Spain’s war against France (1808-1813) gave birth to the term "guerrilla”. Napoleon, who assumed that, given the defeat of Spain’s regular forces, it would mean that the war in Iberia was over, was mistaken. The Spanish resistance by guerrilla warfare hindered the progress of large numbers of the French forces.
The term "partisan” took hold in the world’s consciousness with the French invasion of Russia in 1812, especially after the battle on the Borodino River and the retreat of the Russian army to Moscow. Partisan fighting was conducted by small groups in the rear of Napoleon’s army and caused him heavy casualties. The meaning of the word "partisan” is: "one who is very committed to his movement/unit” or "a long-handled spear”.
Guerrillas and Partisans in the History of the Nations
The Ancient World
Primitive fighting developed in small tribal groups which were unable to withstand sustained fighting on open ground, against an organized enemy. This type of war, which was guerrilla warfare, was composed of scattered hit-and-run sorties.
Guerrilla tactics predate written history. On the island of Melanesia and in New Guinea, the natives attacked their enemies at night, while they were drowsy and careless. The Indians of south eastern United States attacked their enemies, after they pretended to run away.
In written history of 3500 years ago, Morsilus, the King of Chiti complains in the Anastazi papyrus, that the "irregulars” attack him at night. The Bible tells of guerrilla fighters such as the commanders David and Gideon.
Over 3200 years ago, Gideon, at the head of 300 hand-picked fighters, carried out a night attack on Ein Harod (see The Book of Judges, 7) which was under the control of the Midianites. Gideon succeeded in sowing confusion and chaos in the enemy camp and the Midianites began to fight each other.
Over 3000 years ago, David gathered together about 400-600 warriors (see The Book of Samuel I) and left his base in Ein Gedi, to attack the enemy near Hebron. He waged war against the Amalekites and others.
Peoples of the Ancient World: Jews, Greeks, Romans
The Maccabees (166 BCE) used guerrilla tactics in their war against the Greeks, during the first stages of the revolt. Yehuda the Maccabee lived in hiding and attacked at night (see The Book of the Maccabees). His brother Yohanan’s base was in the Judean Hills. Yohanan harassed the enemy and avoided head-on confrontations. His strength lay in the mobility of his troops and in the excellence of his intelligence.
In the wars of the Jews against the Romans, there was no extensive use of partisan warfare because the terrain was too open and inhabited. Nevertheless, Josephus Flavius (Joseph ben Mattityahu) wrote that the retreat of the Roman Military Governor, Castius Flavius, was accompanied by attacks by the rebels in difficult terrain, such as mountain passes. The Jews slaughtered them there.
The Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE). The last stage of the Jews’ war against the Romans was outstanding in the rebels’ use of guerrilla tactics. Bar Kochba attacked from the caves and from his strongholds in the mountains. The Military Governor, Severius, stopped the open warfare and concentrated on flushing out the rebels from their hiding-places, and on executing them. Only in this fashion was he able to overcome them.
There were relatively few Greek guerrilla wars. One of the references to guerrilla warfare tells of an Athenian military leader, Demostanas, who led a group of about 300 Hopolite warriors, the select Athenian fighters, to mountainous Aetolia.
The Aetolis, with meager weapons, conducted a guerrilla offensive against the invaders. At last, when the Athenians were weary and had lost their way, the Aetolis fell upon them and wiped them out.
Compared to the Greeks, the Romans had much bitter experience with guerrilla warfare waged against them. The Roman Legions waged bloody battles with guerrillas in North Africa, Belgium, Germany and Spain. In North Africa the mighty Roman army was harassed by Tacparinas, the Nomidien leader, who was a former Roman soldier. The Nomidiens used purely partisan of hit-and-run tactics. Only when the Romans decided to use light arms were they able to inflict a final defeat on Tacparinas.
In Germany the Roman Legions waged war against the guerrilla leader Arminius, also a former Roman soldier. The guerrillas prevented the Romans from establishing their rule on the eastern side of the River Rhine.
In Gaul also - France of today, - the illustrious Military Commander, Julius Caesar had no better luck. He encountered a clever general, king of the rebel tribes, Vercingetorix, who waged a guerrilla war against the Romans. In the year 52 BCE the king was caught and executed.
It should be pointed out that in most of the cases of wars waged against the Romans, they fought against the regular armies of their enemies, but because of the enormous advantage of the Roman Legions, their enemies were forced to fight "small wars” or guerrilla attacks.
On the Iberian Peninsula, the Romans waged war against the tribes. During the years 139-147 BCE, Viratus organized the Iberian tribes against the Romans. His tactics were based on guerrilla warfare. The Romans changed their military commanders many times, but they could not defeat Viratus. In 145 BCE, after their victory at Carthage, North Africa, the Romans moved most of their forces to Iberia. In spite of this, they were unable to defeat Viratus, and were forced to sign a peace treaty with him.
It should be noted that Viratus’s victory is a good example of the correct use of guerrilla warfare. His principle was to strike quickly and to retreat quickly, not to give the enemy a chance to discover his strengths, to cut the enemy’s supply lines and to establish strongholds which were inaccessible to the enemy. The wars on the Iberian Peninsula did not end at this stage. The Romans and the Iberians continued their struggle during following generations.
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages were relatively quiet as regards guerrilla warfare. The fall of the Roman Empire, the increasing strength of Christianity, and, on the other hand, the type of fighting of the invading tribes – the Vandals, the Visigoths, the Huns, the Muslims and the Mongols- who used the new tactic of cavalry, left little room for guerrilla warfare.
In the Hundred Years War between France and England the Frenchman, Digesklen, became famous for the following guerrilla tactic. During the siege of Rouen in 1356, he infiltrated a British army camp at the head of 100 mounted men and took as booty, hundreds of wagons laden with food supplies and weaponry. His method was a combination of attack by the cavalry, who later dismounted and fought on foot.
The Balkan Peninsula, while under Turkish rule in the 15th-18th Centuries, was rife with "small wars” and guerrilla operations. The Serb, Georg Scandenberg, rebelled at the head of 300 fighters, united the Albanian tribes and defeated many Turkish generals leading their armies. At the time of the great Serbian revolution (1593-1606) they fought the Turks with unconventional means – guerrilla warfare. The Montenegrans continued their stubborn struggle against the Turks in the Black Mountains (Crna Gora), where access to them was extremely difficult.
The 17th and 18th Centuries
The irregular Austrian wars against Prussia and its king Frederick the Great (1758) are an instructive example of the combination of guerrilla warfare and regular warfare. The Austrian military commander, Marshal Duan, brought his forces very close to the Prussian camp. The Prussians, who were accustomed to the small, night attacks of the Austrians, were misled by this and suffered a great defeat.
Partisan fighting played an important role in the American War of Independence. Although it was not the deciding factor, it still exerted a great influence on the war. The Americans who at this time, commanded the partisans against the English, were from the Southern states, and had experience in the wars against the Cherokee Indians in 1761. In those battles they learned the partisan fighting tactics of the Indians, and now they used these same tactics against the British.
The inhabitants of Vande in western France conducted guerrilla wars against the French Republican forces, off and on, from 1793 to 1832. The mighty Republican army many times found itself unable to subdue them.
And the guerrilla wars of the Spanish against the French (1808-1813), which gave birth to the term "guerrilla”, remained for many years as the ultimate example of guerrilla warfare, against the armies of Napoleon. It was only after Napoleon’s conquest of Iberia in 1809, that the regular Spanish armies ceased to exist, and only the guerrillas continued the struggle for another few years.
The Russian partisan war against the armies of Napoleon began in 1812, after the defeat at the battle of Borodino and the occupation of Moscow. The partisans positioned themselves west of Moscow and fought from behind enemy lines, sometimes 200 km or more. Colonel Davidov became famous in the partisan war when he suggested to the Russian military commander Kutuzov to form a mounted unit behind enemy lines. Kutuzov authorized him 130 cavalrymen. In its first operation the unit succeeded in freeing convoys of prisoners and in taking enemy supplies, ammunition and cannon. Because of the participation of these freed prisoners and the weapons which they obtained, Davidov widened the scope of his activities against the French army and became an important factor in the war. Later, other units joined him in the fight behind enemy lines, until Napoleon’s retreat in October of 1812.