What was the human toll?

On the whole, whatever the specific defeats or prolonged resistances, an idea of which is provided by reading the catalog of British colonial conflicts during the Victorian era (see table on this page), the colonial wars produced, for considerable results, few human losses on the European side.

China itself was not able to resist, not in 1840-1842, nor in 1860, nor in 1900. France triumphed in Algeria and in Tonkin, as it did against Samori Touré in the African west. The Russians won in Daghestan despite the fierce resistance of Shamil’s mountain people. After hard combat, the British succeeded in overcoming the Maoris in New Zealand and the Zulus in South Africa. Significant loss of lives occurred only in the war against the Boers, where the British declared more than twenty thousand dead (including many from injuries and/or disease).

Throughout the entire colonial period, Europeans played on ethnic, tribal, or religious divisions and used local back-up troops. The British Indian Army was exemplary in this respect.

The US Army, during its only colonial experience overseas, in the Philippines, regrouped the rural populations (1899-1902) before practicing the techniques they had used in their recent conflicts with native American Indians (1870-1890).

Colonial campaigns were waged, except in very few cases, with great brutality, and there was very little concern over the losses inflicted among the adversaries. The Germans were particularly heavy-handed in their repression in Tanganyika of the (Muslim) Maji Maji rebellion (1905-1906) as they had already been when they nearly exterminated the Hereros (1904-1907) in the southwest of Africa. By 1907, little more than fifteen thousand out of eighty thousand Hereros had survived. General Lothar von Trotha, who was responsible for the genocide, was summoned back to Berlin.

This brief reminder of the nature and conditions of colonial wars helps to measure just how much, in the past decades, conceptions and perceptions in the West have changed. And, it should be added, only in the West. Gone are extreme repressions, massive massacres in good conscience, and Western public opinion’s relative indifference of what might happen to populations of “color,” or “savages.” The last events of this kind that did not raise widely shared indignation go back, for France, to Sétif (1945) and the repression in Madagascar (1947).


Great figures
of the colonization era

The great figure of the French colonial period is Joseph Gallieni. He began his career as second lieutenant under General Faidherbe’s orders in western Africa until 1888. He was assigned to Madagascar, then to Tonkin. It was there that he experimented with the “pacification” technique under the “ink blot” principle.1 The idea was to expand gradually, starting from the controlled zone, in which significant economic improvements had been made and had been immediately felt.

“It is the combined action of politics and force that must result in the pacification of the country. . . . Political action is by far the most important; it draws its greatest strength from knowledge of the countries and their inhabitants; these are the goals toward which the first efforts of any territorial command must tend.”2

It was necessary, he wrote, “[to] develop as quickly as possible, the electricity-supply network. . . . It is certainly more thanks to roads and telegraphs that a colony is conquered, than to using troops. Money is never more quickly recovered than when it is thrown massively into spending on the first installations. A telegraph line is immediate savings in military manpower.”

From this point of view, however, the French were amazingly shy and parsimonious, especially when compared with the processes used by the English, for whom building telegraph lines was to be done, step by step, along with, if not preceding, penetration. The French, on the contrary, despite the means extensively made available to them by the existing state of science, were still waging colonial wars overall as they had been in the eighteenth century.

“In sum, for all colonial enterprises, like for every industrial enterprise, the first capital outlay must be as large and speedy as possible.”3

No country was to be, on any account, directly administrated. Any organization more or less approaching direct administration would require staff in proportion with the population numbers, which would be impossible to deliver. The basis of the colonial regime was therefore to be a protectorate.

The general idea for the English was that in India, in Burma, “next to each indigenous chief a European agent [was] to be placed for supervision and control. But here, the difficulty [was] to react against the innate tendency among all the French to replace the local chief completely, down to every detail, and to indulge in direct administration.”

Hubert Lyautey, who remained in Morocco for a long time, had been under Gallieni’s orders in Madagascar and regarded himself as the spokesman of the latter’s methods.4 At the time, in the French colonial army, officers were assigned to a given territory for only three years. Lyautey argued for them to settle lastingly in the country where they had gotten projects underway.

“No wonder there are not more officers studying the languages. How encouraging can it be to learn Madagascan if you won’t be using it anymore? Let officers stay assigned to the same colony if they wish to, as other nations are showing us…”5

In Morocco, Lyautey used the “ink blot” technique dear to Gallieni. Economic development was central to his strategy. During World War I, even though he was deprived of two-thirds of his military staff, who had been sent to the front, he preserved “the apparent contour of ground occupation” and waited for the European conflict to be settled, when he would isolate every mountain range with a solid front, marked with advances into the valleys and the blocking of mountain passes (1919). He would leave Morocco after the failure of Abd el-Krim’s great insurrection (1922-1926), which had begun in Spanish Morocco in the Rif region.

From guerrilla warfare to counterinsurgency

The first work on small wars as seen from the counterinsurgency angle was written by the British Major-General Sir Charles E. Callwell.1

Although small wars drew attention in Europe between the events in Spain and, to a lesser extent, in Russia, not much more was written on irregular wars because it was no longer being practiced, except marginally in Poland and Italy. After Sadowa and Sedan, the major military event since the Napoleonian period was the sudden rise of Germany.
Colonial conflicts or wars were often brief operations, though repeated (they were seldom finished in certain areas, usually mountainous ones), and counterinsurgency was a critical part of them.

With small troops, hence few losses, the European powers conquered India and Burma, humiliated China, and after that, occupied Sudan, southern Africa, New Zealand (the British), Algeria, the African west, Madagascar, Vietnam (the French), or central Asia and the Caucasus (the Russians).

Lost battles were rare: Afghanistan (1842), Isandlwana (South Africa, 1879) against the remarkably disciplined Zulus, and Majuba Hill (South Africa, 1881) against the Boers on the British side; Lạng Sơn (Tonkin, 1885) on the French side; Annual (Rif region, Morocco, on the Spanish side, 1922), and finally a war lost by the Italians in Abyssinia in 1896, which Mussolini would claim to avenge in 1935 by using mustard gas. It would be wrong, however, to believe these successful achievements to have been easy and final. Various societies, including those with martial traditions (in India, those of the northwest, which was the route for ground invasions), fought back, sometimes fiercely. This was the case of the Maoris in New Zealand.

For the major colonial power in the Victorian era, examples of these difficulties were recurrent (see box).

British counterinsurgency wars

  • Burmese Wars: 1824-1826; 1852-1853.
  • Wars against the Maoris: 1843-1848; 1860-1861; 1863-1864; 1868-1870.
  • Wars against the Sikhs (northwestern India): 1845-1846; 1848-1850.
  • The Great Mutiny (northern India of North) 1857-5189: mutiny in Bengal 1859-1862.
  • Wars against the Kaffirs (southern Africa): 1850-1852; 1880-1881.
  • Wars against the Basutos (southern Africa): 1851-1852; 1880-1881.
  • Wars against the Ashanti (Gold Coast, Ghana): 1863-1864; 1873-1874; 1893-1894; 1900-1901.
  • Wars against the Afghans: 1839-1842; 1878-1880.
  • War against the Zulus: 1879.
  • Wars against the Matabele (southern Africa): 1893; 1895-1896.
  • Wars against the Boers: 1880-1881; 1899-1902, the latter being a legendary war.
  • Wars in China: 1840-1842; 1856-1860; 1900 (Boxers).
  • Wars against Mahdism (Sudan): 1885; 1896-1898.
  • Conquest of northern Nigeria: 1897-1903.
  • Somalia: extended Mahdi resistance (the “Mad Mullah”): 1898-1920.

Campaigns were led almost yearly in the North West Frontier, and in Swat and Waziristan in the current border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There are also many examples for the French penetration—Algeria was one of the most difficult conquests along with Tonkin (northern Vietnam)—or the much lesser known, virtually uninterrupted wars waged by Portugal in Angola.2

The Russians’ imperial expansion was achieved based on territorial continuity as early as the sixteenth century by driving back the Mongolian advance. Later, in the eighteenth century, they had no difficulties in conquering the Kazakh steppes, and their conquest of central Asia (Kokand, Khiva, and Bukhara [1857-1882]) was effortless. Not that of the Caucasus, however, where the nature of the ground, the region’s martial-arts traditions, and the role of Imam Shamil, who was a member of the Naqshbandi order, explain the long resistance sustained for more than a quarter of a century (1834-1859) against the Russian takeover.


The reappearance of guerrilla warfare

The reappearance of guerrilla warfare in modern times stems from the vast armies stirred up by revolutions and empires, which, contrary to mercenary armies, live and are supplied on the field. Napoleon, for instance, to gain in mobility and speed, eliminated the food train, which was slow. Supplies were no longer at the rear but at the front, where the troops’ needs were being provided from the country. But what worked in countries like Austria or northern Italy became problematic in poor countries like Spain or Russia.

Added to the poverty and the absence of surplus was the religious dimension. In Spain, priests played a significant role through their opposition to a revolution considered contrary to Catholic faith, while in Russia the French were regarded as representing the “Antichrist,” to use Tsar Alexander’s expression. The losses caused among the French by the Spanish guerrilla supported from Portugal by the English (Wellington), would be substantial.
In the County of Tyrol, there was the traditional rejection of mountain dwellers protective of their independence.

In Russia, the losses caused by the cold during the final weeks of Napoleon’s retreat were considerable. Added to this were the deaths and casualties of the Battle of Borodino (Moscow, 1812) as well as the many victims of Cossack harassment.1

Theorizing guerrilla warfare

The literature devoted to guerrilla warfare itself—and not to light infantry forces used to badger the enemy—was born in the early nineteenth century. The Frenchman Jean-Frédéric-Auguste Le Mière de Corvey and the German Carl von Clausewitz are among the most remarkable theorists of irregular warfare.2 Here is what the former wrote:

“The goal of a partisan corps is to have at all times an impressive enough force to worry the enemy, to be able to take it everywhere needed to badger the enemy unceasingly, undermine it little by little, prevent its provision of supplies, destroy its convoys, abduct them, take its dispatches, intercept its communications, and surprise all the isolated men one runs into. This war, when well waged, led by a skilled commander, will raise terror among the enemy, who will occupy cities in vain, and as it will need to cross roads to communicate with one another, it will be attacked on the roads; it will have to sustain combat at every gorge; it will no longer dare to let a carriage out without an escort; it will tire out its troops, will not be able to recruit, and will be destroyed, little by little, without any great loss at any one time.”
As for Clausewitz, who as a Prussian patriot took part in the War of 1812 alongside the tsar, he regarded irregular combatants as auxiliary forces to a regular army. Basically, as partisans. Because partisans act on the margins of a regular army with classic irregular-army techniques: mobility, surprise, harassment.3 Guerrilla warfare, born more or less spontaneously through the movement of a social, religious (Vendée uprising in France), or patriotic revolt, can be waged on its own.

On the ground…

This is, generally speaking, what would be met by colonial troops, limited in numbers, frequently at a one-to-ten ratio, fighting in a square formation, with discipline and cohesion, and indisputably more powerful armament than their adversaries’. It should definitely be added that the first enemy, especially in the tropics, was disease, including the fevers. The advent of quinine at the time was of unparalleled help. The tropics were daunting. Wounds degenerated into gangrene and diseases caused three times more victims than combat.
Designed for conventional warfare, European armed forces had to adapt to the ground. It was Bugeaud who, benefiting from his own experience in Spain, imposed as of 1844 a strategy adapted to the conditions, which included making the army train shorter, mobile columns, a network of points of support, and the particular brutality so often adopted in the colonial conflicts.

In Great Britain, Field Marshal Wolseley, one of the most outstanding colonial soldiers, published for the first time a small practical handbook adapted to colonial conflicts: The soldier’s pocket-book for field service (1871). But of course, at war, decisions are wrested on the ground. The British had, in addition to the great Wolseley who was present on every field of battle, Jardine in China, Field Marshal Frederick Roberts in Afghanistan, General Sir Herbert Kitchener in South Africa, while the French, with General Louis Faidherbe and above all, Captain Joseph Gallieni and General Hubert Lyautey, developed a brand new counterinsurgency corps.


Chapter 3 – Colonization and “small wars”

Conventional wars—those seeking battle and ultimately, whatever the tactical approaches, frontal clash until one of the protagonists is defeated—have been rare since the end of World War I.

After the Chinese civil war (1945-1949), the few conventional wars have been: the Korean War (1950-1953), the Arab-Israeli wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973), the Indo-Pakistani wars (1948, 1965, 1971), the Falkland War (1982), even the short Russian-Georgian confrontation (2008), as well as a few battles, the most famous of which is that of Diên Biên Phu (1954). Others were waged, briefly, on the Himalayan heights between Chinese and Indian troops (1962), the Soviets and the Chinese at the Ussuri River (1969), and at the Chinese-Vietnamese border (1979).

Guerrilla warfare, or “small wars,” which in ancient times was never, with one exception, the subject of a treatise, has however not once in world history ceased to be a widely used form of combat: during peasant uprisings; by movements of resistance to foreign invaders, in particular during the constitution of empires (Roman, Ottoman, Napoleonian, and so on); and in civil wars, most often religion-based.1