An epic novel of the South African War
‘A magnificent book, written by the only sort of man who could give it breadth and depth…his blood enables him to see both sides, his historical vision to see the conflict in depth… and his writing power to make his characters living fiction and reborn fact.’
A muscular historical novel that not only brings to life the explosive action of the fighting but also provides a rich social document of the people, traditions, and, above all, the national mentalities that made the war inevitable It holds up superbly as a robust cyclorama of an age that was more virile than many realise.’
Rags of Glory is an epic novel about the war between the Afrikaners or ‘Boers' and the British in South Africa at the turn of the 20th Century. It took Cloete more than ten years to create a large cast of fictional characters, each with their own history, whose destinies are inextricably linked to the action.
The Boer War saw the introduction of machine-gun and trench warfare and the novel is a gold mine for war historians with its detailed account of battles and tactics. It details how chivalry gave way to barbarism as ‘the last gentleman's war' dragged on. Rags of Glory also provides an arrestingly human account of the engaged men who later became famous.
On the British side we meet Winston Churchill as a war correspondent who is captured and escapes from the Boers. We are introduced to the ‘strangely assorted pair' of Kitchener and Roberts, who take the reigns after Black Week and a series of humiliating defeats for the British. Kitchener is young, strong, tall, hated and feared. Roberts is old, short, admired and loved.
On the Boer side the famous commandos De la Rey, De Wet, Cronje, Smuts and Botha have to unify a hodgepodge army of men who believe they are entitled to leave the battlefield when they want to, as they freely chose to fight in the first place. The biggest battles are psychological as the Boers enter the war believing that God has assured their victory, and are later forced to come to terms with defeat.
Cloete depicts cowardice and bravery on both sides. He was half Dutch South African and half Scottish and refused to spout propaganda for either the British or the Boers. The Boers are horrified at the British decision to torch their farms and send their women and children into concentration camps, but so too is a group of British soldiers who are forced to carry out the orders to burn.
Some of the worst atrocities against the Boers are actually committed by a small band of defectors led by the young Boer, Servas. They rape and murder their own people dressed as British soldiers, on the premise their acts will help to turn British public opinion against the war. But their glee in savagery betrays their real motives. In contrast a real British soldier who is forced to open fire on Servas drops and faints because of his Catholic conscience.
Besides knowledge of the battles, Cloete had unique access to interesting anecdotes about the war. He gleaned information from Boer war veterans in World War One and later from his neighbours, acquaintances and family in South Africa.
One of the fictional Boer women, Dora van Reenen, sends information to her sister in Cape Town by stuffing it into the heads of German dolls that are purportedly gifts for her nieces. This was based on a true account of how information had been relayed and eventually reached the press in Britain and her rival countries.
Rags of Glory is essentially a study of the barriers that are created and shattered by the strangeness of war. A schism is created between the Boer woman, Anna, and her Cape parliamentarian husband and she decides to subtly deceive him to gain information for the Boer cause. Captain John Turnbull had fallen in love with a Boer woman, Elsa, and was only prevented from marrying her by her death. He is now forced to fight against her brothers, Boetie and Servas.
On the other hand the war brings Turnbull's new mistress, Elsie, an ex-prostitute, to South Africa as a volunteer nurse. Their love gains legitimacy as Victorian conventions fade in the illumination of the realities of death and disease.