J.H. Williams (1950):  Elephant Bill

(Photo Credit:  Carrington)

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Here is a rough quotation from Lt. Colonel J.B. Williams’ 1950 book, Elephant Bill (p. 232):

During the war elephants had many jobs to do with timber which they had never encountered in the routine of peacetime. One of these was the lifting and passing of logs to a height of nine or ten feet—that is to say, from ground level to the bridge level. These logs weighed on an average a quarter of a ton each and were often too heavy for the trunk to grip or hold. If the log were balanced on the outside of the trunk on the tusks, there was always a danger that as the elephant raised its head to lift it the last foot or two of the log would roll back up its forehead and endanger the life of the oozie who was sitting on the elephant’s neck at a lower level.

On one occasion, I was watching, with one or two sapper officers, the last logs being handed up to a bridge under construction and we witnessed a remarkable display of intelligence. The elephant was a particularly clever animal and was beautifully handled by his oozie, but it was evening and they were both tired. Several logs had slipped during their efforts to balance them and it was quite obvious that the elephant was anxious about the safety of the oozie who was placed in a dangerous position just as the log was lifted to the highest point. There were still about three logs to be lifted. The largest of them was picked up by the elephant and held in an endways position between the trunk and tusk, the signals of this being given to the animal by the oozie with his foot. The elephant than let it gradually slide so that it lay across his trunk at the point of balance and the up-curving ends of his tusks acted as stops to prevent it rolling onto the ground. Then he slowly lifted his head.

"God’s truth, how marvellous," said a major in a low voice.

"Hope to God it doesn’t roll up his head," murmured the brigadier.

I held my breath and then said in a calm voice in Burmese: "Carefully now." The animal at once dropped his head and let the log cash to the ground. The oozie looked disgusted, and then, acting entirely without instruction, the elephant used his brains to devise a safe method of handling the log—that is, he thought of something we four men ought to have thought of ourselves.

He moved on one side rapidly and picked up a stout piece of wood which had been shaped for use as a maul or club to drive pegs into the bridge.  He rammed it in a vertical position, jammed between his tusk and his trunk.  I immediately saw what he had in mind.  The oozie also had immediately understood and put him hard at the log again.  With almost vicious strength and certainly with determination, the elephant picked up the log endways, lowered it and balanced it as before, and then raised his head.  But this time the club-shaped bit of wood was there to act as a vertical stop so that the log could not roll back over his forehead onto his rider.

An oath came from the major, a murmur of admiration from the brigadier.  I could feel my heart beating as the animal moved towards the bridge platform, caring the balanced log, and then, putting his forefeet onto another log so as to gain a little extra height, lowered his head a little, at the same time curling the head of his trunk out of the way so that it should not get pinched.  The log rolled onto the platform as gently as easily as if placed in position by an electric crane.  It was one of the most intelligent actions I have seen an elephant perform.  The remarks of the major and the brigadier as we returned to camp would have made that elephant purr with the complacent pleasure of a Persian kitten if he had heard them, and he deserved it all.

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