### African Journal ofHistory and Culture

• Abbreviation: Afr. J. Hist. Cult.
• Language: English
• ISSN: 2141-6672
• DOI: 10.5897/AJHC
• Start Year: 2009
• Published Articles: 187

## The role of elephants as military pack animals in the Abyssinian Campaign, 1867-1868

##### R. Trevor Wilson
• R. Trevor Wilson
• Bartridge House, Umberleigh, EX 37 9AS, UK.

•  Published: 30 September 2020

ABSTRACT

In late 1867 the British Government authorized a military expedition to effect the release of 59 hostages being held at Magdala by Emperor Tewodros II.  The force consisted of 13,000 soldiers and 40,000 transport and pack animals.  Its formidable task was to travel 650 km and ascend 3,050 m of altitude before it reached its goal. The animals comprised horses, mules, donkeys, bullocks, camels and 44 elephants. The elephants were loaded on ships at Bombay by means of slings.  Loads for the elephants varied in the range 600 to 730 kg for those transporting 12-lb breech loading Armstrong guns and 800 to 840 kg for those carrying 8-inch mortars.  These loads were 12 to 16 times heavier than the normal 55 kg mule load. Tracks had to be cut and levelled before the animals could pass and they struggled to mount the steeper inclines. Only five elephants died during the expedition and 39 returned to Bombay.

Key words: Ethiopia, Eritrea, artillery, mortars, cavalry, infantry, warfare.

INTRODUCTION

Almost 100 years after the event one noted war correspondent and author wrote:

There has never been in modern times a colonial campaign quite like the British expedition to Ethiopia in 1868. It proceeds from first to last with the decorum and heavy inevitability of a Victorian state banquet, complete with ponderous speeches at the end. And yet it was a fearsome undertaking; for hundreds of years the country had never been invaded, and the savage nature of the terrain alone was enough to promote failure (Moorhead, 1964: 264).

Another description of the Expedition states that this was “a hostage rescue in the 19th century conducted by British  forces  that  is  perhaps unparalleled in scope and audacity” (Zoll, 1988).  Yet a third describes a similar situation:

The endeavour of the author of this sketch has been to present to readers a succinct and impartial account of an enterprise which has rarely been equalled in the annals of war. In the Abyssinian campaign the enemies to be feared more than the open foe were natural obstacles and starvation. These were successfully encountered and subdued. The difficulties would have been more apparent, had their reduction been less skilful. The danger and possibility of disaster would have been more manifest had they been less carefully guarded against (Hozier, 1869:v-vi).

The objective of this paper is to describe the part played by elephants in the campaign and examine the problems they met and the ones they caused.

1. The 33rd (Duke of Wellington’s) Regiment of Foot was a conspicuous element of Napier’s army. It is now the 1st Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment whose Battle Honours include “Abyssinia and whose mascot is an Indian elephant.
2. The distance from Zula to Senafe “as the crow flies) is 66 km (41 miles).  There is now no direct road from Zula to Senafe and to reach the latter from the former once must travel north to Massawa, west to Asmara and then south to Senafe, a distance of 273 km (169 miles).  The author of this paper has mixed memories of Senafe as in August 1974 his vehicle was hijacked and burnt by guerillas of the Eritrean Liberation Front struggling for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia.

METHODOLOGY

This paper is largely based on an analysis of the official record of the Expedition published in 1870, two years after the events described herein took place (Holland and Hozier, 1870). Additional contemporary accounts of the campaign together with more recent publications were consulted to complement the main document.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

Elephants in war

There is a considerable body of literature on the use of elephants in war and they have been used by man since the earliest historical times (Lightfoot, 1981; Kistler, 2007).  Ancient Indian texts detail the various methods used for their capture and training, and Indian drivers or mahouts were acknowledged throughout the ancient world as the most expert handlers of the beasts. The first experience by Europeans of their use in warfare occurs during the campaigns of Alexander in the fourth century BCE. In addition to use as cavalry and transport animals, they were important because their huge size, waving trunks, fearsome tusks, trumpeting and smell alarmed both men and cavalry horses (Charles, 2007). The most well-known use of elephants is related to Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps (Glover, 1944). What is perhaps lesser known is that Hannibal took 37 elephants across the Alps but 36 later died (Edwards, 2001).

In the period of the Sasanian Empire (224-651 CE), located in what is now Iran and some surrounding areas, there was extensive use of elephants (Daryaee, 2016: 36-41).  These formidable beasts were used in set piece battles, in siege warfare and for transport of material although they were probably most important in the transport role (Rance, 2003). In battle, elephants were fitted with platforms that formed a stable base for carrying archers whose elevated position provided  an  advantage over foot soldiers or even conventional cavalry (Figure 2) (Farrokh et al., 2018).

The Asian elephant was once widespread in China and occasionally used in battle there.  Many individual animals and some herds were reported from central and southern China in the first ten centuries of the Christian era. When attacked by the maritime state of Wu in 506 BCE the Ch’u commander used elephants with torches tied to their tail to attack the opposing army. In 554 CE two armoured elephants with towers on their backs and driven by Malayan slaves were sent into battle with swords lashed to their trunks.  At a later date elephants used in battle carried ten or more men (Schafer, 1957).

Elephants were used in Africa by Hanno during the Libyan war in 240 BCE when he stormed the fortress of Urtica (Glover, 1944). The “conventional wisdom” is that African elephants cannot be captured and trained but this species has been used at least twice in African warfare.  There is the case of those used by Hanno just cited and they were also used by Ptolemy II of Egypt about 285 BCE (Gowers, 1947).

The elephants in Abyssinia

The first mention of elephants in the campaign’s Official History is in the Preface to Volume I which considered that the different characters of the high and low country would be important in the type of transport animals to be used.  In the low country camels could be used but they would be useless in the highlands and would need to be replaced by donkeys, mules, bullocks, elephants or men (Holland and Hozier, 1870).

Napier expressed concern at a suggestion from higher authority that the number of troops should be reduced as his calculations had brought him to the conclusion that the mission would only be successful with the number he had decided on.  He conceded, however, reductions could be made were some of the field artillery replaced by mountain batteries.  The Viceroy of India was prepared to send a battery, complete in all respects, of light rifled mountain guns.  A similar battery had been requested from England.  He then proposed to use elephants to transport the guns and carriages of a field battery (Holland and Hozier, 1870). It was considered that most of the transport animals, comprising donkeys, mules, oxen and camels, could be obtained in Abyssinia.  Saddles and other harness would need to be taken from India as would sufficient cradles and other equipment required to carry or draw the guns and mortars: wheeled vehicles other than gun carriages and ammunition carts should not be used.  The only animals required from India in addition to cavalry horses would be elephants. At this stage Napier asked, among many other things, that one mortar battery with elephants be sent from India.  It was later decided that one field battery of Armstrong guns accompanied  by  elephant carriage also be sent (Holland  and Hozier, 1870).

In preparation for the use of elephants totals of 263 maunds and 30 seer of coarse rice were shipped from Bombay to Abyssinia between 8 October 1867 and 15 January 1868 to provide food for them for a 2-month period.  The daily allowance of water  for  each  elephant was 40 imperial gallons (181.8 L) and of food: gram 4 lb (1.81 kg), rice or flour 20 lb (9.07 kg), salt 2½ oz (56 g) and hay or kirben 175 lb (79.38 kg) (Holland and Hozier, 1870; Vol. 1, pp. 201, 214)

Transports (that is, ships) for all the constituents of the force and for stores of every description were gathered at Bombay. In order to be able to transport equipment and stores in the initial stages of the expedition and the heavy ordinance for the whole period a total of 44 elephants including both males and females was loaded in Bombay with one mahoot and one cooly attached to each elephant.   It  was  intended  to  embark  the elephants by means of shear legs but this proved impossible so they were hoisted up in slings (Figure 3). On board, the elephants were put in the hold on a temporary floor of stones and shingle arranged back to back with their heads facing the ship's sides. Stall breadths were 6 feet (1.83 m) divided by two cross beams resting on a longitudinal shelf fastened to the ship's side by cleats located along the side (Holland and Hozier, 1870).

On 6 January 1868, 19 elephants inbound from Bombay were landed in good condition at Zula.  Good condition they may have been in but they were not unloaded without considerable difficulty.  It had first been intended to sling them over the side of the ship and then let them swim to the shore but it was realized that it would be difficult to get the slings off in the water.  It was decided to sling them into a barge instead.  This was eventually successful but took time as the elephants were recalcitrant about the slings (having experienced them when lading). According to a report by the Special Correspondent of The Standard (a war correspondent “embedded” in the Expedition) there were further problems at the landing dock when the elephants refused to cross the  landing  platform  until  eventually, and  after having been given time for their own inspection, they crossed sedately onto dry land (Henty, 1868).

Towards the end of January a further 25 elephants were landed. All 44 animals were first employed in transporting stores before the railway became operational from Zula towards Kumayli which was the first way point on the route.  This was only temporary work, however, as they had been sent to Abyssinia with the express purpose of transporting the heavy ordnance comprising four 12-pounder Armstrong guns of G Battery, 14th Brigade, Royal Artillery and two 8-inch mortars manned by a detachment of the 5th Battery, 25th Brigade, Royal Artillery.  The mortars were to be packed on elephants from Zula all the way to Magdala whereas the Armstong guns would be hauled to Antalo and thence packed by elephant.  Four elephants were required for the transport of each gun and its attachments and a further three elephants were needed to carry the carriage wheels or 19 elephants in all (Table 1) (Holland and Hozier, 1870).

It proved impracticable to use shears for loading as the animals would not remain quiet under the fall.  The method used, with the elephant couched, was thus to use a single skid  for  the  gun  and two skids for the carriage with one end resting on the ground and the other on the cradle (that is, the pack saddle).  For the gun the breech-screw was removed and handspikes inserted in the bore at both breech and muzzle, the gun then being lifted along the spar by eight men until it rested in the cradle.  A rope was also attached to the gun trunnions and passed over the cradle to be pulled on the other side by three or four men which also kept the gun steady while the lift men took a new grip.  As the carriage was heavier 12 men were needed for the operation.  The limber was lifted up directly without skids and a single wheel was tied on top.  On the ammunition elephant one box was carried in a sling on each side and a wheel was tied on top of the pad.  On the wheel elephant one wheel was slung on each side and one tied on the top (Holland and Hozier, 1870).

Two elephants were needed to carry each of the two 8-inch mortars and their beds. These weighty machines meant that elephant loads (one for the mortar and one for the bed) were slightly heavier than the ones carried by the Armstrong gun elephants.  The weights of skids, implement boxes, handspikes and other equipment were not known but they were a good load for a single elephant.  Powder was carried on another elephant (four shells were carried on mules).  In total, therefore, six elephants were required to transport the mortars (Table 2) (Holland and Hozier, 1870).

To load the mortars, the elephants were couched, two parallel skids were placed with their upper ends resting on the cradle and their lower ends on the ground, the two being kept parallel by iron stays. These skids had a groove along which the flanged iron trucks of the travelling bed ran.  Tackle that was attached to the travelling bed passed over rollers fixed in the cradle and passed to the opposite side of the animal.  It required four men with handspikes to heave the  mortar  or  bed  up  to the skid when the load was run up into its cradle by hauling on the tackle.  The pad was prevented from moving while loading by a third shorter skid on the hauling side (Figure 4).

The pads were kept in place by passing a rope over them and round under the belly, that is,  not a girth strap as would be the norm for horses.  This arrangement caused serious chafing and the development of galls and sores from the friction created and the long working periods of 12 to 20 hours without relief.  This situation led to the suggestion that in future use in mountainous country the pads should be fitted with breechings and breast-pieces which would more firmly fix the pad and thus prevent the load from slipping backwards on steep inclines (Holland and Hozier, 1870).

The British had taken the precaution of enlisting local chieftains, many of whom were in open conflict with Tewodros, as allies.  The most powerful of these was Dejazmatch Kassai, the ruler of Tigray, whose base was at Adigrat.  Napier halted in Adigrat where he was joined by several military units including G Battery, 14th Brigade, Royal Artillery. At this time the Abyssinians considered that elephants were untameable and refused to believe that they could be subordinated by man.  The elephants’ passage through the country was thus followed by crowds of the local populace goggling in awe at the spectacle.  Two elephants were brought to be shown to Kassai at a meeting that was to be held between Napier  and  Kassai  on  the road from Adigrat to Antalo.  Napier mounted an elephant and had a second follow him as he rode out to meet Kassai, the elephant being used to impress on Kassai the strength and power of the British.  Before the actual meeting, however, Napier got down from the elephant and mounted his horse, “lest the approach of the huge earth-shaking beast should create a panic and cause disaster among the cavalry of Tigré” (Holland and Hozier, 1870).  Probably in order to titivate the British public one war correspondent described Napier as sitting on a “large elephant decked in holiday ribbons and trappings followed by another and his staff and a select body of cavalry” (Stanley, 1874).

If two elephants had caused a sensation when Napier met Kassai the local people were in for another shock. This was the arrival of the Armstrong guns and their passage from Senafe to Adigrat.  A sensation, second only to that caused by the elephants, was created by the arrival of the battery of Armstrong guns.  It had been thought doubtful as to whether it would be possible to get guns, at this stage hauled by horses and pushed by men, over the very difficult road between Senafe and Adigrat.  The gunners did achieve the task but only with considerable difficulty (Holland and Hozier, 1870).  In the meantime  the  two  8-inch  mortars  were  ordered  to  go forward, escorted by a couple of units of Indian troops, and left Senafe on 29 February together with 40 elephants (Holland and Hozier, 1870).
With most of the force and transport animals at Antalo, preparations began in earnest for the assault on Magdala.  The Pioneer Force was sent two days ahead to improve the tracks and make them passable by the elephants.  The 8-inch mortars and the elephants for the Armstrong Battery, escorted by Indian troops arrived at Antalo on 11 March: they had with them 50,000 dollars for various expected purchases (Holland and Hozier, 1870).

By the evening of 14 March the road had been cleared sufficiently to allow orders to be sent back to Antalo that the Armstrong Battery of Artillery now loaded on the elephants should move up to the front.  Ashangi was reached in the evening of 23 March without accident to the men or damage to the guns after nine days of trek and forced marches from as early as 7.30 a.m. to 11.00 p.m.  In addition to the elephants 154 mules were need to carry rations for 30 days and spare ammunition for the gun and mortar crews (Holland and Hozier, 1870).

One of the newspaper correspondents wrote that the elephants, fed 35 lb (15.9 kg) of bread and 40 lb (18.1 kg) of straw or coarse hay, toiled labouriously on the steep hills (Figure 5).  An ascent of 1500 feet (457 m) had them puffing and trumpeting that were eloquent of their suffering. On moderate roads, however, they carried their 1800 lb (816 kg) with ease and made excellent time.  Some of the older elephants “were a great deal larger than the renowned Hannibal of Barnum” but most were comparatively  young and  were  less  subject  to  fatigue than their seniors (Sanley, 1874).

Theodore and his commanders attempted a stalwart defence of his citadel and tried to make use of his own enormous canon. When defeat became inevitable Kassai himself refused to surrender and committed suicide.  The British army hacked and mutilated the Abyssinians and burned their houses. Abyssinian treasures including precious and unique manuscripts and religious icons were looted.  Looting was part of the culture at the time and loot was usually auctioned and the moneys shared amongst the troops, officers and other ranks (Pankhurst, 1985).  The spoils were first transported on 15 elephants and almost two hundred mules to a nearby Dalanta Plain.  One of the principal buyers at the 2-day auction was the British Museum whose representative had enough money to outbid most of the opposition (Stanley, 1874).

The elephants and heavier ordnance were ordered to return north and commenced their journey on 21 April.  Shortly after the fall of Magdala two elephants had died from exhaustion as they had been deprived of their proper forage and were often short of water: one of these was disposed of by throwing its carcass down the  ravine.

Three others died at Bulago about 150 miles (241 km) north of Magdala. The return march from Magdala ”was a work of no slight difficulty”.

The work of loading the elephants onto the ships for the return journey to India appears to have been simpler than the arrangements at their arrival in Abyssinia.  Large iron barges were used that were admirably adapted for the job: these would hold any of 300 men, 120 mules, 60 Cavalry men and their horses and eight to ten elephants.  G Battery, 14 Brigade Royal Artillery with six European Officers, 48 European troops, 120 followers, seven horses and 77 mules left Zula for Bombay on 28 May.  A total of 17 elephants were loaded on the sailing vessel Compta with 22 loaded on the sailing vessel Hahneman: both ships left Zula on 31 May, bound for Bombay, each with one European Officer in charge and supporting, mainly Indian, troops (Holland and Hozier, 1870; Vol. 2, pp. 108-111).

3The guns eventually used were breech loading rifled “Armstrongs manufactured for a 12-lb shot although other Armstrongs fired shot from as little as 9 lb to as much as 110 lb.
4A maund was a unit of mass in India which generally comprised 40 seer. Although the actual mass of a maund varied across the country the maund in this case was probably the standard Bombay one of 82.28 lb (37. 32 kg) with a seer weighing 2.057 lb (0.93 kg).  Introductory Notes to the Imperial Gazetteer of India, Vol. 2, p. vii. https://dsal.uchicago.edu/reference/gazetteer/pager.html?objectid=DS405.1.I34_V02_007.gifith (accessed 28 July 2020). The total weight of rice thus transported was 9,943 kg.
5Dejazmatch was an Abyssinian military title for the commander of the central body of a traditional Ethiopian armed force composed of a vanguard, main body, left and right wings and a rear body and equivalent in some respects to a European “Count” or “Earl” in British usage. Dejazmatch Kassai was issue of several ruling families in Tigray and was in revolt against Emperor Tewodros II in 1864-1867. On the death of Tewodros he united all the Provinces of Ethiopia and was crowned King of Kings Emperor Yohannes IV.
6Henry Morton Stanley (the “man who presumed” whe he met David Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tamganyika was a Special Correspondent of the New York Herald and one of several journalists of well known newspapers accredited to the Expedition.
7The “dollar” here referred to was the Maria Theresa dollar or thaler.  This was the only monetary medium trusted (and even then not always) by the Abyssinians at the time.  It is difficult to assign an accurate value to it.  The expedition did buy, however, this silver coinage at a rate of 2.18 Indian rupees to the dollar, see Holland and Hozier (1870); Vol 1, p. 146.  There were approximately 4 rupees to the pound sterling (£) (Indian Rupee, https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Indian_rupee) so 50,000 dollars would have a value of £27,250: in 2020 numbers this would be equivalent to £3,101,713.16 (US$3,897,674.79) on 19 July 2020. A thaler weighed about 28 g and according to Richard Pankhurst (1968) An Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935. Addis Ababa, Haile Sellassie I University Press a load for a mule would be not more than 2000 pieces which would .be about 56 kg for each of the 25 mules required to carry the money. 8Markham was an Assistant in the India Office in London who was attached to the Expedition in the Scientific Department as Geographer. He was one of several people who were of or travelled with the Expedition to “cash in” on his experiences. There are very few references to elephants in his book and these have obviously all been taken from the official account. 9Much of the loot is still to be found in many European museums in spite of many Ethiopian requests for its return. The remains of Prince Alemayehu, a son of Theodore who was taken to Britain after the battle and who died in 1879, are still buried at Windsor Castle in spite of multiple requests that they be returned to Ethiopia. CONCLUSIONS Elephants carried the entire mortar battery from Zula to Magdala and the Armstrong guns with their carriages, limbers, ammunition and other bits of equipment from Antalo to Magdala, and doing the same on the return journey, over extremely difficult and mountainous country. Providing them with suitable forage was no easy matter and the difficulty of obtaining water for them, especially at Magdala, certainly contributed to the loss of the five animals that died. It was said that they “did their work well in carrying, as they did, loads varying from 8 to 16 cwt (406 to 812 kg) each and without them it would have been impossible to have taken the heavy guns and mortars to Magdala, unless very considerable delay had taken place in making roads fit for wheel carriage” (Holland and Hozier, 1870). At the conclusion of operations the Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Napier wrote a series of despatches to the Secretary of State for India. In Despatch No. 6 dated 1 June 8 he wrote: Elephants have frequently been employed for the transport of artillery in Indian warfare, but it has been generally by means of draught; when guns have been carried, it has only been for short distances. It has been the privilege of this campaign to prove that elephants could carry Armstrong 12-pounder guns and 8-inch mortars over steep mountains for many hundreds of miles. There were 42 elephants employed in the conveyance of ordnance and ammunition, and of these five have been lost from hard work and want of water during the operations before Magdala (Holland and Hozier, 1870). The achievements of the elephants can probably be described as magnificent. It needs to be remembered, however, that there were only 44 of them and they did not all reach Magdala. In contrast, the Expedition’s Transport Train on the day that Magdala was captured numbered 7,365 camels, 11,155 mules, 1,708 ponies, 6,922 pack bullocks, 901 draught bullocks, 784 donkeys 305 mule carts, and 345 bullock carts (Holland and Hozier, 1870). The contribution of the elephants to the overall transport operations was thus extremely small. In addition, what should have been their major contribution, landing artillery shells and mortar bombs on the Magdala fortress, did not materialise as neither guns nor mortars could get close enough to the intended target to achieve that goal. As Napier indicated, the expedition had proved that elephants could be used to carry heavy loads over long distances over extended time periods. The main outcome, however, may have been the impression they created in the local populations that the Invading force was something to be feared not only because of its size and organization but also because it was using some kind of magic that allowed it to have power over elephants and bend these formidable creatures to its will. Postscript The Abyssinian Expedition has received approbation from many and varied sources since it was mounted more than 150 years ago. It is regarded as a military operation that was well planned, well organized, well executed, integrated various arms of the military and that achieved its objectives with a minimum loss of human life on the British side (Bates, 1979). The Expedition has been described as “an enormous undertaking, in size, in duration, and in financial cost. Essentially a hostage rescue operation, it is one of the classic examples of combined expeditionary warfare” (Ashcroft, 2001). It has also been depicted as “one of the most expensive affairs of honour in history” (Marcus, 1995). With regard to its cost a best estimate of the expense is eight million pounds sterling at 1868 prices. This is roughly equivalent to £ 910,594,688.60 or US$ 1,172,030,976.67 in 2020 values. All 59 hostages (a baby was born the next day to make the total 60) were released on 12 and 13 April 1868 and were transported out of the country although several returned there at a later date.  The unit cost of rescuing a hostage, not necessarily for the sole benefit of the one person but for the pride of the British Empire, was thus £ 15,433,808 (US\$ 19,864,931).

10Note the error in this Despatch where Napier states there were 42 elephants whereas 44 was the actual number.
11https://www.in2013dollars.com/uk/inflation/1868?amount=8000000

CONFLICT OF INTERESTS

The author has not declared any conflict of interests.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

The author is deeply indebted to the two anonymous rewiewers who made constructive comments and suggestions for the improvement of the manuscript.

REFERENCES

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