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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag May 9, 2018

War Elephants and Early Tanks: A Transepochal Comparison of Ancient and Modern Warfare

Alaric Searle


Although scholars have in the past dismissed the claim that war elephants were the »tanks of the ancient world«, a closer examination of the similarities between the two weapons reveals some remarkable parallels. In fact, a comparison shows that many of the counter-measures in anti-elephant warfare in antiquity had parallels in anti-tank warfare in the Great War. More importantly, the upward spiral of increased weapon power, followed by defensive countermeasures, then an increase in the protective armour added to the »weapons system«, is a process which can be observed in the evolution of both war elephants and early tanks. The comparison raises questions about the dominant narrative in the history of the tank, largely instigated by J. F. C. Fuller, namely, that its invention represented a revolution in the history of warfare since it spelled the transition from animal and human muscular power to machine power. This article seeks to explain why Fuller always avoided drawing comparisons between war elephants and tanks; and, it argues that specific types of military phenomena can be identified which recur in different historical epochs.


The author would like to acknowledge the support provided by the Tianjin 1,000 Foreign Experts Programme and the College of History, Nankai University, PR China, which made possible his appointment as Distinguished Visiting Professor at Nankai. In particular, the College of History afforded him the opportunity to deliver a lecture on war elephants and early tanks in April 2017, as well as providing a scholarly environment in which he could complete this article. He also wishes to thank Prof Peter Wilson, Chichele Professor of the History of War, for an invitation to present an earlier version of this paper to the History of War Seminar, All Souls College, Oxford, in November 2016, and Dr Matthew Offord, Sana Rahim, Dr Christian Stachelbeck and Zhang Yi for bringing useful source material to his attention.

Published Online: 2018-05-09
Published in Print: 2018-04-30

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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