There were many military purposes for which elephants could be used. In battle, war elephants were usually deployed in the centre of the line, where they could be useful to prevent a charge or to conduct one of their own. Their sheer size and their terrifying appearance made them valued heavy cavalry. Off the battlefield, they could carry heavy materiel and provided a useful means of transport before mechanized vehicles rendered them mostly obsolete.
An elephant charge could reach about 30 km/h (20 mph), and unlike horse cavalry, could not be easily stopped by an infantry line setting spears. Such a charge was based on pure force: elephants crashing into an enemy line, trampling and swinging their tusks. Those men who were not crushed were at least knocked aside or forced back. Moreover, elephants could inspire terror in an enemy unused to fighting them – even the very disciplined Romans – and could cause the enemy to break and flee. Horses unaccustomed to the smell of elephants also panicked easily. The elephants’ thick hide gave them considerable protection, while their height and mass protected their riders. Some elephants were even equipped with their own armor to further protect them. Many generals preferred to base themselves atop elephants so as to get a better view of the battlefield.
In addition to charging, the elephants could provide a safe and stable platform for archers to shoot arrows in the middle of the battlefield, from which more targets could be seen and engaged. The archery evolved into more advanced weapons, and several Khmer and Indian kings used giant crossbow platforms (similar to the ballista) to shoot long armor-piercing shafts to kill other enemy war elephants and cavalry. The late 16th century AD also saw the use of culverin and jingals on elephants, an adaptation to the gunpowder age that ultimately drove elephants from the battlefield.
Elephants were further enhanced with their own weaponry and armour. In India and Sri Lanka, heavy iron chains with steel balls at the end were tied to the trunks of war elephants, which the animals were trained to swirl menacingly and with great skill. Numerous cultures designed elephant armour, aiming to protect the body and legs of the animal while leaving his trunk free to attack the enemy. Larger animals could also carry a protective tower on their backs, called a howdah.
Further east, large numbers of men were carried, with the senior commander either utilising the howdah or leading from his seat on the elephant’s neck. The driver, called a mahout, was responsible for controlling the animal. In many armies, the mahout also carried a chisel-blade and a hammer to cut through the spinal cord and kill the animal if the elephant went
War elephants had tactical weaknesses, however, that enemy forces often learnt to exploit. Elephants had a tendency to panic themselves: after sustaining painful wounds or when their driver was killed they would run amok, indiscriminately causing casualties as they sought escape. Their panicked retreat could inflict heavy losses on either side. Experienced Roman infantry often tried to sever their trunks, causing an instant panic, and hopefully causing the elephant to flee back into its own lines. Fast skirmishers armed with javelins were also used to drive them away, as javelins and similar weapons could madden an elephant. Elephants were often unarmoured and vulnerable to blows to their flanks, so Roman infantry armed with some sort of flaming object or with a stout line of pikes, such as Triarii, would often attempt to make the elephant turn to expose its flank to the infantry, making the elephant susceptible to a pike thrust or a Skirmisher’s javelin. The cavalry sport of tent pegging grew out of training regimes for horsemen to incapacitate or turn back war elephants. One famous historical method for disrupting elephant units was the war pig. Ancient writers believed that “elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of a pig”, and the vulnerability was exploited. At the Megara siege during the Diadochi wars, for example, the Megarians reportedly poured oil on a herd of pigs, set them alight, and drove them towards the enemy’s massed war elephants. The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming squealing pigs.
The value of war elephants in battle remains a contested issue. In the 19th century, it was fashionable to contrast the western, Roman focus on infantry and discipline with the eastern, exotic use of war elephants that relied merely on fear to defeat their enemy.One writer commented that war elephants “have been found to be skittish and easily alarmed by unfamiliar sounds and for this reason they were found prone to break ranks and flee.” Nonetheless, the continued use of war elephants for several thousand years attests to their enduring value to the historical battlefield commander.