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Hannibal and His Elephants

Pretty much the only part of the Romano-Carthaginian – “Punic” – Wars (264-241 BC, 218-201 BC, and 149-146 BC) that impinges on the popular imagination is the image of Hannibal taking his elephants across the Alps to invade Italy in 218 BC.

Elephants were not new to warfare by then.  Long employed in India, beginning with Alexander the Great’s campaign there in 326 BC elephants had become common in Eastern Mediterranean armies, and had even been seen on Italian battlefields during the Pyrrhic or Romano-Epirote War (280-275 BC).

Although taxonomists sometimes battle over the details, there are three principal varieties of elephant in the world, the very tall African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana), which can reach 12 feet in height at the shoulder, the somewhat smaller forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), and the Asian elephant, (Elephas maximus), which normally stands about nine feet or so.  The first elephants used in war, of course, were the Asian variety, but obviously getting a supply of these to Carthage would have been a good trick.  Although there were some Asian elephants with Hannibal’s army, most of the animals used by the Carthaginians were “recruited” from a now extinct North African variety of the forest elephant, which was rather smaller than his other African cousins.  A relatively recent scientific discovery, the existence of the “Mauritanian elephant” helps clear up some curious statements in ancient literature to the effect that the African elephant was smaller than the Asian.

Elephants were most effective against poorly trained troops, and particularly those unfamiliar with such beasts.  They were very useful against cavalry, since horses apparently dislike their smell.  Against well-trained and well-discipline troops and horses, however, elephants were considerably less effective, even if the men have never seen them before.  Roman discipline being what it was, elephants did not generally impress Miles Gloriosus, as King Pyrrhus discovered during his invasion of Italy in 280 BC.  Moreover, elephants can quickly change from an asset to a liability on the battlefield, because they are prone to panic, which can result in them stampeding over one's own troops.  For such eventualities the elephant driver traditionally was supplied with a long spike and mallet, to kill his beast if it went on the rampage. 

Despite several centuries of imaginative artistic creations, Carthaginian elephants did not go into battle with little castles on their backs, since they were too small to carry them, nor did they have a combat team on their backs, but served more like heavy cavalry. 

Hannibal's long march to Italy from Spain was necessitated by the fact that the Romans had command of the seas.  His army, about 50,000 men and 37 elephants, marched northwards from what is now Cartagena, in southeastern, Spain probably in May or June of 218, avoiding the Pyrenees by following the coast road, and then eastwards across southern Gaul with little difficulty, aside from skirmishing with local tribes, many of whom subsequently enlisted with Hannibal.  The Rhone River proved the first major obstacle.

To cross the river, earth-covered piers were built out from each bank, and large, sturdy rafts were constructed, which were also covered with earth.  The elephants were then led onto the pier and coaxed aboard the rafts, which were then poled off towards the pier on the other side.    Some of the beasts panicked during the crossing, and a few fell off their rafts, but managed to swim or wade to safety anyway.  In this fashion all of the elephants crossed the Rhone safely.

The Alps proved a more serious obstacle, for quite aside from their ruggedness and the fact that the local tribes were hostile, the army reached the mountains in November.  Despite the cold and hardship, all of the elephants appear to have survived the arduous crossing, though many were ill and weak as a result.  At the Battle of the Trebia (December 22, 218 BC), the elephants performed some useful services by routing Rome's Gallic auxiliaries, but did not otherwise contribute significantly to the defeat of the Romans.  The army then went into winter quarters.

During the winter of 218-217 B.C., Hannibal's army suffered greatly from the weather and hunger, and apparently all but one of the elephants died, an Asian female named “Surus – The Syrian” being the sole survivor.  Hannibal rode Surus at Lake Trasimenus (June 21, 217 BC, in the modern calendar), where she served with such courage that Cato the Elder dubbed her the bravest elephant of the war.  Through the long years which Hannibal's army spent campaigning in Italy, elephant reinforcements were received from time to time, but they proved indecisive in action.  And in fact, elephants contributed to Hannibal's defeat.  His brother Hasdrubal lost his army and his life at the Battle of the Metaurus (June 22, 207 B.C.) despite his elephants.  This disaster effectively isolated Hannibal in Italy, permitting a Roman army to invade Africa, threatening Carthage itself.  And in Africa, at the Battle of Zama (October 19, 202 BC), Hannibal's elephants also panicked and stampeded through his army, thereby greatly contributing to his defeat and the end of the war.

So despite the popular image and their fierce reputation, elephants were white elephants when it came to a serious war.   

Historical Note: Elephants occasionally appeared on campaign until the last days of the Roman Republic and during the early Empire, but are hardly ever heard from again after the Roman invasion of Britain (AD 43).  The Mauritanian elephant disappeared into extinction during the first century or so of the Empire, mostly due to the demands of the arena, despite imperial efforts to preserve the species; for a time the Emperors even maintained a small breeding herd in central Italy.

BookNote: For a good look at the history of elephants in war see John M. Kistler’s succinctly titled, War Elephants by John M. Kistler .

---With thanks to Kendall King, wherever he is.

 

A Valley Bivouac

Late in December of 1861 Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson undertook an expedition to destroy the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.   It was bitterly cold in the Shenandoah Valley that winter, and the troops grumbled mightily as they marched and camped in the ice and snow.  One morning early in January 1862, near the town of Bath, a group of Jackson's troops woke up to find themselves covered with an additional blanket of white, for it had snowed once again while they slept.  As the men got up, shaking out their snow-covered blankets and getting into the routine of the day, they began roundly cursing Jackson for the miseries of their lives.

Then one hitherto unnoticed slug-a-bed curled up in his blanket under a nearby tree stirred.  The man crawled out of his blanket, and, shaking off the snow, stood up.   It was Jackson.   Stunned into silence, the troops jumped to attention, bracing themselves for a blast of general's ire.   But the gallant Stonewall, who had ridden up during the night, made but a smiling remark to a couple of the men, shook out his blanket, and was soon away. 


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