Alexander very much saw himself as a Homeric leader, and a front-line fighter, but the Oriental despots he fought were not the type to oblige him with a single combat. William, I read, challenged Harold to single combat for the kingdom (I don't know if he had any epic inspirations - the Song of Roland is of course full of single combats, but I don't know if any early versions reached William). Shakespeare was fond of having the warring kings and princes or usurpers cross swords - the stage directions require Henry V to fight and defeat the Dauphin himself, and Henry Tudor has to do the same to Richard III. There may be some truth in that - as far as we can tell, Richard really did charge a knot of soldiers around Henry in the hopes of ending the battle by killing him. I don't know if he was influenced by Arthurian heroics or not (Caxton's printing of Mallory was the year of Bosworth Field). (Incidentally, Laurence Olivier's film version tracks the climax of the battle reasonably well, given the requirements of the poetry and the smallish cast of extras.)
Well, I'm currently in Thailand as part of a
The two Siamese Princes found the whole Burmese army advancing against the Thai troops in haste and disorder. At that time, both Prince Naresuan’s elephant, Phraya Chaiyanuphab, and Prince Ekatotsarot’s elephant, Phraya Prabtraichakra, happened to be in musk. Thus, when the two animals saw their rivals, they gave chase furiously, taking the two Princes, accompanied only by their immediate attendants, into the midst of the Burmese army.In Ayuthaya itself, there's a large pagoda said to have been built by him in commemoration of this victory, and here's a statute of the king himself nearby -
To his surprise, Prince Naresuan saw the Burmese Maha Uparaja whom he had known well during childhood, close by him, also mounted on an elephant. Undeterred by his own disadvantage, Prince Naresuan called out, "Brother Prince, leave the shelter of that tree. Come out and fight with me, for the honour of our names and the wonder of future ages."
In fact, at that time Naresuan, the beloved Prince of Ayutthaya, was in the midst of the enemy. If the Burmese Maha Uparaja had given a word, the two Siamese Princes would have been either killed or captured, and Ayutthaya would have been easily subdued.
Thinking of his royal dignity and his own acquaintance with the Siamese Prince, Maha Uparaja accepted the challenge and drove his elephant by name of Phatthakor toward Naresuan’s elephant. Phraya Chaiyanuphab, in a period of musk, immediately attacked his approaching rival furiously, and thus put his master into a disadvantageous position. The Burmese Prince dealt a fierce blow with his halberd at Naresuan’s head. Fortunately, Naresuan bent in time to avoid the blow, but his leather cap was cut through. When the elephants broke away, Prince Naresuan at once dealt a blow with his halberd at the right shoulder of the Burmese Prince. The ill-fated Prince fell dead on his own elephant’s neck.
At the same time, Prince Ekatotsarot himself had engaged in single combat with the prince of Zaparo, whom he also slew on his elephant’s neck. When the Burmese troops realised that their Princes were dead, they fiercely attacked the Siamese Princes. Prince Naresuan was wounded in the hand from a gun shot. By that time, a large Siamese army had managed to force their way through the Burmese ranks, the two Princes were rescued, and the Burmese had to retire.
The halberd used that day was later named the "Halberd Defeating all Enemies," while the leather cap was named the "Cut through Cap." The victorious elephant was given the name, "Conqueror of Hongsawadi."
(photo by Mrs. W., who is a picture-taking fiend. The building is surrounded by scores of sculpted roosters, but I do not know the symbolism. We had to take our shoes off, as we did at Buddhist temples, and there were locals praying in front - I can't tell you whether to him, for him, or something else.)
I know very little Asian military history and found the story interesting on several points. I don't know much about the heroic culture of Naresuan's court, but he may have been influenced by the Ramayana (which the Thais accept as a national epic; I saw many painted scenes from it in the old Royal Palace in Bangkok, and "Rama" is apparently a popular throne name). Rama, on the verge of inheriting the throne of his kingdom, defeats the king of the Rakshasas with his own arrow. (The description of the fight - reducing the description to a pair of decisive blows - reminds me also of the Song of Roland, but some readers here may better be able to judge how realistic it is.)
Also, this was the only time I'd read about elephants being used like horses - as a platform for a couple of humans to fight each other. From classical sources, I'd gotten used to thinking of elephants as a form of artillery - launched at the beginning of a battle, to break up enemy formations and disrupt their morale - rather than cavalry. Just clicking through the Wikipedia battles involving war elephants, I didn't see a lot to modify my earlier thinking, so this may have been a one-off.
There's a lot to be said about military leaders risking themselves at the front, but as John Keegan said most of it in The Mask of Command, I can't say I have anything to add. In any case, if the Ministry's version is right, this wasn't deliberate risk-taking by the King, but the display of a core military skill known as making the best of a bad situation.