Military history



The Wars of Empire





Why Did So Few Guerrillas Resist the European Advance?

AT THE SAME time that Western states were becoming more liberal at home, they were extending their rule across much of the non-European world in decidedly illiberal fashion: at gunpoint. The process of colonization and resistance would do much to shape the modern world as we know it in the twenty-first century. It would also give rise to the most influential counterinsurgency doctrine of all time, “the spreading oil spot,” which was the forerunner of the “population-centric” doctrine implemented in the twenty-first century by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. This meant slowly pushing out army posts and settlements until indigenous resistance was crushed. Long before the term was coined by the French soldier Hubert Lyautey toward the end of the nineteenth century, the strategy that it described was being employed by Europeans with great success.

The inhabitants of Asia, Africa, and the Americas resisted the white man’s advance as best they could. Sometimes they were able to inflict serious setbacks; two famous examples, which will be discussed in this section, were the 1842 British retreat from Kabul and the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. But these were only temporary reverses in the inexorable Westernization of the world. Most of the wars chronicled here were won by the Europeans—whether against the American Indians, Pashtuns, Chechens, Moroccans, or Boers (themselves of European origin). By 1914 Europeans and their offspring controlled 84 percent of the world’s landmass—up from 35 percent in 1800, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and just 15 percent in 1450, at the beginning of the Age of Exploration.1

That non-Europeans did not have more success in preserving their independence was due in large measure to Europe’s growing advantages in military technology and technique. But it also owes something to the fact that most non-Europeans did not adopt the smartest strategies to make use of their limited resources. Few fought as the Haitians did. Instead of attempting to engage in guerrilla warfare—which, even if unsuccessful, might have staved off ultimate defeat for years, if not decades, and inflicted considerable costs on the invaders—most non-Europeans fought precisely as the Europeans wanted them to. That is to say, in conventional, if not particularly effective, fashion.

Westerners thought that most of the areas they conquered were “primitive” and “backward,” but in a sense they were too advanced for their own good. By the turn of the nineteenth century, most of Africa and Asia had fallen under the sway of native regimes with standing armies, and their rulers naturally looked for protection to those forces. Sub-Saharan Africa was the least advanced region from a European vantage point, but even here a recent study has found “the presence of state structures, often elaborate ones, in all military organization[s].”2 Thus in fighting the European onslaught, Africans generally eschewed the sort of tribal tactics—a primitive form of guerrilla warfare—practiced by their ancestors.

To take just one example, the Zulus may have been armed primarily with assegais (stabbing spears) rather than Martini-Henry rifles, but, like the British, their forces were organized into disciplined regiments known as impis, which did not usually fight from cover but rather maneuvered on the battlefield. The Zulus’ goal was to annihilate the enemy—not to engage in hit-and-run raiding. Their favorite tactical formation was known as the “horns of the bull.” The center, or “chest,” of the impi would pin down the enemy while two “horns” on either side raced around to envelop the enemy’s flanks. On January 22, 1879, an impi of 20,000 men wiped out a British column at Isandlwana, killing 1,329 British and African troops. But a frontal assault on the nearby British garrison at Rorke’s Drift was repulsed by just 120 soldiers, and on March 29 the entire Zulu army was defeated at Kambula. In this decisive but little-known battle, the British lost just 18 soldiers to the Zulus’ 2,000. A few months later British troops burned the capital of Zululand and captured its king, Cetshwayo.3

The British did not usually lose as many men as they had at Isandlwana, but otherwise this tale of a minor setback followed by decisive triumphs was replicated in many other corners of the queen’s domains. The Americans, French, Germans, Russians, and other imperialists had similar experiences. The most daunting obstacles to the Westerners’ advance were not native armies but treacherous terrain and deadly diseases. Those difficulties were finally surmounted by advances in medical and transportation technology (quinine, railroads, and steamboats were critical), thereby making possible the “Scramble for Africa” in the late nineteenth century.

Why did so few indigenous regimes resort to guerrilla tactics? Part of the explanation is that most non-Westerners had little idea of the combat power of Western armies until it was too late. Too many empire builders in the developing world imagined that the tactics that had worked against local tribes would work against the white tribe. They were fatally mistaken, but their incomprehension was understandable given how slowly news traveled before the spread of telegraphs, undersea cables, steamships, and railroads—to say nothing of radio, television, airplanes, and the Internet. In the ancient world, Rome’s enemies had scant opportunity to learn from one another’s experiences. So too in the Victorian world there was little chance that the Zulus could benefit from the experience of the Sioux. By contrast, soldiers from more advanced nations did study each other’s campaigns. A spate of military manuals was published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries advising Westerners how to win “small wars.”

When native rulers did try to learn from past mistakes, their impulse was usually to make their armies more conventional, rather than less, by hiring European advisers and buying European arms. With the notable exception of Japan, the reproductions were seldom as good as the originals, and their inferiority was brutally exposed in battle. Most peoples in the developing world would have been better off reverting to older forms of irregular warfare. The Marathas of India, for example, had a long history as superb horse raiders, but in the late eighteenth century they chose to raise European-style regiments that proved no match for disciplined British regulars under such talented generals as Arthur Wellesley and Gerald Lake.4 In a very real sense they beat themselves by imbibing the myth then prevalent in European military circles of the superiority of conventional warfare and the ineffectuality of guerrilla resistance.

Such counterproductive behavior is hard to explain unless one realizes that it would have been hard for traditional rulers to give up their palaces and riches without a fight—or to maintain their grip on recalcitrant subjects while hiding in the bush. There was also an onus in many indigenous armies, just as in their Western counterparts, against fighting in a stealthy or underhanded way. It was considered unmanly. Much better, many figured, to fight courageously and die gloriously. Accepting the ascendance of the Europeans was often not that hard in any case, because the new overlords were liable to practice “indirect rule” that kept local elites in place.

Even if there had been more desire to ignite insurgencies, ideological fuel was generally lacking. Most people have always been attached to their homes, but until modern times their primary allegiance was to the family, clan, or tribe, not to the state. Often the rulers of indigenous states were resented as much as Europeans, if not more so, especially by those who belonged to a different tribe or sect. Nationalism was an eighteenth-century European invention that by the nineteenth century had not spread much beyond European settler colonies in the Americas. That helps to explain why most of those colonies achieved independence. The rest of the world lost its independence as much because of a lack of national feeling as because of a lack of modern weapons. The brittle kingdoms of what came to be known as the Third World were wont to collapse after their armies had been defeated on the battlefield. There was seldom prolonged resistance of the kind that occurred in Spain after Napoleon’s initial victories.

A partial exception was to be found in Islamic countries where the people were bound together by ties of religion as well as tribe. Some Muslim states also made the mistake of fighting Europeans head-on. The most notorious example was the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 when thousands of Sudanese “dervishes” charged straight at the British lines in broad daylight only to be mown down by machine-gun, artillery, and rifle fire. But other jihadists were clever enough to avoid the full fury of Western firepower. Chechens, Pashtuns, and Moroccans, among others, would wage protracted insurgencies against European occupiers in the nineteenth century.

Some non-Muslim peoples, notably the Filipinos and Boers, would also inflict serious damage on colonial powers. While painful for the Americans and the British, however, the uprisings in the Philippines and South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century were also relatively brief. Not so the wars of the North American Indians. They would display both the potential and the limitations of guerrilla tactics during a resistance to white rule that lasted almost three centuries.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!