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Sherman's March to the Sea by Darley and Ritchie

7 historical armies that used 'scorched earth' tactics

Image: Sherman's March to the Sea by Darley and Ritchie

Over the long history of human warfare, military forces have laid siege to castles and cities, fought pitched battles, and fired missiles. They have also had another tactical arrow in their quiver: scorched earth.

The so-called scorched earth policy essentially involves one or more sides in a conflict making things difficult for their opponents by destroying infrastructure, food sources, supplies, buildings, and terrorising civilians.

Here we look at seven famous examples of the use of scorched earth tactics spanning 2,500 years of history and across four continents.

1. The Scythians (513 BC)

Perhaps one of the earliest recorded examples of scorched earth tactics can be traced back to Scythia, an ancient land that hugged the area around the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. King Darius I (Darius the Great), King of Kings of the mighty Persian Empire, set his sights on Scythia when he set off to go conquering in the spring of 513 BC.

Darius crossed the Danube and invaded Scythia in August that year, meeting stubborn resistance from the Scythians, a formidable warrior people who essentially lived in the saddle and the wagon.

As Darius’s forces pursued the Scythians east, the Scythians left a naked land in their wake, with nothing for the invading soldiers and horses to forage on. Herodotus described their scorched earth tactics, saying that the Scythians drove ‘off their herds, choking the wells and springs on their way, and rooting up the grass from the earth’.

Greek historian Herodotus said of the fearsome Scythians that, 'none who attacks them can escape, and none can catch them if they desire not to be found.'

2. The Gauls (52 BC)

Vercingetorix, a national hero of France, was a powerful ruler who united the Gallic tribes in a revolt against the Romans in 52 BC. The young noble had many early successes in his fight against the legions - but it was not to last.

When the Romans captured the city of Avaricum in the spring of 52 BC, about 98% of the city’s 40,000 inhabitants were butchered by Julius Caesar’s forces.

In his war against the Romans, the warrior king employed scorched earth policies. He deliberately burned villages, farmland, homes, and even entire cities to stop them from providing any sort of food, fortification, or shelter to Caesar’s army.

In September 52 BC, Caesar’s forces inflicted a crushing victory on the Gauls at the epic Battle of Alesia, after which Vercingetorix famously surrendered at the feet of Caesar himself. He was then taken to Rome and paraded as a prisoner before being garrotted in 46 BC.

3. The Normans (1069-70)

After William the Conqueror was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066, he was naturally keen to consolidate power in his new kingdom. In the winter of 1069-70, the king went on the war path, using military might and a scorched earth policy to bring to heel the difficult shires of northern England. This campaign has become known as the ‘Harrying of the North’. A chronicler writing just a few decades later said that William spent that winter, ‘laying waste the country’ and ‘inflicting every sort of evil’.

Mass murder, burning, looting, and destruction of towns, farms, houses, crops, livestock, and even tools during this episode led to tens of thousands of deaths from starvation and violence and brought the north to its knees.

4. The French (1689)

Between 1688 and 1697, the major European powers of the time fought a war that raged from Northern Europe to West Africa. This was the Nine Years’ War.

The powerful French king Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, was used to getting his own way. But even Louis knew that when his forces invaded the German Palatinate region in 1688, it would not be a walkover for France. Louis and his minister, the Marquis de Louvois, therefore, undertook a scorched earth campaign in this region which, if they were forced to withdraw, would leave behind a land less threatening to France.

In March 1689, the Comte de Tessé sacked Heidelberg Castle, and in the subsequent weeks, about 20 more historic and important towns were razed to the ground. Speyer and Worms, two of Germany’s oldest cities, were completely destroyed. In Mannheim, the Marquis de Louvois gave orders that its destruction should be so total that, ‘no stone should be left on top of another’.

5. The Yankees (1864)

On 9th October 1864, the penultimate year of the American Civil War, Union general William Sherman wrote to his fellow commanders to propose marching his forces from Atlanta to the eastern seaboard city of Savannah. What he was suggesting was a scorched earth campaign that would become known as Sherman’s March to the Sea. He wrote, ‘[T]he utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources […] I can make the march and make Georgia howl.’

Sherman was true to his word, and from the middle of November to just before Christmas, he led his 60,000 soldiers (divided into two wings 20-40 miles apart) over 250 miles across the state, wreaking havoc, terrifying civilians, and making life difficult for the remaining strung-out pockets of Confederate troops. Sherman wanted the people of Georgia to feel the ‘hard hand of war’.

Union soldiers destroyed bridges, farms, factories, railroads, and property. They raided civilian homes and farms, stole food, and killed whatever livestock they couldn’t carry off with them.

When Sherman captured Savannah on 21st December 1864, he presented the key port city as a Christmas present to Abraham Lincoln.

6. The British (1901-02)

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of scorched earth tactics took place in modern-day South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Though Britain ultimately won the war, the fighting was bitter and bloody, with a high body count on both sides.

Battlefield successes varied, with impressive Boer victories in the early stages humiliating Britain, and considerable British success from early 1900. Despite this, in early 1901, Britain was still struggling in the vast countryside against dug-in Boer commandos.

It was in March 1901 that British commander, Lord Kitchener, initiated a scorched earth policy to deprive the guerillas of the support they were receiving from Boer civilians and to starve the fighters out of the bush. The British destroyed around 30,000 Boer farmhouses and over 40 towns. Livestock were killed and infrastructure was disabled.

The British also put Boer women, children, and black civilians into internment camps. It is estimated that a total of over 46,000 people died in the roughly 100 camps, from disease and starvation.

7. The Iraqis (1991)

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein occupied neighbouring Kuwait in August 1990, but in January and February 1991, with the US-led allied forces pushing them out, the Iraqis retreated, and Kuwait was officially liberated on 25th February 1991.

But the Iraqis had left a terrible wave of destruction in their wake, setting fire to up to 732 oil wells and disabling oil infrastructure. The world was shocked, with satellite photographs famously showing the enormous plumes of smoke billowing from the desert. A slew of international firefighting firms arrived to tackle the infernos, but it was not until November 1991 that the last of the oil fires were extinguished.

A huge amount of unburned oil also gushed out from wells and caused widespread damage, with the environmental effects felt for years, including the contamination of millions of tons of earth and sand.