Tuesday, October 19, 2010


In 1902, just as in 2010, guerrilla fighters challenged the might of the pre-eminent world power. A 100 years ago it was Dutch settlers, called Boers, fighting Great Britain for possession of South Africa. Today, a band of Islamic extremists attack the United States and its allies everywhere.
The lesson from both: small forces are potent. Kruger's Gold is not a dry military history book, nor does the reader miss anything if, like this reviewer, he or she comes to it more or less ignorant of the Anglo-Boer War that took place in 1899-1902.
Victoria author Sidney Allinson has written the sort of gripping, fast-moving novel that keeps you turning pages long after bedtime. The characters and their loves and hatreds, their ideals and weaknesses, failures and triumphs, would have provided the human material for a thoroughly satisfying novel even if presented in an imaginary setting.
The novel's hero is a Canadian volunteer from Victoria, Lieut. Harry Lanyard serving with the British Army. Given the choice between disgrace before a court martial and leading a particularly hazardous mission, Lanyard takes the latter. With a rag-tag troop of mainly Canadian mounted infantry, Lanyard is ordered to recover a king's ransom in stolen gold bullion - enough money to keep the Boers fighting for goodness knows how many more years.
The gold had been looted by Boer president Paul Kruger, hence the book's title -- an actual real-life hidden treasure, portions of which are still being discovered to this day. And hence also, the skilful merging of the fictional characters in the foreground of the story with the meticulously researched historical events that provide the backdrop.
We are introduced to the tough Afrikaner Boer fighters whose title "Commando" has been handed down through generations since as the hallmark of military excellence. We discover to our chagrin that the South African War also fathered the concentration camp, a term now synonymous with death. Although these camps were devised initially by the British as shelter for destitute families whose homes had been torched by one side or the other in this increasingly cruel campaign, disgraceful mismanagement and rampant disease reduced the camps to death-traps.
Meanwhile, the action continues: ambush, deception, guerrilla warfare, espionage mutiny, pitched battles and encounters with bandits - while a forbidden romance struggles to survive across the invisible line separating friend from foe.
Lieut. Lanyard would be a real asset in today's Special Forces; but is this enough to gain his two objectives, Kruger's gold, and the love of his life, the Boer-American girl, Beth?
This book has stirred great interest among historians and military buffs of the period, some of whom have been brought up on "official" versions of events that omit what is unpalatable about your own side. The truth is that war brings out the best and the, worst in mankind and there never was an unblemished battle record. Sidney Allinson pays his respects to Boers, Brits, and colonials, and avoids any temptation to portray the fighting in terms of good guys and bad. To assist the keen researcher, the author includes a glossary, casualty statistics and bibliography, plus a summary of later events in South Africa.

Reviewer Maurice Tugwell is a retired brigadier of the British Army, and director of the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute.

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