arches, so it's plausible that they would be given protection from them with armour.
Wikipedia: War Elephant → here you can see a few tapestries and paintings depicting elephants in armour, although some were just barely armoured.
Elephant armour from India. 17th century. Composed of 5,840 plates, weighing 118kg - On Pinterest
^This armour's weight seems abit dubious to me but the principle of the armour's structure is convincing. As you can see the legs aren't protected but the head and the torso is, much like how it is depectied in those pictures and similar to some horse armour.
I really doubt elephants could be defeated by axing their legs, their skin and muscles are pretty thick and they sweep their head and thus their trunk while surrounded, would you really want to be that guy, who'd go up close and try to have a chance at his legs?
Elephants were mostly defeated by javelins and arrows if the elephant was not as armoured or made bewildered by groups of soldiers carrying trumpets. Also keep in mind that it'd took quite a number of javelins/spears/arrows to wear an elephant down. Despite that they did not guarantee victory, they were used as portable archer towers and could lower the opponent's morale if they weren't not experienced troops. They could be very effective if utilized appropriately.