Skip to main content
The Sky HISTORY brand logo

Beasts of Burden

These elephants were trained to charge at enemy ranks, scattering them and instilling mass confusion.

far back as Hannibal crossing the Alps in the 3rd century BC, elephants have played a role in war. In fact, a division of elephants mounted by troops for war is known as an elephantry. These elephants were trained to charge at enemy ranks, scattering them and instilling mass confusion. Used extensively throughout Ancient Greece and Rome, war elephants proved an intimidating foe. However, they were prone to panicking during a battle meaning they would often stampede and trample indiscriminately in their desperate search for an escape path. Each elephant rider was therefore equipped with a spike and a hammer to fatally use on the elephant in case it turned and charged towards their own lines.

The Mongols, Indians and Sri Lankans, all made further use of the war elephant before its time as an offensive weapon came to end with the advent of gunpowder in the late 15th century. But elephants were used as late as WWIIto pull heavy equipment as their ability to perform these tasks in areas too rugged for modern vehicles, such as during the Burma Campaign (1942-1945), proved invaluable.

The camel and oxen have also played a part in human conflict; these “beasts of burden” have been used to transport heavy equipment often through difficult terrain. Camels have primarily been ridden in more arid regions as they require far less water than either horses or oxen. Although frequently used by Arabian and North African civilisations, perhaps the least known country to ever have an official military camel corps was America. The U.S. Camel Corps existed in America during the mid-nineteenth century. Comprising of around 60 camels the Corps’ main responsibility was to aid in the movement of supplies throughout the Southwest U.S., a region considered too arid for the horse or mule, in the campaigns against the Native Americans and Mexicans. The camel’s ability to travel at length without water and their sheer strength made them an initial success. The Corps was disbanded at the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-1865), as the camels’ stubborn and irritable attitude constantly spooked the horses and mules making them more a hindrance than a help.

Did you know?

According to the Roman authors Pliny the Elder and Aelian, pigs were used as a defence against an advancing enemy armed with war elephants. Scared by the squeal of a pig, an elephant would panic and flee causing destruction to any soldier standing in their path. So pigs were set on fire and swung from the walls of besieged cities to scatter the approaching enemy elephants.