Thursday, June 10, 2010

Day 21: M1871/88 Beaumont Part Two - The Aceh War

Due to overwhelming interest in our article on the M1871/88 Beaumont Vitali we've decided to follow up on a bit of the history of the rifle. Thanks to a few of our Dutch friends we have been able to gather quite a bit of information about the historic and military background behind this forgotten rifle. That being said we've decided to focus on one of the most in depth and perhaps bloodiest conflicts that the Beaumont participated in - the Aceh War.

For many people locating Aceh (pronounced Ah-tjeh) on a map is difficult or even impossible. Aceh is a small area on found on the very northern tip of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. The land of Aceh was somewhat special, especially for two major colonial players at the time - the United Kingdom and the Dutch. Since the area had began to be colonized in the early 16th/17th century the two powers always thought the opposite had hidden motives of pushing the other out of the territory, when in fact, they were complimentary to each other. The Treaty of London signed in 1824 expressed what territory each laid claim to. The British would have claim on the Malaysian corridor and the Dutch - Sumatra and its surrounding land. One important feature of the treaty was that it provided provisions for the independence of Aceh something the Dutch government did not like. This provision was declared in the Treaty as the British government saw the Dutch stepping on the proverbial toes of the UK's commercial ventures in Sumatra and specifically the pepper trade in Aceh.

Between the Treaty of London and the fact that the Acehnese began negotiating with other 'Western' powers the Dutch had become enraged and in 1871 signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty where the British gave the Dutch full control over Aceh in order to gain a more equal trade partnership in the East Indies. This had appeased the Dutch until in 1873 the Acehnese began speaking with the United States - thus provoking the Dutch even further. The Dutch believing that they had full control of the Aceh territory deemed these 'talks' inappropriate and declared war on the providential body. What was to occur during the decades after would be known as one of the bloodiest conflicts in Dutch history.

After declaring war on Aceh, the Dutch sent an expeditionary force under the leadership of Major General Johan Koehler to forcedly take the entirety of Aceh - no simple task. Securing coastal villages was simple however in 1874 Koehler launched an attack on the sultan's palace, thereby eliminating all political resistance. After bombing the palace Koehler sent 3,000 troops ashore to capture the palace. Much to the surprise of Koehler the Acehnese resistance was much fiercer than expected and the army group was driven from the palace back onto the naval vessels at a significant loss. Over 80 Dutch soldiers and the Major General himself had been killed. Many criticize Koehler's tactics and stubbornness and claim he was at fault for the tremendous losses. This defeat extremely reduced the moral of the expeditionary force and resulted in the tarnishing of the otherwise impeccable Dutch reputation. To secure some time to recuperate the Dutch Navy blockaded the area as it was the only tactical decision that could be made.

It is important to note here that Koehler's intelligence on the enemy that he was to fight was grossly inaccurate. Two critical pieces of information arise in hindsight only.
1.) The Acehnese manpower was incredibly miscalculated. The most recent estimates put the total man power at somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 foot soldiers during the two expeditions.
2.) The government in Aceh had modernized their military force almost over night. The modernization, while not a full modernization as the equipment was second rate, occurred at a such a pace that there was absolutely no way they could have done it with out aid from 'Western' powers. Some believe that the UK and Italy both provided equipment and funding to fight off the Dutch, but this is unconfirmed.

Second Aceh Expedition
Soon after the first unsuccessful expedition the Dutch launched another one this time with more extensive preparations. This time the force was led by General Jan van Swieten and managed to capture the palace at the capital city of Banda Acheh. The sultan had been warned and fled before the raiding party could capture him but was found and killed soon after. The Dutch approved and put in power a new Aceh sultan that could be manipulated easily. However the new sultan was looked upon by the Aceh population as a puppet and regarded worse than the Dutch. Control over the territories were almost impossible to maintain and intense guerrilla fighting broke out throughout the countryside. This lasted for almost a decade until the Dutch realized they had to change their tactics.

Every Day Struggle
In 1880 the Dutch changed their tactics from an all out assault on the countryside to try to grab as much land from the insurgents as they could. The problem was it was an unsustainable method of warfare. Every time the dutch would capture a new province, they would lose another, previously held. This was extremely draining on the financial reserves of the colonial Dutch thusly prompting the change in the tactics to a more conservative approach. Instead of trying to capture all of Aceh the military would pull back to the territories that the Dutch had the strongest grasp on - the capital Banda Acheh and the coastal port city of Ulee Lheue. Everyday activities became a dangerous thing in Aceh, and even transportation required armed escort.

Continuation War
For a brief period there was a lull in major conflict in Aceh. This would not last as in 1883 the British naval vessel 'Nisero' was stranded and the crew was taken captive. After being strong armed by the British, the Dutch reluctantly sent a force to rescue the crew who had found themselves in a territory fiercely uncontrolled by the Dutch military. A local tribal leader Teuku Umar was asked for assistance but declined. The British shipmen were eventually rescued but only after tremendous payouts had been handed to the local leaders and the sultan himself.

Once the British crew had been rescued the Dutch minister of warfare once again declared all out warfare on Aceh, not surprisingly it once again had little effect. Even without much success the Dutch kept trying to implement a sustainable warfare doctrine. One of the new ideas they attempted after the 'Nisero' fiasco was to try to buy the help of local tribes and warlords with opium, weapons, or money. One notable warlord who was 'bought' was Teuku Umar, the same Teuku Umar who refused to allow the crew of the Nisero to be released. This is notable because it shows the feeling between the Acehnese and the Dutch as after Teuku built a somewhat respectable army at cost to the Dutch, he used his forces to attack the Dutch instead of helping them maintain peace inside the boarders of Aceh. This was known as Het Verraad van Teukoe Oemar - the treason of Teuku Umar, a significant incident that would assist one major in the Dutch army years later.

This stalemate was not broken until Major J.B. van Heutsz, an up and coming officer in the Dutch Army in the East Indies theater, was appointed Governor in the late 1890s. With the help of an old colleague one last 'new' plan was formed. The Dutch formulated that the sultanate was not the main source of power in Aceh yet it was the local hereditary chiefs. To take the countryside one must win over the local chiefs - whether with diplomacy, bribes, or warfare. This method of counter insurgency worked and by 1904 99% of the territory had been conquered, thus ending one of the longest war's in the history of man.

While Aceh had been conquered in 1904 some estimates put small factions holding out until the Japanese took over the Dutch East Indies in the time up to and including the second world war. While the groups were extremely limited and subject to only living in the greater highlands of Aceh it is an important medium to show the absolute length of the war and insurgency.

Hopefully you guys out there learned a lot about Aceh War - the Beaumont's baptism by fire.

Thanks and stay tuned!

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