A scorched-earth policy is a military strategy that targets anything that might be useful to the enemy while advancing through or withdrawing from an area. Specifically, all of the assets that are used or can be used by the enemy are targeted, such as food sources, transportation, communications, industrial resources, and even the people in the area.
The practice can be carried out by the military in enemy territory, or in its own home territory. It may overlap with, but is not the same as, punitive destruction of the enemy's resources, which is done for purely strategic/political reasons rather than strategic/operational reasons.
Notable historic examples of scorched-earth tactics include the Russian army's strategy during the failed Napoleonic invasion of Russia, William Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea in the American Civil War, Lord Kitchener's advance against the Boers, the initial Soviet retreat commanded by Joseph Stalin during the German Army's invasion of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, as well as the subsequent Nazi German retreat on the Eastern Front.
The strategy of destroying the food and water 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.
The Scythians used scorched-earth methods against King Darius the Great of Persia, during his European Scythian campaign. The Scythians, who were nomadic herders, retreated into the depths of the Steppes, destroying food supplies and poisoning wells. Many of Darius' troops died from starvation and dehydration.
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 selectively 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.
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.
Early Middle Ages
British monk Gildas, whose sixth-century treatise "On the Ruin of Britain" wrote about an earlier invasion "For the fire of vengeance … spread from sea to sea … and did not cease, until, destroying the neighbouring towns and lands, it reached the other side of the island."
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. The Danes left Chester next year and marched into Wales.
Harrying of the North
In the Harrying of the North, William the Conqueror's solution to stop a rebellion in 1069 was the brutal conquest and subjugation of the North of England. William's men burnt whole villages from the Humber to Tees, and slaughtered the inhabitants. Food stores and livestock were destroyed so that anyone surviving the initial massacre would soon succumb to starvation over the winter. The destruction is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. The survivors were reduced to cannibalism, 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
in 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.
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.
A slighting is the deliberate destruction, partial or complete, of a fortification without opposition. Sometimes, such as during the Wars of Scottish Independence and the English Civil War, the intention was to render the structure unusable as a fortress. In England during the Middle Ages adulterine (unauthorised) castles if captured by the king would usually be slighted. During the Wars of Scottish Independence, Robert the Bruce adopted a strategy of slighting Scottish castles to prevent them being occupied by the invading English. A strategy of slighting castles in Palestine was also adopted by the Mamelukes in their wars with the Crusaders.
Early Modern era
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:
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.
In 1462, a massive Ottoman army led by Sultan Mehmed II marched into Wallachia. Vlad the Impaler retreated to Transylvania. During his departure, he conducted scorched earth tactics to ward off Sultan Mehmed II's approach. When the Ottoman forces approached Tirgoviste, they encountered over 20,000 people impaled by the forces of Vlad the Impaler, creating a "forest" of dead or dying bodies on stakes. This atrocious, gut-wrenching sight caused Sultan Mehmed II to withdraw from battle and instead send Radu, Vlad's brother, to fight Vlad the Impaler.
Great Siege of Malta
In early 1565, Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette ordered the harvesting of all the crops in Malta, including unripened grain, to deprive the Ottomans of any local food supplies since spies had warned of an imminent Ottoman attack. Furthermore, the Knights poisoned all wells with bitter herbs and dead animals. The Ottomans arrived on 18 May of that year, and the Great Siege of Malta began. The Ottomans managed to capture one fort, but were eventually defeated by the Knights, the Maltese militia and a Spanish relief force.
Shivaji Maharaj had introduced scorched-earth tactics known as Ganimi Kava—his forces looted traders and businessmen from Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb's empire, and burnt down his cities. But they were strictly ordered not to rape or hurt the innocent civilians, and not to cause any sort of disrespect to any of the religious institutes.
Shivaji's son, Sambhaji Maharaj, was detested throughout the Mughal Empire for his scorched-earth tactics until he and his men were captured by Muqarrab Khan and his Mughal Army contingent of 25,000. On 11 March 1689, a panel of Mughal Qadis indicted and sentenced Sambhaji to death for condoning casual torture, arson, looting, and massacre of the emperor's subjects, but most prominently for giving shelter to Sultan Muhammad Akbar, the fourth son of Aurangzeb, who sought Sambhajiraje's aid in winning the Mughal throne from his emperor father. Sambhaji was particularly condemned for the three days of ravaging committed after the Battle of Burhanpur.
In the year 1747, the Marathas, led by Raghoji I Bhonsle, began to raid, pillage and annex the territories in Odisha belonging to the Mughal Empire's Nawab of Bengal, Alivardi Khan. The Maratha cavalry numbering 40,000 had sacked the town of Midnapore and set granaries and villages ablaze.
During the 1810 (third) Napoleonic invasion of Portugal, the Portuguese population retreated, towards Lisbon, ordered to destroy all the food supplies the French might capture, forage and shelter in a wide belt across the country. (Although effective food-preserving techniques had recently been invented, they were still not fit for military use because a suitably rugged container had not yet been invented.) The command was obeyed as a 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.
After the 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, 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, if eaten in large quantities, would be better laxatives than sources of calories. Low morale, hunger, disease, and indiscipline rendered the French Army of Portugal into a much weaker force and compelled their retreat next spring. 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 retreated, and again the scorched-earth policy came into effect because even though some large supply dumps had been established on the advance, the route between these had both been scorched and marched over once already, so the French Army starved as it marched along the resource-depleted invasion route. 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.
South American War of Independence
In August 1812, Argentine General Manuel Belgrano led the Jujuy Exodus, a massive forced displacement of people from the present-day Jujuy and Salta provinces to the south. The Jujuy Exodus was conducted by the patriot forces of the Army of the North that were battling a Royalist army.
Belgrano, faced with the prospect of total defeat and territorial loss, ordered all people to pack their necessities, including food and furniture, and follow him, in carriages or on foot, together with whatever cattle and beasts of burden could endure the journey. The rest (houses, crops, food stocks, and also any objects made of iron) was to be burned, so as to deprive the loyalists of resources, following a strict scorched-earth policy. On 29 July 1812 Belgrano asked the people of Jujuy to "show their heroism" and join the march of the army under his command "if, as you assure, you want to be free". The punishment for ignoring the order was execution and the destruction of the defector's properties. Belgrano labored to win the support of the populace, and later reported that most of the people had willingly followed him without the need of force.
The exodus started on 23 August and gathered people from Jujuy and Salta; people travelled south about 250 km, finally arriving at the banks of the Pasaje River, in the province of Tucumán, on the early hours of 29 August. The Patriots applied a scorched-earth policy so the Spaniards advanced into a wasteland. Belgrano’s army destroyed everything that could provide shelter or be useful to the Royalists.
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.
In the hunt for the Guerrilla General Emilio Aguinaldo American troops also poisoned water wells to try to force out the Filipino rebels.
American Civil War
In the American Civil War, Union forces under Sheridan and Sherman used the policy widely. General Sherman utilized this policy during his March to the Sea. In another Civil War event, in response to Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence, Kansas, and the many civilian casualties there, 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. The commander of Union Forces who issued General Order No. 11, Brigadier General Thomas Ewing Jr., was Sherman's brother-in-law. 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 the fires started by the Confederates.
Native American wars
During the wars with Native American tribes of the American West, under James 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).
Lord Kitchener applied scorched-earth policy during the latter part of the Second Boer War (1899–1902). The Boers, refusing to accept military defeat, adopted the first modern form of what we know today as guerrilla warfare, despite the capture of their two capital cities. As a result, 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. This destruction left women and children without means to survive since crops and livestock were also destroyed.
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. In an attempt to counter Hobhouse's activism, the British commissioned the Fawcett Commission, that confirmed Hobhouse's findings. 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. 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.
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.
World War I
In World War I, Imperial Russian army forces created a zone of destruction by using a large-scale scorched-earth strategy during their retreat from the German army in the summer/autumn of 1915. The Russian troops, retreating along a front of more than 600 miles, destroyed anything that might be of use to their enemy, including crops, houses, railways and entire cities. They also forcibly removed huge numbers of people. In pushing the Russians back to their homeland, the German army gained a large area of territory from the Russian Empire (in an area that is today Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia and Lithuania).
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.
Greco-Turkish War (1919–22)
During the Greco-Turkish War (1919–22), the retreating Greek army carried out a scorched-earth policy while fleeing from Anatolia during the final phase of the war. Historian of the Middle East, Sydney Nettleton Fisher wrote that: "The Greek army in retreat pursued a burned-earth policy and committed every known outrage against defenceless Turkish villagers in its path." Norman M. Naimark noted that "the Greek retreat was even more devastating for the local population than the occupation".
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
When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, many district governments took the initiative to begin a 'partial' scorched-earth policy to deny the invaders electrical, telecommunications, rail, and industrial resources. Parts of the telegraph network were destroyed, some rail and road bridges were blown, most electrical generators were sabotaged through the removal of key components, and many mineshafts were collapsed. The process was repeated later in the war by the German forces of Army Group North and Erich von Manstein's Army Group Don, which stole crops, destroyed farms, and razed settlements of at least city size and smaller during several military operations. The rationale was that it would slow pursuing Soviet forces by forcing them to save their own civilians, though in Manstein's postwar memoirs at the very least the policy was justified as a means of preventing the Soviets from stealing the food and shelter from their own civilians. The best known victims of the German scorched-earth policy were the people of the historic city of Novgorod, whose hometown was razed during the Winter of 1944 to cover Army Group North's retreat from Leningrad.
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. 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.
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.
During the Second World War the railroad plough was used in Germany, Czechoslovakia and other countries, denying the enemy use of railroads by partially destroying them whilst retreating.
Britain was the first nation to employ herbicides and defoliants (chiefly Agent Orange) to destroy the crops and bushes of communist insurgents in Malaya during the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s. The intent was to prevent the insurgents from using them as a cover to ambush passing convoys of British troops and to destroy the peasants' ability to support them.
In response to India's invasion on the 451 year old Portuguese Colony of Goa in December 1961 during the Annexation of Portuguese India, orders delivered from the Portuguese President called for a Scorched Earth policy — that Goa was to be destroyed before it was given up to the Indians.
However, despite his orders from Lisbon, Governor General Manuel António Vassalo e Silva took stock of the numerical superiority of the Indian troops, as well as the food and ammunition supplies available to his forces and took the decision to surrender. He later described his orders to destroy Goa as "um sacrifício inútil" (a useless sacrifice).
The U.S. employed Agent Orange, as a part of its herbicidal warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, to destroy crops and foliage in order to expose possible enemy hideouts during the Vietnam War. Agent Blue was used on rice fields to deny food to the Vietcong.
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. The Kuwaiti oil fires were caused by Iraqi military forces setting fire to more than 600 oil wells as part of a scorched-earth policy while retreating from Kuwait in 1991 after invading the country but being driven out by Coalition military forces (see Gulf War). The fires started in January and February 1991 and the last one was extinguished by November 1991.
Efraín Ríos Montt utilized this method in the Guatemalan highlands in 1981-1982, though scorched-earth tactics were first used under the previous president Romeo Lucas García. Upon entering office, Ríos Montt implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy that called for the use of scorched earth to combat the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca rebellion, known as Plan Victoria 82 or, more commonly, by the nickname of the rural pacification elements of this strategy - Fusiles y Frijoles (Bullets and Beans). Ríos Montt's policies resulted in the death of thousands (most of them indigenous Mayans).
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. Before that, during Indonesian National Revolution, various cities and strategic places in Indonesia also subjected to this method in order to deny its usage by Allied forces (particularly British) and then, Dutch forces. Notably in 1946, Indonesian military and militias burned the city of Bandung in West Java to the ground in same purposes.
Darfur region of Sudan
The Sudanese government has used scorched earth as a military strategy in Darfur.
Sri Lankan civil war
During the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009 the United Nations Regional Information Centre (UNRIC) has accused the Sri Lankan government of carrying out the scorched-earth tactics.
Libyan civil war
During the 2011 Libyan civil war, forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi planted a large number of landmines within the petroleum port of Brega to prevent advancing rebel forces from utilizing the port facilities. Additionally Libyan rebel forces practiced scorched-earth policies when they completely demolished and refused to rebuild critical infrastructure in towns and cities formerly loyal to Moammar Gadhafi such as Sirte and Tawargha.
Syrian civil war
During the Syrian civil war, forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad based in northern Syria burnt large swathes of trees and forests which were being used as cover by Free Syrian Army fighters who hid among the trees when not in combat. The forests were mostly burnt in northern parts of the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia, with the fires occasionally spreading across the border into Turkey. At first the forests were burnt by premeditated arson, but once the Assad loyalists withdrew from those areas, they relied on artillery fire to burn the forests. Environmental damage is said to take up to 80 years for full recovery.
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