Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The River War:
An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan

by Winston Spencer Churchill
edited by James W. Muller
st. Augustine’s, two volumes, 1,556 pages, $155

Small wars, the kind that pit a superpower against an apparently overmatched enemy, are easy to slip into and can be hard to get out of. But it need not always be so. The British in their imperial magnificence at the turn of the twentieth century fought wars against Islamic fanatics on the northwest frontier of India and in the Sudan and won quite decisively. Such “savage wars of peace,” as Rudyard Kipling called them, were routine hegemonic maintenance, as essential to preserving the Empire’s health as a periodic physical is to the body’s upkeep. For some participants, these wars provided the thrill of death-defying sport. As one man put it, the sight of the enemy ready for battle “makes all the features of life wear a bright and vivid flush of excitement, which the pleasures of the chase, of art, of intellect, or love can never excel and rarely equal.”

That is the unmistakable voice of Winston Churchill, writing in The River War (1899), his firsthand account of the collision, near the confluence of the Blue Nile and White Nile, of the Anglo-­Egyptian Expeditionary Force led by the Sirdar, General Horatio Herbert Kitchener, with the far larger ­army of the Dervish Empire led by the Khalifa, Abdullahi. The ­twenty-three-year-old ­Churchill served in Kitchener’s army as a lieutenant with the 21st Lancers, a cavalry regiment. The Lancers’ charge into the face of Dervish infantry massed twelve deep at ­Omdurman was the last spectacular cavalry ­exploit ever, all the more celebrated because Churchill took part in and memorialized it. Such rare adventure was a pleasure and privilege he would not have missed for ­anything.

He nearly did miss out on the entire expedition, however, for Kitchener had pronounced him an undesirable before he actually met him. Churchill was not only an active-­duty officer but also a war correspondent and author of military history, whose 1898 book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, gave British generalship some rough handling. He already had his eye on a political career, and to put his name before the public he intended to win a reputation as a man of courage in the presence of violent death and a brilliant expert writer on military affairs. Quite understandably, ­Kitchener wanted no part of this climber and grandstander, and it was only the irresistible, gracious pressure applied by a distinguished lady that secured Churchill his dual role in the war.

Posterity should be grateful to her. The River War is a masterly rendering of the clash between a civilization still at least nominally Christian and a horde of desert tribesmen under the influence of patriotic fervor enhanced by Islamist enthusiasm. Churchill is more lavish in his contempt for the Sudanese than current propriety would allow. Recent events in Darfur have familiarized the twenty-first century with the traditional caste distinctions in that part of the world, which Churchill neatly adumbrates:

The dominant race of Arab invaders was unceasingly spreading its blood, religion, customs, and language among the black aboriginal population, and at the same time it harried and enslaved them.

Egyptian pashas, instruments of the Ottoman Empire, ruled ­Sudan from 1819 to 1883, to ill effect. Egypt’s “aim was to exploit, not to improve the local population.” The ensuing rebellion of the Mahdi, ­Mohammed Ahmed, the self-declared descendant of the family of the Prophet who prosecuted a holy war of liberation and purification, gets more sympathetic treatment from ­Churchill than one might expect. “Looking at the question from a purely political standpoint, we may say that upon the whole there exists no record of a better case for rebellion than that which presented itself to the Soudanese. Their country was being ruined; their property was plundered; their women were ravished; their liberties were curtailed; even their lives were threatened.”

Though religious passion helped carry the rebellion to a successful end, it was not the cause of the revolt. “What the horn is to the rhinoceros, what the sting is to the wasp, the Mohammedan faith was to the Arabs of the Soudan—a faculty of offence or defence.” The Sudanese belief in the singular holiness of their leader, and thus of their enterprise, helped unite them against their Egyptian co-religionists. But they had other, more worldly reasons for going to war. Churchill suspends his general disdain for the Sudanese long enough to honor the legitimate patriotic vehemence of an oppressed people ridding itself of its oppressors. If the Sudan should one day prosper, the proud Arab ­historian of his nation’s origins “will not forget, foremost among the heroes of his race, to write the name of Mohammed Ahmed.”

When the Mahdi’s forces besieged the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, the new British administration in Egypt, which had taken control there after putting down an attempted coup by an Egyptian colonel, called upon General Charles Gordon to save the city. Gordon is best known today from Lytton Strachey’s gleeful dismemberment of him in Eminent Victorians (1918): a religious fanatic as mad as the mullah he opposed. But Gordon is by far the most remarkable figure in Churchill’s history, a man with uncommon strength of purpose for which he never found sufficient employment. In his combined Christian zeal and martial ebullience, he imagined an afterlife in which his colossal energies would at last find their rightful object and he would accomplish marvels: “‘I hope that death will set me free from pain, and that great armies will be given me, and that I shall have vast cities under my command.’ Such was his bright hope of immortality.” With such an everlasting fate in prospect, Gordon was perhaps rather too cavalier about the fate of his soul’s mortal casing. He took on an assignment that was almost certainly doomed. His death in 1885 at the hands of the Mahdi’s ­army—when British ­reinforcements, delayed by the dithering hostility of the anti-imperialist Prime Minister William Gladstone, were two days late arriving—elevated Gordon to the pinnacle of British popular esteem as an imperial hero and a Christian martyr. The British army, which suffered staggering losses as it withdrew from the Sudan, found itself in disgrace. “The shame associated with the Soudan made its name odious to the whole people. . . . The nation was prepared to accept [the army’s] humiliation and acquiesce in its defeat.”

Kitchener’s successful expedition thirteen years later was conscious atonement for this disastrous imperial failure. Churchill maintains an ironic ­distance from the desire of exercised Christians to avenge Gordon—he was by no means a believer—but he acknowledges the genuine philanthropism of the new Crusaders as well. “The spirit of the Crusaders stirred beneath the surface of scientific civilisation; and as the years passed by, there continued in England a strong undercurrent of public opinion which ran in the ­direction of ‘a holy war’. . . . The misery of the Dervish dominions appealed to that great volume of generous humanitarian feeling which sways our civilised State.” The passionate heat with which Englishmen invoked Gordon’s name “fused the military, the fanatical, and the philanthropic spirits” into a determined call to action.

This time, Great Britain was ready for war. Technological expertise, the great advantage civilization enjoyed over ignorant barbarism, declared the winner before a shot was fired. Long stretches of the Nile between Cairo and Khartoum were unnavigable, so that to outfit the army properly, a rail link was needed here and there. Inhuman nature had to be conquered before the human enemy could be addressed. ­Fortunately, “the conquest of nature, for the relief of man’s estate,” to quote Francis Bacon, had become a British imperial specialty. The resulting supply chain, which Churchill describes at exultant length, was a triumph of logistical genius and intrepidity. “Fighting the Dervish was primarily a matter of transport. The Khalifa was conquered on the railway.”

Superior weaponry also played a key part. The words of Hilaire Belloc were never truer: “Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim gun, and they have not.” Dervish multitudes fell before that withering fire. Churchill strikes an elegiac note for the defeated army, whose blades glittering in the sunlight had spoken eloquently of

their numbers, their vitality, their ferocity. . . . Now only the heaps of corruption in the plain, and the fugitives dispersed and scattered in the wilderness, remained. The terrible machinery of scientific war had done its work.

It hardly seemed fair that such valiant warriors should die this way.

Yet Churchill never doubted the rightness of the victory. Andrew Roberts has argued provocatively but correctly that British imperialism was Churchill’s religion. His deeds on the battlefield and his writing The River War were his profession of faith. To found and nourish an empire benevolent and wise, Churchill believed, was the highest end a great nation could set itself. To redeem a barbarous people from endemic ignorance and indolence was an act of consummate charity. Churchill does not recommend mass conversion to Christianity for the new imperial subjects; to do so would be foolhardy, not to mention contrary to his own unbelief, captivated as he was by the suave mockery of his hero Edward Gibbon.

Churchill does, however, fiercely attack what he takes to be the worldly consequences of the Muslim faith.

How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. . . . Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. . . . No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.

The “strong arms of science,” which have protected vulnerable Christian civilization from militant Islam, will offer Islam its best chance of reforming itself and promoting the civic welfare of its believers. Being conquered is the best thing that could happen to the sometime enemy, who will now become the beneficiaries of modernity at its finest. Such, anyway, was the hope.

Churchill believed above all in disseminating the worldly blessings of modern secularism: Up-to-date scientific and technical education could transform a ramshackle society into an enlightened outpost of progress. He was not out to save souls. Reducing mortal sufferings, making a largely miserable daily round easier to endure, were ambitions enough for his imperial project. He thought that Western intelligence and temperament could be grafted onto aboriginal animist or seventh-­century Muslim fundamentals, and he failed to recognize that the integrity of even the most primitive religious traditions might be dearer to men than the comforts of the body.

By Churchill’s own standards, these ambitions have been disappointed. Sudanese life expectancy is a mere sixty-five years, and fewer than 60 percent of Sudanese can claim the most basic education. Muslim persecution of Christians, perhaps amounting to genocide, led to the formation in 2011 of a separate, more decent, and majority Christian state, South Sudan. ­Under the most savage repression, the Christian population of Sudan grew from 1.6 million in 1980 to 11 million in 2010, most of whom settled in the South after the partition. Thus, by an unexpected twist, the civilizing vision of General Gordon, with its promise of eternity in the offing, has been more fully realized than Churchill’s.

The occasion for this review of a rather old book is the appearance of the first complete reprinting ever of the original 1899 text; subsequent editions had omitted entire chapters, to no sound purpose. The two weighty volumes represent some thirty years of devoted work by the redoubtable Churchill scholar James W. Muller, political science professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and longtime executive of the International Churchill Society. Professor Muller’s labor of love is a heroic feat of erudition. The new edition has everything the student could possibly need or want in the way of scholarly apparatus, which though comprehensive is not obtrusive; and the books are handsomely produced and built to last by St. Augustine’s Press. The River War is part of the International Churchill Society’s project to return Churchill’s books to print in definitive editions, and it is an estimable beginning to that ­worthy ­undertaking.

Algis Valiunas is the author of Churchill's Military Histories: A Rhetorical Study.