War Elephants

How do you stop an elephant from charging? You don't.

If you want to make an army look exotic and threatening, give them War Elephants. War Mammoths work too, or whatever the fantasy equivalent might be, especially when used by armies coming from the endless cold of the northlands or in the distant past. In any case, they tend to be super-sized to the point where they almost qualify as war-barges with tusks.

These creatures can be used by the Evil Army of inflicting massive damage. If not then they might be used by foreign allies, and usually used to indicate the army's exotic-ness. May also be accompanied by other safari animals like rhinos or leopards.

This trope is Truth in Television: kingdoms in North Africa, the Middle East, and southeastern Asia have weaponized pachyderms at various points in history. Elephants are huge, strong, tough, terrifying, and highly trainable animals capable of carrying multiple riders on their backs, whether they be officers wanting a better view of the battlefield, archers, or even artillerymen firing a ballista or cannon from a howdah. Horses were also generally terrified of them and wouldn't go near them, so a few elephants in front of your army could make enemy cavalry charges useless. However, they could easily panic in battle, trampling friend or foe.

Subtrope of Beast of Battle. Compare Horse of a Different Color.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In the various iterations of Digimon, Mammothmon are usually used in this fashion. The final battle of Digimon Xros Wars, which featured hundreds of the things serving under DarknessBagramon, stands out in this regard.
  • In Berserk, the Kushan Empire uses large numbers of war elephants in their invasion of Midland, equipped with armor and carrying platforms for warriors and archers. The exotic animals seem like unstoppable monsters to their enemies, and we are treated to graphic depictions of hapless infantry being trampled beneath their feet, though Rakshas also demonstrates that they can be easily terrified and made to stampede over their own forces. As if the regular elephants weren't enough, Daiba and his sorcerers have also provided the Empire with bipedal elephant-headed monsters armed with equally enormous weapons. Emperor Ganishka certainly prizes elephants as a sign of royal power, since we see him riding to and from Charlotte's prison on an elephant, and he commands the siege of Vritannis from a palace on wheels drawn by no fewer than sixteen elephants and surrounded by an escort of elephant cavalry.
  • Mazinger Z: Mechanical Beast Elephant γ3 is a bipedal elephant with long, curvy tusks, Arm Cannons, and big ears that shot heat rays.
  • The Heroic Legend of Arslan: A feature of Shindra's army, they can also be drugged into an even more dangerous berserker state (predictably, they up being just as dangerous to Shindran troops).

    Comic Books 
  • In Marvel Comics 1970s Red Sonja run, Sonja allied herself with the young ruler of kingdom whose major military strength was its war mammoths.
  • In Kurt Busiek and George Perez' run on Comic Book/Avengers, Sonja's nemesis Kulan Gath transmutes a couple of tanks into war elephants and they nearly trample Iron Man before he is saved by team mate Triathlon. She-Hulk tells them "Back off, Jumbo" and flattens one with a punch while swinging the other one through the air by its trunk. Even war elephants don't stand a chance against the Emerald Amazon.

    Fan Works 
  • A Scotsman in Egypt: the final major battle of the fic against the Timurids features their war elephants. Of course, the Timurid hordes didn't feature on being: a) outnumbered and b) facing Scotsmen. Angus the Mauler gets a special mention for going batshit insane (moreso than usual) at the sight of them, not calming down until he's finally killed one. Singlehandedly.

    Films — Animation 
  • Referenced in The Jungle Book (or at least the animated movie thereof) where the elephants act like heroic (if dimwitted) British army officers.
  • Khan Kluay, known as The Blue Elephant in the USA, has the protagonist grow up into a war elephant, complete with a war elephant battle at the climax.
  • Prince John from Robin Hood has a pair of elephants pulling his carriage. The elephants also serve as trumpeters (using their trunks as trumpets) as well. Although, the elephants here, like all other characters, are sapient creatures that wear clothes.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Xerxes' army uses elephants against the Spartans in 300, but they fall to their deaths off a cliff. Keeping in line with the "exotic nature" of this trope, the Persians also have a War Rhinoceros.
  • Used in Lord of the Rings, as in the books. (see Literature) They have eight tusks (four of them were small), and are even bigger than in the books.
  • In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen the Grand Turk uses elephants to propel his War Machines. The Baron gets them to back off with the strategic use of mice.
  • Subverted in Operation: Dumbo Drop, in which the U.S. Army goes to great lengths to transport an elephant, but as a gift of a work animal to a Southeast Asian village, not a battle-beast.
  • Alexander (2004). Alexander's army faces "elephant monsters" at the Battle of Hydaspes.
  • King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017). Mordred summons gigantic war elephants with his Black Magic and tears through the kingdom of Camelot with them. They are very much a Keystone Army, as one single strike of Excalibur by King Uther Pendragon on their summoners is enough to cause them to collapse into dust.

  • In Thas of Athens, Seleucus (one of Alexander the Great's generals) gathers a whole unit of battle elephants while campaigning in India. It never sees much action in the novel, but Thais gets to ride one in Babylon.
  • Battle elephants are mentioned in the Discworld novel Pyramids. According to the protagonist, they're useless, since all they do is trample on their own troops when they inevitably panic. The military responded to this setback by breeding bigger elephants.
  • In Animorphs, Rachel and her elephant morph. True, she's only one elephant, but the 'army' is the rest of the group. She manages to get in plenty of damage on her own anyway. Cassie, Ax and Tobias also acquire elephants in book 22, but they never use them other that one mission.
  • In The Lord of the Rings, the Southrons ride to battle on "Oliphaunts" (as the hobbits call them) or mûmakil (as they're referred to by the Men of Gondor). Sam is very excited when he gets to see one at a distance. They are described as being far larger than actual elephants, and are nearly impervious to arrows (unless they get hit in the eye).
  • In The Black Company war elephants are used during during the Battle at Charm and Dejagore, and it is mentioned that they come from the Jewel Cities.
  • Jelaudin's army uses elephants extensively in the Conqueror books. They backfire when the Mongols shoot them in the knees, causing a panic.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire
    • Crossing this trope with Horse of a Different Color, the giants who live north of the Wall ride woolly mammoths into war like men ride horses. Several mammoth-mounted giants are seen within Mance Rayder's wilding army.
    • In addition, the finest and most disciplined sellsword army in the series, the Golden Company, has a unit of elephants, though in the voyage to Westeros to support the claim of the apparently-still-alive Aegon Targaryen, most of them are lost or late making landfall, only three are mentioned to be present at Griffin's Roost. Their captain frequently laments not having them available.
    • Daenerys acquires several elephants after her conquest of Meereen, and her generals are divided on whether to use them in battle.
  • Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story named "The Queen's Servants", featured in The Jungle Book, in which he gave the camp-animals archetypical army personalities. The cavalry horse was a gung-ho Blood Knight, the mountain-gun mules were Old Soldiers, and the siege-gun elephant was a Dirty Coward.
  • In Belisarius Series elephants are often mentioned as transport animals.
  • In The Wheel of Time, the Seanchan (who have weird animal husbandry as one of their hats) use "s'redit", which are described as very much like elephants, in battle and for labor. One character who is unfamiliar with the animals dubs them "boar-horses".
  • The Windup Girl. War megodonts (genetically-engineered giant elephants) have carbon fibre armour, blades attached to their tusks and machine-gun cages on their backs.
  • In The Heroes of Olympus series, Camp Jupiter has a resident war elephant named Hannibal.
  • Mik's Mammoth: Mik uses his mammoth friend Rumm as one to save his tribe from another tribe.
  • One of the Spellsinger novels includes an armor-wearing warrior rhinoceros, who's as sentient as any other mammal in the Warmlands. An equally-sentient tickbird acts as his squire and companion.
  • In The Executioner novel "Tiger War", Mack Bolan has to defend a village from a punitive expedition sent to punish them for aiding Bolan. He waits for the column to move past, then charges an elephant (used by the villagers for carrying logs) up their rear, panicking the soldiers and causing them to flee to the sides of the trail where the villagers have placed punji sticks. One of the villains shoots the mahout, where upon the elephant rips off the man's limbs and tramples him underfoot.

    Live-Action TV 

  • These are apparently the types of "Elephants" referred to in the song of the same name by Them Crooked Vultures, since the lyrics specifically refer to "Lepers riding atop pachyderms full of germs."

    Myths & Religion 
  • In The Bible, the Seleucid general Antiochus Epiphanes fields war elephands against the Maccabees.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Magic: The Gathering had a few Elephant or Mammoth cards in previous editions. In addition to the non-sapient kinds, there are the humanoid Loxodons, introduced in Mirodin. (Loxodonta africana is the scientific name of the African Elephant).
  • War Elephants are the most powerful (and most expensive) units in Wargames Research Group DBA, DBM and DBMM game systems. They are vulnerable to shooting and light troops, however.
  • The orks of Warhammer 40,000 come closest to this trope with their Squiggoths; tusked, dinosaur-like beasts fitted with massive bunkers and lightning guns.
  • The Norscans of Warhammer Fantasy use giant Warp-mutated mammoths.
  • In Chess, the Bishop used to be called Elephants, and can only move exactly two diagonal squares. In some languages, they are still called Elephants. Other games of the same family, like Xiangqi, Janggi, and Makruk, still use the old Elephant piece, though, at least in Xiangqi, their offensive use is limited by their not being able to cross the river in the middle of the board.


    Video Games 
  • The Civilization series has had war elephant units since II, where they were inexplicably available as a result of discovering Polytheism.
    • In Civ III they were the Indians' special unit, replacing Knights but requiring no special resources.
    • In Civ IV all factions could build them so long as they had a source of ivory, and though slower than horse units they had a combat bonus against them; the Khmer from the Beyond the Sword expansion had Ballista Elephants as a unique unit, which would specifically target enemy cavalry when attacking a stack.
    • In Civ V India, Carthage, and Siam get elephants as special units, replacing Chariot Archers, Horsemen, and Knights respectively.
    • In Civ VI India once again gets an elephant-mounted unit, now known as the Varu.
  • The Age of Empires series uses elephants, in keeping with its historical theme.
    • The first game gives War Elephants (which attack with their tusks), Armored Elephants (an upgrade of War Elephants with improved armor and attacks), and Elephant Archers (where the elephant in question does not attack at all, but the Bowman mounted on its back does). It also has wild elephants which can be hunted for food (though strangely, they cannot be tamed; elephant units simply create a trained elephant and rider).
    • The sequel dialed back the elephants, having (riderless) War Elephants as the unique unit of the Persians, but eventually introduced more with The Forgotten's Indian Elephant Archers and Rise of the Rajas that gave its four new factions Battle Elephants (and one of them, the Khmer, a Ballista Elephant as their unique unit).
    • Age of Mythology has them as the Egyptian faction's strongest cavalry unit.
  • In the Age of Wonders games there are war elephants and war Mammoths depending on the race.
    • In Age Of Wonders only the Azracs could build war elephants,which replaced siege rams for that race.
    • In The Wizard's Throne Normads had access to Elephant riders and Frostlings could use Mammoth Riders
    • In   Age of Wonders 3 Frostlings still have their mammoths but war elephants are absent,however,playing as the Arch Droid class enables the taming of wild elephants through the use of the befriend animal ability.
  • They also appear in Rome: Total War, with the more advanced types carrying archers on their backs. Only Carthage and the Seleucids can train them.
    • In Medieval II: Total War elephants are Game Breakers, hugely effective in combat and capable of charging through enemy lines, flattening everything in front of them. Their only downside is their tendency to go berserk and rampage at random, which is only a problem if you have friendly units nearby. The vanilla version has a howdah full of gunners, while cannon and even rocket elephants are also recruitable. They make the scripted Timurid Invasion all the more terrifying.
  • Dynasty Warriors - War elephants are generally used as mounts by the Nanman, and sometimes unlockable as a companion animal by the player character.
  • Dwarf Fortress, as of DF:2010, allows elephants to be trained for war. Unfortunately, your dwarves can't actually ride them.
  • In World of Warcraft, the Draenei utilize elekks (elephant-like creatures brought over from their homeworld) as their racial mount. Mammoths are also available to players in the northern region. Neither of these are specifically used in combat very much, though.
  • Gohma Crushers from Asura's Wrath.
  • The Chinese in Aztec Wars use these; they have cannons mounted on their backs.
  • The wizards of The Silver Cities use elephants as war-steeds in Heroes of Might and Magic V, providing them with a good view of the battlefield from which to cast spells. The expansion packs add Dwarven Runemages who ride into battle atop mammoths, casting spells while their steed gores the enemy with its tusks.
  • The African Warlords in March of War tend to use these in place of armored vehicles, in the 1940s, going up against super-heavy tanks and Diesel Punk Mecha.
  • In Tears to Tiara 2 there's Noa the elephant. Tart and Charis can ride it in battle. Also the other elven elephants Tart summons as part of The Cavalry.
  • In Far Cry 4 you can ride elephants.
  • Empire Earth has war elephants available to everyone in ranged and melee varieties from the Bronze to Dark ages. They have the same amount of health, but the ranged one's arrows do more damage than its tusks.
  • Tembo the Badass Elephant is a slightly more literal example than most.
  • In ARK: Survival Evolved, numerous animals can fit the motif. Mammoths prove to be it quite literally, being competent fighters and reasonably fast for mounts. The larger, slower Paraceratherium and Brontosaurus can even have siege weapons and towers built onto their platform saddles like old illustrations of war elephants.
  • Total War: Warhammer: Norsca can field massive war mammoths twisted by Chaos, with visible mutations such as multiple tusks and tanks tipped with clawed, hand-like appendages. They come in a few variants, namely as feral monster units, as semi-tamed war beasts with howdahs on their backs and as mounts for Norscan generals.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Older Than Feudalism as Hannibal of Carthage actually used war elephants in many campaigns. The page image is a somewhat fanciful depiction of one such battle note .
  • The Indians used Elephants in war, and Indian elephants were noted to be superior to their African counterparts in terms of controllability, making them much more dangerous to the enemy even though they were smaller. Many Indian kingdoms used alcohol and other intoxicants to get the elephants high before sending them into battle, making them more pain-resistant and less prone to being terrified. A charge of intoxicated elephants with archers shooting down from their backs was pretty much enough to wreck any enemy formation. And to make matters worse for enemies, the Indians developed elephant armor, turning them into living tanks. The Persians got their elephants and elephant trainers from India and frequently used the same tactics.
  • Alexander the Great encountered war elephants in India, and his general Seleukos got 500 of them in return for peace with an Indian king. He used these to gain a decisive advantage over the other Macedonian generals in the Wars of the Successors, eventually conquering the lion's share of Alexander's empire. Elephants were used in many Hellenistic armies after that, and were helpful for instance in defeating the Galatians in Turkey in the 3rd century BC. However, after a while, professional soldiers got used to the sight of elephants, meaning their psychological impact was lost. The Romans never generally adopted the practice of using them, although one or two sources claim that they brought one or two elephants along on their invasions of Britain presumably on the basis that the Britons would barely even have heard of elephants, and so would be scared witless by the mere sight of them
    • Alexander first encountered while fighting against the Persians, but never fought them. The Persians had used them to haul supplies, and deemed them too tired to be used in the attack. Without their Secret Weapon, Alexander defeated them, and captured the elephants for his own. They proved useful to Alexander when they began invading Pakistan and India, as his men already knew about them.
    • One of the last uses of elephants in Mediterranean warfare was against Julius Caesar. Caesar dedicated part of his army as an anti-elephant force, by disciplining them to scatter and quickly reform after the elephant's charge, and by equipping them with axes with the authority to swing away.
    • In fact, Caesar was just applying a standard tactic: the Romans were very good at killing elephants. Pyrrhus managed to salvage two Pyrrhic Victories against the Romans because he had been the first one to use elephants against them, but by the third battle the Romans had learned how to kill them, or even to set them on their owners (needless to say, that was a brutal Curb-Stomp Battle in Roman favor, and Pyrrhus never dared to show up in Italy again). At Zama, Scipio Africanus used a different tactic: he left wide lanes open between his disciplined units, so that the elephants could take the line of least resistance by charging between them instead of over them. He also had some of his troops blow loud horns, which turned some of the elephants back on their masters. Nonetheless, Scipio took the elephants so seriously as a threat that he dictated this as part of the peace terms: that the Carthaginians should get rid of all their remaining elephants and not tame any more.
  • Charlemagne had a war elephant donated to him by Harun ar-Rashid. He used it on his various campaigns.
  • The people of Thailand have historically ridden elephants into battle. They are sacred animals there.
    • King Naresuan, who is still venerated in Thailand, is said to have fought a one-on-one duel with Maha Uparaja of Burma, with both on the backs of elephants wielding halberds. (Naresuan's elephant had gone out of control and taken him too far into the Burmese lines; instead of retreating he challenged the enemy leader to single combat and won.)
    • The King of Siam (Thailand's original name) famously offered Abraham Lincoln a herd of war elephants to help with The American Civil War. Lincoln politely declined on the grounds that the States do not extend South enough to comfortably raise them.
  • When the Timurids were invading India, the Indians brought 120 armor-clad elephants with poisoned tusks against them. Timur ordered all his camels lit on fire and sent towards the elephants. The giant beasts (who scare easily) turned around and trampled their own troops, thus winning the battle for Timur. Timur then had the same elephants incorporated into his own army, apparently thinking that he's the only one crazy enough to come up with a counter.