Books: Hell on the veldt

Ladysmith by Giles Foden Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99, 366pp; Christopher Hope acclaims a novel that discovers the roots of 20th-century barbarism amid the dusty Boer War battlefields
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THE BOER War began one hundred years ago. It ended in 1902 but the military model it pioneered never went away. Giles Foden uses the diaries of his great-grandfather, a British trooper, as well as various eye-witness accounts, to tell the story of the siege of Ladysmith, an unremarkable little garrison town on the road to Durban, known with the feverish jingoism of the time as the Aldershot of Africa.

The Boer War had nothing to do with Aldershot and little to do with Africa. It had to do with enormous cruelty, unremarkable towns, vainglorious generals claiming to see light at the end of the tunnel, trenches, news management - and war-time lies. In other words, with modern warfare.

Wresting the Transvaal republic from Paul Kruger was said to be a defence of British citizens without votes. It was really a smash-and-grab raid aimed at liberating the gold mines of Johannesburg. It was launched on behalf of a cabal of mining magnates and political impresarios (most, like Cecil Rhodes, were often indistinguishable) whose greed and cynicism were such they'd make even a banker blush.

How do you tell the story of a war? Foden has used some very interesting models. He has gone to Thomas Hardy of The Dynasts. He has even added a touch of Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood. As a result, a kind of stoic dreaminess lies over Ladysmith, a deliberate staginess, a dark night full of voices as each of the principal players is brought forward.

The cast is huge. And the portrait of the starving town, troopers eating their horses and the big shells smashing lives, is masterly. Foden is very good on soldiers under fire. The focus of novel is the life James Kiernan, an Irish republican who runs the pub in Ladysmith, and the love affairs of his daughter, Bella.

But they are soon elbowed out of the way by the showmen. Winston Churchill, fresh from his escape from a Boer prison in Pretoria. Mohandas Gandhi, as a rather priggish stretcher bearer. John MacBride, whom Maude Gonne was to marry and W B Yeats to make the most famous lout in literature, has a walk-on part as leader of the Irish contingent, fighting with the Boers. There are even voices which were not heard in this white man's war - those of black South Africans.

The result is series of giant tableaux in which the actors strut and fret, and retire. And, inevitably, there is a staginess about this cavalcade. Fortunately, Foden is after far more than historical recontruction. His Ladysmith prefigures a way of death, a pattern of killing, more cruel and ingenious than anything yet tried.

Ladysmith saw the end of scarlet tunics and the rise of khaki; the end of the cavalry charge and the triumph of the trenches; the rise of the guerilla fighter; the end of elementary courtesies towards non- combatants and the rise of the belief, afterwards very popular in military circles, that killing civilians was not merely unavoidable - it was esssential to modern warfare. For the first time, a war was covered professionally by cameramen, war correspondents and news given the correct slant by the resident censor.

The Boer War and the Siege of Ladysmith also saw the invention, by the British forces, of prison-camps where undesirable civilians were "concentrated" behind barbed wire. Tens of thousands of Boer women and children duly perished. This extremely effective method of exterminating a dissident population was to be taken up later in Germany, Japan, Russia, Cambodia. It is still popular in North Korea.

The strength of the novel lies in its brooding backward look at the rise of murderous nationalism as the dominant ideology of our time. At the time of Ladysmith, the bacillus injected into the 20th-century bloodstream became a politically transmissible disease. It runs in an arc across the century, from the Boer War at the start, to Belgrade at the end.

Ladymith is a haunting, disturbing novel - not only about how things were in a long- forgotten war, but how that war made us what we are.