War elephants vs Horse archers

Feb 2017
69
USA
#1
Whilst reading some other threads about Indian empires, I came across the assertion that armies centered around horse archers are qualitatively superior to those centered around elephants.

Do you believe so and why?

Wouldn't elephant archers supported by light cavalry and infantry longbowmen be more than a match for Kushan/Scythian/Parthian type armies?

In melee combat, elephants should trump horses and in ranged combat the former should have an advantage as well. So what gives?
 
Jul 2013
61
NW Indiana
#2
I would think that horse archers would be far more maneuverable and could cover longer distances than war elephants. Horse archers could just ride circles around war elephants.
 

Lowell2

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
6,541
California
#3
for all their size and strength, elephants aren't all that hard to kill and aren't all that much into charging something. Horses will balk at going right into spears, but they do continue on even after being wounded in many cases. Elephants, if one accepts how Alexander, the Romans and others dealt with them, not so much. Size and strength aren't everything. Rome deployed many anti-elephant devices and anti-elephant chariots. They famously mastered anti-elephant tactics in the Battle of Zama at the end of the 2nd Punic War. The Battle of Zama

here's an unusual article about how elephants were dealt with using horses with fake elephant noses.
The Indian horses bred to fight elephants | CNN Travel
The Rajputs cleverly exploited the enemy's weak point to get close in battle by fashioning false trunks for their horses, making them appear to be baby elephants which the adult animals instinctively would not attack.
An elephant can provide a largish platform for archers, but it isn't as mobile as the equivalent number on horseback -- and if you bring the elephant down, you eliminate all the archers whereas you have to go after each one if they are on horseback, making it harder to eliminate the archers.
 
Sep 2012
1,067
Tarkington, Texas
#4
An elephant can carry a lot more arrows than a Horse Archer. The Horse Archer can run faster and further than an elephant. Horse Archers are famous for false retreats and turning on the people chasing them when they lose cohesion. Horse Archers normally carry extra arrows with the baggage train.

Elephants can be combated by shooting the Mahout. They are then smart enough to go away from the noise and confusion.

Pruitt
 
Jan 2015
2,946
MD, USA
#5
How many archers can an elephant carry? Two? But an elephant eats, what, at least 6 or 7 times as much food as a horse?

Putting one horse out of action takes out one archer. Putting one elephant out of action takes out his whole crew. And even in action, one of those men is the driver, who has no weapon (well, besides the elephant!).

Looking at it logistically, regular horse cavalry or horse archers is the easy choice.

Matthew
 
Feb 2017
69
USA
#6
Some valid points for sure but at least in India, elephants were never deployed without infantry support.

Elephants can be taken out and there are many, many ways to do it. History has shown us this fact repeatedly and of course, Indians fighting other Indians would HAVE to figure out a way to kill the opposing side's elephants.

However, my original question was wrt horse archers. I just feel that at some point, horse archers would have to get in range to engage the elephants and this is where their troubles would start. Both infantry archers AND elephant archers would outrange an archer sitting on a horse, right? And as far as I can tell, India back in the day fielded huge quantities of longbow wielding archers.

Even if you outmaneuver an elephant based army, you would still have to get in range to hit them.. right?

*EDIT* Horse archers are much more economical and mobile than elephants. That's for sure.
 
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Jan 2016
1,637
India
#7
One should not look at this question simply from a tactical or grand tactical point of view but also make strategical and logistical comparisons.

The raising of elephant units posed challenges that are hard to surmount. First, there needs to be a vast area of forested land with lowland and swamps under state control that could be reserved for elephant breeding. Such reserved forested regions have a competitive relationship with agriculture, and it needs to be made sure that such areas remain secluded from the settled society, and the elephants remain at a safe distance from cultivated fields. In north India, with the expansion of agriculture, such forested areas started becoming extremely rare and elephant breeding was mainly restricted to the jungles of eastern India and southeast Asia, by the later mediaeval period. A lot of other resources also needed to be put in, in order to tame a wild elephant and make it suitable for warfare, making the overall process extremely expensive. Such logistical drawbacks of elephant breeding make it a task of exceptional difficulty to raise even 1,000 elephants for any state. On the other hand, even with limited amount of grazing grounds a significant cavalry force could still be raised. We know that by late 15th century, the kingdom of Mewar, which controlled very limited grazing grounds in southern Mewar and around Rajsamand district, could maintain at least 12,000 or so horse ready for battle and could levy more if need came. I am not citing the examples of other Indian kingdoms with even stronger cavalry such as Vijayanagar, Bahmanids and Malwa, because a vast amount of their horses consisted of imported ones from Turan, Iran, Iraq etc.

Even if a state manages to maintain vast forests for elephant breeding and taming, mobilising these elephants at the time of war remains a task of exceptional difficulty. A cavalry army could strike, be victorious and retreat by the time elephants are mobilised out of the forest in the field; and to arrange those beasts in an ordered battle line is another considerable challenge. Such strategic limitations of elephants make them almost useless for offensive warfare, except when they are used as live battering rams while besieging a fortification or breaking through static enemy lines.

However, the elephants can be good for defence and form an extremely strong static wall especially when supported by infantry and armoured with mail and spikes (as they usually were in India), but they are prone to panic and often were scared off into fleeing, trampling their own lines as a result. However, if trained properly and of superior breed, elephants can effectively scare off or crush cavalry strong armies as in case of battle near Mount Abu where the Solanki king of Gujarat routed a cavalry army of the Ghurids. Also, the 14th century historian Barani wrote that a single trained elephant supported by 500 infantry can scare off 6,000 armoured horse. But being a highly immobile unit, the elephants were best used to mount howdahs which made them a mobile fortress from where archers could shower arrows on enemy units. However, the elephants and their howdahs were themselves very prone to enemy missile fire, and at multiple occasions, the whole lines of elephants were routed by concentrated volleys of horse archer or foot archer fire. One example is that of the second battle of Tarain (1192), where the Chahman elephants were dismounted and utterly routed by 10,000 mounted horse archers. However, the Chahmans could field a very small number of elephants such that they could hardly have made much of a difference on their own, so I think it is unreasonable to trust Islamic accounts on this.

Used offensively, the elephants could trample enemy infantry, wreak havoc on enemy morale and sometimes even sent horses flying. But they are not manoeuvrable and thus could be tackled by using skirmishers or light missile infantry. In open battles, they were always outmanoeuvred by mobile cavalry armies, which was a major factor behind continuous catastrophic defeats of Hindu armies. Hindu rulers over-relied on their elephants and were defeated at almost all occasions by Ghurids and Ghaznavids, except a handful of instances, such as at Thanesar or Mount Abu or during early Bengal-Orissa conflicts in 13th century, where the ruler of Orissa managed to not only rout Bengal army but also lay siege to the capital city of Bengal, Lakhnauti, itself, etc. Similarly, elephants were especially popular to be used as live battering rams to force open the gates of castles and other fortifications.

Amongst pre-Islamic Hindu armies, unlike Iran and western Europe, there was not really any heavy cavalry arm as such, and the whole of cavalry was predominantly lancer cavalry. The role of shock troops was entirely left to the elephants, and at this, they often did an excellent job. As far as I know, they were used in such a manner particularly during the Chola-Chalukyan wars. But in any case, the most popular role of elephants, in India, was to be used as mobile fortresses unassailable by foot soldiers and mounted by many bows, spears and javelins.

Coming to horse archers, they were especially popular for their extremely high manoeuvrability and mobility, but by themselves, they were hardly decisive. The primary arm of both the Mongol and Turkish nomadic armies was the heavy shock cavalry. At least one-sixth of the Turkish armies that invaded India were composed of shock cavalry that, almost always, played the decisive role in a battle. Horse archers could be easily tackled by using fortified and entrenched positions from where to rain showers of arrow upon them. During ancient times, on multiple occasions, Parthian horse archers were successfully tackled by the Romans by using slingers and bowmen in protected and entrenched positions. In the case of India, however, foot archers did not prove to be very successful against horse archers due to the inferiority of Indian bow which often could not even penetrate the Turkish armour; the Turkish composite bows were certainly of far superior penetrative ability.

How many archers can an elephant carry? Two? But an elephant eats, what, at least 6 or 7 times as much food as a horse?
In India, the elephants were usually mounted by around 5-6 men but sometimes they could be as many as 12-13.

Indian elephants, on an average, consume around 350 lbs per day of vegetation while an average horse can live on just around 15 lbs.
 
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Jan 2016
1,637
India
#8
Wouldn't elephant archers supported by light cavalry and infantry longbowmen be more than a match for Kushan/Scythian/Parthian type armies?
Actually, neither Kushan nor Scythian armies depended on horse archers as their primary arm. They were always assigned a secondary role to the heavily armoured catapharactii, which was a shock cavalry unit. The impressive metallurgical achievements of the Scythian people had made it possible to produce strong armour on such a scale as to field tens of thousands of these formidable horsemen, while horse archers were highly ineffective without any stirrups.
 
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Feb 2017
425
Minneapolis
#9
Actually, neither Kushan nor Scythian armies depended on horse archers as their primary arm. They were always assigned a secondary role to the heavily armoured catapharactii, which was a shock cavalry unit. The impressive metallurgical achievements of the Scythian people had made it possible to produce strong armour on such a scale as to field tens of thousands of these formidable horsemen, while horse archers were highly ineffective without any stirrups.
This characterization doesn't seem quite right to me. The literature I've been reading lately, indicates Scythian archers could be highly effective though maybe not so much against heavily armored troops.

Shock cavalry would seem to me to be much less effective than archers without stirrups and built-up saddles. Without those things, you're attack would have to be less of a charge and more of a wading into battle.
 
Feb 2017
69
USA
#10
Coming to horse archers, they were especially popular for their extremely high manoeuvrability and mobility, but by themselves, they were hardly decisive. The primary arm of both the Mongol and Turkish nomadic armies was the heavy shock cavalry. At least one-sixth of the Turkish armies that invaded India were composed of shock cavalry that, almost always, played the decisive role in a battle. Horse archers could be easily tackled by using fortified and entrenched positions from where to rain showers of arrow upon them. During ancient times, on multiple occasions, Parthian horse archers were successfully tackled by the Romans by using slingers and bowmen in protected and entrenched positions. In the case of India, however, foot archers did not prove to be very successful against horse archers due to the inferiority of Indian bow which often could not even penetrate the Turkish armour; the Turkish composite bows were certainly of far superior penetrative ability.
Really good post. One question though: The Greeks explicitly record the Indian longbow as being an extremely powerful weapon capable of piercing any armor. Was the armor of the later Central Asians of a much higher quality than what the Greeks used?
 

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