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Modules 4, 5, 6 / Topic 4

4.1 Introduction
A retaining structure, such s a retaining wall, retains (holds in place) soil on one side
(Fig. 4.1). The lateral pressure exerted by the retained soil on the wall is called earth
pressure. It is necessary for us to quantitatively determine these pressures as they
constitute the loading on the wall for which it must be designed both geotechnically and
structurally, the former ensuring the various aspects of stability of the wall (stability
analysis) and the latter, catering to the structural action induced in the wall by the forces
(Kurian, 2005: Sec.1.1.2). Since we deal with the limiting values of these pressures, earth
pressures are ultimate problems in Soil Mechanics. This means, at this stage the soil is
no longer in a state of elastic equilibrium, but has reached the stage of plastic equilibrium.
In situations such as the one shown in Fig. 4.2, which involves grading (removal) and
filling, the in-situ soil itself may be used as the fill. The soil which thus stays in contact
with the wall is called backfill in the sense of being the fill at the back of the wall or a fill
which is put back. However, where we have the choice for a fresh backfill material, we
would go in for cohesionless soils of high internal friction (), and permeability (k) to aid
fast drainage (Kurian, 2005: Sec.6.1).
A retaining wall permits a backfill with a vertical face. The alternative to a retaining wall
to secure the sides is to provide a wide slope (Fig. 4.3) as, for example, in road
embankments, but this needs the availability of adequate land to ensure the desired level
of stability of slopes, which may not be available in all instances. It may be noted in this
connection that sometimes backfills may themselves be laid in slopes to reduce the
heights of the wall (Fig. 4.4).
It is ideal that the water table (free water level in soil) stays below the base of the wall
without allowing it to rise into the backfill, adding to the load on the wall with water
pressure adding to the earth pressure from the submerged soil below the water table
for which it may not have been designed, rendering the design inadequate in such
eventualities. However, in situations such as water-front structures (Fig. 4.5), we have to
reckon with water, since water table will eventually rise in the backfill and attain the same
level as the free water in the front.
We shall first consider earth pressure due to dry backfills.

4.2 The limiting values of earth pressures

Earth pressures attain their ultimate or limiting values depending on the relative
movement of the wall with respect to the backfill.
Thus from a stationary position, if the wall starts moving away from the soil, the
pressure exerted by the soil on the wall starts decreasing until a stage is reached when
the pressure reaches its lowest value (Fig.4.6). This means that there will be no further
reduction in the pressure, if the wall moves further away from the soil. This limiting
pressure is called active earth pressure.
On the other hand, if the wall is made to move towards the soil, i.e. the wall pushes
the soil, the pressure exerted by the soil on the wall starts increasing until a stage is
reached when the pressure attains its maximum value (Fig.4.6) and as before, there will
be no further increase in the pressure if the wall moves further towards the soil. This
limiting pressure is called the passive earth pressure. In the initial at-rest state, the soil
is in a state of elastic equilibrium. From this state it reaches the states of plastic
equilibrium at the limiting active and passive states. The initial value of the earth pressure
may be called neutral earth pressure or earth pressure at-rest.
Fig. 4.7 shows quantitatively typical at-rest, active and passive earth pressure
distributions on the retaining wall. While the active pressure is about 2/3 of the at-rest
value, the passive pressure is nearly 6 times the at-rest value, or 9 times the active value
in a cohesionless soil with = 300 . Further, in a similar manner, the passive state is
mobilised at a much higher value of wall movement than the active state. Quantitatively,
the lateral wall movements are typically 0.25 % and 3.5 % of the wall height for the active
and passive pressure conditions to get fully mobilised, respectively (Venkatramaiah,
2006: Sec. 13.3).
A word of explanation is due with regard to the names active and passive. In the active
case, soil is the actuating element the movement of which leading to the active condition.
In the passive case, the actuating element is the wall leading the soil to a passive state
of resistance against the approaching wall (Venkatramaiah, 2006: Sec. 13.3).

4.3 Determination of earth pressures by earth pressure theories

Earth pressures are determined by earth pressure theories. The two basic theories
available for this purpose are the Rankines theory and the Coulombs theory. Of the two,
the Coulombs theory is the older one; we shall, however, take up the Rankines theory
first because of its theoretical form.
However, before setting out on the above theories of limiting earth pressures, it is
necessary for us to look at earth pressure at-rest which should be treated as a starting
case. The soil being in elastic equilibrium at this stage, we should be able to proceed
with it based on theory of elasticity considerations.

4.4 Earth pressure at rest

Fig. 4.8 shows an element of soil at a depth z in a semi-infinite soil mass. (Semiinfinite means the mass extends in the +x, -x, +y, -y directions, but only in the +z
(downward) directions, all to infinity. If it extends equally also in the z direction (upwards)
it would have made a fully infinite space.) The vertical and horizontal stresses in the
element are shown. The element can deform (undergo strain) in the vertical direction
only since the soil extends to infinity in the horizontal directions. Let the modulus of
elasticity and Poissons ratio of the soil be and respectively. Setting the lateral strain,
obtained from theory of elasticity to 0,




Multiplying by

- ( + ) = 0
(1- ) =

= 1


Referring to Fig 4.8

= .
If (

= (

) is denoted as

) .

0 and named coefficient of earth pressure at-rest, we can


= 0 .


0 being a constant, it is noted that also increases linearly with depth as itself,
starting with 0 at the surface (z = 0)
If we now revert to Topic 1, it is seen that the 0 - relationship is of the same form as
the e-n relationship. Hence 0 will plot against as in Fig. 1.3.

We note that 0 = 0 when = 0, a condition giving rise to 0 horizontal pressure.
Further setting 0 = 1,


= 1-
2 = 1


At this value of , = = .
or in other words, and will plot identically with depth. When varies from 0 to 0.5,
will vary as increasing fractions of , as can be noted from Fig. 4.9.
Because of the difficulty in determining of a soil reliably, various empirical formulae
have been suggested among which the one attributed to Jaky (1944) is an early favourite.
It states:

0 = 1


Fig 4.10 plots 0 against . It bears comparison with Fig. 16 (Kurian, 2005: Sec. 6.4.1)
for which it is plotted till = 900 . It is noted from Figs. 4.9 and 4.10 that 0 increases with
, but decreases with . At = 0, applying to water, 0 = 1, following which = .
On the other hand, at = 900 , applying to rock, 0 = = 0

4.5 Rankines theory for active and passive earth pressures (1857)
Before we take up Rankines theory of earth pressure, we shall try to establish
analytically the relationship between 1 3 , the principal stresses, based on the
Mohr-Coulomb failure theory (Fig.4.11).
In the figure,
CA = CD =

1 3

OC = OA+AC = 3
EO = c cot
CD = EC sin



3 +1

1 3



1 +3

+ )

Multiplying by 2

1 3 = (1 + 3 + 2 )
= (1 + 3 + 2
1 (1 ) = 3 (1 + ) + 2
1 = 3 (

3 = 1 (






) + 2


) 2

= 2 (45



= 2 (45 + )

= (45 + )

= (45 + )

Hence we can state

3 = 1 2 (45 ) 2 (45 )
1 = 3 2 (45 + ) + 2 (45 + )


Referring to Fig. 4.11, one may look upon the c- case as the -case with the origin
shifting from E to O.

4.5.1 Rankines expressions for active and passive earth pressures

In Fig. 4.12 let OA represent the vertical (principal) stress. Mohrs circles I and II are
drawn on either side of A without gap. In case I the soil is laterally relieved leading to
reduction in reaching the limiting active value at failure. In case II the soil is
pushed into itself and reaches the limiting passive value of at failure.

Using Eqs. (4.5) and (4.6) we can now state:

= 2 (45 ) 2 (45 )
= 2 (45 + ) + 2 (45 + )


Calling 2 (45 ) = ,the coefficient of active earth pressure, and


2 (45 + ) = ,the coefficient of passive earth pressure,

and further = , and, therefore, =

and being reciprocals of each other,

we can further state,

= .

= . + 2


In the case of a cohesionless soil, with c = 0,


On the other hand, in the case of an ideally cohesive soil for which is 0,

= = 1, we have
= 2


= + 2


It may be noted that if c also = 0 (case of water) we get = = = .

Note further that, since the plane of failure is inclined at = (45 + ), it follows

that = , =

The above results pertaining to and c-soils can be directly obtained from the respective
Mohrs circles as shown in Figs. 4.13 and 4.14.

4.5.2 Failure planes

The failure plane in the active state is inclined at = (45 + ) to the horizontal. If the

full Mohrs circle is drawn, the potential failure planes are as shown in Fig. 4.15
(Venkatramaiah, 2006: Sec.13.6.1). In the passive case, like in the active case, the failure
plane should be reckoned from the point . It can be identified that the failure planes at

passive failure are inclined at (45 ) to the horizontal. (The arcs of the Mohrs circles

subtending these angles are highlighted in Fig. 4.12.) The picture is the same for -soil.
In the case of the c-soil, these planes are inclined at 450 to the horizontal.

4.5.3 Variation of active and passive earth pressure coefficients

It follows from the Rankines theory that the higher the , the higher the shear strength,
the lesser the active pressure and the higher the passive pressure.
It is interesting to note that the Rankines theory for earth pressure developed for soil
can be extended to water ( = 0) on the one hand and rock ( =900 ), on the other.

= 0, = = = 1
= = 0 = = =

This is the hydrostatic pressure condition, applying to water.

If increases, decreases and increases. The latter increases much faster than the
former decreases, until we reach = 900 at which = 0 and =

. As a result, =

, = 0 and = .The variations of and , and also their square roots, with are
shown in Fig. 4.16.

4.5.4 Plots of and

c- case

Since c and are constants, the first part of and , as per Eqs. (4.9) and (4.10)
plot linearly like , but the second parts are constants. Fig 4.17 shows the sum of these
effects. (Note that when two plots are to be added they should be drawn on opposite
sides, whereas if one is to be subtracted from the other they should be drawn on the same
It is observed from Eqs. (4.9) and (4.10) that is decreased and is increased on
account of the contribution of c. As a result of the subtraction, Fig 4.16a shows a tensile
zone to a depth z which can be determined by setting,

. Therefore =


Since soil cannot exist in a state of tension, it is likely that it breaks contact with the
support over this depth (Kurian, 2005: Sec. 8.8).
Fig. 4.18 shows the active and passive pressure variations in the c-case.
To obtain the depth z at which the net pressure is 0,

z = 2c, from which z =

4.5.5 Effect of surcharge on the backfill

There are instances such as in port and harbour structures where the backfill is
subjected to heavy surcharges such as due to supporting roads, railway tracks and heavy
stationary equipments. Like any other vertical load such as the self weight of the backfill,
these surcharges add to the lateral pressure on the wall the effect of which must be taken
into account in its design.
In order to consider the influence of the surcharge, its effect is reduced to an equivalent
downward pressure, q per unit area, Fig. 4.19.
The lateral active pressure due to surcharge is q which is uniform with depth, q and
being constants. To this will be added the active earth pressure as shown in the figure.
The same figure can be obtained by converting the surcharge pressure q as an
equivalent additional height (h) of the backfill which is obtained by setting

h = q, from which h = ( )


The pressure diagram on the wall alone for the full height of the backfill including the
additional height is the same as the earlier pressure diagram as shown in the figure.

4.5.6 Earth pressure due to layered backfills

Rankines theory can easily accommodate layered backfills, if the layers concerned
are horizontal.
Let us consider the example shown in Fig. 4.20.

= 1 1


at +
= 1 1


at C = (1 1 + 2 2 )




The above means that there is an immediate transition at B thanks to the difference in the

shear strength parameters of layers I and II. As a result it is seen that at + undergoes
a sudden decrease thanks to the presence of c, being the same in the present case.

applies to a point in layer I lying infinitesimally above

Theoretically speaking, at B

point B, whereas at point + applies to a point in layer II lying infinitesimally below point
B. If one asks what is its value exactly at point B, the theoretical answer is, it is not the

and at , but, simply, it is not defined at B.

average of B

4.5.7 Earth pressure due to submerged backfills

If the backfill is submerged fully or partially, i.e. to full height or partial height, there is
a continuous body of water running through the pore space in the soil below the water
table. The water over this height will exert full hydrostatic pressure on the wall. To this
will be added the pressure due to submerged soil over this depth and the dry soil above
(Fig. 4.21).
While submergence causes a reduction in the unit weight of the soil, the shear strength
parameters c and remain unchanged.
Submerged unit weight (Kurian, 2005: Sec.2.7.1)
The submerged weight of a continuous (i.e. non-porous) body is its weight in air
subtracted by the weight of water displaced by the body. In other words,

submerged weight of an object = weight in air of the object - weight of a body of water
having the same volume as the object.
That is to say, ws = w v.


Unit weight is the weight per unit volume. In submerged unit weight sub of the soil we
are concerned with is the weight of the solid particles in the soil in a unit volume which
are in a state of submergence.
Fig. 4.22 represents a unit volume in which

sub = weight of solids weight of an equal volume of water.

In order to simplify calculation, we add to both the parts on the R.H.S. a constant which
is the water to fill the pore space. The constant being the same, the result is, we have
saturated unit weight as the first term and unit weight of water as the second term on the
R.H.S. The final result is the familiar result,

= - .


Interestingly enough, this follows Eq.(4.20) with in place of w, as it should,

representing the whole body.

4.5.8 Combined pressures (Kurian, 2005: Sec.6.4.2)

What follows is an important matter which every student/geotechnical engineer should
clearly understand, appreciate and assimilate.
If we take the unit weight of dry soil as 15 kN/m3 and = 300 (c = 0), Ka =



therefore the active earth pressure at any depth h m = 5h kN/m2 . being 10 kN/m3 ,
the water pressure at the same depth = 10 h kN/m2 , which is twice the value of the active
earth pressure. (This is important since many, at least among the lay public, may tend to
assume that water being thinner, the corresponding pressure is also lower!)
When the backfill is saturated,

= + = ( + ) = .
but ( ). ,
but = ( ) + .

The importance of the above result is illustrated in Fig. 4.23. For a case where =
and = 300 , it is seen that, while the active pressure intensity is only 1/3 of the water
pressure, the passive pressure intensity is 3 times the water pressure or 9 times the active
soil pressure. (The first of the above statements means that water pressure is three times
the active pressure due to submerged soil, which we noted above as twice the active

pressure due to dry soil. Further if = , it follows that the active pressure due to dry

soil is twice the same due to submerged soil.) It is obvious from the figure that walls
designed for active soil pressure are unsafe if the soil is allowed to get saturated!!

4.5.9 Need for retention (Kurian, 2005: Sec.6.4.1)

Fig. 4.24 draws attention to the need for retention in water, soil and intact rock.
Since water has no shear strength, its surface must always remain horizontal;
therefore water must be fully retained.
On the other extreme, if we treat intact rock as a medium with = 900 , its sides can
remain vertical, calling for no support since Ka = 0.
Because of its shear strength, soil can remain in a slope. This means that only the fill
placed over this slope, which is needed to maintain a horizontal surface, requires support,
which therefore may be described as partial. This is, however, a qualitative statement as
the next section will show that the active pressure on the retaining wall is not exactly due
to such a wedge.

4.6 The Coulombs theory of earth pressure (1776)

The earth pressure theory propounded by Coulomb involves the consideration of a
critical wedge in the backfill adjoining the retaining wall the failure of which by shear at
the interface with the intact backfill and the wall gives rise to the active and passive failure
conditions. It involves the mechanical analysis of trial wedges for equilibrium at the stage
of incipient or imminent failure by shear in the above manner (Fig4.25). It involves a
geometrical trial and error approach and therefore more tedious than the theoretical
approach followed by Rankine.

4.6.1 Coulombs method for the determination of active earth pressure

Let us take the general case of a retaining structure with an inclined back face,
supporting and inclined backfill in a c - soil (Fig. 4.26a). At the wall-soil interface we
assume an angle of wall friction . The analysis is per unit length of the wall which makes
it a purely 2D_case.

Let us start with a trial wedge of the soil ABC defined by the angle at which rises
the soil face of the wedge. The wedge slides downwards because of the lateral yield of
the retaining wall away from the backfill. We will now examine the forces keeping this
wedge in equilibrium at the time failure just starts, or what we call the stage of incipient
failure. For this we need the forces acting on the wedge at this stage which include its
own weight and the reactive forces from the wall and the intact backfill.
First let us take the self weight of the wedge W acting through its centre of gravity. (W
= ABC x 1 x , where is the unit weight of the backfill soil. (Note that weight is an
external force, being the force with which earth attracts the mass of the wedge.) On the
face AC let us take a small elemental width. This elemental width multiplied by the unit
length is the elemental area we are considering. Since the wedge has failed in shear
along AC, shear strength is fully mobilised given by s = c+ tan, acting on the wedge
in the direction AC. C acting on the elemental area will add up as C over the full width
AC and unit length as C = c x AC x 1. The same applies to which adds up as N =
x AC x 1. The component of shear strength contributed by N is N tan . Thus on AC we
have three forces acting on the wedge which are C, N and N tan. We have to find their
resultant for which we keep C separately and find the resultant of N and N tan . If we
examine the resolution of forces, we can easily identify that the resultant of N and N tan,
which we shall call R, will be inclined at to N. (Note that c and are pressures
(intensity terms acting per unit area) which do not resolve. Only forces resolve and hence
we have to necessarily multiply the pressures by areas to obtain the forces.)
On the face AB, since the wedge moves downwards, we have over the length AB
reactive forces with a normal component N and tangential component N tan, where
is the angle of wall friction. (It is typically taken as


.) Their resultant P is inclined at

to N. P is our unknown of which we want to determine the value by drawing the polygon
of forces.
Of the forces mentioned above, we know the magnitude and direction of W and C.
However, the values of N and N and hence also their shear components N tan and
N tan are not known. But we know the direction of their resultants R and P, which is
sufficient for us to proceed with the force polygon. (Note that for drawing the force
polygon we do not have to know the point of application of the forces.)
To draw the force polygon, we start with W (ab in Fig. 4.26b). At b we draw lines
parallel to AC and mark C at bc. At c we draw a line parallel to R and at a, a line parallel
to P. They intersect at d. ad gives the value of P which is our unknown. (Note that in the
same way cd gives the value of R, which we, however, do not need.) All the forces we
dealt with in the above are forces acting on the wedge. Our concern is essentially the

action of the wedge on the wall and this is equal in magnitude and opposite in direction
to P obtained as above.
Now for different values of , we have to repeat the above work and determine the
corresponding values of P. We now make a plot of the values of P so obtained against
(Fig. 4.26c). Join the points so obtained by a smooth curve and by drawing a horizontal
line (i.e. parallel to the - axis) touching the curve tangentially we determine the highest
value of P which is the active thrust . We can note the corresponding value of which
gives us the critical wedge causing the active thrust . (Note that we cannot go by the
highest value of P from among the individual results obtained. A curve must necessarily
be drawn because the peak may generally lie between two values and need not coincide
with any single value.). The Pa that we have determined is the reaction of the wall on the
wedge. The action of the wedge on the wall which we are investigating is a force of the
same magnitude of Pa, acting exactly in the opposite direction. It is this action on the wall
that we need for the design of the wall.
Reverting to the trial wedges, we can look upon the picture as the weight of the wedge
acting downwards, which we have noted as the force with which earth attracts the mass
of the wedge, being held back by the forces C, R and P.
If we want to make the picture more general by adding an adhesion component a at
the wall-backfill interface, a total tangential force A is generated in the direction AB, which
must be entered at point c at the end of which is to be drawn the line parallel to R. (Note
that adhesion at the wall-soil interface is similar to c at the backfill-backfill interface, i.e.
within the soil. In other words, a and at the wall-soil interface correspond to c and
within the soil. And just like in the case of c and , shear strength at the interface can be
written as,

s = a + tan


In the case of the -soil (c = 0) the only difference is that C (and A) do not appear. In
the c-case ( = 0), on the other hand, we have to deal with only W, C (and A), N and P.
As regards the influence of the parameters, the higher the values of c, , a and ,
the lesser the value of Pa as can be identified from the force polygon. This picture will
reverse sign when we come to the passive case.

4.6.2 Coulombs method for the determination of passive earth pressure

The point of departure in the passive case is, since the wall pushes the soil, the wedge
moves upwards causing shear failure along AB and AC. This causes reversal in the
direction of the forces C, N tan and P tan (Fig. 4.27a).

The polygon of forces (Fig. 4.27b) starts with W marked as ab. bc represents C. At c
a line is drawn parallel to R and at a, a line parallel to P. They intersect at d; ad gives the
value of P corresponding to this trial wedge. The P values so obtained from several trial
wedges are plotted against (Fig 4.27c) and the minimum value so obtained by drawing
a horizontal line (i.e. parallel to the - axis) tangential to the curve, gives Pp.
It is important to note that Ka which gives the minimum value of earth pressure is
obtained as a maximum in Fig. 4.26c, and Kp which gives the maximum value of earth
pressure is obtained as the minimum value in Fig.4.27c, both being optimum values.

4.7 Comparison between Rankines and Coulombs theories of earth

A fundamental difference between the two theories is that, while Rankines theory
gives pressure distribution, Coulombs theory gives only total thrust. One can of course
obtain distribution from the latter, by assuming the nature of variation, such as lineartriangular.
Rankines theory, though theoretically elegant, has several limitations as it goes by the
concept of principal stresses, without even recognising the presence of the wall. Hence
it cannot take adhesion and wall friction into account, leading to conservative values of
the active earth pressure. It can be extended to backfills with single slopes, but an
inclined wall-backfill interface is difficult to accommodate.
Coulombs theory, on the other hand, is more versatile as it can accommodate wall
with inclined interface, sloped backfills with even more slopes than one, with practically
the same ease as vertical wall with horizontal backfill. It can also account for wall friction
and adhesion leading to more realistic results. However, being a geometrical trial and
error approach, it is certainly more tedious and time consuming unlike Rankines theory,
the expressions from which can be programmed and put on computer to yield fast results.
(While on this issue, it may be added that, trial wedge approach can also be programmed
on the computer for obtaining faster results.)
It is now time to show that both Rankines theory and Coulombs theory give the same
results for the basic case, as shown below.
Let us consider the basic active case of a retaining structure with a vertical face and
no wall friction, supporting a -soil with a horizontal surface. Consider a trial wedge which
makes an angle with the horizontal (Fig.4.28). Angle BAC is therefore (90-) =, say.
The force polygon (triangle of forces) consists of P, W and R.
From the triangle of forces,


= 90 ( + )



W = . . = 2

For P to a maximum,



1 2





tan( + ) x 2 . 2 ( + ) = 0
(+)x 2

.2 (+)

(+) (+)
2 (+)2



2 ( + ) 2 = 0
sin2( + ) = 2
2 = 90
= 45

= 45 + ,


which defines the critical failure plane. It is noted that the result is the same as obtained
from the Rankines theory.
Substituting so obtained in the expression for P (Eq.4.23), we get,

= 2



(45 2 )

(45+ 2 )




(45 2 )

(90(45+ 2 ))

2 (45 ) x (90 (45 + ))


2 (45 ) x (45 )

= 2 2 (45 )


= 2 (


which is the same result as obtained from Rankines theory, as per Eq. (4.11).
It is indeed interesting to observe how both the theories converge to the same result
in this case which establishes the soundness of both the approaches.

4.8 Conclusion
We may close with a significant question in relation to active earth pressure which has
a bearing on design. The question pertains to the assumption of active pressure which
has the potential of making the design based on it unsafe!
Active pressure being the lowest value of pressure, it is logical to ask, have we taken
any steps in the design to ensure active conditions to develop? The significance of the
question is that, if active conditions are not developing, the pressures are higher, and the
retaining wall designed for active pressure will be inadequate, and in the limit, even
The answer to this question is in fact simple. The design of the wall implies an
assumption that if the wall is designed for active pressure, the same being the lowest
pressure, the design of the wall will be the thinnest, and since it is thin, it will deflect
enough (Fig. 4.29) resulting in active conditions and the corresponding active pressures
to develop, considering especially the low value of deformation needed to mobilise the
active condition (Kurian, 2005: Sec.12.1).