The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, 2 vols., by Winston Spencer Churchill (St. Augustine’s Press in association with the International Churchill Society: 1899, 2020), 1,560 pages.
In 1898 the young Winston Spencer Churchill, still a lieutenant in the British army, wangled his way to join Horatio Kitchener’s army as it conquered the Sudan from the Mahdist regime. Churchill soon produced The River War (1899) as his second published book. The first edition, in two volumes, sold poorly. A much abridged one-volume edition (1902) sold substantially better. The original disappeared from view. Few scholars and scarcely any of the public knew the longer version existed.
Professor James Muller of the University of Alaska has rescued the complete River War from oblivion by scholarly heroism. His new edition, published by St. Augustine’s Press, includes all the original text and marks in red font the text deleted between the editions of 1899 and 1902. He also appends Churchill’s original letters home from the Sudan, all later references by Churchill to Kitchener’s war, and adds to this cornucopia his own detailed notes to identify each person and each literary reference. Every university library and every Churchillian should purchase this masterpiece.
But should the reader now care about Churchill’s history of how a pocket army crushed the forces of the Mahdi and raised the Union Jack above Khartoum? Yes, even if he is no enthusiast for imperial adventure.
The River War tells how Great Britain conquered its dominions. Its officers, drawn from the nation’s elite, displayed extraordinary fighting qualities—discipline, organizational ability, improvisational élan, the ability to inspire their soldiers to fight (English or Egyptian, Irish or Sudanese), and the willingness to fight and die for king and country.
As a rider tears through a bullfinch, the officers forced their way through the press; and as an iron rake might be drawn through a heap of shingle, so the regiment followed. They shattered the Dervish array, and, their pace reduced to a walk, scrambled out of the khor on the further side, leaving a score of troopers behind them, and dragging on with the charge more than a thousand Arabs. Then, and not till then, the killing began; and thereafter each man saw the world along his lance, under his guard, or through the back-sight of a pistol; and each had his own strange tale to tell.
Britain’s technological and industrial capacity extraordinarily multiplied its fighting soldiers’ capacity to conquer. Kitchener’s expedition of 25,000 consisted of a fighting screen around both the railway engineers laying iron track southward toward Khartoum and the artillery and Maxim guns that slaughtered wholesale the Mahdist enemy. Britain’s victory depended equally upon brave soldiers, smoothly shuttling railway cars packed with beef and bullets, and well-wrought guns.
The River War lightly mentions certain lessons that modern empire-worshippers heed less. Britain did not then ruin itself for empire: Kitchener’s accomplishment was to plan a war on the cheap, largely from Egyptian resources, with the imperial exchequer as a pocketbook of last resort. Kitchener conquered the Sudan with just 25,000 men, mostly Egyptians and Sudanese. The railway engines that brought the British army to the Sudan included several built in America—cheap, efficient, and quicker to arrive than their British competition, for the Yankees of that day focused on commerce and industry.
A German military observer genially wished the British all success in their adventure—and took notes for that next war, when the British would face Maxims as well as wield them. The Mahdist army at Omdurman boasted 60,000 men; as many Britons would fall dead or wounded on the first day of the Somme.
The River War tells of the young Churchill, the future savior of the free world, or at least the man who postponed our loss of freedom to our own days. He loves Britain with melodramatic fervor and quickly and self-confidently swots up myriad details of military minutiae and grand strategy. He tells a rattling battle yarn marvelously well—albeit his joy in his own words presages the midnight monologist who prevented his Imperial Staff from getting enough sleep. The prolix lieutenant takes 800 pages to convey what Hilaire Belloc said in two lines: Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim gun, and they do not.
Sober historians will say one should not read The River War as the key to explain all the old Churchill’s character and actions. Yet the young Churchill does presage the old one remarkably well.
The River War tells us of the exhaustion of our current elite. Churchill, the grandson of a duke, wore the uniform of his king and he heard bullets whine. We have military men who combine literary and political vocations. J.D. Vance bids fair to be our generation’s exemplar. Yet the Establishment’s children mostly fail to serve their country as soldiers. We have no Churchills; their absence makes it impossible to keep an empire or deserve one.
Our contemporaries who share his talent but lack his inherited position must perforce seek a different vocation. Churchill’s daring, curiosity, intelligence, industry, wit, love of country, and mastery of words—all these can and should serve to renovate our republic rather than preserve our decaying empire.
For those of us of a quieter nature, more scholarly than soldierly, James Muller should be our model. We could not know Churchill’s River War in full without his labors—or, therefore, know all of Churchill. Muller shows how all such editors should do their work. The lights are going out in the American academy, but from Alaska a lantern shines.
David Randall is director of research at the National Association of Scholars.