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Lieutenant Colonel James Howard Williams and His Elephant Corps in Burma: WW Two

MG is a military specialist having spent quality time in the Indian Air Force. He is also an alumnus of the Defence Services Staff College.



The elephant is found in great abundance in the jungles of India and Burma. This is the Asiatic elephant and is a shade smaller in size than the African elephant. There is however a marked difference between the two species. The African elephant has been rarely used either in war or as an adjunct to human civilization; Contrast this with its use in the East, where it was used as a weapon of war, temple worship, haulage, and umpteen other jobs. One reason for this was that the civilization in the subcontinent and East Asia was much more advanced than the African civilization which can be termed as primitive.

Experts have pointed out one other difference. The Asian elephant has a large and highly developed neocortex. This is a trait that involves higher-order brain functions and is shared by humans and Apes. Results of studies indicate that Asian elephants have abilities for tool use and tool-making similar to great apes. When World War II came to Burma which has dense jungles, it necessitated a new innovative method to make the military effective.

The British Indian army in Burma, therefore, decided to use the elephant to supplement the war effort against the Japanese. An elephant corps was created. This was the brainchild of a British army officer who had spent many years with elephants. He was Lt. Col. James Howard Williams. He is also referred to as 'Elephant Bill.'

He is well known for his work with the Fourteenth Army during the Burma Campaign of World War II. He was made a Lieutenant-Colonel, mentioned in dispatches three times, and was awarded the OBE in 1945.


The elephant corps in Burma

The elephant which had been used by ancient Indian kings right up to the 19th century found its use in the Burma campaign as late as the Second World War. Both the Japanese and the British used the elephant in the Burma campaign. One reason for the use of the elephant was its prodigious strength and endurance. It could also traverse the thick jungles with ease and was an asset for transportation during the retreat.

Much of the use of the elephant during the second world war is the handiwork of Lieutenant colonel James Howard Williams. After serving with the Devonshire Regiment during WWI he joined the Camel Corps and later was Transport Officer in charge of mules.

At the end of the war, he decided to come to Burma for a job and in 1920 joined as Forest Assistant with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation which milled teak, and used 2000 elephants. At the end of 1942, the Imperial army struck Burma from Thailand. The company began to use the elephants for transporting the families of Europeans across Burma to Assam. The family of Williams also were moved by elephants to Assam across thick jungles including mountains and the famous " death valley' where many refugees died. James went with his family to `Assam and after they were safe he returned to Burma.

This man had an entire elephant corp to help him in the jungles of Burma when the Japanese army was advancing through Burma. He had re-joined the Eastern army later the 14th army and given charge of the elephant corps.

James Howard Williams was an expert with elephants and he was an asset as he spoke Burmese and could communicate with the Mahouts who guide the elephants. When the Japanese attacked he took charge of the elephants against the Japanese. The elephants were used as sappers; by the engineering brigades and helped build pontoon bridges. They also moved heavy equipment through the jungles. But the elephants worked only 4 hours in a day and the rest of the time they played in the waters and rivers. They were intelligent beasts and knew what they were supposed to do.

The Japanese captured some elephants and used them for their activities as well. With the Japanese rapidly advancing instructions were passed to Howard to proceed with the last batch of elephants to Assam. On the way, he received a wireless message to rescue 64 members of families of Gurkha soldiers who had been stranded.

Without a word he went back with his elephants and picked up the 64 women and children put them on the elephants and set the pace through the jungles. This was one of the most perilous trips he undertook and negotiated the mountains of Central Burma and the death valley successfully. Close to 60 elephants formed a single line with chains to traverse the narrow mountain path. The route was so dangerous that even if one elephant had slipped, the entire entourage of 64 elephants would have fallen but Howard who led from the front elephant marshaled his resources magnificently and the escape was successful. It was a dangerous effort with the Japanese trying to bomb the convoy but they were helped by the thick jungles.

This is the only recorded use of elephants during world war II. Later Field Marshal William Slim the Army commander XIV army in a write up admitted that the elephants helped build thousands of bridges and launch more ships than Helen of Troy. This he stated in his forward to the book "Elephant bill " written by Colonel Howard after he left the army.



At the end of the war Lt, Col James Howard retired to England ( Saint Buryan, Cornwall)where he passed away in 1958. He was only 61. His book 'Elephant bill ' is very famous and is worth a read. After his death, his wife Susan Margaret Rowland who he had met and married in Burma in 1932, wrote of her life with him in The Footprints of Elephant Bill.

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Bravery has many facets and the actions and performance of Lt Col James Howard qualify as an example of the highest form of courage and chivalry. His bravest act was to go back to rescue the 64 Gurkha woman and children knowing fully well that in case he was captured by the Japanese he would have been tortured to death. He however could not allow the Gurkha woman to be captured by the Japanese and made into concubines or comfort women and took the decision to go back with the hope that Jesus would help him. The rest is history.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 13, 2021:

Chrish, my pleasure.

Chrish Canosa from Manila Philippines on April 13, 2021:

I'm more thankful Sir emge(wink)

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 13, 2021:

Chris, I like your impish comments, so vibrant and alive. Thank you.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 13, 2021:

Treshty, your comments are so refreshing. Thank you for embellishing my article.

Chrish Canosa from Manila Philippines on April 12, 2021:

Great appreciation for sharing your knowledge with us. The great soldier made a history for his work with the fourteenth Army during the Burma campaign WW II, I've heard about his book " Elephant Bill " kind of interested now. Blessings to you Sir Emge (wink)

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 12, 2021:

Sangre, so nice you commented. Yes, elephants in particular gel well with humans.

Sp Greaney from Ireland on April 12, 2021:

What an innovative man. I hadn't heard of elephants been used in this manner before.

But it just goes to show you that every animal has the capability to be useful. I wish more people knew about this story.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 11, 2021:

Meg, sweet of you to comment.

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on April 11, 2021:

It's great to read a story about Elephant Bill again. It's a long time since I read about him.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 11, 2021:

Peggy, sweet of you to spare time and comment.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 11, 2021:

Thanks for telling me about some history with which I was unfamiliar. It is fascinating that those Asian elephants are so smart. Lieutenant Colonel James Howard Williams certainly used them to good effect in saving those women.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 11, 2021:

Devika, so nice you commented.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 11, 2021:

emge Interesting about WW2 and the elephant corps. I had no idea of this and your history lesson told me a lot. Informative and had no idea about the elephant corps as you have explained.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 11, 2021:

You are right Ravi, it was Aurangzeb who expanded the empire Deep South and his capture of Golconda was classical warfare at its best.

Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on April 11, 2021:

The same thing was with Babur. Babur never tried to invade the Vijaynagara empire as the empire had a 50000 strong elephant army besides having a massive army. Babur and even later Humayun never reached South I believe.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 11, 2021:

Thanks, Tom, what you state is possible. Alexander knew about Nanda's force but as Greek writers have written, the massive elephant force of Porus appearing in the early morning when the mist cleared unnerved the Greek army.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 11, 2021:

Thank you, Mike, it's a pleasure to read your comment

Readmikenow on April 11, 2021:

Excellent story! This was fascinating information. Really enjoyed reading it.

Tom on April 11, 2021:

Mutiny in Alexander the great s army due to hydapses battle,fearednandas army elephants,do retreat, Nehru

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 11, 2021:

Tom, Almost all Indian kings considered the elephant as a royal transport and they went about their kingdom mounted on an elephant. With the advent of the Rolls-Royce, they shifted to this luxury car and I think Maharaja Patiala had 36 or 40 of them. Captain Nair(Keralite), the owner of the Leela group whom I knew also had a Rolls Royce. He died a few years back.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 11, 2021:

Thanks, Tom, nice reading your comment. Yes, the elephant was used for 4000 years mostly in the subcontinent. All Indian kings, both Moslem and Hindu used elephants. Akbar went into battle on an elephant. Latest research on the battle of Hydespes, between Porus and Alexander, reveals that Porus actually defeated/stopped Alexander. There is no record of the battle from the Indian side but Greek historians have now been re-read stating that it was the most ferocious battle that Alexander faced but obviously they could not say that he lost.That was the reason Porus was given a lot of territory by Alexander to rule; both met amicably. More on that later.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 11, 2021:

Jeremiah, thank you for commenting

JEREMIAH MWANIKI KILUNDA from Nairobi on April 10, 2021:

Wow! I didn't know whether elephants could be so useful. Apparently, in Africa elephants are just wild animals. Period. Thanks for sharing a captivating story.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 10, 2021:

Thank you, Ravi, wonderful comment.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 10, 2021:

Thank you, Tim, for your comment, I wonder if at some stage you could send me a copy of those photographs which are with you.

Tim Smith on April 10, 2021:

Thank you for a wonderful article. My grandfather served in the 14 Army and had the privilege of meeting Bill. I have some lovely photographs which for me are a treasure.

Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on April 10, 2021:

Very interesting MG. Elephants in the army have been used in India since ancient times from the Gupta empire to the Mughal empire. This is the 1st time I have heard elephant corps been used in modern warfare. Thanks for this trivia about Colonel James Howard.

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