A Brief History of Landmines Part I—Pre-Modern Uses: Traps, Spikes and Caltrops

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Article 2 of the Ottawa Treaty defined antipersonnel landmines as follows:

1. “Anti-personnel mine” means a mine designed to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person and that will incapacitate injure or kill one or more persons. Mines designed to be detonated by the presence, proximity or contact of a vehicle as opposed to a person, that are equipped with anti-handling devices, are not considered anti-personnel mines as a result of being so equipped.

2. “Mine” means a munition designed to be placed under, on or near the ground or other surface area and to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person or a vehicle.

In a previous blog post I explained the difference between antipersonnel mines and other landmines or IED’s. As the second definition suggests, landmines derived their meaning from the fact that they are dug into the ground. The Latin word mina means “a vein of ore” and mining is the act of retrieving material from the Earth. The word gained its association with militarism during the First World War when mines were dug under enemy positions and packed with explosives. One may therefore wonder how landmines could have existed prior to the Industrial Age, or indeed the discovery of gunpowder, as the title to this post suggests. But the definition given in the Ottawa Treaty is a diplomatic and legal definition. One must shed away specifics to see the military and historical constants of landmines. Understanding their basic military function reveals how booby trapped spikes in Roman times evolved to the contemporary explosives we see today. Viewing the evolution of landmines from this perspective reveals that landmines have changed relatively little in their five thousand year history, yet we have reached a pinnacle and monumental moment in the history of warfare, we have banned their use.

The purpose of this series of blog posts is to inform the reader on the history of landmines to better understand and appreciate our current situation. Landmines—or their basic purpose—are possibly as old as warfare itself. This raises important questions: are landmines a natural means of war, and if so, why have they been regarded as unfair or inhumane in battle? The fact that we have moved to banning landmines raises another issue, that despite the continuation of atrocity and warfare in contemporary times, humanity has made tremendous progress in our empathy towards others. Landmines are now a topic of humanitarianism and peacemaking, rather than strictly warfare. In order to fully appreciate the effort to ban and remove landmines, it is necessary to tell their history. This introductory post will look at pre-modern uses of devices similar to landmines: traps, spikes and caltrops to demonstrate that the basic military function of landmines has existed for millennia, and thus their descendant, the AP mine, did not spring from a vacuum or a sudden and unique surge of violence, inhumanity and hatred.

The “Lilly Fields” of Alesia

The earliest and most documented use of traps in a military context comes from Roman times. Caesar is known to have deployed booby-traps and spikes effectively in the Battle of Alesia, which up until the North African Campaign of the Second World War, was the largest known use of concealed traps, including explosives or landmines.

A quick overview of the former battle reveals several similarities and motives between deploying spikes and traps, and landmines. Outnumbered four-to-one by the Gauls, and facing two fronts of battle, Julius Caesar achieved one of his greatest victories by employing the use of traps and spikes. As he explained:

Accordingly tree trunks or very stout boughs were cut and their tops stripped of bark and sharpened; they were fixed in long trenches dug five foot deep, with their lower ends made fast to one another to prevent their being pulled up and the branches projecting. There were five rows in each trench, touching one another and interlaced, and anyone who went among them was likely to impale himself on the sharp points. The soldiers called them boundary posts. In front of them, arranged in diagonal rows forming quincunxes, were pits three feet deep, tapering gradually towards the bottom, in which were imbedded smooth logs as thick as a man’s thigh, with the ends sharpened and charred, and projecting only three inches above the ground. To keep the logs firmly in position, earth was thrown into the pits and trodden down to a depth of one foot, the rest of the cavity being filled with twigs and brush wood to hide the trap. These were planted in groups, each containing eight rows three feet apart, and were nicknamed lilies from their resemblance to that flower. In front of these again were blocks of wood a foot long with iron hooks fixed in them, called goads by the soldiers. These were sunk right in the ground and strewn thickly everywhere.

The traps provided several military advantages. First, by peppering the fields of Alesia with traps, Caesar was able to slow down his attackers, impale a significant proportion of the Gauls, and force them to maneuver in an advance that was strategically beneficial to his defence. Second, Caesar left open a narrow band of land that allowed his cavalry to engage the enemy, while the traps left his attackers either dead, injured, or vulnerable. Finally, by placing them at a careful distance equal to the range of a spear, Caesar left just the right amount of room necessary to allow his forces to keep his attackers under constant fire, without having his own men being impaled themselves. “They found themselves pierced by the goads or tumbled into the pits and impaled themselves,” wrote Caesar, “whilst others were killed by heavy siege spears discharged from the ramparts and towers…and they failed to penetrate the defences at any point.”

There are clear similarities between the strategic use of landmines and the traps of Alesia. As Mike Croll in his History of Landmines explaines “Concealment causes the enemy to stumble unwittingly into a minefield without prior planning. Depth increases the time and resources required to clear a breach and provides a buffer zone for defenders who may remain out of range of attacking weapons. …Safe lanes enable defenders to launch attacks on an attacker’s vulnerable flank.” Asides form a more sophisticated technology, the actions of Caeser were remarkably similar to those of 20th century generals.

Caltrops

The strategic values of traps at Alesia were not lost on European armies. The most famous trap prior to landmines was the caltrop, a device made of two to four spikes arranged so that no matter the method of deployment, one end will always point upward while the others are lodged into the ground. Caltrops were widespread throughout Roman times, died out (or at least left no record of their existence) during the Dark Ages, and saw a revival in Medieval Europe, when the Scots famously used them against the English in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Learning from their mistakes, the English used them a few decades later against the French. By the fifteenth-century caltrops were widespread throughout Europe, being used in the English War of the Roses and finding their way across the Atlantic in Virginia by colonists defending against Natives.

The use of caltrops was so widespread as to elicit worries and fear about their post-battle effects. Just like landmines continue to kill or maim victims long after combat, so too did traps. Francis Markan expressed in 1622 that “the foards are soon choakt up with clathorpes” thus leaving the land impassable long after their initial use.

In fact, so simple and popular are caltrops, that they and similar devices are still used to this day. In the 1980s, the neo-Nazi group “the Order” (or the Brüder Schweigen) dropped boxes of roofing nails on a California freeway to halt pursuing law enforcement after robbing a Brinks truck of $3.6 million. This incident was the inspiration for a scene in the Robert Deniro/Al Pacino 1995 film Heat, in which a group of professional thieves use caltrops to pierce the tires of police cars after robbing an armored vehicle (video below). The U.S Office of Strategic Services presently manufactures caltrops designed to target vehicles, and the United States deployed caltrops during the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Below is a photo taken outside an old defensive position in Cambodia in 1999 of hundreds of caltrops. As the author notes “This ancient weapon was resurrected in a war where most of the combatants wore simple open sandals.”

Photo taken from Robert Keeley's "Understanding Landmines and Mine Action"

Punji Sticks: Still Using Traps After All these Years

The widespread use of these ancient devices was resurrected during the Vietnam War by the Untied States, but also the Vietcong, who deployed punji sticks, a collection of sharpened and poisoned bamboo sticks, in camouflaged pits. Accordng to Croll, 2 percent of American casualties were caused by these devices. The reasons for using these non-explosive booby traps were a direct result of the American landmines. Croll states that the Vietcong’s difficulty in obtaining landmines forced them to get creative, by either stealing American mines or crafting punji sticks. As shown in the statistics, the sticks were effective enough to cause a number of casualties. Their strategic benefit were also similar to landmines. According to the Wikipedia article: “Such pits would require time and care to dig the soldier’s leg out, immobilizing the unit longer than if the foot were simply pierced, in which case the victim could be evacuated by stretcher or fireman’s carry if necessary.” By mining the sticks deep into camouflaged pits, American forces were not only injured but slowed down, and their resources disproportionately spent on each individual soldier who found themselves in this situation, thus giving the Vietcong a chance to overcome the American superiorotiy in numbers.

So why is the story of these ancient booby traps important? First, the similarity between Caeser’s use of traps against the Gauls and modern deployment of landmines reveals that the latter are nothing new in warfare (albeit with the inclusion of modern technology to refine and expand their destruction). In light of past events, their existence is hardly surprising given the trajectory of military technology and the constant need of armies to gain the upper hand by using cheap and effective weapons when facing superior forces. As mentiond above, when the Vietcong could not get their hands on AP mines, they resorted to crudely weaponized bamboo stick traps that Julius Caesar would surely appreciate. Second, there was no campaign to ban caltrops in Medieval Europe, no international agreement among powers to halt their use and production. Caltrops were about gaining military advantage; impaling victims and so on. Landmines certainly occupy these labels as well, but we should also include peacemaking and humanitarianism. After the Ottawa Treaty landmines are just as much about disarmament as they are about destruction, and for this, despite our capacity for evil and the continual deployment of these weapons, humanity deserves some credit.

Timeline of Traps

Fifth Century B.C.E. – Possible evidence of bone-like traps similar to caltrops used in the Crimea.

Fourth Century B.C.E. – Evidence that traps were used to defend against elephant-mounted armies in India.

Third Century B.C.E. – Alexander the Great is reported to have used traps during his campaigns.

Circa 52 B.C.E. – The Lilly Fields of Alesia – The largest use of concealed traps (including explosives) until the North

African Campaign of the Second World War.

Circa 593 C.E. – Gregory of Tours alleged that the Thuringians used “lilly pits” similar to those used in Caesar against King Theuderic’s army.

The Dark Ages – The use of caltrops dies out in Europe.

Feudal Japan (1185–1868) – Japanese version of the caltrop the “Makibishi” were used as a defensive weapon.

1314 – The Scots use caltrops to gain a decisive victory against the English at the Battle of Bannockburn.

1346 – The English use caltrops against the French at Crecy.

English Wars of the Roses (1455-85) – Caltrops are attached to nets, allowing them to be laid on the ground during one battle, and picked up and re-used for another. (A similar device can be seen in the above video from the film Heat)

Fifteenth Century – The use of caltrops becomes widespread throughout Europe. American settlers use them against natives in Virginia.

The Vietnam War (1960s-1970s) – The Vietcong reintroduce the use of traps and spikes in combat by sharpening bamboo sticks, lacing them with poison and concealing them in camouflaged pits.



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Posted by:

Kyle Falcon

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