Dr. Ted R. Bromund is Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations at The Heritage Foundation.
Winston S. Churchill, The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, James W. Muller (ed.), St. Augustine’s Press, 2021, 2 vols., cclxvi+432 & xxvi+846 pages, $150. ISBN 978–1587317002
With the possible exceptions of the Bible and the Constitution of the United States, it is doubtful that any text has ever been subject to the kind of sustained examination that Professor James W. Muller has devoted over the course of the years since 1989—a near-lifetime of scholarly perseverance of the most exacting sort—to this new two-volume edition of Winston Churchill’s The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan.
This definitive edition is a contribution of monumental significance to the preservation and understanding of Churchill’s life and work. No praise is too great for Professor Muller, St. Augustine’s Press, and the International Churchill Society for their labors in the production of these remarkable volumes. The patience many subscribers have shown in waiting for these volumes has been vindicated. There will never be a need for another edition of The River War.
Many of Churchill’s works, from his magisterial History of the English-Speaking Peoples to his masterly The Second World War, have been published in condensed editions. But in most cases, the existence of the cuts is no secret, and Churchill’s full text is readily available. Until now, The River War was different. After its original publication in 1899, the book was republished three years later in a cheaper and much reduced second edition.
Since then, new editions of The River War have drawn from that 1902 edition. Even the mere existence of the first edition was unknown to many scholars. Since many of the most quotable passages of The River War—including one that gained currency after 9/11—appear only in the 1899 edition, the rarity of that edition was a sorry loss to Churchill’s immense literary legacy, a failing that has now been corrected by Professor Muller’s astute and assiduous care.
As published in 2021, The River War contains well over 200 pages of editorial and introductory material, more than 800 pages of Churchill’s text, and 450 pages of supporting documentation. Incredibly, Churchill wrote The River War when he was only twenty-four years old. His prose shows his age—more mature and considered than his earlier Malakand Field Force, more inclined to pass the obiter dicta judgments of a young man than his later World Crisis, less self-effacing and humorous than his much-loved My Early Life—but it remains identifiably Churchillian in its cadences, as well as in the author’s ability to combine close detail with themes of the widest historical significance in arresting rhetoric.
Churchill’s story, too, is a grand one that lives up to its subtitle. Far from a mere account of Churchill’s personal participation in the 1898 Battle of Omdurman at the climax of General Sir Herbert Kitchener’s expedition up the Nile, it offers a history of Egypt’s initial conquest of the Sudan, the rebellion of the Mahdi, the death of General Charles Gordon in Khartoum at the hands of the rebels in 1885, and the convulsions of British politics over the intervening decade before a British government led by Lord Salisbury decided—depending on who was considering the issue—to ensure that France could not control the headwaters of the Nile, to defeat the rebels, or simply to avenge the Christian hero General Gordon.
Churchill handles this remarkable and wide-ranging story with a confidence that the 1902 edition does not fully reveal. As Professor Muller comments, while the 1899 edition holds the war and the author close to our face, the 1902 edition, being more streamlined, places everything at a more impartial arm’s length (I clxix). The suspicion has lingered that, in making the cuts, Churchill sought to eliminate the politically awkward criticisms he had originally offered of Kitchener as a man, a tactician, and a leader, if not as a strategist.
Particularly telling in this regard is the deletion of Sir Evelyn Wood’s name in a manner that excuses Wood from responsibility in the ill-fated appointment of General Gordon (I 63). Since Wood had made it possible for Churchill to serve in the River War in the first place—much against Kitchener’s wishes—this has the flavor of a deletion occasioned by Churchill’s desire in hindsight to avoid offending his patron. But most of the cuts have nothing to do with Kitchener, or Wood. In the main, Churchill simply dropped the more personal and reflective portions of his narrative, and while these are precisely the parts we read most avidly today, they were in 1902—when Churchill was a very junior Member of Parliament—undoubtedly of less interest. It is hard to see how Churchill could have reduced his original two volumes in any other way.
At heart, The River War is the story of Britain’s last great imperial war against indigenous foes. After Omdurman, Britain was condemned, for the most part, to fight Europeans—first in South Africa, and then, far more devastatingly, on the fields of Flanders. Churchill’s own view of empire in The River War bears much comparison with that of Sir John Seeley, who, in his great 1883 classic The Expansion of England, praised the development of Greater Britain—the colonies of settlement—but hesitated to toast the Raj. As Seeley (1883, 305) put it: “If you ask…whether, if we succeed in bringing India into the full current of European civilization, we shall not evidently be rendering her the greatest possible service I should only answer, ‘I hope so; I trust so.’”
Like Seeley, Churchill had no sympathy with indigenous evils such as slavery. But also like Seeley, Churchill knew that imperialism imposed painful responsibilities on the imperialist as well as the indigenous, that it was far easier to destroy old ways of life than it was to build new ones, and that “the inevitable gap between conquest and dominion becomes filled with the figures of the greedy trader, the inopportune missionary, the ambitious soldier, and the lying speculator” (I 18). In the end, imperialism was the natural result of an expanding society—and few societies have ever expanded more vigorously than Victorian Britain—but it could only be justified if it brought religious toleration, good government, and peace.
It was, Churchill declared, not true that Sudan under the Dervishes, as he names them, was uniquely iniquitous: Britain maintained friendly relations with many regimes that were just as bad, if not worse, and Britain itself had done terrible, if perhaps necessary, things in the course of its own imperial history. But the Nile was Egypt, and Sudan controlled the Nile, so Egypt had to control Sudan. The war that culminated at Omdurman was fought not to avenge General Gordon or to bring good government to Sudan. It was fought to end the challenge posed by what in modern parlance we would call the ungoverned space of Sudan to the government of Egypt. Today the world is vexed by these places—such as the tribal lands of Pakistan—which have effectively dropped out of the state system: they are claimed, but not governed. The difference between Churchill’s time and ours is that, while ours is sometimes willing to name this evil, it is unwilling to countenance decisive measures to end it.
The River War is dominated by the story of those decisive measures and by the interwoven themes of the logistical challenges of the war against the Mahdi’s chosen successor, the causes that spurred the Dervishes and the unavoidable weaknesses and fatal misconceptions that led them to doom at Omdurman, and the nature of the struggle between civilization and savagery. For all his qualms about the aftermath of the wars of empire, Churchill believed in Britain’s greatness. Many of his criticisms of the River War—and of Kitchener—are based on the campaign’s failure to live up to what Churchill believed to be Britain’s most civilized traditions. For Churchill, civilization was synonymous with progress. He had little patience with history for the mere sake of it: while he condemned Kitchener’s destruction of the Mahdi’s tomb, he had no interest in saving the Temple of Philae on the banks of the Nile if it meant condemning the surrounding population to life without effective irrigation.
Churchill’s view, like Seeley’s, was thus that the imperial wars of European powers were in the end—though not in their origin—efforts to short-circuit the normal and slow course of civilizational progress towards a standard that Europe had reached more completely, though not fully. As he put it, “The natural course of development is long, but true. The British people have selected a shorter though more terrible road for the tribes [of Sudan] to follow” (I 111).
If British administration was effective and disinterested, Sudan’s wealth would grow, which would “improve the condition of the people.…if the evolution is not interrupted, their type and intelligence will advance… their scale of life—its hopes and happiness—[will become] larger. And if the reader inquire… wherefore they should be made to toil to better things up so painful a road, I confess I cannot answer him. If, however, he prove that there is no such obligation he will have made out a very good case for universal suicide” (II 371–72). Progress—defined profoundly but simply as prosperity, liberty, and peace—was possible, and striving for it was a duty, albeit a painful one, and one not barred to the people of Sudan, or to those of any other land.
Because Churchill believed that the Mahdi had served, however imperfectly, the cause of progress in Sudan, he praised the Mahdi as a patriot, a hero of a future and more prosperous Sudan, and as a humanizing influence among his compatriots. He was less kind to the Khalifa, who succeeded the Mahdi, viewing him as a necessarily brutal ruler at the head of an army—Churchill always abhorred rule by a man on a horse—who used Islam as a tool to rally support. As Churchill presciently noticed, while the Mahdi’s campaigns had been fought against “the Turk,” the Khalifa—by then feeling the pressure from Britain—proclaimed a Jihad against Christians (I 339). There is in Churchill’s Khalifa a hint of Saddam Hussein, a brutal man who loved Islam less as a faith than he used it as a tool.
Churchill’s views on the relationship between religion, society, and the state were complex, in some respects contradictory, and on occasion abrupt. He believed the faith of the people of Sudan was sincere, and that their love of the Mahdi illustrated “that instinctive desire for the mystic which all human creatures possess, and which is perhaps the strongest reason for believing in a progressive destiny and a future state” (II 193). But mistaking faith as a substitute for right reason was an error in General Gordon, just as the Khalifa’s use of political Islam reflected not his power but his weakness. The true strength of the British Empire in India, Churchill believed, was found especially in its respect for all faiths, which was the only fact that made British rule “accepted by the mass of the people” (II 196). Religion for Churchill was a fact of human existence, a comfort, and—at best—a spur for progress. But it was always a dangerous guide to action and at worst a spur to fanaticism of the kind embodied by General Gordon that led him to his death.
In this context, Churchill’s outburst on the defects of Islam—which he names “Mohammedanism”—is out of character with the rest of The River War. This passage—“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries!” (II 227)—was widely quoted in the aftermath of 9/11. Since Churchill cut it from the 1902 edition, however, it was difficult to read in context. In this new edition, it stands out as a quotable curiosity that finds no parallel, for example, in The River War’s respectful comments on the Islamic enemies Churchill had fought on the borders of the Raj. His condemnation of Islam in this passage—written in his irritation at the breakdown of a train that was carrying him back to Cairo—reads like the fulminations of a man who hails a bad taxi in Rome and ends up blaming the Pope.
Whatever the defects of Islam may be, they are fair game for critics, but even Churchillian obiter dicta are not invariably a sound guide to understanding religion, society, and the state. Churchill’s judgments in The River War are always interesting, but not always reliable—such as his dismissal of Britain’s imperial foes as “trash” and “royal freaks” (II 201)—and a number of them are patently the words of a young man. At his usual best, Churchill was a deeper thinker than this, and, to the extent that he dropped these potshots from the 1902 edition, he acted wisely.
It does Professor Muller, a persistent and accomplished editor, a profound disservice to state that this edition is simply the complete and restored 1899 text of The River War. It is certainly that. But it is far, far more than merely the full text. It reinstates the many charming illustrations that originally appeared in the 1899 edition. It identifies every person named in the text and locates the source of every quotation that Churchill employed, even when Churchill himself neglected to include a citation (or his quotation was a mere allusion).
This new edition contains a full publication history of all significant editions of The River War. It reproduces the original newspaper columns that Churchill wrote from the Sudan, from which he drew as he wrote The River War, along with the only surviving draft in Churchill’s hand of a chapter of the 1899 volume. And, almost unbelievably, it records every twitch and burble of the text, including the most minor typographical changes, between the 1899 and the 1902 editions, along with the modest changes made in later editions.
The only criticism of this edition I would offer is that the two volumes are under-indexed: there is, for example, no entry for “Islam” (or “Mohammedanism.”) It would have been a service to the reader to have provided a full index to the entire two volumes, including all of Professor Muller’s valuable additions. But this minor point should not detract from major praise: this work has been done to a standard far higher than anyone but Professor Muller could have imagined, and thanks to him, it will never need to be done again.
The River War was Churchill’s finest early work, combining—in the true Churchillian manner—history and autobiography into a compulsively readable narrative, peppered with arresting phrases, powerful insights, and brilliant rhetoric. It is a military history that is about far more than the military, an imperial history that both strides with and stands aside from the march of empire, and a social history about the deepest causes of rebellion and of its failure in Sudan.
It is a tale of courage on both sides of Omdurman and of the decisions—good and bad—that decided the outcome of the campaign. It is a work of its age, and of a young, clear-eyed, and yet idealistic patriot who believed in progress and civilization—but who knew well that neither comes easily or without cost. In Professor Muller, Winston Churchill and The River War have found an editor of immense scholarly energy and integrity, who has produced an edition worthy of his labor and of the great man who lived and wrote the work. For both of them, it is—and it will remain—a monumental achievement.
Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.