When people think of war they usually picture battles and campaigns with horrendous bloodshed and massive destruction. Their first reference points are likely to be the World Wars, Vietnam, or perhaps the more recent War on Terror. However, some wars are very different in that the nations or factions involved declare war and never actually fight. As strange as it sounds, bloodless wars are not unheard of.
This is no bad thing in itself. If all disputes could be resolved peacefully, the world would be a safer, more civilized place. That said, bloodless wars lack the horrors and heroism that readily earn a more obvious place in history. Without a Somme, D-Day, or Tet Offensive, they are often overlooked. The following bloodless wars may not be etched into our collective memory, but they're fascinating all the same.
The Anglo-Swedish War
Europe has a long history of fighting real wars, but has its share of bloodless ones as well. The Anglo-Swedish War between 1810 and 1812 was not only bloodless, it existed only on paper. England and France were still engaged in the (all too real) Napoleonic Wars when the Anglo-Swedish War was ignited.
Sweden was forced into the Continental System in 1810, a trade embargo against its largest trading partner, Great Britain. France demanded that Sweden declare war, confiscate all British shipping in Swedish ports, and seize all British trading products then in Sweden itself. The Swedes complied on paper, but not in fact.
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Sweden declared war without either side ever firing a shot. The Swedes allowed British ships to "occupy" the island of Hano, which they used as a base to continue trading with the British regardless of French demands. The bloodless war lasted until 1812 when, with Franco-Swedish relations worsening, Sweden and Britain agreed to the Treaty of Orebro in 1812. The same day, a treaty was signed to end the Anglo-Russian War, which had started in 1807 and was nearly as conflict-free as the Anglo-Swedish War.
The Aroostook War
Sometimes called the Pork and Beans War, the Aroostook War of 1838-39 could have been far more serious. A border dispute between the British and the Americans had been brewing for some time. Britain and the US claimed different boundaries between Canada (specifically the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick) and the states of Maine and New Hampshire.
The New Hampshire land was a comparatively small parcel, but the territory between New Brunswick and Maine was not. It also included the Halifax Road, a trail of strategic importance to the British. The quarrel resulted in militia call-ups on both sides, troop movements, and an incursion into the disputed territory by troops from Maine.
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Diplomatic wrangling reached the highest levels. The Treaty of 1783, which ended the American Revolution, had been unclear about the precise border between Maine and New Brunswick and both sides interpreted it differently. Militias rallied and groups of armed citizens gathered on both sides, fully prepared to defend what they saw as their territory. The crisis was averted by talks between US Secretary of State Daniel Webster and British diplomat Baron Ashburton, which ultimately ceded most of the disputed territory to Maine but preserved vital links between New Brunswick and the rest of Canada without armed conflict.
In 1858 the town of Yale, British Columbia hosted another small, bloodless war that could have had international implications. The cause was a dispute over gold deposits in the Fraser Canyon area. Although a part of Canada (then British territory), many of the approximately 30,000 miners and prospectors were foreigners. These migrants included thousands of Americans, among them Edward "Ned" McGowan, who had set up home in nearby Hill’s Bar.
What became McGowan’s War stemmed from McGowan’s long-running feud with San Francisco’s notorious Vigilance Committee. The Committee, made up of vigilantes with a taste for lynching, wanted him dead. McGowan had already fled San Francisco only to encounter them again in Yale. The feud continued publicly and was covered in the local press, where former Vigilance Committee members had considerable influence, further worsening tensions.
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Coupled with regular clashes between foreigners and the local indigenous people, the situation worsened until Governor James Douglas sent in British troops. Led by a Colonel Moody, the soldiers quickly restored order. McGowan’s War was over, bloodlessly. A potential war between Britain and the United States was averted. Ned McGowan, the central figure in the crisis, sold his claim and left California in 1859.
The 335 Years' War
One bloodless war lasted for so long without any military action that the opponents forgot all about it. The belligerents of the so-called 335 Years' War were the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly, a cluster of small islands off the southwest coast of England. Dutch Admiral Maarten Tromp had effectively declared war in 1651, perhaps without actual authority to do so.
Fast forward a few centuries, and Scilly officials were unsure whether the 335 Years 'War had ever formally ended. Local historian Roy Duncan discovered that a peace treaty was never signed, a fact confirmed by Dutch authorities. The "war" lasted well into the 1980s without any military action at all, having become something of a standing joke at that point. In April of 1986, a Dutch ambassador finally visited the islands and signed a peace treaty that formally ended almost four centuries of unfought war.
The Huescar-Danish War
Lasting from 1809 until 1981, the Huescar-Danish War was a rare example of a bloodless war within a real one. The Peninsular War saw Spain, Portugal, and Britain allied against the First French Empire, then under the rule of the legendary Napoleon Bonaparte. This conflict formed part of the Napoleonic Wars ending at Waterloo. Within the bloody and brutal Peninsular War, the bloodless Huescar-Danish War began. It long outlasted the Napoleonic Wars, lasting from 1809 to 1981 without a shot fired.
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When Denmark opted to support Bonaparte the council of the town of Huescar were outraged. A small town in the Granada province of southern Spain, Huescar had no authority to declare war on Denmark or any other sovereign state. That did not stop it from doing so.
As with the 335 Years' War, the declaration was forgotten about and no action was taken on either side all the way up until 1981. One of the longest bloodless wars in European history ended with an handshake between the mayor of Huescar and the Dutch Ambassador on an appropriately symbolic date—November 11, 1981, otherwise known as Armistice Day in many Western countries.
Sources: Britannica, Atlas Obscura