Although existing in all times, the term guerilla was invented in the Spanish peninsular war against Napoleon. Instead of a massive war (guerra), the civilian population chose a strategy of multiple small scale attacks (small war, guerilla) to undermine the opponent.
The war in Spain was a very fierce and cruel battle. Supported by the British, the people of Spain tried to push Napoleon out of Spain. However, Napoleons army was strong and great and could not be conquered in a massive battle. Therefore, the guerilla tactic was to be constant threat and nuisance that could not be grasped. As an Napoleonic officer described it : “Wherever we arrived, they disappeared, whenever we left, they arrived — they were everywhere and nowhere, they had no tangible center which could be attacked”. Napoleon himself referred to this war as the Spanish ulcer.
The start of the national uprising against Napoleon was on March 2 1808. The civilian population in Madrid attacked the occupying French forces, a Mameluke battalion. This scene was depicted by Francisco Goya. More famous is his next painting , the revenge of the French forces the next morning when there was a mass execution of the rebels. Apart from these iconic paintings, Goya also made a series of sketches called “the disasters of war”. These could be seen as a protest against the cruelty of war.
The second of May 1808, Francisco de Goya, 1814
The third of May 1808, Francisco de Goya, 1814
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, born in Valencia, took part in a competition with the theme of the Valencia uprising, starting when the news of the Madrid executions reached Valencia. It was a local matchmaker/seller Vicente Domenech who started the rebellion. Because the matches were called pajetas, Vicente was called the Palleter. He could not have foreseen that his actions would ignite such a great fire.
The cry of Palleter, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, 1884
Also from a Spanish viewpoint is the painting of Eduardo Zamacois Zabala. He was a pupil of Meissonier and studied in Paris. In this painting two Spanish freedom fighters dispose of the body of a French soldier. The woman is holding the weapons and gear of the soldier and his comrade, possibly already dumped in the well.
Spain 1812, French Occupation, Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala, 1866
One of the most striking examples of guerilla warfare, is the participation of the clergy. As preachers of peace, they defended their churches. Because Napoleon had arrested the pope and Spain was a very catholic country, it was both patriotism but also the defending of their religion that motivated monks to take up weapons. Louis-Francois Lejeune, soldier and painter, depicted the fighting around the Abbey in Saragossa. The statue of the lamenting Madonna is placed between the parties bij Lejeune for dramatic purposes, it did not exist in reality. Sadly the fierce fighting was factual.
Assault of the Monastery of Santa Engracia, Louis-François Lejeune, 1827
The same battle is depicted by the British Harold Hume Piffard. The cathedral is the theatre of urban warfare with French troops firing from the pulpit. In the middle, a monk puts the cross in front of the French troops as his sole weapon, while visibility is reduced by gunsmoke. Other monks fight with all means available, including their bare hands.
Saragossa 10 February 1809, Harold Hume Piffard
Another war involving heavy guerrilla warfare, was the Boer war in South Africa. To secure their trading position, the British wanted to suppress the autonomy of not only the Dutch Boer immigrants, but also local people like the Zulu people.
The Boer people had some financial reserves because of their gold mines and prepared well for the battle. They dispersed in small units who knew the local terrain and managed to give some serious blows to the British army. The British lady Butler depicts the attack on Laing’s Neckscene in which two officers ride in front of their troops while the horse of one of them is hit by the Boers. Both officers having attended Eton college, the remaining one screams to his comrade : ‘Come along, Monck! Floreat Etona! We must be in the front rank!’
Floreat Etona, Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler), 1882
Another remarkable painting is the killing of the last heir to the Napoleonic throne in the Zulu war. This Louis Napoleon Bonaparte had took refuge in Great Britain after the fall of Napoleon III. He joined the British military forces and begs to participate in the Zulu war. As a direct family member of the great Bonaparte he stated : “When you belong to a soldier’s race it is only by iron that one makes oneself known”. He was killed in an ambush by the Zulu people.
Death of the Prince Imperial, Paul Jamin, 1882
Another example of the British army, severely hurt by guerilla warfare is the Anglo-Afghan war. In the end, the British forces had to retreat from Kabul in 1842. Although a safe passage was negotiated, the Afghans butchered the retreating army. In several stages, the army was ambushed. The last battle was at Gandamak when less than 100 soldiers remained from an army of 16.000. This is depicted by William Barnes Wollen. A desperate remnant of the army including civilians, is defending their life in the snowy mountains.
The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gandamak, 1842, William Barnes Wollen, 1898
Lady Butler further highlighted this memorable event with her painting : the remnants of an army. She portrays the sole survivor of the retreating army who reaches the walls of Jellalabad where British forces resided. When he was spotted, a rescue misson was sent to him asking were the army was. William Brydon had been separated from the main column and therefore not been a victim of the Gandamak ambush. He had to answer that the army was obliterated. Although portrayed as the sole survivor, a few other soldiers also survived or were released from captivity and trickled in the following days.
A final example of guerilla warfare in the 19th century are the encounters of the native Americans with the settlers and the US army in the Old West. Because of their knowledge of the terrain and their technological inferiority, they had to reside to guerilla tacticks and ambush small units. George Caleb Bingham made a beautiful painting of an Indian who is hiding on a viewpoint, melting in with nature.
The concealed enemy, George Caleb Bingham, 1845
The German Herman Hansen, emigrated to the USA because of his fascination with the West. He studied in Chicago and was hired by Northwestern Railways to illustrate advertisements. He proceeded a career in painting the Wild West.
Attack on the Stagecoach, Herman W. Hansen
We will conclude by the two great artists depicting cowboys and Indians : Marion Russell and Frederic Remington. Russell sets the stage as Indian warriors observe a wagon train down the river from a high vantage point.
Planning the Attack,Charles Marion Russell,1901
Remington depicts the disguise of two Indian scouts on the vast plains, by simulating buffalo’s. Although this was an established hunting trick, the presence of a wagon train in the distance suggests that the enemy is human.
Indians simulating buffalo, Frederic Remington, 1908