“I have tried to gild war… But there was nothing dulce et decorum about the Dervish dead; nothing of the dignity of unconquerable manhood… Yet these were as brave men as ever walked the earth.”
By Winston S Churchill
FROM THE RIVER WAR, FIRST EDITION 1899
Reprinted in Finest Hour 85 by permission of the copyright holder, Winston S. Churchill. The unabridged text, which includes this excerpt, has been out of print since 1900; the writing herein will demonstrate the need for a modern reprint.
VOL. II, CHAPTER 21
ON THE 5th of September 1898, three days the Battle of Omdurman, I rode with Lord Tullibardine of the Egyptian cavalry, to examine the scene of battle. Our road lay by the khor whereat the victorious army had watered in the afternoon of the 2nd, and thence across the sandy, rock-strewn plain to the southern slopes of Surgham Hill. And so we came at once on to the ground over which the 21st Lancers had charged. Its peculiar formation was the more apparent at a second view. As we looked from the spot where we had wheeled into line and begun to gallop, it was scarcely possible to believe that an extensive khor ran right across what appeared to be smooth and unobstructed plain. An advance of a hundred yards revealed the trap, and displayed a long ditch with steeply sloping rocky sides, about four feet in depth and perhaps twenty feet wide. In this trench lay a dozen bodies of Dervishes, half-a-dozen dead donkeys, and a litter of goat-skin water-bottles, Dervish saddles, and broken weapons.
The level ground beyond was sparsely spotted with corpses. Some had been buried when they fell by their friends in the city, and their places were indicated by little mounds of lighter-coloured earth. Half-a-dozen horses, stripped of saddles and bridles, made a brown jumble in the background. In the centre a red and white lancepennon, flying from a stick, marked the grave of the fallen Lancers. And that was all. Yet the place may be remarkable. At any rate, a great many officers of all regiments and arms had been to visit it.
We rode on. We climbed the ridge of Surgham Hill, following almost the same route as that of the ‘White Flag men’ three days previously. At the crest of the ridge the village and the outline of the zeriba came into sight, and it was evident that we had now reached the spot where the Dervish column had come into the artillery fire. All over the ground — on the average three yards apart —were dead men, clad in the white and patched smocks of faithful Dervishes. Three days of burning sun had done their work. The bodies were swollen to almost gigantic proportions. Twice as large as living men, they appeared in every sense monstrous. The more advanced corpses hardly resembled human beings, but rather great bladders such as natives use to float down the Nile on. Frightful gashes scarred their limbs, and great black stains, once crimson, covered their garments. The sight was appalling. The smell redoubled the horror.
We galloped on. A strong, hot wind blew from the west across the great plain and hurried foul and tainted to the river. Keeping to windward of the thickest clusters, we picked our way, and the story of the fight unfolded itself. Here was where the artillery had opened on the swarming masses. Men had fallen in little groups of five or six to each shell. Nearer to the zeriba — about 1,000 yards from it — the musketry had begun to tell, and the dead lay evenly scattered about — one every ten yards. Two hundred yards further the full force of the fire — artillery, Maxims, and rifles — had burst on them. In places desperate rushes to get on at all costs had been made by devoted, fearless men. In such places the bodies lay so thickly as to hide the ground. Occasionally there were double layers of this hideous covering. Once I saw them lying three deep. In a space not exceeding a hundred yards square more than 400 corpses lay festering.
It is difficult to imagine the postures into which man, once created in the image of his Maker, had been twisted. It is not wise to try, for he who succeeds will ask himself with me: ‘Can I ever forget?’
I have tried to gild war, and to solace myself for the loss of dear and gallant friends, with the thought that a soldier’s death for a cause that he believes in will count for much, whatever may be beyond this world. When the soldier of a civilised Power is killed in action, his limbs are composed and his body is borne by friendly arms reverently to the grave. The wail of the fifes, the roll of the drums, the triumphant words of the Funeral Service, all divest the act of its squalor; and the spectator sympathises with, perhaps almost envies, the comrade who has found this honourable exit.
But there was nothing dulce et decorum about the Dervish dead; nothing of the dignity of unconquerable manhood; all was filthy corruption. Yet these were as brave men as ever walked the earth. The conviction was borne ~in on me that their claim beyond the grave in respect of a valiant death was not less good than that which any of our countrymen could make. The thought may not be original; it may happily be untrue; it seemed certainly most unwelcome.
The incidents of the battle might be traced by the lines and patches of the slain. Here was where MacDonald’s brigade, the three artillery batteries, and eight Maxim guns had repulsed the Khalifa’s attack. A great heap of corpses lay round the spot where the Black Flag had been captured. There was where the brigade had faced about to meet Ali-Wad-Helu and Osman Sheikh-ed-Din. There, again, was where the Baggara cavalry had made their last splendid charge to certain death. The white-clad bodies of the men were intermingled with the brown and bay horses, so that this part of the field looked less white-speckled than the rest. They had ridden straight at the solid line of bayonets and in the teeth of the storm of projectiles. Every man had galloped at full speed, and when he fell he shot many lengths in front of his horse, rolling over and over — destroyed, not conquered, by machinery.
At such sights the triumph of victory faded on the mind, and a mournful feeling of disgust grew stronger. All this was bad to see, but worse remained; after the dead, the wounded.
There may have been wounded Dervishes among the heaps of slain. The atmosphere forbade approach. There certainly were many scattered about the plain. We approached these c~autiously and, pistol in hand, examined their condition. Lord Tullibardine had a large water-bottle. He dismounted, and gave a few drops to each till it was
all gone. You must remember that this was three days after the fight, and that the sun had beaten down mercilessly all the time. Some of the wounded were very thirsty. It would have been a grateful sight to see a large bucket of clear, cool water placed before each shaking, feverish figure. That, or a nameless man with a revolver and a big bag of cartridges, would have seemed merciful.
The scenes were pathetic. Where there was a shady bush four men had crawled to die. Someone had spread a rag on the thorns to increase the shade. Three of the unfortunate creatures had attained their object; the fourth survived. He was shot through both legs. The bullet — a Martini-Henry bullet — had lodged in the right knee-cap. The whole limb was stiffened. We gave him a drink. You would not think such joy could come from a small cup of water. Tullibardine examined his injury. Presently he pulled out his knife, and after much probing and cutting extracted the bullet — with the button-hook. I have seen, and shall see perchance again, a man with a famous name worse employed.
Would the reader be further sickened with the horrors of the field? There was a man that had crawled a mile in three days, but was yet two miles from the river. He had one foot; the other remained behind. I wonder if he ever reached the water he had struggled so hard to attain! There was a man with both legs shattered; he had dragged himself along in a sitting posture, making perhaps four hundred yards a day
The extraordinary vitality of these poor wretches only prolonged their torments. So terrible were the sights and smells that the brain failed to realise the suffering and agony they proclaimed. As a man faints and his body refuses to suffer beyond a certain degree under torture, so the mind was unable to appreciate that an arrangement of line and colour lying on the ground was a human being, partly putrefied but still alive. Perhaps stern Nature, more merciful than stern civilisation, lent a kindly delirium. But I must record the fact that most of the men I saw were sane and capable of feeling every pang. And meanwhile they all struggled towards the Nile, the great river of their country, without which the invaders could never have come upon them, but which they nevertheless did not reproach. One man had reached it and lay exhausted, but content, on the bank. Another had attained the water and had died at its brim. Let us hope he had his drink first.
All this was three days after the action. Yet on the 9th of September, when a week had passed, there were still a few wounded who had neither died nor crawled away, but continued to suffer. How had they lived? It is not possible they could have existed so long without food and water.
Thus it was that these painful and shocking cases occurred, and it is not easy to see how they could have been prevented. The statement that ‘the wounded Dervishes received every delicacy and attention’ is so utterly devoid of truth that it transcends the limits of mendacity and passes into the realms of the ridiculous.
I was impatient to get back to the camp. There was nothing to be gained by dallying on the field, unless a man were anxious to become quite callous, so that no imaginable misery which could come to human flesh would ever have moved him again. I may have written in these pages something of vengeance and of the paying of a debt. It may be that vengeance..is sweet, 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.
So as the haze deepened into the gloom of the night, and the uncertain outlines of the distant hills faded altogether from the view, we rode back to ~amp — ‘home to Omdurman,’ and left the field of battle to its silent occupants. There they lie, those valiant warriors of a false faith and fallen domination; their only history preserved by their conquerors; their only monument, their bones —and these the drifting sand of the desert will bury in a few short years. Three days before I had seen them rise — eager, confident, resolved. The roar of their shouting had swelled like the surf on a rocky shore. The flashing of their blades had displayed their numbers, their vitality, their ferocity. They were confident in their strength, in the justice of their cause, in the support of their religion. 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. The Dervish host was scattered and destroyed. Their end, however, only anticipates that of the victors; for Time, which laughs at science, as science laughs at valour, will in due course contemptuously brush both combatants away.
Yet it may happen in some distant age, when a mighty system of irrigation has changed the desolate plain of Omdurman into a fertile garden, and the mud hovels of the town have given place to the houses, the schools, and the theatres of a great metropolis, that the husbandman, turning up a skull amid the luxuriant crop, will sapiently remark: ‘There was aforetime a battle here.’ Thus the event will be remembered.