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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.

Definition[edit | edit source]

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 the 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]

Use[edit | edit source]

The term "human wave attack" has been used to describe the infantry assault tactics used by several armed forces around the world. These included 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]

People's Liberation Army[edit | edit source]

During the Chinese Civil War, Nationalist Chinese have accused the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) of using unarmed civilians as human shield 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.[11]

Later, the term "human wave attack" was often misused[12] to describe the Chinese short attack — a combination of infiltration and the shock tactics employed by the PLA during the Korean War.[13] According to some accounts, Marshal Peng Dehuai—the overall commander of the Chinese forces in Korea—is said to have invented this tactic.[14] A typical Chinese short attack was carried out at night by small fireteams on a narrow front against the weakest point in enemy defenses.[13] 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.[13]

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.[13] Once a penetration was achieved, the bulk of the Chinese forces would move into the enemy rear and attack from behind.[15] 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] The attacks by the successive Chinese fireteams were also carefully timed to minimize casualties.[16] Due to the primitive communication systems and the 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.[13]

This persistent attack pattern left a strong impression on UN forces that fought in Korea, thus the description of "human wave" was born.[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.[17] 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][13][18]

Although abandoned by the PLA by 1953,[19] 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.[20] 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.[21]

Vietnam People's Army[edit | edit source]

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 advices of Chinese military advisers.[19] Later, the North Vietnamese forces reportedly abandoned this tactic after Soviet military advisers displaced their Chinese counterpart during the Vietnam War.[22]

Basij[edit | edit source]

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 | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Appleman 1990, p. 362.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 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. 7.0 7.1 Marshall 1988, pp. 5–6
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Appleman 1989, p. 353.
  9. O'Dowd 2007, p. 149.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Anderson, Jon Lee (2009-06-19). "Understanding The Basij". New York, NY: The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2009/06/jon-lee-anderson-understanding-the-basij.html. Retrieved 2010-11-22. 
  11. Liang 1995, p. 63.
  12. Appleman 1990, p. 363.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 Roe 2000, p. 435.
  14. Roe 2000, p. 93.
  15. Alexander 1986, p. 311.
  16. Mahoney 2001, p. 73.
  17. Marshall 1988, p. 5.
  18. George 1967, pp. 4–5.
  19. 19.0 19.1 O'Dowd 2007, p. 148.
  20. O'Dowd 2007, pp. 150, 165.
  21. O'Dowd 2007, pp. 144, 164.
  22. O'Dowd 2007, p. 151.

References[edit | edit source]

  • Alexander, Bevin R. (1986). "Korea: The First War We Lost". New York, NY: Hippocrene Books, Inc. ISBN 978-0-87052-135-5. 
  • Appleman, Roy (1989). "Disaster in Korea: The Chinese Confront MacArthur". College Station, TX: Texas A and M University Military History Series, 11. ISBN 978-1-60344-128-5. 
  • Appleman, Roy (1990). "Escaping the Trap: The US Army X Corps in Northeast Korea, 1950". College Station, TX: Texas A and M University Military History Series, 14. ISBN 0-89096-395-9. 
  • (Chinese) Liang, Su Rong (梁肅戎) (1995). "Memoir of Liang Su Rong (大是大非 : 梁肅戎回憶錄)". Taipei, Taiwan: World Culture Publishing Ltd. (天下文化出版股份有限公司). ISBN 978-9-57621-299-4. 
  • Davis, Paul K. (2001). "100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present". New York, NY: Oxford University Press USA. ISBN 978-0-19-514366-9. 
  • George, Alexander L. (1967). "The Chinese Communist Army in Action: The War and its Aftermath". New York, NY: Columbia University Press. OCLC 284111. 
  • Mahoney, Kevin (2001). "Formidable Enemies: The North Korean and Chinese Soldier in the Korean War". Novato, CA: Presidio Press. ISBN 978-0-89141-738-5. 
  • Marshall, S.L.A. (1988). "Infantry Operations and Weapon Usage in Korea". London, UK: Greenhill Books. ISBN 0-947898-88-3. 
  • O'Dowd, Edward C. (2007). "Chinese Military Strategy in the Third Indochina War". New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-41427-2. 
  • Roe, Patrick C. (2000). "The Dragon Strikes". Novato, CA: Presidio. ISBN 0-89141-703-6. 

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