Saturday, November 23, 2013

War Elephant Revisited

In Thai warfare, the elephant's greatest use was that of a war mount, for kings and commanders of armies. When employed in battle, the war elephant carried three persons on his back. The king or commander, who sat alone on the elephant's neck in order to fight the enemy commander in direct mortal combat. This was a little like the individual contests between warriors in the "Heroic Age" of Ancient Greece or the jousts between knights in armour in Medieval Europe.

The tactical commander sat in the middle of the seat, strapped to the animal's back, handling either two flags or peacocks tails to signal directions of movement to the soldiers below. A third soldier sat on the elephant's hind quarters, in order to drive the animal and take care of the weapons attached to the middle seat.

The war elephant was surrounded at all times by a bodyguard of up to eight foot soldiers, known as "Chaturonkbath". It was their duty to protect the elephant's legs from a surprise attack or other cowardly maneuver by a dishonorable enemy.

The sight of the king or commander of the armies, seated on the back of the elephant and overlooking the battlefield, must have been truly magnificent and a great inspiration to his soldiers. But he would also have been highly conspicuous and vulnerable to enemy projectile weapons.

This vulnerability and indeed the role of the elephant on the battlefield began to be questioned in the seventeenth century, when large numbers of Europeans began to arrive in South East Asia. The reason for this questioning was because these Europeans brought with them, new and terrifying weapons, efficient hand held firearms.

The most notable of these weapons was the musket. It was a deadly weapon, which could kill a king, a commander or indeed an elephant at a distance. It did, however, have two major failings, which to some extent mitigated its effectiveness. It had a slow rate of fire, approximately one shot per minute, and it was inaccurate over a distance of more than two hundred yards.

European armies had developed tactics to overcome the musket's shortcomings and these could be adapted to take account of the elephant's traditional role on Thai battlefields. By the mid‑nineteenth century, however, the accurate and fast firing, repeating rifle had replaced the musket.

This development not only changed the battlefield, but it made the lung or commander and also the elephant too exposed to distant attack. So the elephant was quietly retired from the battlefield. He did, however, continue to do valuable service for the army in a support role, even as recently as the Second World War, and he proved to be an inspiring sight in parades and at ceremonial functions.

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