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.


  1. Callwell, Colonel Charles E. (1896), Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice (1896), His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.
  2. Pélissier, René (1977), Les Guerres grises. Résistance et révoltes en Angola (1845-1941), 2 volumes, self-published.