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Nineteenth-Century Guerrilla and Counter-Insurgency Warfare: Conference Report

Written by Tom Lawrie.

The overall historiography of insurgency and counter-insurgency is generally both Eurocentric and regionalist, lacking a truly definitive, overarching study of global guerrillaism and the general response from established authorities. This two-day symposium organized by Mark Lawrence and the Centre for the History of War, Media and Society pledged to put the study of insurgency and counter-insurgency in a truly global context, bringing in papers that focussed not only on the cradle of guerrilla warfare in the Iberian Peninsula, but reaching out to insurgencies in Latin America, Mexico and the Congo, before assessing counter-insurgency methods in Ireland, China, France, Burma and the campaigns of the Force Publique in Africa. Each day concluded with a plenary aimed to consolidate any overarching ideas that linked the papers together, and bridged any gaps between trans-continental approaches to both insurgency and the methods of its suppression.

The conference was opened with a keynote from Mark Lawrence (Kent), introducing the long-nineteenth century as one with scope for smaller-scale warfare, as the grand battles of the line slowly melted into obsolescence. As the technology of rifling, railways, and the telegraph ushered in the new, modern school of warfare, the precedent set by the Spanish and Portuguese in the little-known guerra fantástica (1762) and the well-known Peninsular War (1808-1814) became more accessible, and a more viable means of conducting war, especially against larger forces still being schooled in techniques of standard warfare and the cult of offensive in the military academies of Europe. Finally, the concluding remarks of the introduction established the current historiography of insurgency as one lacking in truly global context, requiring a sense of imperialization and a macro approach.

The first day revolved around Insurgency, with the first session beginning with a paper on the guerra fantástica of 1762 by Charles Esdaile (Liverpool). The paper highlighted the quixotic nature of Portuguese resistance to the Spanish invasion, having been decimated by the earthquake seven years’ previous, and the fantastical nature of Portugal single-handedly defeating both France and Spain. Esdaile argued the significance of the guerra fantástica as one of a demonstrable episode of guerrilla warfare in the era of fixed battles in the 18th century, arguing that 18th-century generals were far more flexible than historians give them credit for. As such, the prominence of a guerrilla war in the period broadens 18th-century warfare as a whole. Moreover, Esdaile argues that this particular insurgency was not one of rebellion, but techniques of rebellion used in defence of the state. The more people have to lose, Esdaile argued, the more likely they are to engage in insurgent warfare. The second paper, presented by Natalia Sobrevilla (Kent), focused on insurgency in South America, where examples of poorly organised militia, such as that of Rio Plata, were bolstered by uprisings of the local population, as in during the local response to the British invasion of 1806. Sobrevilla posited that those guerrillas who engaged in defence were much more successful than those who went on the offensive, and guerrillas were chiefly reserved to localities. Sobrevilla highlighted the importance of the women, who produced all the food and much of the equipment used by the guerrillas, and on whom the insurgents were reliant. Owing to the constraints imposed by poor logistics, the insurgency mostly relied upon intermittent mobilisation, which proved effective nonetheless.

The second panel on Insurgency began with a paper on Insurgencies of the First Carlist War by Mark Lawrence (Kent), who framed the Carlist War of 1833-40 as one of reactionary revolt, typified by outnumbered insurgents fighting an unstable liberal government in Madrid. Lawrence presented examples of defection, as the Carlists encouraged desertion and enlistment of former Cristinos, and argued the basis for how the war was fought was in the insurrectionary tradition of the traditionally Carlist core areas of support. The Carlists never gained enough strength to overthrow the Cristino regime, leaving them with the means to survive, but no model for victory, which kept the insurrection localised. This paper prompted intriguing questions on the difference between guerrilla warfare and guerrillaism (guerrilla strategy), as well as the difference between a guerrilla and an insurgent. In the case of the Carlist war, it could be argued that insurgency implies overthrow of a political settlement which can then use the method of guerrilla warfare. The theme of conflicting definition between guerrilla and insurgent, while reflecting the fluidity of guerrilla warfare in general, became a common theme of the symposium.

The second panel was continued by Nat Morris (University College London) with his paper Memory, Magic and Militias: Cora Indian Participation in Mexico’s Wars from La Reforma to La Revolución, 1854-1910. Morris traced Mexican insurgency through a prosopographical assessment of the Cora, and ethnic group from the Mexican state of Nayarit. The Cora, despite numbering between 3,000-5,000, managed to maintain their sovereignty and genetic homogeneity through careful allegiances and imaginative methods of warfare, through the invasions by Spain and France, through to Mexican independence. Throughout this period they maintained political, linguistic and religious autonomy on an unprecedented scale for the region, and managed to use their allegiances to foster beneficial indigenous policies.

The final paper of the day was jointly presented by Giacomo Macola (Kent) and Jack Hogan (London School of Economics), on Guerrilla Warfare in Katanga: The Sanga Rebellion of the 1890s and Its Suppression. The paper demonstrated that African military history did not start with the arrival of Europeans, and demonstrated the complexity of pre-colonial African warfare. The Sanga, with their intimate knowledge of local terrain and widespread grassroots support, struck out at resource bases with relatively small and mobile forces, perfectly fitting the mould of guerrilla warfare despite the absence of any guerrilla tradition. The Yeke managed to survive by reinventing themselves as a rapid deployment force in order to meet the threat posed by the Sanga, eventually defeating the insurgency despite its initial successes.

The second day called for panels on counter-insurgency, with the morning session opened by Timothy Bowman (Kent) and his assessment of Rebellions and Counter-Insurgency in Ireland, 1848-1867. Both insurgencies in this period were relatively small, framed by a tradition that goes back to 1791, 1798 and 1803, moving onto 1916, the 1920s and the 1960s. In comparison to these, especially the rebellion of 1798 and the 1916 Easter Rising, Bowman argues the historiography of the 1848-1867 period to be poorly served, and somewhat biased by revisionism – taken to the extreme with the Fenians, historians have argued 1867 to be a social movement rather than a revolutionary one, which Bowman adamantly disagrees with. The rebellions were dealt with by scattering troops about in pockets, and the use of flying columns from 1867; a method that Bowman says proved to have more of a psychological benefit than a practical one. The British used an extensive spy network, and suspended habeas corpus as well as legislating gun control, and recruiting the Irish disproportionately into the British Army.

Bowman’s paper was followed by one from Kenneth Swope (Southern Mississippi), presenting on General Zuo’s Counter-Insurgency Doctrine. Swope argued China to have been both victims of imperialism and imperialists, despite official Chinese attitudes which vehemently resist the Xing dynasty being described as an ‘empire’, owing to the association in China of nineteenth-century ‘empire’ with predatory foreign powers. General Zuo suppressed numerous revolts and guerrilla uprisings as Imperial Commissioner towards the end of the Qing dynasty, from the 1840s through to the 1880s. In dealing with these various rebellions, Zuo was conscious to leave the countryside intact, winning over hearts and minds; and followed a very progressive agenda, banning opium and building shipyards and factories. Zuo succeeded in suppressing numerous overlapping rebellions, engineering the investment of regional commanders with significant authority, adapting to different cultures and geographies, using small units of well paid and well-trained soldiers, combined operations and rehabilitation. As to why the rebellions often took so long to put down, Swope argued that this was down to the sheer size and scope of the rebellions, with simultaneous events putting great strain on the government. Zuo’s model of insurgent repression was a model of adaptability and progressivism.

The afternoon session was opened by Ian Beckett (Kent), presenting on the Campaign of the Lost Footsteps: the Pacification of Burma, 1885-1895. In a campaign that the War Office regarded to be one of policing, which nonetheless turned out to be the longest campaign fought by the Victorian army, 35,000 troops pacified the Burmese after the forced abdication of their King following the Third Anglo-Burmese War. Royal claimants became initial magnets of resistance, as a patriotic banditry (‘dacoits’), swelled to oppose British rule. This devolved into a war of ambush, with the well-equipped British Army facing a poorly armed Burmese insurgency, complicated by difficult climate and terrain and the dacoits preying on local communities as well as the British, engendering a common theme of wrongdoing. The British strategy evolved as an initial tactic of flying columns gave way to an attempt to win hearts and minds, recruiting Burmese into the police and armed forces, fencing off villages, implementing collective fines and removing sympathisers.

The final paper was delivered by Mario Draper on The Force Publique’s campaigns in the Congo-Arab War, 1892-94. As the Belgians had no deep-rooted military tradition, Draper argued, they used French ideas of counter-insurgency, using seconded French officers to allay the dearth of experience. While tactics would have been written down and available, it is extremely unlikely to have been taught. As a result, general principles came down from sources such as Caldwell and the French, but no one model of counterinsurgency was prescribed. After an initial policy of conciliation, they resorted to strangling the Arab insurgents economically, not being able to force them into a pitched battle. Relying on psychological and moral factors, and using concentration of space to bring the Arabs to battle, the Force Publique used local fighting methods and superior firepower to bring the insurgents to bear. As Draper argued, patterns emerge of British and French experience, with the Belgians either using this experience or simply improvising.

Many common themes emerged from these two days, some mutually overlapping, which were discussed in depth during the plenaries. Common problems and common solutions; the use of local information and collaboration; the sway of public opinion; the impact of millenarianism and messianism; the use of technology and superior firepower; attempts to win over the hearts and minds of the local populace; legal frameworks for irregular warfare; racial and ethnic stereotypes; policing, and both memory and patterns of forgetting all dominated the discussion, being common themes across much of the work presented throughout the weekend. Moreover, the issue of terminology arose – the legal and etymological differences between the definitions of insurgent and guerrilla, and the difference between guerrilla warfare and guerrillaism. Perhaps the answer ties in with another common theme: that both insurgency and counter-insurgency are inherently fluid and adaptable, with both the nature of the insurgencies, such as the Portuguese in the guerra fantástica or the Cora in Mexico employing different methods in response to the external factors that endangered them. As with General Zuo, the Force Publique, or the British in Burma and Ireland, different methods of employing counter-insurgency sprung up in response to the insurgencies themselves – as with the Belgians, there was no one model of dealing with insurgency, and adaptability often carried the day. The papers will be published in a special issue of Small Wars and Insurgencies edited by Mark Lawrence.

Tom Lawrie is a postgraduate research student at the University of Kent.

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