Saturday 10 January 2015

The Twelve Man Elephant

Now, I am sure you would agree that I am not one to grumble. I am, as I may have mentioned a few times, slowly getting to the end of painting Classical Indians. You know, the chaps who fought Alexander to more or less a standstill, so he took to floating down rivers rather than annihilating everyone on sight.

The thing that I have struggled with is, as I may have also mentioned (I am sure I was not grumbling), are the chariots. Now, I have nothing against the odd chariot, except that they are somewhat fiddly wargame models with lots of bits, but superglue and tweezers can help with that. Nor am I moaning about the large quantity of horses to Indian chariots. After all, the Romans raced four horse chariots, and the fact that I can only fit one model and its horses onto a base has, in fact, just doubled the number of chariot bases available for the army.

No, the thing that does slightly perplex me is the number of figures on the chariot. I am sure this is not the manufactures fault, but a wargame tradition. The thing is, for a four man chariot, you get for men on the chariot.

Now, I am fairly sure that the response from the majority of the world is ‘so what?’ but I will attempt to explain. A fighting man in close order takes up a width of three feet, or thereabouts. At least, I think that is what the manuals say, at a minimum. I believe that using ranged weapons needs a bit more room. Now four men at a minimum of three feet each is, if I am not far mistaken, twelve feet.  And then you would need a bit more for the wheels, hubs, body of the chariot and so on. But let me suggest that the width of the chariot is, at a minimum, twelve feet.

Now, I don’t know about you, and I am willing to sit corrected, but that seems a little wide for a chariot. For one thing, the manoeuvrability of the vehicle would be a little unwieldy. For another, the weight of it would cause some problems surely. It would not take much for our four man crew to start to feel a bit of a sinking feeling. Furthermore, have a look at the nearest twelve foot wide piece of real estate you can see. How flat is it? What are the chances that, when proceeding at speed across it, a twelve foot wide vehicle will ground on something, even if the wheels are, say, eighteen inches above the ground.

I know that the sources say ‘four man chariot’, but do we really think that is what they mean? After all, one of King David’s sons is reported as having fifty chariot runners, but only the Prince and his driver were in the vehicle itself.

I have a similar sort of issue with some Burmese elephants that I have. They are, so far as I can judge, nice models of elephants. But I do question the twelve man crew. They are all sitting on, or dangling off, the elephant. Now I now that elephants are large animals and capable of carrying great burdens. But when you look at it from the elephant’s point of view: people dangling off me are, simply, going to annoy me, and they will impair my ability to move. I suppose the only advantage I might have is that they will get hit by the arrows first, so they might form a sort of ablative armour coating, but that is probably offset by mobility problems.

I have, of course, no evidence that these things are wrong, specifically. But they do seem a little unlikely, even if such a thing as a four man chariot or a twelve crew elephant are mentioned in the literature, or even depicted in art. The practicalities mentioned must make them less than useful weapon platforms in those forms.

What I suspect is going on is another instance of a bit of wargamer’s naivety with texts (where, in this case, text includes art). A twelve man elephant is an elephant with twelve crew. I think we can grant that. What that does not necessarily mean is that all twelve men crewed the elephant, in any direct sort of sense, such as riding upon it into battle. It is more likely, it seems to me, that there were, perhaps, four men actually riding the elephant, providing missile fire, a good view of events and the possibility of their steed treading on some enemies. The rest were probably deployed as light infantry to see off other skirmishers and to increase the harassing fire from their colleagues.

And my guess is that the same sort of thing applies to the chariots. All four men fighting at the same time seems a tad unlikely. Two or three on the chariot and the rest on foot seems much more reasonable (and seems to be how the Celts did it anyway). Most manufacturers, after all, do give skirmish foot figures for the six man Indian chariot. An eighteen feet wide vehicle does seem innately unlikely.

So we seem, here, to be a bit in the wargame myth world. I might find, of course, that I am inundated with evidence of elephants going into battle carrying battalions of Sepoys, or of chariots carrying a dozen men, but somehow I doubt it. I suspect that this is an instance of an understandable but distinct misreading of the text.

On the other hand, a four man chariot, or a twelve man elephant is probably what we, as wargamers expect. We cannot, in that case, simply blame the manufacturers for producing what we demand. I shall, of course, finish painting my chariots, and enjoy deploying them against to dastardly Macedonians. My Burmese elephants are currently pensioned off in the cupboard, but even they might, um, ride again, as it were.

But I think I shall have to admit that they are real beasts with mythical numbers of riders.


  1. Marvellous stuff!
    You've really piqued my interest in chariot warfare and I thought I'd look into it a bit further.

    First thing is, there are no contemporary illustrations of Indian chariots, only literary descriptions, and most scholars seem to interpret the typical Vedic chariot as a two man job not unlike the Egyptian version.

    Slightly later illustrations are usually in a religious context (chariots of the gods) and both the axle and the wheel are heaped with Hindu symbolism. Hindu temples are often carved all over with wheels, etc.
    There is a Hindu text, the Sulbasutras, which actually tells us the size of a chariot, equating it to the dimensions of an altar; pole, axle and yoke are 188, 106 and 86 anguli respectively. Shame there's controversy over the size of an anguli, but best estimates make the axle somewhere between 5'6" and 6'6" - a bit crowded for four blokes.
    Mind you, they'd need all that crew to lift it up when it got bogged down with all that weight.

    In Porus' day, the chariots were a sort of elite corps and it spelt disaster if they were lost/captured. There is all the usual stuff about them crushing the enemy underfoot, but actual examples seem to be

    Anyway, a suggestion - what if the bulk of Porus' chariot corps were the two-man type, but there was a core of the big boys acting as something between a wagonburg and the sacred standard of St Cuthbert? That is, they'd laager up with all those attendants to defend them and act as a rallying point come HQ for their lighter brethren, who actually approach the enemy?

    I discovered all sorts of interesting info - all secondary, of course, as my Sanskrit is a bit rusty - but let me know if you want any details. And thanks for inspiring me to look!

    1. Now, there is a thought. I've always fancied a go at Hussites, you know; maybe the Indians can deputize.

      I think I'm coming up against the central issue of most ancients wargaming (and, indeed, probably most wargaming): we have no real idea how some of the stuff was used and whether it had any effect.

      I'm starting to suspect that most ancient battles were quite slow, leisurely affairs, with lots of ambling about, waving weapons and shouting 'grrr', but not much else in the way of action.

  2. I imagine the 12 man elephants to be like the pictures of WWII tanks carrying tank riders with the foot sloggers hanging on anywhere, anyway they can to save their feet and keep up. At first sign of trouble though, their off and fighting on foot leaving the real crew inside the tank (or howda).

    The Assyrians were also credited with some large heavily armed chariots. I can only speculate but if they did exist I don't see a real problem apart from the waste of resources. 36" was a very loose formation for infantry that allowed individual fencing. Spearmen would be tucked in much tighter and I'm not sure there was a need for archers to be any looser than later musket infantry who could be as tight as 12" however, I doubt that they all manned the front rail. I picture one guys as driver with a shield bearer to protect him and be 1st alternate if someone shot the driver. That would leave 2 fighting crew, one on either side probably with bows or javelins. If they stood more or less behind the driver and to the side the chariot would not need to be unreasonably wide, no more so than a wagon.

    In that case I their main task might have been was local point defence of the horses but they would also have been capable of shooting ahead from a stationary chariot (shoot and scoot). In a melee they could either fight from the platform or jump off when needed.

    All pure speculation of course.

    1. I suspect that you are correct in the case of an elephant with twelve men, although if I were the elephant I'd put in for increased bun rations as a result.

      Could musketeers really be at a 12 inch close order? I mean, I'm fairly slim (I like to think) but I'm wider than a foot. I seem to recall that the tightest 17th Century spacing was 18 inches, which was for pike receiving a charge. Did things close up later, or was it a consequence of the wider distribution of soap?

      i suppose the puzzle remains as to why these things were the elite bits of the armies. possibly it was just the guys with the most money...

    2. Oops typo, 22" , a drill book average it was actually shoulder touching shoulder. I've done it on a parade square inc s feu de joie but never in combat or with a flintlock. It would take a lot of drill to do it well. Matchlocks would need more and expect most archers and any non drilled troops would like more.

      It would be interesting to know if any re enactors have tried massed archery in close order.

    3. I hoped that something of the sort would be the case.

      I've not seen massed archery, but even slightly massed matchlock fire is sporadic from re-enactors. Possibly insufficient drill is to blame, but also the time the match takes to burn and the variable ignition in the pan are factors. which raises interesting questions about early volley fire.

  3. The four Indian chariot crew were supposed to be driver, warrior and two archers. Any more blokes than that were javelinmen, to stop anyone climbing aboard the thing, which it strikes me would be hard to do if it was moving anyway.
    (I cringed a bit at the thought of an archers shooting over the driver's head from behind with the chariot moving at any speed - perhaps they stood on a box.)

    1. Scary idea: 'could you just duck right? I need to shoot that guy. [Chariot goes over a bump] Oops...'

      At least the Celtic drivers seem to have sat down..

      Still, any sources and links would be appreciated.