(Disclaimer: I will only be looking at African and Indian Elephants. No mammoths and no Mûmakil)
The “Tank of Antiquity”, a real life giant monster, and the only reason to by Total War Rome. War ELEPHANTS!!!
I mentioned how impressive a Hoplite Aspis or a Knight’s Plate Armor is against projectiles and melee weapons alike. But Elephant legs are about 1 ton EACH. A turtle has impressive armor, it is still going to get flattened by a car. And this is ignoring the trunks (which can easily lift a man) and tusks sharp enough to potentially kill OTHER Elephants (especially if you replace the tusk with Elephant-Swords: yes they exist, no it’s not an Elephant using a sword with his trunk).
But don’t think a large animal is simultaneously slow: Elephants can charge 20 mph and have plenty of stamina to maintain their rampage. Some civilizations even had armor for the Elephants: although this wasn’t mandatory and didn’t cover the sides or legs. One reason why this wasn’t mandatory was because Elephants are so MASSIVE that the few weapons able to penetrate their hide is probably not going to do any significant damage unless it directly strikes the organs: which are difficult to strike considering the giant legs and head in the way: a head with a skull thick enough to head-butt trees without any issues. This combination of power, tankiness and speed is terrifying; as confirmed by historical accounts. There were many armies, especially those who never seen an Elephant before, flee in panic. Horses especially were so terrified that they refused to attack or would quickly rout if unfamiliar with an Elephant’s loud trumpeting or strong smell (Elephants eat at least 400lb of food a day: that’s a lot of poo).
Elephants also have a long-ranged advantage; they can have archers, javelins and spearman ontop of them to assist them in combat. I have even seen small cannons be put on Elephants as well; although I personally wouldn’t want to risk using cannons on a high priority target like an Elephant.
Elephants have speed on par with that of a Chariot, but with the power to crush it, and the thick bod needed to tank hits from most attacks. Why not use such a perfect awesome juggernaut? Well… he’s neither perfect nor a true juggernaut…
Let’s start with the one weakness no one expects; mentality. You have this 6 ton animal that can crush literally dozens of humans. So WHY would he listen to YOU? You are demanding that this literal mammoth run into a hostile enemy army: why would he not choose the safer route of just walking away or, better yet, attacking you instead? It was very common for Elephants to intentionally ignore the enemy: in the Battle of Zama, Hannibal (THE LORD OF THE ELEPHANT) was defeated when Scipio’s forces simply walked out of the way of the Elephants. And if you didn’t have good drivers; the only way to get an Elephant to charge is to either get him pissed drunk or to stab him with a spear. Good luck trying to control a drunk, livid, behemoth. This becomes worse as the Elephant gets injured or scared: maybe he gets hit in the eye, or is taking too much damage. There’s nothing stopping him from making a U-turn and running over your own men in order to flee. This threat was so real that Elephant riders would use a spike and stab into the Elephant’s head to kill their Elephant before it caused too much damage. Now obviously; you don’t want to waste an entire army just to damage an Elephant into submission. It is best to simply find a weapon that can scare an Elephant before they even come close. Incendiary Pigs. Yes that Total War pig unit did exist; turns out that Elephants are terrified of both mice and pigs. They also hate fire; so why not light the pigs on fire as well? Sounds stupid and inhumane, but it worked: flaming pigs send Elephants in panic (and also gives you free bacon!)
Let’s assume the Elephant is willing to fight and is brave: now what do you do? Well the difference between someone who is invincible and someone who is tanky is that a tank is not invincible: just like real life tanks. Elephants can be killed by; zerg-rushing his legs so he can’t move, trapping them in pits, pelting him with javelins, siege weapons, cannons, rockslides or boulder throwing, musket volleys, and arrow volleys. Horses are also 50% faster than Elephants and a horse-archer can maintain both speed and distance while fire arrows at the Elephant until it submits. Cold weather was also fatal; which is why Hannibal’s march over the Alps was so impressive. However this feat did indeed cause some of his Elephants to freeze to death; especially since most of them were from the desert climates of North Africa and the Middle East.
Before there was Chuck Norris; the ultimate American badass was arguably Teddy Roosevelt. This guy was an obese, 52 year old, nearsighted, asthmatic when he went on his Smithsonian–Roosevelt African Expedition and killed 11 Elephants. Now obviously, Elephant Guns gave him an advantage: but I say that the best way to kill an Elephant would be with a Bull Moose. :3
Possibly the biggest flaw of Elephants is population. Hannibal is always referenced as one of the best Elephant generals; and yet not only did he only have 37 Elephants in the Second Punic War, but they all died during the war. Even the richest empires could only own dozens of Elephants; while soldier numbers could be in the tens or hundreds of thousands in Ancient Times.
Elephants sound amazing on paper; but they have so many exploitable flaws that they are a risky investment. I would suggest only using Elephants under these circumstances; if your enemy has no guns, if they have never seen Elephants before, if your enemy is a densely packed and slow army, if you have the logistics to gain and maintain large numbers of Elephants, if you fight in terrain that Elephants can effectively fight in, and if you can end the war quickly so that your Elephants are not depleted in a war of attrition. With so many factors: I would recommend using Elephants only at the end of a battle to break an exhausted enemy with a shocking charge. Elephants are the ultimate special weapon: but like any special weapon, must be used effectively to compensate for its high costs and unconventional, unpredictable nature.