Elephants In Battlefields

Book Excerpts

Aug 09, 2015, 04:37 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 09:56 AM IST

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Indian Generals and Kings riding out to the battlefields on their elephants may have made for fantastic imagery. But if history is to go by, using elephants as the royal mounts seems to have been a bad idea. An excerpt from Solistice at Panipat, a book on the Third Battle of Panipat.

The sun was at the zenith on the cold winter day. Maratha fortunes in the battle, as they threatened to break through the Afghan army, were also at the zenith. The Marathas facing south looked straight into the sun; some commentators have pointed this as a disadvantage. Yet Abdali, at the rear of his army, was already planning a fight back to push back the ‘bare-backed’ Deccanis. His efforts began to bear fruit as the number of Afghans reappearing on the front began to swell and the tide of the battle that seemed to be going the Maratha way began to pull the other way.

Between noon and one in the afternoon the battle was grim in the Centre and the Left of the Marathas. The Maratha Right, on the other hand, was still four miles from the armies of Shah Pasand Khan and Najib Khan opposite them. Jankoji and Tujoki Scindia did rush with some of their troops to the aid of Bhau; however, there is no mention of Holkar’s veteran troops participating in the battle.

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As the vigorous Maratha attack began to flag and the expected complete breakthrough in the enemy ranks did not come in the first four hours of intense pitched battle, the Afghan king pushed in ten thousand fresh troops in the Centre and four thousand on his Right wing to support the Rohillas. After one in the afternoon the tiring Marathas began to be overwhelmed by this fresh onslaught, just when they began to believe they had the battle wrapped up by their furious attack. Vishwas Rao and Bhau were close to each other and fighting along with their troops as against Abdali who had stayed behind the action and was directing the moves of his army.

The battle was now intense. From muskets, to spears, to swords and daggers and then bare hands, no army was prepared to give way to the other. Then, sometime before three in the afternoon, a bullet struck Vishwas Rao in his chest as he battled the Afghans from his horse and he died instantly. Bhau, who was close, saw his nephew dead and was struck with grief. He had Vishwas Rao’s body moved atop an elephant.

Saddened beyond measure, Bhau moved from his elephant onto his horse and plunged into battle with his army. The news of Vishwas Rao’s death spread like wildfire in the Maratha army and caused immense damage to their cause. A panic set in and Marathas began to flee.

The Mirat e Ahmedi, written eight months after Panipat says, ‘Vishwas Rao, when seated on an elephant was killed by a musket bullet. On hearing of it the Bhau got down from his own elephant, took a horse, and with Jankoji came to the battlefield to supervise the fight. When the Maratha army saw this (the empty howdah of the elephant), they at once broke up in confusion. The Muslims gave chase and mixed up pell-mell with the fugitives’.

Shamlu, the chronicler in Abdali’s camp writes, ‘At length, by Ahmed Sultan’s good fortune, one zamburak ball struck Vishwas Rao on the forehead and another hit Bhau on the side’. Bhau has been reported as fighting from his horse in the battle. However there are also references to his horse and plenty of discussions on how this affected the morale of the troops.

Irwine says,’The object of mounting the general or commander on an elephant was that he might be seen from a distance by all the troops. For those days battles were nearly always decided by the fate of the leader. If he was killed or disappeared, the army gave up the contest and in a very short space of time melted away together’.

‘The most decisive point of a battle was, however, the death or disappearance of the leader. If he was known to have been killed, or could not be seen on his elephant, the troops desisted at once and the greater part forthwith sought their own safety in flight. In order to be conspicuous, the leader rode on an elephant, preceded by the others bearing displayed standards’. ‘Nothing was more common than for a whole army to turn its back the moment they perceived the general’s seat empty’.

In like manner, in response to Jangbaz Khan bringing elephant palanquins from his expedition to Meerut, Abdali himself at Mathura in 1757 remarked, ‘The Shah said, elephants were admirable means of baggage transport. But as a mount, the control of which is not in the hands of the rider, and it can carry him whither it wills, should not be resorted to; while a litter (palanquin) is only suitable for a sick man’.

Nadir Shah wondered at this Indian habit of mounting the General on an elephant;

“What strange practice is this that the rulers of Hind have adopted? In the day of battle they ride on an elephant, and make themselves into a target for everybody!”

The Seir e mutakhenin adds, ‘But Europeans have these forty years past (1745-1785) gained many a battle by only pointing a four-pounder at the main elephant. Indian Generals have abandoned the custom and now appear on horseback, nay have learned to discipline their troops and to have an artillery well served’. The troops were very easily subject to panic and sudden fight; so much so that the fact was summed up in the proverb ‘one soldier makes off, and a whole army is done for’.

Strange as it may be, the second battle of Panipat in 1556 between Akbar’s army and the newly crowned Hemu, who was earlier the General of the last Afghan king of Delhi, was also decided by the accident of an arrow striking Hemu. Hemu, titled Vikramaditya, had lost his artillery before the battle but had an army with fifteen hundred elephants!

Vincent Smith gives the following account,

‘Each army was drawn up in three divisions. On November 5 Hemu succeeded in throwing both the right and the left wings of his opponents into confusion and sought to make his victory decisive by bringing all his mountain-like elephants to bear on the centre of the enemy, commanded by Khan Zaman. Probably he would have won but for the accident that he was struck in the eye by an arrow which pierced his brain and rendered him unconscious. An Indian army never could survive the loss of its leader, on whose life its pay depended. Hemu’s soldiers at once scattered in various directions and made no further attempt at resistance.’

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