From the Scythians to Russia: The Use of Scorched Earth Tactics in War

Photo Credit: Department of the Army Special Photographic Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Scorched earth tactics have been used nearly as long as armies have conducted military campaigns. While the practice is less common in modern times, it has seen recent use, most notably during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Here’s its history and some of its most notable uses, including during World War II and in Vietnam.

Ancient use of scorched earth tactics

Before one can discuss the use of scorched earth policies, it must be understood what such tactics entail. In general, a scorched earth policy is a strategy which aims to destroy anything that may be of use to the enemy, whether that be natural resources, military equipment – even local citizens. While the latter was banned under the 1977 Geneva Convention, the destruction of resources remains a key strategy for some warring nations.

Village shrouded in smoke
Smoke palls over oil wells set ablaze by the Russians when the Germans occupied Maikop, September 1942. The Germans were promised a rich prize in the Caucasus, but got nothing. (Photo Credit: Keystone / Getty Images)

The Scythians were the first to use the scorched earth tactic. Nomadic herders from what is now Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, they did battle against the Persians and Darius the Great. To gain the upper hand, they moved in secret, destroying the Persians’ food and poisoning their wells. Before their opponents could figure out what happened, they would retreat back into the forest.

Given the success of such tactics, other ancient societies adopted the strategy, including the Armenians, the ancient Greeks against Alexander the Great and the Guals, who used scorched earth tactics against the ancient Romans. It’s said that, prior to battle, the Guals, under Vercingetorix, laid waste to the countryside of what is now Benelux and France. While this destruction greatly hurt the Romans, they were still able to defeat and subjugate the Guals.

Use of scorched earth tactics up until the 19th century

As society entered the medieval period, scorched earth tactics continued to grow in popularity. Viking chieftan Hastein used the policy during the Great Viking Invasion of England in 893, and its use continued with the Harrying of the North in 1069. During this, William the Conquerer quelled a rebellion in Northern England in the most brutal way imaginable. His men burnt down the majority of the villages, killed livestock and destroyed food stores.

The villagers who survived the initial attack resorted to cannibalism.

Artist's rendition of William the Conquerer
William the Conquerer, as shown on the Bayeux Tapestry. (Photo Credit: Lucien Musset / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

During the Hundred Years’ War, both the French and English made use of scorched earth tactics, as did Mircea the Elder against the Ottoman Empire in 1395. Prince Stephen III of Moldavia did the same during the Ottoman advance in 1475-76.

As society progressed into the early modern era, armies continued their use of the scorched earth strategy. The most famous use of it during this time was in Ireland during the Desmond Rebellions in the mid-to-late 1500s, when the majority of the province of Munster was destroyed.

This conflict was followed by others across Europe, including the Wallachian-Ottoman Wars and the Nine Years’ War.

Artist's rendition of the Siege of Mons
Siege of Mons during the Nine Years’ War, 1691. (Photo Credit: Raymond Palmer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Scorched earth tactics were also used outside of Europe. In India, the Chandellas used the strategy while under attack by Mahmud of Ghazni between 1019-22. Fast forward to the 17th century, when Shivaji Maharaj, founder of the Maratha Empire, also used the strategy. He did, however, have some ground rules. His forces were expected to burn down cities, but were ordered to not rape or injure civilians, nor disrespect any religious institutes.

Mararaj’s son, Sambhaji, continued these practices, making him widely despised among the enemy Mughals. In 1689, Sambhaji was captured by Muqarrab Khan, the leader of the Mughal Army. He and his soldiers were particularly angry with the three-day assault following the Battle of Burhanpur. Sambhaji was charged with casual torture, arson, looting and massacre and subsequently put to death.

The Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War

The two most notable instances of scorched earth tactics being used in the 19th century occurred during the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War. Throughout the course of the Napoleonic Wars, those countries that were invaded often resorted to a scorched earth strategy, destroying food supplies to hinder the movement and success of the invading forces.

Artist's rendition of the Battle of Somosierra
Battle of Somosierra in Spain, 1808. It was one of the many battles to occur during the Napoleonic Wars from 1803-15. (Photo Credit: January Suchodolski / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

One of the most famous examples of the scorched earth policy occurred during the American Civil War. Close to victory toward the end of 1864, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman used such tactics to break the Confederacy’s will. Beginning in Atlanta on November 15, he and his soldiers spent a month burning down everything in sight, during an event known as the March to the Sea.

The only towns spared were Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia.

Artist's rendition of Union soldiers destroying a railroad
Union forces destroying a railroad during Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea, 1864. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Sherman estimated his campaign cost the South $100 million. He also made refugees of those living in the areas his men decimated. These individuals were given plots of land to replace their damaged properties. Sherman has long been reviled in the South, but his actions helped to break the Confederacy and win the war for the Union forces.

Scorched earth tactics during the World Wars

The use of scorched earth tactics primarily occurred on the Eastern Front during World War I, but they were also used on the Western Front. In the east, the Imperial Russian Army used them to create a destruction zone during their retreat from the Imperial German Army in 1915, destroying homes, railways and crops. To the west, the Germans made use of the strategy to shorten the line between the Somme and the Hindenburg Line.

Polish village burning
Polish village being burned by the Russians during World War I, as part of their scorched earth strategy. (Photo Credit: Print Collector / Getty Images)

While used in the Greco-Turkish and Second Sino-Japanese wars during the interwar period, the next major use of the scorched earth policy was in the Second World War. It first saw use during the Winter War, with Finnish soldiers using it to destroy the shelters and food being used by the Soviet forces. However, the tables turned in 1944 during the German retreat from Finland, with the Germans destroying large swaths of land in the northern part of the country.

The Germans also made use of scorched earth tactics in Norway in 1944.

Vietnam and the Persian Gulf

Scorched earth tactics during the Vietnam War are typically attributed to the use of Agent Orange by the American forces. The chemical, known for being a particularly powerful herbicide, was used as part of Operation Ranch Hand to destroy crops and the jungle foliage the Viet Cong used to hide.

It was paired with Agent Blue, which was also used to destroy crops used by the Viet Cong – in particular, rice fields.

US Air Force aircraft flying over burning oil wells
US Air Force aircraft flying over burning oil wells in Kuwait, 1991. (Photo Credit: US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Persian Gulf War also saw one of the most notable uses of the scorched earth strategy, with the Kuwaiti oil fires. During their retreat from Kuwait in 1991, the Iraqi forces set fire to between 605 and 732 oil wells in the country, to hinder the US-led coalition forces. The last of the fires was put out in November 1991, but not before the Kuwaiti economy lost $157.5 billion USD in oil and many soldiers suffered respiratory issues due to the poor air quality.

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine

Scorched earth tactics have become much rarer in the 21st century, but examples of their use were seen in Darfur, Libya and Sri Lanka. Most recently, Russia has been accused of using them during its invasion of Ukraine, with White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan saying in early April 2022:

“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.”

Damaged bridge
A volunteer pulls a trolley of food hanging on a rope over a destroyed bridge near the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on March 13, 2022. (Photo Credit: DIMITAR DILKOFF / AFP / Getty Images)

In particular, people have pointed toward the destruction of Ukrainian bridges by Russian forces, as a way to halt the transport of resources, supplies and troops. There has been widespread outrage and condemnation of Putin’s actions, with many countries levying sanctions against Russia and its oligarchs. Time will tell what the final result of the invasion will be.