The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan
By Winston S. Churchill with an introduction by James W. Muller and foreword by Lady Soames.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2021.
Hardcover, 1560 pages, $150.

Reviewed by Frank A. von Hippel.

Winston Churchill caught the writer’s itch early in life and it never left him. As a 23-year-old war correspondent and soldier, he wrote his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War. Upon its publication in 1898, Churchill received praise from critics and condemnation from army officers, including Sir Herbert Kitchener, who commanded British forces in the Sudan against the “Dervish” followers of the Mahdi, a self-declared Muslim prophet. Churchill then attempted a run for Parliament, and failing that, he joined the war in the Sudan. There he surreptitiously drafted The River War, an account of the Sudan conflicts stretching from 1885 until the climactic Battle of Omdurman in 1898. The River War was published the following year.

Professor James Muller achieved something remarkable with his new edition of The River War, An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, published in 2021 by St. Augustine’s Press in association with the International Churchill Society. A limited edition, hand bound in Moroccan goat skin and printed on paper with gilded edges, with a cover image replicating the first edition and printed in gold, sold out before the book was published, despite its $1,650 price tag. The first and second printings of the regular edition, priced at $150, also sold out, but a third printing is now available. The high price is justified by the content.

The book opens with a foreword by Churchill’s (now late) daughter Mary Soames, who noted that after the publication of The Story of the Malakand Field Force, writing and politics “marched together and were inextricably entwined” in Churchill’s life. Churchill had already been a soldier for over four years before publishing his first book, which was a time, wrote Soames, “of keenly sought-for risk and adventure, and a time of dreaming of dreams. He knew very well he would not make soldiering his career, but it would be the stepping stone—as would journalism—to his real ambition, which was politics: and sword and pen would be the servants of this goal.”

The second edition of The River War, published in an abridged single volume in 1902, gave rise to all subsequent printings, and hence for well over a century, readers have been deprived of the original and far richer account of war on the Nile. The abridged edition lost some of Churchill’s harshest criticisms of military command, a prudent pruning since by then Churchill had already been serving in Parliament for two years (since the age of 25). But these, and many other cuts, robbed the reader of half of the feeling of rushing into battle at Churchill’s side. Also lost in the single volume edition were 50 illustrations created by Churchill’s fellow soldier Angus McNeill, who served in the Seaforth Highlanders.

The story of how Muller, a renowned Churchill scholar, came to republish the original version of The River War, with its extensive maps, luxuriant illustrations, and crisp Churchillian descriptions of boredom and battle, is itself an interesting tale. Muller opens the two volumes with a 16-page essay on the making of the book. In 1989, while perusing the bound catalogue of books in the old British Library, Muller found an entry for the library’s copy of the first edition of The River War. To his great surprise, it had been published in two volumes. Muller then pored over the first edition and compared it to subsequent one-volume versions and found that in all subsequent editions, seven chapters were missing, as were pieces of all other chapters, three appendices, and a host of maps and illustrations. Muller then set out on a three-decade quest to create a definitive edition of the book that contains all the original text while simultaneously showing the reader what changed with abridgement. This he accomplished by printing in red all text of the first edition that was excised or altered in the second and subsequent editions, while black reflects the text that remained unchanged. Muller also populated the book with footnotes to facilitate the reader’s ability to follow the changes. 

The result is remarkable. One can simply read the first edition of The River War in two volumes and hardly notice the color changes of the text (especially if you are color blind like I am), or one can, at any moment, become a literary sleuth and follow the trail of excisions to explore the mind of Churchill as he launched his political career and penned his account of war and honor. As I read the book, I recalled one of my favorite courses from college, taught by the Hebrew professor Shalom Goldman. We read Genesis in Biblical Hebrew and Rashi’s commentary in medieval Hebrew, all the while discussing the texts in modern Hebrew. The course only enticed three students to its ranks, but we were the lucky ones who wandered the desert with Abraham and learned from Rashi that a few lines of Biblical text can be interpreted in sundry and even conflicting ways. In The River War, I wandered the reedy shores of the Nile, ever alert to the Mahdi’s scouts, and yet I was able to pause the war and learn about political machinations and Churchill’s tribulations as he tried various schemes to immerse himself in the fighting forces (even paying his own way to get to the action) and to smuggle dispatches to his publisher, despite the many impediments that Kitchener threw before him. Then I would un-pause this foray into Muller’s footnoted scholarship or 145-page introduction and return to construct a railway across the vast desert, my lips parched while I entrusted my life to an unreliable guide, all while raiding parties of Dervishes picked off my comrades. Or as Churchill put it, “At the end of the next march, which was made by day, the guides, whose memories had been refreshed by flogging, discovered a large pool of good water, and all drank deeply in joy and relief.”

This Rashi-like treatment of The River War gives it the feel of four books: a book of historical scholarship on Churchill during his largely neglected years as a soldier-writer, a book of literary scholarship on the abridgement of The River War to suit Churchill’s political and economic needs, and of course the abridged and full editions of the book itself. But the artwork also adds a layer to the book’s complexity. When Muller read the first edition in a rare book room of the British Library, he was thrilled to find the McNeill illustrations, and even more thrilled, presumably, when he discovered that McNeill’s granddaughter had saved the originals and would allow their republication. The illustrations permit the reader to see the combatants not only through Churchill’s eyes, but also through the eyes of an artist who fought by Churchill’s side. In addition to the lost 50 illustrations, Muller’s new version of The River War includes many other McNeill drawings of the campaign that did not make the pages of the first edition. 

In the appendices, Muller also includes transcriptions of Churchill’s hand-written dispatches for The Morning Post as well as the “sanitized” versions that had passed through the hands of an editor. These dispatches, which Churchill disguised as letters to a friend that were subsequently “leaked” to the press “against his express wishes,” were the raw material for The River War and provide another avenue for the reader to navigate the book’s development. Churchill wrote to Oliver Borthwick, his friend and the son of the owner of The Morning Post, in a letter that accompanied the first two dispatches, “The style is essentially literary and the farcical manner in which they are presented to the public will add I think to the interest and amusement with which they will be read. I shall keep up the illusion to the v[er]y end—and in about 3 weeks I will write and bitterly reproach my ‘friend’ for his indiscretion. The whole idea is rather Addisonian and pleases me immensely.” If anyone should rebuke Borthwick for his “breach of confidence,” Churchill advised him to respond with “a wink,” though “only the damn[e]dest of blockheads will be so obtuse.” Meanwhile, he wrote to an army companion, “If you look in The Morning Post, it is possible that you will see that one of my friends has committed and continues to commit an unpardonable breach of confidence by publishing letters of mine.”

This is but an example of the way in which Muller’s scholarship surrounding The River War creates a feeling of companionship with Churchill. His schemes become the reader’s schemes, and his dashes on horseback with Mauser drawn become the reader’s adventure. Among the many auxiliary materials included in this new edition are appendices with Churchill’s subsequent writings on the Sudan, as well as numerous related documents that form a footing around the book and enrich the reader’s understanding of Churchill. Together, these materials comprise what feels like yet another book, so the impression of four books becomes an impression of five.

The re-publication of The River War in its original form occurs at a time of increasing censorship, when publishing houses are robbing classic works of their context and society of its heritage by reprinting books without “offending” text. However, offending text in older works is the norm, just as what we write now may very well one day be viewed with derision. Sanitization may make some readers more comfortable, but it is an ever-changing filter. One of the many problems with such censorship is that one cannot occupy the mind of the writer without seeing the world as he saw it. The River War shows how a relatively enlightened mind of the late nineteenth century, such as Churchill’s, viewed the outside world, and the text allows us to judge just how much the world has or has not changed. Churchill’s description of the Sudanese is a typical example of these now abhorrent views, similar to descriptions of various races and ethnicities that can be found in countless books published prior to the Civil Rights era:

The Soudanese are of many tribes, but two main races can be clearly distinguished: the aboriginal natives, and the Arab settlers. The indigenous inhabitants of the country were negroes as black as coal. Strong, virile, and simple-minded savages, they lived as we may imagine prehistoric men—hunting, fighting, marrying, and dying, with no ideas beyond the gratification of their physical desires, and no fears save those engendered by ghosts, witchcraft, the worship of ancestors, and other forms of superstition common among peoples of low developement. They displayed the virtues of barbarism. They were brave and honest. The smallness of their intelligence excused the degradation of their habits. Their ignorance secured their innocence. Yet their eulogy must be short, for though their customs, language, and appearance vary with the districts they inhabit and the subdivisions to which they belong, the history of all is a confused legend of strife and misery, their natures are uniformly cruel and thriftless, and their condition is one of equal squalor and want.

Despite his Anglo-centric perspective, Churchill admired the courage and dedication of his fierce opponents, and he repeatedly imagined the scene from their perspective. I found that Churchill was especially effective in this regard with his description of the development and motivations of the Mahdi, who was routinely denounced by Westerners as a false prophet. In contrast, Churchill wrote, “But I know not how a genuine may be distinguished from a spurious Prophet, except by the measure of his success.” The Mahdi, after all, had rid his land of foreigners, and his army only fell in defeat at the end due to the might of the modern British forces. Therefore, Churchill wrote, “I do not share the popular opinion, and I believe that if in future years prosperity should come to the peoples of the Upper Nile, and learning and happiness follow in its train, then the first Arab historian who shall investigate the early annals of that new nation, will not forget, foremost among the heroes of his race, to write the name of Mohammed Ahmed.” Viewing steamers arriving with British infantry, “full of fierceness and armed to the teeth,” Churchill noted, “Perhaps to these savages, with their vile customs and brutal ideas, we appeared as barbarous aggressors. The British subaltern, with his jokes, his cigarettes, his meat lozenges, and his Sparklet soda-water, was to them a more ferocious creature than any Emir or fanatic in Omdurman. The Highlanders in their kilts, the white loopholed gunboats, the brown-clad soldiery, and the Lyddite shells were elements of destruction which must all have looked ugly when viewed from the opposite side.” I have read many historical accounts written in the nineteenth century, and rarely does the narrator even attempt to see things from the perspective of the other side.

The war was about many things, including slavery. We learn, for example, that by 1879 the British general and governor of Sudan, Charles Gordon, had extinguished a revolt led by a slave trader and disrupted the slave trade. Churchill wrote of Gordon, “Careless of his methods, he bought slaves himself, drilled them, and with the soldiers thus formed pounced on the caravans of the hunters. Traversing the country on a fleet dromedary—on which in a single year he is said to have covered 3,840 miles—he scattered justice and freedom among the astonished natives.” Thus Gordon disrupted Sudan’s most entrenched institution. As Churchill explained it, “Oppressed yet ferocious races had learned that they had rights.” Revolution followed this overturning of the social order.

With Churchill’s original writing intact, we can experience the war with much of the color and detail that it contained, such as how the British formed a new Egyptian army. “Indeed,” wrote Churchill, “the new army differed greatly from the old. In the first place, it was paid. The recruits were treated with justice. Their rations were not stolen by the officers. They were given leave to go to their villages from time to time. When they fell sick, they were sent to hospital instead of being flogged. In short, the European system was substituted for the Oriental.” Even the recruitment of former foes differed from what one might expect from British imperial practices. Churchill wrote, “During the end of November the Sheikh Bakr, who had deserted the Dervishes after their retreat from Gedaref, arrived at Karkoj with 350 Irregulars. He claimed to have defeated his former chief many times, and produced a sack of heads as evidence of his success. His loyalty being thus placed beyond doubt, he was sent to keep contact with the Dervishes and encouraged to the greatest efforts by the permission to appropriate whatever spoils of war he could capture.”

The River War was not just an adventure for Churchill; it was a foundation for his burgeoning thoughts on the strategy of war. Muller noted that, “Returning to Britain on the battleship HMS Renown on September 14, 1943 after a conference with President Roosevelt, Churchill ‘called for a box of matches’ in the admiral’s cabin. He used them not to light his cigar, but as markers on the tablecloth to show his dinner companions the disposition of Kitchener’s forces at the Battle of Omdurman, forty-five years earlier.” In this light, one can also read The River War as a prelude to Churchill’s masterful memoirs of both world wars and to his winning the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature. In The River War, we see the words of a young man destined to save the world from tyranny. His prose is lively. It is a glance backwards to a simpler time, when the grueling work of building a desert railway one spike at a time, and of a thousand men hitched to ropes hauling a steamer up the Second Cataract of the Nile, makes the difference between victory and defeat. 

It is also a prescient work, as when he considers things from the perspective of the Mahdi’s small cavalry, which charged into British fire with the certainty of death. “The valour of their deed has been discounted by those who have told the tale,” wrote Churchill. “‘Mad fanaticism’ is the depreciating comment of their conquerors. I hold this to be a cruel injustice. Nor can he be a very brave man who will not credit them with a nobler motive, and believe that they died to clear their honour from the stain of defeat. Why should we regard as madness in the savage what would be sublime in civilised men? For I hope that if evil days should come upon our own country, and the last army which a collapsing Empire could interpose between London and the invader were dissolving in rout and ruin, that there would be some—even in these modern days—who would not care to accustom themselves to a new order of things and tamely survive the disaster.”

As one reads The River War, the outcome is not in doubt. But the swings of fortune and misfortune are unpredictable, especially since the war in the Sudan has been largely forgotten. For example, Churchill wrote of one skirmish, “With that instinctive knowledge of war which is the heritage of savage peoples, the whole attack swung to the right, changed direction from north to east, and rushed down the trough and along the southern ridge towards the Nile, with the plain intention of cutting off the Camel Corps and driving them into the river.” Would the maneuver succeed? Would the Dervishes live to fight another day? 

In the end, “the great Dervish army, which had advanced at sunrise in hope and courage, fled in utter rout, pursued by the Egyptian cavalry, harried by the 21st Lancers, and leaving more than 9,000 warriors dead and even greater numbers wounded behind them. Thus ended the battle of Omdurman—the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians. Within the space of five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a modern European Power had been destroyed and dispersed, with hardly any difficulty, comparatively small risk, and insignificant loss to the victors.” Thus, The River War is also a gripping tale of lopsided warfare, where great numerical disadvantage is swept away by the Martini-Henry rifle and the Maxim gun. 

And what emerged from that victory? “By Sir H. Kitchener’s orders,” wrote Churchill, “the Tomb has been profaned and razed to the ground. The corpse of the Mahdi was dug up. The head was separated from the body, and, to quote the official explanation, ‘preserved for future disposal’—a phrase which must in this case be understood to mean, that it was passed from hand to hand till it reached Cairo. Here it remained, an interesting trophy, until the affair came to the ears of Lord Cromer, who ordered it to be immediately reinterred at Wady Halfa. The limbs and trunk were flung into the Nile. Such was the chivalry of the conquerors!” This text appears in red ink, and so would not be found in the abridged edition of The River War. Also in red is Churchill’s admonition that if the British were to rule the Sudan in such a manner, “then it would be better if Gordon had never given his life nor Kitchener won his victories.” Muller noted in a footnote that Queen Victoria, dismayed at the treatment of the Mahdi’s remains, ordered a decent burial of his skull.

“It may be that vengeance is sweet,” wrote Churchill in text that was deleted in the abridged volume, “and that the gods forbade vengeance to men because they reserved for themselves so delicious and intoxicating a drink. But no one should drain the cup to the bottom. The dregs are often filthy-tasting.” Thus we see the critiques and meditations of a young Churchill, attuned to the clash of cultures, yet unaware of the turmoil to come.

Frank A. von Hippel is the author of The Chemical Age (University of Chicago Press) and the host of the Science History Podcast.

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