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.


  1. Davidov, Denis (2012), Essai sur la guerre de partisans, introduction by Gérard Chaliand, Astrée, Paris.
  2. Le Mière de Corvey, Jean-Frédéric-Auguste (1823), Des partisans et des corps irréguliers, etc., Anselin et Pochard, Paris; Clausewitz, Carl von (1997), On War, Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, Wordsworth Editions Ltd., Ware, UK. See also: Clausewitz, Carl von (1966), “Meiner Vorlesungen über den Kleinen Krieg”, in Schriften – Aufzätze – Studien – Briefe, Werner Hahlweg, Göttingen.
  3. This is admirably covered by Davidov, op. cit.