Human wave attack

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"Human wave" redirects here. For the crowd act associated with sporting events, see Audience wave.
French infantry charging in the early stages of World War I

The human wave attack, also known as the human sea attack,[1] is an offensive infantry tactic in which an attacker conducts an unprotected frontal assault with densely concentrated infantry formations against the enemy line, intended to overrun the defenders by engaging in melee combat.


According to U.S. Army analyst Edward C. O'Dowd, the technical definition of a human wave attack tactic is a frontal assault by densely concentrated infantry formations against an enemy line, without any attempts to shield or to mask the attacker's movement.[2] The goal of a human wave attack is to maneuver as many men as possible into close range, hoping that the shock from a large mass of attackers engaged in melee combat would force the enemy to disintegrate or fall back.[2]

The human wave attack's reliance on melee combat usually makes the organization and the training of the attacking force irrelevant, but it requires either great physical courage, coercion, or esprit de corps for the attackers to advance into enemy fire.[3] However, when matched against modern weaponry such as automatic firearms, artillery and aircraft, a human wave attack is an extremely dangerous and costly tactic in the face of devastating firepower.[2] Thus, for a human wave attack to succeed on the modern battlefield, it is imperative for the attackers to charge into the enemy line in the shortest time and in the greatest numbers possible, so that a sufficient mass can be preserved when the attackers reach melee range.[2]

However, this solution usually means that the attackers must sacrifice concealment and cover for numbers and speed.[2] Because of this trade-off, human wave attacks are normally used by an attacker with a lack of tactical training, or one who lacks firepower and the ability to maneuver, but whose main advantage is motivating and controlling their men.[4]


The term "human wave attack" has been used to describe the infantry assault tactics used by several armed forces around the world. These included Union and Confederate armies during various battles throughout the American Civil War, European armies during World War I,[5] the Imperial Japanese Army and Soviet Red Army during World War II,[6][7] the Chinese People's Liberation Army during the Korean War,[8] Vietnamese insurgents during the Indochina Wars,[9] and the Iranian Basij during the Iran–Iraq War.[10]

American Civil War[edit]

Both the Union and Confederate armies employed human wave attacks with varying degrees of success throughout the American Civil War. The most notable human wave attacks were the disastrous Union assault on the Confederate-held Marye's Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, resulting in the loss of 12,600 Union soldiers before the assault was called off.[11] A similar failed Confederate assault against Union-held Cemetery Ridge during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Pickett's Charge resulted in the loss of an estimated 15,000 Confederate soldiers and became known as the "High-Water Mark of the Confederacy." Human wave tactics were employed successfully by Union forces during the Battle of Lookout Mountain. When asked if he had ordered the assault on Lookout Mountain, Union Maj Gen Gordon Grander replied, "No, but when those fellows get started, all hell can't stop them."[12] The Sieges of Vicksburg in 1863, and Petersburg from the summer of 1864 to early 1865 were the scenes of several human wave assaults by both Union armies attempting to capture both cities, and Confederate forces attempting to break out of each siege. Both of these sieges are also among the first large scale employments of trench warfare.

Boxer Rebellion[edit]

Human wave attacks were used during the Boxer rebellion by Boxers.[13] Boxer rebels performed human wave attacks against Eight Nation Alliance forces during the Seymour Expedition[14] and the Battle of Langfang[15] where the Eight Nation Alliance was defeated and forced to retreat.[16]

On June 11 and June 14, Boxers armed only with bladed melee weapons directly charged the Alliance troops at Langfang armed with rifles and machine guns in human wave attacks and the Boxers also blocked the retreat of the expedition via train by destroying the Tianjin-Langfang railway.[17] At point-blank range one British soldier had to fire four bullets into a Boxer before he stopped, and American Capt. Bowman McCalla reported that single rifle shots were not enough: multiple rifle shots were needed to halt a Boxer. Only machine guns were effective in immediately stopping the Boxers.[18]

The Boxers and Dong Fuxiang's army worked together in the joint ambush with the Boxers relentlessly assaulting the Allies head on with human wave attacks displaying "no fear of death" and engaging the Allies in melee combat and putting the Allied troops under severe mental stress by mimicking vigorous gunfire with firecrackers. The Allies however suffered most of their losses at the hands of General Dong's troops, who used their expertise and persistence to engage in "bold and persistent" assaults on the Alliance forces, as remembered by the German Captain Usedom and the right wing of the Germans was almost at the point of collapse under the attack until they were rescued from Langfang by French and British troops, and the Allies then retreated from Langfang in trains full of bullet holes.[19]

Russo-Japanese War[edit]

During the Siege of Port Arthur, human wave attacks were conducted on Russian artillery and machine guns by the Japanese which ended up becoming suicidal.[20] Since the Japanese suffered massive casualties in the attacks,[21] one description of the aftermath was that "a thick, unbroken mass of corpses covered the cold earth like a coverlet.[22]

Russia's White Army[edit]

The Russian term for a human wave attack is Психическая атака (psychological attack). During the Russian Civil War, soldiers of the White Army had to charge the bolsheviks in public areas to show that the White Russian army was still actively fighting the red army. Even if it the odds of victory were slim, due to significant instilled loyalty to the Tsar, even after his assassination, they often would volunteer to reckless assaults, even if ordered to wait for reinforcements. In contrast, the Reds (which were workers and peasants) were more disciplined and listened more closely to their commmanders.

[23] [24]

People's Liberation Army[edit]

During the Chinese Civil War, Nationalist Chinese accused the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) of using unarmed civilians as human shields with the intention of draining Nationalist force's ammunition supplies during battles. This practice is often referred to as "human sea attack" by the Nationalist Chinese.[25]

Later, the term "human wave attack" was often misused[26] to describe the Chinese short attack — a combination of infiltration and the shock tactics employed by the PLA during the Korean War.[27] According to some accounts, Marshal Peng Dehuai—the overall commander of the Chinese forces in Korea—is said to have invented this tactic.[28] A typical Chinese short attack was carried out at night by small fireteams on a narrow front against the weakest point in enemy defenses.[27] The Chinese assault team would crawl undetected within grenade range, then launch surprise attacks against the defenders in order to breach the defenses by relying on maximum shock and confusion.[27]

If the initial shock failed to breach the defenses, additional fireteams would press on behind them and attack the same point until a breach was created.[27] Once penetration was achieved, the bulk of the Chinese forces would move into the enemy rear and attack from behind.[29] During the attacks, the Chinese assault teams would disperse while masking themselves using the terrain, and this made it difficult for UN defenders to target numerous Chinese troops.[7] Attacks by the successive Chinese fireteams were also carefully timed to minimize casualties.[30] Due to primitive communication systems and tight political controls within the Chinese army, short attacks were often repeated indefinitely until either the defenses were penetrated or the attacker's ammunition supply were exhausted, regardless of the chances of success or the human cost.[27]

This persistent attack pattern left a strong impression on UN forces that fought in Korea, giving birth to the description of "human wave."[8] U.S. Army historian Roy Edgar Appleman observed that the term "human wave" was later used by journalists and military officials to convey the image that the American soldiers were assaulted by overwhelming numbers of Chinese on a broad front, which is inaccurate when compared with the normal Chinese practice of sending successive series of five men teams against a narrow portion of the line.[1] S.L.A. Marshall also commented that the word "mass" was indiscriminately used by the media to describe Chinese infantry tactics, and it is rare for the Chinese to actually use densely concentrated infantry formations to absorb enemy firepower.[31] In response to the media's stereotype of Chinese assault troops deployed in vast "human seas", a joke circulated among the US servicemen was "How many hordes are there in a Chinese platoon?"[8][27][32]

Although abandoned by the PLA by 1953,[33] the Chinese army re-adopted this tactic during the Sino-Vietnamese War due to the stagnation of the Chinese military modernization programs during the Cultural Revolution.[34] Their use in the Sino-Vietnamese War is a rare example of an army with superior firepower, in this case the PLA, throwing away its advantage.[35]

Vietnam People's Army[edit]

US Army sources have claimed that the human wave attack tactic was adapted by the Viet Minh, and later by the Viet Cong and the Vietnam People's Army during the Indochina Wars on the advice of Chinese military advisers.[33] Later, the North Vietnamese forces reportedly abandoned this tactic after Soviet military advisers displaced their Chinese counterpart during the Vietnam War.[36]


Main articles: Basij and Iran–Iraq War

During the Iran–Iraq War, the attacks conducted by Basij, the Iranian paramilitary volunteer militia, were considered to be human wave attacks.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Appleman 1990, p. 362.
  2. ^ a b c d e O'Dowd 2007, p. 145.
  3. ^ O'Dowd 2007, pp. 145-146.
  4. ^ O'Dowd 2007, p. 144.
  5. ^ O'Dowd 2007, p. 143.
  6. ^ Davis 2001, p. 408.
  7. ^ a b Marshall 1988, pp. 5–6
  8. ^ a b c Appleman 1989, p. 353.
  9. ^ O'Dowd 2007, p. 149.
  10. ^ a b Anderson, Jon Lee (2009-06-19), Understanding The Basij, New York, NY: The New Yorker, retrieved 2010-11-22 
  11. ^ Maps of Fredericksburg, Virginia (1862) Marye's Heights - December 13, 1862, Civil War Trust, retrieved Jan 31, 2017.
  12. ^ Stones in the Road: “Remember Chickamauga” Emerging Civil War, retrieved Jan 31, 2017.
  13. ^ Alfred D. Wilhelm (1994). The Chinese at the Negotiating Table: Style and Characteristics. DIANE Publishing. pp. 232–. ISBN 978-0-7881-2340-5. 
  14. ^ Lanxin Xiang (4 February 2014). The Origins of the Boxer War: A Multinational Study. Routledge. pp. 262–. ISBN 978-1-136-86582-4. 
  15. ^ Lanxin Xiang (4 February 2014). The Origins of the Boxer War: A Multinational Study. Routledge. pp. 263–. ISBN 978-1-136-86582-4. 
  16. ^ Lanxin Xiang (4 February 2014). The Origins of the Boxer War: A Multinational Study. Routledge. pp. 264–. ISBN 978-1-136-86582-4. 
  17. ^ Boot, Max (2014). The Savage Wars Of Peace: Small Wars And The Rise Of American Power (revised ed.). Basic Books. ISBN 0465038662. Retrieved 2014-11-11. 
  18. ^ Robert B. Edgerton (1997). Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military. WW Norton & Co. p. 72. ISBN 0-393-04085-2. Retrieved 2010-11-28. 
  19. ^ Lanxin, Xiang (2014). The Origins of the Boxer War: A Multinational Study. Routledge. p. 264. ISBN 1136865896. 
  20. ^ John H. Miller (2 April 2014). American Political and Cultural Perspectives on Japan: From Perry to Obama. Lexington Books. pp. 41–. ISBN 978-0-7391-8913-9. 
  21. ^ Robert B. Edgerton (1997). Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military. Norton. pp. 167–. ISBN 978-0-393-04085-2. 
  22. ^ Robert L. O'Connell; John H. Batchelor (2002). Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present. Simon and Schuster. pp. 243–. ISBN 978-0-684-84407-7. 
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ Liang 1995, p. 63.
  26. ^ Appleman 1990, p. 363.
  27. ^ a b c d e f Roe 2000, p. 435.
  28. ^ Roe 2000, p. 93.
  29. ^ Alexander 1986, p. 311.
  30. ^ Mahoney 2001, p. 73.
  31. ^ Marshall 1988, p. 5.
  32. ^ George 1967, pp. 4–5.
  33. ^ a b O'Dowd 2007, p. 148.
  34. ^ O'Dowd 2007, pp. 150, 165.
  35. ^ O'Dowd 2007, pp. 144, 164.
  36. ^ O'Dowd 2007, p. 151.


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