Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2022

To Hell with Cronjé (2007), by Ingrid Winterbach, translated by Elsa Silke

Another interesting book for #WITmonth!

To Hell with Cronjé is the sixth novel by South African author Ingrid Winterbach, who has also published five titles under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen. It is a profoundly moving meditation on male friendship and the futility of war.

Two scientists, Rietz Steyn and Ben Maritz, forge their friendship during the Boer War (1899-1902), of interest to Australians because it was the first of multiple wars overseas that Australians have chosen to join.  I’d hazard a guess, however, that most Australians know little about our participation in this brutal war apart from inscriptions on war memorials and/or from the highly contested myth-making about Breaker Morant. (See my review of The Breaker by Kit Morant.)

 The AWM website) tells me that about 16,000 men from what were then Britain’s colonies in Australia, fought (mostly) on the British side.  About 600 died, about half in action and the rest from disease or accidents. (This was from a population of less than 4 million in 1901.) Winterbach’s novel is very revealing about the war that our young men volunteered for, but it was instructive to learn a little more after I’d finished reading the book because some knowledge of South African history and geography is assumed by the author.

From the British National Army Museum, I learned that

The origins of the Boer War lay in Britain’s desire to unite the British South African territories of Cape Colony and Natal with the Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal). The Boers, Afrikaans-speaking farmers, wanted to maintain their independence.

Map of Southern Africa, c1899

Map of Southern Africa, c1899, source: British National Army Museum

Neither the novel nor the museum website admit that both sides were colonisers, fighting over land dispossessed from the original inhabitants.  What it does reveal is the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that these bitter enemies had made, to ensure continued control over the Black population:

On the outbreak of war, the British made a tacit agreement with their Boer enemies that both sides would not arm the black population. As the war progressed, however, this stance proved difficult to maintain and they began employing armed blacks as scouts.

It is estimated that between 15,000 and 30,000 black Africans eventually served under arms with the British Army as scouts and sentries. Another 100,000 worked as labourers, transport drivers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, farriers and builders. (National Army Museum, scroll down to the heading, ‘African and Indian role’)

So this explains this exchange, early in the novel when the party come across some Xhosa:

At noon, their shadows hard upon their heels, they come across three black men on horseback.  The men are wearing hats and blankets.  One is clad in the threadbare tunic of a Khaki [i.e. British] uniform.  Another wears a feather in his hat.

‘A motley crew,’ Ben mutters.

The two groups come to a halt, facing each other.

‘What do you want?’ Willem demands. ‘I trust you’re not helping the Khakis.’

The men confer in Xhosa.  The leader raises his hand in what appears to be a peace sign.

He and Willem bow formally.

The group passes them without further greeting.

‘Tonight they’re be joining General Pettingale,’ Ben says.

‘At least they’re unarmed,’ Willem says, ‘and rightly so.’ (p.7)

Rietz and Ben find themselves in the company of another of these Black Africans of ambiguous military status when they encounter Ezekiel in a Boer transit camp under the control of Gert Smal.  Smal detains them because he doubts their story that the erratic General Senekal sent them as escorts for the postmaster-turned-soldier Willem, who is returning a very young shell-shocked soldier called Abraham to his mother.  Ezekiel is the only character who has any dignity, despite being ordered about by Smal and used as an amusement because he has a freakishly good memory for Biblical quotations and facts about the war. All the others are clearly traumatised by the war, though they behave in different ways:

‘Each of our camp-fellows seems more frightened and bewildered than the next,’ says Reitz.  Gert Smal can hardly be called a rational interlocutor, Kosie Rijpma has yet to say a single word.  Poor Seun barely manages to utter a few incoherent sounds.  Reuben appears to be a somewhat rough diamond and Japie scurries off if one even happens to look in his direction.’ (p.45)

Reuben lost a leg at Dwarsleersbos; Japie lost his hearing when a shell exploded next to him; the predikant Kosie lost his wits in the horror of the women’s concentration camp, and Smal himself is erratic, forgetful and hyper-aggressive. As for Ben and Rietz, it is only their keen interest in the natural environment around them that has kept them sane so far.  Rietz is a geologist, and Ben studies natural history, and their friendship grows as they record their findings in their journals along the route. It is when they are stuck in this transit camp, suspected of being deserters or traitors that they begin to lose their grip on reality.  Both men are in their forties — Ben with a family to worry about and Rietz still grieving for a wife and child already dead — and as they come across more and more evidence of British atrocities, their anxiety grows.

Their anxiety, however, is not just about the war.  Rietz and Ben are scientists in the wake of Darwinism, and the General baits them into giving lectures about their respective areas of study to the men in the transit camp, all of whom are conservative Christians who believe in the literal word of the Bible.  The lecture Rietz gives about the geological age of the earth, and Ben’s lecture about natural selection challenge those beliefs, and the hostility of the others is palpable.

Eventually a superior officer arrives and the men are sent off on a mysterious mission that ends in disaster, and women enter the novel when they provide refuge in the ruins of their farm.  This part of the novel reveals the devastating effects of the British scorched earth policy on the Boer farms and their inhabitants.  While the men try to adjust to their changed circumstances, defeat brings the prospect of a difficult peace for shattered men in a landscape laid waste by a futile war.

When they are out of sight, in the open veld, Reitz asks Ben to halt for a moment.  He gets off the horse, leans against her thin flank, and weeps as he has never wept before.

He weeps for his dead wife, banished to the realm of shadows forever because of his folly.  He weeps for the children—his own child who died so young and whom he never really mourned; the older child, who became a woman overnight, and the little one.  He weeps about the fate of his camp-fellows.  He weeps—bitterly—about Anna, because it has not been granted for them to love each other.  He weeps because after this their lives will never be the same. (p.228)

The title BTW refers to one of the military leaders despised by Gert Smal, who spends a lot of his time ranting about how bad the Boer leadership is.

I have another novel by Winterbach: Happenstance, recommended to me by Stu from Winston’s Dad.  It was first published in 2006, and was translated by Dirk Winterbach, and published by Open Letter Books in 2011.

I read this book for #WITmonth, initiated by blogger Meytal Radzinski and now an international movement to celebrate the work of women writers in translation.  Visit Women in Translation for more information.

To Hell with Cronjé won the 2004 Hertzog Prize, the most prestigious award in Afrikaans literature.

Author: Ingrid Winterbach
Title: To Hell with Cronjé
Cover design by E J Van Lenen
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2010, first published 2007
ISBN: 9781934824306, pbk., 239 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Open Letter Books



  1. It’s always so instructive to read about a war from the “other side” of the conflict, isn’t it. Not one of the British Empire’s finest moments, and they were just about as brutal towards their own troops as towards the Boers.


    • Indeed, it was a nasty, brutish war, and like most of them, fought for no very good reason. And Australians joined in, as they have continued to do, in wars that have nothing to do with us…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review, Lisa. I have this but haven’t read it yet. I did read and adore her book The Elusive Moth. I have a few others too. Her subject matter varies greatly from book to book it seems.


    • Thanks, Joe. I’ve just found and read your review of The Elusive Moth and am tempted to buy it immediately.
      But #GoodIntentions” I’m going to wait until I’ve read what I have already first!


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