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Diplomacy and Conflict • Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla warfare is essentially the harassing of a superior military force by an inferior one. The term "guerrilla" is Spanish for "little war." It came into common usage at the time the Spanish came into conflict with Napoleon I's forces in the first decade of the 19th century. Although guerrilla war may have obtained its name in that conflict, its concept and practice date back many centuries, and it is probably impossible to find a record of its first use.

The key to guerrilla warfare—especially in its beginning stages—is to avoid direct contact with the stronger enemy at all costs. Thus, guerrillas (guerrilla war combatants) seek to attack isolated outposts and units with quick assaults and temporarily superior numbers, and then fade into the countryside before a response or counterattack can be mounted. The ultimate goal of guerrilla fighting is usually to gain enough numbers to be able to switch to more conventional warfare. At that point, the guerrilla forces may actually throw off their oppressors and implement their own policies for which they have been fighting, be they political, religious, social, or any combination of those.

Early Usage

The guerrilla style of warfare seems not to have been used much before the Middle Ages, when strong armies attempted to occupy territories that were more technologically backward than they. The English found this type of resistance in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, where between the 11th and 15th centuries, the inhabitants fought to maintain their independence. In Eastern Europe, similar struggles were fought, but there the primary goals were social or religious. Peasant uprisings were common and effective temporarily, usually when they were under the leadership of a disaffected noble or someone else with some military experience. Yet peasant revolts rarely, if ever, reached the point of gaining sufficient strength to defeat the armies of the upper classes. Still, those wars did accomplish much toward the development of ethnic identity in the Balkans, because the hated upper classes tended to be invaders from elsewhere.

Guerrilla conflicts often occurred in the Western Hemisphere during the colonial period. In the Americas, the terrain proved advantageous to guerrilla movements, as the rugged and heavily wooded countryside allowed for easy ambush and escape. In North America, the Native American peoples used their hunting skills to stalk English colonists or (with French support) to ambush columns of unsuspecting British troops. However, their inability to organize along intertribal lines doomed their attempts to failure. Also, the colonists themselves learned Indian methods and fought a counterguerrilla war, which ultimately proved effective. In the Caribbean and South America, escaped slaves occasionally organized and fought guerrilla actions against their former owners. In Brazil, some former slave bands existed independently for years. In Haiti, such forces fought and defeated Napoleonic troops and gained the island's independence in 1803.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, as European armies grew more nationalistic and professional, guerrilla tactics were still employed in some cases. Although the majority of battles were "set-piece," that is, units entering battle in formation, armies often recruited nonprofessional forces, which took the description "irregulars." The irregulars were often used for scouting and harassment of enemy supply lines. Irregulars were also used to infiltrate enemy territory and sow local discontent and sometimes to demoralize enemy civilians. In Africa and India, British and French colonial armies employed such troops widely where familiarity with local terrain was beyond most European officers' knowledge. The irregular forces were considered necessary for scouting purposes, but the troops themselves were often distrusted for their "irregular" discipline and loyalty. It was also difficult to control the irregular troops after or away from the battle, and pillaging and looting were common negative aspects of using such forces.

In the American Revolution, the Indian-style fighting the colonists had learned often served them well when fighting the British regular army. The opening day of the conflict, April 19, 1775, proved that point. At Lexington, a small group of militia stood to face a superior British force and suffered badly. Later that day, as that same British force retreated from Concord to Boston, colonial sniping and hit-and-run attacks inflicted three times as many casualties on the British as the American guerrillas suffered. A month later, a small force of men under the command of Ethan Allen surprised the isolated but strategic Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain and captured it and some 100 cannons without a shot being fired. American commander George Washington spent the war creating a regular Continental Army, but often such commanders as Nathanael Greene in the Carolinas exhausted the British sufficiently for Washington's regulars to take advantage of them. Greene commanded both regulars and militia, but he employed the standard guerrilla strategy of avoiding major battles while wearing down his enemy with skirmishing and harassment whenever possible.

Spread during Napoleonic Wars

It was during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century that the strategy not only acquired its name of guerrilla warfare but also saw some of its methods included in regular warfare. The French Revolution's levée en masse drafted huge numbers of peasants into the army. By that time, firearms were relatively common and easy to provide for large numbers of soldiers. However, the traditional fighting method of attacking in lines demanded more discipline than the peasants or their nonaristocratic officers were able to summon in the early days. Therefore, skirmishing and attacking by units rather than in a line became the normal practice. The fact that the peasant draftees were fighting for social and political rights similar to those pursued by peasant uprisings in previous centuries also increased their effectiveness. For a time, "irregular" was becoming "regular."

Even those adaptations of guerrilla tactics to regular warfare, however, failed to defeat the traditional guerrilla combat the Spanish peasants engaged in when French forces invaded Iberia. Again, the rugged countryside, the ability of the guerrillas to mass at a single point for temporary numerical advantage and then dissipate quickly, and the constant harassment of supply lines and isolated outposts all proved too much for the French to overcome. In addition, the assistance of a foreign power (Great Britain) to provide direction and supplies contributed to the success of guerrilla warfare in Spain.

Urban Guerrillas

After the Napoleonic Wars, Europe did not see many guerrillas for the remainder of the century, except in France itself. Urban guerrillas made their appearance during the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, but their limited appeal outside the cities doomed their causes. They made another appearance in 1870–1871 during the Franco–Prussian War with some action against invading Prussian troops. The term francs-tireurs (French marksmen) emerged at that time to describe the guerrillas who were as much terrorists as freedom fighters.

Interestingly, the urban guerrillas provoked changes in city planning. The winding alleyways that were the urban version of the rural wilderness became the target of city planners in the 19th century, and wide straight avenues became the popular urban design. Wide streets made barricades more difficult to construct and opened up firing lanes for artillery.

Colonial Conflicts

Guerrilla warfare appeared more in colonial conflict in the 19th century. The French dealt with Muslim guerrillas fighting for their religion as much as independence in Algeria. The British fought the most difficult of guerrilla conflicts in South Africa, while the Spanish put down several revolts in Cuba that culminated in serious guerrilla warfare on the part of the Cubans in the later 1890s. In all of those conflicts, the colonial powers were victorious because they had all developed counterguerrilla strategies. The French in Algeria abandoned the fortress-based defense for the aggressive flying column strategy that took the war into the wilderness on the guerrillas' home territory. By using surprise, the French kept the Algerians on the move and thus denied them the ability to plan and gather supplies. The French administration also saw the need to implement political action to pacify the population by granting some of the concessions for which the guerrillas were fighting. Counterinsurgency thus took on as much a political role as a military one.

In the United States, the regular army carried on offensives against Indian warriors in the Great Plains and the desert southwest. As the European powers had done against their guerrilla enemies in Africa and Cuba, the U.S. cavalry also took the war to the Indians, denying them supplies and forcing their surrender. The destruction of the buffalo on the Great Plains took everything the Plains Indians needed for sustenance, and cavalry attacks on villages in the winter to stem their horses robbed the Indians of their only serious method of fighting. On foot, they could not feed or fight, and the reservation became the only alternative. Those tactics, together with the inability of most tribes to cooperate with each other (a common guerrilla failing) and the overwhelming number of white soldiers and settlers pushing into their territories, meant that the Indians could not possibly win in the long run.

The Boers of South Africa at the end of the 19th century proved the most obstinate of guerrilla enemies for the British. Unlike native warriors who lacked modern weaponry, the Boers often had rifles and artillery equal to or better than whatever the British could put in the field. Their ability to live off the land, move about quickly on horseback, and also hold strong defensive positions when necessary made the Boers far superior to any guerrilla forces the British had faced. The British, however, followed the strategy implemented in Cuba by the Spanish: deny the guerrillas their source of support, the local population, which often provided supplies, information, and shelter to guerrilla armies.

To prevent that support, the British in South Africa and the Spanish in Cuba rounded up the population and concentrated them in camps, leaving anyone outside the camp by definition a "hostile." Although conditions in the camps at times proved deadly owing to lack of fresh water, food, medicine, and sanitary facilities, the strategy was effective. With the local population incarcerated in the camps, there was no one to work the farms, and the food supply for the guerrilla soldiers dried up. In Cuba, the timely intervention of the United States at the outbreak of the Spanish–American War in the spring of 1898 saved the guerrillas from imminent defeat. The Boers, on the other hand, could look to no outside savior during the Boer War, despite the fact that they received equipment and moral support from other countries. They were forced to sign surrender terms in 1902, although in the long run, the Boers' political agenda—local autonomy—was accomplished through legal means.

20th Century Warfare

Guerrilla warfare returned to Europe for a short time in the early 20th century during the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913. The motivations for those conflicts were nationalistic as well as religious, but like so many guerrilla movements, the Balkan guerrilla alliances could not withstand their own success. Once the Turks were sent packing by the victorious Balkan fighters, the rivalries within the guerrilla organization guaranteed that peace would not last.

World War I

Two very successful guerrilla operations took place during World War I, although not in Europe. In East Africa, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck used German soldiers and mobilized native troops to make life miserable for the British in one of the most successful campaigns of all time. His activities have come to be the model for irregular warfare. In a completely different climate, T. E. Lawrence mobilized Arab forces to attack the Turks in the Middle East during 1915–1918. Drawing on their Bedouin past, those horse- and camel-borne raiders greatly disrupted Turkish supply lines and outposts. Lawrence kept them supplied from British stores, but (except for Lawrence himself) it was virtually a total Arab effort in terms of manpower. Promises of nationhood and freedom from Turkish domination motivated those men. As could the Boers, the Arabs were able to move quickly as light cavalry. However, owing to the introduction of automobiles and aircraft, it was to be about the last time such operations were feasible.

Guerrilla warfare and revolution came to be almost synonymous in the 20th century as anticolonial forces grew in strength and popularity, especially after Word War I. The great proponent of revolution was Karl Marx, who wrote the Communist Manifesto with Friedrich Engels in 1847 and published it in London the following year. Yet Marx's vision of urban warfare by the workers against the owners rarely occurred. The Irish used urban guerrillas in their bid to create an independent Ireland during 1916–1921, but none there ever seriously embraced communism. It took other communist theorists to adapt revolution and guerrilla warfare into a cohesive whole and to seriously integrate the political aspects of revolution into the military strategy of guerrilla conflict. Although Vladimir Lenin in Russia made sure that political officers were in every unit of the Soviet military, it was Mao Zedong in China who became the leading theorist of national revolution among the agricultural rather than the industrial proletariat. His On Guerrilla Warfare (1937) became a text on national guerrilla uprisings.

World War II

Nationalist guerrilla warfare returned in Word War II, most notably in the Soviet Union. The partisans who escaped Adolf Hitler's executioners were so successful in harassing German supply lines that ultimately almost half the German Army was dedicated to rear areas, a fact that seriously affected the fighting at the front. Irregular warfare also showed itself in the formation of commando units that fought in all theaters, especially in North Africa and Southeast Asia.

Anticolonial movements exploded after World War II as imperialism became an ever less popular political theme. Communism, however, became more popular, and the United States, which had put down a guerrilla movement in the Philippines at the turn of the century and created special operations forces during World War II, became the primary anticommunist and antiguerrilla combatant. In Latin America, communist guerrillas organized antigovernment movements to remove dictators and implement social and economic reform. By embracing communism and receiving aid from the Soviet Union, those "freedom fighters" became the target of U.S. military attention.


No guerrilla movement, however, drew so much attention as that directed by Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Although he was an avowed nationalist attempting to free his homeland from French colonial rule, Ho's Soviet training and the supplies he received from both the Soviet Union and communist China guaranteed U.S. political opposition.

The Vietnamese had fought a very successful guerrilla war against the French after World War II by moving from a purely harassing type of combat to a national army that beat the French on their own terms. When the United States supported a rather repressive but anticommunist regime in the southern part of the country after 1956, Ho Chi Minh returned to his guerrilla tactics. Although the British had recently conducted a successful antiguerrilla operation in Malaya, the Americans apparently did not learn from their example and attempted to defeat the Vietnamese communists by conventional means. Although over time "special operations" forces became more widely used to fight an irregular war, the inability of the United States to offer a seriously attractive alternative political solution to the Vietnamese people almost guaranteed the victory of the communist forces.

The Future of Guerrilla Warfare

As long as weaker forces find themselves unable to face stronger ones in head-to-head competition, guerrilla warfare will exist. However, only those movements that do not fragment, offer and promote a viable program that is acceptable to a majority of the population, and receive some form of outside assistance are likely to be successful, as shown by past experience. As long as the stronger forces have the adaptability to fight a guerrilla war of their own and beat the partisans at their own game, they can win a military victory. Nonetheless, without having a viable program to offer the population (whether social, economic, political, religious, or any combination necessary), the military victory is likely to be short-lived.

"guerrilla" "little war." "set-piece," "irregulars." "irregular" levee "irregular" "regular." "hostile." "freedom fighters" "special operations"

Further Reading

Chaliand, Gérard, ed. Guerrilla Strategies: An Historical Anthology From the Long March to Afghanistan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982; Gann, Lewis H. Guerrillas in History. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1971; Mao Zedong. On Guerrilla Warfare. Translated by Samuel B. Griffith. New York: Praeger, 1961.

MLA Citation

Davis, Paul K., and Allen Lee Hamilton. "Guerrilla Warfare." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/310538. Accessed 21 Apr. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2180538

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