Battle of the Elephants

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Alexander the Great

In May 326 bce Alexander and his ally Omphis (Taxiles) made ready for the 110 mile march due south to confront the forces of Poros. The Indian king had made his intentions plain by massing his considerable force across the river Hydaspes (Jhelum) with the sole aim of preventing Alexander from advancing into his territory.

As the Macedonians and their 5,000 Indian allies approached the Hydaspes, the weather quickly deteriorated into an incessant downpour which soaked the men and sapped their strength. The river's level had also risen dramatically, its fast flowing waters swollen by the summer monsoon and the influx of melting snow from the Himalayas. Pitching camp somewhere near the modern town of Haranpur, Alexander kept constant watch on the banks of the ever-growing river and assessed the enemy's strengths.

The main threat was obvious for all to see. Poros himself on guard against a backdrop of no fewer than 200 war elephants massed in single file. His sole intention was to prevent the Macedonian army gaining a foothold, and Alexander had learned from recent actions that his cavalry horses were certain to panic as soon as they sensed the elephants. Once out of control they could not be landed across the river in any sort of battle formation, and any form of disarray might lead to defeat. He needed to find a way to land the bulk of his army across the river without attracting the enemy's attention, allowing him the element of surprise.

After discussions with his chiefs-of-staff, it was decided to find a suitable crossing point to the north, unbeknown to the enemy who were still expecting Alexander to attempt to cross the river close to camp. He even feigned preparations a if he were about to cross here in order to test Poros's resolve, making regular manoeuvres up and down the river, and to the sound of war cries and trumpets launching boats and rafts to simulate an invasion as the rain continued to pour down.

Each time the Macedonians feigned an attack, Poros was forced to counter it, sending his elephants to face the Macedonians, who would draw back a quickly as they had arrived. By forcing the Indians to remain on constant battle alert in the torrential rain until dawn, their morale was quickly reduced by Alexander's psychological tactics.

His strategy finally achieved its desired effect when Poros ceased ordering his elephants forward to cover the expected attack. The time had come to move, and leaving Craterus behind to maintain the appearance of aggressive intent, Alexander led his forces away during the darkness of a moonless night, the torrential rains helping to further conceal their departure.

Just before dawn they arrived at a crossing point some 18 miles north near Jalapur, and as the violent thunderstorms finally abated the conditions improved sufficiently for Alexander to give the order to cross the river. Using a combination of boats, rafts and straw-filled tent hides, the Macedonians followed Alexander and crossed the roaring torrents, their landing undetected amidst the thick wooded cover of the banks.

Drawing up his battle formation, Alexander at once set off to engage Poros. Suspecting that news of the Macedonian advance must simply be another diversion, Poros sent his son with 2,000 cavalry to drive the Macedonians back into the river as they landed. Yet he was already too late, and with the speed of Alexander's advance, combined with superior numbers, 400 of the Indian force were killed, including the young prince.

Poros's dilemma was whether to stay and oppose the main Macedonian army still camped across the river, or to march out and face Alexander. After choosing to leave the river banks undefended, Poros decided to take on his fellow monarch, and after sighting the enemy's approach Alexander gave his infantry time to recover from their march.

Realising that the battle ahead would depend on the way his infantry could cope with the fearsome war elephants, Alexander planned to restrict the creatures' space as much as possible, forcing back the Indian cavalry to cause the maximum indecision and confusion. With his strategy in place, he launched the attack, leading the Companions and 1,000 mounted archer against the Indian cavalry. As Coenus attacked at the rear, the Indians were forced to fight on two fronts as Poros's army was gradually surrounded.

The Indians ran for the cover of the elephants, only to find them maddened by the Macedonian infantry's repeated attacks, and as they thrust their spears into the creatures' eyes the agonised beasts trampled friend and foe alike into a sea of mud and gore. In complete disarray the Indian were slaughtered where they stood, the few who escaped hunted down and killed by Craterus, who had crossed the river at the Indians' rear. Following the most appalling scenes of bloody carnage, Indian losses numbered some 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry against Macedonian losses said to be as little as 80 infantry and 230 cavalry.

Although he had lost two more of his sons, Poros himself was not among the dead. He had continued to fight on courageously, leading his troops until wounded in the shoulder, whereupon he turned his great elephant around and slowly began to leave the field. Alexander, "anxious to save the life of this great and gallant soldier" sent Omphis (Taxiles) after him to persuade him to surrender, but seeing his long-standing enemy approach Poros launched an attack and Omphis only just escaped with his life.

Adamant that he would only ever surrender to Alexander himself, the two kings finally came face to face in the midst of the battlefield. Full of admiration for the Indian king who towered over him at 6 feet 3 inches, the Macedonian asked Poros how he wished o be treated. "As a king", came back the answer. "And what would you ask for yourself?" asked Alexander. "The words 'as a king' contain all I require", an answer which so impressed Alexander he immediately restored Poros's sovereignty, extended his territory and even resolved his long-standing feud with Omphis, all of which won Alexander both the loyalty and friendship of a brave warrior king.

The name of Alexander written in hieroglyphs


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