First-hand knowledge of the field and the adversary

The British “Indian Army” was made up of volunteers, who when they joined it between 1815 and 1847, were committed to twenty-one years of service. After 1847, commitment to military service was reduced to twelve years. Thereafter, it was further reduced to six years of active duty and six years on reserve.

Indian Army officers were the only ones authorized to go to Great Britain during their active life, and only after having served ten years.

All of this explains that the body of officers were well rooted in an environment that became part of their existence, for which they came to acquire first-hand knowledge of the field and possibly the language, and in any case, of how local society worked, its codes, and how to handle them.

When Lord Kitchener, the first Governor General of Sudan, was replaced in 1899 by General Sir Francis Reginald Wingate (one of Thomas Edward Lawrence’s mentors) who remained in office until 1916, the latter instituted the Sudan Political Service. The administrators of this body were recruited in Great Britain and spent their whole career in Sudan.1

A system such as this, strengthened by the Victorian mindset, explains and provides keys to an era very distant from ours. As indicated by William Carson, a colonel in the US Marines: “We did not wage war in Vietnam for eight years, we waged a one-year war eight times.”2

This era ended with the Indochina War (1954), which had been waged by long-term volunteers who were relatively rooted in the environment in which they fought.

Time and wars of attrition

Time, as a factor, plays today against Westerners, who are in a hurry to end any sort of fighting because of public attention. During the colonial wars, time weighed, on the contrary, in favor of the conquerors. For isolated traditional societies having no external support, a war of attrition was costly. If necessary, their harvests were destroyed and their cattle were decimated. This scorched-earth policy was applied in India by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, in Algeria by Thomas Bugeaud, and in the Caucasus (Dagestan) by Aleksey Yermolov.

Faraway public opinion

Public opinion before World War I was not very well informed on these faraway conflicts.3 They were either indifferent, or sometimes proud of the victories when these flattered national pride. As for the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa, it was followed with passion (British testimonies by Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and Winston Churchill). It is true that it was a war between “whites.” At the time, hardly any testimonies regarding the adversaries were brought to the attention of the public.

These irregular wars, usually waged by very limited forces, were somewhat scorned by the military or by politicians who were concerned with national competitions in Europe. It would be some time before the considerable sociological changes produced indirectly by these apparently minor conflicts were noticed. Only very recently has some attention been directed to battles formerly considered as “decisive” (John F.C. Fuller). This is why nothing could be found on the Spanish conquest of Mexico, which could be rightly said to have been decisive. Nothing, either, on the very important Arab victories at the Battles of Yarmuk (636) and Qadisiyah (637), which would lastingly impose Islam in Syria at the expense of the Roman Byzantine Empire, and in Iran by causing the fall of the Sasanian Empire.4


  1. Holt, P.M., Ann K. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis (eds.) (1970), The Cambridge History of Islam, Volume II A, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 361.
  2. Carson, William M. (1968), The Betrayal, Norton, New York.
  3. In Marseilles, a seaside memorial stone reads: “In tribute to our heroes who died in the East and in faraway lands.”
  4. Blin, Arnaud (2014), Les Batailles qui ont changé l’histoire, Perrin, Paris.