Movies, books, paintings, and other forms can portray war with all the pomp and pageantry their creators want. The truth remains that you get a more honest look at the nature of war by studying these battles. War does not create nobility and courage for the majority of participants. It’s a process by which empathy is shut down and replaced with horrific behavior.
The battles included in this list are horrifying in a variety of ways. Some involved particularly negligent — if not downright sadistic — decisions on the parts of commanders. Others featured soldiers being as depraved as Ed Gein. A few are horrifying for how civilians were treated, even children, and a couple are horrifying for the devastating impact they had on the larger world…
10. Battle of the Wilderness
Fought from May 5-7 in 1864, this was the first battle between two of the most celebrated commanders of the American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Badly outnumbered, the Confederates under Lee needed to attack the Union soldiers in the thick forests of the Wilderness to offset their enemy’s numerical advantage. It was the same location where Lee had won his most brilliant victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville the year before. The three day battle would be one of the deadliest of the war, resulting in more than 20,000 killed or wounded in fighting that was so confused soldiers shot their own generals. Tactically, the result was a stalemate, but as Grant ordered the Union troops to continue around their opponents to the Confederate capital of Richmond anyway, it signaled the eventual end of the Confederacy. Still, it would leave in its wake a moment that stood out for its grimness even in those four years of carnage.
The forestry of the Wilderness was especially dry during the battle, and in the confused fighting, many wounded were left where they fell. With sparks from muskets and rifles flying freely, dozens of forest fires broke out. That left many soldiers to be incinerated by flames approaching, or suffocated by the fumes. The number of men who perished in this particularly horrible manner is not precisely known but is estimated to be well into the hundreds.
9. Battle of Manilla
One of the most famous quotes of World War II is General Douglas MacArthur promising “I shall return!” as his troops were being driven from the Philippines in 1942. For many Filipinos living in the capitol city Manilla, those words would be something of a death sentence. On February 6, 1945, MacArthur claimed that his soldiers had liberated Manilla, but the truth was that it was still in the hands of the Japanese military. The Japanese Imperial soldiers would be guilty of many staggering crimes against humanity over the course of World War II, such as the experiments conducted at Unit 731. However, the scorched-earth actions undertaken by the marines under Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi in the Philippines were a political embarrassment for a US Army that had already declared victory, and thus were largely hidden from public attention.
Not only did the Japanese military destroy many of Manilla’s historical buildings. Not only were so many private homes set fire that it created a firestorm. Priests and nuns were hanged in churches. Doctors were gunned down in churches. There were even reports of children being placed in pits before grenades were tossed in, and infants were bayoneted. In total a minimum of 100,000 civilians were murdered as the Japanese fought from building to building over the four week battle. Japanese soldiers justified their atrocities against civilians to themselves by labelling everyone they killed as some form of enemy combatant. One Japanese soldier wrote in his journal, “burned one thousand guerrillas today.”
Quite possibly worst of all, it was all for nothing as far as both sides were concerned. According to the LA Times, MacArthur was repeatedly advised that liberating the Philippines was strategically pointless as American bombers were already within range to strike the Japanese mainland, the key to quickly ending the war. Many of those civilians suffered horrific deaths largely so that MacArthur could declare “I have returned” for the press’s benefit.
8. Battle of Mosul
In October 2016, the Iraqi Coalition began a massive campaign to liberate Mosul, Iraq, from the hands of the terrorist organization ISIS. The battle would be so grueling that it lasted until July 2017. At the beginning of the operation there were one million civilians directly endangered by the battle.
Accounts vary in how many civilians died in Mosul. The initial Coalition reports were only 362 that they were responsible for, but later reports raised that to roughly 3,200 of the 4,200 total civilian deaths. It was not surprising that the Coalition killed so many more because they had complete air superiority, and many civilians were killed by collapsed wreckage. When efforts were taken to reduce civilian casualties by directing fire next to targets instead of directly striking them, an airstrike coordination group on WhatsApp mocked the policy by changing its name from “Killing Danesh 24/7” to “Scaring Danesh 24/7.”
What’s especially horrifying about this is that it’s quite possible that the situation was exacerbated by the coalition forces. In the days leading up to the battle, the Iraqi government feared that large numbers of the million or so civilians inside Mosul fleeing would impede the liberation and cause a massive refugee crisis. So according to AP News, the Iraqi government dropped many leaflets and directed their service members to tell the civilians to stay within the line of fire in the city. Of course ISIS was worse, summarily executing civilians for merely leaving their homes or crowding them into buildings that were likely to be coalition targets.
7. Battle of Cold Harbor
Less than a month after the Battle of the Wilderness, the Union troops under Grant found themselves in another nightmarish situation. On June 3, 1864, Grant ordered a general attack of the Confederates, but Lee’s army had been given time to fully entrench themselves. In something of a preview for the costly battles of World War One, the Southerners inflicted more than 7,000 casualties on their enemy in less than half an hour while losing a small fraction of that themselves. Thousands of wounded Union troops were left in the No Man’s Land between their armies.
It was too dangerous for the Union troops to go and retrieve their wounded, so Grant attempted to negotiate a ceasefire with Lee. Despite his subsequent reputation for being a kind person, Lee would not order his soldiers to hold fire until Grant agreed to a formal truce, which would be functionally conceding the Confederates won the battle. For four days Lee and Grant allowed the wounded Union soldiers to suffer in the scorching sun and freeze through the nights until Grant finally conceded, by which point many of the thousands of wounded had died of exposure. Rarely have men endured so much pain and death for such purely egotistical reasons on the parts of their commanders.
6. Battle of Gaza
Operation Protective Edge was the name the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) gave for an offensive into the Gaza Strip that began on July 8, 2014. When it was over, more than 200,000 Palestinians were displaced and 504 Palestinian children were killed, roughly one quarter of all Palestinian deaths. Israeli casualties included 59 dead.
Accusations later emerged that both the terrorist organization Hamas and IDF had been using Palestinian children as human shields. This included having children at target locations to discourage bombing, having children look through containers suspected of concealing explosive traps, and having children walk out in front of troops. Whatever the truth of the situation, this would certainly not have been the first time Palestinian children were used as human shields by the IDF. In 2009, two Israeli soldiers were found guilty of doing exactly that. In 2013, there were 14 reported uses of this technique by the IDF according to the United Nations.
5. Battle of Centralia
While we’ve seen that in the Eastern theater the American Civil War was often horribly brutal, the Western theater was a wilder sort of vicious. The relatively lightly settled state of Missouri in particular was home to many bands of butchers in uniform. Neither side had a monopoly on vicious killers. The Northerners had Jayhawks, with such figures as Charles Jennison. The Southerners had Bushwhackers, which included William “Bloody Bill” Anderson (pictured above), the partisan who left the largest trail of blood in his wake in Missouri. His reign of terror culminated in the Centralia Massacre.
On September 27, 1864, a group of 150 Union troops arrived in Centralia, Missouri to capture him. Anderson’s much larger force ambushed and surrounded them. Among the fates that befell the Union prisoners were being scalped and decapitated. Heads were placed on fence posts facing each other and moved as if they were holding conversations. Other heads were kicked around. One prisoner was effectively fed a part of himself. While even many Civil War buffs don’t know about this event, they likely know the name of one of the Confederates who took part in it: future outlaw Jesse James.
4. Battle of Targoviste
In 1461, Wallachia was a state in present day Romania that bordered the Ottoman Empire, and its leader refused to pay tribute to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, and followed that up by killing the Ottoman envoys and raiding their land. When the Ottomans invaded with an overwhelmingly superior army, the Wallachians used scorched-earth tactics until June 17, 1462, when the Ottomans were outside the capital city Targoviste. That night the Wallachian leader launched a daring raid on the Ottomans, but he failed to reach the sultan and was driven away with nothing more than some prisoners for his trouble.
Unfortunately for the Ottoman prisoners, the heretofore withheld name of the Wallachian leader was Vladislav Tepes. He’s better known as Vlad the Impaler, and for being the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which is actually an inaccurate reputation). So the next day when the Ottomans entered Targoviste, the city was abandoned except for one grisly tableau in the city square: a practical forest of spikes with impaled humans on them, basically every casualty the Wallachians had gotten their hands on. Before such a sight, Mehmed II gave up and returned home. It would take Mehmed II another 14 years to get his revenge, when Vlad was killed in battle during an uprising in Wallachia that the sultan had supported.
3. Siege of Suiyang
Hunger is inevitable during any slightly effective siege, and stories of cannibalism during sieges are not too surprising. However, there’s a unique quality to this siege that took place in 757 AD to prevent an invasion of Southern China during the An-Shi Rebellion. After making their way through everything in the city from the tree bark to the rats, General Zhang Xun of the Tang Dynasty ordered his 10,000 man army to resort to cannibalism.
Zhang Xun did not exempt his own social circle from his grisly order. He had his own concubine put to death to sustain his soldiers just a little longer for the siege that would stretch out for 10 long months. As it happened, the city fell just a few days before the arrival of a Tang relief army, but holding their enemies back for so long was still a massive contribution to the Tang Dynasty’s success.
2. Siege of Caffa
Caffa was one of the wealthiest cities and busiest ports on the Crimean Peninsula. So in 1343 when the city decided to harbor some Genoese Christians that had just killed local Muslims from the Mongols that came demanding to bring harsh punishments to the killers, they were in a much stronger position to withstand a siege than the Mongols anticipated. The Mongols suffered heavy casualties and lost much of their siege equipment before being repulsed. When the Mongols came back for a second attempt in 1345, their leader Jani Beg was willing to resort to atrocious acts, even by Mongol standards, for revenge.
The Mongol Empire had been suffering from a plague for several years by the time the second attack on Caffa began, and Jani Beg ordered that their enemies know that feeling as well. The corpses of Mongols that had been killed by the plague were thrown into the city. It did not immediately devastate the city, and in fact Caffa held out for two more years and the war ended with negotiation instead of a traditional Mongol sacking and mass murder. Yet the city had already become the most devastating disease vector in European history, and its merchants would carry the Black Death to almost every corner of Europe, in many communities killing between one third and one half the population. All those deaths, just from the firing of a few catapults.
1. Sack of Baghdad
The Mongols were so destructive that between 1211 and 1223 alone, they were reported to have destroyed dozens of Chinese cities and killed more than 18 million Chinese citizens. Several times they were said to have killed over one million people in a single instance of sacking a city. Yet even by those grim standards, the fate Baghdad suffered on February 13, 1258 stood out.
It took the 150,000 Mongols, their thousand Chinese siege engineers, and 20,000 Christian Armenian soldiers 12 days to conquer Baghdad, their pace so measured that they paused to build brick installations around the city for their siege weapons, and moats to better control the fleeing refugees. When the Caliph Al-Musta’sim sent two envoys, the Mongol commanding general Hulagu had them killed. When the Caliph tried again, sending a group of 3,000 diplomats, nobles, and soldiers to surrender, the Mongols agreed to their terms, collected their weapons, and then murdered them before moving on to the city itself.
Because civilians from surrounding communities had fled to Baghdad, the number of people that fell to the Mongol swords was truly unprecedented. It was estimated to be roughly two million people put to death in a matter of less than a week, the only community that was spared being a sect of Christians because Hulagu’s mother had belonged to that sect. Hulagu had the Caliph executed by locking him in a cell with some of his riches and letting the man starve to death. Additionally, the House of Wisdom and all the scholars, scientists, and historians in its employ were destroyed, roughly the equivalent of the famous destruction of the Library of Alexandria. It left various communities of Islam in such disarray that they’ve never recovered.
Dustin Koski is also the author of A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong.