Many books have been written about the Boer War – from Arthur Conan Doyle‘s eyewitness account as a field doctor; to Candice Millard’s account of Churchill’s daring escape, to Thomas Pakenham’s definitíve record of this bloody war to Deneys Reitz’s Commando: A Boer War War Journal.
Dave Baker’s The Tame Khaki is a sweeping saga – a romance – set against the background of the conflict that pitted Boer against Brit. And while it may be a fictionalised account, his research is nothing short of impeccable and exhaustive in this immersive novel.
Baker lives in Natal and is retired after a career in the financial services industry. He’s a relative newcomer to the art of writing which makes this, his second novel (the first If I retreat, Shoot Me, set against SA’s involvement in World War II even more commendable.
Written through the prism of a young English officer, Lieutenant Jack Whitelaw, who leaves his native Dorset to sail to Durban to join his regiment in the then Natal colony on the outskirts of Ladysmith, leaving behind not only his close-knit farming family but his English “rose” Jessica, he soon finds himself in a war where the Boers‘ guerrilla warfare often leaves no certainty as to when attacks may occur on the “khakis” (the British soldiers).
Spanning the period from 1899 to 1901 (The Second Boer War) when some of the bloodiest battles took place and also the siege of Ladysmith, Baker paints a highly evocative picture. As the young Whitelaw arrives in South Africa and joins a train to take him to the battlefields, one can almost hear the grind of the train wheels on the railway tracks and virtually imagine the cries and shouts of soldiers; the wheedling of hawkers and orders barked by officers.
Baker’s description of late 19th century Ladysmith is superb – the wide streets, the colonial buildings and the British “Tin Town” where the military was based. Whitelaw has barely arrived in the country and is acclimatising himself to the above scenario when with other regiments he is ordered to lead his unit in an assault against the Boers at Elandslaagte as news of the enemy crossing the Natal border becomes a reality.
Baker excels in evoking the battle scene – from the almost naive bravery of marching into battle – the horror of war is revealed as scores upon scores of British soldiers line up against the hill to fight the Boers who were less encumbered and had the advantage of an intimate knowledge of the terrain. Baker writes as the troops prepared to do battle on that fateful day in October 21 1899, “A rowdy medley of noises issued forth from sergeant’s whistles and shouted orders from unit commanders and the steady crunch of thousands of boots, followed by the belaboured sounds of horse drawn ambulances and supply wagons”. As soldiers fall around him, Jack succumbs to fire and Baker vividly describes the feelings of confusion and terror: “For some time it felt as though he was struggling to escape from a horrible nightmare... he became aware of a searing pain in his side... Jack opened his eyes again. The blackness had given way to an opaque blanket of dark red.”
The young British officer wakes up in a crowded Ladysmith hospital where what he thought was a beautiful apparition is Rachel, a nurse, who it turns out, is from the “other side” a Boer. A romance begins, compounded by their conflicting feelings.
The love story is well-juxtaposed; as the feelings between the couple deepen so does the war. Baker adroitly describes the tension between the two sides; the suspicion of Rachel being a spy and Jack’s dilemmas of being torn between loyalty to country and their growing love. The horrors of the war intensify while Jack suffers a long recuperation.
There are some dramatic scenes as Rachel flees to join her family who are staunch Boer supporters – with her brother and father part of the Boer commandos. Baker’s leisurely descriptions become more fast-paced as the reader races to turn the pages to find out what will happen. There are some gritty descriptions of the utterly horrendous concentration camps where disease and death were rampant and Lord Milner’s brutal scorched earth policy. Jack’s love of Rachel is put to a severe test as he witnesses both.
I won’t reveal more than that it all comes to a good end, as it should. A fter Jack’s deep soul searching and his emotional suffering and Rachel’s trauma from what she and her family experience, love in this case conquers all... It may be a long book but it’s an absorbing and highly recommended read.
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