Heads up: Top comment and controversy

5 ways elephants changed history: A brief history of stomping victories and disastrous reversals

It was the arrival of the cannon in the 19th century that finally heralded the end of elephants being used as an instrument of war. Until that time, from as early as 1000BC, they trampled across battlefields around the globe, through wars in places as far flung as Yemen and Sri Lanka.

Battle of Guagamela, 331 BC

The use of elephants in battle spread from India to Persia, and the first encounter between European forces and pachyderms took place in what is now Northern Iraq, with Alexander the Great winning a decisive victory against Darius III of Persia.

Evidently, the fifteen elephants deployed by the Persian forces were not enough to secure victory – Alexander left the battlefield having conquered Babylon and most of Persia.

The impact of the giant beasts of war did not go unnoticed by the legendary Macedonian king, who took them into his own army. The terror that the unfamiliar smell and sight of the elephants had on the cavalry proved to be a useful tool for Alexander in further battles, and he went on to control as many as 100 war elephants.













Battle of Asculum, 289 BC

War elephants were introduced to the Mediterranean by King Pyrrhus of Epirus. He brought twenty to attack the Romans at the battle of Heraclea in 280BC and won decisively because the Roman’s were unprepared for the war elephants.

However, in the Battle of Asculum, the Epirots attempted the same tactic again. This time, the Romans were prepared with flammable weapons and other devices to terrify the elephants. These included ox-drawn wagons equipped with long spikes, pots of fire, and troops who would throw javelins at the elephants to drive them away.

Ultimately, however, it was the elephants that saved the day. A final charge by the Epirot animals meant that King Pyrrhus won the battle – but he had incurred heavy casualties, it was a Pyrrhic victory.

An elephant walks in the swamp at the Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya  












Hannibal's defeat, 202 BC

No history of elephants in battle would be complete without the tale of Hannibal, famed for travelling across the Alps with his arms – and a pack of elephants – in tow, just before the second Punic war.

Sadly, most of Hannibal’s elephants died in the harsh conditions of the freezing mountains, and only a few elephants survived to take part in the battles that would follow.

History has proven that the Romans grew wise to Hannibal’s elephant tactics, however. In the final battle of the Second Punic War they brought trumpets to terrify the elephants into trampling back into the Carthage lines, ultimately bringing about Hannibal’s defeat in the Battle of Zama in 202BC.












The Sui Dynasty, 602 AD

In the China, during the Sui dynasty, Emperor Yang sought to expand his empire by pushing south into the Hanoi area in Vietnam in 602AD.

Several years later, the Sui army tried to push even further south, but they were attacked by troops on war elephants from Champa in southern Vietnam.

The Sui army feigned retreat, and dug pits designed to trap the elephants. They lured the Champan troops into battle and then, using crossbows, fired on the elephants which caused them to turn around and trample their own soldiers.











Capture of Delhi, 1398 AD

So far, it seems as though the elephants’ easily panicked nature meant that they weren’t useful companions for battle. Certainly, the Turko-Mongol ruler Timur found a way to use that to his advantage when he was confronted by the war beasts.

With his men bitterly afraid of the creatures, Timur devised a plan to make the most of their flighty nature. He loaded his camels with as much wood and hay as they could possibly carry, and when the war elephants charged, he set the hay on fire and prodded them with iron sticks, causing them to run at the elephants, howling in pain.

Confronted with the bizarre spectacle of flaming camels, the elephants panicked and stampeded back towards their own lines. Timur used the chaos and disruption in his enemies’ forces to secure an easy victory, and sacked Delhi, leaving it in ruins.

You can read more about our Christmas campaign to stop elephant poaching here

React Now

  • Get to the point
Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power