For Armchair Kitcheners
C. E. Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice (Presidio Press, 1990)
Written early in the 20th Century to teach British officers how to wage war against non-European armies in Asia and Africa, Small Wars retains its fascination at century's end. In fact, many of its lessons could well be applied to conflicts today.
The author served in the Second Afghan and both Boer Wars, was an assiduous student of warfare around the globe and retired as a Major General after heading the British Army's Intelligence division during the Great War. The breadth of his knowledge is shown by the range of examples that illustrate the principles laid down in his book. The chapter on "Feints", for instance, draws on actions from the Zulu Wars, the Indian Mutiny, the 1821 Wallachian insurrection against the Ottoman Empire, the Second Afghan War, the Kaffir War of 1878, the French occupation of Algeria, the British expedition against Abyssinia in 1868, the siege of Khartoum, the suppression of Riel's revolt in Canada, the war against the Mahdi and a couple of Indian campaigns. Elsewhere, we are presented with the Russians in Central Asia, the French in Tonkin, Dahomey and Madagascar, the U.S. cavalry against the Indians of the Great Plains, the British and French in China, and many more now-forgotten imbroglios.
The first several chapters lay down broad strategic principles, most of them flowing from the key insight that regular armies enjoy great tactical advantages over forces inferior in organization, arms, training and discipline but suffer equally great strategic handicaps. In a "small war", therefore, the more "advanced" power can easily lose, due to ignorance of the enemy, failure to formulate clear objectives or, worst of all, the pursuit of military objectives that do not contribute to the conflict's political goal. Erroneous strategy, Callwell warns again and again, leads to desultory, defensive war that exhausts the regulars' resources while merely exasperating rather than subduing their enemy. (The reader may draw his own contemporary parallels.)
After the strategic foundation come discussions of operations and tactics from multiple perspectives: the character of the action (attack, defense, pursuit, retreat, feint, etc.), the terrain on which it is fought, and the types of troops that fight it (including such exotica as camel corps and the not-yet-dominant machine gun). The commander who mastered Callwell's course was prepared to force a mountain pass, assault a Boer laager or Sudanese zeriba, maneuver through a jungle or carry out any of the other varied tasks that circumstances might demand.
Aside from the inherent interest of its variegated subject matter and its appeal to wargamers, "Small Wars" will prove illuminating to the reader who wishes to understand more fully what happened in colonial warfare and how and why European forces won and lost. It is one of those rare works that makes concrete the challenges and achievements of a bygone era.