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“The River War” Returns in a Masterful and Scholarly New Edition
- By RONALD I. COHEN
- | July 12, 2021
- Category: Books
Winston S. Churchill, The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, 2 vols., 1560 pages, James W. Muller, ed. St. Augustine’s Press, 2021, $150. Limited availability from Chartwell Booksellers and the Churchill Book Collector. (See editor’s comment below.)
The River War: a singular achievement
Winston Churchill remains strikingly well-known for an individual dead almost sixty years. Moreover, he is referred to by world leaders and commentators in the press almost every week. Relatively less known are his early histories and memoirs. The second of these was The River War, published in two volumes in 1899 and as a heavily edited one-volume edition in 1902. The latter, reprinted ever since, omitted much of the original text and brilliant writing that makes the reappearance of the two-volume edition so welcome.
The River War is a remarkable work because of its author, length, content and audacity. It was based on 15 articles Churchill wrote for the Morning Post in 1898, when he was not 24 years old. Yet he was already a rising political star, having run and lost for Parliament four months earlier. At 962 pages, it analyzed the Anglo-Egyptian reconquest of the Sudan, a conflict largely forgotten today—except for its dramatic concluding event, one of history’s last great cavalry charges, in which Churchill himself participated.
That first edition was soon massively truncated, and has been unavailable for more than a century. Swedish author Sigfrid Siwertz said, presenting Churchill with the Nobel Prize in Literature half a century later: “As a word-painter the young Churchill has not only verve but visual acuteness…. Even old battles which must be dug out of dusty archives are described by Churchill with awesome clarity.” That reference was, of course, to The River War: the earliest Churchill work Siwertz referred to.
The first volume
Churchill explains in his very first sentence that the story is “a tale of blood and war.” It is also a tale of the great river: “…Soudan is joined to Egypt by the Nile, as a diver is connected with the surface by his air-pipe. Without it there is only suffocation…. [The Nile] is the cause of the war. It is the means by which we fight; the end at which we aim.” Thus his title: The River War. Churchill describes it as “a true and impartial account of events which, though they will be forgotten in a century, nevertheless extended over thirteen years of strife and involved the untimely destruction of three hundred thousand human lives.”
The first volume sets the scene before Churchill’s arrival in Egypt on 2 August 1898, at what were called the Summer Quarters. In the month of lull following the Battle of the Atbara and prior to the renowned charge at Omdurman, he “invited several officers…to give me some account of their doings and of the life of the troops.” He also did considerable reading of other authorities, from before the death of General Gordon in 1885, through 1898. All this background enabled him to tell the story of what Swiss author Emil Ludwig described as “the last romantic battle of history.” Churchill himself later described it as “the last war in which death seemed a sporting element in a splendid game.”
The second volume
Volume 2 describes the final preparations leading to the Battle of Omdurman, the battle itself, its aftermath and predictions for the future. Now Churchill is present for the principal military actions. He writes more in the first person and promises that, “if the account become more lively, it shall not be less exact.” And he asks the reader to move “from the auditorium…to step on to the stage and take an actor’s interest in the final scenes.”
For all this, his writing is no less vivid and visual. For example, as the 21st Lancers travel up the river, he observes: “Here and there along the banks are villages hardly distinguishable from the rocks on and of which their poor, miserable houses are built. Still they contain inhabitants.” The progress then accelerates:
Events now began to move rapidly. Within three weeks of the arrival of the reinforcements the war was over; within five weeks the British troops were returning home.
Churchill’s squadron arrived on 14 August, and the advance was constant. On 28 August they broke camp at Royan. On 1 September, “the signal-flag wagged tirelessly, and we spelt out the following words: ‘Khartoum in sight.’ More than thirteen years had passed since an Englishman could have said that with truth.”
When the bugles blew at 4:30 a.m. the following day, Churchill was sent to reconnoitre Surgham Hill, 100 yards from the enemy. “The picture lasted only a moment, but the memory remains for ever.” The first phase of the fighting began at 7:30. By 9:30, just before the second phase began, his story turns, as it often does, to the gory details of the Lancers returning from the fighting. The battle ended at 11:30. The River War was over that quickly.
Churchill’s brilliant writing
Churchill’s recounting is militarily expert, thoughtful, colourful, detailed and honest. The writing is brilliant, and that skill alone makes this new River War worth reading. Consider some of the following passages, mature yet coming from the mind of a 24-year old:
Fanaticism is not a cause of war. It is the means which helps savage people to fight….It was not the reason of the revolt. It strengthened, it characterised, but it did not cause.
Of the Mahdi, born in poverty, who rose to lead:
Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong, and a boy deprived of a father’s care often developes [sic], if he escape the perils of youth, an independence and vigour of thought which may restore in after life the heavy loss of early days.
And of the Mahdi in adulthood:
I know not how a genuine may be distinguished from a spurious Prophet, except by the measure of his success. The triumphs of the Mahdi were in his lifetime far greater than those of the founder of the Mohammedan faith.
On appreciating the Dervish leadership, while predicting their inevitable fate:
Every rope has its breaking strain; every liquid has its boiling point. As soon as the troubles of life outweigh the fear of death a maddened people need only a leader to rise in revolt. As usual in the East, the leader was a fanatic…. On the day that the first troop train steamed…the doom of the Dervishes was sealed…. Though the battle was not yet fought, the victory was won…. 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.
Perspective on Kitchener
In addition to Churchill’s powerful, enviable, descriptive writing, we read his honest, knowledgeable, professional, often critical but ultimately fair impressions of Lord Kitchener and Mohammedanism (the latter subject having garnered considerable attention in social media lately). It is frequently clear that Churchill disliked, even disrespected, Kitchener, although, on at least one major contrapuntal occasion, he praised the Sirdar’s decision to build the desert railway against the opinion of “experts” who considered the plan “impossible and absurd, lunatic, ruin and a disaster.” As Churchill concluded: “Fighting the Dervish was primarily a matter of transport. The Khalifa was conquered on the railway.”
In late August 1898, when terrible storms threatened the Expeditionary Force in their attempt to recover Dongola Province, Churchill again praised Kitchener’s military strengths:
In this serious emergency, which threatened to wreck his schemes, the Sirdar’s organizing talents shone more brilliantly than at any other moment in this account…. All depended on him. But his grasp of detail and power of arrangement were never better displayed.
And, at 8:25 a.m., following the sounding of the Cease-Fire after the Battle of the Atbara, Churchill quoted an officer who watched Kitchener closely as he rode victorious along the line: “He was [said the officer] quite human for a quarter of an hour.”
In matters of humanity, though, Churchill particularly despised Kitchener’s post-battle desecration of the Tomb of the Mahdi as “vandalism,” a “wicked act,” and “barbarous.” Also, Churchill considered the official statement “that ‘the wounded Dervishes received every delicacy and attention’ was so utterly devoid of truth that it transcends the limits of mendacity and passes into the realms of the ridiculous.” Churchill regretted that Kitchener little understood what made British civilization superior to the values of the Dervishes; namely, Christian concepts of mercy.
The new edition of The River War
Until now, The River War had not been reprinted in its original form for 120 years. Churchill himself spent an entire year researching and writing the work. Imagine then that the new edition is the product of 31 years of extraordinary, thorough, comprehensive, intense, scholarly research by Professor James Muller of the University of Alaska. The text has been restored in a way that not even Churchill could have dreamt possible. It is a simply splendid production, indispensable to anyone with any interest in Churchill.
Why has this reappearance attracted such attention? While it was Churchill’s second work, it was unquestionably the greatest of his first five books, all published by Longmans Green. There were 2506 copies of the first two printings of the first edition River War, following which 503 more copies were printed, over-optimistically, it turned out, in June 1900. Only 140 of these third printing copies were ever sold; the remaining 363 were wasted by the publisher in April 1903.1 In its time this work was the least available and the most expensive of his earliest books. Its original editions remain that today.
May I say that, for more than a century, Churchill’s readers have not been content with the disappearance of the original text. Now at long last, James Muller and his publishers have solved the dilemma. The full two-volume edition, with many welcome additions, is again available.
The long run of the abridged edition
Soon after the original publication, negotiations began for a shorter, less expensive River War. Churchill in fact favoured a cheaper version, but he wished to retain two volumes, reducing “to one at some future date.” His agent, Alexander Pollock Watt, thought a single-volume cheaper edition would make more sense. But publisher Charles Longman insisted that, “in order to issue ‘The River War’ in one volume the matter [already significantly cut back] must be further reduced by one fifth.” On 28 February 1902, Churchill acceded, writing: “I am content with the arrangement suggested by Mr. Longman.”2
The abbreviated one-volume edition of 1009 copies was published in October 1902 at 10s. 6d., less than one-third of the price of the two-volume edition. Even that did not sell well and, by 1 June 1908, 407 copies still remained on hand. I have been unable to determine whether, as I suspect, they were also wasted by the publisher. The abridged text, however, survived, in numerous editions including paperbacks, right up to the present day. Still, like the 1899 original, the 1902 abridgement remains exceedingly rare and expensive to acquire.
Fully one-third of the first edition was excised in the one-volume editions.3 When Professor Muller found a copy of the early one-volume edition on a London trip, he went to the British Library, where he soon discovered the far more complete story of the reconquest of the Sudan in two volumes. In his typically thorough fashion, he devoured the first edition and quickly learned that seven full chapters had been omitted from the foreshortened work, along with parts of every other chapter, three appendices, as well as maps and illustrations.
The editor’s methodology
Professor Muller has restored all the missing material in the new edition, so that readers can enjoy the full story of the 1885-98 Anglo-Egyptian campaign and the brilliance of Churchill’s writing. In order to enable readers to appreciate the distinctions between the original and abridged Longmans editions, he has used different colour type: black for the 1902 one-volume text and red for the matter deleted from the 1899 edition.
He has also been scrupulous about changes as slight as punctuation points and commas, capitalizations and spelling. He has even corrected mistakes made by Churchill or the typesetters working from the author’s original handwritten text.4 Consequently, the reader of the current edition can feel absolutely confident in the accuracy of the text that he or she has in hand.
Dr. Muller did not stop there. He provides a translation of every word or term in any foreign tongue. He offers a biographical note on every individual named in the text, and an explanation of unfamiliar institutions. Not one is missed. This saves the 21st century reader from consulting a dictionary, encyclopedia or the Internet.
That said, given the length of the book, I do wonder whether a glossary would have been useful, for those who might have forgotten a definition or reference first encountered 50 or 100 pages earlier. Fortunately, the index at the end of Volume II does provide the opportunity to find the biographical or institutional reference for any earlier appearance that a reader may have forgotten.
Important new content
The new edition restores all of the original colour maps and 50 illustrations by Angus McNeill in the first edition. It also provides 25 other illustrations Professor Muller unearthed in McNeill’s “1898 Notebook.” Added as well are valuable, informative period photographs from the Durham University Library’s Sudan Archive.
There are 344 pages of new and extremely valuable appendices. They include the texts of 14 of the 15 handwritten articles submitted by Churchill to the Morning Post between 8 August and 20 September 1898. These reside in the Glenesk-Bathurst Papers at the Brotherton Library of the University of Leeds,5 together with the newspaper’s published version—distinguished once again by the use of black and red type. This appendix, a full 145 pages long, includes the only published appearance of the original submissions to the journal. From this we learn that the Morning Post modified Churchill’s handwritten submissions at will. Indeed, it published them in the order that the newspaper considered appropriate rather than in the order submitted by Churchill.
Enabling those wishing to probe every aspect of the Sudanese campaign from Churchill’s perspective, James Muller’s appendices also include Churchill’s holograph draft of “The Fate of Gordon,” Chapter III of The River War, and articles by him on aspects of the River War.6
The editor has also written a heavily footnoted Introduction, 145 pages long. It draws together historical and military themes, with references to The River War in Churchill’s other writings, including his autobiographical My Early Life. While it is lengthy, it is informative and content-rich. It can obviously be read prior to embarking on Churchill’s text or as a method of threading substantive material together after one has read the main story.
James Muller’s challenges in integrating the 1899 and 1902 texts were immense. Moreover, he had to do this in a way that would not be obtrusive. Hence his successful choice of two sedate, but distinctive, colours to distinguish them. As mentioned, he has noted every single change between the two editions, whether as small as a point or the insertion or deletion of commas.
The footnoting challenge was considerable, owing to the need for superscript designations and the often-substantive footnotes themselves. The diligent juggling of parentheses, brackets and braces is also worthy of mention. Surely, all of the foregoing was a proofreader’s nightmare. Let me add that I have not found a single typographical miscue in the original Churchillian text and but two minor errata in the entire 1560 pages of the new edition. That is an extraordinary achievement.
The production of the volumes has been excellent, although I must admit to some partiality to the first edition, which was expensively produced according to late 19th century standards. That said, the 2021 edition is a splendid-appearing work, if clearly a challenge to produce. It is a credit to Bruce Fingerhut, the publisher, and to the printer, who is unknown to me other than to say (proudly) that he (or it) was Canadian, as disclosed on the title page verso. The volumes are solid and are not in the least risk of falling apart as you read them, which cannot be said with confidence of the more fragile and far more expensive 1899 edition.
A true bargain
Considering the immense research and scholarship of the substance and the quality of the new River War from every point of view, it is well worth the price. Moreover, a comparison of the value of money will reveal that the 2021 cost of $150 is almost exactly the equivalent of the original 36s. price in November 1899.
No collector of Winston Churchill’s works can afford not to own the 2021 edition of The River War. Whether you own the 1899 edition is immaterial. This new work is indispensable. And for those who are merely interested in Sir Winston Churchill as a political and literary figure, it is a remarkable read.
In a later chapter on the Dervish Empire, Churchill concludes: “It is unlikely that any complete history of these events will ever be written in a form and style which interest a later generation.” Extending that principle to the entire Anglo-Egyptian reconquest of the Sudan, I would strongly disagree. Churchill did so, and the Muller edition is again available over 120 years later.
Churchill wrote in 1930, “Nothing like the Battle of Omdurman will ever be seen again.” James Muller’s restoration of The River War will revivify interest in the conflict and Churchill’s captivating weaving of the tale. His years of research have restored Churchill’s long-dormant second book to must-read status.
1 In comparison, 7500 copies of his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, had been published by 1901, more than 10,000 of his third book, Savrola, more than 15,000 of his fourth book, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, and 5,000 copies of Ian Hamilton’s March, his fifth.
2 Regrettably, no marked-up copy of the two-volume text, or any indication of the reasons for the excisions, has ever surfaced. Professor Muller, despite his prodigious research over three decades, has been unable to find such a document.
3 In addition to the 1902 Longmans one-volume edition, there were, in 1915, a Thos. Nelson edition and then from 1933 to 1951, several printings of a new edition by Eyre & Spottiswoode in Britain and Scribner in the United States. Thereafter from 1960 on, several editions were published in paperback formats.
4 There was an appreciable number of such errata.
5 Only the tenth of the 15 articles is missing; however, the version published in the Morning Post is included in the Appendix.
6 These were published in the North American Review (in December 1898), Nash’s Pall Mall (three articles published there in January, February and March 1925), and the Daily Mail (January 1933), plus his Introduction to Richard A. Bermann’s The Mahdi of Allah (1931) and excerpts from The Great Democracies, the fourth and final volume (1958) of Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.
Ronald I. Cohen CM MBE is the author of the Bibliography of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill (2006) and the editor of The Heroic Memory: The memorial addresses to the Rt. Hon. Sir Winston S. Churchill Society, 1990-2014 (2016). In 2014, Mr. Cohen was invested as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his services to British history, and as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2020. A co-founder and president of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Ottawa, he writes and speaks regularly about Churchill. The Hillsdale College Churchill Project now houses his collection of printed works with Churchill contributions, forewords, prefaces, articles and speeches, and his collection of audio recordings of his speeches and broadcasts.