Small wars and people’s wars: a Clausewitzian perpective on the South African War, 1899–1902

  • Pieter Labuschagne


The theorist and strategist Carl von Clausewitz developed core theoretical concepts on war, including that war is merely an extension of politics by different means, and that the integration of morality and rationality functions as a driving force in a people’s war. Clausewitz envisaged the idea of war in its absolute perfection (‘beautiful wars’) as a regulative ideal, which formed part of his framework on small wars and people’s wars. The aim of this article is to demonstrate how Clausewitz’s theories on small wars, and their transformation into people’s wars, are still valuable when analysing and contextualising historical events and battles. The value of Clausewitz’s theories on small wars and people’s wars is demonstrated by applying them to the general characteristics of the South African War of 1899–1902. The way Clausewitz differentiates between the underpinning reasons for war, and between ‘limited’ and ‘absolute’ war, is specifically relevant for understanding the different tactics which commanders adopted in the field of battle. The theoretical distinction that Clausewitz makes between the objectives of two opposing forces could clarify why the British Empire and the two Boer Republics went to war. The same distinction might explain the motives and the impetus that gave rise to divergent views, and how the subsequent conflict developed into a full-scale war.

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 2224-0020
print ISSN: 1022-8136