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Author Topic: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?  (Read 3442 times)

Offline Easy E

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Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« on: November 29, 2023, 04:04:51 PM »
War Elephants...... what to make of them?

Here are some facts that I think about when tackling this question:

1. We know they were a staple of Successor armies, a must have item.  The same in India and even some Persian armies.   

2. We know when Elephants are introduced they left an impact on those they were fighting.

3. Most of our sources on Elephant in combat are Roman sources, and the elephants were on the other side.  Romans abandoned them quickly and had a bias against them, preferring heavy infantry.

4. A lot of time, money, and energy went into having an Elephant core.

5. There are only a few battles where elephants were the decisive component, BUT the sources always have strong bias to heavy infantry.  They tend to downplay archers, light infantry, and other units. 

6. The sides with elephants lost in the long run. 

7. I do not recall an account where War Elephants are really shown as a decisive unit.  At least the Scythed Chariot has Xenophon write a bit about how some Persian scythed chariots dismantled some isolated hoplites on their own.

So, there is a lot of conflicting evidence on the effectiveness of War Elephants.  How do you consider or think about the "value" and "effectiveness" of War Elephant in ancient warfare and therefore in Ancient Wargames.
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Offline ithoriel

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #1 on: November 29, 2023, 04:29:30 PM »
A few random thoughts.

The morale of an army that hasn't encountered them before is going to drop significantly.

If the enemy has them, and you don't have a way to accustom your horses to them, then a chain of elephants can stop your cavalry dead in their tracks.

Elephants disrupt enemy heavy infantry quite effectively. Sadly the fact that that applies to their own heavy infantry too means that having your heavy infantry follow close behind the elephants to take advantage of the disruption is tricky.

There is prestige in having an elephant corps.
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Online Pattus Magnus

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #2 on: November 29, 2023, 04:51:28 PM »
(I posted just after ithoriel, who covers the same points I do, but more succinctly)

My impression is that war elephants could be useful, and perhaps even decisive, in certain contexts. Also, the Successor fascination with them may have had more to do with prestige (in relation to other Successor kingdoms)than objective military effectiveness.

Regarding context - elephants’ impact was primarily psychological and proved useful mainly for panicking horses and poorly disciplined infantry in relatively warm climates. Horses were a bigger component in armies from Mesopotamia eastward, and the climate could only support elephants south of the steppe and Eurasia mountains (Himalayas and their western and eastern extensions). Referring here to where the technology developed- North Africa could also support elephants but the skills were imported and never as central as in India. So, the Indian subcontinent was the centre of ellies’ usefulness (and they kept being used there for military purposes until firearms became dominant tech). Use in the former Persian empire, and later by the Sassanids was more niche, but military viable because they and their opponents used a lot of cavalry and poor quality infantry. The Successors picked up the use of elephants from the Persians and it spread a bit to North Africa but didn’t really take off because the military opponents didn’t rely as much on easily panicked troops (cavalry and pressed soldiers). The supply of elephants was also a problem the farther a kingdom was from the Indian “home” of elephant raising and training.

The Successors were on the western fringe of the area where elephants were useful but they persisted for a while. Partly due to the Seleucids hoping to keep their territory in the east, where elephants were useful. Mainly because having an elephant corps was very showy and conspicuously displayed a king’s power. Elephants were the land army’s version of the massive warships the Successors constructed- very impressive but not very practical in most situations…. Those “display units” could still have been important in international relations between kingdoms - not including them in the inventory would have been like advertising that the kingdom couldn’t participate in the power game.

The Romans were initially fringe players in the power game and played by different rules once they became fully involved (more like utilitarian total war, and less about display). They quickly adapted to resisting elephants and relegated them to ceremonial displays.

So, should elephants be pants in war games rules? Not necessarily, it mainly depends on how the rules handle morale and panic. The beasts should force serious morale rolls that are likely to break up cavalry and poor infantry, but usually won’t wreck highly disciplined troops. They’re kind of an all or nothing effect.

They should also have an impact on campaign and strategic play (at least between Successor and eastern kingdoms) - if a kingdom doesn’t maintain a herd, they are advertising weakness. That could manifest as lower recruitment and morale in their own forces, or as a morale boost for their enemies. Romans are exempt from both effects. Maintenance/ points costs for elephants increase the farther away from India the theatre of war is.
« Last Edit: November 29, 2023, 04:55:43 PM by Pattus Magnus »

Offline SteveBurt

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #3 on: November 29, 2023, 05:21:44 PM »
Two battles where elephants were decisive. Bagradas against the Romans, and the ‘elephant victory’ of Ptolemy Keraunos against the Galatians.
When both sides had them they seemed to neutralise each other.
I often get the feeling they were more of a prestige thing

Offline Basementboy

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #4 on: November 29, 2023, 07:11:20 PM »
If anyone here has played Sega’s game Rome: Total War, I think it does a very nice job of portraying how elephants should function on the field (despite some other errors). In the game, elephants do little damage, and are liable to stampede if they suffer casualties, but massively lower the moral of enemy troops near them, meaning that if elephants are charged into the flanks or rear of a unit already tied up then it’s basically a given that they will rout. So… yeah. I’d agree with Pattus’s thoughts on the matter.

I should mention that there were more than two battles where elephants were decisive though. Pyrrhus used his elephants in this way at Heraclea and Asculum and won both battles, with the victory of the first often attributed almost entirely to the elephants, who completely turned the tide of the battle. There is also the “Elephant Victory” of the Seleucid Empire over Galatia, though I believe some scholars are questioning the validity of accounts of the battle due to a lack of archeological evidence. Either way, these all give a pretty decent precedent for elephants being used effectively.

Offline Basementboy

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #5 on: November 29, 2023, 07:13:39 PM »
Apologies Steve, misread your reply and acted as though you hadn’t already mentioned the Elephant Victory. My eyes are crap, ignore me lol

Offline FierceKitty

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #6 on: November 30, 2023, 01:07:05 AM »
Two battles where elephants were decisive. Bagradas against the Romans, and the ‘elephant victory’ of Ptolemy Keraunos against the Galatians.
When both sides had them they seemed to neutralise each other.
I often get the feeling they were more of a prestige thing

Ipsus. Certainly tipped the scales in that one too.
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Offline SteveBurt

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #7 on: December 02, 2023, 09:45:30 PM »
Ipsus. Certainly tipped the scales in that one too.
True, although not really as a weapon of war, just a gigantic anti cavalry wall

Online Pattus Magnus

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #8 on: December 03, 2023, 01:35:41 AM »
I would argue (and kind of do above) the being a giant anti-cavalry wall is exactly the kind of weapon of war elephants were. And an important one, too, in military theatres where cavalry played a more prominent role than it did in the Mediterranean basin.

Offline vodkafan

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #9 on: December 08, 2023, 07:23:46 PM »
Apologies in advance, I don't know much about this subject so this a totally spurious post, feel free to disregard!
I have played a few DBA games with elephants, that's it. My feeling is that they are just great fun whatever happens.
Decisive? That was the question. I think if you only have a few elephants, they are a waste of time. But if you have a LOT of elephants, well that could be decisive.
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Offline AdamPHayes

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #10 on: December 08, 2023, 09:52:58 PM »
Indian armies seemed to have fielded the largest quantity of elephants through history but I’m not sure they achieved much that was decisive?

Offline ithoriel

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #11 on: December 08, 2023, 11:04:01 PM »
Indian armies seemed to have fielded the largest quantity of elephants through history but I’m not sure they achieved much that was decisive?

We  seem to know so little about elephants in Indian wars until the arrival of Europeans that it is hard to know.

An elephant corps seems to have been an essential component of an army if a king wanted to be seen as one of the big dogs. However, I've read suggestions (in secondary sources to be fair) suggesting that, in pre-Alexander the Great warfare, chariots could be substituted if the king could not field elephants an also that chariots could be drawn by oxen if horses were unavailable for any reason.

Prestige and intimidation, on and off the battlefield seem to be the main reasons to field elephants rather than mass carnage.

Offline Basementboy

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #12 on: December 10, 2023, 09:23:43 AM »
I’d agree with Ithoriel here. The same is true for the diadochi later on- elephants are mostly a prestige piece to show of the wealth of the nation, and have only limited usefulness in actual combat (though they were decisive in a few key battles)

Offline Waffles_vs_Tacos

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #13 on: December 10, 2023, 01:26:31 PM »
It seems Hannibal used then to either break an enemies line with a change before his own troops, or stationed them on the flanks of his army, between the calvary and infantry, to protect against flanks by enemy calvary, or just kept them back in some battles.

As we saw at Zama, if an enemy knew how to deal with elephants, they were not such an issue.

But as we saw in many other battles, they employment in battle could also be decisive.

Offline Harry von Fleischmann

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Re: Should War Elephants be Pants in Rules?
« Reply #14 on: December 17, 2023, 06:36:25 PM »
Frankly, I don’t care. Featherstone’s books had elephants and so did Tony Baths airfix ancients book and they looked cool. I think that’s actually a sort of an answer :-) !

 

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