Fourth Generation Warfare

To Gain All We Must Risk All: The Imperial German Contribution to 4GW

Commentary provided by J.M. from mountainguerilla


(The following article was contributed by Disciple of Night, a regular commenter on many blogs in the Liberty blogosphere. He emailed me a few weeks ago, asking my opinion on the impact General von Lettow-Vorbeck had on the development of what we today call unconventional warfare. I answered him, but rather than give specifics, I suggested he use what he’s learned in his study of the subject, to determine the answers himself. The following article is the result. Other than some minor editing for clarity and format, any of my personal additions to the article content are in the typical parenthetical form.–J.M.)

(Disclaimer: My favorite Clint Eastwood quote is from Magnum Force: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I am certainly aware of mine. I am a graduate student with no military experience whatsoever. I believe in the power of history, which is why I feel compelled to examine this story. Everything presented in this essay is strictly based on what I have read and been taught by professionals. I would like to thank John Mosby for giving me the opportunity to write for his blog. Considering his vast wealth of knowledge and first-hand experience, it’s a huge leap of faith on his part. This means more to me than you realize. It’s an honor.)


I’ve come to believe a simple truth. “The Germans of the 20th century did more to advance modern warfare than any other nation (intechnology, administration and tactics) but they just couldn’t win.” (I don’t know that I agree with this, but it may have some validity as a basis of argument. The problem is, the German contributions have focused on the typically Prussian banality and unquestioning obedience to the leadership, rather than intuitiveness and initiation-J.M.) Ask a military historian who the greatest German commander was and you’ll probably hear names like Rommel, or Hindenburg, or Manstein. The trenches of the First World War’s Western Front captured the horror of mechanized slaughter in ways that hadn’t been seen since 1861 (Well, actually, that the world had arguably NEVER seen. The carnage of the War for Southern Independence was certainly devastating to the populace of the USA, it really wasn’t much on the scale of horror when compared to the rest of the world, especially the World Wars–J.M.). Yet, there existed men whose talents and abilities wouldn’t be fully appreciated in their own time.

The Germans had such a man: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Fighting the British in a remote corner of the world, his story has often been overlooked for the sake of Flanders, the Somme and Verdun. Even when taking a graduate-level military history class (taught by a man who loved World War I more than any other subject) his name was never mentioned. Like an elite few before him, Vorbeck’s brilliance is now taught as gospel, and rightfully so. They called him the “Bush Ghost” for a reason. Author Karen Blixen (The Danish author of “Out of Africa,” her memoirs of living in Kenya–J.M.) wrote, “He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met a German who gave me such an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for.”

For those who know his exploits, Vorbeck’s career has been ranked as the most successful guerilla campaign of all time (I‘ve heard history professors and military experts call it “one of the most effective” –J.M.). With a force that never exceeded more than 14,000 men, the German general managed to consistently defeat a combined British, Belgian and Portuguese army of over 300,000 for almost five years. His main objective was to divert as many Allied soldiers to German East Africa as possible, thus relieving pressure from the Fatherland. He finally surrendered in 1918 after being informed of the Armistice. The British alone spent over £75 million pounds trying to stop him.

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