Imagine being an ancient warrior and you look across the battlefield to see over a thousand gigantic beasts with sharp tusks and long trumpeting snouts, carrying men and armor, charging at your lines. I wonder how many times this scene happened – warriors seeing elephants for the first time in their opponent’s armies – and how people reacted.

If you can put yourself in their shoes, you can begin to understand why battle elephants were so feared and effective as shock troops for so long.
Whether it be WWI foot soldiers marching towards a barrage of machine gun fire or Medieval Knights being massacred by longbow arrows before they could get close to the enemy; new or unknown factors of warfare have often led to an unfathomable amount of panic and casualties. However, I’m not sure anything would strike fear into my heart the way looking across a battlefield and seeing massive war-beasts charging in my direction would.

“An elephant charge might have been the most terrifying experience in ancient war. Each beast weighed in at three to five tons, and many carried a ton or more of armor. Hundreds or even thousands would come crashing across the plain, shaking the earth in deafening rage. The defenders would try to slash their hamstrings, castrate them with spears, and blind them with arrows; the attackers would fling down javelins, thrust with pikes, and goad their mounts to trample men underfoot, exploding their bones and organs. Horses – sensible animals – would not go near elephants.

Even Alexander the Great had to concede that armored elephants were formidable shock troops. After overthrowing the whole Persian Empire in just eight years, he reached the Hydaspes River in modern Pakistan in 326 BC only to find King Puru (called Porus in the Greek sources) blocking his path. Puru’s hundreds of chariots proved useless against the Macedonian phalanx, but his elephants were another story altogether.

To get the better of them, Alexander had to pull off the most brilliantly executed maneuver of his whole career, but on learning that Puru was actually just a second-tier king, and that the Nandas (precursors of the Mauryans) who ruled the Ganges Valley had far more elephants, Alexander decided to turn back.

In 305 BC, after Alexander’s death, his former general Seleucus returned to the Indus River and squared off against Chandragupta (rendered in Greek as Sandrakottos), founder of the Mauryan dynasty, somewhere along its banks. This time the Macedonians could not prevail. Even more impressed by elephants than Alexander, Seleucus agreed to give Chandragupta the rich provinces of what are now Pakistan and eastern Iran in exchange for five hundred of the beasts.

This sounds like a bad deal for Seleucus, but his judgment was vindicated. Four years later, after his men had herded the pachyderms twenty-five hundred miles to the shores of the Mediterranean, the beasts tipped the scale in the Battle of Ipsus, securing his kingdom in southwest Asia. These new shock weapons so impressed the monarchs of the Mediterranean that in the third century BC, every-one who was anyone bought, begged, or borrowed his own set of elephants. The Carthaginian general Hannibal even dragged dozens of them over the Alps in 218 BC.”

War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (p107-108)