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I was playing StarCraft the other night, and it occurred to me: that game series portrays effectively a 3-way war, where all three factions are fighting the other two with equal ferocity.

Obviously, in real life various factions tend to make alliances in order to fight shared enemies, even if they aren't natural allies on their own, like the Soviets and the Western Allies in WWII allying to fight the Axis.

So I was wondering: what's the biggest, longest conflict in real history that truly had more than 2 sides? I'm sure there have been skirmishes between city-states or factions within a civil war where a whole bunch of groups were all fighting amongst themselves, but has there ever been a large-scale, protracted conflict that remained equally fierce amongst multiple powers/alliances, all fighting each other?

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how about the two sides of the Chinese Civil War plus Japan? –  Louis Rhys Dec 5 '13 at 2:17
    
@LouisRhys: Not a bad example. –  Tom Au Dec 5 '13 at 2:22
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I'm only vaguely aware of how the Chinese Civil War progressed. How long were all three factions solidly in the fight, and did they all stay un-allied and hostile to each other the whole time? –  Alexander Winn Dec 5 '13 at 2:27
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@AlexanderWinn please take a look at my answer –  Louis Rhys Dec 5 '13 at 5:57
    
The answers below fit the question better, but I thought I'd mention the Holy Roman Empire, or the ancient Greek City States. Both are good examples of numerous factions that were perpetually fighting each other, however those involve a lot more shifting alliances and attacks of opportunity rather than a persistent state of war. –  Odysseus Dec 5 '13 at 19:05

9 Answers 9

up vote 24 down vote accepted

For a relatively brief period in China's Three Kingdoms era, the three states of Wu/Shu/Wei were actively fighting each other. For most of the rest of the time, Wu and Shu were allied in their resistance against the vastly stronger Wei.

  • In 219 (AD), the ill-fated Battle of Fancheng took place. Shu, fresh from their acquisition of Hanzhong, invaded Wei, but this campaign soon reached a stalemate.
  • In the same year, sensing an opportunity, Wu successfully invaded Jing province, then under the control of Shu.
  • In 221, wishing revenge and to retake the key province, Shu attempted to retake Jing province. This campaign lasted a full year until Shu were defeated in the Battle of Xiaoting.
  • In 223, Shu and Wu reaffirmed their alliance.

So for a period of approx. 4 years, between the invasion of Jing province by Wu and the reaffirmation of their alliance, the three states of Wu, Shu and Wei could be said to have been at war with each other.

In terms of scale (keep in mind the numbers are inexact and may be unreliable due to the age):

  • Battle of Fancheng involved 100k troops for Wei and 70k for Shu
  • Battle of Xiaoting involved 50k for Wu and Shu suffered 80k casualties
  • For reference, census results from the previous and following dynasties show the total population of China to be somewhere between 16 - 50 million.
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You should consider the Bosnian war (in Yugoslavia) in the 1990s, there were basically three factions fighting each other: the Orthodox Christian Serbs (Serbia), the Catholic Croats (Croatia) and the Slavic Muslims (Bosnia). The war was three-sided from 1992 to 1994, and two-sided in 1995-1996.

You can see that even the table of belligerents in the Wikipedia lists three sides.

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Let us continue this discussion in chat –  Lennart Regebro Dec 6 '13 at 14:08

The second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War may be a good example. There was a civil war between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party (CPC) factions, and in the middle of this Japan invaded. Both KMT and CPC resisted the Japanese, and at some point they even (nominally) cooperated. This cooperation was brief, however, and there were major clashes between these factions since 1941 (while they were also fighting the Japanese).

The situation came to a head in late 1940 and early 1941 when there were major clashes between the Communist and KMT forces. In December 1940, Chiang Kai-shek demanded that the CCP’s New Fourth Army evacuate Anhui and Jiangsu Provinces. Under intense pressure, the New Fourth Army commanders complied, but they were ambushed by Nationalist troops and soundly defeated in January 1941. This clash, which would be known as the New Fourth Army Incident, weakened the CCP position in Central China and effectively ended any substantive co-operation between the Nationalists and the Communists and both sides concentrated on jockeying for position in the inevitable Civil War. It also ended the Second united front formed earlier to fight the Japanese. (wikipedia)

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and even while cooperating in some areas, they were fighting in others. And that went on throughout WW2, with both sides also actively engaging in operations to persuade the US (and others) to stop supporting the other side. –  jwenting Dec 6 '13 at 7:41

Fuedal Japan is also an intriguing example of what you are looking for.

The Genpei War was a conflict that featured three major belligerents: The Minamoto (Yoritomo) clan, The Taira clan, and the Minamoto (Yoshinaka) clan all battling for dominance of the imperial court. To a lesser extent, the Fujiwara Clan who had long been part of the ruling elite participated in the political intrigue during this period.

The war in Japan during The Sengoku Period in particular was extremely fierce and protracted, lasting from the 15th to 17th century. It also featured numerous powerful factions. The authority of both the shogunate and the Imperial Court collapsed, and provincial Governors (shugo) and other local samurai leaders emerged as the daimyo, who would battle each other, religious factions (e.g. the Ikkō-ikki) and others for land and power for the next 150 years or so.

Over one hundred domains clashed and warred throughout the archipelago, as clans rose and fell, boundaries shifted, and some of the largest battles in all of global pre-modern history were fought.

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This seems to be most prevalent in civil wars of a country. The most recent example I can think of if the Angolan Civil War where the 3 main factions - UNITA, MPLA and FNLA fought eachother in equal measure and supported by various great/superpowers around the world. Of course at the end it became a massive proxy war between South Africa and Cuba.

In addition to Anixx's answer you should also be aware that in WW2, a similar thing happened, but this time the country was divided on political lines (Communist vs. non-communist) and both were against the occupying Germans. See this book.

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I like this answer, and think you are on to something. However, you really should mention what country during WW2 you are thinking of. My first thought was China, until I reached the word "Germans" instead of the expected "Japanese". –  T.E.D. Feb 19 at 14:55
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Oh, also the "most recent example" of this would probably be the ongoing Syrian civil war, the most prominent three parties of which are the (largely Shia) supporters of Assad, The secular FSA, and the Sunni islamist ISIS, all of which have fought against each other. –  T.E.D. Feb 19 at 17:10

The war of the League of Cambrai may well suit since most factions within the war were at one time allies and at others enemies. Although there were two "clear" sides to the war.

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The biggest multiple side war was probably World War II. Biggest in all respects, including the number of sides.

Soviet Union started the war on the side of Germany; they jointly invaded Poland, and Soviet Union helped Germany against the allies.

Then Soviet Union started its own war with Finland. As a result, Finland became Germany's ally, but their participation in the war with Soviet Union was very limited. The Finns took back their territory and refused in further help with the invasion of Soviet Union.

In 1944 they switched sides and fought the Germans for a short time.

France first declared a war on Germany, then was defeated and become German ally. There were actually two governments of France, fighting on different sides. When Germany invaded Soviet Union, Ukrainians immediately tried to declare their independence and organized an independent army. At various times this army fought Germans and Soviets, but there was also a large scale Ukrainian-Polish war.

Similar story was with other nations whose main goal was fighting for independence.

Some nations of Soviet Union had approximately equal numbers of soldiers fighting of the German and Soviet sides. There was also a Russian army fighting on German side.

EDIT. Some commenters argue that German and Soviet co-ordinated invasion of Poland can be considered as "one side" in the war. OK, suppose that SU was a third side. This is another argument for saying that this was a multi-side war, if it was 3-sided from the very beginning. But I hope even those commenters will not try to argue that Soviet Union was a part on the US-British side in 1939-1940 (or that SU was not involved in the war at that time).

I am very surprised that my answer is qualified here as "full of cold war propaganda". On my opinion, I only stated the well known facts. But unfortunately stating of facts can be also considered as "propaganda" by some people, I had a lot of experience with this.

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I would appreciate if those who downvoted this answer explain their reasons in comments. –  Alex Dec 19 '13 at 19:14
    
Thinking, that Soviet Union was on side of Germany is caused by cold war propaganda. –  Nakilon Feb 18 at 19:07
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Really? You think Soviet invasions of Poland, Finland, and peaceful takover of Baltic and Besarabia did not really happen? On which side did SU invade Poland? –  Alex Feb 19 at 1:11
    
On its own side. On which side did Poland invade Czechoslovakia in 1938? Your answer is full of cold war propaganda. –  Roman Yankovsky Feb 19 at 7:47
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Not downvoting, but I don't see three inarguable "sides" here; only two which a couple of participants switched between. –  T.E.D. Feb 19 at 17:24

The Eighty-Years' War / Thirty-Years War which ends in 1648 with the Westphalia Treaties was a very long conflict in which all European countries and peoples took part in various coalitions, alliances that changed over time.

It is widely considered as a religious War because the catholic European powers (Holy Roman Empire, Spain, etc) fought against Protestant enemies protected by Gustav Adolph of Sweden, later joined by Catholic France, who wants to counter-balance the power of the Austrian Habsbourg dynasty and prevent them from reaching hegemony in Europe through the transformation of the Holy Roman Empire in a "real" State (it was rather a confederation).

But it is also a struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and its northern and eastern dependencies and a political struggle in the Holy Roman Empire to strengthen the weak power of the Habsbourg Emperor.

However it is a major conflict in European history in which the alliances changed a lot. It led to the formation of a power structure in continental Europe that lasted until the Napoleonic Wars.

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Maybe the Great Northern War?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Northern_War

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How so? What are the three sides? I don't see any evidence for more than two in the linked Wikipedia page, but perhaps I'm missing something. –  T.E.D. Feb 19 at 17:32
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The answer would be better if you summarized what features of the Great Northern War fulfilled the question. –  Mark C. Wallace Feb 19 at 18:24

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