Elephants and pigeons on the battlefield
Animals in War
When Animals Are Drafted
War Horses – the Engines of Battle
For Kittens of War, Marines are Heroes
All Creatures Great and Small
When Soldiers Deploy
The 80th Commando
Animal Soldiers Go Hi-Tech
Battle Buddy Now Therapy Donkey
Warrior Dog Gets Stem Cell Therapy
Animals, Conspiracies and ‘The Avengers’
Should We Be Testing Weapons of War on Animals?
Stray Dogs of War Take a Bow
The Most Decorated Dog
The Lion of Afghanistan
King Pyrrhus’s elephants score a Pyrrhic victory
King Pyrrhus was in trouble. It was 280 BCE and the Carthaginian general was in the fight of his life against the Roman army in the Battle of Heraclea. His troops, who had already fought off the Romans seven times, were becoming demoralized.
It was time to deploy his secret weapon: an army of 20 elephants with towers full of troops strapped to the top of their backs.
The Roman soldiers panicked. Most of them had never seen anything like the vast, gray, wrinkly monsters with flapping ears and giant tusks who were coming at them. The Roman soldiers simply fled the field. (Although Pyrrhus won the battle, he’d lost so many men before unleashing the elephants, that he couldn’t advance on Rome. It was what we’ve come to call a “Pyrrhic victory.”)
Hannibal’s elephants advance on the Romans
Back then, elephants were the equivalent of our modern-day tanks. They could plow into enemy ranks, causing chaos and confusion, while their riders (several per elephant) fired arrows and threw javelins from above the enemy troops.
But elephants were never fully domesticated, couldn’t survive the bitter cold of European winters, and wouldn’t always cooperate. Sixty years after Pyrrhus’s victory over the Romans, Hannibal conscripted 37 elephants (along with 1,200 horses) to join his army as he marched over the Pyrenees mountains of northern Spain. Elephants are not mountain creatures and it’s believed that only one of the animals survived the journey. Hannibal tried again a few years later, but his new legion of elephants were less than cooperative and just wandered around the battlefield.
Things went even worse for Antiochus the Great of Syria, who tried using elephants in his war against the Romans in 190 BCE. Instead of charging the Romans, the elephants turned around and plowed through their own lines, causing havoc and impaling Syrian soldiers on their tusks.
Thousands of elephants were involved in the armies of India. When Tamerlane, the general of the Persian army, defeated the Indian army in 1398, he ordered his subordinates to rub snuff into the eyes of the 3,000 elephants he’d captured so that they would appear to be crying over their defeat.
More recently, elephants have been used not so much as weapons of war, but more as transport and work animals. In World War II, in the jungles of South Asia, elephants worked for both sides, carrying logs to build bridges. They were renowned for their brains as much as for their brawn. According to the book Elephant Bill, one of their jobs was to balance huge logs on their tusks, one at a time, and hoist them up ten feet onto a raised platform. This was a dangerous operation to the person riding the elephant since the log could roll back across the animal’s head and crush the rider.
After a near miss, one of the elephants put the log down, stared at it for a minute, then went in search of a big stick, and wedged it between his tusk and his trunk to stop any log from rolling back across his head.