Different military tactics were adopted and developed from ancient times. Some of these techniques, regardless of how old they were and tons of technological advancements since they were first used, were still useful and effective against the enemy forces. One of them was the scorched earth tactics that have been used for as long as armies have conducted military campaigns, back from the Scythians, and the latest one being the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Here are the different eras that the tactic was used.

Ancient Times

Before we talk about the times that scorched earth tactics were used, we have to understand first what it is. In the simplest words, it could be explained as, “If we couldn’t make use of it, neither could you.” The aim was to destroy anything that may be of use to the enemy— be it natural resources, military equipment, food stores, water sources, transport, communication, animals, or even local citizens. The latter changed and was banned under the 1977 Geneva Convention, but the principle of the tactics still remained: to destroy the resources so that the enemies could not use them.

The method could be traced back to the Scythians, who first used it against the Persians and King Darius the Great. The nomadic herders Scythians evaded the Persian invaders and retreated back into the forest after moving in secret, destroying the enemies’ food, and poisoning their wells.

Seeing the success of the tactics, other ancient societies adopted it, such as the ancient Greeks against Alexander the Great, Armenians, and the Gauls. The Gauls used the scorched earth technique to combat the ancient Romans and turned the countryside of Benelux and France into a wasteland. This, however, did not guarantee their triumph, as the Romans still ended up defeating the Gauls.

American Civil War

The scorched earth policy was largely used during the American Civil War. At the end of 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman was nearing victory when they used the tactics against the Confederates. Starting on November 15, he ordered some 60,000 troops to burn down everything during the March of the Sea. The soldiers spent more than a month turning everything to ashes until December 21, with only the towns of Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, being spared.

Shells of the buildings of Richmond, Virginia, silhouetted against a dark sky after the destruction by Confederates, 1865. (Mathew Brady studio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It was estimated that Sherman’s campaign cost the South around $100 million. Those individuals who lost their properties were made refugees and were given plots of land to replace their damaged belongings. Sherman’s actions helped break the Conferedacy and were one of the reasons that the Union forces won the war.

World War I and II

The scorched earth tactics were mostly observed on the Eastern Front, although there were also some instances when the tactics were used on the Western Front during World War I. To create a destruction zone during their retreat from the Germans, the Imperial Russian army applied the tactics in the east in 1915— destroying houses, railways, corps. To the west, the Germans used the techniques to shorten the line between the Hindenburg Line and the Somme.

During World War II, it was first observed in the Winter War, when the Finnish soldiers used it to remove from the battlefield any shelter or food sources Soviet forces could use as they advanced. In 1944, however, the Germans destroyed large portions of land in the northern part of Finland as they were retreating.

Russia did the same thing in the face of advancing German forces, destroying factories, homes, and burning fields of wheat, soy, and corn to deny anything to German forces.  As a result, mass starvation of the civilian population left behind occurred.

Vietnam and Gulf War

Scorched earth came in the form of Agent Orange and Agent Blue during the Vietnam War. The American forces showered the powerful herbicides to destroy the rice fields and the jungle foliage where the Viet Cong used to hide. The strong chemicals, of course, destroyed more than just the crops.

One massive plume of black-gray smoke forms from multiple fires, blowing east out across the Persian Gulf. The oily plumes extended three to five kilometers up into the atmosphere and hundreds of kilometers across the horizon. (NASA’s Earth Observatory)

In the Persian Gulf War, during the Iraqi’s retreat from Kuwait in 1991, they set fire to about 605 to 732 oil wells in the country to slow down the US coalition forces. Ten months, $157.5 billion in economic losses, and many soldiers with respiratory issues later, the fires were finally put out in November 1991. According to NASA, around 1.5 billion barrels of oil were released into the environment. Imagine the damage that it had caused to the ozone layer!

Russian-Ukraine War

With the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Russia has been accused of using scorched earth tactics. As White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on April 10,

I think it’s actually just consistent with the way that Russia has conducted this war from the beginning… We’ve seen scorched Earth warfare already, we’ve seen atrocities and war crimes and mass killings and horrifying and shocking images from towns like Bucha, and the rocket attack on Kramatorsk. So I think this is an indication that we will see more of that.

This was after a Russian missile struck a train station in the city of Kramatorsk in Ukraine, which was full of civilians trying to flee from the city. Fifty people died, and more than 100 more were injured from the attack.

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