Boers attack a British blockhouse during the guerrilla phase of the Boer War (1899-1902).

Since 1945, most wars have been asymmetrical struggles between conventional armies and guerrilla insurgents. Vietnam rather than Korea has been the model. And it seems clear that the balance of advantage has shifted from the regular to the irregular. The modern guerrilla armed with long-range, rapid-fire, precision weaponry is a far more formidable opponent than predecessors bearing spear or musket.

But modern guerrilla warfare predates the Second World War. It was the method of Irish nationalists in 1919-1921 and Arab tribesmen in 1916-1918. Even earlier, it was the method of South African Boers defending their independence against the British Empire in 1900-1902.

Having been defeated by overwhelming force in conventional operations in the first half of 1900, the Boers dispersed into the rural areas and adopted a guerrilla strategy. In the vast open spaces of the South African veldt, these highly mobile sharpshooters proved themselves exceptional opponents. It took two years and a quarter of a million men to defeat around 25,000 hardcore guerrillas. The architect of victory was Herbert Kitchener.

The theatre of war. This map shows most of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (named 'Orange River Colony' in homage to Roberts' annexation in March 1900) and the lines of blockhouses (in red) that had been constructed by the end of the war.

Our lead feature this issue analyses Kitchener’s pioneering counterinsurgency strategy. What are the lessons? Perhaps the crucial one is this: whatever you do, however clever you are, the advantage is always with a guerrilla fighter embedded in the landscape and lifeways of his homeland. The cost of victory for an invader is always likely to be exceptionally high.

 

To read more about Kitchener and his counterinsurgency strategy, read the November issue of Military Times.