6 Wars of the 1900s You May Not Have Heard About

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Troops of the Eight nations alliance of 1900 in China. Left to right: Britain, United States, Australia (British Empire colony at this time), India (British Empire colony at this time), Germany (German Empire at this time), France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Japan.

The 20th Century contained many wars, some better known than others. A number of wars took place during the 1900s: world wars, civil wars, wars for independence… It’s no surprise that many have gone under the radar in history lessons! Here are just a selection of the major military events of the century.

1. Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)

Treaty of Portsmouth delegations: Russians (far side of table) -- Korostovetz, Nabokov, Witte, Rosen, and Plançon; and Japanese (near side of table) -- Adachi, Ochiai, Komura, Takahira, and Sato.
Photograph of negotiations for the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Considered the first time a modern Asian power defeated a European power, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 began with Russia’s stubborn desire to expand into East Asia. Starting with the Battle of Port Arthur in February 1904 – a surprise attack by Japanese destroyers lasting two days – Russia officially declared war on Japan eight days later. In August, two battles in the war took place: the Siege of Port Arthur and the Battle of Liaoyang were both won by the Empire of Japan. Russia retreated into occupied Manchuria and was followed by Japanese forces, fighting for three weeks in the Battle of Mukden. Japan’s victory was marred by heavy casualties, and it was down to the navy to finish the war. 

As the Russian fleet attempted to pass through the Tsushima Strait to reach Vladivostok, Japanese battleships intercepted them. Wireless telegraphy played a major part in the battle, for both sides – communications from the Japanese fleet gave away that the Russians had been discovered, while the Japanese maneuvered through the mist by relaying information between ships. It was a decisive Japanese victory and forced Russia to pursue a peace agreement, mediated by President Roosevelt in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

2. Chaco War (1932-1935)

Very approximate location of the Gran Chaco (Underlying map taken from the CIA World Factbook)
Approximate location of the Gran Chaco.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the first half of the 1930s, Bolivia and Paraguay clashed over northern Gran Chaco in South America. Following the discovery of oil in western Chaco in 1928, Bolivia took an interest in its part of the territory in search of oil, as well as the possibility of setting up a port on the Paraguay River. Skirmishes took place until 1932 when Paraguay mobilized 10,000+ troops and sent them into the Chaco. The Battle of Boquerón was Paraguay’s first offensive, taking advantage of mortars, and resulted in Bolivia’s surrender of the outpost. Both nations struggled with a lack of water, food supplies, and diseases. Their neighboring countries were hesitant to get involved in the war. Bolivia was particularly affected by external trade problems and poor communications internally. Paraguay was ultimately successful and took control of the disputed territory, but the war brought both sides economic troubles.

3. The Winter War (1939-1940)

Trenches on the Mannerheim Line in the Winter War
Finnish soldiers line up in the trenches to defend the Mannerheim Line.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Three months into World War II, the Soviet Union (USSR) invaded Finland in November 1939 following Finland’s refusal to trade land to protect Leningrad. The Finns used long hours of darkness, cold, snow, and forest to their advantage, using everything they could to use their military skills as effectively as possible. By isolating portions of the Soviet troops, they could encircle the invading force bit-by-bit, though these attacks could last weeks or months, as the Finnish ambushers were ultimately weaker than their opponents. During the height of winter, Finland succeeded in repelling attacks from the Soviets.

Once the USSR reorganized their tactics and winter drew to an end, they overcame the Finnish defense. Finland drove the peace negotiations harder in March until they finally agreed to the Soviet demand for territory. Neither nation won, with the Moscow Peace Treaty resulting in the cession of 11% of Finnish land to the USSR, though the Soviets incurred the most casualties of both soldiers, tanks, and aircraft. They later resumed battle during the Continuation War, with Finland allying itself with Nazi Germany.

4. The First Indochina War (1946-1954)

French soldier admires paratroopers near a river during the First Indochina War
A French soldier looking at paratroopers during the First Indochina War.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

War began in Haiphong between French forces and Việt Minh, a national independence coalition in Vietnam. The Việt Minh government was initially open to independence talks with the French Union, but negotiations broke down, and fighting began. After bombardments killed 9,000 Vietnamese civilians, the Việt Minh agreed to a ceasefire, only to return with more soldiers, though their military power was lacking. While the Việt Minh evaded capture from the French Union, the French negotiated independence with others, ensuring their control of foreign relations and defense. The Việt Minh reorganized themselves and attacked French bases, and the war truly began. From March to May 1954, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu took place, resulting in a victory for the Vietnamese revolutionaries. Vietnam split between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (Việt Minh) and the Republic of Vietnam (or South Vietnam).

5. Sino-Indian War (1962)

Rifle-toting Indian soldiers on patrol during the brief, bloody 1962 Sino-Indian border war.
Indian soldiers on patrol with rifles in January 1962.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Sino-Indian War lasted just one month and one day and was fought over a border dispute in the Himalayas. China invaded disputed territory on the Himalayan border, beginning a war in harsh mountain conditions with an altitude of over 14,000 feet. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army launched two attacks simultaneously, using the cover of darkness on the southern banks of Namka Chu River to surprise Indian forces and sweeping through the Chip Chap valley of Aksai Chin to remove any Indian outposts and garrisons.

After withdrawing Indian soldiers from both areas, letters were exchanged seeking peaceful relations, though a lack of agreement resulted in India going on the offensive. Further fighting in Aksai Chin resulted in the withdrawal of the Indian forces. China announced a unilateral ceasefire, and India turned away requested support from the United States following the announcement. Recognizing that their defenses and military were lacking, India reassessed their capabilities and doubled their manpower in just two years.

6. First Congo War (1996-1997)

 Map of the offensive of AFDL in the First Congo War.
Map of the First Congo War with key.
Credit: Don-kunUwe Dedering // CC BY 3.0

Also known as Africa’s First World War, the First Congo War was a civil war primarily in Zaire between the Mobutu regime of the Republic of Zaire and the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL). Sudan and a collection of militias supported the Republic of Zaire, while Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Angola, South Sudan People’s Defence Forces, and Eritrea supported the AFDL. Invading Zaire, Rwandan forces destroyed rebel camps with the help of allies. The Zairean government and allied militias attempted to resist their opposing nations but were destroyed. Rwanda installed the AFDL government with the creation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Second Congo War followed just a year later.

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