elephants in war

An elephant from a Belgian zoo is put to work on a Belgian farm during World War I. 1915.

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.

elephants in war

Elephants serving with the German Army, Berlin, 1917.

A German Army elephant in France serving as a pack animal.

elephants in war

A German Army elephant in France moves logs. The harness appears to be for towing an artillery piece just seen on the right.

elephants in war

Nellie in Sheffield moves machinery during the Great War. She was bought from a tarvelling menagerie to replace horses requisitioned into the Army. She delivered coal, munitions to the railway station and collected scrap metal for the steelworks.

elephants in war

Lizzie, from the Sanger Circus ploughs a field during in Sussex. 1916.

elephants in war

Circus elephants (possibly in Germany) plow the fields.

elephants in war

“Baby,” an elephant from the Robert Fosset Circus, is used for plowing in order to cultivate the lands near Towcester, in northern England. 1939.

elephants in war

An elephant from the Amar circus plows a field in occupied France. 1941.

elephants in war

Picture was taken in 1941.

elephants in war

An elephant from the Amar circus plows a field in occupied France. 1941.

elephants in war

elephants in war

elephants in war

An elephant on a British airbase moves a Corsair of the Far East Air Force.

elephants in war

Due to a lack of heavy machinery, Kiri and Many, elephants in the Hamburg zoo were used by the Germans to help clear damage caused by Allied bombing during and after the War. Here they move a wrecked car filled with bricks, previously used as a barricade.

elephants in war

Loading the wrecked car onto a trailer.

elephants in war

An elephant loads a fuel drum onto an American aircraft in India for the trip “Over the Hump” into China.

(Photo credit: Library of Congress / Bundesarchiv / Imperial War Museum / Pierre Jahan / Roger Viollet / Corbis / Getty Images).