Battle lines

Television - Andrew Billen on two contrasting Boer war stories

When should you stop feeling guilty about the sins of your nation? From the date, perhaps, you stop experiencing pride in its achievements? In that case, as an Englishman, it would be absurd to experience patriotic twitchings over Agincourt unless you felt as much shame about the Duke of Cumberland's massacre of Prince Charlie's Highlanders at Culloden. In practice, however, few of us stake much of an emotional investment in either victory. They are so much in the past that they have become the preserve of historians. Two short series marking the annivers-ary of the Boer war, both unexcitingly called The Boer War, have been keen to wrest our last, dodgy imperial triumph from this cursory fate. To do so, both have ingeniously contrived to interview its survivors 100 years on.

Jonathan Lewis's Channel 4 series (8pm, Thursdays) made do with descendants of fighters and those who remembered as children mapping its progress with flags on the Daily Mail war map. Minnie Way, born in 1895, recalled the troops leaving and singing "We're soldiers of the Queen". "Queen Victoria," Minnie reminded us - "a good queen she was." Kenneth Griffith, whose two-part, anti-British rant finished BBC2's Saturday History Zone, had taken the precaution of interviewing some old soldiers themselves back in the 1970s. Griffith was outraged on behalf of his "friends", all of whom had fought under cruel yet incompetent generals in walrus moustaches. An old soldier recalled the injured having their pay docked for the hire of blankets. "That doesn't speak well to England, does it?" encouraged Griffith. Mostly, however, he wanted us to be angry for the Boers - and not merely because we condemned 26,000 of their women and children to die in concentration camps, our famous bequest to the 20th century.

His head shaking with a mixture of rage and infirmity, the 77-year-old Griffith shouted: "Imperialism is as evil a concept as humankind has ever devised." Then, choosing a white Mao suit and cap, he vengefully mimicked the British high commanders. "The Boers are not here - or they are sitting uncommonly tight if they are," Griffith said, impersonating Lord Methuen at Modder River. "And at that moment," he went on triumphantly in his own actorish voice, "the Boers blasted the Guards Brigade." (To do Emily Hobhouse, the saintly Englishwoman who campaigned on behalf of the internees, he donned a kimono.)

Britain was "perfidious Albion", guilty of "chicanery", its plans for the continent "simple and sinister". At home it went "embarrassingly wild with relieved delight" at the relief of Mafeking. At the peace table the British High Commissioner, Alfred Milner, was at his "cold, merciless worst". The whole lot were gold-diggers. "And we should still remember," he instructed at the beginning of programme two, "the awful businessmen and politicians who had demanded that gold and that power: Cecil Rhodes, Milner and Chamberlain [the colonial secretary]." The Boers inhabited not only the veldt but a separate moral universe. "The proud and brave Boers", "the proud Afrikaners", "their proud independence", Griffith went on and on. He pictured one of their farmer-generals holding his wife's hand as they were surrounded by the British. "The Boers," he concluded, "had great moral heroes and we had none."

History, of course, tends to make heroes of underdogs: at Agincourt 9,000 English overcame 20,000 French; at Culloden 5,000 Scots were defeated by 9,000 English. So, in the Boer war, the 20,000 Boers took on 500,000 British. (On the other hand, 5,774 British died against 4,000 Boers.) But it is an obvious fallacy that numerical inferiority equates to moral superiority. Without rationalising British imperialism, Lewis's well-ordered Channel 4 series demonstrated that the Boers were hardly saints either. It was, for a start, highly debatable whether the land was morally theirs to defend. Manie Maritz, the son of a Boer general, was caught still insisting that there were no black tribes when the Boers made their great trek - which would have come as news to the 12,000 Zulus who attacked his ancestors at Blood River in 1838. "The Boers saw us blacks as stupid people," said Chief Simon Makodi of the Barolong people. Whereas well-to-do blacks at least were allowed to vote in the British Cape, in Johannesburg they were forbidden to walk on the pavements. The captured war correspondent Winston Churchill reported that, on his way to jail in Pretoria, his guard lectured him on what the war was really about, namely that Britain intended to give political rights to the kaffirs.

Still, the hyper Griffith had a good war, in as much as he made vivid, morally involving television out of it. As a coda to a CV that includes Hang Out Your Bright-est Colours, a life of Michael Collins suppressed by the IBA, and his still unshown 1980 documentary, Curious Journey, his Boer war bore the considerable additional merit of actually having been transmitted.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The eminence rouge