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Guerrilla Warfare, A Brief and Bloody History

Updated on February 22, 2016
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

Valdepeñas Battle at 6-6-1808: Spanish resistance to French Rule.
Valdepeñas Battle at 6-6-1808: Spanish resistance to French Rule. | Source

Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army was unstoppable in the first decade of the 1800s. With his prowess and ingenuity for war, Napoleon and his troops conquered nearly every European country they invaded. So when an insurgency started in occupied Spain – a dominion ruled by his brother and not equipped with a strong army – many assumed they would easily put the rebellion down.

Instead, they were entrenched in a bloody and failed war against Spanish partisans made up of farmers, peasants, and merchants. The Peninsular War, as it would later be known, would become Napoleon’s first defeat on land, and prevent him from taking over Portugal. On top of that, Spanish insurgency would account for more than 100,000 deaths and tie up much of the French forces in small skirmishes throughout the Spanish countryside.

The impact of this war was immediate, and many of Napoleon’s enemies took notice. Soon, a particular name would be associated with the style of warfare used to bog down, aggravate, and eventually defeat the invading army.

Today, guerrilla warfare (Spanish for “little war”) is a tactic used by irregular troops against larger well-armed armies. With the use of insurgencies, ambushes, surprise attacks, raids, and clandestine operations, this form of warfare can be swift, brutal and very unpredictable.

It can also have a profound psychological effect on the combatants fighting against these tactics. It’s not uncommon for well-organized and disciplined armies fighting these fighters to devolve into massacres of civilians or needless destruction of towns and villages. In effect, this can embolden more people to support the guerrilla rebels and their causes.

Spanish partisans were not the first to use this tactic. Nor were they the last.

Sun Tzu (or Zu), author of The Art of War
Sun Tzu (or Zu), author of The Art of War | Source

Guerrilla Warfare Before it was known as Guerrilla Warfare

The concept of guerrilla warfare has been around for thousands of years. There’s a likelihood it has been around since the dawn of recorded history. As civilizations grew, many of them went to war with each other. And as major empires acquired new land, they came in contact with the natives who most likely resisted them.

In the 6th century BC, the legendary Chinese general and dignitary, Sun Tzu – who wrote the highly influential The Art of War -- became a fan of this tactic. He realized that small determined forces can outwit and defeat larger armies by disrupting supply lines and destroying the opposition’s will to fight. Morale, to Tzu, was possibly the most important weapon any military force could have.

Nomadic and indigenous tribes in Europe and Western Asia also found this tactic helpful in fighting armies from major empires. One example occurred during Rome’s campaign to conquer the British Isles. Documents and journals from the Romans who fought and lived there suggested that the fight with the indigenous people was brutal.

During the Boudican Revolt in 60 AD, the queen of the British Iceni tribe, Boudicca, led a campaign against the Romans in the British Isles. During this revolt, it was not uncommon for rebel fighters to engage the Roman Army in skirmishes or ambushes along country roads.

This revolt was eventually put down by the Romans; however, Boudicca became a martyr. To this day, Boudica is hailed as a national heroine. Statues throughout London have been made in her honor.

The Creation of Heroes and Villains in Medieval Times

Mongols and Ottoman Turks were at their height of power. The Mongols, in particular, were suited to oppose any form of guerrilla warfare, considering that many of their tactics were similar. They operated in raiding parties and adopted a scorched-earth policy that left very little standing.

Despite the Mongol’s form of combat, there were still those who were willing to stand in their way. This was the case in Hungary. Peasants helped to defend the kingdom from the invaders at the Battle of Mohi (April 11, 1241). The Hungarian partisans managed to defeat minor raiding parties before the initial battle; however, they were overcome by superior and ruthless forces that swept into the kingdom and left it in ruins.

Resistance against Ottoman Turks was also fierce. The most powerful empire in the region had its eyes set on Europe. However, famous and infamous guerrilla fighters and leader were determined to make them pay for every inch of land they acquired.

For years before the American Revolution, Indian nations used hit-and-run tactics that disrupted colonization by European settlers.

George Kastrioti Skanderbeg led a successful campaign to force the Turks out of Albania in 1443. He would keep them at bay for decades.

Also, villains came out of these struggles. In 1462, a vicious prince from Wallachia (present-day Romania) with a deep-seated hatred for the Turks terrorized them. Not only did he resort to ambushes, he even sacrificed his own people, sometimes impaling them on poles and placing them in the path of invading Turks – just to send a message of how ruthless he can be. The prince was Vlad III Dracul. Today, he is best known as the real Dracula.

Afrikaner Commandos from the Second Boer War in South Africa circa 1900
Afrikaner Commandos from the Second Boer War in South Africa circa 1900 | Source

Guerrilla Warfare as Revolution

Rebel armies hoping to break away from a powerful government also used guerrilla warfare. For years before the American Revolution, Indian nations used hit-and-run tactics that disrupted colonization by European settlers. They were successful until the colonists in New France (Canada) and the American colonies turned the table and used their tactics against them.

Guerrilla warfare also became an important tactic in the American Revolution. Local militia, supported by the colonists and eventually funded by the continental congress, played a crucial role in the war by disrupting supply lines, engaging in ambushes and sniper attacks.

Other countries used this tactic, as well. In the Boer Wars, the Dutch farmers known as the Boars fought the British Indian Army. The Boer Commandos, as they were called, dressed like common farmers and blended in with the civilians. This led to the British changing their uniform. Also, the British utilized the controversial concentration camps to imprison the Boers as a way to break their morale.

Finally, much of the 20th century saw communist and pro-democracy guerrilla fighters battling against government troops, invading armies, or themselves for control of a territory.

Characteristics of Guerrilla Warfare

By the time the 20th century arrived, guerrilla warfare was becoming a major component in modern warfare. Many of them were used in minor skirmishes, while, in other cases, they were used in a prolonged campaign (as was the case with the Mujahedin in the Soviet-Afghanistan War of the 1980s).

Often, guerrilla warfare involves small, mobile forces who tend to (not always) have support of the local population, and have advantages of knowing the terrain they are fighting in (This was the case for the Lombard Tribes in North and South Carolina who fought against pro-Southern militias, Confederate forces, and their sympathizers during the American Civil War. They used their knowledge of the woodlands and wetlands to their advantage).

Also, partisan fighters in occupied countries fought campaigns to harass, terrorize, and destroy morale among its enemies. Many successful partisans in World War II used these tactics. However, it came with a huge price. Nazi Germans and Japanese troops often dispensed brutal forms of retribution – in many cases, punished and executed civilian men, women and children who may or may not have had anything to do with the guerrilla fighters.

In some cases, the guerrilla fighter will don civilian clothing and hide among them. However, this is not always the norm. In many cases, combatants in major armies or spies have used this particular tactic.

The Dirty War

Not everything is noble about guerrilla warfare. In fact, some of the worst atrocities were caused by guerrilla fighters.

During the Civil War, various incursions, raids and ambushes were enacted by irregular armies on both sides of the war. Bushwhackers and other guerrilla-styled fighters often operated outside the jurisdiction of their respective governments. As a result, they resorted to wholesale slaughter.

The most famous (or infamous) were pro-Union Jayhawkers of Kansas and pro-Southern Quantrill’s Raiders of Missouri. These two groups often raided towns and fought enemy troops. They also committed some of the bloodiest atrocities of the war.

When irregular forces can’t defeat an army in headlong battle or skirmishes, terrorism becomes the tactic of choice.

Quantrill’s Raiders were responsible for an attack on Lawrence, Kansas, the headquarters for the Jayhawkers and abolitionists. The attack would come to be known as the Lawrence Massacre, in which a quarter of all the town’s buildings were set ablaze and more than 100 men and boys were killed.

To note: Quantrill’s Raiders was one of the few irregular units not to give up after the Civil War. They carried on a campaign of harassing Missouri’s state government for a year after the war. Eventually, after the death of its third leader (Quantrill and “Bloody” Bill Anderson had been killed during the Civil War), members of the group splintered off to form a band of outlaws. The group was headed by Frank and Jesse James and was known as the James-Younger Gang.

Terrorism

Terrorism has always been a part of guerrilla warfare. When irregular forces can’t defeat an army in headlong battle or skirmishes, terrorism becomes the tactic of choice.

It’s often characterized by surprise attacks, use of explosives and other forms of massive destruction. Also, hijacking, kidnapping, and shooting sprees have been used. Often, the targets are the military; however, civilians are not immune. In fact, some groups have exclusively targeted civilians as a way to create mayhem and fear.

In Conclusion

Whether it was for noble causes, retaliations, or for religious or political reasons, guerrilla warfare has been adopted by smaller forces as a way to take on bigger ones of the opposition

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© 2015 Dean Traylor

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    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      A very interesting and informative hub Dean. The first article I have read about the history of guerilla warfare. Voted up.

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