Horses were commonplace for many years in armies, but their use receded in the twentieth century. Even so, throughout history a variety of other animals have been involved in wars. Here Adrian Burrows shares the incredible tale of a battle between a war pig and a war elephant.
Ever since humans realized that riding a horse into battle was much more effective than running on their own feet, animals have been an effective and potent game changer in war. For Alexander the Great, the horse proved vital in carving out his empire in the ancient world. Alexander’s ‘Companian’ cavalry would charge forward in a wedge formation, their maneuverability allowing them to be the hammer to the foot infantry’s anvil and proving decisive in battles across Asia.
The use of the horse in warfare has continued to been seen in history, transitioning from use as cavalry to the transport of artillery after the invention of gunpowder and increasingly more effective long-range weaponry. But everyone knows about the horse in the use of warfare; what I want to share is the use of slightly more bizarre animals.
Pigs and Elephants
Pigs versus elephants. It would be an odd match up that’s for certain, so first it’s important to clarify why pigs would be fighting elephants in the first place. Around the fourth century BC (no one’s particularly sure when) some bright spark in India decided that fighting while sat on an elephant would be a good idea. Indeed the general thoughts of Indian Kings at the time were that, “an army without elephants is as despicable as a forest without a lion, a kingdom without a king or as velour unaided by weapons.”
The sheer mass and thick hide of an elephant meant that they could not easily be stopped by the spears of infantry (unlike the much smaller horse); elephants can also reach a rather astonishing top speed of 25 miles per hour. Imagine, if you will, fifteen elephants charging towards you at almost the same speed as Usain Bolt (his top speed being 27.44mph) - it would certainly leave quite an impression on anyone in their way, both physically and (if you managed to walk away from it alive) mentally.
This already formidable creature was then enhanced with weapons and armor. In India and Sri Lanka heavy iron balls were chained to the trunk of elephants, which the animal was then trained to twirl and swirl with great dexterity and skill. Kings of Khmer utilized the elephants as mobile artillery, placing giant crossbow platforms on their backs that could fire long armor piercing shafts at the enemy.
So as you had a 4,500 kg mace wielding and arrow firing elephant, what exactly could stop it? The answer was not a lot; the elephant was the tank of ancient times. Even Alexander the Great respected the power of the war elephant, praying to the god of fear before going into battle against them for the first time at the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, and ultimately incorporating them into his own army as his campaign continued.
So how could a pig possibly hope to defeat an elephant?
The world found out during the War of the Diadochi, in which Alexander the Great’s generals fought over his empire after his death. The battle in question was the Megara siege in 266 BC, in which Antigonus II Gonatus advanced upon the city with a vast army, including a great number of formidable war elephants. The Megarians had to break the siege at any cost but how could they possibly hope to defeat such a vast and mighty army?
Enter the war pig. Just let that thought settle for a moment.
First question, why even think of sending a pig to go and fight an elephant? Well, the Siege of Megara was not the first time that it happened nor was it originally the Megarians idea to do such a thing. Instead it was Pliny the Elder (the Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher) who determined that “elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of the hog” which led to Romans utilizing squealing pigs and rams to repel the War Elephants of Pyrrhus in 275 BC. For the Megarians under siege, sending war pigs to attack war elephants didn’t seem nearly bizarre or dangerous enough. Instead they coated their war pigs in a flammable resin and set them on fire. The war pig had just become the incendiary pig. The Megarians drove the flaming pigs towards the massed ranks of war elephants in a screaming, squealing cacophony of angry burning pork. Despite the forceful commands of the mahouts (drivers) sat upon them, the elephants bolted. They ran back through their own ranks, crushing both man and horse and effectively crippling Antigonus II Gonatus’ forces in just a few moments.
The pig had been victorious. In the battle of war pig versus war elephant it was clear who the champion was.
So why did the war pig not catch on? Why is it not known throughout the world as an animal used in battles and to takes its place alongside horse, dog, cat, pigeon, and elephant?
Well the problem with a flaming war pig is that they have a relatively short range, about 400 feet, before the flames consume them. The other problem is that once you’ve set a pig on fire it is really rather tricky to tell them where to go (I don’t recommend you try it at home as a barbecuing technique). There was just as much chance that the war pig would dash through friendly forces as enemy forces, causing fires and chaos for both sides.
So, the memory of the war pig has faded somewhat over the last two thousand years. But that’s the wonderful thing about history, it’s all still there waiting to be discovered. And you have discovered it, now you know how a pig came to defeat an elephant.
Adrian Burrows works at Wicked Workshops, an organization that prepares and delivers great history workshops in schools around the UK. Find out more about their World War One: A Soldier’s Life workshop here: http://www.wickedworkshops.co.uk/#/world-war-1/4574301563.