Trees, forests and warfare

As has been highlighted previously in this blog (the series on state forestry, for example), trees have been used to fund the gluttonous cogs of the war machine, across both time and space. Usually, this timber consumption has manifested from the progressive land acclamation and legislatory enforcement by the state, until large tracts of forest are state-owned; or private forests can be utilised by the state in times of political emergency. This post therefore focusses not on repeating what has previously been discussed, and instead investigates how the forests themselves have been used for the arts of war – as in, the forest as a site of battle, or for the preparation of one; not that the forest as a site of battle is to be desired, for any attacking force must expect the unexpected, and typical formations and approaches to warfare cannot be applied in the enclosed forest setting (Clayton, 2012). Of course, the prior blog posts I did on state forestry highlight how armed guerrillas in Indonesia and Zimbabwe used the forests for cover and ambush, though this aspect of forest use extends far beyond just these two examples.

Beginning somewhat close to home (for the author), it can be recognised how the New Forest, in the county of Hampshire, UK, was used by the British and American armies, during the Second World War (Leete, 2014). Because of its strategic location relative to the coast of continental Europe, residing along the south coast of England, and complete with nearby ports in Southampton and Poole, the New Forest was used as the first line of defence against any invading Germans coming over from France. For this reason, the forest was used by both the Intelligence Service, and also by thousands of troops who would constitute the defending force if enemy ground invasion did occur. Furthermore, the extensive forest cover provided camouflage for over 30,000 troops in the moths before D-Day (Operation Neptune) in 1944, and the surrounding heathlands acted as airfields and storage areas of military vehicles. In total, 20,000 acres of the New Forest were utilised by the resident forces, during the war, though much like how the forest suddenly filled with troops it also quickly emptied, and almost immediately after the D-Day landing at Normandy the New Forest once again became very sparsely populated.

Troops training near to Brockenhurst, in the New Forest. Source: The New Forest Guide.

The Second World War, beyond its association with the New Forest, was the site of actual battle. One example is that of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, which took place between the US and German forces through September 1944 to February 1945. Situated on the border of Germany and Belgium, the Germans occupied the forest because of its strategic importance to future offensives on the Rhine. Fearing that these German troops would eventually therefore support the front line, the US Army sought to take control of the forest to stall this pursuit. However, because the terrain was very uneven, the access routes through the forest to constituent villages were narrow and almost non-existent, the trees were very dense in many locations, and forest clearings sudden and sporadically occurring, support from tanks was not feasible, and navigating the forest was often challenging and certainly very risky. Subsequently, the US forces suffered losses of over 30,000 men (at times, entire units were lost), eclipsing those incurred by the Germans; in spite of their much larger size. Granted, the Germans also suffered huge losses (Rush, 2001). The forest was thus named ‘The Death Factory’, by the US troops (Whiting, 2000), and became the grave of many individuals from both sides of the conflict.

The 28th Infantry Division of the US Army journey through the intrepid forest on 2nd November 1944. Source: History Net.

Curiously, the close of the Second World War also saw forests treated almost as bounty or reparation; at least, in Germany. Following the defeat Germany suffered, the country was subsequently segmented into various zones: the south-west of Germany became the French Zone, whilst the southern and south-east segments were under control by the Americans, the northern and north-west overseen by the British, and the east and north-east by the Soviets. The purpose of this was to enable Germany to ‘repent’ its ‘sins’, and the occupiers – the Americans, British, French, and Soviets – could harvest the forests as they saw fit, as long as such harvests were not in excess of the reparation quotas detailed after the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945.

Unfortunately, as such quotas usually were far greater than the rate at which the remaining forests (many were in an alarming state of disrepair, commercially-speaking) of Germany could be replenished, the Soviet zone saw fourteen years’ worth of timber logged in just four years. Alongside the purging of these now Soviet-controlled forests, those foresters who were not drafted into the war effort by the German government at the time were forced to work as hard labourers in the forests, and the traditionally scientific method that was German forestry was quashed by the inexperienced Soviets. Similar unsustainable levels of forestry were undertaken in the other occupied areas of Germany, by the Allied governments (Nelson, 2005).

Beyond the Second World War, Clayton (2012) remarks that the forest has been the site of battle as early as 9 A.D. In this year, the forest of Teutoburg was to plague three Roman legions and their auxiliaries – who were ambushed by the allied local Germanic tribes after an uprising in the region – quite cataclysmically. In this case, the Roman legions were headed by the reportedly inexperienced commander Publius Quinctilius Varus, whilst the commander of the allied tribes was the Germanic nobleman known as Arminius, who had himself been trained by the Roman army and was in fact part of the Roman legions who were tasked to deal with the uprising of the local tribes, though quickly defected to lead the Germans into battle.

Under the order of Varus, who was persuaded by Arminius (who at this point in the saga was still in the Roman army and appointed as an officer), the Roman legions headed into the forest to attempt to quell the uprising; at which point Arminius defected, and gathered up to 50,000 Germans to fight against approximately 7,000 Roman troops and their horses (including the three legions of eighty men each). In this forest, the now-defected Arminius used the terrain (including steep slopes, fallen trees, and dense forest cover) to confuse and disorientate the armour-clad Roman legions and support troops, who at first became surrounded and then were torn apart by the nimble Germanic warriors equipped with lightweight weapons (such as darts) and, for close combat, broadswords and spears. Most Roman troops were killed within the forest, in the small units that fled in all directions after Varus (who committed suicide) declared a retreat, though some unfortunate individuals were enslaved and / or tortured by the Germans. Ultimately, this situation manifested because the Roman troops were geared for close combat in the open setting, and the clever use of the forest by Arminius and his warriors led to what can only be considered a Roman tragedy – a tragedy that would not have occurred, and in fact likely have been reversed, if the battle was undertaken in the open (Clayton, 2012; Murdoch, 2006).

Varus is defeated within the forest of Teutoburg, as is depicted through this illustration. Source: Heritage History.

The use of trees during conflict has also given rise to their use for hanging and other forms of execution (Stone, 2008). Certainly a macabre aspect of how warfare – and on a broader scale acts of genocide – ties man to the arboreal world, it is nonetheless an important point to consider, as it highlights how the tree, as a tool, has uses that extend beyond those aforementioned. In the genocide that plagued Cambodia from 1975-1979, for instance, the Khmer Rouge, who were followers of the community party led by Pol Pot, are said to have thrown children against trees until they died – because trees were cheaper than bullets. In these cases, Tyner (2009) remarks, the children were executed because their parents were considered enemies of the state. Lynching in the US, between 1889 to 1930, constitutes another form of warfare; albeit more a form of societal warfare, which can occur even during peacetime. During this period, an estimated 3,724 individuals were lynched, and before usually being hung from a tree and displayed for all to see the pursued individual was tortured, humiliated, dragged, and sometimes burned in front of potentially many thousands of onlookers (Dutton, 2007). In the UK, trees have also been the site of hangings; for example, for the execution of ‘rebels’ – whatever this loose term was deemed to define at the time by the ruling powers (Barnes & Williamson, 2011).

Running concurrently to the very human dynamics of wars and forests, exist more ecologically-based aspects worthy of consideration in this section. Principally, and notably over the past decades, one can identify the desire to safeguard forest biodiversity during times of war, by incorporating forest conservation into military projects (Machlis & Hanson, 2008). As ascertained prior to this point, the demands placed upon the forest in such a period unrest is possibly incredibly great, and particularly when the forest is being harvested for its timber, is being cleared to flush out a hiding enemy or to remove a hiding place, or the war is taking place largely within the forest (Reuveny et al., 2010). In recent years, tropical forests over South America and Africa have been the site of armed conflicts between the state and drug cartels, rebels, or otherwise, and McNeely (2003) astutely observes that such forests and their ecosystems can therefore be considered victims of war. Where these forests are considered hotspots for biodiversity, the impact is certainly markedly more severe and concerning for the scientific community (Hanson et al., 2009).

However, war is not always bad for forests. Where armed conflicts drive the general populace away, if the forests are not being actively utilised for resource to fuel the conflict, then they can undoubtedly benefit from the sudden drop in human pressures. Of course, the displaced populace is not purged from existence, and therefore where refugee camps associated with the conflict are constructed within – or adjacent to – forests, there can be a huge spike in deforestation. A pertinent example of such a phenomenon is when the Rwandan civil war displaced large numbers of people, who settled in the Democratic Republic of Congo in refugee camps and caused over 300km² of deforestation to nearby forests (Machlis & Hanson, 2008).


Barnes, G. & Williamson, T. (2011) Ancient Trees in the Landscape: Norfolk’s arboreal heritage. UK: Windgather Press.

Clayton, A. (2012) Warfare in Woods and Forests. USA: Indiana University Press.

Hanson, T., Brooks, T., da Fonseca, G., Hoffmann, M., Lamoreux, J., Machlis, G., Mittermeier, C., Mittermeier, R., & Pilgrim, J. (2009) Warfare in biodiversity hotspots. Conservation Biology. 23 (3). p578-587.

Leete, J. (2014) The New Forest at War: Revised and Updated. UK: Sabrestorm.

Machlis, G. & Hanson, T. (2008) Warfare ecology. BioScience. 58 (8). p33-40.

Murdoch, A. (2006) Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest. UK: Sutton Publishing.

Nelson, A. (2005) Cold War Ecology: Forests, Farms, & People in the East German Landscape, 1945-1989. USA: Yale University Press.

Reuveny, R., Mihalache-O’Keef, A., & Li, Q. (2010) The effect of warfare on the environmentThe effect of warfare on the environment. Journal of Peace Research. 47 (6). p749-761.

Rush, R. (2001) Hell in Hürtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment. USA: University Press of Kansas.

Stone, D. (2008) The Historiography of Genocide. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tyner, J. (2009) War, Violence, and Population: Making the Body Count. USA: The Guilford Press.

Whiting, C. (2000) Battle of Hürtgen Forest. UK: Spellmount.

Trees, forests and warfare

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