Cannon fodder is an informal, derogatory term for combatants who are regarded or treated by government or military command as expendable in the face of enemy fire. The term is generally used in situations where combatants are forced to deliberately fight against hopeless odds (with the foreknowledge that they will suffer extremely high casualties) in an effort to achieve a strategic goal; an example is the trench warfare of World War I. The term may also be used (somewhat pejoratively) to differentiate infantry from other forces (such as artillery troops, air force or the navy), or to distinguish expendable low-grade or inexperienced combatants from supposedly more valuable veterans.
The term derives from fodder, as food for livestock. Soldiers are the metaphorical food for enemy cannon fire.
The concept of soldiers as fodder, as nothing more than "food" to be consumed by battle, dates back to at least the 16th century. For example, in William Shakespeare's play Henry IV, Part 1 there is a scene where Prince Henry ridicules John Falstaff's pitiful group of soldiers. Falstaff replies to Prince Henry with cynical references to gunpowder and tossing bodies into mass grave pits, saying that his men are "good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder; they'll fill a pit as well as better (men)...."
The first attested use of the expression "cannon fodder" supposedly belongs to a French writer, François-René de Chateaubriand. In his anti-Napoleonic pamphlet "De Bonaparte et des Bourbons", published in 1814, he criticized the cynical attitude towards recruits that prevailed in the end of Napoleon's reign: "On en était venu à ce point de mépris pour la vie des hommes et pour la France, d'appeler les conscrits la matière première et la chair à canon" — "the contempt for the lives of men and for France herself has come to the point of calling the conscripts 'the raw material' and 'the cannon fodder'." The English term dates back at least to 1893 and was popularized during World War I.
Forlorn hope: an initial wave of assault troops expected to sustain high casualties while attacking a well-defended target.
Human shield: a situation in which the potential for civilian casualties deters attacks on a military target.
Human wave attack: an assault in which a disproportionately large number of attackers is intended to overwhelm a well-defended target.
Penal military unit: a combat formation composed of either personnel sentenced under military law, or civilian convicts who have volunteered or been drafted into military service.
Shock troops: infantry at the forefront of an attack.
Suicide attack: stupidity manefest.
Other cultural analogs
Redshirt, a fictional character whose sole purpose is to die soon after being introduced.
Sacrificial lamb, someone who is sacrificed for the common good.
See, e.g., "American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language". education.yahoo.com. Yahoo! Search. Archived from the original on 2011-06-06. ↩︎
(in French) "De Buonaparte et des Bourbons" — full text in the French Wikisource. ↩︎
Sense 9, "Cannon", entry, pp. 71-72, vol. 2, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, James A. H. Murray, ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893. ↩︎
How World War I gave us 'cooties', Jonathan Lighter, cnn.com, June 25, 2014. Accessed on line July 20, 2015. ↩︎