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Lessons of the River War

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Lessons of the River War

Churchill’s history of the conquest of the Sudan remains as instructive to us today as it was for its first audience. April 30, 2021
Arts and Culture

The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan, by Winston Spencer Churchill, edited by James W. Muller (St. Augustine’s Press in association with the International Churchill Society, two volumes, 1,560 pp., $150)

The Nile is the river in question. Without it, no war. “It is the cause of the war,” Churchill writes. “It is the means by which we fight, the end at which we aim.” On the Nile, the British could run their formidable gunboats into their enemy’s territory, upriver to its stronghold at Khartoum, itself located at the geostrategic chokepoint where the Blue and White Niles meet: “the great spout through which the merchandise collected from a wide area streams northwards to the Mediterranean Sea.” Just as the Suez Canal, completed in 1869, connected Europe to Asian ports beyond the “Mideast,” so the Nile, originating in smaller rivers that flow into Lake Victoria far to the south of Egypt and Sudan, connects Europe with the heart of Africa. Americans will think of their great Mississippi River, which allows farmers in the Midwest to ship their produce to the Gulf of Mexico and from there to the rest of the world. Today, when it’s easy to imagine that we live in “cyberspace,” Churchill reminds us that geography matters.

Since the Nile flows from the great lake north through the deserts of Sudan, “the Sudan is . . . naturally and geographically an integral part of Egypt,” and “Egypt is no less essential to the development of the Sudan.” In the 1890s, politics (especially religious politics) had sundered that geographical and economic union, with war as the consequence.

At the time of its conquest and annexation of Sudan in 1821, Egypt was itself part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by an Ottoman-appointed viceroy or “khedive,” Muhammad Ali, an Albanian who had served as an officer in the imperial army. But throughout the century the empire weakened—almost proverbially, “the Turk” was “the sick man of Europe”—and both Great Britain and France vied for influence there. In 1883, the Brits intervened in Egypt to suppress a nationalist revolt. “Shortly after,” Churchill recalls, Muslims in Sudan proclaimed an Islamic regime, captured Khartoum, killed a much-respected British envoy named Charles Gordon, and pushed the Egyptians out. Such jihadi movements were a perennial threat (one that persists to this day).

In that span of time, the British regime itself had changed, gradually, from the mixed regime of Edmund Burke’s time to an increasingly democratic republic. Gordon’s murder spurred calls for revenge from the now-powerful general public, though Churchill never lets his reader lose sight of the geo-economic and geopolitical calculations motivating Parliament and Downing Street. In 1896, an Anglo-Egyptian army under the command of General Horatio Herbert Kitchener began to move south along the Nile. Some two decades later, during the Great War, Kitchener would prove inadequate to high command in twentieth-century military conditions, but in 1890s Sudan, he understood exactly how to proceed—in a word, methodically. Kitchener’s “organizing talents” were unsurpassed in his time and place. “Much depended on forethought, much on machinery; little was left to chance,” writes Churchill. The river supported gunboats, which Britain had and jihadis had not. The flat land could support a railway, so Kitchener built one, taking care to install telegraph lines for instant communications. “Fighting the Dervish was primarily a matter of transport.” By the end of 1897, when the railroad was completed, “though the battle [for Khartoum] was not yet fought, the victory was won.”

In inaugurating the reign of modern science in England, Francis Bacon had called for “the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate.” Kitchener was a Baconian through and through. Faced not only with jihadis but with epidemics and famine, he fortified his army with world-mastering products of modern science for transport, communication, and warfare. “In nearly three years of war nothing of any consequence went wrong.” How many military commanders before or since can have that said of their campaigns?

Nor was it all a matter of machines. Kitchener and his officers showed the qualities of mental and moral discipline not to overrun their technologies and expose their soldiers unnecessarily to the counterattacks of what Churchill often praises as a courageous, resilient, and smart enemy. The “stony cheerfulness” of the British officers kept the few British, many Egyptian, and many Sudanese soldiers steadily on the path to victory. Crucially, the officers respected their men:

There is one spirit which animates all the dealings of the British officers with the native soldier. It is not only seen in Egypt; it exists wherever Britain raises mercenary troops. The officer’s military honor is the honor of his men. . . . The British officer of native corps is never known—on duty or off duty, officially or in private, before or after dinner, by word or implication—to speak disparagingly of his men.

As a result, the men esteemed (and consequently obeyed) their officers.

Kitchener himself, admittedly more stony than cheerful, nonetheless encouraged this spirit in his subordinates. “Few generals have the good fortune to know their subordinates,” Churchill writes. “Of all the advantages enjoyed by Sir Herbert Kitchener in the campaigns on the Nile, this was the greatest.” Such “mutual confidence” makes not only obedience but also “beneficial disobedience possible.” Churchill means that Kitchener’s officers could countermand the general’s orders if some new, unanticipated circumstance arose, deploying their own intelligence and daring to fit any unanticipated occasion. Method, yes; roboticism, no.

Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, ruler of the Sudanese caliphate, had 50,000 Dervish troops at Khartoum. To call their defense of the city against modern weaponry “mad fanaticism” is “a cruel injustice,” writes Churchill. “In a few seconds swift destruction would rush on these brave men,” but the fault lay neither with them nor their general, who had given them a “complex and ingenious” battle plan. The trouble was that he had based his plan “on an extraordinary miscalculation of the power of modern weapons.” He simply had no way of knowing better. “Why should we regard as madness in the savage what would be sublime in civilized man?”

Not that Churchill wastes sentiment on the Dervishes. The war resulted in “the destruction of a state of society which had long become an anachronism—an insult as well as a danger to civilization,” depending as it did on slave trading, and bound together by “mutual fear, not mutual trust,” as well as a religious ideology Churchill does not hesitate to denounce as veering from “frenzy” to “fatalistic apathy”—precisely the extremes that the English had learned to shun after their own vicious religious civil warfare in the seventeenth century. The conclusion of the war brought “the liberation of a great waterway” from the Khalifa’s tyrannical regime, opening the possibility of “the foundation of an African India” for Great Britain (a hope which would prove over-optimistic) and, more soberly, “the settlement of a long dispute.”

“Very well,” we might ask, a century-and-a-quarter removed, “why should we care?”

Churchill, for starters. Even in his mid-twenties, when he wrote the book, he knew how to tell a story and paint a picture—especially one that he played a role in, having arrived in Sudan in 1899, fresh from fighting the Pathans in the mountains of India. His description of the thrill of going into battle with the enemy will put to rest any questions of why men have always been drawn to war, even as he insists, against jingoes, that “war, disguise it as you may, is but a dirty, shoddy business, which only a fool would undertake” without serious reason.

That sense of balance, of holding up contraries for dispassionate consideration, stands as witness against those (very much like his eventual ally, Franklin D. Roosevelt) who see Churchill as an unthinking imperialist, and against those who take him for a racist. On the latter point, he is far more critical of Islam than of Muslims, and he rates the black Sudanese soldiers above the Arabs in terms of their battle readiness under modern conditions. Under premodern conditions, when Muslims swept through Africa, “the dominant race of Arab invaders was unceasingly spreading its blood, religion, customs and language among the black aboriginal population, and at the same time it harried and enslaved them.” As for his white countrymen, he remarks on their own occasional descent into savagery, especially in their abuse of helpless captives after some of the battles, and in the mutilation of the Dervish commander’s corpse. He views both sides with some irony, reporting that Kitchener’s latest advance so “created a panic” in the capital of the caliphate that “all business” came to “a standstill,” so much so that “for several days there were no executions.” As for his fellow modern “whites,” he said they must learn the military lessons of the Sudan campaign, lest “the science of human destruction . . . fall behind the general progress of the age.”

Churchill was indeed an imperialist, but his critics seldom meet his argument for imperialism. Throughout the modern West he sees young men who belong to “the only true aristocracy the world can now show”—the aristocracy of “brains and enthusiasm.” What will these young men do? In the United States, they go into commerce, building great corporations. In France and Germany, they go into the military. In England, they venture “to the farthest corners of our wide Empire, and infuse into the whole the energy and vigor of progress”—ending slavery in the Sudan, for example, and building irrigation systems, railroads, and other infrastructure that would benefit men and women who might otherwise fall prey to squalor, disease, “war, slavery, and oppression.”

The ambitions of continental European “aristocrats” would lead to two world wars; the ambitions of the young Brits and Americans would lead to prosperity and better government—albeit not without serious problems, of which Churchill is well aware. And this leaves out the ambitions of the young Arabs that the imperialists fought and the young Russians who would soon set about imposing another form of empire.

Given the ambitions of the young—their will to rule and their ability to be ruled—which of the available imperialisms do you prefer? If you say, “none at all,” then you do not understand the intelligence and ambition of youth. And as for the ameliorating humanitarian sentiments that derive from Christianity, real or “secularized,” consider: “Were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science—the science against which it had vainly struggled—the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.” Without strength behind it, humanitarianism stands no chance against enemies who despise its softness.

Speaking of civilization, the production of this book itself upholds it. The publishers have given us two beautifully turned-out volumes, restoring the original maps and drawings omitted from the editions that followed the first. The volumes are a pleasure to read and to hold. The editor, James W. Muller, has scrupulously retrieved the original text, severely truncated in the subsequent editions. He has also written a fine introduction that gives Churchill’s readers a helpful overview of his long and complex (if unfailingly lively) narrative and has inserted well-chosen, carefully researched footnotes explaining conditions familiar to Churchill’s first audience but lost to us. In these things, publisher and editor alike share a bit in an old British triumph, which is as instructive for us now as it was for Churchill’s countrymen then.

Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

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