Its modern incarnation is as a tactic that developed out of trench warfare, where artillery or aerial attack often proved ineffective at dislodging the enemy from a firmly held defensive position. In a human wave attack there is no attempt to minimize casualties; on the contrary, part of the tactic involves presenting the defender with the shock value of overwhelming numbers of attackers. This dense concentration of troops in the open tends to lead to very high casualty rates.
These attacks can also develop in situations where the defensive position is very strong and the attacker's combined-arms team has been broken up, leaving no alternative. This tactic is colloquially known as a "bum rush."
What today is called 'human wave' tactics was already used as the main infantry tactic on the attack prior to the development of modern skirmishers during the Napoleonic Wars. When infantry firepower was very short-range, massed unsupported attacks worked, and were not considered especially costly compared to other tactics. Infantry maneuvered in very tightly-packed ranks and individual soldiers were not expected to maneuver on their own.
An illustrative example from antiquity is the charge of the Athenian hoplites at the Battle of Marathon. With no missile troops of their own, the hoplites charging of the Persian lines in massed ranks was the best tactic to neutralize the Persians’ superiority in archers and maximize their own superiority in hand-to-hand combat.
Even with the arrival of firearms this same logic could be found in, for example, the French Napoleonic armies. Massed infantry columns, supported by artillery and screened by voltigeur light infantry skirmishers, were seen as a way to produce militarily useful formations out of recruits with a minimum of time and training. The theory was that given the range and rate of fire of the muskets of the day, if an infantry column started its charge just outside the effective range of its opponents, the massed infantry column would be able to smash into its opponents before there had been enough volleys of incoming fire to destroy it. This threat of a hand-to-hand clash -- at a potential disadvantage against an attacker who still retained at least some of the attack's physical and psychological momentum -- was usually enough to break the defender's morale and drive them into a rout before any actual hand-to-hand contact could happen between the two formations. One common alternative for infantry at this time was to advance to musket range and for the two sides to trade musket volleys until one side broke, but this was regarded as being less effective than the idea of turning the attackers' trick on its head and routing them by a well-timed, massed countercharge.
The French tactical system worked very well, as evidenced by Napoleon's victories and heralded the domination of the battlefields by the large conscript armies of citizen-soldiers as opposed to the small specialised/mercenary forces of the Ancien Regime. In the years that followed the Napoleonic Wars, theorists and tacticians devoted themselves to discovering the secrets to those great victories, so as to be able to emulate them. These included the American Dennis Hart Mahan, father of the more famous naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, for many years a senior lecturer at West Point, Napoléon’s general, Antoine-Henri Jomini, and the great Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz. These men would have a great influence on the military leadership, tactical doctrines and military fortunes of their nations, each drawing different conclusions from the same inspiration.
When the tactical failures of the Napoleonic system were acknowledged, such failures were put down as its misapplication by lesser commanders, and at Waterloo to the failure of subsidiary commanders. To the theorists, such failures could be overcome by a little more determination, a little more dash and aggression, by closing with the enemy a little faster. The French would later develop the doctrine of “l’attaque à outrance”, which emphasized attacking and counterattacking at all costs, at the earliest of opportunities. This would be the seed of the massed infantry attacks of World War I.
One theory of why the French infantry column worked for Napoleon and failed for others is that Napoleon was an artilleryman. Since the value of the infantry column was as much in the threat of its attack as it was in the actual attack, the infantry could be used to fix the line of enemy infantry, who had to deploy to receive a possible charge. The enemy infantry could then be rolled up from the flank by the cavalry if it deployed linearly, or be bombarded by artillery if it deployed as a square. The infantry attack, if made, would then be an attack against an enemy already weakened or disorganised by the other arms. The failure of others in emulating Napoleon’s success was in seeing the most spectacular part of his combined arms approach—the infantry attack—as its most important element and neglecting the other arms. Or, if they did realize the importance of a combined arms approach, of mistiming the interplay between the different elements of the army.
At the Battle of Malakoff, an entire French corps assaulted a strong fortified position in three columns, to a timetable governed by synchronised watches. The fortress fell after heavy hand to hand fighting, costing the attackers 10,000 casualties and the defenders 13,000. The loss of the Malakoff, and with it Sevastopol, won the war for the French allies, thus ensuring the place of such tactics in the playbooks of future generals.
The smoothbore flintlock musket, not the rifle, was used by both sides at Lexington, Concord, and at Bunker Hill in 1775. The rifle made its first appearance in the American War for Independence when carried by Pennsylvania and Virginia riflemen at the Siege of Boston. Although it had first made its mark in combat in the American Revolutionary War, in the hands of the Continental Army's few riflemen at the Battle of Long Island, the Pennsylvania rifle was unsuitable as the main infantry weapon for the tactics and formations adopted by the Continental Army. In the rifles of the day there was a steady loss of performance, due to fouling of the rifling by gunpowder residue, and the rate of fire was very much inferior to that of smoothbore muskets. This was caused by the need to use a tightly fitting ball in a leather or linen patch to properly engage the weapon's rifling. The heaviness needed in the iron rifle barrel also meant that a flintlock rifle was far more likely to break under combat conditions than the smoothbore musket, since rifles needed more delicate stocks to balance off the weight of the heavier rifle barrel, in order to make them easily portable. They also did not carry a bayonet, especially useful in close-quarter fighting, infantry charges and in forming square with other soldiers to fend off cavalry attacks. These shortcomings were acceptable in an hunting firearm, but not as a mass weapon in the military systems of the day. As the war evolved, both sides began to fight more like their enemy. Rather than formulate a tactical system to make best use of its advantages, the Continental Army forwent the superiority of its German-derived rifles and native riflemen to fight with muskets in massed formations much like their British adversaries and French allies. (and due in no small part to the large casualties among its riflemen- they literally ran out of riflemen at various points) The British on the other hand learned from the Americans to utilise riflemen as light infantry. In the AWI, the British used various muzzle-loading and breechloading rifles in temporary rifle units (eg the Ferguson Rifle), as well as employing German auxiliary rifle corps. These experiences decades later gave birth in 1797 to the 5th Battalion/60th Regiment of Foot, and later to the 95th (Rifles) Regiment of Foot Rifle Brigade (renamed from the 95th Rifles in 1815). By the war's end, and for most of the century after, the rifle had become firmly a specialist skirmishing weapon, but not without controversy. Both American and British military establishments concentrated more on the musket in doctrine and development, even into the early 19th century.
A state of affairs as described by the late Civil War author Bruce Catton on the state of the military arts and military sciences as it applied to infantry tactics:
Infantry tactics at that time were based on the use of the smoothbore musket, a weapon of limited range and accuracy. Firing lines that were much more than a hundred yards apart could not inflict very much damage on each other, and so troops which were to make an attack would be massed together, elbow to elbow, and would make a run for it; if there were enough of them, and they ran fast enough, the defensive line could not hurt them seriously, and when they got to close quarters the advange of numbers and the use of the bayonet would settle things. But the Civil War musket was rifled, which made an enormous difference. It was still a muzzle-loader, but it had much more accuracy and a far longer range than the old smoothbore, and it completely changed the conditions under which soldiers fought. An advancing line could be brought under killing fire at a distance of half a mile, now, and the massed charge of Napoleonic tradition was miserably out of date. When a defensive line occupied field entrenchments - which the soldiers learned to dig fairly early in the game - a direct frontal assault became almost impossibile. The hideous casualty lists of Civil War battles owed much of their size to the fact that soldiers were fighting with rifles but were using tactics suited to smoothbores. It took the generals a long time to learn that a new approach was needed. —[from The American Heritage Picture History of The Civil War, by Bruce Catton (1960) chapter "The Armies"]
It is telling that one of the greatest of the Civil War generals, Stonewall Jackson, should say
"But by my opinion is that there ought not to be much firing at all. My idea is that the best method of firing is to reserve your fire till the enemy get-or you get to them-to close quarters. Then deliver one deadly, deliberate volley-and charge.**
Such thinking was not an anomaly but the norm, the result of the influence on a generation of officers by the teachings of Dennis Hart Mahan at West Point.
In its wars up to the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussians, under their legendary General Staff, had gravitated from a Jominian system of maneuver to Clausewitz’s concept of the “mass of decision” and the idea that nations and armies have a “center of gravity.”
Previously, it had been a commonly held assumption that there was an optimum size for an army (approximately 100-120,000 men). Given the technologies of the day, a larger army would be impossible to supply, move, or control. What was desired was to be able to create concentrations of force when and where it mattered. This involved moving a number of smaller forces separately, to allow rapid movement without hindering each other's progress, before concentrating rapidly in overwhelming numbers at a decisive location. Each of these smaller forces being under the command of men trained to operate and think in the same way, so that the briefest of orders from their overall commander would have the same desired results. In this way, the Prussians could achieve a sudden local numerical superiority and dictate where, how and when to engage the enemy. Such a “mass” could be on a strategic level, aimed against a nation’s centre of gravity, or tactical, aimed at an enemy army’s centre of gravity. At either level, the very presence and strength of a Prussian army meant it could not be ignored by an enemy, who in being forced to react could be made to fritter away its manpower and thus invite defeat in detail. Conversely, a Prussian army in the field would be strong enough and well enough supplied to decline to fight if it so wished.
Once in the field, probing forces would be used to find the Schwerpunkt (the critical center) of an enemy, against which the main Prussian strength would be launched; this was not necessarily where the enemy was strongest nor where it was weakest. The Schwerpunkt had a philosophical aspect, embracing the abstract notion of an enemy’s center in terms of time, of motivation and morale, of ability and of action. For example, the Prussians made use of the French emotional and symbolic attachment to Paris and the route to Paris, seeing beyond its mere geographical and industrial value. The basic Prussian plan therefore, the father and grandfather of those used in the First and Second World Wars, was to march its armies against Paris and to engage and destroy the French armies as they were sent out to stop the occupation of their capital. In doing so the French played into the Prussian hands.
One of the tenets of Clausewitz’s system was the destruction of an enemy’s ability to wage war; this could be done through destroying the populace’s will to fight, disabling its political leadership, disrupting its logistical and industrial capacity or most directly of all, by destroying its armies in the field. The Siege of Metz of a French army served as a military Schwerpunkt leading as it did to the Battle of Sedan and the end of effective French military resistance. Whilst the successful conclusion of the Siege of Paris served as a political Schwerpunkt ending the Government of National Defense’s will to fight, and with it the war.
In the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussians, using meticulous planning and the advantage of their railways, were able to achieve and maintain tactical flexibility and local superiority of numbers. This allowed them to use weight of numbers and massed artillery to encircle and destroy the French armies, despite the fact that the French rifles had twice the range of their own. In return the French attempts to break out lacked the “mass” to punch out off the Prussian sieges and encirclements, and just served to speed their own destruction.
The success of the Prussian system led to its adoption and emulation by the nations of continental Europe. The fundamental assumptions being that victory would go to the nation which could bring the largest possible army to bear upon its enemy in the shortest possible time, and that the only way to resist such an army, was to attack first with an even bigger army. This was to lead to the institution of the large conscript army, mobilized and deployed on an autopilot of rigid timetables. These large conscript armies strained to different extents the ability of the continental nations to train, officer and especially in the case of Imperial Russia to equip and arm all its soldiers, leading to armies of various and sometimes dubious qualities. The French, for example, were only able to match the Germans (who had a larger population) in numbers by lengthening the term of conscription and increasing the upper age limit of men in the reserves.
Early battles of the First World War exhibited both characteristics of human wave attacks, for example the Germans at the Battle of Mons, and incorporated elements of maneuver and infiltration in assaults. There is no contradiction in this as the combatants included both long service professionals and mobilised reservists, troops of differing temperament, ability and training. However, an aggressive, attack at all costs-approach was very much considered the most 'manly' and promising tactic, and was especially espoused by the French.
With the loss of strategic maneuver after the First Battle of the Marne the latter stages of the First World War degenerated into trench warfare. With trench warfare human wave attacks became common, a product of the reappearance of mass conscript armies dealing unsuccessfully with a new combat environment. There was a belief that troops could not handle sophisticated tactics (though counter-evidence was available); means of communication with supporting arms were ineffective; and senior leaders did not always see the battle environment as it really was. In the British army human wave attacks were adopted by the new armies because a lack of proficiency in musketry led to the doctrine that in the attack the grenade and bayonet would be the prime infantry weapons and tactics were evolved to accommodate this. To this was added a lack of leadership, due to the dilution of the professional officer and NCO corps, for anything more sophisticated than massed attacks. The classic example of the human-wave attacks would be the Battle of the Somme. Allied forces suffered over 600,000 casualties during the three months of fighting, for no tangible goals other than the attrition of the enemy. Despite these horrendous casualties, this could still be seen as a success, given that the Germans endured casualties at least as severe and the attack relieved pressure on the French at Verdun.
Only towards the end of the war were skirmisher tactics, infiltration tactics, and new combined-arms approaches, re-discovered and developed in raiding and harassing attacks, allowed to flower; coming to a final, though ultimately futile, realisation in the German Spring Offensive of 1918.
It came with a suddenness that was most startling....A grey mass of humanity was charging, running for all God would let them, straight on to us not 50 yards off....and as I fired my rifle the rest all went off almost simultaneously. One saw the great mass of Germans quiver. In reality some fell, some fell over them, and others came on. I have never shot so much in such a short time.....the whole lot came on again...Twenty yard more and they would have been over us in thousands but our fire must have been fearful....Some of the leading people turned to the left for some reason, and they all followed like a great flock of sheep. I don't think one could have missed at the distance and just for one short minute or two we poured the ammunition into them in boxfuls.... —Captain Harry Dillon, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Saturday 24 October 1914 after First Battle of Ypres.
At 6.30 a.m our artillery were bombarding intensely…..At 7.30 we moved to “the attack” by companies at 200 yard intervals in the order C, D,A, B….A battery of artillery was in action….enemy sending heavy shrapnel all over the place…We had a terrible dose of machine gun fire sweeping us through wood …..across the opening I saw the last platoon of A Coy. going over open ground in front of wood….about 120 yards. Half of the platoon were killed and almost all of remainder wounded in the crossing, and I at once realized that some part of the attack had gone radically wrong, as we were being enfiladed by batteries of enemy machine guns…
With its first and last throws of the dice the German Army convinced itself that it had almost had victory in its grasp. In its next attempt it married Hutier tactics and mechanization to the Schlieffen Plan, achieving with Blitzkrieg in the May 1940 during the Fall of France what it could not in August 1914.
For Britain, the horrors and slaughter of First World War made it the “War to end all wars”; determined never to allow such a conflict again, she spent her efforts between the wars trying to avert future wars. The solution to conflict would be disarmament and arms limitations, the banning of so called offensive weapons; in so doing she threw away her lead in armored and mechanized warfare and many hard-earned lessons.
The United States decided to wash its hands of European wars and reverted to a policy of non-interventionism.
In the Winter War, the Finns developed—out of necessity—the motti tactic against the human wave attack. It involved retreating at the face of the human wave, simultaneously advancing at the flanks and enveloping the wave, effectively turning the wave into a salient. Once the onslaught had culminated, the supply lines were cut and encirclement became complete. The attacking Soviet forces were ordered not to retreat; therefore, encircling them and staging a siege proved a highly lethal maneuver against the Soviets.
When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the Germans reported that the Red Army used the tactic against both advancing and entrenched German soldiers, sometimes using penal battalions or militia units. It is assumed that the Red Army soldiers were ordered to charge directly in a wide berth to strike every possible point in the German lines simultaneously (see Panfilovtsy). In some battles the Soviets defeated the Germans after sustaining battle losses much higher than the German losses. After 1942, the Red Army developed into a more capable force and used modern tactics.
In the Japanese Army, human wave attacks in the form of Banzai charges were common in the early battles of World War II. Japanese units generally had adequate training and were skilled at infiltration tactics, but were very weak in artillery. Even in the constricted terrain of the Pacific War, however, these attacks generally failed. As this lesson was absorbed, the tactic was abandoned except as a tactic of desperation or last resort.
It is widely believed that such tactics were employed widely and successfully by the North Korean and Chinese armies during the Korean War, because to the UN troops, the enemy seemed to be everywhere, for example at the battles of the Chosin Reservoir and the Imjin River.
However, while massed infantry attacks were used, what the North Korean and Chinese forces actually used is more aptly described as infiltration assault. With UN air superiority, any concentration of Chinese armor or artillery, to support the infantry, would have invited instant air attack and almost as instant annihilation. The Chinese employed infiltration tactics to mitigate their inferiority in terms of available artillery and air support, finding it was necessary to bypass their enemies' forward lines and complete an encirclement before heavy fighting began. By beginning their attacks at night and only when in close proximity to their targets, they rendered the UN unable to use its artillery and air power without endangering its own troops.
...The Chinese generally attacked at night and tried to close in on a small troop position — generally a platoon — and then attacked it with local superiority in numbers. The usual method was to infiltrate small units, from a platoon of fifty men to a company of 200, split into separate detachments. While one team cut off the escape route of the Americans, the others struck both the front and the flanks in concerted assaults. —Bevin Alexander, How Wars Are Won
See the “The Chinese Entry” section of the Korean War article for more details
During the 1950s, the Viet Minh, under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap, enjoying the advantage of superior numbers in artillery and manpower, successfully employed the massed infantry tactics against the entrenched French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. However, whether such organized assaults are human wave attacks is debatable. Similar tactics failed miserably at battle of Khe Sanh against the US Marines.
During the Sino-Vietnamese War, Chinese armies employed a strategy of invading on a broad front, attacking simultaneously with multiple columns in order to hide the main thrusts of attack. The intention was to lure out the defending armies into the open field where they could be annihilated in battles of encirclement and attrition, where Chinese armies' numerical superiority would allow them to prevail. However, Vietnamese forces withdrew to a narrower and more easily defendable front, reducing Chinese freedom of maneuver and forcing them to launch large frontal assaults against enemy positions using artillery and infantry.
Human wave attacks reappeared during the Iran–Iraq War. The Iranians, especially the Pasdaran and the Basij (People's Army) volunteers being the primary user of such tactics, as it had both become less technologically advanced, (its ability to maintain openly its advanced equipment suffering from the arms embargo) and had the less well-trained forces. Those military leaders of the Iranian army who had not fled the country, or facing imprisonment and execution after the 1979 revolution, were mistrusted by the new leadership. and this led to a loss of tactical effectiveness and finesse, an inability to react to changing events without having to seek approval from the political leadership. In addition to the lack of military supplies and leadership, the US, the Europeans, the Soviets and the complete Arab world (except Syria and Libya) were financially, militarily and diplomatically assisting Iraq in one way or another. Human wave attacks were utilized by Iranians at first as a last-ditch effort to check the Iraqi assault, and as the war progressed as a means to match and overtake the increasing material strength of the Iraqi military. In some cases Iranian volunteers, many of them young teenagers, had very little military training. The following is part of an account of these events as seen from a Western perspective.
....in July 1982 Iran launched Operation Ramadan on Iraqi territory, near Basra. Tehran used Pasdaran forces and Basij volunteers in one of the biggest land battles since 1945. Ranging in age from only nine to more than fifty, these eager but relatively untrained soldiers swept over minefields and fortifications to clear safe paths for the tanks. In doing so, the Iranians sustained an immense number of casualties, but they enabled Iran to recover some territory before the Iraqis could repulse the bulk of the invading forces....
....In 1983 Iran launched three major, but unsuccessful, humanwave offensives, with huge losses, along the frontier. On February 6, Tehran, using 200,000 "last reserve" Pasdaran troops, attacked along a 40-kilometer stretch near Al Amarah, about 200 kilometers southeast of Baghdad. Backed by air, armor, and artillery support, Iran's six-division thrust was strong enough to break through. In response, Baghdad used massive air attacks, with more than 200 sorties, many flown by attack helicopters. More than 6,000 Iranians were killed that day, while achieving only minute gains. In April 1983, the Mandali-Baghdad northcentral sector witnessed fierce fighting, as repeated Iranian attacks were stopped by Iraqi mechanized and infantry divisions. Casualties were very high, and by the end of 1983, an estimated 120,000 Iranians and 60,000 Iraqis had been killed. Despite these losses, in 1983 Iran held a distinct advantage in the attempt to wage and eventually to win the war of attrition.....
Countermeasures to such attacks may involve extreme firepower superiority, generally of an organizationally or technologically superior nature.
Although the fire power of an individual smoothbore musket was very weak, being considered by most as being inferior in terms of accuracy, range and rate of fire to the English longbow, the firepower of a military unit could be enhanced by organisation and fire discipline. Organisationally this involved breaking all actions into drills. Musket drill involved breaking the act of loading the musket into a series of individual actions which by dint of constant and repetitive practise became second nature, actions which could be automatically carried out even under the stress and pressure of enemy fire and the death of comrades. Repeated practise of formation drills similarly allowed commanders to be able to reliably move and deploy their troops.
Fire discipline allowed commanders to maximise the firepower available to them. At its simplest this meant holding off firing the first volley until an enemy was well within effective range, a practise neatly encapsulated in the command "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!" (see Battle of Bunker Hill).
With three or more lines of defenders, individual ranks could stagger reloading and firing so that ideally there would always be one rank with weapons ready to fire. The British Army also evolved a system of volley firing by company and by platoon, with numbered companies or platoons in the battle line firing in turn.
Even with the introduction of magazine rifles into British service, fire discipline remained, allowing officers to control and maximise the firepower available.
For when the enemy charge did arrive, Bayonet drill in the British Army also encouraged its soldiers to fight as units and not as individuals. The bayonet drill was introduced for the Battle of Culloden, in order to defeat the much vaunted Highland charge; it was not for a soldier to protect himself or to attack the enemy in front, but to stab into the unprotected side of the man attacking his neighbour, each man in the battle line relying on his comrades to defend him, an arrangement resembling the ancient phalanx.
From the Peninsular War onwards, the British Army met the French columns with troops in lines utilizing the reverse slope defence. Where possible these lines were structured to allow the British to rake the sides of the oncoming French columns and not just the head of the column with fire. Two thirds of French casualties in the campaign however, were inflicted by the Spanish irregular forces using guerilla war techniques, rather than by the oft repeated "British line against French column" cliché.
In the wars from the end of the Napoléonic Wars leading up to the First World War, field fortifications became increasingly important. Long a feature of sieges both in the attack and the defence, field fortifications from the quick and humble foxhole and shell scrape, to the complex Hindenburg Line became a routine practice to all sides in the Great War.
In the modern battlefield, individual soldiers maneuver as individuals and as part of very small teams using "Fire and Movement" with a high degree of initiative. Their leaders have communications with supporting arms. In effect, all infantrymen are skirmishers, and there is no need for human-wave attacks except in armies based on conscription, in which training, tactics, and regard for the soldiers' lives is very low. The infantry attack may be more successful when combined with other supporting arms such as tank support, infiltration tactics, night attacks, flanking attacks, and so forth. All of these alternative tactics require some skill in planning and great skill in execution, since disparate units and weapons must be used in a coordinated manner. Often, human-wave attacks are the unplanned result of a poorly-executed conventional attack.
The human wave which historically used massed unidirectional frontal assault is distinct from the military swarming attack which also relies on sudden, massed attack by lightly armed small units. The difference is that swarming involves infiltration, maneuver and sudden massing from many directions, followed by dispersal and regrouping, and is achieved only by highly trained warriors. Both human wave and swarming attacks can be supported by heavy standoff weapons such as missiles, artillery and air support. War strategies currently being researched include omnidirectional attack following small unit infiltration with the added element of networked artificial intelligence, mobile communications and situational awareness at the small unit level to coordinate movement, prevent friendly fire and bring multiple light infantry units together suddenly in a concentrated mass in order to overwhelm enemy targeting capabilities. Swarming attack strategies have been investigated by the United States Army and Marines but are known to be a fairly inexpensive technology, making them just as useful to relatively unsophisticated armies.
The shock value of a human wave attack has parallels to historical cavalry tactics, both of armoured knights and lighter mounted troops of later eras. Historians such as John Keegan have shown that when correctly prepared against (such as by improvising fortifications) and especially, by standing firm in face of the onslaught, cavalry charges often failed against infantry, with horses balking at ploughing into the dense mass of enemies. However, when they succeeded, it was usually due to the defending formation breaking up (often in fear) and scattering, to be hunted down by the enemy. The human wave attack, as part of its value, tries to instill a similar fear in the defender, and cause him to break formation.
** Ian Drury and Gerry Embleton attribute this to Jackson from a source quoted as Stonewall Jackson by LtCol GRF Henderson, London, New York and Bombay, 1903.