The second half of the 19th century saw a new growth of European imperialism, which developed a momentum of its own far beyond the need to protect trading posts or suppress native opposition. Many of the wars fought in the last half of the century were imperial, in which Western technological superiority and organization normally proved decisive. At Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898, Kitchener, the British commander, simply deployed his 25,000 men in tight formation, and when the opposing Mahdists charged, they were scythed down by his Maxim machine guns: the Sudanese lost up to 30,000 men for the loss of only 50 of the Anglo-Egyptian force.

In 1864, after a series of military engagements, France, ruled by Emperor Napoleon III, acquired Indochina in South East Asia. However, non-European armies did, occasionally, emerge victorious. In 1896 the Italians were defeated at Adowa by an Ethiopian army armed with 100,000 rifles that the French governor of Somaliland had obligingly sold to them. Where native armies adopted guerrilla warfare, such as Samori Touré in West Africa in the 1880s and 1890s, European tactics struggled to overcome them. Eventually, however, even stubborn resistance was not enough. The Europeans or Americans had superior industrial and demographic resources, and could weather defeats their opponents could not.

Germany’s victories in 1866 and 1870 led German statesmen and generals to believe that rapid deployment and the exploitation of technology should override all other concerns. At the end of the 19th century, European countries became embroiled in an arms race that was ruinously expensive and contributed to a chilling climate of mistrust in international diplomacy. The rapid growth of the German economy, unaccompanied by a corresponding increase in political sophistication, led to a dangerous alliance of economic power, nationalist agitation, and technological prowess, which, when a spark set it alight, would lead to the appalling carnage of World War I.

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