Imperial Warfare Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The one hundred years between 1850 and 1950 constituted one of the most violent and troubled periods in all of recorded history.

Political Considerations

The one hundred years between 1850 and 1950 constituted one of the most violent and troubled periods in all of recorded history. It witnessed the growing reliance of governments on military power to resolve European and colonial disputes, the competition for dominance among ideologically opposing camps, and the loss of millions of lives in wars. Yet, at the same time, this age experienced increased prosperity, enhanced longevity, and the ascendancy of liberal ideals that were focused on eliminating the causes for the distress. In 1857 Britain experienced the Sepoy Sepoy Rebellion (1857)Rebellion in India, when Muslim soldiers refused to bite pork-greased cartridges that were required for a new rifle. Although Britain suppressed the revolt and established direct control over India;colonialIndia, the Sepoy Rebellion exemplified the cultural divide between the European powers and their non-Western colonies. The revolt was more than a resistance to the British affront to Muslims; it was a reaction to Britain’s foreign presence and power.ImperialismColonialismRebellions;colonialImperialismColonialismRebellions;colonial

Between 1870 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, European nations frequently were involved in colonial disputes and wars while peace was sustained on the European Continent itself. The most active imperial powers were Britain, France, Italy, and, after 1885, Germany, the United States, and Russia. Imperialism gained support in the 1870’s under the leadership of British prime minister BenjaminDisraeli, BenjaminDisraeli, BenjaminDisraeli (1804-1881), the new leaders of the French Third Republic, and the government of Kaiser Wilhelm (William) William IIWilliam II (kaiser of Germany)[William 02]II (1859-1941) of Germany. They believed that imperialism reflected the natural state of affairs, demonstrated national power, and provided sources of raw materials and markets for manufactured products. Within increasingly democratic societies anti-imperialists, such as William Ewart Gladstone, William EwartGladstone, William EwartGladstone (1809-1898), developed support and, on occasion, gained power.

The principal colonial rivalries prior to 1900 focused on Great Britain;imperialismBritain, the preeminent imperial power. The France;imperialismFrench opposed Britain in the Middle East, constructing the Suez Suez Canal;constructionCanal, but they lost the canal and their influence in the region when Disraeli managed to acquire for Britain a controlling interest in the canal in 1876. Later, France and Britain were almost brought to the point of war during the Fashoda Incident Fashoda Incident (1898-1899)(1898-1899), which involved control of the Upper Nile and hegemony in East Africa.

The British were also colonial rivals of the Russia;imperialismRussians. In 1878 Disraeli thwarted the Russian military successes against the Ottoman Empire;and British[British]Ottoman Turks (1877-1878); as a result of the Treaty of Berlin Berlin Treaty of 1878(1878), Britain obtained Cyprus;colony of BritainCyprus, and Russia only partially achieved its objectives. Britain and Russia opposed each other in the Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839-1842; Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839-1842; 1878-1880)[Anglo Afghan Wars]1878-1880) and were competitors in Persia and China. In 1891 France and Russia entered into an alliance directed at a defensive war with Germany. The Germans allied themselves with Austria-Hungary and Italy. In 1898 Britain began a move away from political and diplomatic isolation. Although the initial preference was for an agreement with Germany, Britain was rebuffed and sought to resolve its colonial disputes.

Imperial Holdings in Africa as of 1914

In 1902 the Anglo-Japanese Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902)[Anglo Japanese Alliance]Alliance was formalized; it required the signatories to adopt a position of benevolent neutrality in the event that one of them was attacked by a third party. In 1904 the Anglo-French Anglo-French Entente (1904)[Anglo French Entente]Entente, or the Entente Entente Cordiale (1904)Cordiale, resolved the colonial dispute between France and Britain over Africa;colonialismAfrica. Britain agreed to recognize Northwest Africa as a French sphere of influence, and France recognized Northeast Africa as a British sphere of influence. Despite British support for Japan in the Russo-Japanese WarRusso-Japanese War (1904-1905)[Russo Japanese War](1904-1905), the colonial disputes between Russia and Britain were addressed in the Anglo-Russian Entente of Anglo-Russian Entente (1907)[Anglo Russian Entente]1907. Britain received Afghanistan;colonialAfghanistan and the southern third of Persia;British influencePersia as spheres of influence; Russia obtained the northern third of Persia;Russian influencePersia and shared with Britain the opportunity to economically exploit central Persia. Both parties recognized Tibet as part of China. Relations between the German Empire and the Anglo-French-Russian alliance were strained over German involvement in Morocco, East Africa, and the Far East. During this period the United United States;imperialismStates emerged as an imperial power, with participation in the Spanish-American War Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War](1898) and expansion in the Pacific. As a result of the war with Spain, the United States acquired Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The United States seized Hawaii from a native government and occupied several islands, including Pago Pago, in the South Pacific. The United States and many European states were involved in the internal economic life of the decadent Qing Dynasty in China;colonialism inChina. In 1900 the Boxer Boxer Rebellion (1900)Rebellion, motivated by the Manchus and reflecting antiforeign sentiment, was put down by an international military force.

With the outbreak of World War World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01]I in 1914, the contending parties extended the conflict to their colonies. German positions in Africa and China were vulnerable, and the British and French defeated the German forces. In January, 1918, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, WoodrowWilson, WoodrowWilson (1856-1924) advanced his Fourteen Fourteen Points (Wilson)Points as a basis for a peace settlement. Incorporated into the document was a clear anti-imperialist sentiment; Wilson wanted a world without empires, in which the independence and interests of native populations were respected. Although the Paris Peace Conference Paris Peace Conference (1919)(1919) paid token attention to this view, it was ignored in the text of the treaty. Nonetheless, Wilson’s anti-imperialism had the support of many Europeans who believed that imperial rivalry had contributed to the outbreak of the war. During the 1920’s anti-imperialism gained momentum. Britain moved toward granting independence to India. More important, in the new Soviet Union, the communist leaders denounced Western imperialism and urged all native peoples to revolt.

Caribbean Theater of the Spanish-American War

Also during the 1920’s a new totalitarian ideology called Fascismfascism grew in influence, coming to power in Italy in 1922, in Germany in 1933, in Spain in 1939, and in Japan in 1940, although the turn toward fascism in Japan had begun during the 1920’s. Unlike the liberal Democracy;vs. fascism[fascism]democracies, the fascist states supported the continuation and expansion of their empires. They challenged the progressive view of society in which liberty and individual values were valued. Authoritarian and antidemocratic, the fascist states advanced a corporate political agenda that emphasized collective or national and racist values at the expense of individual freedoms. The resulting conflict, World War II World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02](1939-1945), between Germany, Italy, and Japan and the Western democracies and the Soviet Union, was the deadliest and most gruesome conflict in history. The victors came to recognize not only the folly of imperialism but also its drain on national economies. Regrettably, the Cold War Cold War (1945-1991)(1945-1991) between the Soviet Union and its allies and the Western democracies resulted in extending variations of imperialism as the two camps competed for global support.

Military Achievement

The significant military achievements of the imperial era were the successful defense and extension of the British Empire during the Zulu War Zulu War (1879)(1879), the Anglo-Afghan Wars, and World Wars I and II; the notorious defeat of Ethiopia by Italians; and the American reacquisition of the Philippines from Japan. In 1879 the Zulu King CetshwayoCetshwayo (Zulu king)Cetshwayo (c. 1832-1884) defeated the British in the Battle of Isandhlwana, Battle of (1879)Isandhlwana on January 22, 1879, and threatened the British position in South Africa. Britain responded, defeating the Zulus in the Battle of Ulundi, Battle of (1879)Ulundi on July 4, 1879, and neutralizing the Zulu threat.

British wars against Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839-1842; 1878-1880)[Anglo Afghan Wars]Afghanistan in the 1870’s and 1880’s were directed at local chieftains and the Russians who could threaten the northern gateway to India. In both instances British influence prevailed and, in 1907, Russia recognized the British influence in Afghanistan. In both World Wars I and II, British colonial power was threatened. In 1914 and 1915 German units threatened the British in East Africa near the Bandu River but were defeated by Britain’s regular and colonial military resources.

In 1934 Italy;imperialismItaly, which had long entertained aspirations to acquire Ethiopia;Italian invasion of 1935Ethiopia, seized the opportunity to create a war-in-sight crisis when Italian and Ethiopian troops clashed at Ualual, Battle of (1934)Ualual in a dispute over the border between Somaliland and Ethiopia. During 1935 the European powers attempted to mediate the dispute; the French foreign minister sold out Ethiopia by giving the Italians a free hand. In October, 1935, Italian army and naval units started an invasion of Ethiopia. The League of Nations denounced the Italian aggression but lacked the resolve and the forces necessary to implement its position. In May, 1936, Italian forces occupied Addis Ababa after a spirited resistance by the Ethiopians and, in the same month, they announced the annexation of Ethiopia. The Italian military action involved mechanized forces including planes and tanks; they were opposed by poorly equipped Ethiopians who could not mount a defense against such power.

After the Spanish-American War the United States acquired the Philippines;colonialPhilippine Islands. A politically reluctant imperial power, the United States was moving the Philippines toward self-government in the 1930’s. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Philippines were attacked and an invasion was initiated. By May 6, 1942, the last American outpost, the island fortress at Corregidor, had fallen to the Japanese. The United States, confronted with a global struggle, never lost sight of its defeat in the Philippines. On October 19, 1944, the United States launched a successful amphibious invasion of the Philippines;World War II[World War 02]Philippines under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, DouglasMacArthur, DouglasMacArthur (1880-1964); the Japanese forces were removed in 1945. In the struggle for the Philippines, the United States relied on active support from native resistance forces and on the general sympathy of the populace. Shortly after the war was won, the Philippines were granted full independence in 1947.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The development of weapons during this imperial period constituted a revolution in armaments. This age witnessed the transformation in personnel from the mounted warriors of the Charge of the Light Brigade (1854) to pilots of German jet fighter planes. It also experienced the radical changes associated with modern Guns;imperial eragunnery and artillery, the invention of automatic and semiautomatic firearms, mechanized armor (tanks), the submarine as a strategic weapon, the impact of telecommunications on war, and the birth of the modern aircraft carrier task force. Many of these developments had a significant impact upon imperial warfare. Collectively, the dramatic cost of modern warfare led, almost in itself, to the end of empires.

In 1857, Muslim soldiers in India refused to bite pork-greased cartridges that were required for a new rifle. Although Britain suppressed the revolt and established direct control over India, the Sepoy Rebellion exemplified the cultural divide between the European powers and their non-Western colonies.

(Library of Congress)

By the end of the nineteenth century smokeless powder and bolt-action and magazine-repeating mechanisms had been developed and adopted by most major armies. The machine Machine gunsgun, capable of firing hundreds of rounds per minute, had been perfected. The French Hotchkiss, Austrian Schwarzlose, British Lewis, and American Browning guns were among the more advanced machine-gun models produced. The impact of these weapons in colonial wars against poorly defended or undefended native peoples was devastating. The imperial powers viewed these technical innovations as important because they were cost-effective and reduced the number of regular troops that had to be assigned to the colonies.

New Cannons;imperial eracannons and Artillery;imperial eraartillery pieces advanced the effectiveness of the earlier Armstrong guns that had been deployed effectively against the Maoris in New Zealand and in China during the Opium Wars Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860)(1839-1842) that secured for Britain the control of Hong Hong KongKong. With grenades, grenade launchers, and rocket-propelled weapons, the European and American governments continued to develop a dazzling array of lethal weapons that were designed for defense from one another but which also could be used to suppress native populations. The new weapons technology, with planned obsolescence, established a built-in arms Arms race;beginningsrace that became an important component in global culture. By 1940 the U.S. Army was equipped with the very efficient, gas-chamber-powered, semiautomatic M1 M-1 rifle[M 0001]rifle.

Combat uniforms evolved during this period from the brightly colored and decorated uniforms of the past into more practical uniforms that concealed the troops from the enemy. Combat in imperial wars resulted in the adaptation of standard uniforms in accord with the local conditions; uniforms were made of varying weights to provide comfort in diverse climates.

The advent of steel and the need for mobility in the field resulted in less and lighter armor for the individual soldier. The most important component was the Helmets;modernhelmet, which protected the soldier’s head from rifle fire as well as from shrapnel from artillery, grenades, and mortar fire. Reinforced Steel;weaponssteel also protected heavy gun emplacements, fortified riverboats, fortified trains and transports, and other military devices that were used in imperial wars.

Military Organization

Military organization during the era of imperial warfare reflected the movement toward a trained professional officer corps, the importance of strategic and tactical planning, the need for continuous preparedness training, and the value of utilizing science and technology in advancing weaponry. The model of the German General German General StaffStaff was replicated throughout Europe with varying success. Although the European nations developed plans for the deployment of multidivision forces in the event of hostilities at home, their approach to military organization at the imperial level was much more limited.

Because of costs, all of the imperial powers attempted to develop reliable local forces that included natives at the soldier and noncommissioned officer levels; they were led by European officers. Further, in most instances, the organization of the defense of imperial colonies was predicated upon sustaining a supply line to the mother country through which reinforcements could be sent if necessary; a reliable navy was required to support a global empire. Without doubt Britain had the most sophisticated imperial military organization. Not only did Britain have the means to support its dominions and crown colonies in the event of attack, but it also developed plans for the colonies to support Britain in the event of a European or global conflict. This imperial military organization was effective during periods of peace or occasional local conflict, but, with the exception of Britain, for most nations it proved ineffective because of inadequate forces and the precarious nature of the lines of supply.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Central to an understanding of the doctrines, strategy, and tactics employed in imperial warfare is the recognition of four major points. First, colonial wars between European industrialized nations were frequently fought using the same concepts and practices that would have been used in Europe. In most instances, the number of troops was considerably fewer and there were adaptations to the locale and conditions. Nonetheless, colonial encounters such as those at Fashoda were approached using the same conceptual framework.

Second, in situations where native forces or populations were involved, innovations were mandated; guerrilla Guerrilla warfare;anticolonialwarfare had to be met with a nontraditional response. In most instances, Europeans and Americans relied increasingly on technological innovations in weaponry to defeat colonial opposition. For example, the use of advanced naval and airpower assets had some limited success in defeating native forces. However, as national identity or ideologically driven revolts increased, Europeans and Americans recognized that control of the land could not be achieved by technology alone.

Third, it is important to recognize that the political support for imperialism within European and American societies varied greatly during the century from 1850 and 1950. Indeed, as indicated previously, most European and American generations included an active component opposed to Anti-imperialism[Antiimperialism]imperialism and imperial wars. European and American leaders found themselves condemning the imperialism of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and Spain but defending their own imperial policies; the legitimacy of imperialism was undermined by values and beliefs inherent in Democracy;and imperialism[imperialism]democratic liberalism.

Finally, it is important to recognize that all twentieth century wars have been viewed as national struggles. Although the level of commitment may vary, a general political will to fight is considered a requirement. Thus, in the postimperialist era of the 1960’s, with the absence of such a will, there was an abandonment of Postcolonial eracolonial struggles that were not defensible on the grounds of national defense.

The most significant factor that altered military doctrine, strategy, and tactics was the revolution in Industrialization;and imperialism[imperialism]Technology;and imperialism[imperialism]industry, technology, and communications that began in the mid-nineteenth century. Military strategists had to consider the rapid deployment of troops and the delivery of firepower through new weaponry. The advantage provided by new weapons was short-lived; enemies quickly adjusted and developed effective countermeasures. Ongoing weapons development became essential. The combination of modern military technology with successful strategies and tactics allowed for the deaths of millions of people. The resulting carnage led to a consensus against the continuing cycle of warfare, manifested in the twentieth century establishment of the League of League of NationsNations, the United United NationsNations, and the European European UnionUnion.

Contemporary Sources

Strategic military theory and practices were elevated to a Professional militaries;Napoleonic eraprofessional level with the emergence of general staffs and the educational support services that emerged in the post-Napoleonic period. Throughout the period of imperial warfare strategists and tacticians considered Napoleon INapoleon I (Bonaparte)[Napoleon 01];impact on imperialismNapoleon Bonaparte’s military planning and successes. Likewise European military thinkers studied the relevant memoirs and works on strategy and tactics that became available in great numbers following the American Civil War.

National military colleges and Military educationschools, such as the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, trained generations of officers in strategic military theory and practices. One of the most renowned contemporary sources of this era was Alfred Thayer Mahan, Alfred ThayerMahan, Alfred ThayerMahan (1840-1914), who wrote The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660-1783 (1890) and Naval Strategy Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practices of Military Operations on Land (1911). Another was General Alfred von Schlieffen, Alfred vonSchlieffen, Alfred von Schlieffen (1833-1933), author of the famous Schlieffen Plan Schlieffen PlanSchlieffen Plan (1905), a German war strategy that became operational in August, 1914, with the outbreak of World War I. The primary military theorist of the late 1930’s was Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, Erich vonManstein, Erich von Manstein (1887-1973), whose Blitzkrieg Blitzkrieg tactics were successful during the early years of World War II.

Other influential contemporary sources were Helmuth von Moltke, Helmuth vonMoltke, Helmuth vonMoltke the Elder (1800-1891), the military architect in the unification of Germany and the author of Moltke’s Militärische Korrespondenz aus den Dientschriften des Krieges (1866; Moltke’s Projects for the Campaign of 1866, 1907) and the Russians Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Vladimir IlichLenin, Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924) and Leon Trotsky, LeonTrotsky, Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), the architects of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Advocates of mechanized forces included Heinz Guderian, HeinzGuderian, Heinz Guderian (1888-1954), Basil Liddell Liddell Hart, Basil HenryLiddell Hart, Basil Henry Hart (1895-1970), and J. F. C. Fuller, J. F. C.Fuller, J. F. C. Fuller (1878-1966). Giulio Douhet, GiulioDouhet, Giulio Douhet (1869-1930) and William “Billy” Mitchell, William “Billy”Mitchell, William “Billy” Mitchell (1879-1936) recognized the importance of airpower and its impact on all aspects of warfare. Warfare in the colonies was considered by T. E. Lawrence, T. E.Lawrence, T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), Mao Mao ZedongMao Zedong Zedong (1893-1976), and Joseph-Simon Gallieni, Joseph-SimonGallieni, Joseph-Simon Gallieni (1849-1916).ImperialismColonialismRebellions;colonial

Books and Articles
  • Barthorp, Michael. The Zulu War: Isandhlwana to Ulundi. London: Cassell, 2002.
  • Bayly, Christopher Alan. Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World. New York: Longman, 1989.
  • Black, Jeremy. “1783-1914: Wars of Imperialism.” In Why Wars Happen. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
  • Chaliand, Gérard. Art of War in World History: From Antiquity to the Nuclear Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
  • Creveld, Martin van. Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present. New York: Free Press, 1989.
  • David, Saul. Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire. New York: Viking, 2006.
  • De Quesada, Alejandro. The Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection, 1898-1902. Illustrated by Stephen Walsh. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2007.
  • Dupuy, Trevor N. Evolution of Weapons and Warfare. New York: Da Capo Press, 1990.
  • English, Allan D., ed. Changing Face of War: Learning from History. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998.
  • Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The Indian Mutiny, 1857-58. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2007.
  • Keegan, John. History of Warfare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
  • Killingray, David, and David Omissi, eds. Guardians of Empire: The Armed Forces of the Colonial Powers, c. 1700-1964. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1999.
  • MacKay, Kenneth. Technology in War: The Impact of Science on Weapons Development and Modern Battle. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984.
  • McNeill, William H. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since A.D. 1000. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Porch, David. History of Warfare: Wars of Empire. New York: Cassell Academic, 2000.
  • _______. “Imperial Wars: From the Seven Years’ War to the First World War.” In The Oxford History of Modern War, edited by Charles Townshend. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Preston, Diana. A Brief History of the Boxer Rebellion: China’s War on Foreigners. London: Robinson, 2002.
  • Silbey, David J. A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.
Films and Other Media
  • The British Empire in Color. Documentary. History Channel, 2008.
  • The Century of Warfare. Documentary. Time-Life Video, 1994.
  • Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death. Documentary. Périscope Productions, 2003.

Colonial Warfare

The Ottoman Empire

The Mughal Empire

African Warfare

Iran

Japan: Modern

China: The Qing Empire

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