Human wave attack
Human wave attack, also known as human sea attack, is an offensive infantry tactic, in which an attacker conducts an unprotected frontal assault
Frontal assault
The military tactic of frontal assault is a direct, hostile movement of forces toward the front of an enemy force . By targeting the enemy's front, the attackers are subjecting themselves to the maximum defensive power of the enemy...

 with densely concentrated infantry
Infantrymen are soldiers who are specifically trained for the role of fighting on foot to engage the enemy face to face and have historically borne the brunt of the casualties of combat in wars. As the oldest branch of combat arms, they are the backbone of armies...

 formations against the enemy line, intended to overrun the defenders by engaging in melee combat.


According to US Army analyst Edward C. O'Dowd, the technical definition of a human wave attack tactic is a frontal assault by densely concentrated infantry formations against an enemy line, without any attempts to shield or to mask the attacker's movement. The goal of the human wave attack is to maneuver as many men as possible into melee range, hoping that the shock from a large mass of attackers engaged in melee combat would force the enemy to disintegrate or fall back.

The human wave attack's reliance on melee combat usually made the skills of individual soldiers irrelevant, but it requires either great physical courage
Courage is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation...

, coercion
Coercion is the practice of forcing another party to behave in an involuntary manner by use of threats or intimidation or some other form of pressure or force. In law, coercion is codified as the duress crime. Such actions are used as leverage, to force the victim to act in the desired way...

, or esprit de corps for the attackers to advance into enemy fire. However, when matched against modern weaponry such as automatic firearms, artillery and aircraft, human wave attack is an extremely dangerous and costly tactic in the face of devastating firepower. Thus for the human wave attack to succeed on the modern battlefield, it is imperative for the attackers to charge
Charge (warfare)
A charge is a maneuver in battle in which soldiers advance towards their enemy at their best speed in an attempt to engage in close combat. The charge is the dominant shock attack and has been the key tactic and decisive moment of most battles in history...

 into the enemy line in the shortest time and in the greatest number possible, so that a sufficient mass can be preserved when the attackers reached melee range. But this solution usually meant that the attackers must sacrifice concealment and covers for numbers and speed. Because of this trade off, human wave attack tactic is normally used by an attacker with a lack of tactical training, or one who lacks firepower and the ability to maneuver, but whose main advantage is in motivating and controlling their men.


The term "human wave attack" has been used to describe the infantry assault tactics used by several armed forces around the world. These included European armies during World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, Imperial Japanese Army
Imperial Japanese Army
-Foundation:During the Meiji Restoration, the military forces loyal to the Emperor were samurai drawn primarily from the loyalist feudal domains of Satsuma and Chōshū...

 and Soviet Red Army during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, Chinese People's Liberation Army
People's Liberation Army
The People's Liberation Army is the unified military organization of all land, sea, strategic missile and air forces of the People's Republic of China. The PLA was established on August 1, 1927 — celebrated annually as "PLA Day" — as the military arm of the Communist Party of China...

 during the Korean War
Korean War
The Korean War was a conventional war between South Korea, supported by the United Nations, and North Korea, supported by the People's Republic of China , with military material aid from the Soviet Union...

, Vietnamese insurgents during the Indochina Wars
Indochina Wars
The Indochina Wars were a series of wars fought in Southeast Asia from 1947 until 1979, between nationalist Vietnamese against French, American, and Chinese forces. The term "Indochina" originally referred to French Indochina, which included the current states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In...

, and Iranian Basij
The Basij is a paramilitary volunteer militia established in 1979 by order of the Islamic Revolution's leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The force consists of young Iranians who have volunteered, often in exchange for official benefits...

 during the Iran–Iraq War.

People's Liberation Army

The term "human wave attack" was often misused to describe the Chinese short attack — a combination of infiltration
Infiltration tactics
In warfare, infiltration tactics involve small, lightly equipped infantry forces attacking enemy rear areas while bypassing enemy front line strongpoints and isolating them for attack by follow-up troops with heavier weapons.-Development during World War I:...

 and the shock tactics
Shock tactics
Shock tactics, shock tactic or Shock attack is the name of an offensive maneuver which attempts to place the enemy under psychological pressure by a rapid and fully committed advance with the aim of causing their soldiers to retreat...

 employed by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) during the Korean War. A typical Chinese short attack was carried out at night by small fireteam
A fireteam is a small military unit of infantry. It is the smallest unit in the militaries that use it and is the primary unit upon which infantry organization is based in the British Army, Royal Air Force Regiment, Royal Marines, United States Army, United States Marine Corps, United States Air...

s on a narrow front against the weakest point in enemy defenses. The Chinese assault team would crawl undetected within grenade range, then launch surprise attacks against the defenders in order to breach the defenses by relying on maximum shock and confusion.

If the initial shock failed to breach the defenses, additional fireteams would press on behind them and attack the same point until a breach was created. Once a penetration was achieved, the bulk of the Chinese forces would move into the enemy rear and attack from behind. During the attacks, the Chinese assault teams would disperse while masking themselves using the terrain, and this made it difficult for UN defenders to target large number of Chinese troops. The attacks by the successive Chinese fireteams were also carefully timed to minimize casualties. Due to the primitive communication systems and the tight political controls within the Chinese army, short attacks were often repeated indefinitely until either the defenses were penetrated or the attacker's ammunition supply were exhausted, regardless of the chances of success or the human cost.

This persistent attack pattern left a strong impression on UN forces that fought in Korea, thus the description of "human wave" was born. US Army historian Roy Edgar Appleman observed that the term "human wave" was later used by journalists and military officials to convey the image that the American soldiers were assaulted by overwhelming numbers of Chinese on a broad front, which is inaccurate when compared with the normal Chinese practice of sending successive series of five men teams against a single narrow portion of the line. S.L.A. Marshall also commented that the word "mass" was indiscriminately used by the media to describe Chinese infantry tactics, and it is rare for the Chinese to actually use densely concentrated infantry formations to absorb enemy firepower. In response to the media's coining of the term, a joke circulated among the US servicemen was "How many hordes are there in a Chinese platoon
A platoon is a military unit typically composed of two to four sections or squads and containing 16 to 50 soldiers. Platoons are organized into a company, which typically consists of three, four or five platoons. A platoon is typically the smallest military unit led by a commissioned officer—the...


Although abandoned by the PLA by 1953, the human wave attack tactic was adapted by the Viet Minh
Viet Minh
Việt Minh was a national independence coalition formed at Pac Bo on May 19, 1941. The Việt Minh initially formed to seek independence for Vietnam from the French Empire. When the Japanese occupation began, the Việt Minh opposed Japan with support from the United States and the Republic of China...

, and later by the Viet Cong and the Vietnam People's Army
Vietnam People's Army
The Vietnam People's Army is the armed forces of Vietnam. The VPA includes: the Vietnamese People's Ground Forces , the Vietnam People's Navy , the Vietnam People's Air Force, and the Vietnam Marine Police.During the French Indochina War , the VPA was often referred to as the Việt...

 during the Indochina Wars. Due to the stagnation of the Chinese military modernization programs during the Cultural Revolution
Cultural Revolution
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, commonly known as the Cultural Revolution , was a socio-political movement that took place in the People's Republic of China from 1966 through 1976...

, the Chinese army re-adopted this tactic during the Sino-Vietnamese War
Sino-Vietnamese War
The Sino–Vietnamese War , also known as the Third Indochina War, known in the PRC as and in Vietnam as Chiến tranh chống bành trướng Trung Hoa , was a brief but bloody border war fought in 1979 between the People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam...

. Their use in the Sino-Vietnamese War is a rare example of an army with superior firepower, in this case the PLA, throwing away its advantage.

See also

  • Attrition warfare
    Attrition warfare
    Attrition warfare is a military strategy in which a belligerent side attempts to win a war by wearing down its enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and matériel....

  • Banzai charge
    Banzai charge
    Banzai charge was a term applied during World War II by the Allied forces to human wave attacks mounted by infantry forces of the Imperial Japanese Army...

  • Cannon fodder
    Cannon fodder
    Cannon fodder is an informal, derogatory term for military personnel who are regarded or treated as expendable in the face of enemy fire. The term is generally used in situations where soldiers are forced to deliberately fight against hopeless odds in an effort to achieve a strategic goal...

  • Highland charge
    Highland charge
    The Highland charge was a battlefield shock tactic used by the clans of the Scottish Highlands which incorporated the use of firearms.-Historical Development :...

  • Force concentration
    Force concentration
    Force concentration is the practice of concentrating a military force, so as to bring to bear such overwhelming force against a portion of an enemy force that the disparity between the two forces alone acts as a force multiplier, in favour of the concentrated forces.-Mass of decision:Force...

  • Swarming (Military)
    Swarming (military)
    Military swarming is a behavior where autonomous, or semi-autonomous, units of action attack an enemy from several different directions and then regroup. Pulsing, where the units shift the point of attack, is a part of military swarming. Swarming is not limited to the human military realm...

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