James CookeJames Cooke

Git: To squash or not to squash?

It started with a Tweet

Over the weekend I spotted a tweet from Oliver

And I jumped straight in with…

Then, as part of our following conversation, I drew a picture:


It’s about more than just squashing

What I realised while writing this post and experimenting with git is that the issue is not as simple as “Squash? Yes / No?”

Variables to consider include:

  • How you record your commit messages on your squashed commit. This effects the impact of history loss - good commit messages and or external ticketing / dev tracking mean it’s less important.
  • Whether you push your feature branches for other developers, or between your dev boxes, to share. Do you need to keep the shared history between machines?
  • The velocity of your project. How long do you need to keep history for? Do bugs show up regularly?

TL;DR Simple project. Squash = Yes

For a simple project with no sharing between devs required and regular releases, then squashing features seems like a good idea if you:

  • Keep detailed commit messages when you squash.
  • Use git rebase to squash your features’ commits into a candidate branch and merge that in to dev or master depending on your SCM strategy.
  • Only push your squashed features to keep origin clean and easy to understand.
  • Keep your feature branches if you want. But, if you delete them git will keep your commits in the reflog for 30 days by default.

Keeping a detailed history

One of the issues that Oliver raised was about losing history.

So, since I advocate squashing and branch deletion, I’m therefore suggesting that the reflog is used to recover detailed history in the local repository if required.

So let’s explore how much history is actually kept…

From the docs:

Reflog is a mechanism to record when the tip of branches are updated.

This means that…

Every commit that every branch in your local repostitory has ever pointed to is kept in the reflog.

And this even includes branch switching…

HEAD reflog records branch switching as well.

Sounds very warm and cozy, BUT there are conditions, so let’s do a practical experiment with a test repository.

Experiment: Squashing with rebase and keeping history

Make a repository with an initial commit.

$ git init

Create a README.md file and put a line of text into it and commit - this commit is called A.

$ cat > README.md
First line of readme file
$ git add README.md
$ git commit

Current git tree status:

A   <-master

Work on feature

In a new branch, we create a feature to update the README with two new lines and to delete the first line.

$ git checkout -b feature-a

# First feature commit (B)
$ cat >> README.md
Add a second line
$ git add README.md
$ git commit

# Second feature commit (C)
$ cat >> README.md
Add a third line
$ git add README.md
$ git commit

# Third feature commit (D)
$ vim README.md
# Remove first line and save
$ git add README.md
$ git commit

Current git tree status:

A   <-master
  B--C--D   <-feature-a

Check progress in reflog

Checkout master.

$ git checkout master

Let’s check the reflog.

$ git reflog
8e48d1d HEAD@{0}: checkout: moving from feature-a to master
262057a HEAD@{1}: commit: D: Remove first line
9efbf73 HEAD@{2}: commit: C: Add a third line
f2503d5 HEAD@{3}: commit: B: Add a second line
8e48d1d HEAD@{4}: checkout: moving from master to feature-a
8e48d1d HEAD@{5}: commit (initial): Make readme

Newest stuff pops out first:

  • HEAD@{0} - Checkout from feature-a to master is recorded.
  • HEAD@{1} to HEAD@{3} - our feature-a commits (D, C and B).
  • HEAD@{4} - Checkout of the feature-a branch.
  • HEAD@{5} - Initial commit.

Squash commits into candidate branch

feature-a is ready to bring into master. Let’s first cleanup our history by doing an interactive rebase. We use a candidate branch for this work because it’s a nice safety net which can help with testing.

$ git checkout feature-a
$ git checkout -b feature-a-candidate

Current git tree status:

A   <-master
  B--C--D   <-feature-a <-feature-a-candidate
$ git rebase --interactive master

Let’s squash our three commits into one.

pick f2503d5 B: Add a second line
squash 9efbf73 C: Add a third line
squash 262057a D: Remove first line

And now we merge together the three commits, describing the activity that took place. We keep the messages so that history is clean, but informative. We also include a reference to the ticket we are working against:

Updating README.md as per #ticket

* Add a second line
* Add a third line
* Remove first line

Check reflog again:

$ git reflog
d0445b2 HEAD@{0}: rebase -i (finish): returning to refs/heads/feature-a-candidat
d0445b2 HEAD@{1}: rebase -i (squash): Updating README.md as per #ticket
362b6ef HEAD@{2}: rebase -i (squash): # This is a combination of 2 commits.
f2503d5 HEAD@{3}: checkout: moving from feature-a-candidate to f2503d5
262057a HEAD@{4}: checkout: moving from feature-a to feature-a-candidate

The reflog shows us that there is a new commit d0445b2, we’ll call this E. This is the commit that results from the rebase and leaves the tree looking like:

A   <-master
| B--C--D   <-feature-a
  E   <-feature-a-candidate

This is a good stage to test everything and to check that your tests are what you expect them to be, ensure that no information has been lost.

Merge onto master

The new commit E is the patch for our feature which we now merge onto master.

$ git checkout master
$ git merge feature-a-candidate master
Updating 8e48d1d..d0445b2
 README.md | 3 ++-
 1 file changed, 2 insertions(+), 1 deletion(-)

The tree:

A--E   <-master <-feature-a-candidate
  B--C--D   <-feature-a


At this stage the feature would usually be pushed to a branch on origin.

$ git push origin master

Note that we’ve only shared the squashed E commit, not B, C or D in the feature-a branch.


We can then cleanup our working branches. First the candidate.

$ git branch -d feature-a-candidate

This leaves us with a tree like:

A--E   <-master
  B--C--D   <-feature-a

Keeping history

As Oliver noted, the feature-a branch can just be kept by the developer in their local repository to preserve the full history - that is certainly an option.

However, I prefer a clean working repository so I like to delete the feature-a branch.

Clean up the feature branch

When deleting the feature-a branch git requires the -D flag to force the deletion. git does not work out that E is equal to B, C and D combined, so thinks that history could be lost.

$ git branch -D feature-a
Deleted branch feature-a (was 262057a)

This leaves a tree like:

A--E   <-master

B, C and D are now hanging commits

Check reflog.

$ git reflog

This is a part of it:

262057a HEAD@{12}: commit: D: Remove first line
9efbf73 HEAD@{13}: commit: C: Add a third line
f2503d5 HEAD@{14}: commit: B: Add a second line

The development commits from the feature development are still available and could be checked out into detached HEAD state and inspected, played with, rebranched. Let’s try that.

$ git checkout 262057a

Now play and explore as much as you want.

When you’re ready, move back to master.

$ git checkout master

And git warns us that we’ve left behind our hanging commits:

Warning: you are leaving 3 commits behind, not connected to
any of your branches:

  262057a D: Remove first line
  9efbf73 C: Add a third line
  f2503d5 B: Add a second line

If you want to keep them by creating a new branch, this may be a good time
to do so with:

 git branch new_branch_name 262057a

How long are hanging commits kept?

But how long will these unreachable commits hang around for?

We can decide!

Hanging commits are removed from the local repository by garbage collection, known as gc, or by manual removal.

There are various settings which gc will use to determine which commits should be cleaned before the repository is repacked.

gc.reflogExpireUnreachable tells gc how long hanging commits should be left in the repository. Default value is 30 days. Adjust this to a value that you feel comfortable with. You can make that setting on any of the normal levels - global, system or local.

Hey - you want to keep all history in the reflog for ever? Here’s a setting:

    reflogExpire = never
    reflogExpireUnreachable = never

I’m happy with the 30 day default myself!

For more detailed explanation, checkout the Configuration section of the git-gc man page.

A manual clean

Just for experimention, I tried to clean the repository of the B, C and D hanging commits. This was challenging because my default settings prevented reflog and gc from performing the clean, however I found this SO answer helpful.

$ git reflog expire --all --expire-unreachable=0
$ git repack -A -d

Repacking occurred. Now check reflog.

$ git reflog
d0445b2 HEAD@{0}: merge feature-a-candidate: Fast-forward
8e48d1d HEAD@{1}: checkout: moving from feature-a-candidate to master
d0445b2 HEAD@{2}: rebase -i (finish): returning to refs/heads/feature-a-candidat
d0445b2 HEAD@{3}: checkout: moving from master to feature-a
8e48d1d HEAD@{4}: commit (initial): Make readme

There are now only two commits in the repository:

  • 8e48d1d - Initial commit A @ 1 and 4.
  • d0445b2 - Feature commit E made by the rebase @ 0, 2 and 3

The cleaned repository now looks like:

A--E   <-master

So fresh and so clean!


At the end of the day, the dev team (even if that’s just you on a weekend project) decides how best to keep history and share features.

My general solution is for:

  • Squashed single-commit features.
  • Detailed commit messages created at squash-time.
  • Devs keep more history locally, either with branches or in a long-life reflog.
  • Devs backup their repositories and don’t rely on origin.

Remember there can be a full 30 day history (or longer depending on the gc.reflogExpireUnreachable setting) in the local repo which hasn’t been pushed to origin. It’s this history that could save your bacon one day - so consider backing it up!

Happy source code management!