see the elephant

see the elephant

Experience more than one wants to, learn a hard lesson; also, see combat, especially for the first time. For example, After the expedition lost two climbers in an avalanche, they had seen the elephant and turned back , or On his first tour of duty he saw the elephant. This slangy expression, first recorded in 1835, alludes to having seen all the sights one can see, including that rare beast, and returning home unimpressed or disappointed.
See also: elephant, see

see the elephant

AMERICAN
If you see the elephant, you experience something very extreme, especially war. We marched all day — we were going to see the elephant at last.
See also: elephant, see

see the elephant

see the world; get experience of life. US
An elephant is used here to symbolize or typify something which is extremely remarkable or exotic.
1994 Fighting Firearms These men have all seen the elephant and represent a typical cross-section of the…staff in general.
See also: elephant, see
References in classic literature ?
When a driver boasts of his skill and bravery the other drivers say, "And when didst thou see the elephants dance?
Tourists from all over the world come to see the elephants.