Scorched earth

Scorched earth
Kuwaiti oil wells set alight by retreating Iraqi forces in 1991.

A scorched earth policy is a military strategy or operational method which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy while advancing through or withdrawing from an area. Although initially referring to the practice of burning crops to deny the enemy food sources, in its modern usage the term includes the destruction of infrastructure such as shelter, transportation, communications and industrial resources. The practice may be carried out by an army in enemy territory, or its own home territory. It may overlap with, but is not the same as, punitive destruction of an enemy's resources, which is done for purely strategic/political reasons rather than strategic/operational reasons. It was most famously used against Napoleon's and Hitler's armies invading Russia.

The strategy of destroying the food supply of the civilian population in an area of conflict has been banned under Article 54 of Protocol I of the 1977 Geneva Conventions. The relevant passage says:

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.[1]

Despite being prohibited, it is still a common practice. The protocol only applies to those countries that have ratified it, notable exceptions[clarification needed] being the United States, Israel, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq.[citation needed]


Ancient times

The Scythians used scorched earth methods against King Darius the Great of Persia. Nomadic herders, the Scythians retreated into the depths of the Steppes, destroying food supplies and poisoning wells. As a result, Darius the Great was forced to concede defeat. A large number of his troops died from starvation and dehydration.

The Greek general Xenophon records in his Anabasis that the Armenians burned their crops and food supplies as they withdrew before the advance of the Ten Thousand.

The Greek mercenary general Memnon suggested to the Persian Satraps the use of the scorched earth policy against Alexander as he moved into Asia Minor. He was refused.

Roman era

The system of punitive destruction of property and subjugation of people when accompanying a military campaign was known as vastatio. Two of the first uses of scorched earth recorded both happened in the Gallic Wars. The first was used when the Celtic Helvetii were forced to evacuate their homes in Southern Germany and Switzerland due to incursions of unfriendly Germanic tribes. To add incentive to the march, the Helvetii destroyed everything they could not bring. After the Helvetii were defeated by a combined Roman-Gallic force, the Helvetii were forced to rebuild themselves on the shattered German and Swiss plains they themselves had destroyed.

The second case shows actual military value: during the "Great Gallic War" the Gauls under Vercingetorix planned to lure the Roman armies into Gaul and then trap and obliterate them. To this end, they ravaged the countryside of what are now the Benelux countries and France. This did cause immense problems for the Romans, but Roman military triumphs over the Gallic alliance showed that this alone was not enough to save Gaul from subjugation by Rome.

During the Second Punic War in 218–202 BC, the Carthaginians used this method while storming through Italy. After the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC, the Roman Senate also elected to use this method to permanently destroy the Carthaginian capital city, Carthage (near modern-day Tunis). The buildings were torn down, their stones scattered so not even rubble remained, and the fields were burned. However, the story that they salted the earth is apocryphal.[2]

In the year AD 363, the Emperor Julian's invasion of Persia was turned back by a scorched earth policy:

"The extensive region that lies between the River Tigris and the mountains of Media...was in a very improved state of cultivation. Julian might expect, that a conqueror, who possessed the two forcible instruments of persuasion, steel and gold, would easily procure a plentiful subsistence from the fears or avarice of the natives. But, on the approach of the Romans, the rich and smiling prospect was instantly blasted. Wherever they moved...the cattle was driven away; the grass and ripe corn were consumed with fire; and, as soon as the flames had subsided which interrupted the march of Julian, he beheld the melancholy face of a smoking and naked desert. This desperate but effectual method of defence can only be executed by the enthusiasm of a people who prefer their independence to their property; or by the rigor of an arbitrary government, which consults the public safety without submitting to their inclinations the liberty of choice."[3]

Middle Ages

Viking Period

During the great Viking invasion of England opposed by Alfred the Great and various other Saxon and Welsh rulers, the Viking chieftain Hastein in late summer 893 marched his men to Chester to occupy the ruined Roman fortress there. The refortified fortress should have made an excellent base for raiding northern Mercia, but the Mercians are recorded as having taken the drastic measure of destroying all crops and livestock in the surrounding countryside in order to starve the Danes out.[citation needed]

Harrying of the North

In the Harrying of the North, William the Conqueror's brutal conquest and subjugation of the North of England, William's men burnt whole villages from the Humber to Tees, and slaughtered the inhabitants. Foodstores and livestock were destroyed so that anyone surviving the initial massacre would soon succumb to starvation over the winter. The survivors were reduced to cannibalism,[4] with one report stating that the skulls of the dead were cracked open so that the brains could be eaten. Between 100,000 and 150,000 perished and the area took centuries to recover from the damage.

High and Late Middle Ages

During the Hundred Years' War, both the English and the French conducted chevauchée raids over the enemy territory to damage its infrastructure.

Robert the Bruce counselled using these operational methods to hold off the English King Edward's forces when the English invaded Scotland, according to an anonymous 14th-century poem:[5] strait places gar keep all store,
And byrnen ye plainland them before,
That they shall pass away in haist
What that they find na thing but waist.
...This is the counsel and intent
Of gud King Robert's testiment.

In 1336, the defenders of Pilėnai in Lithuania set their castle on fire and committed mass suicide in order to make the attacking Teutonic Order's victory a costly one.

The strategy was widely used in the Romanian Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. Prince Mircea I of Wallachia used it against the Ottomans in 1395 and prince Stephen III of Moldavia scorched the earth in his country as the Ottoman army advanced in 1475 and 1476.

Early Modern era

Further British use of scorched earth policies in war was seen during the 16th century in Ireland, where it was used by English commanders such as Walter Devereux and Richard Bingham. Its most infamous use was by Humphrey Gilbert during the wars against the native Irish in Munster in the 1560s and 1570s, actions which earned the praise of the poet Edmund Spenser in his A View of the Present State of Ireland in 1596.[citation needed]

The Desmond Rebellions are a famous case in Ireland. Much of the entire province of Munster was laid waste. The poet Edmund Spenser left an account of it:

In those late wars in Munster; for notwithstanding that the same was a most rich and plentiful country, full of corn and cattle, that you would have thought they could have been able to stand long, yet ere one year and a half they were brought to such wretchedness, as that any stony heart would have rued the same. Out of every corner of the wood and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spoke like ghosts, crying out of their graves; they did eat of the carrions, happy where they could find them, yea, and one another soon after, in so much as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves; and if they found a plot of water-cresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue therewithal; that in a short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast.

In 1630, Field-Marshal General Torquato Conti was in command of Imperial forces during the Thirty Years' War. Forced to retreat from the advancing Swedish army of King Gustavus Adolphus, Conti ordered his troops to burn houses, destroy villages and generally cause as much harm to property and people as possible. His actions were remembered thus:[6]

To revenge himself upon the Duke of Pomerania, the imperial general permitted his troops, upon his retreat, to exercise every barbarity on the unfortunate inhabitants of Pomerania, who had already suffered but too severely from his avarice. On pretence of cutting off the resources of the Swedes, the whole country was laid waste and plundered; and often, when the Imperialists were unable any longer to maintain a place, it was laid in ashes, in order to leave the enemy nothing but ruins.

During the Great Northern War, Russia scorched earth in the way of Swedish king Charles XII's forces.

Nineteenth century

Napoleonic Wars

During the 1810 (third) Napoleonic invasion of Portugal, the Portuguese population retreated, destroying all the food supplies the French might capture (it should be reminded that the recent invention of effective food preserving techniques was still not fit for military because a suitably rugged container had not yet been invented). This attitude was the result of French plundering and general ill-treatment of civilians in the previous invasions. The poor, angered people would rather destroy anything that had to be left behind rather than leaving it to the French. French soldiers reported that the country "seemed to empty ahead of them". When Massená reached the city of Viseu wanting to replenish his armies dwindling food supplies, none of the inhabitants remained, and all there was to eat were grapes and lemons that when eaten in large quantities would be a better laxative than a source of calories. After the subsequent defeat at Bussaco, Massená's army marched on to Coimbra where much of the city's old university and library were vandalised, houses and furniture were destroyed and the few civilians that did not seek refuge further south were murdered. While there were instances of similar behavior by British soldiers, considering that Portugal was their ally, such crimes were generally investigated, and those found punished. Coimbra's sack made the populace even more determined in leaving nothing and when the French armies reached the Lines of Torres Vedras on the way to Lisbon, low morale, hunger, disease, and indiscipline had rendered the French Army of Portugal into a much weaker force. This method was later recommended to Russia when Napoleon made his move.

In 1812 Czar Alexander I was able to render Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Russia useless by utilizing a scorched-earth retreat method, similar to that made by the Portuguese. As Russian forces withdrew from the advancing French army, they burned the countryside (and, allegedly, Moscow) over which they passed, leaving nothing of value for the pursuing French army. Encountering only desolate and useless land Napoleon's Grand Army was prevented from using its accustomed doctrine of living off the lands it conquered. Pushing relentlessly on despite dwindling numbers, the Grand Army met with disaster as the invasion progressed. Napoleon's army arrived in a virtually abandoned Moscow, which was a tattered starving shell of its former self due largely to the use of scorched-earth tactics by retreating Russians. Having essentially conquered nothing, Napoleon's troops diminished. Tragically, the effects of this policy on the civilian population in those areas in which it was applied was equally, if not more, devastating than they were on the Grande Armée.

Philippine-American War

U.S. attacks into the Philippine countryside often included scorched earth campaigns where entire villages were burned and destroyed, torture (water cure) and the concentration of civilians into "protected zones". Many of the civilian casualties resulted from disease and famine.[7][8]

In the hunt for the Guerrilla General Emilio Aguinaldo American troops also poisoned water wells to try to force out the Filipino rebels.[9]

American Civil War

Sherman's troops destroy a railroad near Atlanta

In the American Civil War, General Sherman utilized this policy during his March to the Sea. In another Civil War event the U.S. Army General Order No. 11 (1863) ordered the near-total evacuation of three and a half counties in western Missouri, south of Kansas City, which were subsequently looted and burned by U.S. Army troops. Under Sherman's overall direction, General Sheridan followed this policy in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and subsequently in the Indian Wars of the Great Plains.

When General Grant's forces broke through Richmond's defenses, Jefferson Davis ordered the destruction of Richmond's militarily significant supplies; the resulting conflagration destroyed many – mainly commercial – buildings and some Southern warships docked on the James River. Civilians in panic were forced to escape not only Grant's army but the fires started by their own government. This debacle was not the result of a scorched-earth tactic but the consequences of desperate action instigated by dislodged government officials.

Native American wars

During the wars with Native American tribes of the American West, under Carleton's direction, Kit Carson instituted a scorched earth policy, burning Navajo fields and homes, and stealing or killing their livestock. He was aided by other Indian tribes with long-standing enmity toward the Navajos, chiefly the Utes. The Navajo were forced to surrender due to the destruction of their livestock and food supplies. In the spring of 1864, 8,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced to march 300 miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Navajos call this "The Long Walk." Many died along the way or during the next four years of their internment.

A military expedition led by U.S. Army Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie was sent to the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma Territory Panhandle area in 1874 to remove the Indians to reservations in Oklahoma. The Mackenzie expedition captured about 1,200 of the Indians' horses, drove them into Tule Canyon, and shot them all. Denied their main source of livelihood and demoralized, the Comanche and Kiowa abandoned the area (see Palo Duro Canyon).

Boer War

Boer civilians watching British soldiers burn down their house: Boers were given 10 minutes to gather belongings

Lord Kitchener applied Scorched Earth policy during the later part of the Second Boer War (1899–1902) when the Boers, defeated when their two capital cities had been captured but never on the battlefield, adopted guerrilla warfare in order to rid their republics of the British. So the British ordered destruction of the farms and the homes of civilians in order to prevent the still-fighting Boers from obtaining food and supplies. An eloquent description of this comes from an Army officer at the time.[10] This destruction left women and children without means to survive since crops and livestock were also destroyed.[11] The existence of the concentration camps was exposed by Emily Hobhouse, who toured the camps and began petitioning the British government to change its policy.[12][13] In an attempt to counter Hobhouse's activism, the British commissioned the Fawcett Commission, that confirmed Hobhouse's findings.[14] The British later perceived the concentration camps as a humanitarian measure, to care for displaced persons until the war was ended, in response to the Hobhouse and Fawcett reports. Negligence by the British, lack of planning and supplies and overcrowding led to much loss of life.[15] A decade after the war P.L.A. Goldman officially determined that an astonishing number of 27,927 Boers died in the concentration camps: 26,251 women and children (of whom more than 22,000 were under the age of 16), and 1,676 men over the age of 16, of whom 1,421 were aged persons.[16]


In the Argentina war of independence, the Jujuy Exodus, led by Manuel Belgrano, also used a scorched earth strategy.

In 1868, Tūhoe sheltered the Māori leader Te Kooti, and for this were subjected to a scorched earth policy, in which their crops and buildings were destroyed and their people of fighting age were captured.

Twentieth century

Efraín Ríos Montt utilized this method in the Guatemalan highlands in 1982-3, resulting in the death of approximately 10,000 indigenous peoples, and causing 100,000 to leave their homes.

The Indonesian military and pro-Indonesia militias used this method in their Timor-Leste Scorched Earth campaign around the time of East Timor's referendum for independence in 1999.

The Sudanese government has used scorched earth as a military strategy in Darfur.

World War I

Russian army used scorched earth strategy during its retreat in summer/autumn of 1915.

On 24 February 1917, the German army made a strategic scorched earth withdrawal from the Somme battlefield to the prepared fortifications of the Hindenburg Line, thereby shortening the front line they had to occupy. Since a scorched earth campaign requires that there be a war of movement, World War I provided little opportunity in general for this policy as it was a stalemated war fought mostly in the same concentrated area for its entire duration.

Second Sino-Japanese War

During the Second Sino-Japanese War the Imperial Japanese Army had a scorched-earth policy, known as "Three Alls Policy". Due to the Japanese scorched-earth policy immense environmental and infrastructure damage have been recorded. Additionally it contributed to the complete destruction of entire villages and partial destruction of entire cities like Chongqing or Nanjing.

The Chinese National Revolutionary Army destroyed dams and levees in an attempt to flood the land to slow down the advancement of Japanese soldiers, further adding to the environmental impact. This policy resulted in the 1938 Huang He flood.

World War II

Albert Speer defied Adolf Hitler's order to destroy Germany's infrastructure before the advancing Allies

When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin ordered both soldiers and civilians to initiate a scorched earth policy to deny the invaders basic supplies as they moved eastward. The process was repeated later in the war by the retreating German forces, which burned or destroyed farms, buildings, weapons, and food to deprive Soviet forces of their use.

At the close of World War II, Finland, which had made a separate peace with the Allies, was required to evict the German forces, which had been fighting against the Soviets alongside the Finnish troops in the Northern part of the country. Finnish forces, under the leadership of general Hjalmar Siilasvuo, struck aggressively in August 1944 by making a landfall at Tornio. This accelerated the German retreat, and by November 1944 the Germans had left most of northern Finland. The German forces, forced to retreat due to overall strategic situation, covered their retreat towards Norway by devastating large areas of northern Finland using scorched earth strategy. More than one-third of the dwellings in the area were destroyed, and the provincial capital Rovaniemi was burned to the ground. All but two bridges in Lapland Province were blown up and roads mined.[17] In Northern Norway which was at the same time invaded by Soviet forces in pursuit of the retreating German army in 1944, the Germans also undertook a scorched earth policy, destroying every building that could offer shelter and thus interposing a belt of "scorched earth" between themselves and the allies.[18]

In 1945, Adolf Hitler ordered his minister of armaments Albert Speer to carry out a nationwide scorched earth policy, in what became known as the Nero Decree. Speer, who was looking to the future, actively resisted the order, just as he had earlier refused Hitler's command to destroy French industry when the Wehrmacht was being driven out of France, and managed to continue doing so even after Hitler became aware of his actions.[19]

Vietnam War

Throughout the 1960s, the US employed herbicides (chiefly Agent Orange), as a part of its herbicidal warfare program Trail Dust to destroy crops and foliage in order to expose possible enemy hideouts. Agent Blue was used on rice fields to deny food to the Vietcong. Napalm was also extensively used for such purposes.

According to Jeanne Stellman of Columbia University, 4.8 million people have been exposed to Agent Orange,[20] with some 3 million of them suffering health problems related to the exposure[21][22]

Gulf War

During the Gulf War in 1990 when Iraqi forces were driven out of Kuwait they set the oil wells on fire. The possible reasons for this are discussed in more detail in the article on the Kuwaiti oil fires.[23]

21st Century

Libyan Civil War

During the 2011 Libyan civil war, forces loyal to Muammar al-Gaddafi planted a large number of landmines within the petroleum port of Brega to prevent advancing rebel forces from utilizing the port facilities.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ "Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Convention, 1977". 1954-05-14. Retrieved 2011-03-23. 
  2. ^ Ridley, R. T. (1986). "To Be Taken with a Pinch of Salt: The Destruction of Carthage". Classical Philology 81 (2): 140–146. JSTOR 269786. 
  3. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1788). The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 
  4. ^ Forester, Thomas, ed., The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854, Pg 174
  5. ^ Quoted in The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser.
  6. ^ The history of the Thirty Years' War in Germany by Friedrich Schiller (translated by Christoph Martin Wieland, printed for W. Miller, 1799)
  7. ^ Guillermo, Emil (February 8, 2004). "A first taste of empire". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 03J.,6070988. 
  8. ^ Gates, John M. (1984). "War-Related Deaths in the Philippines, 1898–1902". Pacific Historical Review 53 (3): 367–378. JSTOR 3639234. 
  9. ^ The President and the Assassin, Scott Miller
  10. ^ Phillips, Lisle March (1901). With Rimington in the Boer War. London: Edward Arnold. 
  11. ^ SAHO: The Anglo-Boer War at the Wayback Machine (archived August 21, 2008)
  12. ^ Hobhouse, E. (1901). Report of a visit to the camps of women and children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies. London: Friars Printing Association Ltd.. 
  13. ^ Hobhouse, E. (1907). The Brunt of War and Where it Fell. London: Portrayer Publishers. 
  14. ^ Fawcett, M. H. (1901). The Concentration Camps in South Africa. London: Westminster Gazette. 
  15. ^ "The Boer women and children" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-03-23. 
  16. ^ "RootsWeb: SOUTH-AFRICA-L Re: Boer War Records". 1999-01-22. Retrieved 2011-03-23. 
  17. ^ See Lapland War
  18. ^ Derry, T. K. (1972). A History of Modern Norway: 1814–1972. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-822503-2. 
  19. ^ Kershaw, Ian (2000). Hitler: 1936–1945: Nemesis. New York: Norton. p. 785. ISBN 0393049949. 
  20. ^ Stellman, Jeanne; et al. (2003). "The extent and patterns of usage of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam". Nature 422 (6933): 681–687. doi:10.1038/nature01537. 
  21. ^ Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Deputy PM: special attention paid to AO victims". Retrieved October 18, 2010. 
  22. ^ York, Geoffrey; Mick, Hayley (July 12, 2008). "Last Ghost of the Vietnam War". The Globe and Mail. 
  23. ^ "The Economic and Environmental Impact of the Gulf War on Kuwait and the Persian Gulf," Inventory of Conflict and Environment Cases, published by American University, Washington (DC), U.S.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Scorched Earth — Разработчик Уэнделл Хикен Издатель …   Википедия

  • Scorched Earth — Développeur Wendell Hicken Date de sortie 1991, 1992, 1995 Version 1.5 Genre Artillerie Scorched Earth (en anglais : « terre brûlée ») est un jeu vidéo d artillerie. Développé pour DOS et édité en shareware, i …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Scorched Earth — Desarrolladora(s) Wendell Hicken Plataforma(s) MS DOS, Linux Fecha(s) de lanzamiento 1991 Géne …   Wikipedia Español

  • scorched-earth — ˌscorched ˈearth adjective scorched earth policy/​tactics FINANCE activities in which a company gets rid of its most valuable assets in order to try and avoid a hostile takeover (= one it does not want) …   Financial and business terms

  • Scorched Earth — (engl.: Verbrannte Erde) ist ein Shareware Artillery Computerspiel für MS DOS, das 1991 von Wendell Hicken geschrieben wurde und ein Remake von Tank Wars ist, welches 1986 von Kenny Morse geschrieben wurde. Das Genre geht auf ein Spiel von 1976… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • scorched earth — «skrcht», destruction by government orders of all things useful to an invading army …   Useful english dictionary

  • scorched earth — N UNCOUNT: usu N n A scorched earth policy is the deliberate burning, destruction, and removal by an army of everything that would be useful to an enemy coming into the area. He employed a stringent scorched earth policy, destroying villages,… …   English dictionary

  • scorched-earth — adjective Date: 1937 1. relating to or being a military policy involving deliberate and usually widespread destruction of property and resources (as housing and factories) so that an invading enemy cannot use them 2. directed toward victory or… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • scorched-earth — /ˈskoɚʧtˈɚθ/ adj used to describe a military policy in which all the houses, crops, factories, etc., in an area are destroyed so that an enemy cannot use them The retreating army adopted a scorched earth policy …   Useful english dictionary

  • scorched earth — area that is destroyed in order not to leave means of existence for the intruding enemy …   English contemporary dictionary

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”