During World War I, the majority of horses and mules in Britain were used to aid the war effort. In total, 1.2 million horses were conscripted and sent to Western Front. Many farmers and traders had to find alternative beasts of burden, but none more exotic than elephants.
The elephants were used for multiple things, although primarily they replaced the horses. Their essential tasks were to transport weapons and munitions, as well as various machines. Moreover, elephants could carry much more weight than horses. Circus elephants were recruited to help plow fields, stack hay, and cart munitions, and other supplies around cities.
One of these working elephants was Lizzie. She was used to performing tricks as part of a traveling menagerie. But with the outbreak of World War One, she was conscripted to help with heavy labor, fitted with a harness, and sent to work at scrap yards. To ease the possible wear on her feet, Lizzie was outfitted with a type of leather shoe.
The Word’s Fair newspaper chronicled Lizzie’s appearance in February 1916. The article read: “Last week it was seen striding along with ease drawing a load of iron to a munition works. The weight of the load was equal to that usually allotted to three horses. Some passing horses were startled by this unexpected ‘dilution’ of their labor, and sniffed and shied as the elephant passed.”
Additionally, elephants were used for non-combat purposes in the Second World War, particularly because the animals could perform tasks in regions that were problematic for motor vehicles.
Sir William Slim, commander of the XIVth Army wrote about elephants in his introduction to Elephant Bill: “They built hundreds of bridges for us, they helped to build and launch more ships for us than Helen ever did for Greece. Without them, our retreat from Burma would have been even more arduous and our advance to its liberation slower and more difficult.”
While the usage of elephants during the First and Second World War is not heavily documented, there is sufficient data that lets researchers see how and where they were used. However, there’s no exacting estimate regarding the number of elephants that were killed aiding the war effort.
(Photo credit: Library of Congress / Bundesarchiv / Imperial War Museum / Pierre Jahan / Roger Viollet / Corbis / Getty Images).