With the advent of gunpowder warfare in the late 15th century, the balance of advantage for war elephants on the battlefield began to change.
While muskets had limited impact on elephants, which could withstand numerous volleys,[ cannon fire was a different matter entirely – an animal could easily be knocked down by a single shot.
With elephants still being used to carry commanders on the battlefield, they became even more tempting targets for enemy artillery.
Nonetheless, in south-east Asia the use of elephants on the battlefield continued up until the end of the 19th century.
One of the major difficulties in the region was terrain, and elephants could cross difficult terrain in many cases more easily than horse cavalry.
Burmese forces used war elephants during the Battle of Danubyu during the First Anglo-Burmese War, where they were easily repulsed by Congreve rockets deployed by British forces.
The Siamese Army continued utilising war elephants armed with jingals up until the Franco-Siamese War of 1893, while the Vietnamese used them in battle as late as 1885, during the Sino-French War.
During the mid to late 19th century, British forces in India possessed specialised elephant batteries to haul large siege artillery pieces over ground unsuitable for oxen.
Into the 20th century, military elephants were used for non-combat purposes in the Second World War, particularly because the animals could perform tasks in regions that were problematic for motor vehicles.
Sir William Slim, commander of the XIVth Army wrote about elephants in his introduction to Elephant Bill: “They built hundreds of bridges for us, they helped to build and launch more ships for us than Helen ever did for Greece.
Without them our retreat from Burma would have been even more arduous and our advance to its liberation slower and more difficult.” Military elephants were used as late as the Vietnam War.
Elephants are now more valuable to many armies in failing states for their ivory than as transport, and many thousands of elephants have died during civil conflicts due to poaching.
They are classed as a pack animal in a U.S. Special Forces field manual issued as recently as 2004, but their use by U.S. personnel is discouraged because elephants are endangered.
The last recorded use of elephants in war occurred in 1987 when Iraq was alleged to have used them to transport heavy weaponry for use in Kirkuk.
A scene from the 1857 Indian Rebellion (note the sharpshooter on the elephant).
There were many military purposes for which elephants could be used. In battle, war elephants were usually deployed in the centre of the line, where they could be useful to prevent a charge or to conduct one of their own.
Their sheer size and their terrifying appearance made them valued heavy cavalry.
Off the battlefield they could carry heavy materiel, and with a top speed of approximately 30 km/h (20 mph) provided a useful means of transport, before mechanized vehicles rendered them mostly obsolete.
The elephant Citranand attacking another, called Udiya, during the Mughal campaign against the rebel forces of Khan Zaman and Bahadur Khan in 1567
In addition to charging, elephants could provide a safe and stable platform for archers to shoot arrows in the middle of the battlefield, from which more targets could be seen and engaged. The driver, called a mahout, was responsible for controlling the animal, who often also carried weapons himself, like a chisel-blade and a hammer.
Elephants were sometimes further enhanced with their own weaponry and armour as well.
In India and Sri Lanka, heavy iron chains with steel balls at the end were tied to their trunks, which the animals were trained to swirl menacingly and with great skill.
Numerous cultures designed specialized armour for elephants, like tusk swords and a protective tower on their backs, called howdahs.
The late sixteenth century saw the introduction of culverins, jingals and rockets against elephants, innovations that would ultimately drive these animals out of active service on the battlefield.
Besides the dawn of more efficient means of transportation and weaponry, war elephants also had clear tactical weaknesses that lead to their eventual retirement.
After sustaining painful wounds, or when their driver was killed, elephants had the tendency to panic, often causing them to run amok indiscriminately, making casualties on either side.
Experienced Roman infantrymen often tried to sever their trunks, causing instant distress, and hopefully leading the elephant to flee back into its own lines.
Fast skirmishers armed with javelins were also used by the Romans to drive them away, as well as flaming objects or a stout line of pikes, such as Triarii.
Other methods for disrupting elephant units in classical antiquity was the deployment of war pigs.
Ancient writers believed that elephants could be “scared by the smallest squeal of a pig”.
Some warlords however, interpreted this expression literally.
At the siege of Megara during the Diadochi wars for example, the Megarians reportedly poured oil on a herd of pigs, set them alight, and drove them towards the enemy’s massed war elephants, which subsequently bolted in terror.
The value of war elephants in battle remains a contested issue. In the 19th century, it was fashionable to contrast the western, Roman focus on infantry and discipline with the eastern, exotic use of war elephants that relied merely on fear to defeat their enemy.
One writer commented that war elephants “have been found to be skittish and easily alarmed by unfamiliar sounds and for this reason they were found prone to break ranks and flee”.
Nonetheless, the continued use of war elephants for several thousand years attests to their enduring value to the historical battlefield commander.