From Our Wives to Our Lives: Guerrilla Warfare Throughout History

The concept of guerrilla warfare is not decades, but many centuries old, with earliest writing on the subject by Sun Tzu dating back to the 6th Century BC. Some guerrilla tactics are probably as old as the first armed groups of cavemen, being a natural evolution of conflict between groups of disproportionate sizes.

Popular Che Guevara was not included as a commander of two minor, failed campaigns in the Congo and Bolivia, the last of which led to his death.

The concept of guerrilla encompassing rural areas of remote operation that offer vast areas of camouflage from the enemy has become muted against increasingly population center conflicts that more resemble the siege of Stalingrad than the jungles of Columbia.

The old guerrilla associated with fights for independence and the end of colonialization has dimmed for the modern and far reaching religious insurgencies.

There is no romanticism in being a guerrilla or insurgent. As Eden Pastora, Commandante Cero famously said: “The first thing we revolutionaries lose is our wives. The last thing we lose is our lives. In between our women and our lives, we lose our freedom, our happiness, our means of living.”

Commandante Cero and the author Guanacaste, Costa Rica, December 1991

The term guerrilla comes from the Spanish word for war, guerra which itself has origins in the old German word for quarrel, werra. Historically, expansive gaps in wealth often combine with deprivation of rights and opportunity or even outright subjugation to light the fire of resistance. These were prevalent features in the American Revolution which liberated almost an entire continent, the independence wars in Africa and most recently the struggle to preserve regimes in the Middle East amidst theological strife. Disappointingly, the change of the latter two, has only led to more abuse of power. One of the earliest examples of enslavement was of the Jews by the Roman Empire that led to many uprisings including one that ended at Masada with the mass suicide of rebel Jewish fighters.

Masada Fortress, Israel 2007

The most recent scenario of a successful but protracted guerrilla campaign is the FARC of Columbia who recently entered into peace accords with the Government of Columbia. This is the natural end to a guerrilla based conflict when they lay down their arms having achieved some or all of their reasonable objectives before re-entering the fabric of society outside a war zone.

The concentration of opposing forces whether in populated Mosul or the isolated Jaffna peninsula of Sri Lanka means that a siege, retreat or ambush will become an inescapable kill node of the scouts, column or army.

What was most extraordinary about the guerrilla leader William Wallace was the speed in which a virtual unknown rose up to national leadership and the short time between his first action, the killing of the English Sherriff of Lanark in May 1297 and his victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge on 11 September 1297, a mere four months later. Even more compelling was that within a year he had ceased his position as Guardian of Scotland in favour of Robert the Bruce, the future King of Scotland, before disappearing until capture and vile execution on the orders of King Edward 1 of England in 1305, only eight years between rise and demise.

Depiction of William Wallace’s Trial in London

Until his unconventional victory at Trenton in December 1776, the military leader of the now United States of America had incurred a series of losses both on the battlefield and of political confidence in his leadership, most just after the declaration of independence on 4 July 1776.

Washington Cross the Delaware

Throughout the American Revolution the captors of Revolutionary Army soldiers were surprised to discover not soldiers but farmers, sailors and tailors.

George Washington chose a plan to be implemented in a manner and at a time not seen before in the revolutionary conflict of the USA which was destined to catch the opposing elite force of German mercenaries by surprise and eventually, complete defeat of the Hessians.

The plan was simple in concept. The movement of several thousand soldiers to face an encamped enemy half their number, at night, on the well-known public holiday of Christmas Day, accompanied by three times the artillery compliment of the target, in the dead of winter, going across a swift, wide, ice ridden river.

Simon Bolivar made a successful career of failures, defeats, elimination of competing fellow countrymen and repeated exiles manifested in the numerous early short-lived republics of Venezuela.

On 7 August 1819, Bolivar’s two columns were able to block the Spanish rear-guard which had separated from its vanguard, that had moved quickly to take up positions at the Boyacá bridge. The Spanish attempt to create a bottleneck ambush at the bridge had failed by a flanking rebel manoeuvre that turned obstacle to advantage.

The Battle of Boyacá painting by Martin Tovar y Tovar


There are very few guerrilla leaders to have a popular song made about them nearly one hundred years after their death, but this was just the case with the Afrikaans singer Bos van Blerk’s 2006 album, de La Rey. Boer General Jacobus Herculaas de la Rey more popularly called Koos, a shortened Dutch form of Jacob, also widely known as Lion of the West or Western Transvaal, was memorialized by the song that attracted a groundswell of support from young South African Boers seeking a leader from the past.

Koos first experience as a commander in the field was at the siege of the British fort at Potchefstroom in 1880 where he was a subordinate to General Piet Cronje with whom he frequently disagreed. Here he developed a healthy distaste for military operations at a fixed position over an extended period, a true guerrilla leader.

General Jacobus ‘Koos’ de la Rey

The modern Saudi Arabia did not exist at the turn of the twentieth century but was the creation of the remarkable founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud.

Any force of soldiers in a fixed position, such as a fort, will lose their operational effectiveness over time especially where there are repeated unfulfilled threats of attack over several months. Such was the position the Rashidi governor of Riyadh, then resident in the Masmak fortress when the leader of the rival Al Saud clan attacked with less than a hundred warriors. This small victory, many years in the making, propelled Al Saud into the popular consciousness and made this small defeat of the ruling Rashidis a great propaganda event as word spread through what was to be, his future kingdom.

King Abdul Bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, 1910

By 1929, Mao was in control of the Red Army although it had involved the execution of nearly ten thousand of its soldiers to stifle dissent and precipitate the rise of a man with no military training or experience with a known proclivity for the luxuries of life

Although facing several rebel uprisings that reduced available troops, the KMT sent an expedition of under ten thousand to the isolated mountains of Jiangxi against the new leader of the Red Army numbering forty thousand with civilian support in December 1930.The KMT were confronted by a decimation guerrilla strategy implemented on the local peasantry by Mao that involved not their support, but fear, as food, household items and even water from wells were concealed or destroyed. In this, Mao turned every citizen under his control into an irregular soldier who was required to demolish anything of use to the invading KMT while denying them access to people and information.

Mao Zedong

The father, sister and wife of famed Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap all died as a result of incarceration by the French colonial authorities during their administration of Vietnam in a failed attempt to intimidate or punish the nationalist sentiments that ran strong in the family. Many years later the general extracted a great military success and a settling of scores by destruction of French forces at Dien Bien Phu that was revenge, thousand fold. At the end of that battle in 1954, over thirteen thousand French soldiers were killed or died in captivity.

Quang Thai was subsequently arrested by the French and tortured to death at the Hoa Loa prison, meaning furnace or oven, in 1941. Hoa Loa saw later prominence as the Hanoi Hilton, named by American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. A prison for the oppressed became a prison for the oppressors.

General Vo Nguyen Giap, 1954

Manuel Marulanda Velez, the war name or alias of one of the oldest serving guerrilla leaders, who lived a long life and died of natural causes in March 2008, was first known as Pedro Antonio Marin and later, Tirofijo, his nickname for sure shot. He was the most famous leader of the FARC, who owed his lengthy survival in great part to the belated technological terror and military might unleashed by the Colombian Armed Forces against the FARC after his passing.

Sureshot died on the cusp of an extended program of targeted assassinations of the FARC leadership by the FMC that included Raul Reyes in March 2008, Mono Jojoy in 2010, Alfonso Cano in 2011, Danilo Garcia in 2012 and Roman Ruiz in 2015. In this, the FMC took a page from the well-worn Israeli counterinsurgency play book that eventually drove FARC to the negotiating table and a peace treaty. Another ploy, the payment of high rewards, led to the death of FARC leader Ivan Rios, also in March 2008, by his own security chief who carried the severed hand of his former leader to the Colombian government as proof of the assassination.

Manuel Marulanda


“The chief says burn everything. By everything he means everything. Women, children everything.”

 General Ben Ben, Luanda, Angola 1992

Last Hot Battle of the Cold War, Casemate, 2013, 85

One of the most ferocious guerrilla leaders ever unleashed with enviable stamina arose out of the civil war in Angola. Between 1975 and 2002, Jonas Malheiro Savimbi waged a masterful guerrilla campaign for 27 years, a period probably eclipsed only by the FARC rebels of Columbia. Like many guerrilla leaders Savimbi followed a recipe of establishing a personality cult, creating a continuous atmosphere of paranoia engendered by the occasional blood-letting of high officials and lowly supporters alike, destroying actual and perceived competitors for leadership and having multiple alliances that he betrayed frequently.

The genius of Savimbi lay in his ability not only to speak several languages but to regularly engage the international community to search and maintain support for UNITA in the Angolan civil war. His major ally in this endeavor was the highly proficient South African Defence Force that had many invasions, incursions and attacks from 1975 until 1988 in Angola that effectively propped up UNITA in Angola and even saved them from decimation.

Jonas Savimbi

The most audacious start of any guerrilla leader was the 1975 up close and personal assassination of the mayor of Jaffna in the former British colony of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, by eighteen year old Velupillai Prabhakaran, the future leader of the insurgent group, the LTTE or Tamil Tigers.

The LTTE took some time to develop into a sufficiently cogent force before undertaking their first major attack in July 1983, at night near the provincial capital of Jaffna, which started with a road ambush using a bomb, often referred today as an improvised explosive device or IED that led to the deaths of fifteen government soldiers including an officer.

In May 1986  the LTTE blew up Air Lanka flight 512 at the Bandaranaike International Airport, a few miles north of the capital city, Colombo. The Tristar aircraft was completely destroyed with twenty-one of the hundred and twenty-eight passengers killed with dozens injured, many of whom were travelling foreigners.

Velupillai Prabhakaran

This is just a teaser from what you can expect from Guerrilla Warfare, the latest addition to the Casemate Short Histories series that takes you on a complete journey into the unconventional history and tactics of the world’s most lethal Guerrilla fighters.

 Click to Find Out More





Leave a Reply