Whenever we talk about war, we focus on the story’s whos and whys. Although the dates and locations were usually mentioned, they were more trivial than anything else. In reality, the physical conditions of the battlefield play a huge factor in the result of the encounters— the terrain, weather, and bodies of water, could all greatly influence how the battle would turn out.

Beyond the tanks, guns, planes, and troops that fight in a war, the terrain itself can be the enemy of both sides, with Mother Nature being a belligerent herself, inflicting casualties with rain, snow, mud, and diseases. Here are two of the worst battlefields in the history of human conflict:

Chosin Reservoir

Also known as the Battle of Lake Changjin, the critical battle took place about a month after the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict stage of the Korean War when they sent the People’s Volunteer Army to occupy the northeastern part of North Korea.

From November 27 to December 13, 1950, 30,000 United Nations Command troops led by Major General Oliver Smith fought some 120,000 Chinese troops under Song Shilun. They were attacked by surprise, which led to the Marines’ encirclement. Worse, the harsh Siberian winter reached temperatures as low as -36 degrees Fahrenheit, and both parties were exposed to the icy environment. The ground was frozen, so troops could not dig foxholes. Their weapons would often jam, fuel for tanks and planes would turn to jelly, and an incredible number of the soldiers experienced frostbite. The landscape was one of hills and mountains with sparse cover and bitterly cold winds.

Exhausted Leathernecks of the 1st Marine Division stop for a brief rest during the bitter fighting at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, December 1950. (U.S. Marines (Official Marine Corps Photo # A5656) (http://www.tecom.usmc.mil/HD/Home_Page.htm), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Eventually, the Marines managed to break out of the encirclement and made a fighting withdrawal to the port of Hungnam, ending the brutal 17-day battle in the freezing weather conditions. The cost to both sides were staggering.  The 1st Marine Division had 836 dead and 10,000 wounded, two-thirds of which were frostbite casualties. The US Army lost 1,000 dead and 2,000 wounded.

The Chinese Communists suffered the worst of it. In trying to attain their goal of destroying the 1st Marine Division they lost nearly 40,000 men to the fighting and the weather in just those 17 days.

Rzhev Meat Grinder

The name of the battle should give you enough clue on how bad things were during the battle of Rzhev on the Eastern front. Marked in the Soviet Union’s history as one of the longest and bloodiest battles during the Great Patriotic War, the battle started when the German troops occupied Rzhev on October 24, 1941. Then, on January 8, 1942, the Soviets began their offensive operations to drive the Nazis away, and they did so until March 31, the following year.

The Soviets had to endure food, weapons, and personnel shortages throughout the entire period. About 3.6 million Soviet troops had to fight against more than 1.5 million Germans. The encounters cost tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides. The battlefield was littered with dead bodies, so much so that they were piled on each other for up to three layers. That was not even the worst of it. Heavy rains sometimes flood the area and cause these corpses to float around. As writer Victor Astafyev described, “We flooded them with rivers of blood and covered them with mountains of corpses.”

Russian soldiers on a wet road. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-269-0219-24 / Böhmer / CC-BY-SA 3.0CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons)

It was estimated that more than one million Soviet troops died at the Rzhev Meat Grinder, which justified the moniker.


During World War I, the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, was fought between the Allied forces and the German Empire. The battle happened on the Western Front between July and November of 1917.

Second Battle of Passchendaele – German pillbox. (D. Joan Macaskill, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Passchendaele was on the last ridge east of Ypres, just five miles away from Roulers. The station at Roulers was on the route of the supply of the German 4th Army. The Allies wanted to capture it and continue to a line from Thourout to Couckelaere, now called Torhout and Koekelare.

The nonstop exchange of artillery fire soon churned up the marshland, and the shell craters quickly welled up with water. Soon, the battlefield turned into a water-logged quagmire that made the Passchendaele trenches a mushy ground. The mud was so deep and sticky that soldiers and their horses got stuck or drowned. When someone fell in for whatever reason, that was it. Those who would try to help would usually risk being stuck, too. Those stuck in the mud were sometimes just shot down by their comrades to save them from an even worse death. Safe to say, the fighting conditions at Passchendaele were a wet and muddy version of hell on earth for those who had to fight and die there.