Most modern prisons transport their inmates by bus if or when the time comes for them to be transferred to a new location, both for humanitarian reasons and for practical ones. However, another form of transportation exists, commonly used in wartime and only used in circumstances where the survival of the inmates is considered optional — if desirable at all.
The Death March is essentially a forced march for captives such as slaves or POWs, most commonly one in which the participants are not expected to survive. This can be through dangerous terrain, harsh weather, torturous extremes of climate, or even additional work duties. Guards assigned to oversee the march may torture or execute any prisoners unable to keep up.
The goal of a Death March varies. Sometimes it really is a brutal form of transportation to new territory, and any deaths along the way are considered acceptable losses or even a useful side-benefit in culling the inmate population. At other times, it's intended as execution and little else — with the march continuing until every last captive is dead.
For this reason, Death Marches are classified as war crimes, and known examples include some of the greatest violations of human rights in recorded history.
- In Osamu Tezuka's Adolf, in 1944 Adolf Kaufmann (an SS officer) supervises a death march of concentration camp inmates who are being taken further into the Reich's remaining territory; he's told to ensure that a percentage don't make it.
- Maus shows Vladek being forced to participate in the Auschwitz death march after an aborted attempt to hide in the camp, which the Nazis threatened to firebomb. One of his fellow prisoners tried to bribe the guards to let them escape into the woods, who took the bribe but then shot him anyway.
- Superman: In "The Death March!" in Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #76, Perry White's great-grandfather is accused of having lead a "death-march" in the desert. Perry then decides to re-enact the march in order to clear his great-grandfather's name, using Daily Planet staff as stand-ins for the troops and civilians involved.
- In Apocalypto, a Mayan slaver gang captures an entire village of forest-dwelling tribesfolk and marches them on foot all the way to Mayan territory, leaving behind only the children: along the way, they pass through shoulder-deep rivers, along narrow cliff paths, and even into regions of the forest being cleared by loggers - forcing several of the group to dodge falling trees. No medical attention is provided to any of the tribesmen who were injured during capture, least of all the one who's clearly dying by the halfway point; however, Zero Wolf disapproves when Middle Eye makes sport of the wounded man before flinging him to his death. At the end of it, the female captives are sold into domestic slavery and the men are prepared for Human Sacrifice.
- In If This Is a Man, Primo Levi explains how, at the end, he and his fellow inmates departed from Auschwitz as part of a death march.
- The Stephen King novel The Long Walk is set in a dystopian Alternate History America where the government organizes a Deadly Game known as the "Long Walk" every year. One hundred teenage boys are selected to walk from a starting point on the Maine-Canada border and down the Atlantic coast until only one boy remains. They're accompanied by soldiers in half-tracks who monitor the walkers' speed, and will shoot to kill after issuing a walker three warnings for falling below the mandatory minimum speed.
- In the Larry Mc Murtry novelDead Mans Walkhas the main heroes(after an expedition to capture Santa Fe in Mexico ends with death and a dwindling party thanks to Comanches)are arrested in a remote Mexican village and are forced on Death March across the titular Dead Mans Walk(the real world Jornada del Muerto). The walk itself through the desert is a long trek through Apache territory to a prison camp to take the expeditions prisoners. With the burning desert during the day, the freezing cold and night, horses being stolen as their horses are stolen, the Mexican soldiers executing any of the expedition who can't make the journey anymore and Apaches picking them off one by one, the party quickly dwindles. Eventually, their lead captor offers them their freedom if they kill him, relieving him of his duty, though mainly because he is exhausted and his men are all dying. However, each of the group has come to realize that they are struggling together to survive and have no more hatred for the man for keeping them prisoner and so the march continues, with some survivors making it through. Unfortunately, as soon as they arrive, the main characters are quickly forced to choose stones for who lives and who dies, making the small party even smaller and the Mexican soldiers and Captain Salazar are sent back through the Dead Mans Walk, with little thanks from their superiors for their sacrifice or time given to them to resupply with food or water or acquire horses to make the trip easier.Everyone, even their former captor, realize this is a death sentence.
- Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir Night describes the Buna concentration camp being evacuated due to approach of the Red Army, and the inmates being forced to walk more than 50 miles to a train hub at Gleiwitz for transport to Buchenwald.
- In The Odessa File, Solomon Tauber describes being on one of these death marches in the last year of the war in the diary he leaves behind and which Intrepid Reporter Peter Miller finds after Tauber's suicide. Tauber notes that during the retreat, SS guards sometimes outnumbered their prisoners 10 to 1, using the task of escorting them as a pretense to their own escape to western Allied lines so that the guards wouldn't fall into Soviet captivity.
- In Harmonic Feedback, Drea's grandma tells her that her older brother Paul died in the Bataan Death March at age 18. He paused to help someone who had fallen and was shot for it.
- Babylon 5: In the episode "Lines Of Communication", the Warrior Caste on Minbar attacks the Religious Caste, destroying their ships and forcing them to walk to the next city. Since this city was at the planet's polar region, many of them died from exposure. It is strongly implied that this was a deliberately lethal form of Loophole Abuse to get around the Minbari rule against killing other Minbari.
- In Wallenberg: A Hero's Story, the Nazis resort to forcing the Jews that still remain in Budapest to march 250 km note to the train station in Hegyeshalom at the Austrian border where the trains to Auschwitz wait. In the event that the trains aren't running, they're forced to walk the rest of the way as well, all as part of a deliberate effort to kill as many of them as possible.
- In the Exo Squad episode "Scorched Venus", a member of the eponymous squad, Nara Burns, is captured by the Neosapiens after a botched deployment to Venus (which, in the setting, has been terraformed to have breathable atmosphere) and is forcibly marched together with other Terran prisoners to help construct a secret GRAF Shield facility. Many of Burns' fellow captives die en route, which lies right across a Venusian desert.
- Wikipedia has a list, including examples from as far back as 1603; notable Death Marches include the forced relocation of Native American tribes, war crimes committed by both the Soviets and the Nazis during the failed invasion of Russia, and Stalin's forced transfer of groups within the Soviet Union.
- In 1945, the Nazis had concentration camp inmates in death marches far from Allied forces which would have freed them.
- As part of the Armenian Genocide, Armenians were marched to the Syrian desert, with large numbers being murdered, starved, robbed and raped along the way.
- The Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated town residents under extremely poor conditions.
- During World War 2, the Imperial Japanese Army forcibly transferred 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war from Saysain Point Bagac, Bataan, to Camp O'Donnell in what would be called the Bataan Death March - characterized by severe physical abuse and wanton killings and was later judged by an Allied military commission to be a war crime.