Source of book: I own this.
One of the interesting questions is whether Winston Churchill would have made his reputation as a man of letters, had he not chosen to serve his country as a statesman. He certainly made a significant fortune with his writings, and his later career certainly owes something to the fame and popularity brought by his books.
The River War was written in 1899, soon after the end of the conflict in the Sudan between Egypt and England, on the one side, and the forces of Abdullah Ibn-Mohammed. Churchill served in the cavalry during the conflict, and thus had personal experience of the decisive battle. However, his superiors were less than thrilled about the book, leading to a change in policy to forbid soldiers from writing about their service.
A bit of a summary of the conflict: Sudan was ruled by Egypt beginning in the early 1800s. Egypt was an ally of England, and was to a degree supported by the British military. The corrupt and oppressive Egyptian regime was resented by the Sudanese, leading to a revolt by “The Madhi”, a self proclaimed prophet of Islam, who promised independence and strict observance of Sharia Law. (This sounds vaguely familiar for some reason.) After the successful revolt and a siege of Khartoum, the Egyptians were evicted. The Madhi then died, and his successor proceeded to consolidate his power by slaughtering most of his rivals, and oppressing any other potential threats. Thus, the Egyptians were replaced by another corrupt and oppressive regime, which further had designs on “freeing” all of Egypt from the apostate form of Islam and foreign influence. Britain eventually decided that its interests were threatened by this, and supported the Egyptians in the reconquest. This occurred over the course of a few years which are the main subject of the book.
The version of the book I read is the abridged version, published in 1902. The original version was nearly twice as long. Many of Churchill’s personal experiences and nearly all of his editorializing was cut from the later version. While it would have been interesting to read these, the book remains a compelling narrative of the conflict.
First and foremost, Churchill was a simultaneously a vivid and a meticulous writer. He had a broad narrative sweep that draws the reader from one incident to another, never taking his eyes off of the destination. On the other hand, even at that young age, he had a remarkable eye for the key details of a military campaign. The ability he showed to comprehend the intricacies of the supply chain, the use of modern weapons and timeless tactics, and the psychology of a disciplined fighting force would later serve him well. Particularly excellent was his chapter on the building of the railroad that enabled the rapid transport of men, weapons, and even gunboats to the front.
In addition to the military details and narrative, Churchill was able to make the desert scenery of the Sudan come alive. The opening of the book sets the atmosphere, and throughout, it continues to add descriptions at key points.
I was also reminded again of how recently disease was a game-changing factor of basic human existence. At one point, five times as many men had died from cholera as from the wounds of war. Later, malaria renders an entire garrison (except for a handful of lucky souls) completely unfit for duty.
Churchill is also notable for his sportsman-like respect for his enemies. He has much good to say about Abdullah and his generals and other key figures on the other side. In contrast to many of his time, he views even the most “savage” of peoples to be human and have ordinary human motives. In this, he is perhaps one of the first to take the modern view of the largely rational motivations behind all except for the most depraved. Ordinary desires for freedom, power, money, glory drive all – some to their own destruction and those of thousands of others. In that sense, he is a critic of the much-abused fiction of the “Just War”. Churchill, of course, believed that it was morally acceptable to fight a war if it is of benefit to the country, without the necessity of ascribing actual evil to the other side. In fact, he believed that it would lead to casual atrocities. After all, if the other side consists of utterly vile vermin, why not torture them? The perhaps older-fashioned view of the enemy as human and even noble, even while misguided, would on the other hand lead to a more humane victory. One can only wonder at whether World War Two would have been as necessary had this view been followed in the aftermath of World War One.
Of the political opinions which survived the abridgment process are Churchill’s views on the aspirations and realities of both colonialism and religious fanaticism. Both can and often do start with noble goals, and both end in something substantially less than noble. An extended quote from the first chapter is worth the space.
What enterprise that an enlightened community may attempt is more noble and more profitable than the reclamation from barbarism of fertile regions and large populations? To give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to plant the earliest seeds of commerce and learning, to increase in whole peoples their capacities for pleasure and diminish their chances of pain—what more beautiful ideal or more valuable reward can inspire human effort? The act is virtuous, the exercise invigorating, and the result often extremely profitable. Yet as the mind turns from the wonderful cloudland of aspiration to the ugly scaffolding of attempt and achievement, a succession of opposite ideas arises. Industrious races are displayed stinted and starved for the sake of an expensive Imperialism which they can only enjoy if they are well fed. Wild peoples, ignorant of their barbarism, callous of suffering, careless of life but tenacious of liberty, are seen to resist with fury the philanthropic invaders, and to perish in thousands before they are convinced of their mistake. 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, who disquiet the minds of the conquered and excite the sordid appetites of the conquerors. And as the eye of thought rests on these sinister features, it hardly seems possible for us to believe that any fair prospect is approached by so foul a path.
The perspective of hindsight is perhaps even more bleak. After World War Two, the continent of Africa was largely freed from European domination, but the result has been brutal. In the Sudan, there has been ongoing civil war, predominantly between the Arab dominated Muslims in the north, and the Christian and Animist tribes, largely black, in the south. Sixty-five years of ongoing war, famine, and genocide. It really is depressing, and there are no easy solutions.
Perhaps then, the most lasting impression of this book is its relevance to the conflicts we face today. Is there a way to establish the rule of law in lawless and dangerous regions without become an oppressor ourselves? Is there hope for a country mired in corruption, oppression, and violence? Churchill reminds us that these issues are far from new, and are likely to continue to be an issue in the generations to come.
A few minor related notes:
This book is remarkably brief for Churchill, at a mere 350 pages. I have previously read his 6 volume work on WWII (5000+ pages!) and The History of the English Speaking Peoples (4 volumes, 2000+ pages). Both of these are extensively available at used book stores. I found most of mine there, or in thrift stores and library sales. Both are worth reading, but are not for the faint at heart. If you do not care about wars and warfare, the WWII set will bore you to tears. However, if you are interested in that sort of thing, hearing it from the perspective of one of the main participants is priceless. Churchill was, even at that late stage, a soldier at heart, and he captures both the military and the diplomatic aspects of the war brilliantly.
The History of the English Speaking Peoples is, in my opinion, a far more interesting history of England that that found in most textbooks. While Churchill is prone to think in terms of kings and battles more than writers and ideas, his writing is so far from dull. Many a textbook writer should read this before compressing a vivid history into a dry biscuit. It’s also fun because he can’t resist giving his opinion of the military strategy of the American Civil War – a totally different view than we Americans get from our history books.
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