The human wave attack, also known as the human sea attack, is an offensive infantry tactic in which an attacker conducts an unprotected frontal assault with densely concentrated infantry formations against the enemy line, intended to overrun and overwhelm the defenders by engaging in melee combat. The name references the concept of a coordinated mass of soldiers falling upon an enemy force and sweeping them away with sheer weight and momentum, like an ocean wave breaking on a beach.
According to U.S. 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 a human wave attack is to manoeuvre as many men as possible into close 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 makes the organization and the training of the attacking force irrelevant, but it requires either great physical courage, coercion, or morale for the attackers to advance into enemy fire. However, when matched against modern weaponry such as automatic firearms, artillery and aircraft, a human wave attack is an extremely dangerous and costly tactic in the face of devastating firepower. Thus, for a human wave attack to succeed on the modern battlefield, it is imperative for the attackers to charge into the enemy line in the shortest time and in the greatest numbers possible, so that a sufficient mass can be preserved when the attackers reach melee range.
However, this solution usually means that the attackers must sacrifice concealment and cover for numbers and speed. Because of this trade-off, human wave attacks can be used by an attacker with a lack of tactical training or one who lacks firepower and the ability to manoeuvre, but who can motivate and control their men.
Human wave attacks have been used by several armed forces around the world, including European and American armies during the American Civil War and World War I, the Chinese People's Liberation Army during the Korean War, Vietnamese insurgents during the Indochina Wars, and the Iranian Basij during the Iran-Iraq War.
Human wave attacks were used during the Boxer rebellion in China. Boxer rebels performed human wave attacks against Eight-Nation Alliance forces during the Seymour Expedition and the Battle of Langfang where the Eight Nation Alliance was defeated and forced to retreat.
On June 11 and June 14, Boxers armed only with bladed melee weapons directly charged the Alliance troops at Langfang armed with rifles and machine guns in human wave attacks and the Boxers also blocked the retreat of the expedition via train by destroying the Tianjin-Langfang railway. At point-blank range one British soldier had to fire four bullets into a Boxer before he stopped, and American Captain Bowman McCalla reported that single rifle shots were not enough: multiple rifle shots were needed to halt a Boxer. Only machine guns were effective in immediately stopping the Boxers.
The Boxers and Dong Fuxiang's army worked together in the joint ambush with the Boxers relentlessly assaulting the Allies head on with human wave attacks displaying "no fear of death" and engaging the Allies in melee combat and putting the Allied troops under severe mental stress by mimicking vigorous gunfire with firecrackers. The Allies however suffered most of their losses at the hands of General Dong's troops, who used their expertise and persistence to engage in "bold and persistent" assaults on the Alliance forces, as remembered by the German Captain Usedom: the right wing of the Germans was almost at the point of collapse under the attack until they were rescued from Langfang by French and British troops; the Allies then retreated from Langfang in trains full of bullet holes.
During the Siege of Port Arthur, human wave attacks were conducted on Russian artillery and machine guns by the Japanese which ended up becoming suicidal. Since the Japanese suffered massive casualties in the attacks, one description of the aftermath was that "a thick, unbroken mass of corpses covered the cold earth like a coverlet."
During the Russian Civil War, soldiers of the White Army charged the Bolsheviks in public areas to show that the Russian White Army was still actively fighting the Bolshevik Red Army. Even if the odds of victory were slim, due to significant instilled loyalty to the Tsar, even after his execution, troops would often volunteer for reckless assaults, even if ordered to wait for reinforcements. In contrast, soldiers in the Red Army were more disciplined and listened more closely to their commanders.
The Imperial Japanese Army was known for its use of human wave attacks, called banzai charge by the opposing allied forces. There were even specialized units who were trained in this type of assault.
The charge was used successfully in China but it is mostly known in the Pacific War, where Japanese forces used this strategy against American soldiers often with disastrous results. The fanatical Japanese army version of Bushido meant that the troops could not surrender, so a banzai charge was done rather than surrendering as it gave the troops an honourable suicide. This resulted in severe psychological pressure on the American forces, equipped with machine guns, light mortars and either semi-automatic rifles or submachineguns even if overall the attack was often ineffective.
During the Chinese Civil War, Nationalist Chinese accused the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) of using unarmed civilians as human shields with the intention of draining Nationalist force's ammunition supplies during battles. This practice is often referred to as "human sea attack" by the Nationalist Chinese.
Later, the term "human wave attack" was often misused to describe the Chinese short attack -- a combination of infiltration and shock tactics employed by the PLA during the Korean War. According to some accounts, Marshal Peng Dehuai--the overall commander of the Chinese forces in Korea--is said to have invented this tactic. A typical Chinese short attack was carried out at night by small fireteams 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 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 numerous Chinese troops. Attacks by the successive Chinese fireteams were also carefully timed to minimize casualties. Due to primitive communication systems and 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, giving birth to the description of "human wave." U.S. 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 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 stereotype of Chinese assault troops deployed in vast "human seas", a joke circulated among the US servicemen was "How many hordes are there in a Chinese platoon?"
Although abandoned by the PLA by 1953, the Chinese army re-adopted this tactic during the Sino-Vietnamese War due to the stagnation of the Chinese military modernization programs during the Cultural Revolution. 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.