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What is a Human Wave Attack?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The human wave attack is a military tactic relying on sheer and overwhelming numbers of attackers to subdue another force. In some ways, the attack is very brutal, since members of the human wave attack serve only to add to the numbers of the attack. Heavy casualties in the wave are usually the result of this form of tactic, and the military force perpetuating the attack may be forced to accept these losses in an effort to achieve victory.

In present history, there are not that many instances of human wave attack tactics because loss of life can be so great. Most armies have access to much more sophisticated distance weapons, too. Even in countries that are generally less advanced, availability of accurate distance attack weapons from other countries makes this method far from preferable. One incident cited in recent history of the human wave attack was the use of these waves during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. On the frontier, Iran attempted three unsuccessful uses of this tactic, resulting in extremely heavy casualties.

You are more likely to see the human wave attack referred to as part of the history of older battles. There was some use of it during the Korean War, Vietnam War, and both world wars. Sometimes it was employed to dislodge the other military force from trenches, where they were less accessible through aerial bombing. Still the heavy price of the tactic in sheer loss of human life can diminish further attempts by those armies that employ it. Additional battles with an army with a reduced population due to human wave attacks may mean you have won a battle, but still lost the war.

Even in ancient times, though this tactic was much utilized, great military philosophers often argued against using it to avoid heavy casualties. Sun Tzu, who composed The Art of War in approximately the 6th Century BCE called this tactic one of last resort. Nevertheless, plenty of armies relied on human wave attacks in ancient battles and ones not that ancient, such as the American Revolutionary War.

As weapons became more advanced, the human wave attack became less common. Hand to hand combat, which would have been a hallmark of the attack in ancient days was less preferred when people could fire muskets, rifles, or later throw grenades. Though the method may be used from time to time presently, it is one that is outdated and tremendously costly in casualties.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By tigers88 — On Nov 18, 2011

Does anyone remember that movie Glory? It starred Mathew Broderick and Denzel Washington and was about the first regiment of black troops to fight in the Civil War.

The dramatic final scene of the movie had all the members of the group running to their certain deaths as they stormed a huge Confederate fort. They were supposed to be the first wave and would be followed by wave after wave of soldiers behind them. So their death was almost guaranteed.

I saw that movie at kind of a young age and that scene made a powerful impression on we. I thought it was an incredible symbol of how silly war can be. They tossed their lives away as if they were nothing so they could have a moment of the overrated feeling of glory. Tactics like the human wave attack illustrate how little regard we have for human life sometimes, both our own and others.

By jonrss — On Nov 17, 2011

I would like to believe that the human wave attack is a thing of the past, an outdated military tactic that has no place in the technological wars we fight today.

But the sad simple fact is that it is always in the playbook somewhere. If things get big enough and desperate enough there is always a chance that a military will use its soldiers as a relentless, dispensable force.

You figure even the US used this tactic as recently as WW2. Anyone remember the storming the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan? I hope it never comes to that again, but I worry that it might.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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