Follow TV Tropes

Following

War Elephants

Go To

https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/hannibal_Elephants_copy_6137.jpg
How do you stop an elephant from charging? You don't.

"Imagine you're a provincial Roman farmer. The most you've seen of the world is maybe the length of Italy if you're really well-traveled. Now imagine that through the sleets and the mist you see a great grey lumbering bulk begin to emerge. Imagine you see this creature two-and-a-half times as tall as you, at least a chariot-length long, with glistening white tusks and a distended snout, its eerie trumpeting carrying across to you faintly on the wind. This is probably the closest that human beings ever got to legit fighting monsters — fighting something so alien and gargantuan that there was no frame of reference for them."
Advertisement:

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.

Advertisement:

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


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    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).
  • One Piece: Jack from the Beast Pirates and one of Kaido's Co-Dragons ate the Zou Zou no Mi, Model: Mammoth, giving him the ability to turn him into a massive mammoth (and he is already huge from the start). He tramples through the battlefield like a calamity and he's also extremely endurable coupled with very high stamina, making him The Juggernaut. Untypical for this trope, Jack is actually in charge of many of Kaido's troops, thanks to his status as one of Kaido's right-hand men.

    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 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.
Advertisement:

    Films — Animation 
  • Referenced in Disney's The Jungle Book animated movie, 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.
  • In Early Man, Lord Nooth uses armored wooly mammoths as construction equipment.

    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.
  • The Oliphants from Lord of the Rings, as in the books. (see Literature) Portrayed as fantastical dire elephants, they have eight tusks (four of them were small), and are even bigger than in the books, being roughly fifty to sixty feet at the shoulder.
  • 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.

    Literature 
  • In Thaïs 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 than 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 

    Music 
  • 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."

    Religion 
  • In The Bible, the Seleucid general Antiochus Epiphanes fields war elephants 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.
  • Warhammer Fantasy: The Norscans use giant Warp-mutated mammoths. The Arabyans too war elephants, but they were normal beasts trained for combat instead of monsters like the ones used by Norscans.
  • 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.

    Theater 

    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.
  • Empire Earth II: The war elephant is Egypt's early unique unit, and also unique in that its counted as Heavy Cavalry, it has a ranged attack (the only one until cavalry is replaced with tanks).
  • Tembo the Badass Elephant is a slightly more literal example than most.
  • One route in Metal Slug 3 has you free an elephant from ice and use it to stomp on all the zombies that got in your way. It could also pick up and eat chili peppers and batteries to spew flames/lightning at them as well.
  • 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.
  • Assassin's Creed Origins features war elephants as high-level Bonus Bosses.

    Western Animation 
  • Adventure Time has an Ancient Psychic Tandem War Elephant.
  • In the Futurama episode "Fun on a Bun", Neanderthals riding woolly mammoths attack Oktoberfest.
  • The Pinky and the Brain song "A Meticulous Analysis of History" mentions Hannibal of Carthage (see Real Life) war elephants.
    Brain: Hannibal, our book confirms,
    Tried conquering Italy with pachyderms.
    Just why he failed, nobody tells,
    But he never could get past the Roman sentinels.
    Pinky: And he couldn't find his weapons in the peanut shells.

    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  and the A Song of Ice and Fire entry above is a veiled reference to Hannibal making it to his invasion target (Italy) with only three elephants after losing the rest on the way.
  • It's established Indians were the first to use elephants in war, as Indian elephants were more controllable than their African counterparts. 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, and their riders were trained to sacrifice them with poisoned lances in case they got out of control anyway. 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.
    • When the Timurids were invading India, the Indians brought 120 armor-clad elephants with poisoned tusks against them. Timur the Lame 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. He then had the same elephants incorporated into his own army, apparently thinking that he was the only one crazy enough to come up with a counter.
  • The Persians got their elephants and elephant trainers from India and frequently used the same tactics. Fifteen of them were meant to be used against Alexander the Great in the Battle of Gaugamela, and they caused such an impression that Alexander had to celebrate sacrifices to Phobos, the god of fear, the night before. Ironically, the Macedonians won the battle rather easily after the Persians ultimately decided not to deploy the elephants, as they deemed the beasts too tired to be used in the attack after they had used them to haul supplies. Still, after they captured the elephants, Alexander was so impressed with them that he added them to his own army. They proved useful when they began invading Pakistan and India, as his men already knew about them.
    • Alexander would finally face war elephants during the Battle of the Hydaspes against the Indian king Porus, who brought around 90 of them with tusks equipped with iron spikes. However, knowing he would probably lose an elephant-on-elephant battle and preferring finesse over force, Alexander only deployed his infantry and cavalry against Porus's army. He sustained heavy losses, but he ended up winning the battle thanks to his military genius: he ordered his men to loosen their ranks to allow the elephants to pass through and shower them with javelins and arrows, specifically targettting the mahouts so they could not sacrifice the beasts when they turned against them.
    • He would have advanced more towards India, but seeing that the next kings could deploy thousands of elephants against him, he wisely backed out. He still created an elephant guard in Babylon and created the post of "elephantarch" to lead them.
    • Alexander's general Seleucus 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 Egyptian Ptolemaic kingdom (also descended from Alexander's conquests) and the city of Carthage (a Phoenician colony in Africa) also started using African elephants, as they discovered, probably from looking at the neighboring kingdoms of Numidia and Nubia, that there were elephants there which they could use. However, they chose to take the smaller North African elephants rather than the huge savanna elephants, as African specimens proved to be much harder to tame than their Asian homologues. There is debate about whether those small elephants could still carry howdahs and turrets, as it is known Ptolemaics and Carthaginian still traded abroad some Asian elephants to make for the difficulty of the locals.
    • Carthaginians apparently only started thinking on war elephants after they saw those used by Pyrrhus of Epirus, who acquired a contingent of them from Ptolemy II in order to invade Rome. Ironically, although Pyrrhus managed to salvage two Pyrrhic Victories because he had been the first one to use elephants against Rome, the latter adapted typically pretty fast, and by the third battle the Romans had learned how to kill them or set them on their owners. Needless to say, even although Pyrrhus was technically the victor, he never dared to show up in Italy again.
    • Carthage's use of elephants through the Punic Wars was similarly mixed, as by this time it was clear their usage required some keen strategy and sense of chance, rather than just sending them forward against people who now knew how to counter them. After his father Hamilcar died precisely due to this, Hannibal learned the lesson and became good enough to literally trample the Romans at several battles, but by the battle of Zama, the Roman anti-elephant measures had improved too much. At that place, Scipio Africanus 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, and 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, as part of the peace terms, that the Carthaginians should get rid of all their remaining elephants and not tame any more.
  • Perhaps because they were now so accustomed to neutralize elephants, the Romans never generally adopted the practice of using them, although they did a few times, most famously in their invasions of Hellenistic kingdoms. This actually featured a true elephant-on-elephant battle at Magnesia, where Rome deployed 16 against Antiochus III's 54 and was victorious despite the numeric disadvantage.
    • Rome also used them in the conquest of Hispania, although this proved to be not so good as it might sound, because many Hispanic peoples had fought either against or for Carthage and thus had already seen their fair share of trunks and tusks (the aforementioned Hamilcar, for instance, died when the Iberian chieftain Orissus sent carts of burning wood against his elephants, making them panic and wreak havoc in his own camp). Romen war elephants marched at both the Celtiberian Wars and the Lusitanian Wars, but they achieved little success, and at the latter it even coincided with Rome's worst local defeat against the famous rebel Viriathus.
    • There are sources claiming that they brought one or two elephants along on their invasions of Britain, presumably on the basis that those natives, unlike the previous, would surely even have even heard of elephants, and so would be scared witless by the mere sight of them. It is not clear whether it was Julius Caesar or Claudius who was in command, but it apparently succeeded in scaring the Britons away.
    • 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.
  • 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 King Mongkut's offer on the grounds that the States do not extend South enough to comfortably raise them.


Top

Example of:

/

Feedback