European Colonial Empires

Many European countries had large empires in Africa and Asia. They used their technological superiority to dominate the native peoples. The major colonial powers were:

  • Great Britain
  • France
  • Germany
  • Russia
  • USA
  • Austria-Hungary
  • The Ottoman Empire

The lesser powers were:

  • Spain
  • Netherlands
  • Belgium
  • Denmark
  • Italy
  • China
  • Japan


The technological superiority of the the colonial powers was evident in every battle. Colonial troops, even though vastly outnumbered, were superbly equipped for their time. This was the deciding factor in a number of battles.

Machine Gun

The Maxim machine gun was always thought to be a deciding factor in these battles, however recent evidence has come to light that the Maxim was not as effective as previously thought in colonial warfare. There was never enough ammunition to continually supply the gun. It was frequently deployed in the wrong position, since it was classified as artillery in some armies. Effective machine gun tactics were not developed until the First World War, meaning that battles between natives and colonial forces were more often decided on terrain, rather than strategy. Large open plains favoured the colonists with their rifles. Hilly, mountainous terrain favored the natives with spears and weight of numbers on their side. Their impact was more psychological rather than actual physical impact. Major battles were not really changed in the colonies because of the absence of the machine gun.


The backbone of the colonial armies was the rifle, which was first made by America (which is one of the many reasons why America won its independence). First it was the front loading ball and powder rifle, best known of which is Brown Bess, a British rifle. Later on came rifles with breech-loading mechanisms and encased rounds (bullet and powder in a metal cover) such as the Martini-Henry rifle. Later bolt-action rifles with clips of bullets appeared such as the German Karabiner 98 and the British Lee-Enfield. The rifle gave the average infantry-man a huge advantage over the natives as he could engage at a much longer range, up to a mile on the later rifles. They were also fitted with bayonets for hand-to-hand combat. In 1896 the British army began fit a large portion of their rifles with optical scopes to increase range and accuracy of their weapons. Other colonial armies soon copied this idea and the sniper and standard infantry man became one.


The artillery of the major powers was varied and diverse. The British 18-pounder was the staple artillery piece for their armies. It fired primarily shrapnel shots but also could fire high explosive rounds. Large artillery was developed by all the major powers during the 18th century. Due to the large costs and difficulties of transport it was not always deployed where needed. Large artillery pieces were mostly confined to naval guns and fortresses. The Germans however secretly developed massive artillery pieces upwards of 500mm in size, but America built even larger cannons than the Germans that weighed four tons.


The key to a colonial power was the control of trade, which needed a navy. The first purely steam powered steel ship, the British Leviathan was built in 1876 making all the wooden ships obsolete in a single day from when it was launched. By the end of the 18th century, the British has the largest Navy in the world with 98 steel battleships and over eleven thousand auxiliary vessels, with a grand total of 667,000 men, the Royal Navy was the strongest in the world. The flagship of the entire fleet was the monster battleship Britannica completed in 1899. It had a displacement of 102,000 tons, length of 350m and armed with 30 12-inch guns as well as 60 9-inch guns. It had a crew of 9,860 men. The battle to build bigger and better navies led to an arms race in Europe. Massive navies were built at huge expense by the countries of Russia, England, Germany and France. Germany, however, built the submarine, which has became the most common navy of Germany.


The colonial empires had, by comparison, a huge knowledge of how to treat wounds and diseases over the natives of Africa and Asia. This higher survivability rate of the wounded led to a a huge advantage when it came to the military dominance of a region.

European Tension

The colonial expansion caused great rivalry in Europe to create the most powerful and wealthy empire. Alliances were formed to create greater security. The triple alliance between Italy, Germany and Austro-Hungary, and the triple entente between Russia, France, and Great Britain. It was believed that if any country was a member of an international alliance then no other country would attack it for fear of reprisal from the other countries of that alliance, thus ensuring peace in Europe. The development of massive navies was a great source of tension in Europe. When the UK unveiled the Leviathan, the fist steel warship, in 1876 the world was shocked at how far the British had seemed to advance warship technology 30 years during the 3 years construction. Feverish construction of steel warships began all over Europe. Treaties were agreed on to limit the size of fleets. Even so, most countries were deathly afraid of the others navies. One American journalist described the political atmosphere of Europe like "a gunpowder keg in a match factory, waiting for one spark"