The Duke of Wellington famously said “nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” Battles are inherently destructive events, and they leave their scars on landscapes, places, and participants long after the engagement ends.
Yet some battles stand out for their extreme ferocity, horror, and destructiveness, and are often referred to as “terrible” – as in Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle being “the most terrible 24 hours of the Civil War,” in the words of one participant. A French visitor once told me the Bloody Angle reminded him of “a small-scale Verdun.”
What sets these battles apart for their terribleness?
I offer three factors.
First, at least one side is fighting desperately. The motivation may be survival, as the Confederates at the Bloody Angle; escape, as the UN forces in the Chosin-Hungnam Campaign of 1950; or “backs to the wall,” as with the Japanese in Manila and on Okinawa in 1945. These desperate tactics usually spur the other side to respond with great ferocity and destructiveness in an effort to win.
Second, the battle has to be one that breaks into small actions, resulting in a narrowing of focus and placing more reliance on junior officers. This also has the effect of making the battle more intimate for the participants, as instead of sweeping movements in mass it is a battle between smaller groups on both sides. Examples include the hand-to-hand fighting at the Bloody Angle, the lonely hilltop stands around the Chosin Reservoir, the street fighting in Manila, and the “blowtorch and corkscrew” tactics against Japanese caves on Okinawa.
Third, there has to be an unusual element that adds extra horror to the fighting. This can be, but is not always, a product of weather – such as the snows of the Frozen Chosin or the rains of Spotsylvania. It can also include fire, as at the Wilderness in 1864. The presence of civilians, like at Manila or Okinawa in 1945, often adds an additional terrible element as they get caught in the maelstrom. Horror can also come from a new tactic, such as the kamikaze “Floating Chrysanthemum” attacks on the Allied fleet off Okinawa from April to June 1945.
Any two factors will combine to produce a fierce action. All three factors are needed to produce the most terrible results.
The next time you come across a battle known for its extra horror, consider how these factors combined to make it so.